Having taken seven points from the last three games, the Portland Timbers took another step on Sunday toward righting the ship after a disappointing start to 2016. Of the Timbers’ results over the last two weeks, Sunday’s win over Toronto FC was the best as Portland found a way to take all three points from a sharp TFC side.
Now, with a compressed schedule through the month of May leading into the Copa America break, the Timbers appear to be heading into the busiest portion of their schedule in their strongest form of the season.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ win over TFC:
1. Was Sunday a return of the approach that won the Timbers MLS Cup in 2016?
Yes. It wasn’t quite as well executed as the Timbers’ play in the stretch run, but that was the formula.
And once again it’s hard to argue with the result.
There was a time in which we would’ve seen the Timbers come out and dominate this game against Toronto FC. In 2013 or 2014, Caleb Porter would have unleashed his team and tried to run the Reds off the Providence Park pitch.
And, especially in 2014, it’s more probable than not that the Timbers would’ve come away disappointed.
But that’s not what the Timbers did on Sunday, and that’s not how they won MLS Cup in 2015.
The Cup run last year was, as much as anything, a clinic in game management. Throughout the magical fall of 2015, Portland was organized, patient, and, in important moments, ruthless.
After the Timbers earned the first goal of the game with a beautiful piece of combination play on Sunday, Portland was content to keep their lines organized, hold the ball a bit deeper, and wait for their moments to attack. Before we get to the X’s and O’s, take a moment to re-enjoy the Timbers’ opener.
That’s great, great, soccer. And don’t forget it was unlocked as much by an expert (and necessarily firm) through ball by Darren Mattocks as it was the brilliance of Diego Valeri. We haven’t seen much of that from Mattocks, but if he can provide that going forward he’ll do just fine for the Timbers.
But I digress.
Look at where the Timbers showed up in their defensive actions on Sunday:
That’s about as consistently deep as you’ll see a Timbers team sit at home, with the vast majority of the interventions coming within 35 yards of the Timbers’ goal. If there’s ever a shibboleth of well-organized lines, it’s bunches of defensive interventions in the middle of the defensive third.
And now let’s look at the Timbers’ distribution map:
Even in possession the Timbers were very, very patient; moving the ball around the back until an opportunity to attack presented itself.
Building out of the back and holding the ball deep like this isn’t always easy because you’re frequently one wayward pass from being in a bad spot. But with Liam Ridgewell back alongside Nat Borchers and a central-midfield three of Valeri, Diego Chara, and Darlington Nagbe, the Timbers can do so with confidence because they’re chalk full of technical players in back.
And although taking such an approach isn’t always flattering for the possession or shots statistics, it leads to a fair number of chances like this.
But for a rare Adi miss there (Adi, by the way, is in the Golden Boot lead right now) the Timbers would have had what has become a trademark counterattacking goal there. Rewind two years and "trademark counterattacking goal" was not a phrase frequently used to describe the Timbers.
The Timbers, of course, weren’t perfect in executing their approach on Sunday. The magnificent Sebastian Giovinco found a bit more space between the Timbers’ lines than they’d like to see, which forced Jake Gleeson (more on him in a moment) into more action than the Timbers would like.
But that’s largely the difference between execution in early May and execution in late October.
For now, however, it’s comforting to see the Timbers dust off the playoff blueprint and come away with an impressive and important three points.
2. Is Jake Gleeson going to give Adam Kwarasey a run for his money?
Gleeson was very, very good on Sunday.
We’ve known since 2011 that Gleeson is a plenty capable shot-stopper, and on Sunday he showed that he’s only improved since the last time we saw Jake between the posts for a considerable spell.
Gleeson doing things like this certainly demonstrates that he is capable of being a starting goalkeeper in MLS. And on Sunday Gleeson was at least passable in the other phases of the game, setting up walls (solid), putting himself in the right position in goal (excellent), and distributing the ball in the few moments in which he had it at his feet (so-so).
So at very least the Timbers know they can be comfortable with their two-deep in goal. But don’t forget that with the exception of pure shot-stopping, Kwarasey is ahead of Gleeson in virtually every other facet of the game, most notably in distribution.
Although Gleeson was excellent on Sunday, and will have more opportunities to prove his worth while Kwarasey recovers from a torn ligament in his finger, he has quite a bit of work to do before he takes the number-one jersey. But, on the other hand, he has some time to do it.
3. How in the world are players, coaches, and fans supposed to know what amounts to a red card?
I have no idea.
But on Sunday we once again saw an example of maddeningly inconsistent refereeing in MLS.
Throughout the season we have seen numerous instances in which red cards have been given to players who have gone into tackles with studs showing, but who actually made non-dangerous contact with their opponent.
And, likewise, the Red Bulls’ Felipe received his marching orders for a bad, but non-dangerous challenge in New England.
So it’s hard to understand why Will Johnson wasn’t even whistled for a foul on this challenge on Sunday.
Hmm... pic.twitter.com/BvrlNPUtYb— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) May 1, 2016
Throughout the first six weeks of the season, it appeared as though MLS referees were cracking down on studs-up challenges regardless whether they were actually dangerous. The reason for this is simple and reasonable: Harshly punishing even non-dangerous, studs-up challenges will lead to fewer dangerous ones. As a result, the game will be cleaner and safer.
The counterargument to such an approach is also simple and reasonable: If we’re giving red (as opposed to yellow) for challenges like that, we’re going to be playing a lot of matches 11 v 10 or worse. And that’s not great for the game.
But if MLS and PRO have decided to take the former approach, it’s hard to argue that’s unreasonable. But they have to be consistent about it. And that’s where Johnson’s tackle comes in.
It’s only fair to point out that Johnson didn’t make a ton of contact with Valeri, and, like Felipe and Laba before him, wasn’t going to injure Valeri with his challenge. But if showing studs in a challenge is supposed to be a sending off (especially with the speed and force that Johnson put into the tackle), how does Johnson stay on the field in that instance?
And, as people in Portland know well, Johnson’s tackle is hardly the first this year to have gone counterintuitively unpunished.
The reality is unless MLS referees are consistent in their crackdown on such challenges, players and coaches (to say nothing of fans) won’t get a clear message about what constitutes a red card and what doesn’t. Thus, the more proactive approach that MLS referees appear to be taking with regard to studs-up tackles won’t have its desired deterrent effect and we’ll see games in which teams are playing a man down seemingly at random.
At the end of the day, therefore, PRO’s approach means nothing if their referees aren't consistent when the rubber meets the road. And to date MLS referees have been head-scratchingly schizophrenic when it comes time to enforcing their own red-card initiative.