Well that wasn’t the finish to the preseason that the Portland Timbers envisioned.
In a deja vu game in which the Timbers dominated possession, shots, and corner kicks, two first-half goals from the Fire were enough to put the Timbers in a hole from which they couldn’t escape.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ loss in the Simple Invitational finale:
1. What is Dairon Asprila’s status for next week?
For the second season in a row, the player that the Timbers could least afford to lose came off injured.
Against Vancouver in the 2015 Simple Invitational the Timbers lost Ben Zemanski for the season with a torn ACL; an injury that stretched the Timbers’ defensive-midfield depth to the limit with Will Johnson already recovering from a broken leg.
On Saturday evening, Dairon Asprilla went off with an apparent ankle injury. Word from the Timbers after the game was that Asprilla’s injury initially looks minor, so, although it certainly doesn’t appear to be anything near the severity of Zemanski’s in 2015, Apsrilla’s injury is unsettling because the wing is the one spot where the Timbers have very little depth after Rodney Wallace’s departure and the Timbers’ first attempt at a replacement signing fell through.
But at this point it’s fair to say Asprilla’s status for the season opener next Sunday is questionable. Even if the injury doesn’t carry with it the longterm implications that Zemanski’s did, it’s not good news for a Timbers team that may now have to start March depleted at its thinnest position.
And, keep in mind, this team still has the 0-for-March monkey on its back.
Simply put, this third game of the Simple Invitational hasn’t been kind to the Timbers.
2. So what on earth happened?
Tactics matter. And on Saturday the Fire caught the Timbers off guard with a tactical shift that is unusual in North America.
A 4-2-3-1 team under Frank Yallop in 2015, the Fire came out playing a 3-5-2 in the attack and a 5-3-2 in defense. Utilizing true wingbacks in Michael Harrington and Brandon Vincent (the former of whom especially doesn’t scream "wingback"), the Fire dropped into a five-man backline very early in transition and packed what essentially turned into three defensive midfielders right in front of that backline. The purpose was clear: Take away central areas by surrounding Adi with three centerbacks and Valeri and Nagbe with three d-mids, and force the Timbers to attack wide.
Simply put, on Saturday night the Timbers weren’t very effective at that.
As for the foreseeability of the Fire’s defensive 5-3-2, Porter didn’t pull any punches: "I don’t think we’ve seen it in MLS," the coach said after the game. More common in Argentina and parts of Europe, a legitimate five-man backline in defense is, indeed, rarely seen in North America, and adds an interesting wrinkle to the young Veljko Panuovic Era in Chicago.
More than just the surprise of Chicago’s defensive 5-3-2, and as Porter also noted, the gamestates played right into the Fire’s hands. Once Chicago got the first goal (after weathering a mini-storm of good Timbers chances early on), Chicago could comfortably sit back with a lead and continue to shut down the middle while challenging the Timbers to attack the flanks.
Through much of the first half the Timbers struggled to do so, however, with two right-footed players on the left feeling more comfortable coming inside (and right into the teeth of the Fire defense) and a right side that couldn’t quite figure it out.
As the game went along, however, the Timbers started to figure it out, especially on the right. Asprilla get more involved on the right wing. Valeri started to pull out of the middle and into the center-right channel where he could find some space. Lucas Melano even ventured over to the right a time or two to create overloads.
As a result, the once-stymied Timbers attack started to generate chances that but for a few unlucky bounces and a couple big-time Matt Lampson saves would’ve been fruitful.
So the Timbers were tactically sucker punched on Saturday.
But the Timbers are going to see a lot of opponents pack in and try to take away the middle, especially at Providence Park. Which brings up two important points: First, the Timbers can’t give up that first goal when teams do so. They have to be able to manage the handful of opposing chances on the break while hammering away at the visitors’ fortified defense. And second, the Timbers have to find ways to be effective wide on both sides, something that doesn’t come naturally when both players on the left side are right footed.
Going forward, it’s too early to call the first question a pressing issue; the mistakes the Timbers made defensively on Saturday haven’t been a problem to date. So it’s too soon to call that a major, lasting issue.
The second, however, I think makes Liam Ridgewell a very likely selection at left back next Sunday, and Chris Klute the obvious choice when he gets healthy and fit.
So in many ways, it was good for the Timbers to go through this in preseason. The Fire played in a way that revealed a weakness in the Timbers’ attack that there appear to be viable ways of fixing going forward. And they went through it in a game that ultimately doesn’t matter.
But, then again, it makes the next question a bit more prominent.
3. Can the Timbers win in March?
It’s that time of year again.
The statistic is familiar, so say it with me: The Timbers are 0-for-12 when it comes to winning games in March under Caleb Porter.
On the whole, I think you have to rate preseason as at least passable. Yes, the Timbers showed some cracks against the Fire, but up until Saturday the first-choice team has looked quite good.
Although there remain some players to get healthy (Ridgewell and Klute) and some players to get signed (Mystery Winger), the body of work in preseason suggests the team is ready to play meaningful games.
But will they win one of their first
four three? We’ll see.