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Timber Cruise: Toronto FC 4, Portland Timbers 1

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MLS: Portland Timbers at Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

A loss in Toronto is hardly something to hang your head about this year. This TFC team is on pace to finish as one of the best in MLS history, and at 8-0-3 heading into Saturday’s game the Reds were tied with the Houston Dynamo for the best home record in MLS.

So Saturday’s game was always going to be a difficult proposition, which unquestionably informed the Timbers’ decision not to press Fanendo Adi and Liam Ridgewell back into duty. Even with them in the lineup Saturday would’ve been a tall task. And a difficult away game against an Eastern Conference opponent quite simply takes a back seat to the three-game set the Timbers face starting next weekend.

So there’s nothing to be particularly concerned about in losing to TFC on the road. Except, of course, how the Timbers lost, which is becoming a deeply worrying trend.

Deep Cuts

Nobody does meltdown mode quite like this Timbers team.

For the first 57 minutes on Saturday’s affair, the Timbers played TFC on pretty even footing. Possession was relatively even, both teams squeezed off five shots, and the quality of the chances was relatively even and, frankly, not great for either side.

Look at the expected goals graph that, in essence, tracks the teams’ respective chances over the course of the game (first picture):

The Timbers largely kept the Reds under wraps for almost the first hour of the game, which is no small feat and can’t happen by accident. Put simply, the Timbers were pretty darn good on the road against a very good opponent for most of an hour.

But after Toronto got on the board in the 58th minute by way of another Alvas Powell howler (and Jeff Attinella being rooted to his line, albeit in a tough spot), the Timbers regressed to their emerging trademark status: Full meltdown mode.

And you’ve seen them do so before. You watched their home loss to Real Salt Lake in which the Timbers conceded four times and picked up a pair of red cards. You watched the LA Galaxy game in which, after scoring first, the Timbers only avoided a 3-1 by the good graces of VAR and Jack McInerney’s erratic finishing.

On Saturday, after a brief post-concession period during which the Timbers pushed for an equalizer, it was no different. The Timbers’ defensive box — previously pretty well-controlled — became a shooting gallery with the Reds firing seven shots (including all four goals) from inside the 18 in the game’s final 33 minutes compared to two in the preceding 57. Here’s Toronto FC’s shot chart before Justin Morrow’s opener and after:

To be sure, the Timbers had to take some additional risks during this period (like pulling off David Guzman for Dairon Asprilla), but that can’t fully explain the extent to which the Timbers fell apart late in Saturday’s match. And it certainly doesn’t explain why similar meltdowns keep happening.

Look at what Caleb Porter — a coach who is mocked by some around MLS for his insistence that his team played well when results don’t go the Timbers’ way — said after the game:

Yikes. Not at all wrong, mind you. Still, yikes.

The conclusion from these recent performances is straightforward: Timbers are, quite simply, a soft team that all too often shrinks in the face of adversity and difficulty. The reason why the Timbers get weak-kneed after a disappointing concession is the same reason they have a knack for dropping results late in games.

It’s also the reason why Saturday’s game turned from what could’ve been a great result to an understandable loss to an embarrassment in the span of less than half an hour. And if it’s not fixed, it will also be why 2017 will turn out to be another disappointment.

Spotlight on...

Jeremy Ebobisse and his inexplicable spot on the bench to start Saturday’s game.

Right now there’s no narrative that gets under Caleb Porter’s skin more than the criticism that he doesn’t play his young players enough. In Porter’s view, he has given up-and-coming players like Alvas Powell, Jorge Villafana, Lucas Melano, Jake Gleeson, and even — at the beginning of his Timbers tenure — Darlington Nagbe considerable time on the field to develop.

And there’s certainly some truth to Porter’s counterargument. Moreover, it’s not like there have been a stream of young former-Timbers that have gone on to great success at their next stops.

But on Saturday Porter gave his critics a big old slice of validation by selecting Darren Mattocks over Ebobisse in the starting eleven. Mattocks is coming off a strong Gold Cup, but has never shown for the Timbers the that form he has (largely against lesser competition) for Jamaica. Indeed, after returning from the Gold Cup Mattocks got a 35-minute run out against the Galaxy after Adi’s injury. Perhaps not coincidentally, the previously-dominant Timbers attack immediately turned to pants after Mattocks came on.

Mattocks’s track record with the Timbers speaks for itself. In 1,385 minutes spread over 34 appearances (15 starts) with the Timbers, the Jamaican striker has 2 goals and 3 assists. Although much of that time was spent on the wing, that position is where Mattocks put in his best work in 2016.

