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Timber Cruise: Portland Timbers 2, Vancouver Whitecaps 1

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MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Points are great. And the Portland Timbers took all three points from their Cascadia showdown with the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday afternoon.

As a result, the Timbers still sit atop the MLS standings and it’s hard to complain too much from the top.

Yet the Timbers’ performance on Saturday against a Whitecaps team that’s been in the midst of a serious road slump left a fair amount to be desired, as Portland’s shorthanded attack struggled to keep control of a game that they led 2-0 at halftime.

Deep Cuts

The cliche that 2-0 is the most dangerous lead in soccer is, of course, hogwash. And that was apparent on Saturday as the Timbers won on the strength of their two first-half goals.

But that isn’t to say the Timbers were in control the entire way. In fact, far from it. And it’s not the first time at home.

After utterly dominating the first half against the New England Revolution, the Timbers took their collective foot off the gas and allowed the Revolution to steal an entirely undeserved point. Even against Minnesota United, the Timbers went into a lull after going up 2-0 and briefly let the Loons back into the game before finally slamming the door on an overmatched opponent.

On Saturday the Timbers jumped on the Whitecaps early by way of a spectacular Darlington Nagbe goal and, despite having moments of sloppy defending in and around the box, did a nice job of breaking down a Vancouver side that was set up specifically not to be broken down.

Like Kansas City the week before, the Whitecaps came out on Saturday effectively playing with three defensive central midfielders — Matias Laba, Tony Tchani, and Andrew Jacobson. The purpose was the same as SKC the week before; the Whitecaps wanted to shut down the middle and disrupt the Timbers’ central-centric buildup.

In the first half, however, the Timbers did a nice job of being opportunistic to catch the Whitecaps in transitional moments and then breaking the ‘Caps’ central-midfield shield apart by working in wide areas on the edge of the final third. With the Whitecaps’ midfield pulled apart, the Timbers found their desired central spaces from which to create. The result?

Good. But even before halftime the Timbers really were more opportunistic than dominant. In light of the Whitecaps’ approach, however, that’s not really a criticism. It’s just what was there, and the Timbers took it. A bit more opportunism last weekend and the Timbers would’ve fared much better.

Still, going into halftime at 2-0 gave the Timbers the opportunity to come out and put their foot on the Whitecaps’ throats in the second half.

But like the New England and Minnesota games before them, the Timbers didn’t. And although they were more or less successful at limiting the Whitecaps to the same sort of half-chances that they found in the first half. It was hardly smooth sailing, however, as the Timbers neither found the third goal that would’ve put the game to bed nor kept the ball enough to take the air out of the Whitecaps’ sails.

Now, it’s easy to overstate this as a problem. The Timbers are atop the Supporters Shield standings (albeit not on points per game) for a reason. But, as the Timbers found against the Revolution, failing to control or put out of reach games that they’re winning is a recipe for dropping points when they otherwise shouldn’t.

And when you have ambitions on competing for the Supporters Shield, those points are really important.

Spotlight on...

Darren Mattocks and Dairon Asprilla.

And, in particular, the chaos that they created on the Whitecaps’ backline in the first half with his relentless pressure.

Although they weren’t always as successful in directly winning the ball as Mattocks was in that clip, the work-rate of Asprilla and Mattocks up top unsettled Vancouver and was the catalyst for many of the Timbers’ best chances in the first half. Look at the number of defensive actions that the Timbers had on the attacking side of midfield in the first half.

Of note, Nagbe’s goal was sparked by Asprilla baiting Christian Bolaños into an interception in the Timbers’ attacking half.

It would be an overstatement to say the loss of Fanendo Adi to suspension and limitation of Sebastian Blanco was a blessing in disguise (Mattocks and Asprilla combined for two shots, after all), but the ability of Asprilla and Mattocks to press the Whitecaps created some chances for the Timbers that would’ve been otherwise hard to come by given Vancouver’s approach.

And when the rest of the attack is having a little bit of a hard time getting going, those chances are very, very valuable.

Stat of the Game

0 — The number of through balls Darlington Nagbe had completed in 2017. Until Saturday, that is.

Although Nagbe isn’t in a position on the left wing in which you would expect him to complete a ton of through balls, he floats centrally and deep enough that you’d expect him to find a handful. But all too often when he is in a spot to pick his head up and look to play a runner through the backline, Nagbe is content to bail out wide to his fullback when he has an overlapping option.

That’s why it was nice to see Nagbe be so decisive here.

Make no mistake: Diego Valeri worked himself into such a good spot there that it would’ve been criminal for Nagbe to choose any other option. But Valeri also wouldn’t have been the first promising runner that Nagbe has missed in his day.

For Nagbe, however, success breeds confidence, and propelled by his spectacular goal on Saturday Nagbe was the best, most creative player on the field throughout the first half. And even in the second half, when the Timbers needed somebody to get their foot on the ball, it was most often Nagbe that answered that call.

Finishing Bullets

  • It was nice to see Diego Valeri up and about after he was taken off on a stretcher on Saturday.
  • Valeri, it appears, injured his hip flexor at some point in the game, and will have an MRI this week. As a result we really don’t yet know the extent of his injury, and won’t until those results come back. But given the scare that Valeri put into the Providence Park crowd when the stretcher came out after he called for a substitute in the second half, the fact that Valeri was in the locker room and on his feet is good news.
  • As much as Nagbe has historically had Matias Laba’s number, Bolaños had Alvas Powell’s on Saturday. This manifested itself in some uncharacteristically sloppy one-v-one defending by the Jamaican right back, including the foul that drew a penalty for the Whitecaps.
  • Both Vytas and Liam Ridgewell seemed to have some rust to shake off in the first half as the Timbers conceded a few more looks in Vancouver’s attacking box than they would’ve liked. That’s understandable given the layoff are coming off, but it certainly could’ve cost the Timbers on another day. Both grew sharper as the game went along on Saturday, and will likely be even another step forward the next time out. But it’s worth noting that neither had a stellar performance in their respective returns.
  • Saturday also showed the limitation of the approach that Vancouver and SKC deployed against the Timbers at home. Although SKC was able to pull it of because of their commitment on the wings and the presence of Benny Feilhaber (who can attacking like a 10 and defend like an 8) in the middle, none of Jacobson, Tchani, or Laba are Feilhaber, particularly in the attack. Lacking any real central creativity (aside from Bolaños popping up centrally once in a while), the Whitecaps largely had to look for half-chances by pumping balls into the box from wide areas. There aren’t very many teams in MLS that have a player like Feilhaber. And given the Timbers’ attacking prowess (which, if Saturday is an indication, doesn’t necessarily require volume chance-creation), I’m not sure settling for a healthy handful of half-chances is really a viable approach for most teams coming into Providence Park.