For a half it looked like many other Timbers visits to BC Place. The Timbers had neither much of the ball nor the run of play, but they had the execution when it mattered on the way to a 1-0 halftime lead. And, for the second week in a row, in that vital moment the execution was gorgeous.
But beautiful (if somewhat sporadic) soccer on the attacking end won’t erase poor defending. And in the second half, stand-in Timbers goalkeeper Jake Gleeson, who for the prior 135 minutes had been the Timbers’ savior, showed his mortality.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ meltdown in Vancouver:
1. Is it time to start worrying about the Timbers defense?
Yeah, it’s definitely getting there.
Through 10 games this season, the Timbers have conceded 18 goals. And although this isn’t a new phenomenon, until recently the Timbers’ defensive struggles could be explained away as functions of sample size or a couple isolated faceplants against Orlando City and FC Dallas.
But the thing about small sample sizes is that they get bigger. And if the early trend doesn’t change, the sample size excuse fades quickly.
The Timbers’ defense was the backbone of its 2015 run. Yes, the Timbers offense produced late in the year. But most of that production came in transition. And a team can’t play in transition consistently unless the game state allows it to do so. And the game state won’t allow a team to enjoy favorable game states if the defense isn’t very sound.
So a focus on defensive sturdiness is well-conceived.
And Saturday was little comfort for those starting to get nervous about the Timbers’ backline. Forget about the Whitecaps’ raw number of shots (okay, don’t forget about it -- 26 shots with 13 on frame is a nauseating number), look at where the ‘Caps attempts were coming from.
Ten of the ‘Caps’ 26 shots were both inside the penalty area and within the width of the six-yard box. In other words, the Whitecaps were getting tons of shooting opportunities at the goalmouth.
On some level it’s a miracle (attributable to some poor finishing by the Whitecaps and some heroics by Gleeson) the Timbers only conceded twice.
So, yes, Saturday was a troubling defensive performance for the Timbers. And in light of the fact that it’s not the first one of the season, its plenty reasonable to have concerns about the defense that led the Timbers to MLS Cup in 2015.
The Timbers’ defensive backsliding is almost certainly multifactorial. From a significant drop-off in reliability from Nat Borchers, to some early struggles from Alvas Powell, to filling the void left by the departure of Jorge Villafana at left back, to shuffling the lineup to navigate a minefield of injuries, things haven’t set up well for Portland on the backline thus far in 2016.
And if there is a reason for hope, it’s that the Timbers have suffered (and continue to suffer) from a rash of injuries on the backline. But both replacements currently playing on the backline and in goal have been pretty good (though Gleeson made mistakes on both concessions), which suggests there may be more to the backline issues than absences.
That’s plenty of reason for growing concern.
2. Just how out of favor is Dairon Asprilla?
Really, really out of favor.
There are no two ways about Asprilla’s absence from the 18 in Vancouver: Asprilla is dangerously out of favor. It’s becoming reasonable to wonder if he’s we’ve-seen-the-last-of-him out of favor.
The Timbers’ lack of depth in the attack right now is evident. With Lucas Melano struggling to find consistency, and Darren Mattocks and Jack Barmby still trying to sort out their roles within the team, this roster is ripe for Asprilla to be a consistent fixture on the wing for the starting unit.
And yet on Saturday he wasn’t even in the team. And it’s been more than a month (with one mysterious injury) since we’ve seen Asprilla anywhere near the eleven, with Saturday’s exclusion from the team being the starkest indication that Asprilla is in the doghouse.
We’ve seen players come back from being out of favor. Fanendo Adi, Jorge Villafana, Rodney Wallace, and Alvas Powell all battled through spells in the Porter Era in which they didn’t seem to be in the first-choice plans.
But in light of its length and the obvious need for Asprilla in the team, the Colombian's exile from the starting eleven feels significantly worse than any of those who have returned to Caleb Porter’s good graces.
It doesn’t look good for him.
3. What happened to the Timbers’ elite road form?
In 2015 the Timbers were second best in MLS with a 7-8-2 record away from Providence Park. And in 2014 the Timbers were a frustratingly good 7-6-4 on the road.
But five games into 2016, the Timbers have yet to find their first road win on the way to an 0-3-2 mark with a minus-five goal difference.
The answer ultimately boils down to question one, above.
It’s easy to remember the Timbers’ defensive sturdiness in 2015 as a key element to Portland’s road success in 2015, but often forgotten is that it was also vital in 2014. In a season in which the Timbers were the league’s 5th worst defense overall, Porter’s side actually conceded the fifth fewest away goals in MLS. The reason was simple: On the road the Timbers were more pragmatic than they were at home and, accordingly, managed games away from Providence Park much better than they did those those in the friendly confines.
What made 2015 different is that they employed that blueprint both at home and away, and by the time they perfected it in the fall the Timbers were off to the races.
The approach hasn’t changed considerably in 2016 and the attack has been producing (although the Timbers do not yet have a clean sheet in 2016, they also have not been shut out), but the defensive execution has regressed. And as a result those road points have dried up.
That defense thing might be really important after all.