To say last week was a tricky one for the Portland Timbers would be an understatement.
Between two must-win home MLS games against playoff-caliber opposition and a trip to Costa Rica to play Saprissa in CONCACAF Champions League, the Timbers had to log a lot of miles and play three high-leverage games in eight days.
And although the trip to Saprissa didn’t go as planned, coming away from the week with six MLS points is, all things considered, quite a success.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ win over the Union:
1. Darren Mattocks was great. What does that mean for Lucas Melano?
By far the biggest individual revelation of the week for the Timbers was the play of Darren Mattocks. After a good first start back from injury against RSL, Mattocks provided a spark off the bench against Saprissa.
But that was just a prelude to a legitimate Man-of-the-Match performance against Philadelphia on Saturday in which Mattocks logged two assists; came close to scoring multiple times; and terrorized Keegan Rosenberry, one of the better right backs in MLS.
Mattocks has had impressive performances before. During his time with the Vancouver Whitecaps, Mattocks was known for occasionally prodigious performances interspersed among many, many wasteful or invisible outings. When he was good with the ‘Caps, however, it was almost always as a forward in a two-front, principally paired with Kenny Miller.
The most exciting thing about Mattocks’s play for the Timbers over the last week, though, is that it has been as a true winger.
Portland isn’t the first team for which Mattocks has played on the wing. Throughout his time in Vancouver and especially in 2015, Carl Robinson tried multiples times to make Mattocks into a winger. The results, however, were spectacularly underwhelming.
And the results weren’t much better immediately after Mattocks came to Portland. In fairness to Mattocks, however, injuries kept him from being able to find consistent playing time.
Those injury problems, however, have subsided at least for the moment. And if Mattocks’s performance over the last week is more than a blip on the radar, Caleb Porter may be on the verge of doing with Mattocks what Robinson couldn’t. If that turns out to be the case, the Timbers have likely found a starting winger for the foreseeable future.
But that only adds more juice to another question that we’ve been talking about a lot recently: What does that mean for Lucas Melano? Simply put, the Mattocks we’ve seen over the past week has been as good or better than the Melano we’ve ever seen over a similar stretch with PTFC.
And with Caleb Porter’s stated preference for playing Darlington Nagbe on the wing rather than pushing him deeper as a two-way central midfielder, Mattocks winning a spot on the wing would relegate Melano and his DP status to the bench. Notably, with Mattocks playing well and the Timbers winning their last two MLS games, Melano hasn’t played a single minute. Simply put, that’s not acceptable given the value of a team’s three DP spots.
Big investment or not, the Timbers can’t afford to cripple their own salary structure by holding onto a DP who isn’t meaningfully in their plans. So this week we got more evidence that the answer to last week’s question may be "yes"; it’s looking more and more likely that this is the beginning of the end for Melano as a Timber.
Now, as noted, enthusiasm about a breakout from Mattocks is a dangerous thing. There have been many over the course of his years in MLS that expected a breakout only to be disappointed.
But if Mattocks’s play over the last week is a genuine indication that he’s ready to take a step forward and move into a full-time role as a winger, it has to be the end of Melano’s time in Portland.
2. What is the Timbers’ long-term plan for Diego Chara?
Although there has been plenty of ink spilled over Darlington Nagbe moving back to the wing as a result of the Timbers’ return to the double pivot in 2016, less has been written about a more subtle, but equally significant change: Diego Chara has moved from the six to the eight with Jack Jewsbury sitting in behind Chara.
Down the stretch in 2015, the Timbers looked to Chara to be a true holding midfielder, sitting in front of the backline to organize, win balls, and distribute to spring the attack. Known as a ball-hawk throughout his time in MLS, many (myself included) didn’t think the move to the six was a perfect fit for the Timbers’ miniature bulldog.
But Chara was magnificent in the role, reliably holding his tactical shape while maintaining to a great extent his ability to disrupt and re-direct opposing attacks.
As Porter referenced last week, however, Chara’s task in the single-pivot became more difficult in 2016 as teams started overloading the middle. Combine that with less effective defense from the wings and a backline that regressed from its dominant 2015 form, and the Timbers had to abandon the single-pivot in order to provide more cover in the middle.
As a result, Chara moved back to the eight and once again resumed the ball-hawking and two-way role with which he made his name in Portland. And, as Saturday showed, Chara’s been largely magnificent in that respect too.
As he has done for much of the second half of 2015, against the Union Chara was a constant presence around the ball, winning a game-leading five tackles and disrupting Union attacks before they could enter the final third. But more than just the tackles that Chara won, the move to the eight has also liberated Chara to be more of a force in the attack.
What’s interesting about Chara’s move to the eight, however, is that it’s somewhat counterintuitive given where he is in his career. Having turned 30 this past April, the move to the six was a natural transition to a position that would ask Chara to cover a little bit less ground than he is as a true two-way midfielder. Given that Chara is likely to begin to lose a step at some point in the next couple seasons, sitting him in a bit more seemed like a good way to extend Chara’s peak effectiveness.
We’ll see, then, whether this move back to the eight is a full-time shift or just a short-term move to facilitate 2016’s double pivot.
But, with news breaking on Sunday that Jack Jewsbury plans to retire at the end of the season, this decision about Chara’s long-term role is going to come to a head soon. In the offseason the Timbers are going to have to add another starting-caliber defensive or two-way central midfielder to play alongside Chara. Although Ben Zemanski has shown himself to be plenty capable depth, he hasn’t seized the starting role the way he appeared poised to do late in 2014. So the Timbers will likely have to bring in a new central-midfield companion for Chara, something that may be a good use for the DP spot that moving Melano would open up.
Whether the Timbers bring in a six or an eight, therefore, will largely dictate the nature of Chara’s role going forward. And while he was Mattocks’s primary competition for Man of the Match on Saturday playing as an eight, there are real questions whether that’s the wisest course for 2017 and beyond.
3. Can the Timbers win on the road?
This, of course, has been a mainstay here at Three Questions for much of 2016, but there’s a reason for that. Sitting on 41 points, the Timbers are now six points above the red line. That margin between the Timbers and the seventh-place Seattle Sounders is somewhat less comforting when the Sounders’ two games in hand come into play.
Still, the Timbers are in a strong position for playoff qualification. And if the Timbers win their remaining home game (against a water-treading Colorado team), it’s possible those three points alone would be enough to put Portland in the postseason.
But it’d be awfully close.
Beyond simply staying in front of the red line, however, the Timbers also have a legitimate opportunity to break into the top four and earn a home game in the knockout round. After an eyebrow-raising home loss to the Houston Dynamo, fourth-place Real Salt Lake sits only three points in front of the Timbers. To surpass RSL, however, will take road results.
Of the Timbers’ three remaining away games, all are winnable by even a competent road team. At 11 points below the red line, the Dynamo are cooked. The Colorado Rapids have only won three of their last 13 games. And by the time the last week of the season rolls around, it appears likely the Vancouver Whitecaps won’t have much to play for, either.
Results, therefore, should be there for the taking. But given the way the Timbers have played on the road in 2016, that only begs the question above, it doesn’t answer it.