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Timber Cruise: Portland Timbers 2, Vancouver Whitecaps 1

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MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

This piece started at the beginning of the season as a forest-level survey of each game. Occasionally zooming in to spotlight a player here or a stat there, the idea was to provide a comprehensive look at the Timbers’ most recent performance.

Now stepping back to the season-wide level, that job gets pretty easy:

After 34 games, there’s just no arguing with that. No talk of games in hand or strength of schedule. The Timbers won the West.

And they won it in a season that was complicated throughout by injuries and absences. Whether it was Liam Ridgewell missing 20 games, Fanendo Adi missing 12, David Guzman missing 9, or Darlington Nagbe missing 8, the Timbers have been in a state of constant flux with Caleb Porter being called on week-in and week-out to find a new way to duct tape the ship together.

It didn’t always work. There were some rough losses spread throughout. 3-0 at San Jose. 4-1 at Montreal and Toronto. 4-1 to Real Salt Lake.

But Porter and the Timbers also found a way to get it done enough to stay in the race. There were draws at Sporting Kansas City (back when they were good) and Houston, and a sea-changing win at Vancouver that kept the Timbers in the hunt.

Consider the starting lineup that day in Vancouver: Jake Gleeson; Roy Miller, Lawrence Olum, Larrys Mabiala, Zarek Valentin; Ben Zemanski, Diego Chara, Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri, Dairon Asprilla; and Jeremy Ebobisse. At first glance, that may look like a relatively reasonable eleven for the Timbers. That, however, is only because you’re so inured to seeing makeshift lineups. Even counting Gleeson, that’s only five regular starters with a fifth-choice defensive midfielder and a 20-year-old striker making his first MLS start.

Since that game, with somewhat better — albeit still suboptimal — health, the Timbers are 8-3-2, have a 1.15 goals-against average, and have rocketed from a dance with the red line to their second regular-season conference title in five years.

Yes, the West has been down this year. Yes, the Timbers had the good fortune of their Western Conference rivals dropping points. But all things considered, the Timbers sticking it out to take the West in spite of all the adversity that they faced is as impressive as anything this club has done in the regular season.

Now onto the playoffs.

Deep Cuts

Soccer games are 90-plus minutes long, but they’re usually won or lost in a much shorter stretch of play.

Everything about this game set up to be dictated by the first goal. The Whitecaps came to Portland to sit back, absorb, and look to hit the Timbers on the counter and in set pieces. They packed numbers in the box and, early on, made things very difficult for the Timbers in the final third.

It looked, therefore, like whichever team got the first goal would control how the game went from there. If it was the Timbers, the Whitecaps would have to come out of their shell and expose their backline. If it was the Whitecaps, however, Carl Robinson’s team could park the bus, pull the e-brake, and shoot out the tires while hanging on for a win or draw.

So it was a dark moment for the Timbers when Larrys Mabiala lost track of Kendall Waston on a set piece and Vancouver’s captain put the visitors ahead in the 29th minute.

That feeling, however, didn’t last, as the Timbers responded with 20 of the best minutes they’ve played all year. It started, of course, with Liam Ridgewell’s equalizer just three minutes after Waston opened the scoring. It didn’t end there by any means.

Between Waston’s goal and Darren Mattocks’s ultimate winner just after halftime, the Timbers squeezed off nine shots to the Whitecaps’ zero. Portland attempted 139 passes to Vancouver’s 57. And when the Timbers had the ball in their own half, they basically set up shop around Vancouver’s box.

The Whitecaps, on the other hand, well... just look at their distribution chart.

The goal that was the cherry on top of this period represented the Timbers’ dominance and ability to tie the packed-in Whitecaps in knots.

After conceding the disappointing opener, the Timbers stepped on the gas and left the Whitecaps in the dust. In doing so, they flipped the script on a game that was poised to become an uphill battle after an early concession. It wasn’t a full 90-minute performance, but dominating the 20 minutes on either side of halftime was enough to seal the win, the conference, and the Cascadia Cup.

Spotlight on...

Darlington Nagbe, and a pretty vivid demonstration of his Jekyll and Hyde nature.

