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One Big Tree: All Good Things...

On old bad habits, losing the edge, and putting learnings to the test.

MLS: Portland Timbers at LA Galaxy Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers' mighty unbeaten run has finally come to an ignominious end. Like all good things, the steak was eventually going to conclude.

And like all things Timbers, it came in a way that was both heartbreaking and expected.

Let’s not get it twisted: as much of a gut punch as the ending to Saturday’s match was, Portland kind of got bodied on the night.

Those expected goals graphs tell the story of a team that struggled mightily to create anything consistent moving forward and of one that was under siege from a determined and skilled foe. The winner may have come from the penalty spot and not the run of play, but the reality is the Galaxy deserved to win on the night.

How did that penalty and the result come about? In large part, it was due to some of the Timbers’ bad habits popping back up again.

Chief among them were slow rotations and poor cover, especially in the space typically occupied by the Timbers’ fullbacks.

Pablo Bonilla, Portland’s emergency left back, struggled, recording only four successful ball-winning pressures out of 13 attempts. His counterpart on the right, Josecarlos Van Rankin, did not fare much better. JVR was successful in winning the ball on only six out of 17 pressures and he was dribbled past four times on the night which was the most out of any Timbers player, according to FBref. And of course, he was culpable for giving up the game-deciding penalty kick.

It was not a sterling night for Portland’s fullbacks. Their poor performance was exacerbated by a sub-par night from Portland’s central midfielders. Diego Chara did many incredible Diego Chara things and won the ball in several key areas, but he was just a step or two slow to a challenge (including on the entry ball that led to LA’s first goal).

His partner on the night, Cristhian Paredes, didn’t do enough to cover. He wasn’t very active defensively and also wasn’t effective in moving the ball forward or facilitating build-up. His chalkboard of defensive actions (triangles) and successful passes (squares) shows that Paredes didn’t do enough for the Timbers on the night:

It was not solely Paredes who shoulders the blame for the Timbers' lackluster outing, but his performance was as emblematic as any other players’ of how Portland wasn’t up to their recent standard.

Poor rotations, poor cover and poor pressures on the ball. It was like a greatest hits album of Portland’s defensive frailties.

As a result of these bad habits revealing themselves again, Portland lost for the first time in almost two full months. It didn’t help that the Timbers also had their worst offensive showing in almost two months. The passing network graphic tells the story as well as any other statistic:

Portland was as narrow and one-dimensional moving forward as they have ever been this season. It was due to the Galaxy bombing their fullbacks forward early and often and it was also a result of Portland being conservative with their own fullbacks and wingers.

Portland was simply not able to create enough verticality or width moving forward. The Timbers are built to counterattack in a direct and speedy fashion and they were not able to Saturday night.

The opportunistic, efficient and lethal attacking edge that the Timbers had been showing with aplomb over the past two months was absent on the night.

A thousand more words could be written about the question, “how did the Timbers lose?” But the question that matters more is, “how do the Timbers respond?”

We all suspected that at some point the Timbers would lose. What they learn from this game and how they respond will be the true test of the lessons learned in August. A few months ago, the Timbers were able to adjust successfully and spark the now-ended unbeaten run.

If Portland can learn from this, display their mentality, and show that they are now solidly at a place where they can put in an improved performance at home, then this team truly has learned some lessons and is still in great shape for November.

If not, the Timbers’ season could end just as quickly as their unbeaten run.

Stats, Stems, and Leaves

  • Portland’s 0.4 expected goals (according to FBref) is their lowest total since their victory on July 21 against LAFC and their lowest total on the road all season.
  • By his own admission, Blanco’s goal was an attempted cross (although I think that’s Seba just being modest).
  • Santiago Moreno had 3 shot-creating actions on Saturday. He was tied with Blanco for the team-high in that category.

Moment in the shade

Saturday night could have been a lot worse if it weren’t for the heroics of our favorite shark/horror film villain/goalkeeper Steve Clark.

Clark’s body of work this season has gone a little under the radar, mostly due to the number of blowouts Portland suffered during the spring and summer. But when you peel those away and look at the past month, Clark has been one of the best goalkeepers in the league.

This was on display Saturday when Clark made multiple saves against multiple high-quality Galaxy chances.

The Galaxy would have likely been 2-0 up just after halftime if it weren’t for both of those highlight-reel moments.

Steve Clark’s ability was on full display on Saturday night. It can be seen in the above highlights. When you dig a bit deeper, you see that Clark is quietly becoming a key difference-maker for the Timbers.

His save percentage (77%) is fourth-best in the league, which is solid in its own right. But when you add in how good he is at saving shots that have a high likelihood of being a goal (a high post-shot expected goal value), he is one of the best in the league at preventing goals and keeping Portland in games (second-best in fact, according to FBref).

That’s just a longer and nerdier way of saying something I think we all know: Steve Clark is solid. The Timbers weren’t able to pull out the result last week but Clark’s performance gave the Timbers a fighting chance to do so. Through the rest of this stretch run, that type of chance is something Portland is going to benefit from again. Next time let’s hope they will have the fortitude to capitalize on Clark’s dependable service.