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Bit by Bit: Haven’t we been here before?

MLS: Portland Timbers at FC Cincinnati Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For two weeks in a row, the Timbers have played matches that have followed the same script: They concede via set piece in the first 15 minutes, falter, but then look to have a resurgence in the middle of the first half. One way or another, they keep the game competitive until around the 60th minute, after which they collapse, giving up two goals and having a key defender sent off in quick succession. In these two games, the Timbers have been outscored by seven to one; their lone goal coming from a set piece.

That the Timbers have now played two matches in a row that played out in basically the same way against two very different opponents speaks volumes more about the boys in green than it does about the quality of those opponents. This PTFC team clearly has some immediate, pressing issues that need to be resolved before we can expect them to put up any positive results, regardless of who or where they’re playing. What exactly are those issues? Well, let’s take a look, bit by bit.

The Defense

Easily the biggest and most obvious problem with the 2019 Timbers is that they are the first team in MLS history to concede 3+ goals in each of their first three games. It is not an exaggeration to say that it’s impossible to be a winning soccer team while giving up more than three goals per game. It simply cannot be done. The worst goals-against from an MLS playoff team in recent years was San Jose in 2017, who snuck into the sixth seed in the West with a lousy 60 goals scored against them, averaging 1.76 per game. Comparatively, the 2019 Timbers are so far almost twice as leaky (3.33 goals against per game) and have given up 1/6th of the total goals against in 1/11th of the matches.

Obviously it’s still very early in the year, and the Timbers are historically awful in March, so to say the whole season is blown would be far too reactionary of a take. However, this is about as dire as team stats get (especially when you consider the average goal differential is at an equally dire -2 per game), and a solution to patch up the defensive leaks must be found as soon as possible.

What that solution may be, however, is less readily apparent. The back line has shown little that Timbers fans can be pleased with — both individually and as a unit — and while one new defensive signing has yet to play (Jorge Moreira), the other debuted this weekend in what can only be described as a thoroughly unconvincing outing.

Claude Dielna’s path here leaves him with essentially zero chance to get a head on the ball — and attempting to get a foot on it is an idea that could only possibly make sense if he had no idea where Kendall Waston, his mark, was.

As mentioned previously, Jorge Moreira, the Timbers other new defensive signing, still hasn’t played competitive minutes, but word on the tweet is that he could start in the Timbers’ next match facing the Galaxy. While it’s definitely reasonable to expect Moreira to be an overall improvement on the Timbers’ back line, it’s hard to imagine any one player having an impact large enough to totally right the ship.

To make matters worse, whatever the defense looks like two weeks from now in Los Angeles, it will be without the Timbers’ defensive stalwart Larrys Mabiala, who received the team’s second consecutive red card following Chara’s example set at Banc of California Stadium.

The Attack

After a solid attacking performance in Colorado, the Timbers looked generally lethargic and out of ideas on the ball for large stretches of the previous two matches. Yes, there was that sequence in which FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Spencer Richey made two really good saves in the 32nd minute, but at the end of the day, that was the most dangerous the Timbers looked all day in a match where they only put three shots on target.

Ultimately, the Timbers struggled to create meaningful chances, and a quick glance at Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco’s pass map both provides insight as to why that might have been and gives plenty of cause for concern.

The Timbers’ two best and most creative attackers combined for only ten successful passes (not counting corners) in or around the final third. Simply put, this team needs more from their two designated players, especially with Chara out. On the other hand, the Timbers’ other two attackers for the day, Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla, combined for two successful passes in and around the final third. I’ll spare you the map for that one.

Worse, the Timbers seem to have lost their clinical ability in the counter-attack. Yes, they are undoubtedly attempting to play a more positive, possession-oriented style this year, but it’s bizarre to see a team go from scary-deadly on the counter to having their attacking transition play be a significant issue.

At the end of the day, the Timbers have to figure out where their chances are going to come from. Even in Colorado, the goals scored were: an own goal, a penalty, and a little flick from a corner. At LAFC, PTFC scored from a set piece. In Cincinnati, PTFC’s best chance was Asprilla’s point-blank shot which came from a set piece.

Looking Forward

It’s tough to say exactly what the Timbers need to be doing differently to fix these issues, but watching the game, Stumptown Footy’s Will Conwell and I both got the sense that the Timbers as a whole seem to just be a bit slower than the other team. A little lethargic on the ball, a little late with their runs, and a little slow to react to anything. Whether it’s a lack of on-field leadership, a systemic misfit tactically, or maybe just a symptom of the short offseason, there’s this undeniable intangible malaise that’s affecting the entire team. For the Timbers to start winning again, they need to look sharper and hungrier.

As Gio bluntly said in his post-game comments, “We also have to be realistic in the sense that it was not good enough. It’s not good enough from the sense that we gave up too many goals, and we need to be better. We need to continue to work. We need to continue to have a belief. This is not what we want to represent for our fans and we are not happy and we cannot live on what we did last year.”

Last year, after the Timbers were on the receiving end of an embarrassing 4-0 shellacking at the hands of a New York Red Bulls B team, they used a bye week to regroup and earn a difficult point away against a very good FC Dallas team. Now, the Timbers have a bye week to regroup before facing a not-quite-as-difficult match visiting a not-quite-as-good LA Galaxy team. Will they be able to at least begin to turn things around and put up a much-needed positive result in match four of twelve straight away from home? I’m not sure, but we’ll find out in two weeks.