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Three Questions from the Timbers’ 0-0 Draw with the New York Red Bulls

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Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers won’t have many more difficult two-game road stretches than the one they’re coming off today. Before the Timbers came to town, the Rapids and Red Bulls were a combined 13-2-1 at home. So although the Timbers certainly would have liked to grab three points at some point in the road trip, taking two points from the Red Bulls and Rapids on the road is nothing to shake a stick at.

The Timbers weren’t as dangerous on Sunday as they were in their draw in Colorado, but Caleb Porter’s side posted its third clean sheet in five games, which represents an increasingly significant departure from their early-season defensive struggles.

Here are three questions from the Timbers’ latest road point:

1. So the defense is better, is it time to be concerned about the attack?

Without question the Timbers were sloppy on Sunday afternoon, completing two-thirds of their passes, and just 60% in the attacking half. Despite having multiple opportunities to break out in the attack (once again thanks in part to good work in the first hour form Lucas Melano), as Porter referenced postgame the Timbers’ execution was lacking and, as a result, legitimate scoring chances were few and far between. Moreover, the Timbers struggled at times to work through the Red Bulls’ high press, leading to some turnovers in positions that exposed Portland’s backline.

In addition, on Sunday the Red Bulls were able to make the Timbers relatively predictable. Unless Portland was able to get out on the counter, the Timbers heavily favored their left side in the attacking third, which, because Zarek Valentin is naturally right footed and isn’t inclined to unlock the byline on the left, meant the Timbers really only created chances from the channel.

As a result of this predictability, the Timbers had a hard time unlocking the Red Bulls’ depleted backline and box entries became few and far between. Simply put, Sunday wasn’t a great attacking performance.

So the fact that the Timbers haven’t scored in 180 minutes is notable, especially in light of the fact that the Timbers had not been shut out in 2016 until Colorado did so last week.

But it’s probably too soon to be concerned about the Timbers attack in light of the fact that both the Rapids and Red Bulls are stingy at home, and the Timbers were missing their most important attacking player. Diego Valeri has directly contributed to 12 of the Timbers’ 28 goals. How big has Valeri been as a playmaking force this year? Arguably the biggest in MLS.

And although the Timbers have been able to subsist without Valeri’s playmaking presence, there isn’t any real way in a salary-cap league to replace production like that. But the Timbers are now coming home and Valeri should be back relatively soon.

Based on the last two weeks, therefore, Timbers fans probably have more to be excited about with regard to the defense than they have to be worried about in the attack.

2. No, really, has Jake Gleeson become the number one?

The statement from Caleb Porter last week was thinly veiled.

Now, in isolation Porter could be talking about any player on the roster who the Timbers would consider moving. But it’s pretty obvious who Porter is talking about: Adam Kwarasey. Since joining the Timbers Kwarasey has been among the most well-rounded goalkeepers in MLS, even if he isn’t a dominant shot-stopper, and all told the Timbers have been fairly well-served by Kwarasey over the course of his year-plus stint in Portland.

But Jake Gleeson has been outstanding since Kwarasey went down with a torn ligament in his finger. In 13 games since taking over for Kwarasey, Gleeson has a respectable 1.33 goals-against average; a good news, bad news 59 saves (fifth most in MLS); and a 78.7% save percentage that is third best among goalkeepers who have ten or more starts. Although goalkeeping performance cannot be completely measured by statistics (even advanced metrics), Gleeson has put together very, very good numbers since taking over in goal for the Timbers. And the eyeball test produces largely the same result.

On Sunday Gleeson was back at it, pouncing another confidence-inspiring performance between the sticks, most notably when he pounced off his line in the 77th minute to deny Felipe.

Although the Timbers defense is certainly doing a better job of not putting its goalkeeper in positions like this repeatedly throughout games, Gleeson has stood tall in the moments in which the Timbers have needed him. Based on his 13 games in 2016, Gleeson has been at least Kwarasey’s equal, and at a significantly lower salary-cap hit.

But it’s neither in Kwarasey’s nor the Timbers’ interests for the Ghanaian international to serve as Gleeson’s backup; Kwarasey is a solid goalkeeper in the prime of his career who should be playing at good level somewhere. And relegating Kwarasey to the bench would represent a considerable amount of salary-cap dead weight that the Timbers could otherwise put to immediate use.

So a move, given a good fit, for Kwarasey makes sense for all involved. And that’s not necessarily because Kwarasey has failed, but rather because Gleeson has taken hold of the number-one jersey.

3. So how do the Timbers get ready for Montreal on Wednesday?

The Timbers can’t spend much time patting themselves on the back for a largely successful two-game road stand, as they return to action on Wednesday night in Portland against the Montreal Impact.

This is, to start with, really bad scheduling by MLS. The Sunday-to-Wednesday turnaround is difficult under the best of conditions, but it’s a decided disadvantage when you consider that the Timbers have to travel across country to return home for their midweek fixture (Montreal played in Salt Lake on Saturday, giving them an extra day’s rest and a much shorter trip). Although television largely drives whether a team plays on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, MLS needs to do a better job of avoiding cross-country travel for games to be played on two days’ rest.

In any event, scheduling and travel aren’t the only factors conspiring to make Caleb Porter’s life difficult, as a key suspension and the never-ending parade of injuries will also be a major factor for Wednesday’s team.

Diego Valeri remains questionable with the ankle injury that he picked up in U.S. Open Cup, and, as noted, he’s pretty important. Diego Chara will miss Wednesday’s game due to yellow-card accumulation. How important is he? In the Porter Era the Timbers are 3-6-4 when Chara doesn’t play (1 PPG) and 44-25-39 (1.58 PPG) when Chara does play. Yep.

Finally, on Sunday Darren Mattocks went down with a hamstring injury. Given the Timbers were already thin on the wing after loaning Dairon Asprilla to Millonarios, Mattocks’s injury is poorly timed (and may further incentivize the Timbers to make the move Porter referenced if he’s going to be out for any period of time). Although Ned Grabavoy put in a solid shift on Sunday and Jack Barmby has shown increasing flashes in U.S. Open Cup games, another bout with the injury bug is the last thing the Timbers need this week, especially on the wing.

Which is to say it looks like Porter is going to have to pull another rabbit out of a hat on Wednesday. He’s done it before, but in an increasingly tight Western Conference playoff race it’s important that he does it again midweek.