The “Big hearts, brass balls” era has given way to the “We need more guys finding ways to f***ing win games” era.
Up a man, up a goal entering the second half of a derby game is a good spot in which to find yourself. And it calls for one thing: A finishing blow.
The Timbers once again found a way to lose points on Sunday evening as they withered under the pressure of winning a game that any competent side would win going away.
Few things in sports are more frustrating than a team that snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. Good enough to put themselves in position to win, but somehow bad enough to consistently find a way not to.
And yet, that’s the story of the season for the Timbers thus far in 2017.
On one hand, the Timbers have scored six goals after the 75th minute of games in 2017. That’s one above the league-median. They’ve also conceded seven which, as it stands to reason, is two worse than the league-median. By themselves neither of those stats are wildly out of the ordinary.
But here’s the thing: All six of the Timbers’ goals scored during that period were ultimately superfluous. The Timbers scored three goals in the season opener against Minnesota United during that period to go 3-1, 4-1, and 5-1. Fanendo Adi scored in the 88th minute against Houston to go up 4-2. Adi scored again in the 88th minute at Philadelphia to go up 3-1. And Diego Valeri scored in second-half stoppage time in a 2-0 win over San Jose.
To be sure, some of these goals helped put otherwise close games firmly into the win column for the Timbers — something Portland desperately could’ve used on Sunday. But as it stands they didn’t change any results.
And here’s the painful flip side of that: Of the seven goals the Timbers have conceded after the 75th minute, five have caused the Timbers to lose points. The result is a grand total of eight points lost on the year after the 75th minute. You could actually narrow that window to the 80th minute and the same would be true.
Put another way: If games ended at the 80th minute, the Timbers would be sitting on 33 points, three points clear of the field in the Western Conference and firmly in the Supporters Shield race.
Be kind to your keyboard.
Now, there are tangible on-field reasons this may be happening. Consistency and quality at the centerback position has been a problem for the Timbers in 2017 as they’ve failed to consistently address Liam Ridgewell’s increasingly chronic unavailability and Gbenga Arokoyo’s preseason Achilles tendon injury. And when an opponent is throwing numbers forward in an attempt to grab a late equalizer or winner, frailties in central defense can certainly be amplified.
That very much was the case on Sunday when Clint Dempsey out-jumped Amobi Okugo, and is a pattern that to some extent holds true for Niko Hansen’s 84th-minute winner in Columbus, Lee Nguyen’s 85th-minute equalizer for New England, and Alan Gordon’s 89th-minute winner in Commerce City. So there is a case to make that weakness in central defense has cost the Timbers dearly this season.
But then again, the Timbers aren’t really conceding that many goals late in games. Although the seven goals they’ve conceded after the 75th minute are tied for 18th in MLS, the Timbers’ goals-against average throughout the entire game is 19th in MLS. Relative to the rest of their defense, the Timbers aren’t unusually bad in the late stages. Yet from minutes one through 80 they’re one of the best teams in MLS even with a well-below-average defense, while from minute-80 and on they’re — by net points earned — devastatingly bad with basically that same defensive output.
So a poor defense and, in particular, a poor central defense doesn’t fully explain their severe late-game issues. Similarly, the Timbers’ attack by the numbers hasn’t been that poor in the late stages, even if it’s seen a downturn in recent days. And -- to put the cause célèbre of many in the #PorterOUT crowd to rest -- the Timbers are plus-one in goal differential (two goals for, one against) in the 75’ - 90’ period when Porter uses one or zero substitutes.
Which is to say this: There really aren’t any objective reasons why the Timbers should have dropped as many points late in games as they have. It would be reasonable to expect the Timbers to have dropped a couple points in the late stages in light of the centerback difficulties, but there’s nothing that comes close to explaining the Timbers’ catastrophic net of negative-eight points after the 80th minute.
Yet, when it counts, they have been that bad. Maybe even worse than that bad, if that’s possible.
To be sure, Caleb Porter and the Timbers need to figure this out. If they keep coughing up results like they have, playoff-qualification is a longshot to say nothing of the trophy-contention they would be in had they not stepped on so many rakes to date. But the entirety of the problem isn’t easily identifiable on an objective basis. And, worryingly, that suggests the solution to that problem may be equally evasive.
It’s deeply dissatisfying to hear Porter and any number of players speak in platitudes about character, leadership, and toughness after a result like Sunday’s. But if you have a better explanation or solution, I’d like to hear it.
Fanendo Adi and his disappearing act in the second half.
You’d think it would be difficult to hide a six-foot, four-inch striker on a soccer field. And yet, that’s exactly what the Timbers pulled off as the second half wore along on Sunday.
Here are all of Adi’s attacking actions (passes, take-ons, and shots) after the 65th minute against Seattle.
That’s, well, pretty self-explanatory.
It’s also pretty devastating. Adi, for the Timbers, is not just a goalscorer. He’s one of their most important contributors in ball-retention and even in the buildup to chance-creation. Even down a man and a goal in the second half, the Sounders still tucked into their blocks of four and more or less defended like a team playing with 11.
Which means the Timbers still needed Fanendo Adi to be engaged. He wasn’t, which is both on Adi and the rest of the Timbers’ attacking group who failed to find him.
Stat of the Game
Five (Zero) — The Timbers shots and shots on goal in the second half during which they were up a man and, until the waning moments, up a goal. Again, pretty self-explanatory.
Man of the Match
ho was your Man of the Match against Seattle?
This poll is closed
- Darlington Nagbe’s exit in the 72nd minute with a tight hamstring was a major factor in the Timbers’ attack going from disappointingly tepid to result-endangering in the second half. During his time on the field, Nagbe was quite simply the best player on the day. Here’s his passes and dribbles chart from Sunday:
- In addition to putting in a ton of (almost laughably tidy) transition and zone-moving work, Nagbe would have had the equalizer but for Brad Evans’s foul that drew the penalty and Evans’s sending off. We don’t know much about whether Nagbe’s hamstring will keep him out or whether he was pulled from the game before it got to that point, but Nagbe’s potential absence is just more bad news for a team that has been crippled by injuries and suspensions.
- As for Evans’s red card, it wasn’t as obvious a call as it seems or, even, as it would have been in the past. This past year FIFA changed its interpretation of the denial of an obvious goalscoring opportunity (DOGSO) rule, which traditionally automatically sent off a player whose foul denied a team an obvious goalscoring opportunity. Under the new interpretation of the rule, a red card is only warranted in the box if the foul was deliberate; i.e. if the defender did not have a legitimate play on the ball and merely took the foul to stop the chance. Watch Evans’s foul under that rubric:
- Although referee Ricardo Salazar clearly found Evans did not have a legitimate play on the ball and, therefore, the foul was a deliberate attempt to break up the play, I think that’s less than obvious in light of the impressive speed with which Nagbe touches the ball behind Evans. To be clear, I think Salazar’s interpretation that Evans’s foul was not a legitimate attempt to play the ball is reasonable, but I think a reasonable referee could have also found that Evans was trying to play the ball, but Nagbe simply beat him. In that event, Evans would have seen yellow and — heck, why not? — the Timbers may have come out in the second half with a pulse.