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Forest for The Trees: Three Observations from Portland’s October Gauntlet

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Takeaways from the recent run of games as the Timbers enter the homestretch.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Last Thursday represented a finish line of sorts for the Portland Timbers. The draw against Seattle marked the end of a marathon of five games in 15 days. And just like an actual marathon runner finishing their race, Portland looked tired, out of breath, and a little delirious as the whistle blew on Thursday.

It wasn’t a terrible stretch. Portland picked up 8 points from a possible 15 and are positioned quite well for the stretch run. But, there are emerging themes that can be pulled from the past two weeks that can help inform the next two weeks and beyond.

So before we close out the month and turn the calendar to November, let’s take a look back at some key takeaways from these past five games:

The Timbers have an embarrassment of riches at forward

The Portland Timbers have two, maybe even three, legitimately strong starters at center forward. The front office swung for the fences in bringing in two higher-priced forward signings, and so far it appears that the investment is lifting all boats in the attack.

Felipe Mora has come alive over the past five matches, notching four goals and adding an assist. He is continuing to make the most of his starts, showing off great movement in the box, and banging in goals:

Jeremy Ebobisse has continued to progress and keep up his goal scoring form as well. Despite playing out of position (he’s a center forward darn it and I will die on this hill), Ebobisse has shown a strong propensity for finding good spots and scoring good goals:

The only potential question mark is Jaroslaw Niezgoda. He hasn’t played as many minutes over the past five games as the other forwards, but in his most recent start he tallied two goals and showcased the increasing chemistry and understanding he’s building with his teammates:

All in all, Portland appears to have a three-headed monster up front that can score a bunch of goals. Eight out of the team’s twelve goals scored over the past five games were scored by one of the three forwards. Questions remain (Ebobisse’s injury timeline, Mora’s continued effectiveness, Niezgoda’s lack of DP-level production), but right now, we’ve seen that Portland has three goal-hungry talented forwards that can lift them heading into the playoffs.

Unclear backup for Dos Diegos

Diego Valeri and Diego Chara both started all of Portland’s previous five matches, putting a lot of miles on their legs. Chara went the full 90 minutes in all five, totaling 450 minutes played. Valeri also was on the field for 403 minutes total, only being subbed off late in matches. Even though they’re both 34, they are Portland’s best and most key players.

And neither really has a solid backup on the roster.

Over the course of the past five matches we saw Portland rotate at the margins, but the constant was Dos Diegos both starting. And while right now they appear to be managing the load and contributing, there’s still a lot of soccer to be played. The team will inevitably need to have someone step up to help manage their minutes, and I’m nervous that they don’t have someone who can confidently do that.

Cristhian Paredes, after two years of steady progression, appears to have stalled this season. He hasn’t shown that same hunger or urgency in the center of the field he did in seasons past, and the numbers appear to back that up. According to FBref, opposing players have dribbled past Paredes 15 times this season in just over 650 minutes played. For reference, Chara has been dribbled past 20 times in almost 1,600 minutes played. While that’s only one stat, it does suggest that Parades’ projection as a player to provide Diego Chara relief may be in doubt.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Tomás Conechny, brought in as a young Designated Player in 2018 with eyes on him becoming an attacking midfield contributor, hasn’t shown the attacking verve necessary this season. In his past two starts, Conechny created a total of only 4 shooting opportunities from his offensive actions. He also hasn’t played longer than 55 minutes a game this season and has been subbed off at halftime from both his aforementioned previous starts.

Both players are 22 and still are developing, but they haven’t exactly given anyone a reason to believe that they will one day take up the mantle to be solid backups/occasional starters. We saw in the past five games that Giovanni Savarese was reluctant to rest Valeri or Chara, and based on what we saw from their presumptive backups, that will most likely continue into November.

This team has played a lot of minutes

Dating back to the regular season restart in August, the Portland Timbers have played 13 matches over the course of 54 days, which averages out to 90 minutes of game time roughly every 4 days. That is a heck of a lot of soccer, y’all.

In these past five matches in particular we saw some of that fatigue playing a factor. Against both LAFC and Seattle, Portland let in a stoppage time equalizer to drop three points. Yes, that suggests that there might be questions to be asked of the defense’ commitment and ability to play a full 90 minutes. But those games were also the final two in this two-week stretch, so you can make a legitimate argument that the defensive lapses were due in part to tired legs and tired minds.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

With that in mind, it’s important that the Timbers seek out and take advantage of every opportunity to rest their legs and recover. That means that it could prove hugely beneficial that the team clinches a home game in the playoffs. Finishing in one of the top two spots in the West means that Portland wouldn’t have to leave home until potentially the conference finals (or at all if they finish first in the West), which carries much more significance in this pandemic-impacted world.

They’ve played a lot of minutes already, and these next four games will be no cakewalk. But to set themselves up for success, the Timbers will need to stay focused and finish strong. Otherwise, dragging themselves to the final finish line might result in the team crumpling and collapsing come playoff time.