Well, the Portland Timbers might have something going now. Unbeaten in 5 with 11 points in that stretch, the Timbers sit above the red line after a Sunday afternoon win over the Houston Dynamo.
But it certainly didn’t look like it would turn out that way for the first hour. After shipping two first-half goals, the Timbers came storming back in the final half hour to take all three points at Providence Park.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ win to close the first half of the 2016 MLS campaign:
1. Okay, was THAT the breakout performance we’ve been looking for from Lucas Melano?
At the almost overwhelming risk of being Charlie Brown to Melano’s Lucy, it looks like Lucas Melano is starting to get things turned around. After finally breaking through with a goal (albeit an underwhelming goal) against Real Salt Lake, and a monstrous second half against the Dynamo on Sunday, Melano has shown more of a pulse in the last week than he has since late 2015.
Throughout his time in Portland, Melano has fought a more-often-than-not-losing battle with confidence. And, throughout much of the first half on Sunday Melano still appeared to be mired in his quagmire with himself, as he went about his duties on the right wing largely invisibly.
But after Caleb Porter flipped Melano to the left and alternated the Timbers between a 4-3-3 (Adi right, McInerney central, Melano left) and a crooked 4-4-2 (Mattocks up top with Adi, Melano high left, Valeri playing deeper on the right), Melano came alive; taking advantage of the space the Dynamo inexplicably permitted him in behind and carving up Houston’s midfield with the ball at his feet.
And then there’s this run.
With Houston’s central defenders occupied by Mattocks, this run between Jalil Anibaba (who inexplicably held Melano onside) and David Horst is exactly the run you want from a wide forward. And although Melano has made that run on occasion, he hasn’t nearly enough. And when he has, all too often Melano hasn’t finished.
In a second half in which the Timbers mounted a historic comeback, Melano was among the primary sparks for a Timbers team that needed him to be great. The question now is whether this will be a turning point for Melano, or just another mirage in what has been a frustrating acclimation and development process.
2. How concerned should the Timbers be about the first half?
For fifteen minutes or so in the first half, the Timbers looked solid. They had Darren Mattocks involved on the left wing and Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi finding the ball in and around the box. As a result, the Timbers were plenty capable of created a handful of half chances that could’ve yielded an opening goal.
And then the wheels fell off the wagon. For the 25 minutes from the 16th through the 40th minute, the Timbers were a disaster; unable to unlock Houston’s defense and more often than not hopefully lumping the ball forward to try to crack the attacking third.
But quiet attacking spells happen to all teams, even in otherwise solid performances. But more concerning is that while the Timbers were struggling to create through the middle of the first half, they were doing things like this:
And, even more cringe-worthy, this:
Those are both bad, bad goals to concede. And although bad goals happen to good defensive teams from time to time, those are certainly not the first two instances this season in which the Timbers’ defense has made a mess of itself.
If the second half showed that there is nothing wrong with the Timbers’ attack (their 28 goals are tied for 2nd in MLS), the first half demonstrated yet again that there is still a lot to clean up on the backline (the Timbers’ 29 goals allowed are tied for 2nd worst in MLS).
Until the Timbers start to sort out the latter, they’re not going to be able to take advantage of the former. So although it is tempting to say this Timbers team that has taken 11 out of its last 15 possible points is starting to turn a corner, the primary cause of their early-season troubles remains.
Without question the results have been better for the Timbers, but, as with Sunday’s win, that may be mostly a function of the Timbers finally catching a few of the breaks that they weren’t getting early in 2016. So while the Timbers are above the red line for the moment, they still have a lot of work to do if they want to stay there.
3. What are the Timbers going to do at right back going forward?
If Alvas Powell’s start at right back on Sunday suggests he maintains the upper hand in his positional battle with Zarek Valentin, the way the Timbers’ win over the Dynamo played out pretty well sums up the pros and cons of each player.
Throughout the first half Powell was a liability in defense as he shook off the rust of several weeks on the pine with a wrist injury. In the second half, however, Powell alternated between being electric in finding some space down the right side and stressfully effective in defense.
After Powell came off with an unidentified injury, however, Valentin came on and showed why many want him to take up the mantle at right back on a regular basis; he was steady in defense and reliable in possession, finding a few spots to get forward. In fact, with his 77th minute cross that found Fanendo Adi in front of goal, Vaneltin probably deserved an assist for what would’ve been a massive equalizer.
So Caleb Porter has a decision to make. Assuming Powell’s injury isn’t serious, Porter will have to decide between Powell’s upside and Valentin’s reliability. And that’s to say nothing of Taylor Peay, who stated his own claim to the right-back spot against San Jose.
In a season in which the Timbers have had troubles across the backline, they find themselves now with surprising depth at right back. How Porter clears this logjam with needs elsewhere will be one of the Timbers’ storylines in the second half of 2016.