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Three Questions from the Timbers’ 2-2 Draw with Real Salt Lake

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that was dramatic.

After spotting their opponent a two-goal lead for the second consecutive game, the Portland Timbers found a way back to salvage a point against Real Salt Lake on Saturday evening. But the Timbers couldn’t find the winner despite playing the last fourteen minutes of the game with a two-man advantage.

As a result the Timbers enter the international break with a highly ambivalent point on a wild night on Morrison Street.

Here are three questions from the Timbers’ draw with the Claret-and-Cobalt:

1. Why do the Timbers keep putting themselves behind the eight-ball?

This question is arguably a little bit premature. In the context of a 34-game season, falling behind in two consecutive games really isn’t great evidence of a larger trend. So it’s easy to overstate this as a longstanding problem.

But small sample size notwithstanding, it’s been a huge factor in the Timbers' so-so start to 2016, and represents a departure from their expert game management in the 2015 playoffs. As to why it’s happening, though, it’s only fair to say it’s been a combination of factors.

First, the Timbers' finishing has been poor. Fanendo Adi said so flatly after the game. But the finishing touch isn’t PTFC’s only problem around the box, where a lack of sharpness and an overabundance of cuteness have led to statistics like this: 26 shots on Saturday, only six of which were on frame. Simply put, despite some good play early in games the Timbers haven’t reaped the benefit because they’re not getting the combinations quite right in the final third.

Second, they haven’t been especially disciplined when opponents’ chances do arise. Last week it was a lost Wondo run that put the Timbers behind against the San Jose Earthquakes. On Saturday it was a dangerous foul by Diego Chara just outside the box to set up Joao Plata’s opener. Although the Timbers aren’t making a lot of these mistakes, they are making them at unfortunate times that have caused the Timbers to have to chase two games that they’ve otherwise controlled.

Finally, it’s worth noting the Timbers haven't been unlucky. Yes, they’ve put themselves in a couple bad spots. But they also haven’t dodged any bullets, which, in the grand scheme of things, is a little bit unfortunate.

But, as we discussed last week, the Timbers make things awfully difficult on themselves when they spot their opponent a lead. The Timbers got away with it to some extent on Saturday, but history indicates the Timbers will pay a stiff price if they continue to play form behind.

2. Is it time to be concerned about the backline?

Well, no. Not yet at least.

Injuries have certainly taken their toll, as the Timbers are playing with two of their on-paper starters on the shelf right now.

But that doesn’t there isn’t a point to be made here. As noted, we talked last week about the effect that playing from behind has on the attack. But the reality is it also changes the way the backline plays.

When the Timbers are pushing numbers forward looking for a goal, the backline, of course, pushes high and stretches. As a result there is a lot of space in behind, making one mistake potentially fatal, as it was for the Timbers on Yura Movsisyan’s second-half goal that looked for 20 minutes like it put the game out of reach.

The Timbers backline has many qualities, but an athletic central defense is not among them. This makes it hard to erase mistakes like Nat Borchers’s because, simply, the Timbers lack the closing speed to shut down breaks.

Thus, as much as the Timbers' attack is built to play on the break, the backline is also built to play with a little bit of a lower block where organization and intelligence is more important than athleticism. Thus, although the lack of athleticism isn’t a glaring weakness, it is a chink in the Timbers’ armor that is magnified when they’re chasing a game like they were on Saturday.

3. Is Alvas Powell’s attacking game starting to turn a corner?

The trajectory of Alvas Powell’s development has been anything but linear and comprehensive. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Late in 2014 Powell broke onto the scene with his athleticism and his ability to get to the byline. In 2015, it was Powell’s defense that took a major step forward as he led MLS in tackles won. Yes, Powell was targeted a lot. But an appreciable majority of the time he stood up to the challenge.

But throughout that period Powell’s awareness of when and ability to cross the ball was lacking. Sometimes hilariously so.

More often frustratingly so.

Fast forward to 2016 and it appears he’s starting to figure out how to serve the ball from wide areas. Of the Timbers’ six completed open-play crosses on Saturday, Powell was responsible for four of them, all of which came between 25 and 35 yards from the byline. Simply put, the guy who couldn’t whip a cross to save his life is starting to figure it out. And as a result, Powell is becoming a more well-rounded right back.

When Powell struggled to hit crosses, the book on how to defend him was simply to take away the byline and dare the young Jamaican to whip a ball in. If Powell couldn’t get to the endline, he could be essentially eliminated from the Timbers’ attack and, more often than not, would simply choose to re-cycle the ball through Nagbe or Valeri.

But with Powell starting to operate successfully from deeper positions in wide areas, defenses are going to have to respect his crossing ability. As a result, the byline -- where Powell is still most dangerous -- should open back up for him.

Without a doubt there are still head-scratching moments from Powell. But those moments are becoming rarer and rarer, and the areas of his game that have traditionally been weaknesses are getting stronger.

And at some point soon the result could be that we wake up one day to realize Powell has become a pretty complete right back.