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Timber Cruise: Portland Timbers 2, Vancouver Whitecaps 1

MLS: Portland Timbers vs Minnesota United FC Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Caleb Porter tried on Wednesday night. He tried hard.

For eight-and-a-half minutes of his ten-minute press conference Porter qualified every bit of praise. He found every nit that there was to pick. He insisted that he still wanted more out of his team — more fitness, more goalscoring, more sharpness on the ball, more defensive discipline.

But at last he gave in.

Three-and-a-half weeks in, we look pretty damn good. We look pretty damn good. We look as good as we’ve ever looked. You know, and so that’s exciting.

Now, the lapse wasn’t permanent. Porter quickly followed up his momentary flirtation with excitement with a “but,” but his act was up. Caleb Porter is excited about the 2017 Timbers.

And it’s time that you are, too.

It was impressive stuff on Wednesday night, especially in the first half. The Timbers pressed the Whitecaps when Portland lost the ball, built spider webs around a helpless Vancouver midfield, and broke Carl Robinson’s team wide open in the box.

When playing with 11 men in this week’s tournament, the Timbers bludgeoned their opponents. Plain and simple.

Which isn’t to say Porter’s qualifications, nits, and criticisms aren’t valid. They are. The Timbers will need to be better than they were on Wednesday if they want to fulfill their potential this season. For every bit of excitement there is in the attack, there is a question in defense. And although the Timbers look like they could be a handful at Providence Park — as good attacking teams tend to be — questions about their ability to deliver on the road linger from 2016.

But it’s becoming clear the ceiling on the Timbers’ potential in 2017 might be pretty high. And so even if the focus needs to remain on the qualifications, nits, and criticisms, it’s okay — like Porter — to let yourself think about what could be for this Timbers team in 2017.

Spotlight on...

The fullbacks.

Have you noticed anything peculiar about the Timbers’ last three goals? Like, how maybe they were pretty similar?

There was a lot of excitement on Sunday evening when Sebastian Blanco freed up Alvas Powell on the byline, who found Fanendo Adi for the tying goal late in the game against Minnesota United.

Flip the field on Wednesday, and the Timbers put in a nearly mirror-image goal on the end of a 15-pass sequence as Vytas took a feed from Darlington Nagbe and found Diego Valeri in the box for a nice headed finish.

And then just two minutes later — as if the Whitecaps challenged the Timbers to prove they could do it again — Portland broke down Vancouver in the same way.

Three goals: Winger to fullback to the target in the box. Rinse. Repeat.

The question arose frequently over the winter during the Timbers’ pursuit of Blanco: With two wingers who like to float into the middle, where is the width going to come from?

I think you have your answer.

The design in the Timbers’ attack is relatively simple: With Adi, the Timbers have a nine who can create imbalance and occupy both centerbacks. In Valeri, the Timbers have a ten who can score like a second forward, but can also create as well as any playmaker in MLS with the freedom to fill holes in the defense wherever they pop up. In Nagbe and Blanco the Timbers have two wingers who can run at fullbacks and force defensive-midfield rotations. And in both Vytas and Powell the Timbers have fullbacks who are willing to take the space in the final third that the wingers create and feed the ball into the box.

In addition, because the Timbers now have a defensive-midfield pairing that has demonstrated an uncanny relationship just three weeks into their partnership, Caleb Porter can feel comfortable pushing his outside backs in the final stage of the attack without creating an undue risk of defensive imbalance.

If the Timbers didn’t have those fullbacks, they would run exactly the risk that many feared this offseason: Portland would become too narrow and the Timbers would get stuck in a quagmire. But if Vytas and Powell are producing like they have in their last two outings, the Timbers’ opponents will face an impossible choice: Shut down the middle and let the fullbacks run free, or close down wide areas and open spaces for Nagbe, Valeri, Blanco, and Adi.

Neither Minnesota United nor Vancouver have cared much for either option.

Stat of the Game

2 — The number of shots that the Whitecaps registered on Wednesday. Yes, this is a repeat of the Stat of the Game against Real Salt Lake, but that’s kind of the point. Yes, there are questions about the sturdiness of the Timbers’ backline. But through three games of the Preseason Tournament for the starting unit, opponents have had trouble even getting after the backline, much less exploiting it. With the Timbers attack being as potent as it has been to date, opponents have had a hard time finding themselves in position to throw enough numbers into the attack to try to exploit the Timbers’ underbelly. Although it very much remains to be seen whether this will work as well on the road, through the Preseason Tournament the Timbers attack effectively kept the pressure off the backline.

Finishing Bullets

  • Of the three goals that the Timbers first(ish) team has conceded, two have come off direct free kicks. This is sort of a good news, bad news situation. It’s good news because it’s likely a bit flukey; the Timbers haven’t conceded an extraordinary number of free kicks in dangerous spots, but they’ve been punished at an unsustainable rate when they have. Still, the spots in which Diego Chara and Rennico Clarke have given away free kicks have been bad, something the Timbers will undoubtedly want to clean up before the regular season.
  • Although he wasn’t as dominant as he was at times on Sunday, it’s notable that Victor Arboleda got 30 minutes of run against the Whitecaps. Dairon Asprilla had himself a solid outing, but whereas the rest of the starters (other than Adi and Ridgewell who planned to play only 60 minutes) went deeper into the game, Porter elected to put Arboleda on the field for a good half hour of run with many of the starters. I think it’s still premature to predict that Arboleda has overtaken Asprilla to be the second winger off the bench (after Mattocks), but it’s clear the Colombians are very much in an ongoing battle for playing time in that role.
  • The Portland Timbers are Preseason Tournament champions!