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Timber Cruise: Portland Timbers 2, Chicago Fire 2

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MLS: Chicago Fire at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

It’s in there. Whether it will come out very much remains to be seen. But the Timbers have it in them to be one of the best teams in MLS.

The best teams in MLS, however, maximize their results — something the Timbers have not done to a spectacular extent in the last three weeks. As a result, the Timbers have three points form a give-game stretch in which they could — and probably should — have taken at least 11.

It’s hardly controversial, then, to say the Timbers aren’t one of the best teams in MLS right now. And until they show they can maximize their results on a consistent basis, you’d be a fool to say they will be one of the best teams in MLS.

But can they be? Well, you’d be a fool, too, if you say they can’t.

Deep Cuts

After Wednesday’s disappointing draw, Caleb Porter came in with a defiantly hot take: He thinks the Timbers defended well against the Fire.

Sure, the attack created chance after chance on the way to 24 shots and 60% possession.

But the back six? The one that allowed an Arturo Alvarez cross to float untouched into the net to cough up yet another first-half lead? The one that lost track of David Accam in the second half of a crucial home game? They defended well?

It’s not how they dealt with the Fire’s chances that Porter is excited about. In fact, away from the cameras and recorders of the postgame press conference you can bet Porter is lamenting the way the Timbers managed those moments, as they have over and over for much of 2017.

It’s the Fire chances that the Timbers killed in the cradle that has Porter praising his back six.

24 shots to 6 is a good place to start, but it’s hardly the only indicator here. Eight corner kicks to one is another good benchmark along the way, bringing the number of corner kicks the Timbers have conceded in the last 180 minutes to a grand total of one. That’s extraordinary, and, as we discussed last week, is a good sign that the Timbers aren’t being broken down in their own third.

Then there’s the Fire’s completing only 45 of 90 passes in the final third to the Timbers’ 123 out of 172.

And then there’s this: In the second half, throughout most of which the Fire were looking to catch the Timbers on the counter through the likes of David Accam and Nemanja Nikolic (two of MLS’s most dangerous players on the break), only one Timbers player had any defensive actions within the 18-yard box: Jake Gleeson.

And that’s not because the Timbers weren’t disruptive in and around their own box; the Fire were just rarely there. Chicago had one shot from within the Timbers’ 18 in the second half.

Yeah, that one.

Time and again when the Fire went looking for Nikolic or Accam, they failed to find any daylight with Lawrence Olum and Roy Miller mopping up the Fire’s searching long balls forward or shepherding them back into Gleeson’s waiting hands. Against a team that is as dangerous in the open field as any in MLS, the Timbers on Wednesday did an excellent job of making it difficult for Chicago to find space even when Portland was pushing numbers forward to find an equalizing and, later, winning goal. A truly bad defense couldn’t do that.

And yet, there was that one. And the other one. Which pretty much sums up the paradox of the Timbers’ defense in 2017: For a team that generally does a good job of limiting opponents’ chances, the Portland defense is extraordinarily adept at nonetheless finding ways to concede.

So Porter’s not wrong that the Timbers by and large defended very well on Wednesday. Just as they by-and-large defended very well on the weekend at Kansas City and, frankly, in many games this year. It’s not like the Timbers have spent 2017 dodging bullets left and right.

But they have an unusual knack for nonetheless getting hit by a bullet or two, in particular because at times it seems they’re diving in front of them.

Spotlight on...

Sebastian Blanco, who’s quietly been perhaps the Timbers’ best player over the course of this pretty miserable last month. After starting his Timbers’ career with one goal and two assists in his first 14 appearances, Blanco has two goals and two assists in his last five games.

The Timbers have struggled in recent years to find production from players not named Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi. And when, as has been the case recently, one or both of Adi or Valeri have struggled, the Timbers haven’t had much in the way of a goalscoring punch.

This was the problem that Blanco was brought in during the offseason to remedy. And although early returns were tepid for the diminutive winger, it certainly looks like Blanco’s getting-to-know-you period is starting to come to a close. If that’s the case and Blanco’s uptick in production proves lasting, the Timbers attack that’s sputtered at times may be poised to rise back to its lofty preseason expectations.

Stat of the Game

61 of 63, Lawrence Olum’s passing numbers on Wednesday. Olum edged out the typically clean Darlington Nagbe for the best pass-completion percentage on the field on Wednesday.

To be sure, the bulk of Olum’s passes are relatively safe passes to Roy Miller, his centerback partner, and/or Zarek Valentin, his near-side fullback. But in a game in which the Timbers clearly placed a premium on keeping the ball especially against a Fire team that viciously punishes distribution mistakes, having a player as clean and smart on the ball as Olum at the back is an asset.

Man of the Match

Vote!

Poll

Who was your Man of the Match against Chicago?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    Dairon Asprilla
    (33 votes)
  • 65%
    Sebastian Blanco
    (225 votes)
  • 2%
    Darlington Nagbe
    (9 votes)
  • 7%
    Zarek Valentin
    (25 votes)
  • 5%
    Diego Valeri
    (18 votes)
  • 6%
    Ben Zemanski
    (21 votes)
  • 3%
    Other
    (11 votes)
342 votes total Vote Now

Finishing Bullets

  • Although the Timbers conceded three goals in the two games in which they were featured, the patchwork defensive midfield of Ben Zemanski and Darlington Nagbe generally held up over the course of a tricky two game stretch. They weren’t flawless — Zemanski losing track of Accam between the lines sparked the sequence that led to the Fire’s second goal — but they also weren’t a liability by any means, which is a significant victory for a defensive midfield with a glaring lack of defensive bite. Zemanski showed perhaps his best form we’ve seen from him after a couple pretty disastrously injury-riddled seasons, and Nagbe proved that deploying him in a deeper central-midfield role is still a club the Timbers have in the bag.
  • As noted above, it’s easy to argue the Timbers have left as many as eight attainable points on the table in the last three weeks (and that’s even conservatively assuming the Timbers’ maximized result out of Minnesota and Colorado would have been a pair of draws). In a normal year that would be a pretty devastating blow to the Timbers’ chances of earning a strong playoff seed in the Western Conference, especially consider the Timbers didn’t enter this stretch in a great position. 2017, however, isn’t a normal year. Even after this pretty horrible stretch of games, the Timbers sit in a four-team pack in the third through sixth spots in the Western Conference in which each team is on 1.35 to 1.47 point per game. With 14 games left in the season, that’s not a terrible place to be. It’s hard to argue the Timbers deserve to be there, but the rest of the Western Conference has preserved the Timbers’ ability to salvage the season with a stretch run.
  • Among the things the Timbers need in order to make that stretch run: Fanendo Adi must get back into goalscoring form. Sure, he logged a goal via penalty kick on Wednesday. But Adi can’t complain for lack of service against the Fire, a day in which he squeezed off eight shots and had chances for more — including at the death when Adi got a promising Zarek Valentin cross caught in his spokes. Adi’s proven he’s a plenty capable finisher over and over and over in the Rose City, but he’s also proven (like many strikers) that he’s prone to deep downturns in form. He needs to come out of this one.