The Portland Timbers figured it out on Saturday. It took some time. It wasn’t always pretty. But they figured it out.
And as a result the Timbers come out of a brutal three-game week that felt like a disaster with four points. Not ideal, but also far from devastating.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ win:
1. Was that Lucas Melano’s best game as a Timber?
Without a doubt. And Caleb Porter said as much.
He was outstanding. Probably the best game he’s played here. And he showed a lot of things that we saw when we were scouting him; the way he picks up a ball and he’ll just gobble up 50 yards. I think it’s confidence, a lot of it’s confidence.
There has been a lot of discussion about Melano this year, as his development and integration as a Timber seemed to take a stop-start trajectory that often left Timbers fans frustrated with 2015’s high-priced signing.
But on Saturday he was brilliant. In a tight first half, Melano was one of the most influential players in the Timbers attack even if his best moments didn’t quite come off. But when the game opened up after Jack McInerney’s opener, Melano went from intriguing to gamebreakinig.
Watch the beginning of the sequence that led to Adi’s goal:
The goal will go down in the books as unassisted, but make no mistake: Melano created it. Melano's run to spring the play broke the Timbers out on the counter and cut two Earthquakes out of the play. And then, after he fed the ball wide to Adi, Melano continued his run and pulled Victor Bernardez to the byline, which opened up the space in the box that Adi ultimately used to double the lead.
We talk about this a lot, but it’s worth repeating: Development is almost never linear. It’s usually marked by plateaus and regressions before breakthroughs. Only time will tell whether Saturday will be a breakthrough for Melano, but it was the kind of performance that can spark one.
And there were signs that this could be coming. During Wednesday’s deflating loss to FC Dallas, it was Melano who (in the midst of an otherwise quiet game) sparked Portland’s brief flirtation with making the game worth watching. And throughout last season Melano demonstrated he can be a menace on the break, even if the finishing touch has eluded him.
But Saturday was one of the first times we’ve seen Melano put it together enough to change a game. And coming off a performance like Saturday’s, the Timbers would be smart to put in a concerted effort to make Melano a central piece of the attack going forward.
2. Do the Timbers have a budding right back controversy?
It felt like another blow in a punching-bag opening six weeks for the Timbers when the news came down on Friday that Alvas Powell would miss the next six-to-eight weeks after undergoing wrist surgery. Although Powell had struggled a bit over the course of the early season, when at his best the young Jamaican is a dominant ball-winner and althetic (if not consistent) threat in the attack.
On Saturday, Zarek Valentin slotted into Powell’s spot and raised questions about whether Powell is going to earn his spot back. Throughout the game Valentin was steady on the right side, winning one-v-ones and denying the Quakes clean looks at service. As a result, the Quakes became lopsided in the attack.
In addition to defensive steadiness, Valentin also provided a more reliable cog out of the back and through midfield. After the game, Porter praised Valentin’s distribution:
Zarek's a good passer out of the back. You know, we’ve struggled a little bit in possession and in our buildup out of the back without Ridgy and Jorge [Villafana] was pretty good as well in terms of just his passing in the middle third and overlapping in the final third. So we just felt we needed a more technical player and a guy that could help us build out of the back.
Valentin isn’t the pure ball-winner or the athlete that Powell is. But, if Saturday is any indication, he’s a more well-rounded right back than Powell. And the Timbers’ experience with Jorge Villafana demonstrated how valuable that can be in a fullback.
So expect Valentin to continue to get starts on the Timbers’ right flank in Powell’s absence. And if he can repeat his performance against the Earthquakes, Valentin’s balance and steadiness may be difficult to take out of the lineup.
3. Did the Timbers get more than they bargained for in Jack McInerney?
For extended periods I think the answer to this question is "no." McInerney is known for being a poacher; a true goalscorer whose contributions in other phases of the game are limited. And he often upholds that reputation.
But after Fanendo Adi came into the game on Saturday the Timbers shifted McInerney to a true left wing position in which they asked McInerney to contribute defensively and to help in transition. A true poacher in such a position would be a fish out of water.
On Saturday, however, McInerney was excellent on the left wing. He provided much more in the way of defense than his predecessor, Darren Mattocks, and he proved to be a reliable contributor through the midfield.
And then, in the waning moments, he did this:
That’s not a ball a poacher should be able to play, and would’ve been the pass of the night if Diego Valeri hadn’t already sealed up that recognition (only to be foiled by McInerney’s only major mistake of the evening).
Whether McInerney’s success on the wing was a flash in the pan remains to be seen. But if McInerney can repeat that kind of performance not only will McInerney be seeing a lot of the field, but the Timbers will have received much more than they bargained for when they signed the journeyman striker.