The Portland Timbers are back to their winning ways.
After two consecutive games in which the Timbers dropped points in the final ten minutes, Caleb Porter’s side made sure that wasn’t going to happen again. Up a goal heading into the final minutes, Darren Mattocks drew a penalty and Fanendo Adi broke the club record for all-time goals-scored with the resulting finish.
That is, in short, what the Timbers were missing last weekend against New England Revolution. In Philadelphia on Saturday Darren Mattocks didn’t give up on a ball thumped forward. That, ultimately, was the difference.
Which isn’t to say the Timbers were manifestly better late in the game on Saturday than last weekend; in fact, just the opposite, it’s to say plays like that are the difference between a comfortable two-goal win and an at least equally dominant, but otherwise disappointing draw.
Which raises another important point: Given the narrowness of the margin between the Timbers’ failure last Sunday and their success on Saturday, it’s important to keep in mind that the problems we see after a disappointment often aren’t as fundamental as they seem in the moment and, likewise, the successes we see after a win often aren’t as profound as they appear at the time.
It’s a long season. And in soccer — perhaps more than any other sport — the margin between a win, a loss, or a draw can be extremely slim. But after six games the Timbers sit on 13 points.
That’s pretty darn good no matter how you slice it.
We talked a lot last week about the Timbers’ repeated failure against the Revolution to get more than one player into the box to provide targets at the end of their attacking sequences. A lot of this discussion fell deservedly on the shoulders of Darlington Nagbe, who often failed to find a way to get involved in promising attacks that came down the right side opposite his position on the left wing.
For the first half hour against the Union on Saturday, the problem was even worse: Nagbe a total non-factor in the final third. Here are Nagbe’s attacking actions (passes, take-ons, and shots) in the first half hour.
That first 30 minutes was a borderline disaster for the Timbers. They were sloppy across the board, including players who are normally very tidy (looking at you, David). There were gaps in the defense and midfield where normally none exist. They were punchless in the attack. And, at the end of the first half hour, the Timbers were only down one goal thanks to some pretty nifty work from Jake Gleeson.
What happened? Nagbe happened.
Nagbe get much more involved in the attack after the half hour (obviously including his goal that sparked that turn of events), and, although Darlington wasn’t necessarily pulling the strings with the final pass, his arrival into the attack opened up some other options.
Look at Diego Valeri’s attacking output in those same time periods.
Although Valeri was the Timbers’ most dangerous player during the first half hour and found a couple good attacking spots, nothing was especially dangerous (note, for example, the lack of any chances created (yellow arrows)). After Nagbe’s awakening, however, Valeri was a playmaking menace.
Now look at Fanendo Adi’s attacking actions during those time periods.
The Timbers’ big number-nine went from lost in space in the first half hour to, like Valeri, a nightmare for the Union in the last hour of the game on Saturday. In that respect, though, both Adi and Valeri were standing on Nagbe’s shoulders. Neither would have become nearly as dangerous in and around the box if Nagbe wasn’t doing the heavy lifting to put the team in those positions.
Why Nagbe can go from “sort of helpful in transition, but otherwise useless” to “unstoppable attacking facilitator” seemingly at the flip of a switch remains one of the great mysteries of our time. Whoever can get him to always be the latter will pull the veritable sword out of the stone for both club and country.
But the switch did flip for Nagbe on Saturday, and that turned what looked to be a tough row for the Timbers to hoe into a clear and satisfying victory.
Or, in particular, Alvas Effing Powell. Here’s why the extra emphasis:
That is dominant, bulldog-style defending in which Powell does the work of multiple players in the span of just a few seconds. Loop that sequence from Powell over and over. He timely recovers from backside box defending to force Pontius to put the ball wide to the overlapping Fabinho. He then then rotates to Fabinho so quickly that he blocks the resulting cross. Then Powell presses Pontius again to deny a re-entry ball and, ultimately, to win a throw.
As has been (and continues to be) thoroughly discussed, Powell’s attacking production is fickle. That fact dominates much of the conversation about the still-young Jamaican right back. But there’s also this: He’s one of the best defensive right backs in MLS. Full stop.
