The Portland Timbers took care of business at home this week. Six points out of six is a perfect result, even when it comes against overmatched opposition.
After a season in which the Timbers have racked up more style points than, you know, actual points, the Timbers’ two-game homestead marks a significant, but not unwelcome, departure.
The Timbers have showed over the course of the last week that they can grind out results even when they don’t play all that well over the course of 90 minutes. A little bit of that earlier this summer would have saved Timbers fans a lot of heartache, so there’s very real reason to be pleased with the way this homestead went.
But, after winning two games by an aggregate score of 4-1 and giving up very little in the way of chances, it still feels like the Timbers’ play left something to be desired this week at Providence Park, doesn’t it? That feeling is the result of expectations, something the Timbers should embrace rather than shun.
In one way Wednesday felt like Friday. The Timbers let an inferior opponent stick around, leading to some nervous moments late in the game. Letting the Rapids hang within one goal made the threat of being Alan Gordon’d omnipresent on Friday evening and was a considerable disappointment for the Timbers given the gaping disparity in chances and possession.
But, as a soccer game goes, it also couldn’t have been more different. On Friday, the New York Red Bulls pressed all over the field and caused the Timbers to register their lowest pass-completion percentage of the Porter Era. On Wednesday, the Rapids set the lowest defensive block imaginable and allowed the Timbers to register their highest pass-completion percentage of the MLS Era.
The Rapids’ defensive approach had a single purpose: To pack as many numbers in and around the box as possible to keep the Timbers at bay. It was Davy Crockett at the Alamo, sumo wrestler in goal kind of stuff.
Look where the Rapids defended on the day and compare that to the Red Bulls five days ago:
The difference in approaches is stunning, and, considering the relative success that the Red Bulls had on Friday, the Rapids’ approach is somewhat mystifying. But, such an approach is in the Colorado’s DNA; even if they recently fired their coach on the pretense of changing that DNA.
The result of the Rapids packing the box was the Timbers having to find ways to unlock the final ball from wide areas. In the first half, the two sides of the Timbers’ attack showed how that can be done very differently.
On the right, the Timbers were quick to settle for crosses from near the touchline into the box. As you can tell by those arrows, that was — shall we say — less than efficient.
On the left, however, the Timbers were more patient to bend the Rapids’ low block out of shape and attack where the weakness presented itself. Watch the Timbers’ first goal:
Although the ultimate entry ball was a cross from Vytas near the touchline, it came off an intricate passing sequence in the channel that forced the Rapids’ defense to over-rotate. With Rapids defenders concentrated at the near post, all Vytas had to do was put the ball in the box at the goalmouth to let Valeri take advantage of the space the Timbers had created to provide the finish.
The Timbers’ dominance on the left side in the first half was in no small part because Darlington Nagbe set up shop at the left corner of the penalty area. Suffice to say, business was quite good.
If Colorado parked the bus, the Timbers pried it open on the left with the jaws of life.
In the second half, though, both sides became the first half’s right side, as the Timbers all-too-often settled for the simple deep cross. Gone were the combinations that bent the Rapids out of shape.
As a result, the Timbers struggled to break apart Colorado’s low block, the chances that the Timbers created with regularity before halftime became sparse, and the Rapids lingered in a game they had no business being in.
Why? Well, among other reasons, because Nagbe drifted deeper in the second half. Although he became more of a force in possession, his diminished influence as a line-breaker around the penalty area was conspicuous.
At the end of the day, the Timbers’ two goals were enough against the Rapids. And the fact that they made them enough is a notable improvement from earlier in the season when they regularly dropped results in similar matches. Still, the foot-off-the-gas was notable as the game went along, and, accordingly, the risk of backsliding into squandering results was present throughout.
With four wins in their last six games, the Timbers have proven they’re a team that can scratch out results. But as they showed in the first half hour on Wednesday, the Timbers are a team that can and should do much more than just scratch out results.
Vytas, and his at least momentarily reclaimed spot in the starting XI.
One of the surprises of the summer has been that Vytas has lost his incumbency as the starter at left back. Coming off a strong 2016 Timbers debut, and with few optimal options behind him on the depth chart, Vytas’s spot at left back seemed to be among the safest starting spots on the team heading into the season.
A combination of injuries, inconsistency, the surprising emergence of Marco Farfan, and the better-than-expected form of Roy Miller conspired to bring instability and competition to the left-back spot.
Vytas was in a particularly vulnerable place coming into Wednesday. Vytas was perhaps the most telling omission from Caleb Porter’s lineup on Friday, only coming on late when Larrys Mabiala was sent off for denial of a goalscoring opportunity and Roy Miller had to shift inside. And even then, it was Vytas who promptly lost track of Sal Zizzo’s run that led to the Red Bulls’ best chance of the game. Vytas got the start on Wednesday for the same reason as he came in on Friday — because Mabiala was out — and started Wednesday evening’s affair with little promise of returning to the lineup thereafter.
Well, he may have changed that.
Vytas had perhaps the best game of any Timbers fullback in 2017 on Wednesday, registering two assists, two more chances created, and providing a key possession cog on the left touchline. On the defensive end, Vytas was a force in the box in particular, registering a team-high seven clearances; something that came in very handy as the game wore along and the Rapids started trying to pump balls in toward Alan Gordon.
Now, Vytas’s spot at left back is hardly guaranteed for the long- or even medium-term. Given his struggles with consistency this year, it will take more than one great performance to convince Caleb Porter to restore Vytas to his automatic-starting status. But Wednesday almost certainly earned Vytas a chance to prove his performance against the Rapids was a sign of a return to form.
Stat of the Game
513 — The number of passes the Timbers completed on Wednesday. As the Timbers’ #StatMan Mike Donovan pointed out, there were a bunch of notable passing stats from the game against the Rapids, but completing 513 passes on 579 attempts is truly remarkable.
Man of the Match Poll
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- Thankfully, it appears Dairon Asprilla is okay after lying on the field for several minutes while tended to by medical professionals after Wednesday’s game. In his postgame press conference, Caleb Porter indicated it may have been driven by a bit of the flu that Asprilla had heading into the game.
- With their fourth win in six tries, the Timbers vaulted into fourth in the West on points per-game and second overall. And with the San Jose Earthquakes’ drubbing at the hands of Real Salt Lake on Wednesday, the Timbers now sit more than .2 PPG above the red line (that’s fairly significant) and only .12 PPG off Sporting Kansas City’s pace in the West. Although a late-season downturn in form could certainly change this, the Timbers’ two wins in the past week have put them in the thick of the race for playoff seeding more than merely for postseason qualification.
- With seven games left, the Timbers’ remaining season divides into two phases. A three-game road trip starting now in which the Timbers face the unbeaten-in-ten Seattle Sounders; New York City FC, winners of four out of five; and a Real Salt Lake team that suddenly seems much likelier than the San Jose Earthquakes to make a late run for playoff qualification. After that, though, the Timbers close the season with three of four at home, and the sixth-place Vancouver Whitecaps representing the biggest challenge in the season’s final four fixtures. If the Timbers can survive this upcoming three-game span to the tune of four points in their pocket, the stars very much align for a final push in late-September and October.
- Finally, this is fun: