The better team doesn’t always win.
And that point has perhaps never been as in focus as it was on Sunday in Seattle.
Much like their 2-1 loss in Vancouver on March 28th, the Portland Timbers put in one of their most comprehensive performances of the season at CenturyLink Field on Sunday.
The Seattle Sounders' attack that has (when healthy) been among the most potent in MLS was impotent for much of the game, forcing a paltry six shots and, aside from two fortunate breaks, creating nothing worthy of note. The Timbers, on the other hand, created chances seemingly at will, firing off 20 shots including six on target and a significant number more that just missed.
The Timbers were, in many ways, excellent on Sunday. But they lost. And at this point of the season that’s what matters.
1. No, seriously, what is it about first halves?
This is becoming a thing.
For the second week in a row the Timbers looked like the manifestly better team in the first half. And for the second week in a row the Timbers went into the locker room down two goals. Not coincidentally for the second week in a row the Timbers came away with fewer points than the purist would say they deserved.
But this is sort of a thing for the Timbers. Absent their first-half goal-difference troubles in the last two weeks, the Timbers would be sitting on 45 points, one point below the Western Conference lead and with a game in hand on the table-topping Galaxy.
Asked why he thought the team has struggled to translate first-half performances into advantages on the scoreboard, Caleb Porter was less than certain:
"I don’t know. We played well tonight in the first half. I think a lot of it has to do with teams sitting back and keeping things tight in the first half. You even saw Seattle on the road; they did that. So I think teams are being very organized against us and because of that the game doesn’t open up until the second half."
As to half of the issue, the goalscoring problems before halftime, Porter’s comments certainly have a large nugget of truth in them. And Sunday bears that out. Despite playing at home in a game that they needed to win, the Sounders took few risks in the first half, keeping both central midfielders tucked in, choosing their attacking spots carefully, and looking to play long balls over the top to Obafemi Martins.
In spite of this the Timbers did well to create 10 chances in the half from a variety of different game states. Portland repeatedly opened up the Sounders on set pieces, found Lucas Melano in behind, and created solid opportunities through the good-to-great holdup play of Fanendo Adi.
But, again, the Timbers went into halftime facing a mountain to climb.
And that mountain to climb has, in these crucial last two weeks, been caused as much by the half of the problem that Porter didn’t address: First-half goal difference.
This is a problem that, admittedly, is difficult to diagnose other than to point out the obvious: The mistakes need to stop and when the Timbers create chances they need to finish them.
But Sunday and a week ago Friday are perfect examples of why this is important. The Timbers can’t rely on their ability to play well when facing a deficit because, no matter how well they play (and they played very well on Sunday), they won’t be able to dig out of that hole with any regularity.
At this point of the season nobody really cares how well the Timbers play. There is no glory in missing the playoffs, no matter how picturesque the journey may have been.
And with only two points now separating the Timbers and the red line, that’s a very real possibility if the Timbers keep letting games get away from them before halftime.
2. Was that the best Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe have been together all year?
There’s a good chance.
Of the Timbers’ 15 chances created Valeri and Nagbe were responsible for eight, and for much of the game the Timbers dominated the Sounders in the middle of the field.
A lot of what the Timbers have been missing in the attack through much of the year was there on Sunday; Portland bossed the attacking central areas of the field and broke down the Sounders defense repeatedly. And whereas the Timbers have struggled to create genuine goalscoring chances for much of the year, that wasn’t a problem on Sunday as the Timbers had great chances to score both from the run of play and set pieces.
That largely comes down to Nagbe and Valeri putting in one of their best performances together this season.
Ultimately on Sunday, however, the Timbers couldn’t finish all but one of those chances - a problem that wouldn’t have been such a problem had the backline and referee Alan Kelly not conspired to gift wrap two goals for the Sounders. But, finishing yips notwithstanding (which, in and of itself, shouldn’t be something the Timbers should ignore) the chances were there.
And a bit of a revival from Nagbe and Valeri was largely to credit for that.
3. Where, among Caleb Porter’s list of problems, does an overly negative media rank?
Low. Laughably low.
Yet that didn’t stop Porter’s postgame press conference from taking an odd and uninvited turn after the game on Sunday.
Answering a question about whether the importance of the game was magnified by the rivalry and the environment, Porter acknowledged the quality of the game, the environment, and the crowd before taking aim at the media.
You [the media] can look at the negatives and all you guys can ask questions, but the reality is I wish you'd appreciate the positive play we had today on the field because the way we played today was outstanding and I think sometimes you guys take that for granted in trying to ask questions and look for the negatives. No one has been talking about the last 14 games, how we've been number two in the league in points per game. You always talk about we haven't won in four, but we haven't lost in four, no one talks about that. So, I think that's sometimes frustration that occurs with the media because I think sometimes you guys are very quick to point out negatives and a little bit less quick to point out positives.
Setting aside how negative the Timbers media actually is (Spoiler Alert: It’s not), in a press conference in which Porter stated he wasn’t concerned about the Timbers finishing, it’s more than odd that he would go out of his way to take aim at the media.
Yes, the Timbers were good on Sunday. At times very good. And at the end of the day they’re on the same number of points that they were on before they played so well.
The table doesn’t care about how well a team plays. Playoff qualification doesn’t care about how well a team plays.
It’s one thing to take heart at the quality of a performance notwithstanding a disappointing result in May when there are plenty of points left on the table and a performance can be seen as a harbinger of success to come. But in the last week of August, with only seven games left, and two points between the Timbers and a rapidly rising red line, platitudes about the positivity of a performance quickly ring just as hollow as the Timbers’ point haul from Seattle.
After the game on Sunday Porter spoke at length about how referees need to be held accountable. He’s absolutely right.
So do coaches.
But the Timbers played very well on Sunday.