Almost any other time an away draw at Sporting Kansas City would be cause for satisfaction. And after two bitterly lamentable weeks of soccer in the Rose City, the Timbers did a lot of things better in Kansas City.
But the simple reality is in their last four weeks the Timbers have taken three leads and a tie into the locker room at halftime only to come away with two losses and two draws. So for all the genuine steps forward the Timbers made on Saturday, that remains a bugaboo.
And a bugaboo that’s killing the Timbers in the table.
The Timbers’ defense has rightfully come in for a lot of criticism over the course of 2017, and it doesn’t take a deep dive into the numbers to figure out why. The Timbers’ 29 goals allowed are 18th in MLS and, as we discussed last week, has a troubling knack for giving away goals at the worst possible moments. In fairness to the Timbers’ backline, the team’s goals-against average is 1.53, which is 15th in MLS and really not far off the 1.41 GAA league-median.
So it’s fairer to say the Timbers’ defense is at the back of the peloton than it is to say it’s truly miserable.
Indeed, sprinkled in with some deeply frustrating performances have been some pretty good ones from the Timbers’ maligned defensive unit. And Saturday certainly was one of those.
The Timbers went to Kansas City on Saturday set to play their full-roster third- and fourth-choice centerbacks and — as best I can count — fifth- and sixth-choice defensive midfielders. To be sure, SKC was limited by international call-ups, as well, but the Timbers’ absences in the lumbar spine were pretty extreme.And although we’ve seen Lawrence Olum and Roy Miller combine competently at centerback, the defensive midfield of Ben Zemanski and Darlington Nagbe screamed out for the lack of a ball-winner.
But you know what? They got the job done.
The Wizards conjured only seven shots on the day with one being on frame, and registered zero corner kicks. The latter statistic is telling; corner kicks conceded serves as a pretty useful proxy for the degree to which a defense is being broken down and an opposing attack is finding opportunities to penetrate into the penalty area. By and large, the Timbers kept SKC at bay.
And here’s why: Zemanski and Nagbe did enough to slow Sporting’s central buildup to allow Lawrence Olum and Roy Miller to defend on the front foot by stepping into midfield to disrupt. Look where Olum and Miller’s defensive actions came from:
It’s not like Sporting was playing on the break all day and Olum and Miller were naturally playing higher to disrupt that. Most of SKC’s attack came from fully-fledged attacking sequences that Olum and Miller stepped up to confront rather than sat deep to absorb. And the Timbers’ centerbacks wouldn’t have been successful in doing so had Zemanski and Nagbe not held the line.
But there’s another element to this that merits mention: The Timbers got a ton of defensive commitment from their wingers as both Sebastian Blanco and Dairon Asprilla were committed to protecting their fullbacks on Saturday. With centerbacks as aggressive as the Timbers were on Saturday, SKC’s natural response would be to look to unlock combinations wide, to get to the byline, and from there to try to find runners in behind the backline.
The Timbers wingers’ commitment, however, made that easier said than done for SKC, who struggled mightily to find a consistent point of penetration. Which brings us back to zero corner kicks on the day.
And of those seven Sporting Kansas City shots on the day? Only three of them came from inside 25 yards.
Alvas Powell, seemingly a man on a mission to prove his doubters right.
There was a lot that went well for Powell in the first half on Saturday. Sporting Kansas City made no bones about targeting Powell and, with significant help from Asprilla, Powell was more or less up to it.
After a spell in which he was particularly rickety in back, you could be forgiven if you thought maybe — just maybe — it was a sign Powell was coming out of his troublingly extended funk.
Powell got the hook from Caleb Porter just 15 minutes after the right back failed to track a routine run that ended up in yet another second-half lead blown for the Timbers. And although the Timbers were genuinely pushing for a winner late in Saturday’s game, it’s notable that Porter opted to bring on Zarek Valentin, a player far less likely to unlock the byline than Powell.
It certainly seems Porter is tired of being Charlie Brown to Powell’s Lucy, and with Powell heading out to join Jamaica with the Gold Cup and the summer transfer (and trade) window opening before he returns, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the Timbers are now willing to field offers for Powell. Although the Timbers’ succession plan at right back is less than ideal — for his other virtues an offensively- and athletically-limited Zarek Valentin is much more in the mold of a reliable backup than a starter in light of the increasingly athletic and technical wingers in MLS — moving Powell is worth considering.
The Timbers have showed patience with Powell, and as a result have enjoyed the periodic boom times and accompanying temptation that the mercurial Jamaican has produced. But as Saturday showed once again, the cost of that patience isn’t negligible.
Stat of the Game
In addition to a praise-worthy defensive performance, Nagbe was in full tempo-dictating, possession-keeping mode on Saturday. Although he’s been exposed as an eight at times over the course of the last year-plus, Nagbe was immense in that role in Kansas City, which was a major factor in the Timbers being able to play on at least level footing with SKC and, ultimately, in being a bit unlucky not to come away with three points.
Nagbe has had some good performances and great moments in a 2017 season that’s already looking a bit better than 2016, but Saturday may have been his best complete outing.
Man of the Match
Who was your Man of the Match at Kansas City?
This poll is closed
- Timbers fans will have one eye on the Disciplinary Committee again this week to see whether Fanendo Adi will be suspended for simulation or embellishment on the play that led to Diego Valeri’s missed penalty. Here’s the play:
- Remember that if the Disciplinary Committee find Adi simulated or embellished the contact, a suspension is mandatory because it resulted in a penalty. So there’s no way Adi gets away with just a fine here.
- But it’s also not clear to me that it was simulation or embellishment. From this angle, it’s clear Tim Melia didn’t get Adi with his lead hand, but it appears possible (although far from certain) that Adi’s fall was caused by Melia’s left arm/shoulder contacting Adi’s right leg while he was in the air, thus knocking him off balance.
- In an important respect, the play is almost identical to the penalty that the Timbers gave up to Blerim Dzemaili earlier in the season in which replays showed only nominal contact between the hand of Sebastian Blanco and Dzemaili’s shoulder and ambiguous (and probably even doubtful) evidence that Blanco may have also clipped Dzemaili. That ambiguous-to-doubtful evidence of genuine contact, however, was enough to convince the Disciplinary Committee not to suspend Dzemaili. To find otherwise here break that precedent. Then again, Adi Rules.
- If Adi is out and assuming Darren Mattocks, in fact, leaves to join up with Jamaica, it seems likely Jeremy Ebobisse would get his first MLS start again Chicago on Wednesday. Ebobisse hasn’t done much with the Timbers thus far this season, but he’s spent most of his time with a pretty miserable T2 side. Starting Ebobisse would at least add some intrigue to the unequivocally bad news of Adi being suspended.
- Finally, let’s end on a positive note: We regularly get to watch Diego Valeri play soccer.