Sunday evening went perfectly for the Portland Timbers.
Not only did the Timbers blitz D.C. United, but both Sporting Kansas City and the Vancouver Whitecaps dropped points at home against lesser teams. As a result, the Timbers currently sit second in the West and control their own destiny to the top with a win over the Whitecaps on the season’s final day.
What looked in midseason like a fight simply to qualify for the playoffs has turned into the Timbers having the power to win the conference in the last week of the season.
It’s a distant memory after the Timbers blew the game open in the second half, but D.C. United had Portland pretty well bottled up in the first half. But for a late penalty drawn by the active pressing of Darren Mattocks, the Timbers would’ve gone into the locker room 0-0 after a surprisingly sleepy first-half performance.
So what changed? Well, not a ton.
There was nothing fundamentally different in the Timbers’ shape in the second half. As they did in the first half, the Timbers pushed Alvas Powell and Vytas high, tucked their wingers into the channels (although, as Caleb Porter said postgame, they did a more effective job of it in the second half by keeping a wider starting point in the middle third), and moved Diego Valeri all over the field to create localized overloads.
This is the Timbers’ 4-2-3-1 orthodoxy.
But their approach in the final third changed dramatically. Whereas in the first half, the Timbers settled all too often for overlapping runs and crosses from wide areas, in the second half they were more patient in the buildup.
The result was the half-chances that never ripened in the first half became full-chances in the second half. What started as hopeful crosses turned into combination play at the edge of the final third and, when the defense was sufficiently pried open, shots off the dribble. Like this:
The credit for this, however, doesn’t go to Valeri or Sebastian Blanco for their brilliance. Really, it goes in large part to Mattocks for earning the penalty out of nothing that let the Timbers open the scoring and forced D.C. United to come out of their deep block. Goals change games, and when Mattocks created one out of nowhere on Sunday, he blew a gaping hole in United’s gameplan. Look at where D.C. United defended in the first half at 0-0 and where they defended (or, you know, didn’t) in the second half after they went down.
Mattocks’s weaknesses are obvious, and there have been times over the last few months when the Timbers have lost points as a result of them. But he’s also found meaningful moments to pop up and make a difference, and by earning a penalty solely on account of his workrate, Mattocks opened up Sunday’s game for the likes of Valeri and Blanco. On Sunday night, that’s what turned a tight first half into a laugher.
Alvas Powell, and his return to the Timbers lineup.
Powell was one of the Timbers’ few bright spots in an otherwise mediocre performance at San Jose two weeks ago, which probably should have been enough to raise antennae as to whether he could be in line for a start against D.C. United. It didn’t, though, which is why his selection nonetheless came as a surprise when the Timbers released their lineup on Sunday afternoon.
Here’s how he responded:
Well, more to the point, Powell was increasingly a threat down the Timbers’ right side as the game went along, and by the second half was an absolute menace to Ben Olsen’s side. On the defensive end, Powell was more than up to the challenge of United leaning his way, as Zoltan Stieber and Luciano Acosta — both of whom targeted Powell — had plenty of the ball, but created little in the way of danger (like, zero combined chances created).
Simply put, on Sunday, Powell was the player that the Timbers have been imploring him to become for the last three years. Why Powell can look like he did on Sunday while remaining maddeningly prone to facepalm-quality defending is a mystery and one that may ultimately end his time in Portland.
The point remains, though, that if Powell can turn this performance into a longer run of form, he could give the Timbers a huge shot in the arm down the stretch. But you’ve heard that one before.
Stat of the Game
It’s obviously this:
Valeri gets the assist in the MatchCenter, and I don’t see a reason he wouldn’t. Just the 2nd MLS player with 20/10 in a season. #RCTID— Chris Rifer (@ChrisRifer) October 16, 2017
He’s now up to 21 and 11 for the season, which is good. Or, as Caleb Porter put it, “Valeri ... I mean ... you know, I’m not even going to talk about him because there’s nothing to talk about. He should be the MVP.”
Man of the Match Poll
Who was your Man of the Match against D.C. United?
This poll is closed
- Mattocks’s difference-making on Sunday (and over the past two-plus months) doesn’t answer the questions about whether Caleb Porter should have leaned more heavily on Jeremy Ebobisse in Fanendo Adi’s absence, a conversation in which Ebobisse had his own part to say on Sunday. The case for Ebobisse has never been about whether he’s better than, or even as good as, Mattocks right now (a point I think is arguable), but rather it’s about getting Ebobisse the minutes he needs to develop. Consider this: Ebobisse has only played 314 minutes for the Timbers, which is 19th on the team and leads only Jack Barmby, Victor Arboleda, Chance Myers, and Harold Hansen. Despite extremely limited playing time, Ebobisse has registered a goal and three assists, the latter of which is good enough to be in a six-way tie for sixth on the team.
- Ebobisse has shown unequivocally over the course of his sparse playing time that he is capable of competing on an MLS field, and, given an opportunity, he could turn into a major contributor for the Timbers. 314 minutes, however, isn’t even close to being enough for Ebobisse to develop into the player that it certainly appears he can be. And Ebobisse’s strong substitute performance on Sunday night is only the latest evidence of what the Timbers’ top 2017 draft pick can be. Here’s his latest assist:
- Aside from Ebobisse’s clean tackle and dish to Blanco, though, this play brings up another important issue: How to referee this situation fairly and safely. Although Ebobisse’s challenge was clean, it is clear from the replay that Steve Birnbaum was knocked unconscious in the collision. Getting Birnbaum immediate medical treatment in that situation is, of course, essential. And given the circumstances of the game with the Timbers up 3-0 late in the second half, I doubt anybody would have felt terribly aggrieved if referee Mark Geiger had stopped the game immediately.
- But imagine for a moment that the game was tied, and Ebobisse — after, remember, a clean challenge — played to Blanco for what could’ve been the deciding goal. How should a referee handle that situation? Should the referee nonetheless stop play to bring medical personnel onto the field even though doing so would end a fairly-won, immediate, and clear goalscoring opportunity? Should the referee let the play continue and wait for it to conclude before waiving the trainer on?
- Many around the country were quick to criticize Geiger, which, considering the game was well out of hand at that point, is probably fair. But it’s easy to see this situation arising in a competitive game, which puts the referee in a very difficult position. This is something that MLS needs to think hard about and to make public their guidance for referees, because the only way players, coaches, and fans won’t feel aggrieved is if they’re aware of the proper course of action ahead of time.