Well, all good things have to come to an end. After ten games unbeaten in the league and in the 2015 playoffs, the Portland Timbers fell 2-1 to the San Jose Earthquakes on a soggy Sunday afternoon in San Jose.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ first loss of 2016:
1. How important was the game state in the Timbers’ downfall in San Jose?
If not everything, it was close to everything.
The Timbers did one thing very, very consistently during their 2015 late-season run: lead. Since the final 25 minutes at Stub Hub Center in October 2015, the Timbers only trailed for 22 minutes (considering aggregate score) in the final seven games of the 2015 campaign. As a result, the Timbers could afford to keep numbers in to provide support for their sound defense, and look to attack on the counter rather than by committing numbers into the attack.
Again against the Columbus Crew last week, the Timbers nicked the first goal by way of Diego Valeri’s free kick, allowed the Crew to keep the ball, and countered the daylights out of Columbus on the way to a 2-1 season-opening victory.
But on Sunday the Timbers conceded the first goal to the Quakes out of nothing in the 30th minute. After hardly sniffing the box through the first half hour, Anibal Godoy found Chris Wondolowski at the near post for the opener.
For the following fifteen minutes, the game largely went as it had before, with the Timbers holding the majority of the ball in dangerous areas while the Earthquakes, again, couldn’t get within spitting distance of the Timbers' box. But then Quincy Amarikwa drew a winning lottery ticket and scored a spectacular goal just before halftime to double the lead.
And from there the going got tough for the Timbers.
Nursing a two-goal lead, the Quakes comfortably found themselves in the position that the Timbers were in for much of their championship run, keeping their lines deep and organized and only periodically looking to break out on the counter. And few teams are better built to drop into blocks of four than the Earthquakes.
Whereas in the first half the Quakes defensive actions were relatively evenly spread throughout midfield, in the second half San Jose retreated to within 30 yards of their goal and dared the Timbers to break them down. The Timbers couldn’t with any regularity.
Not all mistakes are created equal. And although the Timbers lacked a little bit of sharpness in front of goal throughout the game, they made one critical mistake: Jermaine Taylor was slow to react to Chris Wondolowski’s great run across the face of goal (perhaps in part because Zarek Valentin didn’t warn Taylor of Wondo’s run), which allowed the Quakes the one opportunity that they needed to secure the opening goal.
Which isn’t to say Taylor is responsible for the loss (though with Liam Ridgewell apparently out for at least a few more games, Caleb Porter would certainly prefer not to see mistakes like that repeated), but it only goes to show how one mistake and a bit of bad luck can turn a game that the Timbers were otherwise dominating into an unscalable mountain.
2. Is difficulty playing from behind a longterm problem for the Timbers?
It’s starting to look like it may be.
Make no mistake; playing from behind in soccer is hard. In 2015, the best team in MLS after allowing the first goal was D.C. United who amounted an otherwise ho-hum 8-11-2 record after trailing. The median team, New York City FC, was 2-14-3.
The Timbers? Third worst in MLS at 1-11-1.
So playing from behind is hard. But the difficulty of playing from behind notwithstanding, the Timbers were relatively poor at it in 2015.
And the first two significant data points in 2016 appear no different. In the Simple Invitational finale, the Timbers looked good early but spotted the Chicago Fire a 2-0 halftime advantage and struggled their way through the second half to a loss by that scoreline.
Until Jack McInerney blooped home the Timbers’ lone goal against San Jose in the 89th minute, the storyline on Sunday was essentially the same. So while it is still very, very early in the season, that first goal appears to still be vitally important for the Timbers.
Their record in 2015 when scoring first? A best-in-MLS 14-0-2. Because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
3. Do the Timbers need more from the wings than they got on Sunday?
There is no questioning the Timbers’ central midfield. Even with Diego Valeri having a little bit of an up-and-down day, the Timbers’ trio of Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, and Diego Chara is the best central midfield in MLS.
And that’s why, as the league website’s Matthew Doyle noted pregame, the Timbers create a ton of chances from the top of the box, or Zone 14.
What did Sunday’s chances-created chart look like? More of the same. Actually, even more of a central-centric attack.
This isn’t, by itself, a bad thing. No team carves up a defensive midfield like the Timbers. But, when the Timbers aren’t getting production from the wings, the Timbers productiveness up the gut can turn them into a little bit of a one-trick pony in the attack.
If the Timbers, however, can start creating chances from the wings -- both from strong crossing situations and by working the byline -- that central playmaking prowess becomes a major, major weapon. So what do the Timbers need more of? Look no further than the Timbers’ second goal against Columbus.
The flashes of quality from Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla have grown more frequent in 2016 than they were in 2015, but the Timbers need that to translate into consistent production. And until they do, the Timbers’ central-based attack will face an uphill battle as long as chance creation comes almost exclusively from Zone 14.