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Timber Cruise: Houston Dynamo 2, Portland Timbers 2

MLS: Portland Timbers at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Like the Timbers, I’m back from a spell on the road, which means it’s time for our weekly survey of the Timbers’ weekend.

Any point in Houston is a good point. Of the 10 teams that preceded the Timbers in marching into BBVA Compass Stadium, 8 came away empty handed and none left with three points. Heading into Saturday night the Dynamo had scored 28 times in their 10 games in Houston and conceded only 9 goals at home.

For the Timbers to concede only twice, then, beats the curve. And to score twice beats the curve by a substantial margin. To say nothing of, you know, actually getting a result.

But the Timbers’ 2017 Achilles heel struck again. What road form was to 2016, dropping results in the last 10 minutes is to 2017.

And so it was again on Saturday, as the Timbers 2-1 lead vanished at the hands of some bad luck and poor set-piece defending in the 80th minute.

It really would be nice to be able to turn the page on that pattern.

Deep Cuts

Disappointing end result notwithstanding, there really is a lot to like about the Timbers’ performance in Houston on Saturday. The Timbers kept 54% of the ball on a torturously muggy night in Houston, attempted 473 passes while completing an impressive 86%, tied the Dynamo on shots at 16, and won more corners and duals than the home side.

How did they do it? Well, having their first-choice front-six back helped a lot, and gives us a good look at how the Timbers plan to approach the rest of the regular season if they can stay healthy.

First, look at the Timbers’ pass map from the game against Houston (it’s the fourth picture in the below tweet):

The position of the circle in the passmap represents each Timbers starter’s average position, the size of the circle represents the degree of the player’s measurable influence, and the arrows represent the passes between players with the thickness representing the number of connections between those two players.

With Sebastian Blanco in outstanding form playing on the left side of midfield (to the tune of four goals and three assists in his last 8 games), Porter elected to keep Blanco in that spot and move Darlington Nagbe to the right after his return from the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Historically the right wing or midfield is a spot that’s been a bugaboo for Nagbe. In that position, Nagbe tends to have a tendency to drop deeper than he does on the left and to play wider following his heavily-favored right foot. But as you can see, that didn’t happen on Saturday. Nagbe played essentially on the same level as Diego Valeri, and did so from a central-right position.

That’s exactly where the Timbers want him.

Although he ran out of gas relatively quickly (which was no surprise given the conditions and the load on his legs from USMNT duty), Nagbe was involved and at times devastating on the right side on Saturday. And if he can replicate that performance with fresher legs down the road, the Timbers attack could be poised for a breakout.

The attacking triangle that Nagbe’s positioning and influence created between Valeri, Adi, and Nagbe has the potential to be absolutely catastrophic for defenses. With Adi’s size, Nagbe’s strength, and Valeri’s technicality, those three combining could be a nightmare for opposing defenses who will have no choice but to throw numbers at that triangle of terror. Defensive midfielders will have to stay tucked in. Fullbacks will have to stay connected to their centerbacks.

And if they can do that with sufficient discipline, there’s every chance opposing teams can keep from that triangle shredding their backline. But that’s where the Timbers get you — because when an opponent sells out to shut down Nagbe, Valeri, and Adi, they will still have to react to Sebastian Blanco.

Look up again at that passmap and note, in particular, how Blanco isn’t tied up in that central triangle. That’s very intentional, and is designed to get Blanco in space on the left. And when Blanco has even just a little bit of space, he, too, can be devastating.

The Timbers’ setup hasn’t always had counterpoints like Blanco provided on Saturday, which has at times made things a muddled mess in the middle. But when they do, Blanco can be used as a tool to open up central space by forcing defensive midfielders and fullbacks to release. And when there are spaces on the backline and in midfield, the Timbers have an arsenal of weapons to punish opponents.

Add in the more-impactful attacking prowess of Vytas provided additional width on the left, and the box-to-box work of David Guzman (who — despite what anybody else will tell you — is more of an eight in the Timbers’ setup than Diego Chara), and the return of the Timbers’ front-six to full availability could be the factor that leads to a late-summer attacking breakthrough.