Simply put, the Timbers brought Mattocks in to see if Caleb Porter could get more out of the Jamaican than Martin Rennie or Carl Robinson. He hasn’t. And that’s pretty well etched in stone at this point.

Ebobisse, on the other hand, has showed considerable promise in the meager minutes he’s found with the Timbers this year. In 137 minutes spread over six appearances (one start), Ebobisse has a goal and two assists. It doesn’t take a math wiz to find that production (albeit in a tiny sample size) is better than Mattocks’s.

But to some extent that’s beside the point: Ebobissee is young and promising. Mattocks has no future in Portland. In a game that the Timbers were approaching with some degree of realism by not pushing Ridgewell and Adi back into action, why not take the opportunity to get Ebobisse a start and some real minutes with guys like Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, and Nagbe?

Unless Ebobisse has some undisclosed knock, Porter’s decision not to do so is indefensible. And that point was laid all too bare when, after being thrown into a game with a team flying off the rails, Ebobisse still found a spot to put his mark on the game.

Although he was far from active in his 15 minutes alone up top, this is pretty spectacular stuff from a young striker. Not only did Ebobisse do well to work his way into a soft spot between the centerbacks and show great technique and awareness to find Diego Valeri and to get the ball to him quickly, his dummy run to clear space for Valeri in the box is the stuff of wily, selfless veterans.

Compare that off-ball movement to Mattocks’s here:

I mean... Simply put, Ebobisse is better than Mattocks, younger than Mattocks, a bigger part of the Timbers’ plans than Mattocks, and in greater need of extended first-team minutes than Mattocks. Yet — incredibly — it was Mattocks that got the start on Saturday.

Who knows if or how selecting Ebobisse over Mattocks would have affected the result on Saturday. It’s entirely possible that it wouldn’t have to a significant degree. Mattocks, after all, was far from the root of the Timbers’ problems. But even if the result hadn’t changed, if Ebobisse had been given a full run-out Saturday would have at least been another precious start and another important data point in Ebobisse’s development. As it is, Saturday was mostly just a wasted trip to Toronto.

It’s not at all a stretch to say that was one of the worst selection decisions of Caleb Porter’s tenure in Portland. And, in particular, it was one that validated a criticism against which Porter has chafed.

Stat of the Game

I noted it before, but it’s still this:

Not Man of the Match

Voting on Man of the Match doesn’t quite seem right. So let’s vote on Not Man of the Match.

Vote!

Poll

Who was your Not Man of the Match against Toronto FC?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    Sebastian Blanco
    (10 votes)
  • 3%
    Larrys Mabiala
    (10 votes)
  • 12%
    Darlington Nagbe
    (32 votes)
  • 5%
    Lawrence Olum
    (15 votes)
  • 64%
    Alvas Powell
    (169 votes)
  • 10%
    Other
    (28 votes)
264 votes total Vote Now

Finishing Bullets

  • A couple weeks ago after the draw in Houston we talked about Nagbe’s effectiveness on the right wing stemming from his ability to stay high and central. Still, we noted a danger that in that spot Nagbe has a tendency to float deeper and wider than he should. Saturday was a pretty good illustration of that. Look at where Nagbe figured into the Timbers’ passmap, which is the fourth picture in the tweet below (the circles represent each player’s average position while the lines and thickness thereof represent the number of passes they played to their teammates):
  • It’s not that Nagbe was always floating all that wide, but he definitely spent a lot of time deeper than the Timbers would like, which made him at best an afterthought in the final third, something that he just can’t be in the Timbers’ 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 setup. Look at Nagbe’s distribution chart before Dairon Asprilla came on and moved Nagbe to a deeper-lying central position. Seriously, it’s like the attacking area is the elephant’s graveyard to Nagbe’s Simba.
  • So in just the last few weeks we’ve seen how effective Nagbe can be on the right and how ineffective he can be at that spot. Since Nagbe returned from the Gold Cup, Porter has been pretty liberal in interchanging all three of the attacking midfielders between the respective positions at that level. Given Nagbe’s inconsistency on the right, that seems likely to continue.
  • As poor as the Timbers’ last half-hour performance was on Saturday, though (and the preceding 1500 words should give you an indication of how I feel about it), it’s important to keep in mind the Timbers are coming off a pretty good run of form, and this game was arguably the most expendable remaining on the Timbers’ schedule. So — if we can find anything positive to say today — it’s that at least not all is lost.