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One Big Tree: Running on Vibes

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On runaway trains, lighting a fire, and trying to figure this team out.

Craig Mitchelldyer - Portland Timbers

The Portland Timbers’ last win felt something like a train. It got out of the station a little slowly, took its time to build up speed but then, sparked by a jolt of juice, took off and wasn’t going to be stopped by anyone or anything - not even an earthquake.

The team’s momentum carried them all the way to their first win since October 3 and featured two rarities: a Diego Chara goal and Dairon Asprilla fulfilling his destiny by scoring what will likely be the Goal of the Year.

Those two goals, Asprilla’s especially, seemed to light a fire under the Timbers that hadn’t been seen for about a month. It was a return to form for a team that badly needed it.

Perhaps the most important part about Wednesday night was that after Asprilla’s goal, the result never actually felt like it was in jeopardy.

It wasn’t necessarily because the Timbers made a shift in tactics or personnel to shut down the ‘Quakes’ attack. In fact, after Asprilla’s bike, San Jose actually made a triple-sub, throwing on the kitchen sink in the form of additional attackers to try to rescue a point. There was still over half an hour left - the match was by no means and done and dusted.

Except… it totally was. Take a look at the expected goals graph from the match and at how little the ‘Quakes mustered after Portland’s second goal:

San Jose only managed seven shots in the final 35 minutes and change of the game, only one of those being on target. Their cumulative xG over that period (according to MLS Soccer) was about 0.28. It was almost like San Jose saw Asprilla’s spectacular strike, looked at each other, and all collectively thought at the same time “oh we’re going to lose, huh.”

The reason the win felt assured by the 56th minute was that Portland simply had the momentum and superiority that they would not relinquish. The goal electrified everyone in Providence Park and that included the Timbers players. That energy fed into and jump-started the play on the field. In turn, the visitors shrank away from that energy and couldn’t cope.

It was almost the inverse of last Wednesday’s performance when Portland shrank away from Vancouver’s energy. That point is significant because it tells us something about what makes this team tick and might finally pull back the curtain to give some certainty

In a year when answering the question “what kind of team are the Portland Timbers?” has proven to be a challenging prospect, this is my best attempt at explaining the 2021 Timbers: this is a team that runs off pure emotion, and feeds off the momentum and the pressure of the moment.

This team has played their best when their backs were against the wall. Season threatening to flatline after a loss to Austin? Fine - the team puts in what was their best road performance to date in the next game. Things threatening to fall apart again after a three-game losing streak? No problem - the team pulls it together and thumps San Jose.

The Timbers play their best when their emotions are up and the team is determined - this was demonstrated in the effort the team showed on defensive rotations, to the way that team was lifted when Blanco returned. The team runs off vibes and momentum and the Timbers can be potent when those are both high.

Now, what does that all mean, and is it sustainable? To the former, it means that the only way this team can be successful is if they stay in that high-stakes mindset. A playoff spot and a home match are still up for grabs. To be successful in November, Portland need to maintain that “no room for error, backs against the wall” mentality for the duration, if they are to perform at the level needed.

To the latter question? I have no clue. If you had asked me if this attitude is sustainable for success a month ago, I would have nodded vigorously. But if you had asked me two weeks ago, I would have basically been the Danny DeVito “nope” meme. A couple of matches ago it looked like whatever magic the Timbers had found had run out and the team didn’t have much left in the tank.

But then Wednesday happened. Then Dairon happened. And now we see a glimpse of the team that rattled off eight unbeaten and revived their season. As they have all year, the Timbers pleasantly surprised us. Who knows how far Portland can run on emotion but as we turn toward the end of this wild ride, I am looking forward to finding out.

Stats, Stems, and Leaves:

  • The xG value of Asprilla’s goal was 0.03.
  • Wednesday was Portland’s highest non-penalty xG from an MLS game this season (3.0-3.5, depending on where you look)
  • My colleague Alex tweeted his reaction to the goal. If you want to visualize mine, just take Jake’s from below, add my hands reaching my head, and picture them staying there for like two whole minutes.

Moment in the Shade

I mean c’mon you know this was all going to be about Dairon.

Much digital ink has been spilled about Asprilla’s renaissance this season and all of the plaudits he received after Wednesday (and his retweeting spree) are wholly deserved.

I want to take this space to shed a spotlight on some of the postgame quotes Asprilla shared. When talking about the goal of his career, Asprilla spoke about his late father - his superhero.

I’m going to be honest - watching that got me a bit choked up.

That moment was a reminder of the human side of the game and was reflective of a player whom Portland fans have basically watched grow up. It was moving and impactful and spoke to the kind of player and man Asprilla is.

Soccer is sometimes a cruel game and the players who deserve the most get the least. So to see a player like Dairon Asprilla, who has overcome so much adversity over his time in Portland and endured so much heartache over the past year, to have an absolutely stellar season like this is nothing less than joyous.

Long live the Year of Dairon Asprilla!