At some point the Portland Timbers have to move beyond the all-things-considered good point.
But on Wednesday evening the Timbers got an all-things-considered good point against the Montreal Impact. The Timbers came to Providence Park on Wednesday on two days’ rest coming off a cross-country trip, missing three of their first-choice front six (including Diegos Chara and Valeri), and facing off against a solid Impact side. That’s a tough task for any team in MLS, and, all told, the Timbers put in a pretty impressive performance on Wednesday evening.
And yet, thanks to a combination of some bad luck, a little bit of tactical indiscipline, and not enough gas in the tank, the Timbers once again came away not fully rewarded for their efforts.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ latest draw:
1. How did the Timbers’ 4-4-2 work out?
Pretty well in the first half, at least until the Impact started to get it figured out.
On Wednesday the Timbers abandoned their typical 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 set and went with two true forwards up front in Jack McInerney and Fanendo Adi. Caleb Porter deployed Darlington Nagbe primarily on the right, Lucas Melano on the left wing, and Jack Jewsbury and Ben Zemanski as primarily sitting central midfielders.
And for the first half hour or so, it worked like a charm. Moving Nagbe wide made him difficult for the Impact central midfielders to pick up, and as a result Nagbe was a menace in transitioning from the middle to the final third. From there, the Timbers’ other winger, Lucas Melano, as well as Adi and McInerney did the rest.
In many ways, the Timbers’ 4-4-2 played a little like an imbalanced 4-3-3, with Melano pressed high on the left along with Adi and McInerney, and Nagbe sitting deeper but shading into the right channel above Zemanski and Jewsbury.
And throughout much of the first half Montreal really had problems with this; as noted, the Impact had a hard time denying Nagbe the ball, Adi and McInerney worked effectively together to only occupy the centerbacks, and Melano ruthlessly put the ball into the box before running out of gas late in the second half.
Melano has had better games than he had on Wednesday evening, but his performance against the Impact may have been his most encouraging outing because it demonstrated Melano can be effective even when the break isn’t on.
Eventually, however, the Impact caught on, dropped their lines deeper to tighten up the spaces for Nagbe and Melano, and tried to lure Portland’s defensive midfielders forward to expose the Timbers on the break.
And this is where the Timbers had a little bit of tactical indiscipline. As the first half went along with the Timbers having a firm grasp on the game, Portland started to stretch a little bit to find the second goal. As a result, Zemanski and Jewsbury became a little bit too disconnected from the backline, and the Impact found space in central areas to create chances.
That meant Ignacio Piatti, hands down the best player on the field and one of the best in MLS, got on the ball a lot more.
And when Piatti is getting on the ball like that with regularity, something like this is bound to happen.
He’s just too good. So as the first half the Timbers became victims of their own success; as Portland pushed to turn their run-of-play dominance into a big lead on the scoreboard, the Impact were able to set their talisman free to create chances on the Timbers’ backline.
And although the Timbers were able to make a second push at the start of the second half (primarily through more Melano excellence), the go-ahead goal didn’t immediately come and eventually the lack of rest and the short bench caught up to Portland.
2. Did we get a couple more entries into the Jake Gleeson Highlight Bank?
Feast your eyes, friends. This is your new number-one goalkeeper.
These are the kinds of saves that elite goalkeepers make. And although Gleeson still has some growing to do in other aspects of the game (although, to be fair, he has already become a more well-rounded keeper), Gleeson’s shot-saving ability is up there with any goalkeeper in MLS.
As long as he can stay healthy, the Timbers could be very, very well served by the Gleeson Era in goal.
3. Did the Timbers get done by the referees again?
It certainly appears so. But at least this time the referee took responsibility.
All those problems that the Timbers had with Piatti never would have happened if, in the 18th minute, the Argentine had been sent off for this tackle on Alvas Powell.
Asked about the play after the game, referee Allen Chapman (who also erred in April by giving Nigel de Jong only a yellow card for his tackle on Darlington Nagbe that ultimately drew a three-game suspension) acknowledged the mistake.
This is, of course, massively frustrating for the Timbers who, if the MLS Disciplinary Committee retroactively punishes Patti’s tackle, will see a fourth player opponent this season given a retroactive red card for a bad challenge that was seen by the referee, but incorrectly punished on the field.
So Chapman and his crew got it wrong.
But they also raised their collective hand and admitted the mistake. Although the missed calls are frustrating, at times even more maddening was the apparent lack accountability for referees. To many fans’ frustration even clearly incorrect calls were frequently defended or even excused, sometimes in pretty condescending terms. And as long as that was the case it was hard to see how the standard of refereeing in MLS could improve.
Chapman’s honesty, then, is refreshing on two levels: First, it humanizes him in a way that makes it easier to understand that mistakes happen. As long as referees were treated (and, indeed, at times treat themselves) as infallible, each error they make was only magnified and intensified.
Second, and most important, Chapman and his crew owning the mistake provides some hope for improvement in the future. It’s impossible to fix a problem that you won’t acknowledge. And, at least with the missed call on Piatti’s first-half tackle on Wednesday night, Chapman acknowledged the error.
So, yes, the Timbers can add to the frustratingly long list of calls that haven’t broken their way this season. But at least this time it was handled with humility and accountability by the referee.