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Timber Cruise: San Jose Earthquakes 2, Portland Timbers 1

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MLS: Portland Timbers at San Jose Earthquakes Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Western Conference’s lack of a breakaway team throughout the season has been a blessing for the Portland Timbers. Despite struggling for extended periods of 2017, the Timbers remained within reaching distance of a good seed in the playoffs.

But it also meant that down the stretch there would be no margin for error. With four teams bunched together playing for two first-round byes, the Timbers were going to have to be close to mistake-free in September and October if they wanted to watch the elimination round from the comfort of their couch.

On Saturday they erred in disappointingly meek fashion. That — quite simply — won’t get it done in a tight playoff race.

Deep Cuts

After last week’s win against Orlando City, Caleb Porter expressed a confidence that the Timbers could score consistently without pushing their fullbacks into the attack. As a result, Porter favored Roy Miller over Vytas at left back.

In light of recent events — notably the Timbers’ demolition of the Lions, but also the team’s recent run of form — it was easy to fall into that trap. The Timbers could be conservative in committing their fullbacks and trust that somebody (read: Diego Valeri) would find them a goal or two.

Valeri, however, won’t always play out of his mind. The Timbers found that out the hard way on Saturday.

Through the first 55 minutes on Saturday, the Timbers struggled to penetrate within even 25 yards of the Quakes’ goal.

As a result, although the Quakes allowed the Timbers some chances, they were relatively few and far between, and when they did come the Timbers weren’t sharp enough to finish. Again: Valeri isn’t always going to be playing on God-level.

Caleb Porter seemed to recognize the issue — albeit not until the Timbers put themselves in a 2-0 hole — when he returned to the team’s on-paper first-choice unit by bringing on Vytas for Roy Miller and David Guzman for Dairon Asprilla, thereby pushing Darlington Nagbe up to the left wing.

After Porter made the double switch, the Timbers penetration problems got considerably better, albeit with some help from the game state. The width that Vytas, in particular, provided in the attack allowed the Timbers to find more spaces in the channels and in the middle. The distribution map in the final third, as a result, was night-and-day better.

Nagbe found more spaces on the left, and so did Sebastian Blanco on the right when Porter later inserted a constantly bombing-on Alvas Powell.

Now, to be sure, the Timbers still struggled to execute until their backs were truly against the wall in the final moments. Vytas, for example, inexplicably chose to float all of his crosses rather than drive them. But the glaring structural problem that neutered the Timbers in the first half was largely resolved.

What we’ll see from the Timbers going forward remains a mystery. But make no mistake: It should be the setup we saw for the final 35 minutes on Saturday.

Diego Valeri is one of the best players in MLS and he will be a frequently difference-maker, but he won’t bail out the Timbers with otherworldly play every week. And setting up the team on the assumption that he will is a recipe for an early playoff exit.

Spotlight on...

Roy Miller. And it’s not a favorable spotlight.

Miller was, in short, a disaster on Saturday. It was his ill-advised attempt to pass back to Liam Ridgewell that set up the opener and his failure to routinely deny Danny Hoesen a shot that was primarily responsible for the deal-sealer. Were there other things that happened on those plays? Sure. But Miller was primarily responsible on both, which comes as a stark departure from his form as one of the Timbers’ most consistent defenders over the course of the season.

The difference? Two words: left back.

There were a lot of people around MLS guffawing when the Timbers signed Miller in the offseason. But the Timbers were confident that they could prove the Miller-skeptics wrong by playing him as a left centerback where he primarily featured for Saprissa and the Costa Rican national team rather than at the left back position at which earned infamy for the New York Red Bulls.

Guess what? The Timbers were right, and they were enjoying a pretty satisfying last laugh about Miller.

Or at least they were until they forgot what made them right.

It turns out Miller is a good, very consistent left centerback, and a visibly uncomfortable and maddeningly inconsistent left back. Miller is, in short, exactly who the Timbers thought he was. Except the Timbers forgot that somewhere along the way.

Miller has had a handful of perfectly acceptable performances at left back, which, I assume, is why the Timbers keep playing that card. His ability to have clean performances has never been the problem — talk to any emotionally-centered Red Bulls fan and they’ll tell you he had his fair share of them in Harrison.

He also, however, had more than his share of shockers, which is the hard lesson the Timbers learned on Saturday. Or at least you’d hope they’ve learned that lesson.

