If you were starting to worry that the Timbers didn’t play exciting soccer anymore, you can toss all your cares aside, as they delivered their most entertaining performance of the year on Saturday. On top of that, they cemented themselves as a top-level MLS team by extending their win streak to five matches. After last week’s win over the more-than-struggling Seattle Sounders, I understood, and even shared, skepticism about this team.
Yes, they had won four straight already, but when a win streak includes a 3-2 nail-biter against Minnesota United and two ugly 1-0 slogs against the (currently) tenth and eleventh place teams in the West, it’s not hard to see that string of results as the outcome of benevolent scheduling. That 3-0 win against NYCFC? Well, this is MLS and flukey results can happen.
After Saturday, any room for skepticism is gone. If getting a deserved 2-1 win over another of the league’s top teams while largely nullifying an attack that had been scoring 2.66 goals per game on the road isn’t convincing enough for you, here’s another thing: The Timbers managed that with Julio Cascante getting his first meaningful playing time in MLS after Liam Ridgewell was forced off injured just minutes into the match.
404 - Shutout Not Found
Via Timber’s StatMan Mike Donovan, Jeff Attinella has now “set a club record for longest shutout streak in the team’s MLS era at 404 minutes.” 270 of those minutes were the Timbers’ last three matches, and up until the 74th minute on Saturday, it looked like the Timbers might extend the clean sheet streak to four.
Alas, it wasn’t to be.
Before diving deeper, let’s just agree this is an absolutely remarkable strike. That said, there was a bit of a defensive breakdown that gave Vela a little help
Cascante is marking Diego Rossi in transition. Rossi receives a simple pass from Vela on the wing, and is forced to play negative to Atuesta. Cascante’s good defensive work pulled him high and wide, so Zarek Valentin stepped inwards to fill his vacant spot in the back line. Here’s where it breaks down.
Cascante should recover into Valentin’s now-empty spot at left back, and those two would switch back the next time they got a chance to do so. Instead, he starts running to the same spot Valentin is moving to cover, which leaves Vela in just enough space in the corner of the box to create a moment of magic.
You can’t really blame anyone too much here, because at the end of the day this is a small miscommunication between two guys who, before Saturday, had never played meaningful minutes together. Vela was left with a small amount of space for a small amount of time. It wasn’t a particularly glaring error from the Timbers, but for a player of Vela’s quality, sometimes that’s all it takes to change a game.
ZV vs CV
Let’s talk more about Valentin and Vela. LAFC started in a 3-4-3 with Vela at the right forward position. This left Valentin with the difficult task of defending one of the league’s best attacking talents for 90 minutes, and he did a lockdown job. Here’s Vela’s attacking actions.
This is not the map of a playmaker who is pulling the strings of the game.
Furthermore, after LAFC brought on Omar Gaber and Eduard Atuesta (changing their shape to the 4-2-3-1 they used against NYCFC), they almost exclusively attacked Valentin’s side. Here’s LAFC attacking actions from the 65th minute on.
Valentin unequivocally had a lot to do on Saturday against very good opposition. Over 90 minutes he was, in a word from Coach Gio Savarese, “fantastic.”
After Samuel Armenteros and Cristhian Paredes opened their accounts on Saturday, The Timbers now have goals from eight players over 11 games.
The production from the Timbers’ offseason signings has already proven invaluable to their season and is on track to well outpace that of their ostensible counterparts from last year. Cristhian Paredes is now tied with Diego Valeri for a team-best three assists. For contrast, Lawrence Olum and David Guzman combined for two goals and six assists from over 4000 minutes in 2017. Andres Flores already has two assists in only 241 minutes.
It’s still early in the season, but the Timbers can be comfortable not wondering where their offense will come from. As Valentin said in the locker room, “We know that we have enough firepower in our tactic to get those goals and win moments. ... We have some good players and luckily it may not be someone getting thirty goals for us, but it might be a collective group where we have three or four guys with ten.”
Chris Rifer sums it up best.
The Timbers have gone from a team that more-than-frequently dropped results in late minutes (remember Chicago and Orlando?) to a team that consistently wins points in the last fifteen minutes of matches. The dreaded “+1 Timbers” of 2017 is now officially a thing of the past as PTFC now has a team that undeniably has the mental fortitude to not just hang onto a lead, but create one when they need it most.
This newfound mental fortitude is inseparable from the team’s current five-game win streak. While we’ve yet to see the Timbers truly dominate a team for 90 minutes, it’s no longer hard to imagine them doing so in the near future.