It’s official: The Portland Timbers are in a bit of a funk.
Are there reasons for the funk? Sure. They’ve had a series of injuries in the attack and are going through a tough stretch in the schedule. But they’ve also dropped some points they shouldn’t have, and have put in performances unbecoming a team that has trophy aspirations.
Every team — even trophy-winning teams — go through a spell or two like this over the course of a 34-game season. Whether they remain in contention depends on their ability to 1) scratch out points in spite of their subpar form; and 2) quickly right the ship.
To date the Timbers have done an — at best — so-so job of the former. And we’ll find out after the next couple weeks how they do at the latter.
The numbers by themselves are pretty jarring: 30% possession and a 64% pass-completion percentage.
Sunday’s draw with Atlanta was far from the kind of dominant, front-foot soccer for which Caleb Porter teams have been stereotyped in the past. From start to finish on Sunday the Timbers struggled to keep their foot on the ball and, although they did a decent job of limiting Atlanta’s chances, Portland’s inability to keep the ball meant they were never going to create the volume of chances necessary to have a respectable chance of winning without a clean sheet.
With left back Greg Garza out for United, the Timbers looked to primarily attack down the right side through Dairon Asprilla and Alvas Powell, with Diego Valeri shading that way in the final third and Sebastian Blanco pulling into the middle from the left. Look at the Timbers’ distribution chart (green arrow are completed passes, red and incomplete passes, yellow are key passes, and blue are assists) and, in particular, note the right-ward shift in the final third:
The simple reality is when Asprilla and Powell are key cogs in your attack, you’re probably not going to keep the ball. Both players have virtues, but ball-retention is certainly not one of them. As a result, the Timbers were very, very direct.
Perhaps the most notable thing about that chart, however, is the lack of width on the left, with Blanco pinching in from the left wing and Vytas not providing much of an overlapping threat.
But there’s a reason for this.
Although Atlanta’s 12 points through 10 games is nothing to write home about, they’re 2-2-3 away from Bobby Dodd Stadium with an impressive 14 goals-for and 9 goals-against. To be sure, their away goals-for are inflated by their 6-1 demolition of Minnesota United, but they’ve only been shutout once on the road and have scored multiple goals three times.
Why? Because with the fantastic Miguel Almiron leading the charge, Atlanta is as dangerous as any team in MLS on the break, and when teams let the game open up, United are well-suited to punish them on the counter as they did in their 3-1 dismantling of Real Salt Lake and their 2-2 draw at league-leaders Toronto FC.
So it wasn’t a bad idea for the Timbers to look to limit Atlanta’s opportunities to get out into the open field, and sitting deeper, keeping Vytas connected to the backline, and conceding a bit of the ball isn’t a bad way to do that.
But conceding 70% of the ball is a bit extreme, and certainly wasn’t how the Timbers drew up the game. And when you’re giving that much of the ball to an opponent, it’s going to be difficult to find much more than a handful of chances. In a game like that, then, one defensive mistake amidst an otherwise solid defensive performance is often enough to put a team behind the eight-ball.
The Timbers nearly got out from behind it with a few late chances that could’ve yielded a winner, but it wasn’t enough to expect — or, frankly, to deserve — to take all three points.
Diego Valeri, and his worst game in quite some time.
Coming off the hip-flexor injury that kept him out for two weeks, Valeri put in an absolute dud on Sunday, completing zero passes into the box and precious little in the final third.
Without holding the ball enough to create a volume of chances, the Timbers had to be spot on with those that presented themselves. Simply put, the Timbers needed their best chance-creator to put them on the doorstep when those opportunities arose.
Valeri, however, was almost entirely absent on Sunday, something that the Timbers can’t have going forward.
Stat of the Game
12 - Diego Chara’s total passes on Sunday, the fewest he has had in a game in which he wasn’t sent off early in the first half.
This is largely a function of the Timbers not holding the ball, as many of Chara’s passes come form circumstances in which Portland is patiently building up in the attack, but it’s nonetheless a stark indicator of how direct the Timbers were on Sunday.
Man of the Match Poll
Who was your Man of the Match?
This poll is closed
- As conservative as he was in the attack, Vytas may have had his best defensive game of the season on Sunday. With Atlanta creating quite a bit down the Timbers’ right flank, it would’ve been an easy day for Vytas to take a bit of a pro day and be comfortable knowing whatever went down wasn’t his responsibility. But when Atlanta broke between the Timbers’ lines (usually by way of Almiron) and exposed the backline, Vytas provided key backside help to clean up behind Ridgewell and Roy Miller. The Timbers don’t come away with any points on Sunday without Vytas’s defense.
