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Timber Cruise: Real Salt Lake 2, Portland Timbers 1

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MLS: Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

After a draw in Seattle and a win in New York, the Portland Timbers were largely playing with house money on Saturday. And — well — they lost.

But with the Seattle Sounders drawing at floundering FC Dallas and the Vancouver Whitecaps drawing at home to the Columbus Crew, the loss is hardly devastating for the Timbers who still sit one point from the top of the Western Conference.

To be sure, a win or even a draw would’ve been valuable points in the bank. But with three of four at home and only one game against a playoff team by points per game, the Timbers remain in a strong position in the Western Conference playoff race.

Deep Cuts

Roy Miller has arguably been the Timbers’ defensive MVP this season. With Liam Ridgewell spending most of 2017 on the mend, Miller has filled in admirably primarily at left centerback — and he’s done so under usually pretty chaotic circumstances.

With Ridgewell back and Vytas questionable (though, as we found out later, nonetheless available), Miller was the likely choice at left back on Saturday, where he’s also periodically filled in this season. At left back, however, Miller has been less consistent defensively and predictably lacking in the attacking half of his more two-way role as a fullback.

And so it was on Saturday, leading the Claret-and-Cobalt to pin the Timbers’ left side back and leaving Portland punchless on the left side of their attack.

First, let’s look at the defensive end. Look at RSL’s distribution chart from Saturday and, in particular, note heavy lean toward the right side of their attack.

RSL targeted the Timbers’ left side in the buildup and used their nominal left winger, Joao Plata, as a de facto second forward in the final third. Now, it wouldn’t be fair to say RSL overran the Timbers’ defense, even on that left side. More than half of Salt Lake’s 19 shots came from outside the box, with the vast majority of those being skeptical efforts from 25 yards or more. Salt Lake, after all, only put four of their shots on frame.

On the road facing a team in good attacking form, the Timbers defense was passable on Saturday, even if it wasn’t considerably better than passable; and Miller was certainly part of that. Although it can be argued he bears some modest degree of responsibility for not applying enough ball-pressure on Jefferson Savarino’s goal, the error wasn’t egregious and, in the end, it was primarily a tip-your-cap goal.

But passable defense isn’t exactly a great return on considerable sacrifices in the attack. Unlike Vytas, who provides a consistent attacking cog on the left side of the Timbers’ attack, Miller is a defense-first — and second and third — left back.

Despite playing 75 minutes at left back, Miller barely registered in the final third.

And, in part, as a result, Sebastian Blanco — capable of being one of the Timbers’ most devastating attackers in the channel — spent an awful lot of time dumping balls into the box from a very wide position.

The result was that Blanco was far from influential, something that crippled the Timbers attack with Darlington Nagbe already sitting deeper as an eight. As a team, therefore, the Timbers showed a surprising rightward shift when, with Blanco on the left and Nagbe deeper, their natural shape would be exactly the opposite.

Dairon Asprilla did reasonably well as a focal point of the attack — something that would have been highly unlikely in 2016 — but Blanco’s absence in the buildup rendered the Timbers’ attack far from consistent. And that absence was a direct result of the Timbers lacking any attacking threat from left back.

It’s clear that Caleb Porter is going to start Liam Ridgewell as long as he’s healthy. Whether he starts Miller or Vytas next to him at left back, then, is the primary selection question on the backline. Even if Miller provides some degree of extra defensive cover, though, the Timbers may not be able to afford the corresponding hit in the attack.

Over the course of 2017, Miller may be the Timbers defensive MVP. But with Ridgewell now healthy (for the moment, at least), he may not be a starter for the Timbers down the stretch.

Spotlight on...

Jeff Attinella, and, more broadly, the Timbers’ goalkeeping program.

Attinella had some good moments on Saturday, but this wasn’t one of them.

That was, to be sure, a well-hit ball by Albert Rusnak that was bending away from Attinella and knuckling. Still, that’s a strike that Attinella needs to save every time.

And it isn’t Attinella’s first gaffe of the season. Nor would it have been Jake Gleeson’s had he been in Attinella’s position on Saturday.

One goalkeeper in poor form would be one thing, but the fact that the Timbers’ two top goalkeepers are simultaneously in inconsistent form raises broader concerns about the Timbers’ goalkeeping program.

To be sure, there have been successes in Adin Brown’s tenure as the Timbers goalkeeper coach, most prominently including Gleeson’s development into a legitimate starting MLS goalkeeper. The simple reality, though, is Timbers goalkeepers — both Gleeson and Attinella -- have cost the team points this year, and, as a result, this offseason the Timbers will want to give a hard look to their goalkeeping program.

Stat of the Game

Eight — And you know why.

Diego Valeri is a legend. Build the statue.

Man of the Match

Vote!

Poll

Who was your Man of the Match against Real Salt Lake?

This poll is closed

  • 87%
    Diego Valeri
    (173 votes)
  • 12%
    I’m a nincompoop
    (24 votes)
197 votes total Vote Now

Finishing Bullets

  • I mentioned it above, but it’s worth revisiting Dairon Asprilla’s performance on Saturday. Although the consistency of his finishing remains lacking, Asprilla was among the Timbers’ most influential attacking players. Both helpful in the buildup and dangerous in and around the box, the 2017 version of Dairon Asprilla was on display against RSL. That version really is significantly better than that which the Timbers previously saw in 2015 and 2016, even after relatively inconsistent playing time of late.
  • Darren Mattocks has done a good job recently of finding moments in a match in which to make a difference, but there won’t always be an Andrea Pirlo to clown or a Sounders backline to blow by. And when that moment doesn’t present itself, with Mattocks you wind up with a striker that has a game like this:
  • This is one of the most significant differences between Mattocks and Fanendo Adi. Even when Adi falls into poor goalscoring form, he still finds ways to impact games with his gravity and holdup play. That’s why, notwithstanding Mattocks producing goals, assists, and penalties drawn at an acceptable rate, the Timbers really miss Adi.