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Three Questions from the Timbers’ 2-1 Win Over the Crew

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Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

After a frustrating six weeks in which the Portland Timbers dropped crucial points at every turn, we finally saw the fight that Caleb Porter’s Timbers teams have become known for.

On Sunday the Timbers went into MAPFRE Stadium and deservedly beat a Columbus Crew team that had won five of seven coming in.

There’s no asterisk to put on this one. This was the Timbers’ best win of the season, and it shines some light into what was becoming an increasingly dark fall.

Here are three questions from the Timbers’ win in Columbus:

1. What fueled the Timbers’ push in the first half?

One word: pressure.

Throughout the game on Sunday the Timbers were highly variable with their midfield pressure. Especially in the second half, the Timbers dropped their line of confrontation at times and kept their banks of four clean.

But from the 10th minute until the Timbers broke through in the 30th, Portland pushed their line of confrontation near midfield, repeatedly unsettled the Crew in the middle of the park, and created attack from high turnovers.

Turning the Crew over high allowed Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe to pick up the ball in space and drive mercilessly at the Crew backline, and, for extended periods of the first half, essentially pinned Columbus in their own end.

We haven’t seen as much high pressure from the Timbers this year as we did in 2013 and 2014. That has certainly been part of the Timbers’ overall tactical moderation from the first two years of the Porter Era, as in 2015 Portland has generally showed less willingness to commit players upfield in attack and defense for fear of being opened up on the counterattack.

But on Saturday they used high pressure in midfield to take the game to Columbus early, seize a rare (albeit somewhat short-lived) first-half lead, and take control of a game that could have easily slipped away from them.

2. Is Adi the answer at forward going forward?

Yes.

After last Sunday’s game against the New York Red Bulls, Caleb Porter went out of his way to criticize Fanendo Adi’s goalscoring production. Asked why he chose to start Maxi Urruti over Adi, Porter, who is usually highly protective of his players, pulled no punches:

The reality is Adi has one goal in the last nine games. And it’s off a PK. Adi scored two goals off the bench versus New England. . . . We play well with Adi, but the fact of the matter is we haven’t been getting production, and so it was me trying to flip a switch. And I felt if the ball fell to Maxi he might be able to finish it and get hot. Because recently, although Adi’s played well the last five games, he hasn’t scored; in the last nine he has one off a PK.

On Saturday the Timbers got both play and production from Adi.

When I heard Porter undress Adi to the media last week, I thought the skipper was being unduly harsh. Adi, after all, had been the one major offensive contributor over the course of the season that had at least come close to his expected goalscoring output. And so, while Porter’s point wasn’t entirely incorrect that Adi hadn’t been banging in the goals lately (although, contrary to Porter’s statement, Adi had scored two goals in his past eight games), it was a little bit harsh to single out Adi in light of the fact that he’s the only attacking player (including Urruti) that is even close to his goalscoring expectations.

But remember that talk in 2013 about Porter’s penchant for psychology? As narratives go, that was probably oversold a bit.

Not with Adi this week. Adi apparently needed some tough love, and last Sunday Porter gave it to him.

And that paid dividends in Columbus. On Saturday the Timbers got play and production from their target forward, with two fine finishes and 75 minutes worth of hard work leading the line.

That, ultimately, is the difference between the Timbers’ result on Saturday and the disappointment of the past six weeks.

3. Is there something to the Timbers’ protests about penalties?

Yes.

And it’s provable.

Early in the game on Saturday the Timbers found another way not to be awarded a clear penalty. Wil Trapp took down Darlington Nagbe in the box early in the first half. As penalties go, it was an easy one to call. Trapp tugged on Nagbe’s jersey before rolling up on his legs from behind, getting none of the ball while causing Nagbe to go down near the byline.

The reaction from the Timbers’ brass was not unprecedented:

We’ve heard this before.

And, with almost five years in MLS now, we have a good amount of statistical data regarding the rate with which the Timbers are awarded (and called for) penalties. So does that data support the notion that the Timbers get the short end of the penalty stick?

Believe it or not, in many respects it does.

It’s difficult to look at penalties awarded in isolation because (a) by its nature the statistic is susceptible to a sample-size problems that lead to a high degree of variability; and (b) penalties are, of course, influenced by a team’s attacking prowess and style.

But let’s start with the naked numbers. Since joining MLS in 2011, the Timbers’ 3.2 penalties awarded per year rank last in MLS. The most penalties the Timbers have been awarded in a single season (five) is also the fewest in the league. In fact, seven MLS teams during this period have averaged more penalties per season than the Timbers have ever been awarded.

So the Timbers haven’t been awarded a lot of penalties.

Can this be explained by poor attacking form?

Not really. Over the course of the Timbers’ five years in MLS, they’re more or less middle of the road when it comes to attacking, especially in attacking in the box.

For obvious reasons, there is a relatively strong correlation between the number of goals a team scores inside the box and the number of penalties that they earn. The Timbers’ 37 goals inside the box per season puts them tied for 11th out of 21 MLS teams from 2011 through 2015. While the Timbers’ goalscoring rate inside the box hardly sets the world aflame, it, of course, substantially outpaces the rate at which they are awarded penalties.

Saturday’s eye-catching noncall, however, was an aberration in one respect: Most of the Timbers’ penalty struggles have occurred at Providence Park, not on the road.

Despite sporting a +43 goal difference at home (8th in MLS), within the friendly confines of Providence Park the Timbers have conceded 14 penalties (most in MLS) while only being awarded 8 (third fewest in MLS).

How unusual is that? Unique.

Between 2011 and 2015, only two teams in MLS have conceded more penalties at home than they’ve been awarded: The Timbers (-6) and NYCFC (-1).

NYCFC, of course, is an expansion team, so their penalty data is subject to a great degree of variability on account of a near-meaninglessly tiny sample size. The Timbers, therefore, are the true outlier.

But maybe the Timbers just concede a lot of penalties without earning many.

Well, not really. As noted, from an attacking perspective there doesn’t appear to be any reason for the Timbers to be significantly out of the norm with respect to penalties awarded. And, consistent with that, Portland’s away penalty difference isn’t unusual at all; the Timbers’ -8 penalty difference on the road is the MLS median.

The takeaway here is this: Especially at Providence Park the Timbers aren’t getting penalty calls, and there doesn’t appear to be any compelling, Timbers-related reason for this to be happening.

In light of that, it’s reasonable to as whether some sort of referee bias is causing the Timbers to get the short end of the penalty stick from referees in the Rose City.

That doesn’t do much to explain Silviu Petrescu’s failure to call Nagbe’s clear penalty on Saturday, but it does go a long way toward explaining why Timbers brass doesn’t give MLS referees much benefit of the doubt when it comes to adverse penalty decisions in Timbers games.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the team with the greatest difference between penalties earned and penalties conceded at home is the Columbus Crew at +20.