What a difference three days makes.
After a midweek performance against Real Salt Lake whose flatness was only surpassed by its lack of discipline, the Timbers went to Vancouver more short-handed than they’ve been during the MLS era. On Sunday the Timbers were missing six roster players to injury, four to international duty, and two to suspensions.
There was — to put it mildly — little reason to believe the Timbers would get a result at BC Place on Sunday.
But, in a season in which the Timbers have failed repeatedly to capitalize their results, they went to BC Place and worked their collective and respective tails off to make sure they took all three points from the Vancouver Whitecaps. That was a thoroughly professional performance from a Timbers side that I’ve (correctly) hammered over the last two months for their lack of professionalism.
Now it’s time to show that their performance on Sunday truly marks a turning of a new leaf.
Transition really should have been a problem for the Timbers on Sunday.
The Timbers have two primary tools they use while they’re transitioning from defense to attack: Darlington Nagbe, the best transitional player in North America, and Fanendo Adi, whose holdup play allows Portland to push numbers forward.
Neither of those options, however, were available for the Timbers on Sunday. Nor was David Guzman, another contributor in transition. And although Diego Chara was a surprise inclusion in the Timbers’ eleven, his recent hamstring injury raised questions about how much he would be able to contribute going forward.
So there were real reasons to be concerned about whether the Timbers were going to transition into the attack and, thus, to keep the ball and create a volume of chances. How did they do? A respectable 46.8% of the ball, which was enough to fire off 14 shots, including five on frame.
Make no mistake: The Timbers didn’t dominate in transition and possession, but they held their own. And they held their own enough to get at a short-handed ‘Caps backline. Why?
Diego Valeri, a guy who makes his money on the scoresheet, committed himself to helping the Timbers through midfield. Look at Valeri’s distribution map:
For a guy who is famous for his work in and around the box, that’s much more activity in midfield relative to the final third than we’re used to seeing from Valeri, and he was very, very clean through the middle third. And it’s the kind of selfless performance that you don’t often see from a team’s talisman.
The result was despite being on the road and, as a result, naturally having a bit less of the ball, the Timbers were still very balanced in their attack, using the entirety of the field to stretch the Vancouver backline and creating chances left, right, and middle.
Jeremy Ebobisse (whom we’ll talk about in a hot second), Sebastian Blanco, and Dairon Asprilla did a lot of good work in the final third to make the Timbers the more dangerous team on the day. But none of it happens if Valeri doesn’t make himself more of a facilitator than a playmaker.
It’s not sexy and it’s not the kind of role we’re used to seeing Valeri play. But it was a big part of the Timbers taking a much-needed three points in Vancouver.
Jeremy Ebobisse. I mean, who else?
The kid had himself a big, big day, logging both the opening goal and a clever backheel assist on Sebastian Blanco’s winner. It’s been a difficult beginning of the club season for Ebobisse, who spent much of the spring with the U.S. U-20 national team. As a result, even consistent minutes at T2 have been hard to come by as Ebobisse had played only 346 for the Timbers (320 for T2 and 36 for the first team) coming into Sunday.
Even in his minutes for T2, however, Ebobisse had failed to break through. Starved for service playing in front of a T2 midfield that has been deeply unproductive this season, Ebobisse squeezed off only five shots (one goal) in his four appearances for the second team.
As a young striker, Ebobisse isn’t the type who can create much on his own. He doesn’t have the frame to dominate defenders the way Fanendo Adi does, and doesn’t have the top-end pace to make something out of nothing on the break. Ebobisse’s feet, though, are quite good, his movement and ability to find space inside the box is a plus-plus tool at his age, and his finishing ability is already solid with plenty of upside. Which is to say with the right midfield behind him, Ebobisse can be a legitimate threat even at the age of 20.
All of that was on display on Sunday as Ebobisse put himself on the scoresheet twice, contributed enough to help in the buildup to make himself useful, and showed a workrate that kept the Whitecaps’ backline on their heels. It was, in short, a very, very good first MLS start for Ebobisse.
And from that the clear conclusion is this: The Timbers need to play him. With the first team. Regularly. As a movement-and-finishing striker, Ebobisse needs minutes and service to develop. His development curve likely won’t be linear; all strikers and, in particular, those like Ebobisse that rely on timing and crisp finishing go through dry spells.
But Ebobisse showed on Sunday that if the Timbers have patience and the willingness to give him MLS minutes, they could have themselves a real weapon for the future.
Stat of the Game
4 (3) — Sebastian Blanco’s shots and shots on goal on Sunday including, of course, his 49th-minute winner. Blanco is now sitting on four goals and five assists for the year which, even considering his slow start to the season, puts him on pace for 6 goals and 8 assists in his debut MLS season. For a guy who was brought in to be a two-way winger and the third option in the Timbers’ attack, that’s just about where a lot of folks would’ve pegged his production for the year.
And there’s reason to think Blanco may yet go higher. Playing primarily on the left over the last couple months, Blanco has three goals and three assists in his last seven games for the Timbers, a period during which he’s arguably (probably not all that arguably, actually) been Caleb Porter’s best player.
With Darlington Nagbe expected back after Wednesday’s Gold Cup final, it will be interesting to see how Porter chooses to deploy his midfield from here on out. Blanco has proven to be most productive either central or on the left, while Nagbe — who continues to enjoy good form for the U.S. Men’s National Team at multiple midfield spots — has also seen his best moments on the left.
Man of the Match
Who was your Man of the Match at Vancouver?
This poll is closed
- Jake Gleeson didn’t have a ton to do on Sunday as the defense in front of him was generally pretty sharp (we’ll wait to assess Larrys Mabiala until we have a little bit more of a sample size), but he came up big with a couple reaction saves in important moments. Gleeson hasn’t made those plays a couple times in a 2017 season in which he’s lost the Timbers more points than he’s earned them. Still, Sunday was a good reminder that for as much of a slump as Gleeson’s been in this year (which happens), he still has his virtues.
- Firmly in the discussion for newcomer of the year alongside Blanco and David Guzman, however, has been Roy Miller, who put in another very solid shift on the backline for the Timbers. Just as he played after Chance Myers came off on Wednesday, Miller played in the left back position on Sunday, a position at which his performance was maligned (fairly or unfairly) in his first MLS go-round with the Red Bulls.
- The need to get Ebobisse minutes has another effect: The Timbers need to move Darren Mattocks. Mattocks is a useful player who can be a contributor down the stretch for the right team. Still, with Ebobisse calling out for minutes up top and Dairon Asprilla keeping a firm grasp on the third winger spot, that team may not be the Timbers. Mattocks likely carries some value right now after his strong performances with Jamaica, which means Gavin Wilkinson should be burning up the phone lines looking to separate somebody from some allocation money.
- How refreshing is it to see the Timbers hold a lead?