Let’s hope this is rock bottom. Because if it’s not the Portland Timbers will have an early end to 2016.
For 80 minutes the Timbers did a lot right. Aside from an unforced Vytas mistake, the Timbers largely defended well. For parts of the second half Portland was genuinely the more dangerous team on the field.
But once again Caleb Porter’s team repeatedly missed clear chances and, eventually, the backline fell apart. And that was how the Timbers managed to once again find the very least out of a performance was considerably more competitive than the final scoreline.
Which, by the way, is very much becoming a pattern.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ second-half meltdown at the Clink:
1. Did the Timbers get suckered by the Sounders in the second half?
Yeah, a bit.
The first half for the Timbers was hardly a clinic in proactive soccer, but it was largely effective. With the exception of a couple early hiccups, Portland closed down space between the lines, largely prevented Lodeiro from finding any room to work with, and forced Seattle to try to scrape out half chances from tight spaces in and around the box. As a result the Timbers largely kept Seattle at bay through much of the first half.
Time and time again the Sounders attacked down the Timbers’ right side, and much more often than not the Timbers (thanks in no small part to a solid effort by Alvas Powell) turned Seattle away.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there was nothing extraordinary about what the Timbers did; they defended deep, stayed organized, and made the game hard on the Sounders. There wasn't a ton in the attack for the Timbers, but there was enough on the break and in set pieces to keep Seattle uncomfortable. It was far from breathtaking, but on the whole it was effective enough.
Effective enough, in fact, that the Sounders basically had to pull a 180 on their approach at halftime. Whereas in the first half Seattle held the ball high and looked to play down the left side, in the second half the Sounders invited the Timbers forward and looked to expose Vytas in space.
"Ironically we played much better in the second half," Caleb Porter said after the game, "but we give up three goals in the second half."
But did the Timbers really play better in the second half? To be sure, Porter’s side created much more in the second half than they did in the first. But they were also much, much more open defensively. Playing well doesn’t just mean creating chances, after all, and the way the game opened up after halftime cured the Sounders’ first-half troubles and tiled a game that was genuinely on edge in favor of the home side.
If the Sounders came out of the locker room inviting the Timbers forward, Portland was all too eager to accept. And that problem was only compounded when an unforced error from Vytas forced Portland to push numbers to try to find an equalizer.
It's hard to know why the Timbers decided to abandon the approach that worked fairly well in the first half. Keeping things tight and organized was always the approach that made sense in light of the Timbers’ struggles with consistency on their backline and the integration of a new central-defense pairing in hostile territory. And if the Timbers could keep things clean deep into the second half (which seemed very possible after they kept Seattle largely under wraps before halftime), it was the Sounders -- for whom anything short of three points would have been a season-imperiling disaster -- who would’ve been forced to take risks and open up opportunities for the Timbers on the counter.
So, yeah, the Timbers played the role of suckers in the second half on Sunday. And as a result it’s the Timbers season that feels like it’s one more bad result away from being on the ropes.
2. When will the Timbers’ finishing slump come to an end?
This may be the biggest question lingering over the Timbers right now. Aside from a brief outburst against Sporting Kansas City at Providence Park a few weeks ago -- a stretch that is looking more and more like fool’s gold -- in very recent weeks the Timbers’ problems in front of goal have cost them a result in Kansas City and very nearly resulted in dropping a crucial three points against a dramatically overmatched CD Dragon team in CONCACAF Champions League.
And it again cost Portland dearly again on Sunday, as the Timbers flubbed a golden opportunity to take a lead in the 16th minute when a set piece fell to Liam Ridgewell on the doorstep, as well as a pair of prime Jack McInerney chances to level the game at one (one off a clever Jack Jewsbury dummy and the other the much-ballyhooed McInerney breakaway miss). Even if the Timbers had some structural indiscipline in the second half that played into the Sounders’ hands, they still had a healthy handful of opportunities to make Sunday’s game follow a very different script with even a relatively routine finish.
The problem is, though, that’s becoming an all-too-familiar reality.
As Porter noted postgame, strikers are streaky. And McInerney has had many, many better games than he had on Sunday.
But with the Timbers’ defense as unstable as it is, the last thing this team can afford is weak knees in front of goal. And if these goalscoring issues don’t resolve soon, the Timbers’ MLS playoff and CONCACAF Champions League chances may soon be gone.
3. What’s going on with Fanendo Adi?
Perhaps the day’s biggest surprise came before the opening kickoff when the Timbers revealed Fanendo Adi had been left out of the starting XI. Without a doubt Adi has been in a slump lately, but a visit to Seattle is hardly the time to try to break him out of it by putting him on the bench for a game.
And, indeed, during the game rumors started flying around that it could be something a bit more dramatic than a straightforward attempt to get Adi back on track.
Timbers forward Fanendo Adi apparently not on team flight, is late scratch from starting lineup #RCTID #MLS #SEAvPOR https://t.co/77uuuLfFKr— Jamie Goldberg (@Jamiebgoldberg) August 22, 2016
When asked after the game whether Adi missed the flight to Seattle, Porter didn’t deny it, instead stating generally that the issue would be handled internally and refusing to comment further.
And although Adi eventually came on and scored a meaningless consolation goal, it’s been his struggles as much as any player's that have contributed to the Timbers’ goalscoring troubles. If, in addition to struggling to put the ball in the net, Adi is also doing things like missing team flights, it’s hard not to wonder whether the Timbers’ striker is completely dialed in at this crucial point of the season.
Regardless whether Adi’s issues are the lingering effects of Adi’s feckless early-summer transfer demand or just the frustration of an out-of-form forward, for the sake of both the Timbers’ season and Adi’s career aspirations whatever is going on with the big striker better get sorted out soon.