The Portland Timbers found another way to drop a result on Sunday. In Los Angeles to open the season the Timbers couldn’t escape a first-half hole. In New Jersey they chose the comprehensive meltdown approach to losing. In Dallas it was the right the ship, bunker, and be happy with a point routine. In Chicago the Timbers burst out to two one-goal leads only to cough up both.
And on Sunday in Orlando, the Timbers dominated 75 minutes of the game, had a comfortable multi-goal lead, and still found a way to lose. Mind you, they had some help. But still, with the way the Timbers played in the first 75 minutes, with help or no the Timbers’ inability to take even a point from Sunday is a spectacular failure.
All told, the Timbers bring home two points from their opening five-game road stretch. Given the relative weakness of the teams the Timbers faced, that’s an abysmal result. There are, to be sure, reasons for hope that better days are around the corner. But that doesn’t change the simple fact that the Timbers’ season-opening road trip was a failure.
Game states are a relatively simple concept. It’s simply a phrase used to describe the score of the game relative to how it affects each team’s approach. A team that is up a goal late in a game will play differently from a team that is down a goal in the waning minutes. An underdog away team with play differently at 1-1 than a favorite home team.
The basic concept, then, is straightforward. Managing game states, though, is far from it. And teams that do it well win. Teams that don’t lose.
The Timbers have had periods in the past when they managed game states well. The MLS Cup winning 2015 team was one of the most devastatingly efficient game-state managing teams in recent memory. With a solid backline and potency on the break, in their late-season run to the title the Timbers were brilliant in two respects: (1) They reliably got their noses in front — through the 2015 playoffs the Timbers trailed for a grand total of 22 minutes, and were ahead in series for 336 minutes; and (2) when the Timbers were ahead, they were difficult to break down and ruthlessly punished their opponents when they overextended to try to get back on level terms. As a defensively solid, counterattacking team, leading game states were advantageous for the Timbers. And that, as much as anything, is the story of how the Timbers won MLS Cup.
But it’s not just counterattacking teams that do well in leading game states. Good possession-based teams can succeed, as well, but they do it proactively. Instead of killing off games by being hard to break down defensively, they take the air out of the game with possession. And when their opponents take increasingly desperate risks to try to get their foot on enough of the ball to mount a comeback, good possession teams find a back-breaking goal.
And more or less the same can be said about good pressing teams. In other words, there’s more than one way to skin that proverbial cat, but teams just need to know how their team does it best .
The 2018 Timbers, however, have disastrously managed leading game states thus far. A week ago against Chicago, the Timbers dominated the Fire in central midfield on the way to a 1-0 halftime lead that could’ve been more. But instead of coming out of the locker room and re-asserting that dominance, the Timbers dropped off. And soon thereafter, the lead was gone. After Sebastian Blanco gave the Timbers a second lease on life in Bridgeview, the Timbers did the same. And so went the lead again.
It may have been worse on Sunday — but it didn’t look like it initially. After taking a 1-0 lead into halftime, the Timbers came out in the second half and took Orlando out to the woodshed. But for the crossbar and the post, the scoreline very easily could’ve been 3-0 or 4-0 in the visitors’ favor. The Timbers effectively used early defensive pressure, but then dropped into a medium-low block to tighten up spaces on Orlando’s talented front-four. That initial pressure, though, was vital, as the Timbers repeatedly turned the Lions over in the midfield and unsettled Orlando’s backline and defensive midfield.
Five minutes after the second goal, however, coach Giovanni Savarese took off the box-to-box Cristhian Paredes in favor of a true defensive midfielder in Lawrence Olum. Minutes thereafter, Savarese took off Samuel Armenteros, who had caused problems for Orlando City with his movement, for Dairon Asprilla, who — until earlier this year in a less-than-successful substitute outing in New York — had never played as a lone striker in Portland.
These moves were a solution in search of a problem. To the extent that Savarese wanted to introduce fresh legs into the defensive shape, Olum made little sense as he covers relatively little ground as a true six. To the extent that Savarese hoped Asprilla would provide an injection of pressing and energy up top, he did so at the considerable expense of being able to use his striker to hold the ball and create chances.
And although it didn’t happen all at once, the moves set the table to shift the Timbers into a considerably more defensive-oriented posture — the exact posture from which they frittered away two leads the week before. Look at where the Timbers intervened defensively — or, you know, didn’t — in the disastrous last 15 minutes.
On Sunday, Savarese tried again to get his Timbers side to ride out the game by sitting deep and being difficult to break down. Maybe now he’s learned that’s just not how his team can approach leading game states. Even if that message has hit home, though, it’s been an awfully expensive education.
Baldomero Toledo. Who else?
And in particular, Baldomero Toledo’s inability to control his emotions.
