What a difference a week makes.
Just seven days after being run out of CenturyLink Field in the final 30 minutes of the Seattle Sounders’ 3-1 win over the Portland Timbers, Caleb Porter’s side got its revenge at Providence Park on Sunday; throttling a flat Sounders side in the first half and weathering a mild early-second-half storm to see out the three points. The win puts the Timbers three points clear of the red line with seven games left in the regular season, and gives the Timbers pole position in the Cascadia Cup standings.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ win over the Sounders:
1. Is the Timbers’ attack rounding back into form?
Just a week after perhaps the Timbers’ most frustrating attacking game of the year (with apologies to the CCL win over CD Dragon), PTFC’s offense looks like it’s starting to find its bearings once again. After a pretty terrible four weeks, Lucas Melano looked like a bona fide designated player in the first half against Seattle.
Melano both facilitates this sequence by playing the simple, quick ball to Valeri facing goal, and, more importantly, creates a target for Diego Chara with a brilliant cutback run that both got him inside Tyrone Mears (who was dreadful on Sunday) and kept him onside. For a guy whose reputation is that he’s effective on the break but nonexistent in tight spaces, that is excellent, excellent work, and is exactly the kind of thing you want to see from a player who the Timbers want to be a winger in the buildup, but a second forward option in the box.
But Melano wasn’t all that sparked the Timbers attack. With Alvas Powell overlapping effectively, Darlington Nagbe was freed up to play centrally where he found more of the ball (and more influence) than he’s had in recent weeks.
This not only let Nagbe become the Timbers’ facilitator-in-chief, but also gave Powell room to roam all day. Nagbe’s water-carrying instincts can be frustrating given his immense talent. But when he’s put in a position to carry water for Diego Valeri, the pair can make the Timbers very, very difficult to defend, and become the primary reason why the Timbers are as vicious in Zone 14 as any team in MLS.
Similarly, in Vytas the Timbers have finally found the left-sided attacking threat that gives Portland an early-ball threat and some attacking balance that helps open up central spaces for players like Valeri and Nagbe and allows Melano to commit to more central areas where he has an easier time finding Valeri (the one player on the team with whom Melano has clear chemistry) to combine.
But let’s be honest: This is about Fanendo Adi. After scoring two goals in the ten games going back to late-May, Adi now has three goals in his last four games. And although Adi missing the team plane to Seattle last week doesn’t scream breakout, his production on the field over the course of August is beginning to suggest otherwise.
With as inconsistent as the Timbers’ production on the wings has been, the attack will largely go as Adi goes. Although Valeri did an impressive job of carrying the Timbers’ attack at times during Adi’s struggles, Portland's three shutouts during that period (as compared to none in the 12 games beforehand) reveal the Timbers failed to generate the attacking consistency needed to overcome a backline that has struggled to gel.
With the backline still trying to come together, success in the attack is going to be critical for the Timbers to have a realistic chance at qualifying for the playoffs. And if Adi’s recent resurgence pans out, the attack as a whole could be poised to make a late-season surge.
2. Can the Timbers generate any real momentum from this win?
Chicago Fire, D.C. United, Houston Dynamo, and the Portland Timbers.
That’s not great company, but it’s the company that the Timbers are in. Those are the four teams in MLS that haven’t won two games in a row in 2016. With only seven games left, the Timbers are in the running to become the first team since the wooden-spoon-winning 2014 Montreal Impact to fail to win consecutive games.
Although the Timbers put together a strong nine-game unbeaten streak this season, the Timbers only won four games during that stretch. In games after wins in 2016, the Timbers have averaged an abysmal 0.5 points per game. And although the Timbers now have a little bit of breathing room between themselves and the red line, it’s hard to see how they will make the playoffs unless they can string together a few results at some point in the last seven games.
To be sure, the task of winning a second consecutive game coming off the win over the Sounders is a tall one -- FC Dallas hasn’t lost at home in 2016. And taking on the Burn without Nagbe, Powell, and Jermaine Taylor (okay, mostly Nagbe and Powell) won’t be easy.
But the Timbers really don’t have the luxury of excuses at this point. At some point very soon the Timbers’ big home wins (of which the Timbers’ nine are tied for second best in MLS) have to turn into genuine momentum.
3. Who wants a Diego Chara .gif party?
Diego Chara was outstanding on Sunday. Against the Sounders Chara misplaced the same number of passes as he had assists, which is to say the longtime Timber was a ridiculous 44 for 45 passing.
Moreover, as usual (and perhaps more than usual), Chara was all over the place defensively. Which calls for a Diego Chara .gif (and Streamable) party.
As noted, Diego Chara isn’t perfect. But very often when he’s imperfect, he’s still Diego Chara:
Now that’s enough about Chara’s flaws. Let’s talk about what Chara has made his calling card during his six years in MLS: the sidle. This is a move that MLS veterans are keenly aware of, as Chara has perfected the art of sliding between his man and the ball, and then separating the two with a swift hip check.
Nicolas Lodeiro is many things, but he’s not an MLS veteran. It’s a fair guess, though, that he’s now aware of Chara’s sidling.
And if he wasn’t after that first one, my guess is he was after this one:
The Timbers are a team that thrives on the break. And, as the previous .gifs have shown, Chara can be a one-man counterattack generator.
Chara, nonetheless, is far from one of MLS’s glamor players. Most often mentioned as a result of his prolific fouling, Chara doesn’t get the publicity of his attacking counterparts. So, although it pales in comparison to Chara’s considerable contributions in other phases of the game, it was nice to see Chara get on the scoresheet in a regular-season game for the first time since his headed goal against the L.A. Galaxy in 2015.
Goals and assists be damned, however, Diego Chara is one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS. And that’s something that the smiling Colombian has shown game-in and game-out over the course of his 178 MLS appearances with the Timbers.
So Chara was excellent on Sunday. But what we don’t talk about enough is how Sunday’s excellence from Chara wasn’t altogether out of the norm.