The Portland Timbers just finished up a spectacular September on the field, with an awesome finish to August and an outstanding opening to October sprinkled in.
They are currently in the midst of an eight-game unbeaten run, in which they have won seven of their last eight. The Timbers’ impressive stretch not only revived their season but propelled them up the standings, making them a real contender in the Western Conference. It’s been pretty neat.
The team is currently in the midst of a well-earned week of rest, hopefully icing their limbs and making sure that Sebastian Blanco is kept in bubble wrap to ensure maximum safety. It’s a chance for the players to rest and recuperate and an opportunity for us to dive a little deeper into the numbers behind this great streak. And also extrapolate some maybe-not-too wild conclusions from them, like any good soccer nerd is oft to do.
So without further ado, here are the numbers that matter from Portland’s eight-game unbeaten run:
The percentage of Portland’s goals that have been scored with Sebastian Blanco on the field
Any conversation about Portland’s run has to start with the play of the Argentine dynamo Sebastian Blanco. It is no coincidence that the unbeaten streak has coincided with him returning to full fitness - he’s been massive for the Timbers. Without him, they are an average-to-decent team that can occasionally get the stuffing kicked out of them. With him, they are probably trophy contenders, who can occasionally kick the stuffing out of other teams.
He runs absolutely everywhere and does absolutely everything. Blanco also serves up delicious crosses after doing so. Like this:
Portland’s goal difference over the past eight games
Another big factor? Portland isn’t leaking goals like a sieve anymore. Leading up to the game at Seattle, Portland had an atrocious -12 goal differential. Helped along by multiple multi-goal blowouts, Portland’s defensive woes were very apparent and opposing teams were able to get into dangerous positions pretty frequently.
Now, they are a decent team defensively which makes it hard for teams to find and exploit those same areas. Defensive rotations have been sharper, defensive set ups have been smarter, and the team is showing a greater commitment to defend and close down. It’s “good try, good effort” combined with the essential component of “good result”.
It also helps that Portland has scored at least one goal in every game since June 26 and, as of late, have been banging them in with relative ease. But a positive goal differential is built on the back of not conceding and that’s exactly what the Timbers’ backline has been doing.
Portland’s positive expected goals difference over the past eight games
This is one of those “good, not great” numbers. Portland is winning the xG battle on the whole during their run, which is good. It means that this run is built off something sustainable and probably repeatable.
The “not great” part is that the number is pretty low compared to their goal difference. Portland’s offense is outperforming what the stats suggest they should be scoring. That could be said for a lot of MLS teams in fairness. However, it does mean that Portland’s defense has been better, but not as solid as it could be. They’ve benefitted from a significant offensive output but there is still a question or two regarding Portland’s backline.
Caveats of game states, number of shots conceded vs. quality, etc., apply but it does give slight pause to the idea that Portland are all the way fixed. They still have room for improvement and when (yep, I said when) those gaps become too vulnerable it will likely cost them points. The big question is how they respond when it does (yep, when again).
(By the way, xG is a stat that varies pretty widely depending on where you look. I’m pulling numbers from FBref here, in case you care to cross-check my work).
Steve Clark’s save percentage in his first ten games this season
Clark’s save percentage over the past eight games
The difference between those two numbers tells us a couple of things. First, Portland’s defense has been demonstrably better over the last eight games, which isn’t surprising if you’ve watched any Timbers game since the end of August.
It is important to note that it’s not necessarily because the Timbers are giving up fewer shots. Portland has actually given up marginally more shots per game over the past eight games (4.75) than in Clark’s first ten matches this season (4.4), according to FBref.
So when you look at those numbers and the second save percentage, it tells us something important: the Timbers are likely allowing a greater percentage of savable shots.
That’s just a lot of words to say that Portland’s defense has been better at limiting high quality looks on goal and Portland’s shark between the posts has been a doing darned good job of saving them.
I mean just look at this man:
The average points per game of the Western Conference teams Portland has beaten
Those teams are all below the Timbers in the Western Conference standings for the most part. It’s relevant to note that a lot of the teams the Timbers have beaten have been teams that the Timbers, y’know, should beat. All of them except one are now below Portland in the standings, by some significant margin in most cases (Portland’s ppg is 1.64 at the moment, in case you were wondering).
That may seem somewhat uninspiring but there is something to be said about Portland taking care of business against teams that they are better than, at least on paper. That wasn’t the case earlier this season (lookin’ at you, blowout losses in Dallas, then Austin, and then for some inexplicable reason, Austin again).
Beating teams you should beat gets you into the playoffs. It also helps build confidence so that when the time comes, you’d bet on yourself to beat any team in front of you and that’s exactly what the Timbers are doing.
So, what does that all mean for the final month of the season?
In all seriousness - who knows? Portland rattled off this current run when all of the numbers suggested that they were bad and should have felt bad. Numbers and stats only go as far as the performance on the field and six weeks ago Portland said “damn the numbers, go ahead” and surprised us all to spark this run.
But if we want to dig deeper, these numbers reinforce that the Timbers’ resurgence has been legit. They’ve gotten their difference makers healthy, have corrected their woes on the defense, and have become a pretty darned good soccer team.
A month from now, we could be looking back at these numbers as a high point (goodness I hope not). But in all likelihood, we’ll look back at the data from the unbeaten run as the time when the Timbers reinvented themselves and started the march towards something special.