The Portland Timbers are out of the 2016 U.S. Open Cup.
The Timbers fell 1-0 in a relatively ho-hum matchup with the LA Galaxy in which the Timbers’ lack of defensive organization conceded an early goal and thereafter the team couldn’t find a way through a packed-in Galaxy defense.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ loss to the Galaxy:
1. What’s going on with the Timbers’ backline?
Whatever it is, it shouldn’t be happening to a group with as much experience as Portland’s defense has. And the lone goal on Wednesday evening is proof enough of that.
There was nothing terribly special about what the Galaxy did in the run-up to their fourth-minute opener: They overloaded the left side, which pulled the Timbers defensive midfield out of central areas probably moreso than was warranted. Meanwhile, they kept their right winger, Raul Mendiola, wide on the right while pushing right back AJ De La Garza halfway up.
Pulling Jewsbury so far toward the right flank without another d-mid shading toward the backside isn’t ideal, but it’s also coverable. With Jewsbury pulled out of the middle, Jermaine Taylor, Zarek Valentin, and Darren Mattocks had a decision to make: They either had to pull Valentin off the line and wide to cover Mendiola and expose Taylor to a second runner on his backside, or they had to pull Mattocks off DeLaGarza and bring him wide to cover Mendiola while exposing the Timbers to an overlap or late run from DeLaGarza (although with Jelle Van Damme already pushed up, it’s unlikely DeLaGarza would’ve aggressively looked to do so for fear of exposing centerback David Romney to a counterattack).
Although this is a decision that carries with is some risk either way, it’s a relatively routine choice for a defense to have to make. And when you look back at the video of this sequence developing painfully slowly, you can see the Timbers’ left side arguing about this: Valentin wanted Mattocks to tuck in; Taylor wanted Valentin to release.
And as a result the middle was empty, Mendiola was all alone, and the Timbers were exposed. And to make maters worse, throughout the sequence the Timbers set their backline ten yards from goal, which exacerbated the lack of depth in the defense and opened up more space for Mendiola in the box.
The point here is this: The Timbers aren’t out of Open Cup because the Galaxy scored a great goal, or even because an individual defender made a mistake. The Timbers are out of Open Cup because they made relatively basic organizational errors, and then couldn’t break though a Galaxy team that no longer had any incentive to push up.
The Timbers’ defense must be maddeningly frustrating for Caleb Porter. There really doesn’t appear to be anything structurally wrong with the Timbers. This isn’t a situation like 2014 in which the midfield is routinely overcommitting to expose the backline. And each of the players along the backline have more than enough experience to execute what the Timbers are trying to do.
Yet, for seemingly a new reason every week, the Timbers are shipping soft goals.
And as a result the Timbers are fighting for their playoff lives despite having scored the second most goals in MLS, and are now out of the Open Cup. Two facts that are as frustrating as they are bewildering.
2. Did we misunderstand Jack Barmby when the Timbers signed him?
When he was signed by the Timbers early in the season, Jack Barmby appeared to be coming as a left back and left winger. The reason for this is simple: that’s where he played primarily in England.
But if we’ve learned anything in the Timbers’ two-game Open Cup run, it’s that Barmby is better in central areas and in the channel than advertised. Against San Jose, Barmby was a surprising force in the middle of the field, repeatedly working effectively in the middle both with the ball at his feet and in combinations. And again on Wednesday, some of the Timbers best moments were when Barmby floated inside from his inverted spot on the right wing and combined with Nagbe, Jack McInerney, and Ned Grabavoy.
Although probably not a solution at left back, Barmby is a bit more versatile, technical midfield piece than we expected when the Timbers signed him. And at just 21 (the same age as many players that will be in next year’s MLS SuperDraft), there is still plenty of reason to think there will be more to Barmby’s game than we’ve seen to date. He hasn’t been flashy or made a major mark on the first team in 2016, but Jack Barmby may wind up being a solid addition to the club.
3. So do the Timbers not care about U.S. Open Cup?
Don’t be silly.
Wednesday loss is certainly a disappointment, and maybe even a major one, but it’s not an outrage. The Timbers made mistakes (see, for example, above), and struggled to put together enough consistent attacking pressure to have much of a chance of winning the game.
But to suggest as some on social media did that the Timbers lost on Wednesday because they didn’t sufficiently care (like you do?) about the game is silly and only insults the motives and professionalism of the players without any actual basis for doing so.