Well I don’t think anybody saw that coming.
The Portland Timbers beat the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday evening in historic fashion, firing off two shots, scoring one goal, and taking three points in a near must-win at Providence Park.
Timbers are 2nd MLS team ever to win with 2 or fewer shots. Joining Chicago Fire on 6/2/2001. #RCTID— Mike Donovan (@TheMikeDonovan) June 2, 2016
Whether that’s good or bad history, I really can’t tell you. But it’s something.
Here are three questions (again, more questions than shots) from the Timbers’ win over the Quakes:
1. How big a step toward redemption is that for the maligned Timbers’ defense?
Well, it’s a step. I’m not sure it’s a big step, but it’s definitely a step.
After the Timbers scored their early goal, Portland seemed to settle into a pattern in which they were looking as much to manage the game as they were to dominate it. Although the Timbers controlled most of the possession and strung an appreciable number of passes together, they offered precious little in terms of penetration and weren’t a threat to add a second.
On one hand this was a bold strategy considering the Timbers had yet to keep a clean sheet coming into Wednesday’s game. On the other hand, however, it made some sense because being overly aggressive in attempting to unlock the Quakes’ backline would leave space for San Jose to create the counterattacking opportunities that they live on. Although the Timbers would’ve certainly liked to create a few more opportunities than they did in the first half, going into halftime with the lead and limiting the Quakes' chances (after a sloppy first few minutes to the game) was certainly mission accomplished for Caleb Porter’s team.
That blueprint, however, flew out the window just before halftime when Dairon Asprilla was sent off after the fourth official adjudged Asprilla intentionally elbowed Jordan Stewart in the head. The decision to send Asprilla off is certainly arguable, as the more plausible interpretation of the play that led to Asprilla’s marching orders is that Asprilla unintentionally elbowed Stewart while the two were jostling for position to receive a Jake Gleeson goal kick.
Regardless whether the call was correct, however, the Timbers were down to 10 men in a game in which stringing attacking combinations together was already a challenge. At that point the objective became singular: Survive.
And, to the Timbers’ considerable credit, they did.
Although San Jose threw the kitchen sink at the Timbers’ backline, the shorthanded home side did an excellent job of making quality service rare, and a Quake on the end of that service even rarer. Although the Timbers had predictable troubles clearing and pushing their lines, the backline and midfield did a nice job of protecting Jake Gleeson from the shooting gallery that should have resulted from the Quakes pinning the Timbers in their own end.
For all the possession the Timbers gave up and the difficulty of the defensive task before them, Gleeson was only forced into three saves thanks to his defense, with Taylor Peay’s unexpected and excellent appearance deserving special mention.
So Wednesday was hands down the Timbers’ best defensive performance of the year. What that means for the future, however, remains to be seen, especially in light of the unusual posture that the Timbers were in during that second half. Simply put, we won’t see the Timbers bunker like that very often.
Which is to say there are reasons to question whether Wednesday’s performance is repeatable, or whether it’s a one-off (albeit an excellent one-off) demonstration of defensive sturdiness.
But, in any event, that’s certainly a step forward from where the Timbers have been.
2. How close is Jake Gleeson to taking the number one shirt?
Although his defense did its best job yet of protecting him on Wednesday evening, Gleeson was once again quite good. His distribution showed continued improvement. His box was organized. And, in the few moments that the team needed him to make a big save, Gleeson was there (including early in the first half when Nat Borchers’s shanked clearance put Gleeson in a pickle). And, because it’s Jake Gleeson, there was another very good reaction save:
So after the game Caleb Porter was asked just how close Gleeson is getting to capturing the number-one shirt on a more permanent basis. And Porter’s answer was notable more for what he didn’t say than what he did say.
Oh, yeah, it’s tough to tell. I mean, obviously, you 'gotta look at -- we have two good goalies. But he’s been outstanding. No doubt about it. So when Adam's back we’ll talk about that, but there’s no sense talking about it now because Adam’s not back and Jake will be in there.
Porter’s answer was both appropriately complimentary of Gleeson and appropriately deferential to Kwarasey, who has been at least solid as the Timbers’ starting goalkeeper. It was more or less what a you would expect a coach to say and what a coach should say if there is a positional controversy.
But that last point is the most important. Porter’s answer did nothing to dispel -- and, in fact, seemed to assume -- that Gleeson keeping the starting job is at least up for discussion.
And as each game ticks by, the gap in the areas in which Kwarasey was ahead of Gleeson seem to shrink. Gleeson is demonstrating better distribution than he ever has, better command of his box than he’s had before, and is starting to build the game-in, game-out consistency that a number one needs to have. Although he wasn’t as busy Wednesday as he has been in the past several weeks, against the ‘Quakes Gleeson was exactly what you want a goalkeeper behind a good defense to be.
Given his clear development and considerable salary-cap savings relative to Kwarasey, therefore, there is reason to think Gleeson may be able to win the spot. So, even if whether Gleeson ultimately captures the starting goalkeeper spot remains very much in question, it’s clear the Timbers are now in the throes of a goalkeeping controversy.
3. So where do the Timbers stand now?
By taking seven points out an attainable last nine, the Timbers had a solid, if not-quite-great week in the results department. And as a result Portland now sits just one point below the red line, albeit with some teams ahead of them having as many as three games in hand. But measuring the Timbers against the red line, it’s fair to say that they’re close with San Jose only a point above the Timbers with one game in hand and Vancouver two points in front having played the same number of games as Portland.
The Timbers, therefore, are now fully back in the playoff race, having survived their characteristically slow start to 2016 that was exacerbated by a serious rash of injuries.
Heading into the Copa America break the Timbers now have the opportunity to get healthy, with Alvas Powell and Darren Mattocks potentially returning in time to face Real Salt Lake on June 18th. In addition to getting healthy, however, the Timbers are going to have to return from the break in form, with a difficult schedule remaining in June and July with games against many of the Timbers’ primary rivals for Western Conference playoff qualification.
We know what Caleb Porter and his Timbers teams are capable of in the fall. Experience tells us, however, that it’s still a matter of sufficiently surviving the spring to get to the postseason. At this point the Timbers have done enough not to disqualify themselves before the summer solstice.
But there is still much, much work yet to be done if the Timbers want to have a chance to defend their MLS Cup crown.