The Portland Timbers badly needed three points on Sunday afternoon, and they got them.
On a day in which the Timbers’ performance was not quite complete and fortune finally turned in the Timbers’ favor, the most important takeaway was the three points. And after a week in which there was palpable concern in the Rose City about the red line starting to get away, the Timbers now sit only three points beneath the playoff-qualification line with 20 games yet to play.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ win over Vancouver:
1. The result was better, but was the performance?
Yes and no. The Timbers certainly had some nice stretches on Sunday and Darlington Nagbe had his best game of the season, but the troubling pattern of losing control of games in the second half persisted.
In the first half the Timbers were thoroughly dominant. Although the Whitecaps gifted Portland a pair of goals, the 2-0 scoreline at the half was flattering of Vancouver, if anybody, as Nagbe and Valeri terrorized the Whitecaps and created several good goalscoring opportunities. The Timbers haven’t played many halves that good this year.
The ‘Caps, on the other hand, were short on ideas and lopsided in the first half, trying in vain to play Kekuta Manneh and Erik Hurtado in behind while paying no mind to attacking balance.
So the Timbers justifiably felt good going into halftime in complete control of the game. And yet, as has become a habit for this Timbers team, the second half was considerably more stressful.
Whereas the Timbers were crisp through midfield in the first half and repeatedly found Valeri and Nagbe between the lines, they were sloppy out of the locker room and started to lose control of a game that once looked barely competitive.
All the while the Whitecaps team that looked speculative at best in the attack during the first half started creating chances with regularity.
Standing alone, the Timbers’ struggles coming out of the locker room wouldn’t be all that troubling. After all, teams that get as whacked in a half as the Whitecaps were in the first half frequently come out of the locker room with something to prove. But in light of the Timbers’ habit of losing control of games after halftime, it’s hard to see Sunday as a significant change in Portland’s second-half form.
Still, as Caleb Porter noted postgame, the Timbers deserve credit for pulling themselves out of their funk and finishing the result. Over the course of the last 20 minutes the Timbers were at least as likely as Vancouver to put the game away as the Whitecaps were to get back in. And with a little bit of good fortune (and a brilliant strike from Nagbe), put the game away is exactly what the Timbers did.
The point remains, however, that for the fourth time in as many games the Timbers struggled to keep control of a game that once seemed in hand. It didn’t bite them on Sunday like it did last week, but it’s still something that the Timbers need to address going forward.
2. Is Dairon Asprilla back?
Well, let’s see how things progress, but Sunday may have been the lifeline that Asprilla needed.
After playing a total of only 25 minutes in the last eight games, Porter gave Asprilla 30 minutes of run on Sunday in a rivalry game. And, unlike his previous substitute cameos, Asprilla looked like the dangerous player that Portland hoped he would be coming into the season, repeatedly unlocking the byline and notching a confident penalty-kick goal.
Porter make perhaps his most detailed comments about Asprilla’s situation on Sunday after the game, and made clear that off-field issues were behind whatever the situation was with Asprilla. If Porter’s faith in Asprilla on Sunday and the Colombian’s performance in his opportunity are any indication, however, it could be that both Asprilla and Porter are ready to turn the page.
So it could be that Asprilla -- a player who looked like he had one foot out the door just a week ago when he missed his third consecutive gamed roster despite a glaring need on the wing -- is poised now to break back into the team at a time when his injury-depleted team needs him.
And on Sunday he showed that he still has the capability to be a significant factor for the Timbers on the field. Now he just has to do it consistently and stay in Porter’s good graces.
3. How important is this next stretch for the Timbers?
Next week the Timbers head to Chicago to play away to the clubhouse leaders in the race for the wooden spoon. Although the Timbers have certainly struggled on the road to start 2016, if there was ever a good opportunity to notch the team’s first away win of the season this is it. And then the following Wednesday the 6th-place San Jose Earthquakes head to Portland to face the Timbers for the third time this season.
Which is to say this: If the Timbers win their next two games (both of which are very winnable) the Timbers will almost certainly be above the red line heading into the Copa America break.
For everything that has gone wrong for the Timbers in the first three months of the season, the reality is the Timbers have a very real opportunity to right the ship before the June break. Now they just have to seize it.