Lined up in his preferred spot on the left wing, Nagbe spent much of Sunday playing conservatively and bailing out wide to Vytas.

This is the Nagbe dilemma; despite possessing every imaginable tool to shred a defense either off the dribble or by setting up a teammate, Nagbe very often chooses the safe route by using his fullback rather than striking fear into the hearts of backlines. 54 out of 56 passing is impressive, but, when playing as an attacking midfielder, is a pretty damning sign of a lack of incisiveness.

It was, for lack of a better term, a very Nagbe performance.

Except when it wasn’t. Nagbe, of course, hit the strike that led to Liam Ridgewell’s equalizer. And more important, he was a huge part of the buildup to the winner.

Let’s wing back the Timbers’ second goal just a bit further:

Instead of sitting in the channel and looking for Vytas to provide an overlap, Nagbe plays back central to David Guzman and then runs straight into the newly-formed soft spot in the middle of the Whitecaps’ defense. After he gets the (very nice) return ball from Guzman, Nagbe then drives straight at the gut of the Whitecaps, collapsing both the defensive midfield and backline. Once that happens, it’s only a matter of Sebastian Blanco finding a way to play through to Vytas and the Timbers are in business.

That defense-collapsing run from Nagbe though? We see it once or twice per game. We should see it eight or ten times.

Stat of the Game

9-0. We referenced it before, but it’s the staggering shot disparity in the deciding 20-minute stretch of Sunday’s game.

Man of the Match

Vote!

Poll

Who was your Man of the Match against Vancouver?

This poll is closed

  • 34%
    Sebastian Blanco
    (159 votes)
  • 7%
    Diego Chara
    (35 votes)
  • 1%
    David Guzman
    (6 votes)
  • 12%
    Darren Mattocks
    (57 votes)
  • 3%
    Darlington Nagbe
    (17 votes)
  • 33%
    Liam Ridgewell
    (154 votes)
  • 3%
    Vytas
    (16 votes)
  • 3%
    Other
    (15 votes)
459 votes total Vote Now

Finishing Bullets

  • Alvas Powell backed up his excellent performance against D.C. United with a solid one against the Whitecaps. Although he wasn’t the attacking terror he was the week before, Powell put in the type of shift that Caleb Porter needs to see from him on a regular basis — reliable and disruptive defensively, with dangerous moments in the attack. He hasn’t, of course, put in those shifts consistently this year which complicates Caleb Porter’s decision-making about Powell going forward notwithstanding the right back’s strong showings in the past two games.
  • Playoff scheduling is never straightforward, and that’s especially the case this year with a lot of playoff games scheduled midweek. But it looks like the Timbers will play their first leg of the conference semifinal on Halloween and the second leg on 11/5.
  • This is sort of a chain reaction that started when the Sounders had to take the 11/2 second leg because of an 11/5 conflict with the Seahawks. Because Seattle has to play on 11/2 for the second leg, they have to play their first leg on 10/29, or else they’ll be playing with only two days’ rest in the second leg. It’s highly unlikely MLS will force them to do so. But it also absolutely accrues to Seattle’s benefit. Seattle’s conference semi opponent will be coming off a game on either 10/25 or 10/26. The Timbers’ opponent will also have a game on either 10/25 or 10/26, but will have the luxury of waiting until 10/31 to face the Timbers.
  • This is pretty frustrating for the Timbers. Despite winning the Western Conference and earning the most favorable playoff matchup, the second-place team will have a more beneficial schedule simply because the Sounders don’t control their stadium. The simple reality is an opponent playing on short rest is the primary benefit of earning a first-round bye and, in particular, the top seed. But in this case, the second seed will enjoy the full benefit of a tired conference semifinal opponent while the top seed will play an opponent that will be on close to a full week’s rest.
  • So, yay, the Timbers earned the top seed in the Western Conference. Their reward is they get no CONCACAF Champions League berth and a less-favorable playoff schedule. This scheduling matter hasn’t yet been finalized, but it certainly appears to be an eventuality unless the league office comes to its senses and decides winning the conference should mean something.