Some games you have to throw out the Xs and Os, and just find a way to get a result. After Diego Chara’s boneheaded 12th-minute red card, Sunday became one of those games.
And in spectacular (and flattering) fashion the Portland Timbers did so in a 3-0 win over Sporting Kansas City on Sunday afternoon at Providence Park. Here are three questions from three very important points for the Timbers:
1. Did the Timbers’ finishing form come back around on Sunday?
After three consecutive games in which the Timbers let themselves down in the final third by wasting chance after chance, the pendulum decisively swung back in the Timbers’ favor on Sunday. On a day in which they had 28% of the ball, attempted only 231 passes, and failed to earn a single corner kick, the Timbers nonetheless found a way to come away decisive-looking winners.
The Timbers, of course, were not nearly as dominant as the 3-0 scoreline suggested, but Sunday’s return marked the return of two vitally important qualities: the ability to get out on the counter and opportunism.
One of the major factors in the Timbers’ recently goalscoring troubles has been Fanendo Adi entering an increasingly significant slump. And for a while on Sunday it appeared Adi wasn’t close to coming out of it.
In the above clip Adi initially does some nice work to provide Darlington Nagbe an outlet before Nagbe finds Vytas with a perfect ball out to the wing. With Vytas on the wing and Saad Abdul-Salaam recovering to eliminate any potential cutback, the Lithuanian left back’s only option was to try to play an early ball into the box. Unfortunately, Adi never committed to any run and didn’t present any threat to get in behind the SKC defense. As a result, Vytas’ cross found nothing but an empty box.
The quality that defines in-form strikers as much as any is the ability to put himself in position to score. Here there was a run and play to be made, but Adi -- who coming into Sunday was far from in-form -- was nowhere to be found.
That tide started to turn, however, as the game went along. Although everybody will remember Nagbe’s spectacular trouble-making in the box that set up Jewsbury’s strike for the Timbers’ second goal, it was Adi who sparked the sequence by shrugging off two challenges from Ike Opara, bringing down a Taylor Peay long ball, and carrying the ball back to the top of the box.
And then, minutes later, Adi found a goal for himself.
When Adi is struggling the Timbers as currently constructed become almost exclusively reliant on Diego Valeri to create and to score goals. But when Adi is effective, the previously one-dimensional attack becomes a handful, and the previously tight scoring windows become considerably wider.
Thus, if Adi’s late production against SKC is a harbinger that he’s ready to break out once again, that could mean happier days are ahead for the Timbers’ attack.
2. How long will Diego Chara be suspended?
Let’s get one thing straight: Diego Chara unquestionably deserved a red card for his hands to Benny Feilhaber’s face. Sure, Feilhaber baited Chara to some extent (though, to be honest, it really wasn’t all that egregious). And Feilhaber sold Chara’s face-push.
But that’s all largely irrelevant. If you aggressively raise your hands to the face of an opponent, you’re going to be sent off. And that’s exactly what Chara did when he shoved Feilhaber in the head.
The question, therefore, is how lengthy Chara’s ban will be. The MLS Disciplinary Committee Principles provide in the instance a referee issues a red card it will add additional punishment if:
The Committee will add suspensions and/or fines over and above the mandatory one game suspension for those offenses the Committee deems to be of an egregious or reckless nature, or where the Committee believes it must act to protect player safety or the integrity of the game, including in particular but without limitation to contact above the shoulders through the dangerous use of elbows, forearms or fists.
Chara’s red card arguably qualifies under the final provision in that guideline, which puts Chara in at least some jeopardy of a two-game suspension. That, of course, would result in Chara missing the Timbers’ visit to Seattle, something that is only becoming more unpalatable in light of Nicolas Lodeiro’s early success in Rave Green.
Without a doubt, however, the Timbers will submit this play for the Disciplinary Committee's consideration:
Dempsey was only suspended one game for his hands to Juan Ortiz’s face and head, and given the similarities between the incidents the Timbers may have a credible case to make that Chara shouldn’t miss more than the Timbers’ upcoming visit to D.C. United. Whether the Disciplinary Committee buys that argument and spares Chara further punishment, however, very much remains to be seen.
3. Does Caleb Porter need to find a way to move Darlington Nagbe back into central midfield?
Nagbe does a respectable job moonlighting as a winger. But if Chara’s red card reminded us of anything on Sunday, it’s that Nagbe is one of the better two-way central midfielders in MLS.
Until Soni Mustivar let the Timbers off the hook with his flying-linebacker tackle on Diego Valeri near the end of the first half, Chara’s absence should have been (and very well could have been) a killer for the Timbers. Portland’s 4-4-2 setup, which relied on the fullbacks bombing forward to provide width, put a lot of pressure on Chara to slow SKC’s attack and rotate quickly to the flanks to buy the fullbacks time when they were inevitably caught forward.
After the Timbers lost Chara, Nagbe stepped back from his wing position into the 8, Jack McInerney filled the left wing spot, and the Timbers went from an aggressive posture in which they looked to exploit the wings to trying to keep shape in a deep defensive block.
Now, Nagbe didn’t replace Chara. He can’t do that, in no small part because he isn’t even close to the ball-winner that Chara is. In fact, outside of Alvas Powell, for the last 78 minutes on Sunday the Timbers didn’t really have an effective ball-winner on the field, which was a big part of why SKC kept 72% of the ball and played 576 passes despite playing all of the second half with even numbers.
But Nagbe was very good at keeping the Timbers organized, and in the moments in which Portland could get on the ball he became a terror from his central, deeper position. Watch Valeri’s goal again:
Without a doubt Valeri’s volley was sublime and Vytas’ early ball was all sorts of trouble for the SKC backline. But the Timbers went from aimless to dangerous in a matter of one pass when Nagbe realized his backside pressure was coming from SKC right winger Graham Zusi, who left Vytas with green acres in front of him because Zusi had overcommitted to the high press and, thus, pinched SKC’s defensive shape into imbalance.
That recognition and distribution is exactly what a team wants from an 8, and, combined with Nagbe's preposterous ability to keep the ball and create space for himself, makes Nagbe an ideal attacking 8.
And although Nagbe doesn’t disrupt many attacks on the defensive side of the ball with his disciplined, but risk-averse approach, that really isn’t a huge problem considering a central Nagbe would ordinarily be paired with one of the best ball hawks in MLS.
The Timbers have gone away from the central-midfield Nagbe this season largely out of necessity as a result of poor wing production and a leaky backline. If recent reinforcements can buttress the backline, however, moving Nagbe back into the 8 may make sense as the Timbers enter the stretch regardless whether Porter rolls out his 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 or sticks with the two-front Portland played against SKC.