It started in the eighth minute when Toledo issued a yellow card to Sebastian Blanco for dissent and failing to observe 10 yards on a corner kick. Regardless whether Toledo was right — or even being needlessly nitpicky — for forcing the ten-yard issue with Blanco, it was a mindless fight for Blanco to pick. Although we can’t know what was said, Blanco’s yellow card appeared to be reasonably deserved and, if we’re being honest, just desserts for his petulance.
Blanco, for his part, left it there. Toledo didn’t.
Smarting from his previous conflict with Blanco, Toledo gave the Argentine winger a second yellow for simulation.
The problem was, well, it wasn’t simulation. And not even close — it was a clear foul. Immediately after the tackle, ESPN’s Taylor Twellman matter-of-factly said “That’s a penalty.” Toledo didn’t see it that way.
And it’s fairly obvious why he didn’t see it that way. Carrying with him the emotion of his previous conflict with Blanco, Toledo badly misinterpreted a fairly straightforward play in a way that fit the prejudice that he still harbored. It was an embarrassing error that VAR (thankfully) fixed, but it was one caused by Toledo’s failure to control his emotions and call the game in front of him without being influenced by what was behind him.
Which is very similar to what happened late in Sunday’s game when, with the smoke still yet to clear from Orlando’s first goal and the crowd alive for the first time on the day, Toledo got wrapped up in the emotion of the moment to invent another call in the Lions’ favor.
It’s trickier to overturn a call like this via VAR. With respect to the first-half penalty drawn by Blanco, it was a simple matter of whether the defender made contact with Blanco. If so, it wasn’t simulation and it was a penalty. If not, it was simulation and the yellow card would have been within the realm of reason. Video (and live action, for that matter) showed conclusively and inarguably that it was a bona fide foul.
Collisions like that one between Alvas Powell and Dom Dwyer are inherently more subjective as to when the contact is legal or illegal. So what constitutes a “clear and obvious error” such that it can even be subject to review by the center referee is very much in the eye of the beholder.
But make no mistake — this was Toledo’s worst call of the game, and the worst one you’re likely to see in a weekend full of games. The collision was, in the light most unfavorable to Powell, a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge of the type that is universally deemed to be legal. In reality, Dwyer did as much or more to initiate the contact than Powell did. If you showed that play to 100 professional referees, 100 of them would tell you it isn’t a foul. And the reason is simple: If that type of routine contact is consistently called a penalty, you’ll see dozens issued per game.
Caught up in the emotion of a newly-competitive game, Toledo — who was in a perfect spot to observe the play — again tried to see something in a play that just wasn’t there. The Timbers will have an awful lot to look themselves in the mirror about on Monday morning, and their statements after the game were focused much more on themselves than Toledo. But referees deserve scrutiny just like players and coaches. On Sunday Toledo failed to control his emotions, and, as a result, he improperly influenced the result.
Stat of the Game
15 and 8 — The number of points and results the Timbers have dropped via concessions in the 75th minute or later since the Timbers last scored a late-game goal to turn a result in their favor on June 26, 2016. Yes, this is the same stat as last week, albeit now updated to reflect the Timbers’ most recent late-game collapse. It turns out last week in Chicago was not an aberration in this respect.
Bonus Stat of the Game (Season)
0 — The number of goals the Timbers strikers have scored. That’s not great.
- Let’s start with a word of praise for Andy Polo, who started and played in his first game since the opener on Sunday. Although Polo wasn’t the line-breaking presence in the final third that he was billed as coming in, he was committed on the defensive end and, most of all, as clean as you can get in possession. Look at Polo’s passmap:
- That’s a lot of green. Polo’s insertion back into the lineup brought with it the return to the 4-2-3-1, but it looked like the 4-3-2-1 at times because (a) the Timbers consistently tucked Polo in on defense while keeping the other winger high; and (b) Polo’s presence — albeit from a winger position — was felt more in terms of a box-to-box role rather than a true wide attacker.
- To be sure, Polo’s signing will be a disappointment if he doesn’t figure things out in the final third, and it’s worth noting he had another golden chance fall to him early in the game that he failed to capitalize upon. But don’t let that cloud the good work that he did on Sunday. Hopefully it’s something to build on.
- There’s an awful lot of darkness coming from Sunday’s meltdown, and for good reason. It’s about as frustrating a result as I can remember, and it comes at a time when the Timbers could badly use some points to show for their five-game road trip. Early season, schmearly schmeason, the Timbers are behind the eight-ball now. Sitting on two points from five games, the Timbers now need to average 1.7 points per-game just to hit the 1.5 PPG mark that traditionally represents a safe playoff bid with a chance to earn a non-hopeless seed. Even with a home-heavy schedule remaining, that’s a lot of work to do.
- But there was also an awful lot that went right in the first hour-plus that could bode well for their ability to put together that kind of a run. Orlando is a flawed team struggling for direction right now, but they’re also a talented team. A truly bad Timbers team couldn’t dominate them on their home field like the Timbers did for much of the game on Sunday. Still, that’s cold comfort on a day like today.