The revenge of 2-1.
The scoreline used to be a favorable one for the Portland Timbers. They won MLS Cup by that margin. And they defeated the Columbus Crew in a season-opening rematch by that number.
Well, 2-1 has come back around, as the Timbers have lost three gut-punch games by that scoreline in the last eight days.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ latest 2-1 loss:
1. Just how important is Fanendo Adi to this team?
The distribution charts say it all.
While Adi was in the game, the Timbers were all over the place, creating chances left, right, and middle against an NYCFC defense that was keeping the Timbers off the scoreboard by virtue of its lucky stars and a strong performance by goalkeeper Josh Saunders.
After Adi went out, however, the chances dried up for the Timbers as NYCFC was able to shut down the Timbers within 25 yards of goal, force Portland to go more direct, and feast off the Timbers’ lack of a true target striker in the game.
It’s not news that Adi is important to the Timbers. There is a fair argument to be made that Adi was the Timbers’ most important player in their MLS Cup run of 2015 because most of the success that the Timbers enjoyed on the break came through Adi in one form or another.
But on Sunday afternoon we saw firsthand just how important Adi can be. Without Adi, the opponent’s task of shutting down the middle of the field becomes much easier, as the Timbers do not have any other player (nor are there many other players in MLS) with the gravitational pull of the Nigerian number nine. That gravitational pull that Adi provided in the first 55 minutes collapsed the Citizens’ centerbacks (and defensive midfielders to some extent) and opened up the cracks for Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, and Lucas Melano to exploit.
Which, in the first hour or so, they did over and over. And as a result the Timbers appeared to be on the path to scoring multiple goals as long as they could find their finishing boots.
After Adi went off, however, the Timbers were relegated to scratching a few half-chances out of long balls and working the ball wide. Long story short, it wasn’t effective, and the chances that the Timbers created at will through the first hour became considerably sparser.
Which is to say this: Maybe nothing is more important this week that the results of Adi’s hamstring MRI. If Adi is on the shelf for any significant time, a season that is already on yellow alert could quickly turn critical.
2. Aside from the result and the scoreline, is there a discernible (and fixable) pattern to the Timbers’ recent slide?
After the game Caleb Porter was emphatic that there wasn’t. Porter insisted that each of the recent 2-1 losses -- at Vancouver and Dallas, as well as Sunday against NYCFC -- must be viewed independently and that there was not any discernible pattern (at least outside the results) to connect them.
But in each game the Timbers had varying degrees of second-half letdowns, and in each instance those letdowns led to an attainable result going very, very south for the Timbers.
Against Vancouver, which was perhaps the Timbers’ worst performance of the week, Portland grabbed a halftime lead against the run of play before conceding twice early in the second half. At Dallas, the Timbers executed well in the first half by grabbing an early lead and keeping the Burn’s speedy wingers largely under wraps before conceding twice in a matter of minutes early in the second half.
On Sunday the game played out somewhat differently as the Timbers conceded first in the 11th minute, but the overall performance in the first half of the game remained strong: Through the hour the Timbers created boatloads of chances and at times appeared to be playing half-court soccer with NYCFC. But, once again, as the game wore along the Timbers’ grip on the game loosened. And by the end the Timbers were just as likely to go down 3-1 as they were to draw even.
To be sure, as Porter pointed out after the game, there were things that were different on Sunday. As noted, Adi going out significantly hampered the Timbers. The absence of Diego Chara loomed large. And on Sunday the Timbers were playing their third game in eight days (after significant travel) against a team on full rest.
But the pattern of losing control of games in the second half is too troubling to write off. And although he was skeptical of the notion after the game on Sunday, my guess is it’s on Porter’s mind heading into next weekend’s rematch with the Whitecaps.
But, as Matthew Doyle points out on the league website, there doesn’t appear to be anything structurally wrong with the Timbers. But that is a very good news/bad news statement for the Timbers, because there does not appear to be any tactical panacea for what ills Porter’s team.
The Timbers just need to execute better. Which is easier to say, but harder to fix.
3. Is it time to panic?
No, but even with their rash of injuries the Timbers can’t afford to let results pass them by much longer.
The Timbers are now five points below the red line, which, with 22 games left, isn’t an insurmountable deficit by any means. One run of results combined with some favorable numbers on the out-of-town scoreboard and the Timbers could be right back into the playoff picture within just a few weeks.
But the West this year looks as competitive as ever, which means if the Timbers’ playoff-qualification deficit continues to grow, it’s going to be a challenge to climb back into the race.
So as enthusiastic as Caleb Porter was about his team’s performance after the game, the Timbers are now fully in the midst of their annual effort to not fall too far below the red line in the spring. Because right now the question is not so much whether the Timbers will improve form their current run of results -- history gives Timbers fans lots of reasons to believe they will -- but rather whether the deficit will be too great by the time Caleb Porter’s side hits its stride.