Time and time again on Saturday the Union tried to play through Pontius and Fabinho on Powell’s side. What did they have to show for it? Ten open-play crosses hit, and one completed (a deep Fabinho cross that happened when Powell was correctly rotated onto the higher-positioned Pontius). The majority didn’t make it past the first man which, more often than not, was Powell.
Attacking inconsistency notwithstanding, then, Powell put in a performance on Saturday that is well worth adding a censored expletive middle name for emphasis.
Stat of the Game
46 — The club-record number of goals Fanendo Adi has scored as a Timber. But that was obvious, though, wasn’t it?
Obvious selection for Stat of the Game as it may be, it’s nonetheless very much worthy of reflection.
Adi has caught his share of flak during his time in Portland. And some of it has been deserved: From a couple extended droughts during which his work-rate dropped at times; to a high-drama, but ultimately substance-free transfer demand; to a missed team flight on the way to an away game against a rival, Adi hasn’t been above reproach during his time in Portland.
Something else he’s been: One of the best players in club history. Look at the names behind him on the club’s all-time scoring list. John Bain, one of the true legends of U.S. soccer in the NASL and tumultuous post-NASL period. Diego Valeri, a man who requires no introduction here. And Clyde Best, who played 218 games and scored 58 total goals for West Ham before starring for both the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Timbers in NASL.
But Adi’s 46 goals in 96 regular-season league games-played for the Timbers now stand alone in club history, as it should.
- Another week, another rock solid performance from Marco Farfan. He’s done it at Stub Hub Center. He’s done it in Providence Park. Now he’s done it on a cross-country road trip to Philadelphia. And perhaps most intriguingly, he did it on Saturday with Vytas available and on the bench. Whether he keeps that spot full-time over Vytas still remains to be seen, but if he does and keeps putting in performances like we’ve seen consistently over the last several weeks, he’s going to be a major Rookie of the Year . . . well, snub, probably. First impressions die hard, and perhaps none harder than the Timbers’ stumble out of the blocks in youth development. But with Powell thriving (with nobody outside the Rose City seeming to notice) and Farfan performing as well as any rookie in MLS thus far, the Timbers’ development weakness is not really looking like a weakness anymore.
- Speaking of adjusting first impressions, after the game on Saturday Roy Miller got some pretty high praise from Caleb Porter (big thanks, by the way, to Philly.com’s Jonathan Tannenwald for sending postgame audio).
Like I’ve told people, that wasn’t the sexiest signing for a lot of people. We thought, listen, this guy’s going to be a great centerback for us. We thought he’d be a cover guy, but Ridgewell has been out for the last five games — our best defender and our captain.
And that’s why we signed him: To be able to step in. He’s left-footed, he knows the league, he knows English, he knows Guzman, you know, he knows every stadium. Those are really important things, especially in your reserves.
There’s a lot of times your reserves aren’t experienced, so he’s been a great signing. In the five games he’s played . . . he’s not stepped a wrong foot. He’s been really solid, you know, obviously, in the last game he gave the ball away on a clearance, but he’s been outstanding.
- Porter also made clear where he sees Miller going forward, and, in doing so, I think touched on why Miller has surprised so many in his first few games in 2017.
Well, he’s not a left back. That’s a simple thing. He’s played kind of as a left-centerback in a back-five, and New York played him as a left back in a four, and that’s not really his spot. So I always thought of him as a centerback, whether it’s a three or a four, as the center guy.
We saw him last year playing Saprissa in the Champions League and I thought he was one of the best players on the field in both games I saw. And I went over and scouted him, and I just think there’s a lot to like about the guy and I just think he was played out of position.
- The signing of Miller took some chutzpah. Miller’s reputation in MLS as a player was about as poor as any player still playing in a serious league. The Timbers, though, put that reputation aside, saw a player they liked, and brought him in knowing full well how it would come off if it went poorly. So far they’re looking pretty smart.