It’s all in the Portland Timbers’ hands now.
In both CONCACAF Champions League and MLS, the Timbers’ fate rests on their own shoulders. Win on Wednesday against Saprissa and the Timbers are impressively through to the CCL knockout round, despite drawing arguably the most difficult group in the tournament. Win on Sunday in Vancouver and the Timbers will be in the MLS Playoffs with somewhere between the fourth and sixth seed.
The Timbers, however, have seen situations like this before only to come up short. Famously, the Timbers are a stunning 0-10-6 on the road in 2016 after going a stellar 14-14-6 away from Providence Park in 2015 and 2014. And in 2014 the Timbers traveled to CD Olimpia needing a win, draw, or close loss to advance, but nonetheless found themselves sent packing after a deflating 3-1 loss.
So I suppose this is all to say there’s a lot on the line this week. But in light of the stakes heading into Sunday’s MLS home finale against Colorado, the fact that the Timbers control their own destiny says all you need to know about Sunday’s result.
It was very, very big.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ season-preserving win over Colorado:
1. Were the Timbers a little bit fortunate on Sunday?
Yes, but they had some good fortune coming from the Rapids.
Without question the Timbers got a little bit lucky against Colorado. The Timbers’ first penalty, ultimately converted by Fanendo Adi, was a close call, as it appears (albeit from one suboptimal camera angle) that Bobby Burling at least arguably won the ball fairly.
Regardless whether Burling fouled Vytas — and from that angle your guess is as good as mine — the Timbers were fortunate that Petrescu saw enough in the play to award the spot kick.
There’s no question, however, that the Timbers were the better team in the first half overall. Before halftime the Timbers outshot the Rapids 13 to 3, held 62% of the ball, and created the bulk of the good chances.
In particular, Vytas had arguably his best attacking half as a Timber, drawing both penalties (only divine intervention kept Micheal Azira from being booked on the second one) and repeatedly finding Darren Mattocks in behind the Rapids’ backline.
Although the Rapids found a couple chances on set pieces, they were impotent from the run of play.
So, on the whole, the Timbers’ 1-0 lead into halftime wasn’t unjust.
The second half, however, was a very different story. That 62% possession faded to 36%. The 13-3 shot-advantage withered to an 8-6 deficit. And the Timbers chances to find a second goal that seemed inevitable in the first half disappeared in the second.
After halftime the Rapids’ fullbacks, who had been pinned in their own half early on, pushed forward and gave Pablo Mastroeni’s side a relief valve in possession that allowed them to hold the ball enough to start creating from open play.
This by itself wasn’t altogether surprising; engaged with FC Dallas in the Supporters Shield race, the Rapids needed three points on Sunday. So trailing by a goal it was foreseeable that Colorado would push numbers in the second half and hold more of the ball.
What was disappointing, however, was the Timbers’ ineffectiveness on the break. Although the Timbers were held back to some extent by Diego Valeri and Darren Mattocks being on a minutes limit due to injury and the heavy load this week, the Timbers had enough firepower to seize the opportunities that the Rapids opened up for them on the counter.
But as he has been over the course of the fall — to say nothing of the bulk of his Timbers tenure — Lucas Melano was ineffective, Ned Grabavoy was invisible, and Darlington Nagbe and Fanendo Adi struggled to find the same page.
As a result the Timbers had to weather a bit of a storm in the second half in which they were rescued twice by the woodwork.
So it’s fair to say the Timbers were a little bit lucky to come away with the full three points on Sunday. That luck against the Rapids, however, was coming to them. After two games at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in which the Timbers allowed only one goal, but hit Colorado’s woodwork three times, the posts owed the Timbers a couple. And given the clear penalty that the Timbers were denied in their first visit to DSG when Jared Watts took down Fanendo Adi, the Timbers’ benefitting from a 50-50 call on Burling doesn’t exactly create cosmic imbalance, either.
And given the importance of the moment, the Timbers won’t complain about getting their due back on Sunday.
Still, it was hardly the sort of performance that fills Portland with confidence ahead of the Timbers’ fate-determining visit to Vancouver next weekend. A fact that especially true in light of the suspension of Liam Ridgewell and Diego Chara for the finale.
As important as the Timbers’ win was, therefore, there’s plenty of work left to do.
2. What will the Timbers do in Vancouver without Chara, Ridgewell, and Ben Zemanski?
As a result of their yellow cards on Sunday, Ridgewell and Chara will be suspended for yellow-card accumulation in Vancouver. The timing of those suspensions, quite obviously, is suboptimal.
But Caleb Porter revealed after the game that the situation was even a bit more dire than anticipated because Ben Zemanski — the most natural like-for-like switch with Chara — has been ruled out from next weekend’s matchup with a collapsed lung.
It’s overwhelmingly likely that the Timbers will simply insert Jermaine Taylor in place of Ridgewell. But Zemanski’s absence creates a situation in which Caleb Porter is going to have to get creative to fill the middle of the formation in Vancouver.
Perhaps the most natural switch would simply be to insert Ned Grabavoy — a natural eight — in place of Chara with Jack Jewsbury holding in midfield.
A more conservative option would be to insert Amobi Okugo in a double-six setup with Jewsbury, an look that may have some additional attractiveness because it could provide additional cover in front of the Taylor-made central defense. Neither Jewsbury nor Okugo, however, provide much of anything in the attack, meaning the Timbers would have to push their fullbacks, open up spaces in behind for the likes of Erik Hurtado, and potentially expose the central defense that this setup would be designed to protect.
If Porter decides to go aggressive, however, he could shift Darlington Nagbe into central midfield beside Jewsbury and get creative by adding an extra attacker. Either placing Nagbe or Grabavoy next to Jewsbury, however, would leave the Timbers with a dearth of ball-winning ability in central midfield, making Zone 14 look an awfully lot more inviting for the Whitecaps.
So there isn’t an obvious decision for Porter to make heading into next weekend. And there really isn’t any potential setup that does not come with significant risks.
In a season in which Porter has repeatedly been forced to Macgyver lineups, it’s uncomfortably fitting that the manager will have to do so once again in order to sneak into the playoffs.
3. Can the Timbers win on the road?
Although by now it’s no great surprise, the Timbers’ playoff hopes rest on their answer to this familiar question.
We’ll see on Sunday.