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Timber Cruise: Portland Timbers 4, Houston Dynamo 2

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers have nine points from three games to start 2017. By comparison, the Timbers didn’t notch their ninth point until April 27th in 2016, April 19th in 2015, May 11th in 2014, and April 14th in 2013.

Safe to say, therefore, that the Timbers feel pretty good about where they stand on March 18th this year.

Now, there’s no trophy for topping the table on March 18th. But the way the Timbers have thrived early on has been impressive, especially considering they’ve played two of their three games without two key backline pieces and with a starting centerback signing still outstanding.

So even if they have a long way yet to go, there is very good reason to be bullish about the Timbers in 2017.

Deep Cuts

It’s not every day that a high schooler’s absence from the lineup causes legitimate tactical concerns for a professional soccer team, but the Timbers’ lineup came with a bit of a surprise: Zarek Valentin starting at left back in place of Vytas and, unexpectedly, Marco Farfan who missed Saturday’s game with the flu.

Valentin’s last-minute fill-in at left back created a problem for the Timbers. As a right-footed left back, Valentin naturally struggles to provide width on the left. Paired with Darlington Nagbe’s natural tendency to come inside, the Timbers ran a real risk of becoming imbalanced in the attack.

And, as the Timbers’ first-half distribution chart shows, that’s exactly what happened.

If the predictable flaw was predictable, though, what happened next was unexpected: They fixed it.

After halftime, the Timbers did three major things that provided balance in the attack. First, they pushed Zarek Valentin farther forward to at least provide a combination partner near the touchline. And — again, unexpectedly — he did that and more, becoming a legitimate threat from wide areas as well as a faithful partner for Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri.

Second, after halftime the Timbers’ pushed Nagbe a little bit higher and locked him into the left channel.

And finally, third, they shaded Diego Valeri ever so slightly toward the left side of the field, especially in and around the box.

The result was that (as the second-half distribution chart shows) the Timbers restored balance after halftime, which carried with it multiple positive effects.

First, it gave the Timbers greater ability work the ball from side to side and look for an opening. Second, it spread the Dynamo defense and let the Timbers rip Houston open in the central areas in which Wilmer Cabrera’s team is weakest.

Finally — and this isn’t to be overlooked — it gave the Timbers the ability to be more patient in the attack, which limited the number of times the Timbers turned the ball over in positions in which they were susceptible to Houston’s counterattack.

In the first half, the Timbers were a little (maybe a lot) too happy to settle for crosses from the right wing. This was driven largely by the Timbers’ lack of width on the left playing into the narrow-defending Dynamo’s hands. But for Portland there simply wasn’t much else on.

With Alvas Powell pushed very, very high, the Timbers repeatedly turned the ball over with Powell committed well into the final third. When that happened, the Dynamo were extremely direct and feasted on the counterattack.

The best example of that? The Dynamo’s second goal. Watch, in particular, for where Powell is relative to Romell Quioto when the ball turns over.

The greater balance in the second half, however, meant Powell could be more selective with his forays into the final third and the Timbers could pick and choose their attacking spots a bit more. Thus, Houston had a harder time turning the Timbers over when Portland was out of balance and, as a result, didn’t have nearly as much success playing on the counter.

All of this is a long way of saying balance is important, and for a lot of reasons. In the first half the Timbers didn’t have it and, as a result, they weren’t especially dangerous and the Dynamo were loose on the break. In the second half the Timbers had balance, and, for that reason, they were dominant on both sides of the ball.

Spotlight on...

Roy Miller.

And, for starters, on the pass that starts this sequence.

In live action I thought this was a happy accident, but on a re-watch I think Miller knew exactly what he was doing. And it was very good.

Now let’s step back a bit. After a solid debut in Los Angeles a week ago, Miller backed up his narrative-deflating debut with a second strong effort. Although he was (questionably) whistled for the foul that led to the free kick that led to the handball that led to Houston’s first goal, Miller hardly put a foot wrong on Sunday.

And where he put his feet was particularly important, as Miller was very sharp in stepping up to disrupt Dynamo counterattacks. Look at where Miller’s game-high seven interceptions came on Saturday:

A centerback’s ability to step up to break up counterattacks is an especially important quality for the Timbers, whose front-foot approach to games (especially at home) can leave space in behind. He was excellent in that respect on Saturday, and even when the backline had some shaky moments in the first half, those typically had little to do with Miller.

Stat of the Game

One: The number of shots that the Dynamo had after halftime. After counterattacking relentlessly to the tune of 11 first-half shots, the Dynamo had only one in the second half. This, as much as any number, reflects just how effective the Timbers were at stifling a Dynamo counter that, until that point, no team had been able to control.

Finishing Bullets

  • Both of Allen Chapman’s called penalty kicks on Saturday night were absurd, which seems to be par for the course for a referee who had two retroactive red cards (de Jong and Piatti) issued after Timbers games in 2016. With respect to the Timbers’ penalty, the only way DeMarcus Beasley could avoid that handball would have been amputation of his right arm. And the Dynamo’s penalty was given because Diego Chara had the audacity to protect his face and head during a free kick in a way that did not make himself bigger in any way material to the trajectory of the ball. Blown calls happen, and even to good referees. But with Chapman — at least in games he calls that involve the Timbers — they seem to be happening with regularity. Although it evened out in the end on Saturday night, this is the type of unthinking refereeing that MLS should take very seriously.
  • Valentin deserves a good bit of credit for his second-half performance on Saturday. He was more than a bit haggard before halftime, but he admirably fulfilled a role in the second half that, as a right-footed player, really didn’t suit him. Valentin had a rough preseason, and still likely sits fourth on the Timbers’ left-back depth chart (behind Vytas, Farfan, and Miller), but his performance in the second half on Saturday was of the type that the Timbers will need from their depth.
  • Although it makes sense from a statistical perspective because Deric got a hand to the ball before Guzman applied his finishing touch, it’s a crime that Darlington Nagbe didn’t get an assist for this ball that set up the Timbers’ third goal.

UPDATE: There’s hope yet for Nagbe, as the Timbers have petitioned to have him awarded an assist on Guzman’s goal.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Justice (or at least fun) prevails. Nagbe’s been credited with an assist.