Coming into the season, I thought the Timbers had a real chance to be a lot like the 2014 Seattle Sounders. Defensively a little suspect, the 2014 Sounders team was so electrifying in the attack that they won Supporters Shield and played — to the chagrin of everybody in Portland — some of the most entertaining soccer in MLS history.
Even with some trepidation about the Timbers’ backline this year, that’s what I thought the Timbers could be.
I was wrong. But only by a year.
This might be the most talented Timbers team that’s ever played in the City of Portland. With apologies to the MLS Cup-winning side, this Timbers team has a front-four that stacks up with any in MLS; a defensive-midfield pairing that surpasses any we’ve seen in the Rose City; and a backline with a good two-way left back, a captain centerback that led one of the best defenses in MLS 18 months ago; and a right back — yeah, that right back — that has shown he can be among the best one-v-one defenders in the league.
And, to be honest, even when you work your way down the bench, you’ll see there’s plenty of talent there, too. Dairon Asprilla 2.0 is a significant step better than version 1.0 that showed up in 2015. Roy Miller may be the best backup left centerback in the league. There are a lot of teams that wouldn’t mind having a central-defensive Swiss Army knife like Lawrence Olum. Zarek Valentin is a more than respectable backup right back. Darren Mattocks, for all his inconsistency, can do things that few backup forwards in MLS can. And that doesn’t even mention the promising stable of youth in Marco Farfan, Victor Arboleda, Jeremy Ebobisse, and Jack Barmby.
The Timbers are a profoundly talented team. Whether they’re the most talented in MLS is a matter of debate, but they’re certainly among them.
And yet, they’re a bad team. They’re not like the 2014 Sounders. Not even close.
Instead, the Timbers have much more in common with the 2015 Sounders. Packed with talent that got them off to a hot start, the Timbers are a team that through indiscipline and unprofessionalism shrinks in the face of adversity.
Adversity — the Timbers have had plenty of it this year. From a never-ending stream of injuries to repeated losses to international duty (like I said — talented), the Timbers haven’t had an easy hand dealt to them thus far this season.
But they’ve made the absolute least of that hand.
When they got a bad call against them in Montreal, Diego Chara responded by awkwardly striking Ignacio Piatti in the face. When Sebastian Blanco was frustrated in Minnesota, he kicked out at Abu Danladi. And on Wednesday when the Timbers were down two goals and a man against a Real Salt Lake team that looked plenty capable of both conceding goals and equalizing the numbers on the field, Fanendo Adi responded by letting Kyle Beckerman bait him into yet another act brainless violent conduct.
When they go low, the Timbers go lower. It’s embarrassing just to watch.
Really, the way the Timbers have conceded goals over the course of this long winless streak is a branch from that same tree. Statistically the Timbers are among the better teams in MLS at limiting opponents’ chances. And yet, they concede goals in ways that are well within their otherwise estimable capacity to stop. These are mistakes that, if they happened every so often, wouldn’t be troubling. But it’s been darn near every game recently, and sometimes multiples times per game. It’s not that the Timbers are unable to win these games, it’s just that they have time and time and time and time again lacked the focus and the will to do so.
It boils down, then, to professionalism.
Some will say this is on the coaching and technical staff. Others will say it’s on the players.
But in a season so littered with mental lapses and squandered results, I don’t really see the need to choose between those two groups. What we’ve seen from the Timbers this year is the kind of stuff that loses people jobs, players and coaches alike.
This isn’t something that you can just blame on [least-favorite player] or [group of perceived bad apples]. The Timbers have a locker room with many, many players who are eminently lovely people. Diego Valeri might be an actual saint. Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara are in an epic battle for Father of the Year. Zarek Valentin is as affable and funny as anybody you’ll encounter. Jeff Attinella writes children’s books, for goodness sake. If this was simply a problem stemming from one or even a few players, that could be easily overridden by the strength of character that surrounds it.
And it’s not something that you simply can blame on a poor coach or general manager. Caleb Porter isn’t a poor coach by any stretch of the imagination; he’s organized and motivated successful, professional teams in the past. Gavin Wilkinson isn’t a poor general manager; he’s helped assemble talent-laden and professional rosters in the past, and, frankly, at least with respect to the former he’s done so this year, too.
What’s going on is a team-wide failure to hold themselves and eachother to a standard befitting this club and the fans that have raised it. And that’s turning what should be a special Timbers side into a downright bad team.
The Timbers have 13 games left in the 2017 season. They can finish it like the 2015 Sounders and suffer the same kind of blood-letting in the months that followed.
Or they can do something different; there’s no objective reason why the Timbers can’t still go on to a successful campaign.
But if that’s going to happen they’re going to have to become professional.