Meet the new game. Same as the old game.
For the third consecutive game the Timbers ran their opponent off the field. First the Houston Dynamo. Then the Seattle Sounders. And today Sporting Kansas City.
The Timbers were better than them all.
And yet, when it comes to the only thing that really matters this time of year, the Portland Timbers were better than none of them.
Three games dominated. Two points to show for it.
Meet the new game. Same as the old game.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ most recent sweet nothing.
1. Will the Timbers get out of their own way before it’s too late?
This, in reality, is the question.
There’s nobody standing in the Timbers’ way at the moment. In the last three games the Timbers have repeatedly broken through defenses only to make a mess of things when they have their opponents at their mercy.
On Wednesday night Caleb Porter was insistent that where chances are created goals eventually (if not immediately) follow. And Porter is correct that the Timbers have been generating chances over the past few weeks with greater potency than at any other period of this season.
But the Timbers aren’t finishing them. And, combined with a relative handful of recent defensive miscues, the result has been a devastating number of dropped points.
At the moment this trend, more than any early-season injuries or an early-summer surge, is the story of the season. In the last three games the Timbers had nine points in their hands. But they have only two on the table.
Those seven points? They’re the difference between being tied with Vancouver for the Supporters Shield lead and, in all likelihood, sitting below the red line the next time the Timbers take the field.
The Timbers currently sit on 41 points, in a three-way tie for 4th place in the MLS Western Conference, and just three points above the seventh-place San Jose Earthquakes. Those Quakes, however, will play three times before the Timbers see the field again a week from Sunday.
Which is to say this: Dropping seven readily attainable points in three stretch-run games could easily be a season killer.
If the Timbers continue to get in their own way for much longer they’re going to entirely squander what should be a special, potentially Shield-winning season.
And they’ll have nobody but themselves to blame.
2. Was the second half the best high pressure we’ve seen from the Timbers this year?
Admittedly, it feels hollow to talk about positives in light of the recent road of poor results that has seemingly been paved with good performances. But I can’t write three questions exclusively about poor finishing and squandering results. And -- hollow as they’ve been on the table -- there are significant portions of the Timbers’ play that has been quite good over the past several weeks.
In the second half on Wednesday it was the Timbers’ success turning the Wiz over near midfield and creating chances (that, mind you, they ultimately wasted) in transition that turned an ugly, rhythmless game into what should have been a laugher.
The Timbers have struggled at times this year (and, really, over the course of the last two years) when teams have dropped their lines deep and forced the Timbers to attack banks of four. And for a good portion of the second half during which it was clear Kansas City was trying to hang on to a point, that tactic would have made a lot of sense for the Wiz.
But time and again in the second half the Timbers didn’t let Kansas City get set in their lines because Portland was forcing turnovers in midfield and attacking before the Wiz could recover. On Wednesday night, then, the Timbers used high pressure in the second half to generate offense and preempt the inevitable parking of the Wizards’ bus. And, if the chances that the Timbers created after halftime on Wednesday were any indication, the high press may have been as successful against Kansas City as it has been for the Timbers all season.
Now if only the Timbers could finish those chances.
3. How good was Diego Valeri on Wednesday?
And, though I’ve declared Valeri back in this space before, this time I really mean it.
Diego Valeri is back to being Diego Valeri, and that has been a big part of the reason that the Timbers have started creating so many more scoring opportunities.
On Wednesday evening Valeri logged seven chances created and had several more passes creating danger that went unfulfilled on account of the Maestro's teammates.
It has, in many ways, been a long time coming for Valeri to return to form. Although Valeri has now played in 17 games for the Timbers, it hasn’t been until the past few weeks that the talisman has really looked like himself.
Nonetheless, Valeri has already reestablished himself as one of MLS’s elite playmakers.
Despite having only registered 1272 minutes thus far in 2015, Valeri’s 47 chances created on the season are good enough for 13th in the league. When you account for minutes played, Valeri rises to the third most efficient chance-creator in MLS.
And that’s even with Valeri’s slow start.
Coming into Wednesday evening, Valeri had registered assists in three consecutive games. Had his teammates been remotely competent in their finishing against Kansas City, that streak would have stretched to four games.
All of which is to say this (again): Valeri is back.
And, although his teammates have let him down over the course of Valeri’s renaissance, it’s still a lot of fun to watch Valeri be Valeri again.