Coming into Wednesday afternoon, the Portland Timbers would have been more or less pleased to leave Gillette Stadium splitting the points with the New England Revolution. But after holding a lead late into the second half, the Timbers are undoubtedly disappointed to head back to Portland with only a point.
But in a game in which the Timbers were missing two of their best players, rolling out a new formation, and traveling across country, it’s hard to feel too badly about earning a draw. Still, by giving away their second late lead in three weeks, the urgency is growing for the Timbers to start racking up points.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ draw in Foxboro:
1. Will we see the Timbers play a 4-4-2 again?
Not with any regularity.
And it’s not that the Timbers weren’t effective for stretches. Throughout the latter stages of the first half the Timbers earned the upper hand against the Revolution press and put together a spell of possession.
But that was about it. Flattening the midfield and adding a second forward made it difficult for the Timbers to break out of their defensive shell and push their lines up in possession. Look at where New England turned the Timbers over:
The majority of New England’s defensive actions were near midfield, which lays bare the Timbers’ inability to keep the ball and put together attacking sequences.
With Diego Valeri out of the lineup after his red card against San Jose and Darlington Nagbe pushed into a wider position, the Timbers struggled mightily to hold possession and were only able to break out a relative handful of times. With a central midfield of Diego Chara, Nagbe, and Valeri, the Timbers are, at full strength, close to un-pressable because they have multiple central-midfield options with elite technical ability.
On Wednesday, however, the Timbers’ ability to find outlets was significantly hampered with Nagbe forced to defend by a Revolution attack that focused on the Timbers’ left wing in the final third. In place of Valeri and Nagbe providing release points, the Timbers had Fanendo Adi and Jack McInerney. And although they weren’t bad at winning the mostly long balls that the Timbers sent their way, they were always at a disadvantage against the Revs backline.
So the shift to the 4-4-2 diminished one of the Timbers greatest strengths; their ability to release pressure and either get out on the break or to slow down and hold possession. Put another way, the Timbers are just better when Chara, Nagbe, and Valeri are all central. And on Wednesday the Revolution were merciless in taking advantage of this, pressing the Timbers with impunity and repeatedly turning Portland over before they could build anything in the attack.
As a result, don’t expect to see much of that 4-4-2 going forward.
2. What’s going on with Dairon Asprilla?
Throughout much of 2015 postseason and the early stages of 2016 it appeared Dairon Asprilla was poised to breakout and become among the better wingers in MLS for the Timbers. By last fall much of the discomfort within the system that Asprilla demonstrated in 2015 had faded, and the Colombian appeared to be starting to provide an effective link for his teammates as well as a pace-and-power counterpoint to the Timbers technical central midfield.
But Asprilla was terrible in Orlando, and until the 74th minute on Wednesday we hadn’t seen the winger since he went down with an injured foot apparently suffered in training the following week. And the little bit that we saw on Wednesday was, well, not very good.
Asprilla has been healthy enough to play for the better part of two weeks now. He was on the bench against the San Jose Earthquakes but didn’t appear despite the lack of a true winger on the field in the latter stages. And when Porter finally went away from his 4-4-2 after the hour on Wednesday, it was Jack Barmby, not Asprilla, that Porter inserted on the wing.
Which is to say this: It’s clear that whatever is going on with Asprilla now is less about his foot injury and more about being out of form. The Timbers have made due with his absence, but they have a lot invested in Asprilla. And if the Colombian can’t find his way back into form the Timbers will be down what was supposed to be a major piece of their attack.
3. On the whole, how should we assess Wednesday’s result?
As always, any away point is a solid point. And a point is especially solid when you consider they were traveling across the country midweek and playing without two of their three designated players.
In many ways these double-game weeks can be seen as singular undertakings. And if the Timbers are able to come away from the week with four points after a win over Toronto FC on Sunday, every fair analysis would say that’s a success.
But coming away with one or two points, on the other hand, would be a major disappointment and would significantly blunt any contentions that this Timbers team is starting to round into form just as the schedule gets compressed. Including Wednesday’s game in New England, the Timbers will play 8 games between Wednesday and June 1st.
So dropping two points late on Sunday (for the second time in three weeks), is not necessarily a major blow to the Timbers’ form chart for points. But if they can’t earn the full haul on Sunday, it may be time to start asking questions with a bevy of games coming up and the Timbers making little progress up the table.