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Timber Cruise: San Jose Earthquakes 0, Portland Timbers 1

MLS: Portland Timbers at San Jose Earthquakes Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers have officially put their disappointing season-opening road trip well in the rear-view mirror. After three consecutive wins, two clean sheets, and their first road triumph, the Timbers are back in the mix in the Western Conference and still have a home-heavy schedule ahead of them.

To be sure, it hasn’t always been pretty, and the team still has a lot of work to do to get to where they need to be tactically. But they’re getting results — and that, by itself, is a huge improvement.

Let’s cruise.

Deep Cuts

That was — well — a pretty boring game on Saturday.

Gio Savarese once again deployed the hybrid 4-3-2-1/4-2-3-1 that the Timbers primarily used in the latter part of the season-opening road trip and for the first hour against Minnesota United at home. The attacking issues inherent in the system more or less remained, but the Timbers also reaped the benefits of tucking a third player (Andy Polo) in with the defensive midfielders.

The result was an Earthquakes attack that basically had to try to subsist on set pieces and crosses, which is, Savarese explained postgame, exactly what he wanted. The Quakes came out in a 4-4-2 with Chris Wondolowski running underneath Danny Hoesen up top, Vako playing as an inverted winger on the left, and Magnus Eriksson inverting on the right wing.

The purpose of playing dueling inverted wingers with a second forward in this 4-4-2 is to be able to get three attacking players (Vako, Eriksson, and Wondolowski) involved in the build-up. The wingers will generally start wide in midfield, but will come centrally as the Quakes moved into the final third to become playmakers.

As those three moved into the attacking third, however, they came up against the Timbers’ three-man defensive midfield. Although Vako was able to get into central areas deeper in midfield, he was forced wide within 30 yards of goal and the Quakes’ best player wasn’t a major factor in and around the box.

The same goes for Eriksson, who eventually flipped to the left side in the 71st minute after Michael Stahre brought Christopher Wehan on for Wondolowski.

And Wondolowski? He was just irrelevant over the course of his 70 minutes.

The Quakes, of course, still found a handful of moments in which they were dangerous, but it was just that — a handful. Strong performances from Jeff Attinella and the Timbers’ backline were more than enough to clean up those handful of dangerous moments.

It was, in short, a well-crafted and executed game plan to make Saturday evening’s game a fairly boring affair. That is, until Diego Valeri did this and the visitors turned their deserved clean sheet into a momentum-building three points.

Even a few weeks ago it would’ve been hard to imagine the Timbers sucking the life out of an opponent on the road before stealing three points on the way out the door, but that’s exactly what the Timbers did on Saturday.

The Timbers’ 190-minute shutout streak is still short enough to approach sweeping conclusions with some caution, but it’s certainly notable given the 14 goals they conceded in the preceding 530 minutes. And if this recent trend continues, it’ll be what turned the Timbers’ early-season fortunes around.

Spotlight on...

Andy Polo, and his very much work-in-progress integration into the team.

On Saturday, Polo was again deployed on the team sheet as a third defensive midfielder, and there were certainly many times in which he played that way and, as discussed, helped keep the Quakes out of Zone 14. But his role in the team over the last several weeks is probably best viewed as a slow transition from a third central midfielder to more of a truer winger.

There were times in defense in which Polo played much more like a winger than we’ve seen over the last several weeks, as he separated from Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes to more closely track fullbacks in midfield. This is a bit of a different look than we’ve seen from Polo in defense, as before Saturday he largely sat in with Chara and Paredes before rotating to provide support on the flanks later in the opponent’s buildup.

On the attacking end, Polo showed an inside-out pattern to his touches over the course of his previous deployments in his hybrid role, in which his actions came from more central areas when the Timbers had the ball in their own half and even as they crossed midfield, before flaring wider as Portland entered the final third. You can still see some of that in Polo’s attacking actions chart, but he was a lot more influential in wide areas on Saturday than we’ve seen him before.

If Polo’s role has evolved somewhat over the course of the last few weeks, though, we haven’t seen a ton more production in an increasingly winger-like role. Although Polo provided more width on the left in the final third, he still hasn’t provided much in terms of penetration. When on the ball, Polo has looked to recycle possession back to central areas rather than break into the box.

Polo, therefore, still isn’t providing the Timbers much of anything in the way of a goalscoring or playmaking presence, which — given the Timbers investment in him this offseason — is a bit of a disappointment. It’s still too early to write off Polo, and his work in midfield has been genuine value-added even if he has yet figured out how to be a difference-maker.

But make no mistake: If Polo’s signing is going to be considered a successful one, he has to be much more dangerous in the final third.

Stat of the Game

It’s this. It’s definitely this.

The Timbers’ late-game swoons have been a major bugaboo over the course of the last couple years. Although the Timbers have had problems conceding result-changing goals in the final 15 minutes, their inability to turn results in their favor has been even more glaring.

The Timbers broke the streak on Saturday. Now they have to go about turning that into a longer-standing improvement in late-game form.

Finishing Bullets

  • The improvement in form of the Timbers’ centerbacks from the beginning of the season has been remarkable. Although the issues that Liam Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala had were very different, both were marked disappointments in the first two weeks of the season. Mabiala’s improvement in form has been a process that has been ongoing for several weeks now, but Ridgewell’s return to form and commitment has been a major boon to the Timbers backline.
  • Although the Timbers have crawled their way back into the mix in the West, the next several weeks are going to be huge in determining how much of a factor they are going to be. The Timbers have four of their next five at home, and each of those games are against conference opponents. Among their opponents in that stretch are the current conference leaders, Sporting Kansas City and LAFC. If the Timbers can take care of business at Providence Park this month, the Timbers very well could enter the World Cup break among the frontrunners in the West.