This year has been a season-long battle with nagging trends. From injuries to a habit of letting off the gas with a one-goal lead to losing results after the 75th minute, the Timbers spent 2017 battling troubling narratives.
And, by and large, the battles with their narratives ultimately went the Timbers’ way. By late-summer, the Timbers stopped dropping results after the 75th minute. In a season-defining 13-game stretch to end the year, Caleb Porter’s team registered four one-goal wins. And although the injury bug never entirely let up, the Timbers found a way to make it work even without key pieces.
But on Sunday it was as though each of those maladies had to come back for one last pound of flesh. Injuries before and during the game forced Caleb Porter to dig deep into his bench to fill out the lineup. Nonetheless, the Timbers rallied to take an early lead only to immediately concede it (on a set piece, no less). Finally, the Timbers let the draw and realistic hope of advancing slip away with another late-game concession.
Sunday was 2017 in a nutshell complete with plenty to be proud of and plenty to rue.
There really isn’t much to say about Sunday’s game from a tactical perspective that is unexpected. All games are game-state-driven. Playoff games are especially game-state-driven.
And Sunday was certainly no exception. At 0-0, both teams needed a goal and, as a result, both teams had to be willing to take some risks. The Timbers certainly did so, holding both defensive midfielders in to be able to bomb on the fullbacks. As a result, in the first half the Timbers basically attacked from the channels and out, and to some effect. Here’s what the Timbers’ distribution chart looked like at halftime.
After they got the first goal, it looked like the game state was going to shift dramatically in the Timbers’ favor. Up a goal, the Timbers could sit back and force the Dynamo to come out and possess, something that Houston does not do comfortably. All the while, the Timbers could look to catch Houston on the break and take advantage of an athletically-overmatched backline in the open field.
But before the Timbers could capitalize, they fumbled away their advantage when the Dynamo equalized on a set piece. And from there the sledding got tough.
No longer needing to come out, the Dynamo could sit comfortably in their blocks of four and look to get their playmakers into the open field. The game state, in short, turned on its head, and in a way that set up well for what Wilmer Cabrera’s counter-happy team likes to do.
Missing Fanendo Adi and Darren Mattocks, and with Sebastian Blanco clearly far from 100%, Caleb Porter had little in the way of bullets to fire at the Dynamo rampart. With numbers sitting in defense, it was all too easy for the Dynamo to key on shutting down Diego Valeri while having plenty left to make life difficult for the rest of the Timbers’ makeshift attack.
It would be an overstatement to say Dylan Remick’s volleyed equalizer ended the Timbers’ season. But given its significance in the game, it wouldn’t be a huge overstatement.
A tricky offseason, or at least a first look at a tricky offseason. There will be plenty of time to dissect each of the Timbers’ likely moves this offseason, but it’s worth taking a 10,000-foot level view of what lies ahead in the offseason.
The first obvious area of concern for the Timbers is centerback, where the Timbers face difficult decisions with Liam Ridgewell and Roy Miller. For obvious reasons, teams are ordinarily loathe to part ways with veteran centerbacks who remain quality on the field, and, detractors be damned, that’s exactly what Ridgewell is. But if your money was on the line, would you place a bet right now that Ridgewell will play more than 17 games next season? In light of this TAM-level contract, that uncertainty alone may be enough to drive the Timbers in a different direction this winter.
It would be easier to hold on to Ridgewell if the Timbers felt confident in their centerback depth, which arguably was the case until Miller’s devastating Achilles injury on Saturday. Even under the best-case scenario Miller won’t be back on the field until late 2018, and the grim reality of 33 year-old players coming off Achilles tendon ruptures suggests even that may be an unrealistically rosy outlook.
Aside from Larrys Mabiala, then, the Timbers don’t really have a sure-thing rotation-quality centerback for 2018 on the roster right now. That means, in short, the Timbers will need to add somewhere between two and three central defenders this offseason, something that will consume a lot of resources.
But that’s not the only position at which the Timbers face difficult decisions. Although an ordinary-course fifth metatarsal injury isn’t a huge cause for longterm concern, Father Time is for Diego Chara who turns 32 next April. Despite playing a position in which he relies on his athleticism to cover immense areas of ground, Chara showed no sign of slowing down in his age-31 season. Nonetheless, it’s clear we’re into the sniff-the-milk-carton stage with one of the most important players of the Timbers’ MLS experience. Can they do something this offseason to set up that succession plan? After the central defense overhaul, this may be the most important bit for the Timbers to address this winter.
But how about right back, where 2017 was a constant push-pull between the relatively low-ceiling, high-consistency Zarek Valentin and the high-ceiling, low-consistency Alvas Powell? Both come at relatively affordable salary numbers, so the Timbers could seize the value and bet that at least one of them will be playing well at any given time. That said, there also isn’t any field position that the Timbers could so obviously upgrade. Is it worth the acquisition cost of any surefire upgrade?
The same could also be said for goalkeeper, where the Timbers have two players in Jake Gleeson and Jeff Attinella who present value, but aren’t sure bets to be MLS-average starting goalkeepers. Given the amount needed to acquire that surefire upgrade (which would likely implicate a combined acquisition cost and salary over $500,000), does it make sense to do so?
Gavin Wilkinson, Caleb Porter, and company had perhaps their best offseason last year turning a flawed roster into a team that won the West and, but for a tsunami of playoff-time injuries, looked poised to make a run to MLS Cup. After getting so much right last offseason, you’d expect this winter to perhaps be a bit more routine. But with a centerback overhaul and multiple short- and medium-term questions across the roster, it’s clear this winter will be far from straightforward.
Stat of the Game
27 — The number of crosses the Timbers whipped in against the Dynamo. For a team that isn’t ordinarily cross-heavy, that’s a ton, and it shows just how direct the Timbers had to become as the game went along.
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- The Timbers did one thing absolutely right on Sunday: They pulled Darren Mattocks from the game with a suspected concussion when the medical staff realized he may have a concussion. Rather than throw Mattocks back on the field and sort it out at halftime (as far too many teams do), the Timbers pulled him in place of Jeremy Ebobisse. In light of Mattocks’s solid form and Ebobisse’s inexperience, that was a significant loss for the Timbers in an extremely high-leverage spot. But it was also the responsible thing to do for Mattocks’s safety.
- Still, it’s unfortunate the game puts teams in the position that the Timbers faced on Sunday. Unlike many other injuries, a meaningful initial neurological exam for a suspected concussion takes time, often in the ballpark of 5-10 minutes. Given the nature of the injury and the compelling safety concerns implicated in putting a concussed player back on the field, it’s a no-brainer to permit teams a free 10-minute temporary substitution to allow that examination to take place. If, after the examination, medical staff determine the player is safe to continue, the injured player can return in place of his temporary replacement and the game can continue without the team burning a substitution. If, on the other hand, the injured player is unable to continue, the substitution becomes permanent and the team burns one of their three switches.
- MLS has considered such a rule change in the past, and there has been no indication that its not still considering it. Count this among the changes on which I would very much like to see MLS take the lead among the international soccer community.