For all the Rapids-curious fans who went to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park to see Tim Howard play in goal, a 0-0 draw probably wasn’t what they wanted to see. Although Howard was good, the Timbers frustrated Colorado in possession and created a healthy haul of chances from the break.
And they did so with Diego Valeri and Liam Ridgewell sidelined with injuries.
It was the Timbers’ best performance of the season on the road, and is by all objective measures a very good point. But in light of two shots off the post, two one-v-one chances that went begging, and a strong first-half penalty shout, not even the great performance nor the quality of the point can entirely dull the frustration of three great points that could have been.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ draw in Commerce City:
1. Which individual performance should Timbers fans be most excited about?
This is a tough one because the Timbers got big performances from several really important players.
Alvas Powell had his best performance of the season in both the attack and in defense. Aside from falling asleep on one throw-in (after referee Ricardo Salazar initially pointed for a Timbers throw), Powell was as clean in defense as we’ve seen him this year and dangerous in the attack despite having little support from a true winger.
Nat Borchers looked like Nat Borchers for the first time in quite some time. With Ridgewell out the organizational responsibilities fell to Borchers, and the Timbers put in their best defensive outing of the year.
On Monday the Timbers were stubbornly effective at disrupting the Rapids in midfield, leaving Colorado to try to scratch something out on the Timbers’ flanks. The Timbers were certainly careful not to get stretched and absorbed more Rapids possession than Caleb Porter’s teams usually do, but there was nothing back-foot about their defending as the Timbers’ gameplay was built more on midfield disruption than it was packing the box. And as a result, they largely eliminated the playmaking threat of Jermaine Jones (Colorado’s number ten on the evening), who, despite plenty of opportunities on the ball, didn’t get close to picking anything dangerous out in the box.
And although Diego Chara, Ben Zemanski, and Darlington Nagbe were important here, it doesn’t happen without strong leadership (and some timely interventions) from the back. How excited was Borchers after the game? This excited:
Happy Birthday America! Nice to get that clean sheet on the road. #shutout #RCTID #COLvPOR pic.twitter.com/PjcHjzF1eq— Nat Borchers (@natborchers) July 5, 2016
And he should’ve been. It’s been a massively frustrating season for Borchers, who was coming off one of his best career season and is typically one of the steadiest centerbacks in the game. The defensive performance that he facilitated on Monday must have felt like a huge weight off his shoulders.
Finally, although he didn’t get on the scoresheet, Lucas Melano was a force once again, finding spots to help the Timbers get out on the break and eliminating defenders with the ball at his feet. This is exactly the kind of thing that you want to see Melano doing on an week-in-week-out basis:
Tremendous run. Perfectly-timed pass. If he keeps doing that, the Timbers will wind up getting their money’s worth from Melano.
At the end of the day the Timbers walked away the more aggrieved side after a 0-0 draw at league-leading Colorado despite no Valeri, no Ridgewell, and a relatively ho-hum Nagbe. And they did it getting big contributions from players (to say nothing of the defensive unit as a whole) that have been noticeably absent for much of the season.
So you’ll have to forgive me if it’s hard to choose just one performance to be excited about.
2. Should we be mad at Fanendo Adi for not passing to Melano on his first-half breakaway?
Nah, not really. Let’s have a look at the play:
The first thing that must be said is it was nothing short of spectacular from Adi to bring down the long ball, eliminate two Rapids defenders, and earn the one-v-one with Howard.
But that last point is really the point: Adi earned himself a one-v-one with the goalkeeper from a promising angle. Although going square to Melano would’ve put the Timbers in prime goalscoring position, Adi himself was in prime goalscoring position. Given the angle that gave Adi plenty of goal to look at and the fact that Howard didn’t have Adi closed down, that’s a chance that Adi converts much more often than not.
And when the team’s leading goalscorer (and one of the top goalscorers in MLS) is in a prime goalscoring position, you have to be able to forgive him when his first instinct is to go toward goal.
So, even if it’s easy to blame Adi for not setting up Melano in hindsight, the reality is Adi did exactly what a coach wants his dominant number nine to do. It just didn’t quite work out this time.
3. Now can we talk about the Timbers turning a corner?
Well, the Timbers are unbeaten in six and they have conceded a respectable, but not-quite-excellent seven goals during that stretch. Without a doubt Monday was the Timbers’ best defensive performance on the road this season, and after the Timbers failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their first 14 games, it’s Portland’s second shutout in four games.
So there are signs that the team is starting to get things put back together on the defensive side of the ball. And with the Timbers' goalscoring prowess, the Timbers only need to put things together on defense in order to become very dangerous over the course of the second half of the MLS season.
That said, the sample size is still a little bit small, and the Timbers have still conceded multiple goals in three of the six games during their recent run of results. So it’s probably still too early to confidently conclude the Timbers have turned into the contenders that we expected them to be coming into the season.
But the Timbers’ recent run is an undeniable sign of progress. And with a July full of games against teams in and around the playoff picture, it’s a good time for the Timbers to at least be looking like they're rounding into form.