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Three Questions from the Timbers’ 2-2 Draw at Real Salt Lake

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Another away game. Another lead. Another disappointment.

By any objective measure the Portland Timbers’ draw at Real Salt Lake is a good point. The Timbers are the first away team to take any points from RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium in 2016, and Portland just denied two points to a Western Conference rival in their ballpark.

And yet, for a number of reasons, Portland’s point in Salt Lake is a frustrating one.

Here are three questions from the Timbers’ latest away letdown.

1.  Why can’t the Timbers hold a lead on the road?

When Lucas Melano put back Diego Valeri’s strike off the post, the Timbers took the lead in their sixth consecutive away match. And each time the Timbers have come away with less then three points.

In Los Angeles on April 10th Fanendo Adi put Portland on top early in the second half before a late Nat Borchers own goal permitted the Galaxy to salvage a point.

In Foxboro the Timbers couldn’t make Jack Barmby’s scuffed opener stand up as Jermaine Taylor’s late own goal allowed the Revolution to split the spoils.

In Vancouver Nat Borchers’s first-half goal broke the seal, but it was the dominant Whitecaps who came away with three points by way of two second-half tallies.

In Dallas the Timbers jumped all over the Burn early by way of Diego Valeri’s fourth-minute goal, but another early second-half meltdown paved the way for a comfortable FC Dallas win.

In Chicago Valeri’s 18-minute opener put the Timbers in front for all of two minutes before David Accam equalized and Portland held on for a point.

And on Saturday at the RioT the Timbers erased an early RSL tally and surged in front before letting the Claret-and-Cobalt dominate the first 25 minutes of the second half and come back for a referee-aided, but deserved point.

The 20 minutes before halftime were among the best the Timbers have played in 2016. During that period the Timbers repeatedly played through Fanendo Adi, who dominated Aaron Maund and Justin Glad in the way to the Timbers taking a well-earned lead into halftime. Meanwhile, the high press that brought Salt Lake success early in the game faded quickly as Salt Lake’s 120 minutes midweek against the Wilmington Hammerheads quickly took their toll.

So the mostly fresh Timbers went into halftime ahead and in a perfect position to come out of the locker room and deliver the knockout blow.

They didn’t. In fact, they really didn’t.

For the first 25 minutes of the second half (through the very favorable penalty call that referee Alan Kelly gave to Real Salt Lake) the Claret-and-Cobalt were all over the Timbers and, as a result, were not only able to hang around in the game, but were in fact able to create enough chances to deserve to be level.

Simply put, while the Timbers had RSL off the ropes to end the first half, they let Salt Lake back into the game in the second. And although RSL’s equalizer came off a very questionable penalty call, it was largely by the grace of poor finishing that Salt Lake hadn’t yet equalized to that point. But for Joao Plata being criminally selfishYura Movsisyan not quite getting his foot around a ball after he was distracted by the stadium fire alarm, Burrito Martinez (who was dead on his feet through most of the second half) getting nowhere near an open net, and Jordan Allen just missing after finding a pocket of space in Zone 14, RSL wouldn’t have needed Kelly’s gift to draw level.

And that’s to say nothing of the Movsisyan strike that Jake Gleeson pulled out of the corner moments after the penalty.

There are no two ways about it: The Timbers got the snot beat out of them for most of the first half hour after halftime.

But the most troubling part about this is that the Timbers flat start to the second half is just the latest chapter in an anthology of blown leads on the road. And ultimately this hasn’t been happening because of a soft (I’m being charitable) penalty call or an unfortunate offside call. You can blame referees all you want, but the simple reality is that this has been happening because the Timbers haven’t been playing anywhere near well enough to win after going ahead on the road.

And, frankly, if you think otherwise after the Timbers have blown six consecutive leads away from Providence Park, you’re out to lunch.

Los Angeles. Foxboro. Vancouver. Dallas. Chicago. Salt Lake City.

There are reasons to think the Timbers are starting to come together. And the fact that they’ve taken the lead in six consecutive away games is in itself nothing to shake a stick at. But unless the Timbers can break this pattern of fumbling away leads on the road, those six cities could very easily sum up why the Timbers don’t make the playoffs.

2.  Why did Porter pull a Klinsmann and start Jermaine Taylor at right back?

There are some questions I just can’t answer.

My best guess is Caleb Porter wanted the Timbers to build through Valentin up the left side before looking to switch the ball to Lucas Melano and company in the attacking third. And the Timbers did a good amount of that, especially in the first half when the Timbers’ buildup was a bit more methodical than in the frenetic second half.

But as a result of the switch Zarek Valentin was playing his least preferred position and Taylor was playing in a spot that he has yet to play this year, and, as best I can tell, was Taylor’s first start at right back for his club in four years. Taylor, in any event, has played much more left back than right back in his career, with less than a handful of starts coming on the right flank. Not surprisingly, Taylor looked uncomfortable in defense throughout, repeatedly getting beat by whomever Salt Lake shaded his way. And when a player is uncomfortable, he makes mistakes like this.

Although I think the penalty was a gift for RSL because Movsisyan is going down well before the modest contact and was getting rid of the ball anyway, there was absolutely no reason for Taylor to dive in on a player who was going away from goal and back into the teeth of the defense. Moreover, the only reason Movsisyan got loose in the first place was because Taylor took an ill-advised step toward Javier Morales to free Yura down the touchline.

Porter’s decision to play Taylor on the right and Valentin on the left was all the more curious considering there were other good options with those spots, including Valentin on the right and Taylor on the left (both positions in which both players have shown well this season), or Taylor Peay at right back where he has been quite good in his last two appearances.

We rightly criticize U.S. Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann for frequently deploying players out of position to usually nderwhelming results. And although Caleb Porter’s record with the Timbers has been more impressive than Klinsmann’s with the national team, Porter very much pulled a Klinsmann with his fullback choices on Saturday. And as anybody who regularly watches USMNT will tell you, the result wasn't altogether surprising.

3.  How great a play was this by Diego Chara?