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One Big Tree: Crashing Back Down to Earth

On regression, wanting it more, and how to get up (again).

MLS: Portland Timbers at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever climbed a tree and gotten to a branch with a great view only to have the branch snap and you unexpectedly fall straight down with terrifying speed? I once saw a friend who did and he broke his arm. His recounting focused on the pride of how far he could see at the top and then the utter horror he felt when he realized he was falling. And of course, the pain he felt as he crashed into the ground. It sounded both exhilarating and horrifying.

I haven’t personally experienced the above myself, but do you know who I could ask for a more recent retelling? The Portland Timbers. Because the above story is exactly what they have done over the past two weeks.

Back-to-back losses to the Vancouver Whitecaps and Colorado Rapids (on the heels of a loss to the LA Galaxy) have plummeted the Portland Timbers back down to Earth after a spectacular end to their summer. An eight-game unbeaten run has now been overshadowed by three straight defeats which have dragged the Timbers back into the absolute melee that is the Western Conference playoff race.

If you had been paying attention to the underlying numbers, this shouldn’t have necessarily been a surprise. Portland’s underlying expected goals and expected goals against performance have been pretty bad for most of the season. After the win in Seattle however, Portland’s numbers improved. They started to show increased defensive rigidity, leading to them limiting the quality of shots they were giving up.

You might think that those improved numbers would start to override the earlier poor numbers and pull the Timbers to a more sustainable trajectory. Well if you thought that… you’d be wrong:

As you can see from those charts pulled from American Soccer Analysis (which you should definitely check out if numbers are your vibe), Portland are still just about as bad and as lucky as they were before the unbeaten run.

The reality is that Portland have regressed to what the numbers suggest they truly are: an opportunistic team that has a marginally passable defense and can also generate a decent amount of goal-scoring opportunities when they are fully healthy.

So the numbers might have told us this was coming but did the play on the field do the same? If you had been assessing the Timbers based on how they looked on the field, then this past week’s face plant may have been more of a surprise.

The unbeaten streak was defined by Portland simply finding ways to win. They probably got more than a bit lucky and had their fair share of opportunistic moments, but they still capitalized and made the most of them. Eight-game unbeaten streaks don’t come out of nowhere and the Timbers built theirs on the back of plain old hard work, urgency, and greater commitment to their scheme (and more than a few dashes of Sebastian Blanco magic).

That’s what made these two most recent losses potentially more unexpected because they were defined by the opposite of those things. The uncomfortable reality is that a big reason Portland lost its previous two games is that they didn’t want it as much as their opponents.

Vancouver came out like hellions in the second half last Wednesday and Portland were perpetually on their heels and never responded or recovered. Colorado came out like a team with a chip on their shoulder, and Portland was a step slow the entire game. They showed little urgency in their attack outside of a few moments at the start of the second half and conceded two pretty soft goals.

That gritty, determined and effective team from the late summer appears to be gone. The Timbers have been outworked over the past 135 minutes of game time and now all of that good faith and breathing room they earned over September has been used up.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC v Portland Timbers
Same, Steve. Same.
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

This team’s ability to make a run in the MLS playoffs - heck, their ability to even make the playoffs - must now be critically re-examined. It is no exaggeration to say that the next week for Portland is season-defining. If they want to pick themselves up (again), they will need to defy the numbers (again) and re-discover that fight and commitment (again) that made things work a month ago.

Amazingly, Portland still control their own destiny. If the Timbers can win out, they will finish fourth and host a playoff game. Even winning their final two homes games might do it.

Whether they are able to do either of those, however, is a massive open question now.

Stats, Stems, and Leaves

  • The Timbers managed one (1) shot in the box on Saturday against Colorado. Yikes.
  • All but one (1) of Colorado’s shots against the Timbers came from inside the box. Yikes.
  • Saturday was only the fourth time this season Portland have been held scoreless and the first time since June 26.
  • With Colorado opening up a nine-point gap over them, Portland can almost assuredly kiss their scant hopes for a third-place finish goodbye.

Moment in the Shade

Going to be honest - finding a positive to highlight was a toughie this past week.

But a player that has quietly started to show a glimpse of quality over the past two weeks has been the newest Timbers player, Santiago Moreno. The 21-year-old Colombian winger has started to play more minutes for Portland and in those minutes he’s shown flashes of why the Timbers made him their first U-22 Player Initiative signing.

Moreno has already bagged two assists in just under 200 minutes and his speediness and quick, direct play have make him a decent fit for Portland’s current counterattacking system. He’s active on and off the ball and is fearless in taking on defenders, as shown by his first (maybe unintentional) assist in MLS:

On Saturday, Moreno earned his first-ever Timbers start. He wasn’t necessarily good on the night (to be honest no one wearing white was), but he was probably one of the least bad. According to FBref, he totaled five shot-creating actions, the highest number from any one Timbers player (even one more than El Maestro himself).

Moreno is quite obviously still a work in progress. He was signed as such, and his longevity and long-term impact in Portland will rest on his ability to become cleaner on the ball, find more dangerous spots more often, and overall settle into MLS’ style of play.

But the flashes we have seen show the type of promise Moreno could bring. As Portland stare into the unnervingly imminent next era after Diego, Diego, and Seba, Moreno’s capacity to turn those flashes into full-on fires could be a key piece to navigating that nerve-wracking next step.