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Timber Cruise: Columbus Crew 3, Portland Timbers 2

MLS: Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

34-0-0 is officially out of the question.

The Portland Timbers dropped their first result of 2017 in an occasionally wild and occasionally disjointed game in Columbus.

Missing Darlington Nagbe, David Guzman, Liam Ridgewell, and Vytas, the Timbers went into Columbus shorthanded. Given the absences, a result in Columbus would’ve been a major feather in the cap for a Timbers team that has started the season as hot as any team in MLS.

And for a time, it appeared as though the Timbers could come out of MAPFRE Stadium with three points. But a mediocre second half and some sloppy defending ultimately sent the Timbers to their first loss of 2017.

Deep Cuts

A look at the top-line stats from Saturday’s game in Columbus reveal some un-Timbers-like numbers from Caleb Porter’s side: 35.6% possession, 317 total passes, and 74% pass-completion percentage.

That’s ugly stuff, especially for a team that’s demonstrated the ability to exert considerable control over games.

But sometimes there’s a reason for it beyond simply playing poorly, and Saturday was one of those times. With David Guzman (arguably the Timbers’ most effective central-midfield destroyer) and Darlington Nagbe (the best transition and ball-retention player in North America) out of the lineup for the Timbers, the Crew decided to flood the midfield and try to pin the Timbers into their own end.

In short: It worked. For the most part, at least.

With Waylon Francis pushing far forward from a left-back position, Harrison Afful pushing high and inside from a nominal right-back spot, Wil Trapp and Artur holding down the defensive midfield, Federico Higuain with a free role as a 10, Ethan Finlay manning the right wing, and Justin Meram coming inside from the left wing, the Crew threw everything they had into the midfield.

MLS-wide this is pretty extreme overloading of midfield (although it’s only matters of degree greater than you typically see from the Crew at MAPFRE Stadium) that gave the Crew significant numbers advantages and that, in turn, allowed Greg Berhalter’s side not only to keep the ball, but also to immediately press and make it difficult for the Timbers to find outlets to push onto the front foot. When the Timbers could break the Crew flood there were spaces to exploit, but by and large the Timbers had a hard time getting into open areas enough to force the Crew out of their gameplay, especially in the second half.

But here’s the catch: Plug Guzman and Nagbe into the equation and the Crew can’t be nearly as aggressive in overloading the midfield, and, if they had been, the Timbers very likely would have been much more effective in breaking out.

The Crew’s approach on Saturday — although not entirely out of character — was well-suited to take advantage of the Timbers’ international-window-induced weaknesses.

To the Timbers’ credit, throughout the first half they were relatively effective on the break and after the half hour patched their defensive midfield together enough to at least hold their own. And although the Crew had the greater volume of chances, the Timbers — with a Valeri shot clanging off the post, another floating just wide, and Zack Steffen pulling an Adi header out of the top corner — arguably created scoring chances as good as Columbus on the day. But, ultimately, the counterattack sputtered in the second half, and, although the midfield did enough to keep the Crew largely at bay, the consistent pressure began to take its toll on the duct-tape backline.

All of that notwithstanding, though, the result was right there for the Timbers to take in the last ten minutes. They didn’t take it, of course, but that happens sometimes.

Many of the problems that the Timbers had on Saturday, however, aren’t of the sort that are likely to recur regularly once the Timbers have their internationals back from national-team duty. Thus, although it’s disappointing that the Timbers dropped the result, this probably isn’t one to lose sleep over.

Spotlight On...

Jake Gleeson.

And it’s not a terribly flattering one.

As he did on many occasions last season, Gleeson has had a handful of excellent saves for the Timbers this year. His reputation as one of MLS’s best shot-stoppers is well-deserved.

But it’s been a rough start to 2017 season for Gleeson in other respects. After a game at LA Galaxy in which the Timbers’ goalkeeper repeatedly struggled to deal with crosses, Gleeson again had trouble in the non-shot-saving aspects of Saturday’s game.

Most glaringly, Gleeson’s decision to come off his line with Ola Kamara heading away form goal to catch up to Higuain’s chip cost the Timbers a goal.

With Kamara heading toward the corner and both Roy Miller and Lawrence Olum back, the Timbers weren’t in all that bad of shape here. Although Olum and Miller were going to have to keep Kamara from turning toward goal, if Gleeson had stayed at home they should have been able to do so.

Yet, by coming out Gleeson opened the net for Kamara’s not-as-hard-as-it-looks chip.

At 26, Gleeson is still a relatively young goalkeeper, and box-command as well as decisions coming off the line are very much the sorts of things that come with experience. But goalkeeping is about a lot more than shot-saving, and on Saturday that came back to bite Gleeson.

Stat of the Game

2 and 11.

Amobi Okugao’s defensive actions in the first and second halves, respectively. Okugo finding his way into the game as it wore along was one of the most significant developments for the Timbers, who, by and large, kept the Columbus attack pretty well under control after the first half hour or so.

Okugo wasn’t exactly dominant at any point of the game, but in the second half he became a pretty effective partner for Diego Chara, which helped keep the numbers-pushing Crew from overrunning the Timbers’ midfield.

Finishing Bullets

  • Referee Silviu Petrescu was downright bad on Saturday. In addition to giving yellow cards to Diegos Chara and Valeri for plays that weren’t fouls, let alone yellow cards (the latter of which was given with the Timbers on the break in what should have been one of their best chances of the second half), Petrescu missed a very clear handball immediately before Higuain played his vertical chip to set up Ola Kamara for the Crew’s second goal.
  • After earning a modestly surprising start with a good week of training, Dairon Asprilla had some nice moments on the right wing for the Timbers. In a game in which the Timbers were always going to have to be pretty direct, Asprilla was a menace to the Crew backline with his pace and physicality. Although his decision-making on the ball remains glacially slow, Asprilla repeatedly found the Crew’s soft spots on the flanks and, as a result, was one of the Timbers’ most dangerous players in the first half, in particular.
  • Lawrence Olum had by far his worst day as an MLS Timber on Saturday. Although Gleeson put him in an awkward spot by charging out ill-advisedly on Kamara’s goal, both of the Crew’s best chances in the second half came off deep crosses to runners that Olum failed to track. Olum has generally been solid for the Timbers so far this season, but Saturday was a warning that there may yet be some downside there. Although the Timbers’ right-centerback situation is hardly an emergency, it’s clear an upgrade is still necessary.