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Three Questions from the Timbers' 2-0 Loss to the New York Red Bulls

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Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

As Caleb Porter said no fewer than seven times during a six minute press conference, the Portland Timbers’ performance on Sunday was disappointing.

Sunday afternoon represented both a challenge and an opportunity for the Timbers. Sitting only one point above the red line and playing a good team at home, it was always going to be a challenge (even if, on paper, a surmountable one) to get three points on Sunday. But with a win on Sunday the Timbers would have been within four points of the Western Conference lead with five games to play.

To say the Timbers shrunk from the challenge and let the opportunity pass by would be an understatement.

The Timbers were very poor on Sunday. And at an awful time of year.

Here are three questions from the Timbers’ thoroughly deserved 2-0 loss to the Red Bulls:

1. What happened to the Timbers’ strong fall performances?

In both 2013 and 2014 the Timbers made major runs in September and October to win the Western Conference in 2013 and to nearly earn a playoff berth to salvage some modest measure of success from a disastrous start to 2014.

Although we’re only a few weeks into September in 2015, Caleb Porter’s third year at the helm has not followed the same script.

Stretching back to late-August, the Timbers are now winless in four with five games to go. After a strong early summer put the Timbers in position to reach something close to 2013’s success with a strong finish, the team has fallen flat when it has historically excelled in the Caleb Porter Era.

Although the previous disappointing results were accompanied by much better performances than the Timbers displayed on Sunday, the outing against the Red Bulls is a worrying regression from both a results standpoint and from a performance perspective. If the Timbers team that fumbled away results against Seattle and Sporting Kansas City could sort out its finishing, their good-to-great performances between the boxes suggested the team could make some noise in the playoffs.

That aspiration, however, couldn’t feel more distant after the Timbers were gored by the Red Bulls. Even sitting in sixth place and with a game in hand on seventh, in light of the Timbers’ performance on Sunday simply qualifying for the playoffs seems farfetched unless Sunday proves to be an aberration.

And if the Timbers miss the postseason the story will ultimately be about how the Timbers’ traditionally strong finishes under Porter fell flat in 2015.

2. Maxi Urruti started. Why did the Timbers play like Fanendo Adi did?

The biggest surprise in the starting lineup on Sunday was Porter’s choice to start Maximiliano Urruti over Fanendo Adi.

On one level, as Caleb Porter somewhat surprisingly pointed out postgame, the decision made plenty of sense: Although Adi has played well in many aspects of the game in recent weeks, he has only scored one goal in his past nine games. At a time when the Timbers are sorely lacking for goalscoring production, that’s a killer.

But if the move made some sense on paper, the way the Timbers approached the first half made no sense on the field.

Here are the Timbers’ incomplete passes in the first half:

What’s notable here is not that there are so many of them (though the Timbers’ sub-70% completion ratio during this period left plenty to be desired). The notable thing is how many of them are long balls forward from Adam Kwarasey or one of the centerbacks.

Especially in recent weeks, hitting the ball long more than usual has been a tactic that the Timbers have employed in certain situations. And in some of those instances the Timbers have done a nice job of winning their fair share and playing off the holdup man.

But the Timbers’ success in doing so had one thing in common: Adi. So with Adi out of the XI on Sunday and the much less physically imposing Urruti up top, it’s surprising that the Timbers restored to so many long balls.

And not surprising that it didn’t work.

To be sure, the Red Bulls deserve some credit for this. New York came out with tremendous energy and pressed the Timbers mercilessly. Many of those incomplete long balls were motivated by panic as much any sort of tactical choice. But with Urruti up top, the Timbers were lost once the Red Bulls pressed them into playing direct.

And so, even with Adi’s recent goalscoring troubles (troubles, it should be noted, that he shares with the rest of his teammates), his absence in the starting lineup hurt the Timbers in what proved to be another decisive first half.

3. How significant in this loss?

Significant.

With five games left, the Timbers have three remaining on the road and two at home. Those games on the road: Columbus, Real Salt Lake, and LA Galaxy.

The Crew, once left for dead after a difficult early-summer stretch in which they took three points from six games, are winners of five of their last seven and currently sit second in the East.

The Galaxy, while showing some recent cracks on the road, are still the Galaxy at home, sporting an 11-1-3 record at Stub Hub Center.

And RSL? They’re rising like a phoenix from the ashes after winning three of their last four, including a 2-0 romp over Seattle and this weekend’s 3-0 drubbing of the Galaxy. The other thing about the Claret-and-Cobalt? They’re sitting three points behind the Timbers on the table and, with the Earthquakes hitting a rough patch, may represent the biggest threat to the Timbers’ even-still undesirable sixth playoff seed.

But let’s face it: The sixth seed is something of a white elephant. A do-or-die away game against the third seed in the West appears very likely to result in more dying than doing. And, after the Timbers were run by the Red Bulls on Sunday, fifth-place Sporting Kansas City now sits three points ahead of Portland with a game in hand.

Simply put, Sunday’s loss means it’s red-alert time if the Timbers aspire to more than mere playoff qualification. And even that is far from assured.

If the Timbers don’t quickly turn around from Sunday’s manifest disappointment, it could be a very, very long offseason on Morrison Street.