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Three Questions from the Timbers’ 3-1 Loss at Houston

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Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Another day, another road defeat.

At this point there really isn’t a whole lot more of it to say than that. Regardless how impressive the Timbers’ home form appears or how modest their opponent is, the Portland Timbers are terrible on the road.

And they were again on Saturday.

Here are three questions from the Timbers’ loss in Houston:

1. Are the Timbers just soft?

At this point it’s hard to explain the gaping gulf between the Timbers’ home and road form.

At Providence Park the Timbers are tied for the league-lead in wins at 11-3-2 with a +13 goal difference and an MLS-leading 34 goals scored. Although the Timbers have hardly been stingy at Providence Park (their 21 goals conceded at home are 15th in MLS), their prolific attack has more than made up for some leaky play at the back.

The road, however, have been a different story. A very, very different story. Although the Timbers’ away defense hasn’t been the worst (even after Saturday’s loss the Timbers’ away defense still ranks 12th in MLS), outside of Portland the attack that has filled up the nets at Providence Park has been inept, scoring only 12 goals away from home, which is tied for 18th in MLS.

Why this is happening, however, is a more difficult question. There really isn’t any marked structural difference between the Timbers at home and on the road. Although the Timbers are certainly a bit more conservative on the road than they are at home (as one would expect), they don’t fundamentally change their approach.

Yet the results are, quite obviously, not there. And at some point that goes not to tactics, but to execution. To be sure, winning on the road is difficult in MLS. There is a reason the best away teams in the league average only 1.5 points per game away from home. And even the underlying numbers for the best away teams are far from impressive; NYCFC and LA Galaxy are the only two teams in MLS with a positive goal difference on the road, both sporting a whopping +1.

More than anything, then, capturing results on the road is less about dominating than it is about managing both the flow of the game and, just as importantly, moments. The Timbers, for the most part, have been acceptable at the former. But catastrophic at the latter.

That desperately errant ball from Alvas Powell -- who had far-and-away his worst game of the season -- is exactly the kind of mistake a team can’t afford on the road. And everything that happened thereafter is an unfortunate (and, frankly, not all that blameworthy) result of Powell’s mistake.

And, although the Timbers were bad in the first half, that wasn’t the most disappointing aspect of the Timbers’ performance on Saturday. That came in the second half, when the Timbers came out of the locker room looking like the team that we’ve come to know at Providence Park, leading quickly to an equalizer with the Timbers looking comfortably like the superior team.

As they have multiple times on the road over the course of the season, the Timbers got themselves into a position in which they were in control of the game. With the score level the Timbers looked poised to push for a winner, break their away bugaboo, and take three vital points from a Dynamo team with little to play for. And then this happened:

That’s utterly preposterous defending by essentially everybody involved. And giving away such a cheap, careless goal at such a crucial point in an important game is a withering indictment of this team’s mettle. All the control the Timbers exerted over the game was irrelevant.

And for every time that has happened on the defensive side of the ball this season, it’s happened at least as many times on the attacking end. Consider, for example, where the Timbers would be today but for the results they dropped in Seattle and Kansas City as a result of wasteful attacking play.

These are the kinds of things good teams don’t do; they’re the kinds of things soft teams do. It’s not about tactics, and it’s not about talent. If the Timbers were deficient in either respect, they wouldn’t be as prolific at Providence Park.

It’s about mentality. And right now this Timbers team is lacking severely in that department.

2. How serious is Darren Mattocks’s injury?

To add injury to insult, Darren Mattocks left during garbage time of Saturday’s game with yet another hamstring injury. Just weeks after returning from a serious hamstring injury suffered against the New York Red Bulls, there were indications that Mattocks was prepared to break out and become a major contributor to the Timbers’ attack.

And Saturday was further evidence of that. Although he wasn’t nearly as prodigious as a week ago against Philadelphia, the Timbers’ best moments were also Mattocks’s best moments.

And just moments after that, Mattocks was the primary creator of the goal that brought the Timbers back into the game.

That is exactly the kind of wing play the Timbers have been missing throughout the season. And although Mattocks didn’t provide as much of that as he did a week ago (or even the week before that against Real Salt Lake), his influence was still significant.

Which is why the hamstring injury Mattocks suffered at the end of the game may be so significant. Given the ordinary course of hamstring injuries, even a moderate setback for Mattocks could spell the end of his season. And if recent experience is any indication, that would be a major, major blow for the Timbers.

3. Can the Timbers make the playoffs without road points?

On some level, the answer is "who cares?" If the Timbers’ current road form continues, their 2016 playoff experience will be exactly 90 minutes long. With some decent results elsewhere, it’s possible the Timbers could hang on to the six-seed.

The Timbers still have six points on the seventh-place Seattle Sounders. And although the Sounders have three games in hand as of Sunday afternoon, Seattle’s deficit is such that they have a lot of work to do to dig out of the hole they’ve created for themselves.

So although 44 points would hardly be an impressive haul for the Timbers (assuming they can get three points at home against the Colorado Rapids) it may be enough.

Post-Sounders Game Update: Uh oh.

But big whoop. Unless the Timbers’ mentality and road form suddenly improves, any short-lived playoff qualification would be little balm for an otherwise disappointing season.