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Three Questions from the Timbers’ 1-1 Draw in Bridgeview

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

That was ugly.

Draws in soccer are the punching bag of sports talk radio. Soccer haters across the United States invoke draws as much as anything to argue that the sport is deserving of their scorn and prideful ignorance. But those who watch soccer know that draws come in all shapes and sizes. Some are thrilling. Some are good results. Some are disappointing.

Saturday’s draw at Chicago for the Portland Timbers was none of those things. It wasn’t truly disappointing - a point on the road is a good thing, etc. But it wasn’t good, either. And it certainly wasn’t thrilling.

It was just empty. A single point taken from a team that the Timbers should have beaten in a game that was a demonstration of flat-out bad soccer by both teams.

Here are three questions from a game that soccer fans -- to say nothing of Timbers fans -- would soon like to forget:

1. What has happened to the Timbers’ centerbacks?

This may be the question of 2016. The Timbers’ backline, which was so good throughout 2015, has regressed significantly this season. To be sure injuries and instability have played a part. But the Timbers’ veteran centerbacks are also just making uncharacteristic, fundamental mistakes.

Take a look back at the Timbers’ concession on Saturday, which came just a minute after Portland pulled ahead by way of a Fire defensive mishap and some Diego Valeri solo action:

That’s a bad, bad goal to concede. That’s a ball that Zarek Valentin -- who was in good position -- needs to deny and one that Nat Borchers needs to cut out. But the Timbers’ problems on that play are more fundamental and structural than that.

Here is a screencap of the moment when Kennedy Igboananike gathers the ball on the left edge of the box:

The fundamental problem is already there for the Timbers. Despite the fact that the ball and Igboananike are ten yards from the byline, the Timbers’ centerbacks have set the offside line right at the top of the six-yard box. And there’s no real reason to. Igboananike isn’t making any decisive move to the byline to take offside out of the play, and neither David Accam (ten yards out lined up with the near post marked by Borchers) or Razvan Cocis (marked by Ridgewell at the goalmouth) are demonstrating much impetus to make a hard run.

But there’s a reason neither Igboananike nor Cocis are in a hurry to go anywhere: Borchers and Ridgewell are giving them those spots, and it’s prime real estate.

Being a centerback in a box defending situation is, as much as anything, about space management. To to the extent possible the centerbacks want to use the offside line to squeeze space in the box and close down crossing targets while being aware enough to protect against runs in behind.

But here the Timbers aren’t squeezing anything, as both Accam and Cocis have found a soft spot in the box ten yards from goal while the Timbers centerbacks are, in essence, defending air at the six-yard box. All Igboananike needs to do is find space to send a ball in, and Accam is an easy target to pick out.

With a quick-ish move toward the byline that’s exactly what Igboananike does. And here you can see the result of Ridgewell and Borchers starting this sequence defending too deep: there is all sorts of space in the box. Accam has (needlessly) taken a couple steps in while Borchers and Ridgewell have collapsed further inside the six-yard box. But very little has happened here: There’s been no clearing run, and nobody crashing the post. Basically Accam is sitting in the same soft spot that he had in that last frame waiting for Igboananike to figure out a way past Valentin.

When Igboananike does beat Valentin (who, by stretching his right leg, appears to be assuming that the pass is going to go to a near-post runner) with that square ball, Accam is still there in his soft spot for a stand-still finish.

Sometimes teams create space in the box by forcing the defense to make hard decisions. Sometimes a player on the wing gets to the byline and takes offside out of the play. Other times a player comes through with a clearing run that opens up space at the penalty spot (see the Lucas Melano highlight at the bottom of this piece). Sometimes a centerback is forced to step up to disrupt action at the top of the box and a runner is released in behind.

And on plays like that, to some extent you have to tip your cap to excellent attacking execution.

This was none of that. This was just downright bad box management by the Timbers’ central defense that put Portland one wrong Valentin guess away from giving up a frustratingly simple goal.

And this isn’t the first time the Timbers have given up a simple goal in large part as a result of centerbacks needlessly opening up space in the box.

There’s been a lot made about whether Borchers is simply over-the-hill and whether Ridgewell is athletic enough to provide cover. And that isn’t incorrect. It’s possible that Ridgewell and Borchers are setting up so deep because they don’t have confidence they can cover a hard, near-post run by Accam. But Accam would still have to properly time and execute the run (to say nothing of make a difficult finish from a tight angle). As it was, all Accam had to do was stand still and side-foot the ball into the net.

So the real problem here isn’t one of age or athleticism. It’s about fundamental box management.

And it’s kind of shocking that centerbacks of the experience and accomplishment of Ridgewell and Borchers are screwing that up.

2. How are the Timbers going to unlock the middle without Darlington Nagbe?

To be determined. Because they certainly didn’t on Saturday.

One of the hallmarks of the Timbers attack this season has been that they create chances from central areas better than perhaps anybody in the league. Look at the Timbers’ distribution chart against Vancouver last week:

Those yellow lines are chances created, i.e., a pass that leads to a shot. Although the Timbers were effective in wide areas against the Whitecaps, that was largely because players like Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri were able to collapse the Whitecaps defense by getting into central areas. As a result, the Timbers’ attack was balanced, creating eight chances in the area within the edge of the box extended to about 30 yards out from goal.

On Sunday, however, the Fire were able to push the Timbers wide early and, as a result, largely bottled up the Timbers attack when Lucas Melano, Dairon Asprilla, Chris Klute, and Zarek Valentin weren’t able to figure a way to unlock Chicago’s backline. How many chances did the Timbers create from central, attacking areas on Saturday? One.

This doesn’t happen when Nagbe is on the field because, quite simply, the pockets of space that Nagbe loves to find and create are exactly the areas that the Fire pushed Portland away from. Diego Valeri was the only Timber on the field in Bridgeview who is adept at getting into those spots and Valeri couldn’t carry the load by himself.

Without a doubt this will improve at least somewhat when Fanendo Adi makes his return to the lineup (Adi, not coicndeitnally, created the Timbers’ only chance from a central attacking area). Whereas Nagbe eliminates defenders to open up central space, Adi draws defenders toward him to open cracks for the Valeris of the world.

But whether Adi will solve this problem enough for the Timbers very much remains to be seen. Because, as we saw on Saturday, if an opponent succeeds in pushing the Timbers wide, there really isn’t much Portland will generate.

Which leads us to our next question.

3. WTF, Luca?

If there was going to be a player who could help pick up the slack on Saturday with Nagbe out, it was going to be Lucas Melano. With his technical ability Melano has the ability to eliminate defenders and combine with Valeri to create a similar effect to what Nagbe does so expertly.

But ability doesn’t equal effectiveness. And this chart pretty well sums up how effective Melano was in his 70 minutes of work on Saturday:

[The saddest trombone].

Games like Saturday make Timbers fans (and probably members of the Timbers front office) reasonably want to cut cord on Melano. Performances like that are an utter waste of a valuable designated player spot.

But Melano can also do things like this:

Which really is the paradox. The tools that the Timbers bought are there for Melano. But the Timbers can’t carry the Argentine mystery for too much longer if outings like Saturday’s are going to continue to significantly outnumber performances like Melano had against San Jose in April.

If the Timbers cut Melano loose, they could easily rue that decision in a year or two if he finally puts it together. On the other hand, if the Timbers show patience they could carry an awful lot of attacking dead weight with little or no reward on the other side.

I don’t envy Caleb Porter and Gavin Wilkinson.