The Portland Timbers lost on the road again.
Saturday’s defeat at the hands of the Colorado Rapids was the Timbers’ sixth consecutive MLS loss away from Providence Park in a season in which they still haven’t won in 16 tries. The Timbers haven’t even led an MLS road game since mid-June.
Saturday’s defeat, therefore, was hardly a surprise.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ latest road letdown:
1. Is it time to give up on the Timbers’ MLS Playoff chances?
As a technical matter, not yet.
If the Timbers win their next two, it’s more likely than not that they’ll make the postseason. With SKC sitting only two points above Portland and also having two games remaining (at RSL and home to San Jose), the Timbers winning out would give them an appreciable chance to make the playoffs.
So if playoff qualification is a meaningful goal, it’s still within reach.
Reaching that goal, however, likely means winning their final away game at Vancouver, a prospect that is not unprecedented (the Timbers were winless on the road in 2012 before winning their final away game at BC Place to secure the Cascadia Cup), but, given the Timbers’ away ineptitude thus far in 2016, seems far from likely.
But just as important, the prospect of capturing the 6th seed is hardly an attractive one in light of the reality of playing an away elimination game to start (and overwhelmingly likely end) the playoffs.
So it’s reasonable at this point for some to contend the Timbers’ focus should be on beating Saprissa on October 19th to advance CONCACAF Champions League rather than selling out to qualify for the playoffs.
The Timbers, however, won’t do that. Caleb Porter has been unequivocal over the last two seasons that MLS play is his top priority. And with a week off before three games in eight days to finish the regular season, the Timbers likely have the luxury of being able to press through that spell with first-choice teams each time out. Especially given the limited travel involved in the Timbers’ final week, the Timbers can reasonably expect maximal efforts out of their top unit (top unit available, that is) in all three games.
So although the Timbers will have to thread the needle in the final week of the season in order to both qualify for the playoffs and advance in CONCACAF Champions League, that needle at least appears threadable. That is, of course, if the Timbers can win their final MLS game of the season on the road.
And at this point there really isn’t much reason to think they can.
2. How were the Rapids able to shut the Timbers down in the second half?
The Timbers were decidedly the better team in the first half of Saturday’s game, creating a healthy handful of chances for Portland to notch an opener that would have given the Timbers a puncher’s chance in Commerce City.
But, as they have been with throughout 2016 on the road, the Timbers were wasteful. When Alvas Powell unlocked the byline for Diego Valeri with plenty of space to pick out a runner, Fanendo Adi killed the prime scoring chance by two-hand shoving Jared Watts in the box to earn an obvious and unnecessary foul.
But Adi’s boneheaded foul wasn’t the only problem on that play. Despite plenty of space in the box, the Timbers’ runs were nonsensical. Adi, as noted, just tried to shove Watts. For his part, Ned Grabavoy (who now has the distinction of being the only attacking player in MLS to appear in 20 games without a goal or assist) made a run that had at least three different ideas, none of which were particularly likely to provide a goalscoring threat. And, despite a play that wasn’t especially fast in developing, that was it for the Timbers’ box presence. That is, on the whole, terrible final-third execution.
Let’s move on, shall we?
Yes, but only to more letdown. A pair of promising breaks early in the second half were left in a steaming pile of waste after the Timbers botched their execution.
And the one time the Timbers got their final-third combinations right (thanks to some nice play from Alvas Powell) and put a nice strike on the ball, the far post was there to deny Portland for the third time at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park this season.
Valeri was, without question, a bit unlucky there. But the other mistakes are ones that good teams don’t make in important games on the road, especially against teams that are as stingy as the Rapids.
And then, once the Timbers gifted Sebastien Le Toux the Rapids’ goal, Colorado shut down the game by disrupting the Timbers in transition with physicality, sitting deep, and packing the middle.
As a result, the Timbers were forced to bail out wide and hit crosses into a packed-in box without an elite aerial target. That, of course, played right into Colorado’s hands, and in part explains why the Rapids have had as much succession 2016 as they have had; they’re masters of their own favorable game states. And with their wastefulness and, eventually, defensive sloppiness, the Timbers allowed Colorado to get into their most favored game state.
The Timbers chances that were there before the Rapids’ goal, therefore, dried up in a hurry after the backline had their weekly giveaway. And a backline that routinely allows a soft goal and an attack that can’t get out of its own way is a pretty potent recipe for an incompetent road team.
3. Will the Timbers get healthier on the wings?
Making matters more challenging on Saturday, the Timbers played most of the game without a true winger. With the recently resurgent Darren Mattocks potentially on the shelf for the rest of the season with another hamstring injury and Lucas Melano hampered by a sports hernia, the Timbers’ already-thin wing corps was nonexistent for the first hour on Sunday.
Against a team like the Rapids, which tries as much as possible to shut down the middle by playing a true double-six setup, the Timbers’ lack of wing options was a fundamental structural defect heading into the game. And by the time Melano came on for his injury-limited 20 or 25-minute shift, the game state rendered the break-happy Melano of limited utility.
Inconsistency on the wings has been a yearlong struggle for the Timbers, and with Mattocks’s return uncertain it appears very possible there may be no end in sight. Moreover, form inconsistency aside, Melano’s injury is such that it will likely linger and hamper him for the remainder of the year.
Although the troubles on the wings are certainly an issue the Timbers will address this offseason (including, it appears increasingly inevitable, a parting of ways with Melano), that’s little help for a Timbers team right now that may be playing without a legitimate starting option on the wings.