Sunday’s game was one that the Portland Timbers should have dominated. And after Minnesota United went down to ten (and then nine) men, it was a game that the Timbers really should have dominated.
The good news is this: They did. The Timbers left no doubt whatsoever against a clearly overmatched opponent, which is all you can ask of the reigning MLS champs on a night like Sunday. So while the convincing win over the Loons doesn’t exactly foreshadow a season of MLS dominance, it does confirm that the Timbers are right where they should be right now.
Here are three questions coming out of the Timbers’ win over the Loons:
1. Do the Timbers have a budding centerback controversy?
Although there wasn’t much to read into the Timbers’ defensive performance against an overmatched and undermanned United side, Jermaine Taylor was the best player on the Timbers’ backline on Sunday.
Coming off a strong showing in the Tucson friendlies, Taylor was once again more than solid at centerback on Sunday. With Nat Borchers having a few uncharacteristically nervy moments early in the game and Adam Kwarasey being unusually imprecise in distribution, Taylor was once again worry-free.
With as good as the Timbers’ backline was in 2015, suggesting that Portland should consider changes in central defense is a bold, bold take. Indeed, it would require an excellent performance from a newcomer to unseat the what was arguably the best centerback tandem in MLS in 2015.
But here’s what Caleb Porter had to say about Taylor:
He’s been excellent. He’s been excellent. I mean, he’s calm. He’s smooth. He’s tough. He reads the game well. He’s hard to get by. He’s very strong. He’s good in the air. He looks really comfortable with the team. He’s bought in.
That’s pretty high praise for a guy who has been with the team for barely one month. And it’s clear that Taylor figures into the starting lineup as long as Chris Klute is sidelined while recovering from his offseason meniscus surgery.
But, as unlikely as it would seem coming out of 2015, questions about whether Taylor should be in the first-choice XI on a longterm basis are becoming reasonable.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not throwing dirt on the casket of the Ridgewell-Borchers Era in central defense. When push comes to shove, those two are still the Timbers’ likeliest first-choice combination in the middle of the backline.
But Taylor has presented a compelling anti-establishment option in central defense, which is a very, very good thing for the Timbers considering Ridgewell’s propensity to pick up minor knocks and the need to keep Borchers from putting too many miles on his Michelins.
And who knows; if Taylor keeps up his recent performance in the center of the Timbers’ backline he may be able to unseat a popular (and deserving) incumbent for a spot in the regular starting XI.
2. What got into Minnesota United?
Two red cards. Two penalties. A handful of other un-preseason-like tackles. And a sore Diego Valeri.
For the second consecutive year a team came into the Simple Invitational and taken a physical approach to the game that was unbecoming a preseason fixture. In 2015, the Pa Modou Kah-led Vancouver Whitecaps came out of the locker room looking for blood with the result being a physical, disjointed affair. And on Sunday it’s fair to say the Loons got stuck into the game much, much more than the Timbers would’ve preferred.
But whereas in the past the Timbers have been openly frustrated by aggressive play in preseason, on Sunday Caleb Porter was considerably more measured despite the two red cards drawn by his attacking maestro.
The reason was likely this: Instead of malicious, the Loons were careless. Minnesota's poor challenges were more appropriately classified as ill-advised efforts to win the ball from better players than they were conscious attempts to be dirty. Simply put, sometimes bad things happen when an NASL player tries to take the ball off of Valeri’s far-superior feet.
For the Timbers, therefore, the important thing is that they came out of the game without any apparent longterm injuries. There will certainly be some bumps and bruises, but the Timbers appear to have walked off the field Sunday evening more or less in one piece.
So although the NASL iteration of Minnesota United may not be invited back to Providence Park any time soon for fear that their carelessness will cause an injury, Sunday evening’s physicality probably wasn’t a result of the Loons trying to send a message.
3. How great was this goal?
That’s a great, great goal.
And yes, it was against Minnesota United. So let’s not get all antsy in the pantsy.
But the exciting thing about this goal is that it more or less represents the coming together of the various pieces of the Timbers’ attack in 2016.
Stretching the defense with wing play? Check.
Nagbe creating numbers problems for the defense by joining the attack from a deeper-lying position? Check.
Adi using his gravitational pull to compact the central defense after Asprilla has stretched the flanks? Check.
Diego Valeri exploiting the cracks in the defense opened by Adi and Asprilla with the maestro’s vision and technical ability? Check.
Although Sunday’s wondergoal came against lesser opposition, it represents an early look at the Timbers’ attacking blueprint for 2016. It’s easy to look at the Timbers’ roster and see it as an interesting collection of pieces. But when you look at the Timbers' third goal on Sunday, it becomes clearer how all of these pieces can fit together to create a potent attacking unit.
In that respect, therefore, maybe this is something that is worth getting a little bit antsy in the pantsy about. Because Minnesota United’s primary sin on that play was that they didn’t get the initial rotation to Nagbe right. That happens. But the Timbers took that mistake (which is made by most MLS teams a handful of times per game) and turned it into a spectacular goal.
In other words, this goal was more about outstanding attacking soccer than it was about bad defense. And it was outstanding attacking soccer in exactly the way that the Timbers’ roster is designed to create.