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Timber Cruise: New York City FC 0, Portland Timbers 1

MLS: Portland Timbers at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Well that weekend couldn’t have gone much better for the Portland Timbers.

Not only did the Timbers earn an improbable 1-0 win at inevitable Eastern Conference runners-up New York City FC, but nearly every other result went their way, too: The Sounders dropped points against the Galaxy at home, FC Dallas got burned by Atlanta United, Sporting Kansas City took only one point from their two-game Eastern swing, and the Houston Dynamo lost to the Colorado Rapids at home (?!?!).

As a result, the Timbers stand alone atop the Western Conference on points and are well within the thick of the race for a top-two spot and first-round bye on points per game.

With five games left in the season, then, the Timbers sit in a very different position than they were in even a few weeks ago. No longer clinging to the red line, the Timbers are in contention to win the West.

And as surprising as that is, it’s not exactly a shock. Throughout the Timbers’ spring and early-summer troubles, Caleb Porter’s side wasn’t being outclassed as much as it was squandering attainable points. If ever they stopped doing so, it was easy to see how the team’s fortunes could turn around in a hurry.

Well, they stopped and, in turn, the Timbers have taken 17 points from their last eight games.

Deep Cuts

Yankee Stadium isn’t a great place to play soccer. The surface is far from consistent and the field is notoriously narrow.

The lack of width, in particular, affects how games flow in the Bronx. Everything at Yankee Stadium becomes pinched and, as a result, a competent low block can pretty effectively shut down attacking space. The outcome, then, it that results in the house that replaced the House That Ruth Built are often dictated by 1) turnovers in bad spots and/or 2) set pieces.

The Timbers’ defensive approach in New York, then, was relatively straightforward: Initially press high but, if and when NYCFC breaks through, drop deep and clog the final third. This comes through pretty clearly in the map of the Timbers’ defensive actions:

And it also comes through pretty clearly in the goal that ultimately won the game for the Timbers, as it was exactly that kind of early pressure from Darren Mattocks that skinned the scandalously casual Andrea Pirlo.

Now, this isn’t some brilliant formula that Caleb Porter just cracked. It’s sort of just the rational way to play at Yankee Stadium and, not at all surprisingly, is also the general way that NYCFC approached Saturday’s game.

To the Timbers’ credit, though, they handled it well. NYCFC — a team that presses as well as any in MLS on their home field — had trouble turning the Timbers over in bad spots after the first half hour. In the first 30 minutes the Cityzens had nine successful defensive actions at midfield or higher. Over the course of the final hour of the game, however, NYCFC only had five.

Especially at Yankee Stadium, limiting an opponent’s opportunities to play in transition is a crucial part of game-management, and the Timbers did so brilliantly over the course of the last hour on Saturday. As such, the Timbers were able to tighten up the final third on New York and, all the while, find enough opportunities in transition the other way that — but for an extraordinary performance from Sean Johnson — would have put the Timbers comfortably in front.

The result was a 1-0 win that’s hard to see this Timbers team securing even six weeks ago. On Saturday Porter’s team weathered a moderate early storm, found an opening goal, and then ground out a tight win with sharp game-management.

That’s exactly the kind of thing the Timbers weren’t doing through the first five months of the 2017 season. And it’s exactly the kind of thing they need to do if they want to make noise in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Spotlight on...

Diego Valeri. I mean, who else?

The Timbers’ Maestro tied an MLS record on Saturday by scoring a goal in his seventh straight game. The history of Valeri’s accomplishment, though, isn’t the most important thing about the playmaker-turned-goalscorer’s recent production for the Timbers.

Six of the games in Valeri’s seven-game streak have been played (at least in part) without Fanendo Adi, the Timbers’ former all-time club leader in goals scored. With a defense that has been inconsistent (at best), the Timbers couldn’t afford a dip in goalscoring punch in Adi’s absence and with Sebastian Blanco cooling off from his summer goalscoring tear.

Yet, the Timbers have put together their best run of form during this period in large part because of Valeri stepping up to become an elite goalscoring threat.

But the consecutive games with a goal-scored streak now isn’t the only history that Valeri is chasing. With 17 goals and nine assists with five games remaining, Valeri has a shot at becoming just the second (or, very likely, third if David Villa also joins this group) player to log 20 goals and 10 assists in an MLS season.

If the Timbers are able to continue their late-season run and turn 2017 into a special season, it will — as much as anything that’s happened since he arrived in 2013 — be a product of Valeri putting the team on his shoulders.

Stat of the Game

Seven — The number of shots that Diego Valeri squeezed off against NYCFC. One of the stories of Diego Valeri’s MLS career is going to be how he turned from a playmaker who could chip in goals into a goalscorer who can make plays.

Through his first five seasons in Portland, Valeri had a perfectly respectable 23 goals to go along with his spectacular 35 assists. In 2016 and 2017, however, Valeri has chipped in a jaw-dropping 31 goals and a diminished (but still impressive) 16 assists.

This, however, probably has less to do with what Valeri can do and more to do with what the Timbers need. The Timbers are loaded with players who can make plays in Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Blanco in addition to Valeri, but, aside from Fanendo Adi, don’t have another major goalscoring threat. Still, Valeri’s ability to be elite both as a playmaker and a goalscorer depending on what the team needs only adds to his legend in Portland, and is a major part of what makes Valeri an all-time great in MLS.

Finishing Bullets

  • With four points from two away games at Seattle and NYCFC, the Timbers now face a very favorable final five-game stretch in which three of five are at home and four of five are against teams currently below the red line. This is why, although other teams have games in hand, the Timbers are favorites to grab a top-two spot in the Western Conference.
  • “Favorites,” though, is a pretty relative term in a chaotic Western Conference. Which is to say although the Timbers have put themselves in a strong position heading into the final five games, there is a lot of work yet to do.
  • As a result of Vytas coming off with a shoulder injury against NYCFC, Porter may avoid having to make perhaps his hardest lineup selection once again even though Liam Ridgewell is set to return against Real Salt Lake. Vytas has been in excellent form since recovering from his swoon against Toronto FC, and remains the most natural two-way left back selection on the team. Roy Miller, however, has been arguably the MVP of the backline over the course of the season in light of the chaos around him. With Vytas possibly carrying an injury into Salt Lake, Miller seems to be the natural selection at left back, which — if it happens — suggests Sebastian Blanco will start on the left, Darlington Nagbe will join David Guzman in defensive midfield, and Dairon Asprilla (assuming he is over his illness) will slot in on the right.