- Miller, for his part, looked less-than-comfortable playing at a right centerback position that unusual for him. Some centerbacks are interchangeable between sides, but throughout his career Miller has pretty consistently been a left-sided player. He wasn’t terrible on Sunday, but he also wasn’t nearly as clean as he has been at left centerback for the Timbers.
- This is a straight red card:
- After the game referee Alan Kelly explained he only gave yellow because he did not believe Carlos Carmona’s tackle on Blanco carried with it the requisite speed and force to endanger Blanco’s safety. Although that is the only logical explanation in light of the from-behind, scissoring nature of the tackle, the fact that it is logically consistent doesn’t mean it’s correct. The force in the tackle wasn’t negligible by any means, and the nature of the tackle makes it inherently dangerous and the kind of challenge for which there is considerable incentive to try to eliminate from the game. Under the right (wrong?) circumstances, that’s a leg-breaker. Fortunately those circumstances didn’t line up on Sunday and Blanco is fine, but don’t be surprised to see the Disciplinary Committee revisit this one.
- Speaking of Blanco, for the second time in three weeks he was the Timbers’ most dangerous attacking player. Playing on the left wing before flipping to the right when Darren Mattocks came on, Blanco was the force behind the Timbers’ late push for a winner. Once Darlington Nagbe gets back into the team (which Porter said postgame he thought would likely be next week), it will be interesting to see if Blanco can take some of the verve he’s discovered with Valeri and Nagbe out and keep it when the attack is back to full-strength.
Bonus, but Important Super-Bullet
The inadequacy of MLS’s concussion protocol was laid bare in Portland on Sunday.
A scary sequence took place in the first half in which Yamil Asad took a hard-hit ball to the head and immediately fell to the ground. On his way to the ground Asad did not move to break his fall at all, and did not immediately move when he hit the ground, giving rise to the inference that he may have momentarily lost consciousness.
With the incident happening right in front of the bench, the Timbers’ team doctor, Jonathan E. Greenleaf, M.D., as well as Atlanta’s medical staff quickly surrounded Asad, who, after laying on the ground for a moment, re-entered the game. Dr. Greenleaf, however, was clearly upset by the decision to permit Asad to re-enter the game so quickly without undergoing thorough neurological testing. As play continued, Dr. Greenleaf carried on an extended conversation with the fourth official and the Atlanta training staff that ultimately resulted in Kelly stopping play to again check on Asad.
I asked Kelly about the incident after the game:
To be clear, my impression was that Kelly was not trying to be evasive in response to my questions, but rather that he was trying to relatively diplomatically explain a difficult situation for the referees (while also being a little bit confused by my third question).
And here’s the thing: It was an impossible situation for Kelly and his crew. As Kelly stated, after a relatively short assessment Atlanta’s medical staff cleared Asad to continue over Dr. Greenleaf’s objection. Although Kelly could have forced Asad off for further evaluation, he would have done so in contravention of the opinion of Atlanta’s medical staff and on the basis of the objection (even if a very reasonable objection) of the Timbers’ medical staff with the Timbers themselves standing to benefit from Asad’s even temporary absence. In light of the force of the blow to Asad’s head (and especially in light of the apparent possibility that Asad briefly lost consciousness), there is good reason to believe that Atlanta’s medical staff could not sufficiently examine Asad in the short time he was on the sideline, and that Dr. Greenleaf’s insistence on further evaluation was the only reasonable way to proceed.
But asking Kelly to side with Dr. Greenleaf would put the referee in a position to be weighing the opinions of two partisan medical professionals to the detriment of either one of the teams on the field or, on the other hand, potentially the health of the player. That’s an impossible position for a referee who does not have medical training and, thus, must rely on the recommendations of the medical professionals. But this highlights a very clear flaw in MLS’s concussion protocol: It’s only as effective as the good faith of the medical professionals on the sideline, each of whom are employed by the respective teams. If, for example, Atlanta’s training staff prematurely cleared Asad under institutional pressure to get their player back into the game as quickly as possible, the protocol is utterly ineffective.
The answer here is very simple: There needs to be an independent physician on the sideline on whose recommendation with respect to a head injury the referee can rely without concern about partisan interference in an important medical assessment. And, in the event that a more extensive assessment is necessary to determine whether a player can continue, a team should be allowed a free, temporary substitute to permit that assessment to take place within a reasonable time without being forced to play with 10 men.
Would this cost the league more money and create a modest exception to the three-substitute rule? Sure. But it’s necessary to protect players from the potentially longterm and serious ramifications of traumatic brain injuries, and to avoid situations like Sunday’s that raise serious questions about the efficacy of the league’s concussion protocol.