It was one of those days at Providence Park. The Portland Timbers faceplanted in the first ten minutes, lost Nat Borchers to a very serious-looking injury, and couldn’t find their way out of the hole they dug for themselves on the way to an important 2-1 loss to the LA Galaxy.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ loss to the Galaxy:
1. Did we learn just how important Liam Ridgewell is to the Timbers today?
Well, we sort of already knew, but Saturday was a painful refresher course.
In the first 15 minutes against the Galaxy on Sunday the Timbers’ backline was disastrous. Left, center, and right, each player on the backline (and in goal) was at least partially culpable on at least one of the Galaxy’s goals in the opening quarter-hour. Zarek Valentin got beat by Gio dos Santos. Jake Gleeson failed to cut out dos Santos’s cross. Nat Borchers lost track of Robbie Keane. Alvas Powell let Emmanuel Boateng get in behind him. Jermaine Taylor failed to track Gyasi Zardes.
And that made Saturday’s game very, very difficult.
Starting Nigel de Jong and Jeff Larentowicz in central midfield, the Galaxy XI was built to keep central spaces tight in and around the box and dare the Timbers to beat L.A. in wider areas. And by conceding twice in the early stages, the Timbers played right into Bruce Arena’s hands, as the Galaxy could sit in, keep things organized, and protect their lead.
It’s not that the Timbers were poor from then on. For 75 minutes on Saturday the Timbers (aided by the game state) were the dominant team, and did well to create enough chances to have a credible chance to erase the early deficit and pull themselves at least even with the Galaxy.
But a Lucas Melano finish deflected wide, a Darlington Nagbe volley screamed just high, and a Fanendo Adi header couldn’t get turned on frame. Although the Timbers weren’t exactly wasteful, with the Galaxy keeping the box as tight as they did the home team was never going to get bunches of good chances.
And when you’re down two and aren't going to get bunches of chances, you have to be very sharp with those that do come your way. On Saturday the Timbers just weren’t quite sharp enough in the final third to complete what would’ve been a very impressive comeback.
The simple reality is the Timbers jut couldn’t afford to spot two goals to a team as talented and tactically sound as the Galaxy. And although the two goals that the Timbers conceded were only, as Caleb Porter insisted after the game, two moments that they didn’t manage well, those moments dictated everything that happened thereafter.
As for Ridgewell, therefore, Porter made no bones about it: "Ridgy probably makes that play. I’ll be honest with you."
2. Is this where the Timbers’ lack of potency on the wing comes back to bite them?
To some extent, yes.
Porter disagreed with the premise a little bit postgame and correctly noted that the Timbers created a respectable number of chances notwithstanding the lack of any real wide threat, but ultimately Portland's central- and channel-centric attack had to play right into the teeth of the Galaxy defense. And that just made an already difficult task harder.
Attacking from the run of play most often boils down to finding a way to create space in goalscoring areas. As the Timbers showed against Seattle, Portland is adept at attacking on the break and, thus, exploiting vertical space.
But with the way the Galaxy set up vertical space was going to be hard to come on Saturday in the best of circumstances. Getting into this vertical space only became more difficult after the Timbers conceded the two early goals and ensured the Galaxy had absolutely no reason to commit numbers to the attack.
The other option for creating space, therefore, is to create space laterally; to stretch the defense to the flanks and exploit the spaces that open up centrally. If an attacking team can get penetration in wide areas, the fullback has to release and the central defense has to cover more of the box.
But without a true winger, generating that wide penetration is one area in which the Timbers struggle right now. Aside from the handful of occasions on which Alvas Powell got loose on the right wing, the Timbers didn’t have much in the way of production from wide areas. And as a result, the Timbers’ chance creation came overwhelmingly from Zone 14 on the right channel.
That’s why, ultimately, when the Timbers created a chance they had to be perfect to finish it. In such tight spaces, there were very few easy goalscoring chances.
So although the Timbers generally did well at the difficult task of creating chances in the face of a packed-in defense, their inability to penetrate and create in wide areas ultimately made that task more difficult.
3. Just how bad is Nat Borchers’s injury?
It certainly didn’t look good, as Borchers went down in the first half with a non-contact injury to his foot and, after a failed attempt to stand, had to be carried off on a stretcher. Subsequent reports make it sound very much like it was an Achilles tendon injury, which, if it is a full rupture, could put Borchers’s career in serious jeopardy.
We don’t yet know the extent of the injury, however, and it could yet turn out that it is less severe than feared.
And let’s hope it is. Although he’s only been in the Rose City for a season-and-a-half, Borchers’s impact in Portland has been enormous. His play in central defense in 2015 was semi-heroic and, together with Liam Ridgewell, was the backbone of the Timbers’ run to MLS Cup. Off the field Borchers was an easy fit with the Timbers and provided stability and leadership in a position that lacked both qualities in 2014.
Yet Borchers’s time in Portland has been only one small but significant chapter in a remarkable MLS career, as he was a central figure in Jason Kreis’s Real Salt Lake dynasty (which, despite only one title, remains one of the best teams in MLS history). All told, Borchers has made the postseason 11 times, won two MLS Cups, and came oh-so-close to winning CONCACAF Champions League.
Which is to say it’ll be heartbreaking if, God forbid, today marked the end of Borchers’s playing career. An MLS legend deserves a better swan song.