Stat of the Game

0 — The number of attacking actions (passes, dribbles, or shots) that Darren Mattocks had after the 80th minute on Saturday. And his numbers before then were far from impressive, too, as Mattocks only had 10 passes, 3 dribbles (all unsuccessful), and two shots to show for his 90 minutes of work.

Mattocks has done a passable job of finding spots to make an impact during his extended fill-in for Fanendo Adi. And he almost did so again on Saturday as he had a late tap-in nullified by a close offside call (that, for what it’s worth, would’ve changed today’s SotG to 1).

That, however, doesn’t change the fact that Mattocks goes missing for extended stretches of the game, as he largely was during the period in which the Timbers were desperately pushing for goals to try to steal a point. The 80’-90’ stretch also wasn’t Mattocks’s only period during which he was missing on the stat sheet as well as the field. In a 27-minute stretch from the 25th minute through the 52nd, here’s what the Timbers had to show for Mattocks’s inclusion in the team:

That right there is one teeny, teeny tiny missed pass in nearly 30 minutes of soccer, which is exactly one more entry into the Opta database than Mattocks had during the final push to take a point.

Mattocks’s disappearing act has been made all the more damaging by the Timbers’ recent reluctance to set up their fullbacks to get into the attack. Already playing a man down by not pushing their outside backs, the Timbers haven’t been able to afford going another man down when Mattocks vanishes.

Which is why the “Timbers are better without Adi” takes that have been flying around the Portland commentariat are wrong. Adi isn’t perfect, but his gravity and holdup play meaningfully contribute to the attack on a consistent basis.

Unless Mattocks can find space in behind — well, just take a look at that picture again.

Man of the Match

Vote!

Poll

Who was your Man of the Match against San Jose?

This poll is closed

  • 22%
    Sebastian Blanco
    (36 votes)
  • 18%
    Diego Chara
    (29 votes)
  • 35%
    Larrys Mabiala
    (57 votes)
  • 14%
    Darlington Nagbe
    (23 votes)
  • 9%
    Other
    (15 votes)
160 votes total Vote Now

Finishing Bullets

  • The Timbers will obviously be watching with interest as Seattle plays Philadelphia on Sunday morning for a similar away outing to that which the Timbers just squandered. If the Sounders fail to take points, the Timbers may emerge from this weekend with limited damage to their chances to take a top-two spot. Although Sporting Kansas City remains tied with the Timbers on points and have two games in hand, SKC have three of their last four on the road where they’re a mediocre 2-6-6 on the season. Thus, if Seattle loses at Philadelphia, a top-two seed may well be there for the Timbers’ taking if they can win their final two at home.
  • There is a second four-way cluster in the Western Conference, though, that is battling it out for the final two playoff spots. If the Timbers fall into the third or fourth seed (which I would say is likelier than not at this point), how that pack shakes out will determine who the Timbers face in the elimination round. It’s worth, then, taking a look at that race as we come down the stretch.
  • The Houston Dynamo are currently fifth on 43 points, but have a tricky road ahead of them in a home-and-home against SKC as well as a season-closing home game against the Chicago Fire. The Dynamo, however, are a very favorable elimination-round matchup with their dismal 1-9-6 away record this season.
  • Real Salt Lake is sixth atop a three-way tie on 42 points and have a visit to Colorado and a home fixture against SKC remaining. Substantially complicating things for RSL, however, is that Jefferson Savorino (the Claret-and-Cobalt’s best player over the course of the last month) suffered a serious-looking non-contact injury in their draw against the LA Galaxy on Saturday.
  • The San Jose Earthquakes jumped into a tie with RSL on Saturday by virtue of their win over the Timbers. The Quakes go to Vancouver before finishing with Minnesota United at home, which strongly suggests the Quakes will finish with 45 points. In other words, they’re the “If nobody else wants it, we’ll take it” team in this pack. Still, I don’t think anybody would be terribly afraid of a visiting San Jose team in the elimination round.
  • Finally, FC Dallas pulled out of their tailspin midweek by beating lowly Colorado at home before going to Orlando and earning a draw on the weekend. On paper FC Dallas is a legitimate contender if they can regain their early-season form, but a home win over Colorado and away draw to Orlando is hardly compelling evidence of that. The Burn visit Colorado and Seattle before concluding with the Galaxy at home.