Spotlight on...

Diego Valeri, again. And, in particular, another absurdly tidy attacking performance in which Valeri misplaced only three passes.

Perhaps nobody stands to benefit more from a diversified Timbers attack than Valeri. As the primary (and at times exclusive) playmaker in the Timbers’ setup over the last few years, there have been many times during which a lot of pressure has fallen on Valeri’s shoulders to try anything to unlock a defense.

Now, if there’s anybody on whom you have to place such a burden, Valeri isn’t at all a bad option. But if Valeri can rely on his teammates for some playmaking help and, thus, be more selective in how and where he’s looking to create, he becomes much more difficult for defenses to key on. Look at Valeri’s distribution chart against the Dynamo:

Instead of dumping balls into the box at will, Valeri was surgical. And that was in part because he had well-deployed fellow surgeons in Blanco and Nagbe with whom to work.

Stat of the Game

0 -- The number of assists Seba Blanco was awarded on the Timbers’ second goal (which, as a reminder, you can see embedded above). That is, of course, because Blanco scored the goal and, by rule, a player can’t be awarded an assist on a goal that he scores. As relevant here, Opta defines a second assist as follows:

A pass/cross that is instrumental in creating a goal-scoring opportunity, for example a corner or free-kick to a player who then assists an attempt, a chance-creating through ball or cross into a dangerous position.

Blanco’s brilliant ball to Valeri to spring the sequence is otherwise a textbook second assist. There’s an active debate about whether second assists should even be a thing in soccer statistics, but Blanco’s ball is another reminder that there really is no good reason why, if second assists are counted, a goalscorer shouldn’t be eligible to earn one.

Finishing Bullets

  • The Timbers were on the losing end of a number of questionable calls on Saturday, something that unquestionably contributed to their latest lost lead. And although many were quick to point to the now-imminent introduction of the Video Assistant Referee as a remedy, as we’ve seen before the Timbers may not have found justice in Houston with VAR.
  • VAR would have been most likely to help the Timbers on the penalty shout in the 62nd minute when A.J. DeLaGarza kicked Sebastian Blanco in the box, but, in light of the 50-50 nature of the challenge for the ball that DeLaGarza that ultimately lost, it’s not clear whether the error would have been sufficiently clear and obvious to overturn. Just how exacting that standard will be — and just how much it will vary depending on which referee is in the center -- very much remains to be seen.
  • The new replay system, however, would not likely have been any help on any of the other controversial calls. The foul called on Jeremy Ebobisse while he appeared to earn a one-v-one look at goal just before Houston equalized in the second half would have fallen well outside the scope of calls that will be reviewed because it was not part of a goalscoring play and, of course, did not involve a question about a red card. Even Diego Chara’s questionable foul that led to the free kick on which the Dynamo scored would not have been reviewable because it did not directly lead to a goal (i.e., it didn’t occur on the play on which the Dynamo scored the goal).
  • More interesting was the offside call that nullified an apparent third goal for the Timbers by way of Fanendo Adi. The call was for “passive” offside when Adi appeared to block off Leonardo after starting from an offside position before Tyler Deric’s misplay led to Chara tapping to Adi for the goal. Rather than a question about whether referee Jose Carlos Rivero correctly saw the play, however, the call — made after a discussion with the assistant referee — was simply a matter of a judgment call as to whether Adi and the Timbers gained an advantage as a result of Adi’s offside position to start the play. Regardless what you think about that judgment (and although I disagree with the judgment the referee and AR reached, I find their interpretation of the play to be reasonable), when the call is a matter of the referee’s judgment, it is unlikely that VAR will intervene.
  • So, get ready for the VAR era. It will, without a doubt, both correct some errors and cause some disruption in the run of play. How much it does the two of those things will determine whether it is successfully implemented in MLS and, perhaps, in the sport more broadly. But don’t for one moment expect it to correct all errors or to remove controversy from refereeing.