The Portland Timbers dodged a massive bullet on Wednesday evening. After wasting a host of chances throughout the game, the Timbers found themselves tied at home with the minnow of their CONCACAF Champions League group in the dying moments. A draw would have been disastrous.
And yet with a lot of luck and a bit of persistence the Timbers came away with their absolutely needed three points.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ win over CD Dragón:
1. What’s going on with the Timbers’ finishing?
It’s official: The Timbers are in the midst of a finishing slump. What started two weeks ago against the LA Galaxy and continued last weekend in Kansas City became a near-crisis on Wednesday against Dragón.
Throughout the first half the Timbers were utterly dominant; controlling the run of play and shredding the Dragón defense at will. As a result the Timbers created clear-cut chance after clear-cut chance. But time and again the Timbers bungled those chances, and to an almost comical extent; free headers bounced wide, crosses went unfinished, and shots flew off frame.
As a result the game that should have been well in hand at halftime only stood at 1-0.
And the second half brought much the same, at least until Dragón pulled a goal out of nowhere in the 76th minute. Suddenly what absolutely should have been a laugher became very, very serious.
The Timbers pulled it out, though. And because of that, for Wednesday night’s purposes, the Timbers’ finishing issues were largely harmless.
But what about these finishing issues? Aren’t they becoming a thing?
No doubt. And Caleb Porter said as much after the game when he acknowledged the obvious - that his team is in the midst of a finishing dry spell. That reality, however, carries with it good news and bad news.
The good news, of course, is that dry spells come to an end, and we’ve seen this 2016 Timbers team be effective with the finishing touch. Through the first half of the season the Timbers, fueled primarily by then-prolific striker Fanendo Adi, were consistently among the MLS leaders in goals-scored and found at least one goal in each of their first 17 games. If the Timbers were the incompetent finishing team that we’ve seen in the last couple weeks, they wouldn’t have had that goalscoring record through the first half of 2016. That is, quite simply, too large a sample size to likely be a fluke. So every indication that we have, therefore, is that the recent scoring slump is just that -- a slump -- and not a more fundamental inability to finish their chances.
But the bad news, of course, is that the Timbers can’t afford to be in a slump much longer. In the Timbers’ next four games they have one matchup against a primary playoff competitor and two games against their biggest rival. And with only 11 MLS games (to say nothing of three CCL fixtures) remaining, the Timbers will drop more results like they did against the Galaxy and SKC if they don’t pull out of their slump soon. That, quite simply, would very likely be fatal to the Timbers’ MLS playoff and CCL knockout stage qualification chances.
So whatever caused the Timbers’ recent goalscoring malaise and the Timbers’ narrow escape on Wednesday better subside in short order.
2. So what does Wednesday’s slim margin of victory mean for the Timbers’ chances to emerge from their CCL group?
Well, probably not a whole lot.
Goal difference is only relevant to tiebreakers. And the CCL tiebreakers break down as follows:
- Head-to-head points between the teams tied on points;
- Head-to-head goal difference between the teams tied on points;
- Away goals in games between the teams tied on points;
- Goal difference in all group-stage matches;
- Goals scored in all group-stage matches;
- Number of away goals scored in all group-stage matches; and
- Drawing of lots.
In other words, assuming (safely) that any potential tiebreaker would be between the Timbers and Saprissa, the Timbers’ failure to pad their goal differential on Wednesday night would only become relevant on the fourth tiebreaker. That is certainly possible, but pretty unlikely. In essence, it would take the Timbers and Saprissa finishing tied on points and playing to two mirror-image results in Portland and San Jose.
So although the Timbers’ win on Wednesday was far, far from convincing, and certainly raises concerns about the Timbers’ ability to beat a much better Saprissa side, Wednesday's failure to run up the score on CD Dragon is unlikely to harm the Timbers’ chances at advancement to the knockout stage.
3. How much did Wednesday’s effort take out of the Timbers’ legs?
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Wednesday night is that the Timbers played close to their first-choice lineup that was available. Although the Timbers are (again) battling a number of injuries that forced Amobi Okugo and Jack Jewsbury into action, Ned Grabavoy in place of Darlington Nagbe and Jack McInerney instead of Lucas Melano were really the only healthy rotations in the Timbers’ setup on Wednesday.
Without a doubt Caleb Porter's plan was to build a healthy lead early with a strong lineup and then get guys like Diego Valeri, Fanendo Adi, and Vytas (all presumptive starters against SKC on Sunday) off the field. But the Timbers’ wastefulness intervened, and as a result each of those players wound up playing 90 minutes, some of which at the end were fairly high-leverage. And now Porter faces a situation in which many of his top players will be playing their third full game in a week when they take to the field Sunday afternoon.
That is, even under the best of conditions, far from ideal.
But, as Caleb Porter pointed out after the game on Wednesday, the Timbers spent so much time on the ball against Dragón that the game was probably a bit less taxing than a typical MLS match. Moreover, the Wednesday-to-Sunday turnaround provides an extra day of rest and the Timbers have the benefit of not having to travel before their weekend game.
We’ll have to wait until Sunday, then, to see the ramifications of the Timbers’ playing a nearly full-strength lineup on Wednesday. But without a doubt the effort the Timbers put into unnecessarily challenging CCL match on Wednesday will be a factor.