If the game had taken place in April there may have been a lot of reason to be pleased with the way the Portland Timbers played in their 1-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City on Sunday. But the simple reality of late-July is that the Timbers have entered the stage of the season in which moral victories based on the quality of performance take a back seat to points. And in the last two weeks the Timbers have shipped six points to Western Conference foes in games from which they should have come away with a better result.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ latest letdown:
1. Why are the Timbers suddenly struggling to score goals?
After being at or near the top of MLS in goals scored throughout much of the first half of the season, the Timbers have scored five goals in their last six games, and three of those five were at home against a listless Seattle Sounders team. After not being shutout in the first half of the season, the Timbers have failed to score three times in the month of July.
To be sure, there is more than one force at play here. Diego Valeri’s absence through the first three games was unquestionably the Timbers' biggest handicap during that period. Since then the Timbers’ chance creation has essentially returned to its first-half level.
But the thing about chances is no matter how good they are they have to be finished. And in both their losses over the last eight days the Timbers haven’t been nearly good enough in front of goal to take the points that they’ve otherwise earned.
Against the Galaxy last weekend the Timbers dug their own grave and seemed to have at least one foot in it when they conceded twice in the first fifteen minutes. After the Galaxy went up two, Bruce Arena’s team looked poised to shut down the game and cruise to an easy win. Although the Galaxy got their three points, they were anything but comfortable as the Timbers pulled within one before halftime and earned themselves a more than enough scoring chances to expect an equalizer.
The Timbers, however, couldn’t find the finish.
Fast forward to Sunday in Kansas City and the Timbers managed to avoid the early faceplant (although the first 15 minutes out of halftime were a bit wobbly), and created more than their share of good chances. Once again, however, they couldn’t apply the finishing touch. And Sunday’s version of Timbers wastefulness may have been the most frustrating of the season, as Caleb Porter’s team wasn’t just generating chances; it was generating good chances.
The most frustrating of the Timbers’ misses, of course, came late in the game when Diego Valeri fed a golden chance to the usually reliable Jack McInerney, only to have Mcinnerney’s curler deflect off the bar.
That was a golden chance for the Timbers to pick up a deserved equalizer, and it’s one that a finisher as clinical as McInerney finishes seven or eight times out of ten.
But that wasn’t it by any means. Fanendo Adi made far from the most of a beautiful Vytas cross (more on him in a minute). Darlington Nagbe couldn’t put the required venom on a perfect setup from Lucas Melano. Adi shanked his finish after Nagbe put him through on goal after brilliant runs by both players. Melano took a heavy first touch when Nagbe put him through on goal in the first half and stand-in SKC keeper Alec Kann did well to come off his line to paw the ball away. Adi couldn’t turn a perfectly delivered Diego Valeri corner kick on frame. Melano’s glancing header flashed just wide on another pinpoint Valeri free kick.
And although the Wiz certainly had a few chances on their end (primarily during a haggard first fifteen minutes of the second half in which the Timbers had trouble dealing with and clearing a series of set pieces) the Timbers backline and midfield did an creditable job of quieting the Kansas City attack from the run of play and shutting down Dom Dwyer for extended periods.
The Timbers' inability to find the attacking exclamation point, though, nullified the good work from Portland’s patchwork backline. And it’s fair to wonder whether the Timbers’ finishing problems may continue. After a torrid start to the season, Fanendo Adi has hit a bit of a goalscoring slump even if he is still doing a lot of dirty work. Lucas Melano has taken an at least momentary step back after finally showing some progress this summer.
Which is to say unless Valeri (who has scored four of the Timbers’ last 8 goals going back to the last weekend in June) is putting the ball into the net, the Timbers haven’t had much in the way of consistent goalscoring punch in spite of plenty of opportunities.
Someties, as we saw on Sunday, it really does just come down to finishing.
2. How did Vytas’s debut go?
Quite well, even if it happened for reasons that have become all too familiar in 2016.
Vytas came on for the Timbers in the 69th minute on Sunday after Zarek Valentin went down with a disconcerting-looking, although apparently not too serious, knee injury. And although by that time the game state had the Timbers pushing hard for an equalizer, Vytas became one of the highlights of an otherwise frustrating day for the Timbers.
Despite playing only 25 minutes Vytas became a useful cog in the Timbers’ attack, as he showed a willingness to provide an outlet and play the simple ball in the middle third while demonstrating the ability to whip a good left-footed ball into the box, something the Timbers have missed sorely in 2016. Although he doesn’t appear to be nearly the athlete that Alvas Powell is at right back, Vytas’s short debut looked very much like he could lay claim to the left-back spot that has been in a state of flux since Jorge Villanafa left the Rose City.
3. So how costly have these last two losses been?
Well, with better results the Timbers would not only be in very strong playoff position, but could be putting together a real campaign for a first-round bye. So it’s fair to say dropping these last two very winnable games has come at a real cost.
But pending the result of the Whitecaps’ visit to FC Dallas on Sunday afternoon (nice one, MLS schedule-makers) the Timbers still sit only a point below the red line. Chasing playoff qualification certainly won’t be easy for the Timbers as they also jump into CONCACAF Champions League group-stage play this week, but to say the Timbers are in trouble from a playoff-qualification perspective would be a bit premature.
Still, with a home game against Sporting Kansas City coming up followed by an away game against D.C. United and a home-and-home with Seattle, if the Timbers are going to solidify their claim to a playoff spot now is the time. And with six of the Timbers’ remaining 11 games on the road, it’s safe to predict the Timbers won’t be making a return to the playoffs if they continue their current average of 0.45 points per game on the road.
So even if the Timbers are hardly in a desperate spot with eleven games remaining, it’s probably also time that the Timbers approach MLS games with an additional bit of urgency.