The Portland Timbers should feel good about a hard-fought, well-managed draw in Los Angeles. The Timbers are the first team to go into Stub Hub Center this season and emerge with a point.
Under ordinary circumstances, Portland would feel good coming away from Carson, California with a point. But after conceding a late own goal and losing Darlington Nagbe to a horrible, dangerous, completely in-character challenge from Nigel de Jong, the Timbers’ draw in Los Angeles feels as empty as any game this season.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ draw with the Galaxy:
1. MLS referees say they’re cracking down on dangerous play. But do they have a clue?
Peter Walton, the head of PRO Referees (MLS’s refereeing arm) spoke out this week and defiantly defended his referees in the face of a high, but not record-setting number of red cards given primarily for borderline challenges in MLS this season.
Walton specifically referenced 2011, the bad old days of MLS challenges in which the league lost multiple players to injuries that resulted from awful challenges, as the impetus for the league’s referees are cracking down on dangerous challenges. And, although we’re now five years down the road, ensuring challenges like those we saw in 2011 aren’t seen again is a worthy cause. So MLS’s initiative for bad challenges is laudable.
There has been a distinct pattern in the challenges that MLS referees have punished with red in 2016: If a player raises his boot and shows his studs, the ref shows red. We’ve seen it again, and again, and again, and again.
MLS referees’ focus on studs-up tackles is also laudable; they can certainly be dangerous. Although the actual danger in the above highlights varies, MLS’s decision to draw a bright-line rule punishing studs-up tackles with a red card is reasonable.
And yet those who have watched the past three Timbers games have seen three tackles as dangerous as any of the above red cards receive yellow on the field. In Real Salt Lake’s visit to Portland in Week 3, Burrito Martinez took down Darlington Nagbe with an ugly two-footed challenge from behind. The following week the MLS Disciplinary Committee retroactively upgraded it to a red.
In the Timbers’ next game after the international break, Orlando City’s Brek Shea mimicked Burrito’s tackle by coming in from behind with two feet on Dairon Asprilla. It appears the tackle may have injured Asprilla, as Asprilla was an early substitute in Orlando, did not make the trip to LA, and after the game against the Galaxy Caleb Porter referenced "a couple guys" the Timbers have injured as a result of uncalled red cards. Also like Martinez, Shea was given yellow on the field. And then a retroactive red later that week from the Disciplinary Committee.
And on Sunday Nigel de Jong took things up a disgusting notch, and may have put Darlington Nagbe on the shelf for an extended period of time.
There is a lot that can be said about de Jong’s tackle, but Alexi Lalas’s reaction to the replay in that highlight is all you need to know about the challenge. It was a horrible tackle from a player who has made a career out of serious foul play. And there is a very real possibility that Nagbe is done for the season as a result. Yet, once again, it was punished by yellow on the field. The Disciplinary Committee will be calling soon, but at this point that isn’t really the Timbers’ concern.
Each of these tackles that MLS referees decided only merited yellow on the field were as dangerous or moreso than the worst of those that have received red. De Jong’s was, in particular, the worst challenge we’ve seen in MLS in quite some time. Maybe since 2011.
And yet, because the prominent feature of the tackles was not that the defender’s boot was raised and studs were showing (at least from the referee’s vantage point), each tackle received only yellow.
The egregious nature of the tackles suffered by Nagbe (twice) and Asprilla isn’t in dispute. When a referee sees an incident on the field and only issues a yellow card, "the [Disciplinary] Committee will not in general issue a suspension, unless: The play in question is, in the unanimous opinion of the Committee from all available video evidence, a clear and unequivocal red card; AND [t]he play in question is of an egregious or reckless nature, such that the Committee must act to protect player safety or the integrity of the game."
And so for the third consecutive game a Timbers player suffered a "clear and unequivocal red card," that demands that the Disciplinary Committee "act to protect player safety or the integrity of the game," but that nonetheless wasn’t punished with red on the field.
The truth here is simple: Although MLS’s emphasis on studs-up tackles is well-intentioned, its referees are consistently misjudging obvious and more dangerous tackles on the field than the ones they are punishing with ejections. And although the Disciplinary Committee has been busy handing out post hoc punishment, that is little comfort for the teams like the Timbers that are on the losing end of plays that are "clear and unequivocal red card[s]."
Until referees start issuing red cards for these truly dangerous fouls and rendering offending teams down a man, the two-footed dives-in and the hideous stomps will continue. But as it is, MLS referees aren’t punishing this sort of conduct. At least not with nearly enough regularity.
And to think Walton said last week that his job is to "put the Disciplinary Committee out of work."
2. How did the Timbers’ shift back to the 4-2-3-1 work?
On Sunday evening, the Timbers went back to the 4-2-3-1 that they employed through most of Caleb Porter’s first three seasons in MLS, parking Jack Jewsbury in front of the backline. In the past when the Timbers did this, however, they pushed Diego Chara into a more box-to-box role with Jewsbury or Ben Zemanski sitting behind him as a six. On Sunday, however, Chara essentially sat in alongside Jewsbury and the Timbers, in effect, deployed two true defensive midfielders.
Take a look at Diego Chara’s defensive interventions against Galaxy and last week against Orlando City.
And then a look at Chara’s distribution map on Sunday and last week in Orlando.
Chara’s approach was representative of the Timbers’ approach on Sunday. Caleb Porter’s team took few chances in possession and defended deep and compact. As a result the Timbers team that had conceded eight goals in its previous three games on a modest number of clear-cut chances limited the Galaxy to a decent handful of half chances, but few good looks at goal.
On the other hand, however, the Timbers were close to nonexistent in the attack. Coming into Sunday the Timbers led MLS by a mile in shots per game, cranking off 19 attempts per outing. On Sunday the Timbers took four, putting two on frame. The Timbers could have won that game 1-0. But they were never going to win by more than that.
So although the result that the Timbers earned on Sunday is a good one, and the Timbers’ defending took a significant step forward against the Galaxy, that progress came at such a cost to the attack that it seems unlikely the Timbers will look to that formula going forward.
3. How will the Timbers manage the compressed schedule this week?
The Timbers came out of the Stub Hub Center with a decent result on Sunday.
But as a result of some unfriendly scheduling by MLS, Portland will be back in action at Providence Park on Wednesday evening against FC Dallas and then again on Saturday when the San Jose Earthquakes come to town. The Timbers, therefore, have two days off before each of their next two games.
With Nagbe presumably ruled out for Wednesday and very, very likely for the foreseeable future (although we don’t yet officially know the extent of the injury), and Liam Ridgewell, Ben Zemanski, and Dairon Asprilla already on the shelf (the latter of whom came as a surprise on Sunday), the Timbers’ options for the rest of the week appear very limited. Ned Grabavoy will now certainly start one and maybe both games over the rest of the week. And expect most of Jack McInerney, Darren Mattocks, Taylor Peay, and Jack Jewsbury to get called into the first eleven as well.
But, even with a sizable handful of replacements on the bench, it appears likely that at least some of the Timbers’ first-choice players are going to have to play three games in six days. With no obvious healthy replacements for Nat Borchers or Diego Valeri, it seems possible that both players will have to feature prominently in both of the games remaining this week.
And as a result, some of the players whose minutes the Timbers most want to manage may be called on the most.
Things really aren’t going the Timbers’ way right now.