This time of year any three points are three big points.
But Saturday night’s three points were absolutely imperative. The Portland Timbers have been as hapless on the road in 2016 as they have been stellar at home. And with six games remaining coming into Saturday evening -- three home and three away -- the Timbers were in a position in which they needed to be close to perfect at Providence Park is they want to make the playoffs.
And so the Timbers came away from Saturday’s feisty fixture against Real Salt Lake with the three points that they couldn’t afford to drop.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ win over the Claret-and-Cobalt:
1. What was the most encouraging part of the win?
It wasn’t Darlington Nagbe playing at hyperspeed for the first half hour of the game. And it wasn’t Fanendo Adi finding his fourth goal in his last six games.
No, it was the Timbers’ defensive performance. Coming off an ugly stretch of four consecutive games having conceded multiple goals, the Timbers’ backline, led by Liam Ridgewell but aided considerably by Steven Taylor (who had by far his best game as a Timber), the Timbers’ backline had its best game of the late-summer on Sunday, shutting RSL down early and managing Jeff Cassar’s side as they looked for the late equalizer.
Despite plenty of impetus to go forward, the Timbers lately nullified RSL striker Yura Movsisyan who has 7 goals in his last 12 starts.
On Saturday Ridgewell and Taylor denied Movsisyan the ball, forcing the striker to drop deep in order to get touches and keeping the RSL number nine shotless until a 92nd-minute Ben Zemanski whiff let Luke Mulholland put Yura on the doorstep only to be denied by a heroic Jermaine Taylor. Without Movsisyan producing, RSL struggled to generate penetration from the wings or otherwise break down the Timbers’ block.
But the Timbers’ effectiveness on defense started at the front, as Caleb Porter’s team was active in disrupting RSL in transition. With Jack Jewsbury consistently sitting in front of the backline, Diego Chara was as aggressive from his defensive-midfield position as we’ve seen in 2016. As a result, RSL struggled to find rhythm in the run of play and, combined with strong play from the Timbers’ backline, the Timbers’ defensive aggressiveness made for an easier-that-the-stat-sheet-suggests outing for Jake Gleeson.
Over the summer transfer window the Timbers put clear emphasis on reinforcing their backline for the stretch run. By bringing in Steven Taylor and Mbenga Arokoyo (who we still have yet to see due to a groin injury), Gavin Wilkinson and company devoted a lot of resources to fixing the backline that has held the team back for much of the season.
And Saturday’s win over RSL was the first indication that the Timbers’ investment might pay off. It is, of course, only one game. If the Timbers are to make another late-season run the defense (from back to front) will have to show that sort of performance is repeatable.
But in a game in which the Timbers’ attack wasn’t at its most prolific, Portland came away with a relatively stress-free three points against a playoff team. That hasn’t happened much this season, but it does provide a glimmer of hope that this team has a 2015-style run in them.
2. Where was Melano?
Conspicuously absent from the Timbers’ starting eleven on Saturday was Lucas Melano, the Timbers’ enigmatic DP whose struggles have been made only more frustrating by his periodic flashes of brilliance. Even more surprising, however, was that Melano didn’t even get the call off the bench with the Timbers holding a 1-0 lead and RSL starting to open up opportunities for the Timbers to hit the Claret-and-Cobalt on the break.
By all indications, Melano (who was on the bench and warming up at various points) is healthy. And yet, despite a game state that would have made sense for the speedy Argentine to come into, Melano stayed rooted to the bench in an MLS game for the first time since he arrived in Portland.
After the game Porter said he opted for Ned Grabavoy to replace Darren Mattocks because he wanted the Timbers to hold a little bit more possession, and that he didn’t want to disrupt the starting unit too early because it had been effective.
But if Lucas Melano doesn’t have a role to play in a close, key game at home against a playoff opponent, when will he have a role to play that comes close to justifying his DP status?
We will see Melano again this season, almost certainly as soon as Wednesday when he will likely start in San Jose, Costa Rica against Deportivo Saprissa in the Timbers’ all-important CONCACAF Champions League fixture. So this isn’t to say we’ve seen the last of Melano, and in all likelihood we’ll now see Mattocks and Melano battle for the spot on the wing opposite Darlington Nagbe.
But it is to say it’s hard to see how Melano will be in the Timbers’ plans beyond this season if he isn’t even the clear starter over Mattocks, a player whose fit in Portland has been made all the tricker by the fact that he hasn’t consistently seen the field due to injury.
So even if we haven’t yet seen the last of Melano, it certainly appears that day is coming.
3. Will the Timbers return to the single pivot?
It's starting to look doubtful.
After the shift to a single-pivot 4-3-3 helped power the Timbers’ run to MLS Cup in 2015, Portland struggled a bit in that setup to start 2016 due to backline regression and disappointing starts to the season from Melano and Dairon Asprilla on the wings. Add to those factors a steady stream of injuries, and by the end of the spring the Timbers had to abandon the inverted-triangle 4-3-3 in favor of a double-pivot setup that provided a bit more coverage in front of the backline.
The benefit to the single-pivot 4-3-3, however, remains for the Timbers; it really is the only formation that allows the Timbers to get Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, and Diego Valeri into their most natural positions.
But asked whether the single-pivot 4-3-3 remains an option for the stretch run, Porter was equivocal:
Yeah, I think so. I think we can pull that out every once in a while. But I think Darlington’s playing awful well wide. You know, when he plays in the middle it’s interesting because he ends up playing sometimes too deep, and, yeah, he plays well. I like to play Darlington on both wings, and, you know, you play him everywhere.
But Jack Jewsbury brings set pieces, he brings leadership, he’s very good at getting the ball off the backs and helping us with possession, he’s a smart player, and the other thing is we push Chara on higher. We’ve been doing that. And I think that allows us to do that with Jack in the game. Chara can now float around and hunt the ball and look to press. It helps our pressing because he gets higher and then he’s very good on the counter, so once he picks up balls and runs or joins. And so I think that’s been a good tactical shift, and, honestly, I think that’s our best way to go with this group.
You can argue that all you want, but this is a different team. We don’t have Rodney, we don’t have Jorge. Those two guys were very good defenders which helped kind of balance out.
And I also think any time you change something tactically sometimes you get a little bit of that initial impact and then teams start figuring it out, which is why earlier in the year when we went back to it, it wasn’t working. Everybody was bringing wingers in, overloading Chara. We don’t get Chara’s ability to go and hunt the ball and float around, and Darlington ends up now having to come too deep and he never gets in the final third. So these are all things we’ve talked about, but we weren’t getting results out of that early in the year.
In short, the answer was "yeah, but probably not."
Although I don’t agree with everything Porter said there (I think a deeper, more central Nagbe was a feature of the single pivot, not a bug) it's the last paragraph of Porter’s answer that is the most telling. If the Timbers shift to the 4-3-3 very late in 2015 allowed them to benefit from the league’s adjustment period, there’s every reason to think a similar wrinkle could have the same effect this year.
So, even if we won’t likely see a late move back to the single-pivot 4-3-3, it seems likely Porter has something up his sleeve for the stretch run.