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One Big Tree: No Ceiling Yet

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On doing what good teams do, lingering questions, and still reaching for the ceiling.

MLS: Inter Miami CF at Portland Timbers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, we can pretty confidently say that the Portland Timbers are a good soccer team - not just a “hot” or “decent” team. No, the Portland Timbers’ latest win in their inaugural match against the fightin’ David Beckhams firmly entrenched the idea that the Timbers are a bonafide good soccer team.

What was so significant about that win and why did it help solidify the idea that the Timbers are among the upper-level teams in MLS? On the day, the Timbers weren’t that great but they still battled and got a result.

The offense was anemic for two-thirds of the game. By head coach Giovanni Savarese’s own admission, there was not enough movement off the ball in the final third. A 0-0 scoreline through 80+ minutes frankly flattered the visitors and through that point, the Timbers players were as demonstratively frustrated on the field as we’ve seen in over a month.

And yet still, when the Timbers leaned on their quality and difference makers to tilt the balance, this is what happened:

Portland won despite the fact that they weren’t at their best on Sunday. Getting results in exactly this fashion is what makes the Timbers a good soccer team. Portland beat a team at home that they were supposed to beat, something that good soccer teams do.

You can quibble with the fact that Intern Miami are objectively a bad team and that Portland should have been able to breeze past them easily, even without Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri. At the end of the day, however, Miami were still a determined and committed team, which did admittedly look better on Sunday than they have as of late. So gutting out a result, no matter the circumstances, is not insignificant.

Don’t believe the anecdotal evidence? Check the scoreboard:

Over the past eight games, the Timbers have solidified their place amongst the top-tier MLS contenders. And not only are the Timbers firmly in the playoff spots in the Western Conference, but they are likely to finish within the top three of the conference and earn the right to play at least one playoff game at Providence Park this offseason.

(Before you read any further, please knock on the nearest wooden object you can find. Thanks.)

That is not to say that they are the best team in the league or destined to win MLS Cup by any measure. There are still questions for this team to answer if they are to reach the heights they want to in November and December.

Chief among those is having a plan B (or maybe even a plan C) for the attack. As of now, plan A has been “get the ball to Blanco in space and let him work”. Portland have been excellent at playing off Blanco’s strengths and taking advantage of his dynamic playmaking.

But Sunday was our first glimpse of the Timbers attacking without Seba- and it wasn’t pretty. Alex did a great job yesterday of outlining how ineffective the Timbers were until Blanco subbed on and Portland will most likely have to solve that problem again in a higher stakes setting down the stretch or in the playoffs. Portland are going to have to figure out how to keep their offense alive even when Blanco isn’t available or isn’t at his best if they want to be in the thick of it at the end of the season.

The backline has also mostly been fine but is still benefitting from a few close calls that have tilted the Timbers' way (this week it was a late equalizer being disallowed). What will happen when the call doesn’t go their way? Specifically, can Portland scrap out a win if they concede first? It has happened quite literally only once this season.

These are the questions that separate MLS Cup contenders from the teams who are just happy to make the playoffs and they are ones that the Timbers will have to answer if they want to belong in that upper echelon.

But the fact that we’re discussing the Timbers even being potential top-tier contenders is a testament to how many questions the Timbers have already answered. And it’s reflective of just how good this team is at the moment. They are trending high and have yet to hit their ceiling.

When this team finally loses again (yes, I said when), we will have our next significant data point in their trajectory. How they respond will tell us a lot about where that ceiling is. Many of those above questions could be answered in significant ways.

Right now Portland’s resume has been built up to suggest that they are built to answer the bell and lean on what has made them good over the past seven weeks. And until we see their heads hit that ceiling, we can continue to dream about how high it could be.

Stats, Stems, & Leaves

  • When Jaroslaw Niezgoda subbed on in the 82nd minute, it marked the first time the Timbers have had all three Designated Players (Niezgoda, Blanco, and Y. Chara) on the field at the same time since July 23, 2020, in the MLS is Back bubble.
  • Niezgoda’s regular season strike rate with the Timbers is a whopping 64% conversion rate (according to MLS Soccer).
  • The Michael Myers mask is back in time for spooky season (and it’s appropriate this time).

Moment in the Shade

I normally reserve this space to end on a high note and spotlight a player or moment that made me smile, regardless of the on-field results.

But this week, I’ll be honest, thinking about PTFC does not make me smile. Sure, I am very satisfied with the Timbers’ play on the field. But the sickening news coming out of the NWSL, the implications and fallout for that entire league, and the role that the front office has played in it has overshadowed everything.

So, instead of highlighting a player or moment on the field, I’m choosing to use this space to continue to amplify the voices off the field that need to be heard.

You can donate to the NWSL Players Association here. Protect the players.