The chill is in the air, the leaves are falling to the ground and Dairon Asprilla is scoring world-class goals. You know what that means - the MLS Cup playoffs are near.
Things will reset for the Portland Timbers come playoff time and their record and form might not necessarily matter. But there are some numbers from the regular season that are worth paying attention to when attempting to predict Portland’s postseason prospects.
Here are five telling stats that I pulled from the Timbers’ regular season that might have some bearing on their fate in the playoffs.
+1: The difference in points per game when Sebastian Blanco plays
This should come as zero surprise to anyone who has been paying even partial attention to the Timbers this year. Portland is simply a different team with Sebastian Blanco on the field. With Seba, Portland has a dynamic attacker that puts them at or above the level of practically any team in the league. Without him, they are a middling-to-decent team that is nowhere near the level they need to be.
To drive it home, this plays out in the numbers. Portland has a 14-6-4 record with him (1.9 ppg), and a 3-7-0 record (0.9 ppg) without him.
Going into the playoffs, the Timbers will need to rely on Blanco being one of the best players on the field to have any hope of making any kind of real run. Seba is very capable of being the best player on the pitch throughout the playoffs, based on his body of work this season,
Blanco could be a catalyst for something special provided he is able to stay on the field and can find space to work his magic.
If he is limited or not available, however, then questions start to pop up. As established, there is a significant drop in quality in this team when Seba is not on the field and that could be a worry for the Timbers. This team will go as far as Blanco can carry them. When he is on and firing, the team’s ceiling is high.
12: The difference between Portland’s expected goal differential and actual goal differential
This stat (brought to you by way of FBref) means a lot more when you look at the two individual numbers that produced it:
- Portland’s expected goal difference: -8.0
- Portland’s actual GD: +4
The Timbers' defense was abysmal for the first chunk of the season, which was highlighted by numerous multi-goal blowouts. Portland routinely lost the expected and actual goals battle.
But right around September, the defense started to tighten up through the team’s collective effort. The backline was sharper, yes, but there was also was more defensive commitment from the midfielders and the wingers. Portland’s rotations were quicker and they were able to close space more effectively. And thus, Portland started giving up far fewer goals.
Interestingly, they weren’t winning the expected goals battle by as much as you’d expect. That underlying stat was better but not amazing.
The combination of those two factors led to the difference in the stat highlighted above. Whether through luck, or just enough defensive rigidity to get results, Portland allowed far fewer goals during the regular season than the underlying stats suggested they should.
Which one matters more? You can make arguments either way. What you can’t argue though is that Portland’s defense tightened up and played well through most of September and November but it is also the same unit that has the propensity to give up goals like they’re going out of style.
49: The number of points Portland has gained after scoring first
Like a freight revving up to speed, Portland plays their best soccer when they can capture and build on the momentum first.
When Portland score first, they force opposing teams to open up and push numbers into the attack. That allows the Timbers to play their preferred style of counterattacking soccer and score goals like this:
That was the story of the latter third of Portland’s season. They showed more initiative with and without the ball, built momentum early and rediscovered their lethal brand of counterattacking soccer. And they rode it to incredible success.
6: The number of points Portland has gained after conceding first
Like a freight train that unexpectedly encounters a deer on the tracks, the Timbers do not cope well when something throws them off. In particular, when they find themselves behind in a game.
The Timbers have not shown a lot of resiliency this season when they concede first. There have been a few glorious moments where they have come back to get a result (the Colorado game at home stands out in my mind), but these have very much been the exception and not the norm.
A big reason for this may be the tactical inverse of the above. When forced to chase the game, Portland isn’t able to stay as compact and tight defensively as they’d prefer, opening themselves up to the counterattack (like a certain home match against Vancouver). Also, Portland hasn’t shown a consistent ability to break down a set defense this season.
I’ve written before that to a certain extent “this team runs off vibes,” and this stat is a way to quantify that. If Portland start strong and build momentum with goals, then they are contenders. If they can’t, then we have a season full of evidence to make us nervous about what is to come next.
435: The total number of tackles + interceptions won by Claudio Bravo, Diego Chara and Josecarlos Van Rankin
At the risk of “loud number drawing all of the attention,” I include this to point out who the Timbers asked to do most of their defending in space this season. All three players were more or less consistent starters for most of the year and they were all asked to do a lot of defending in crucial areas.
Here’s the tactical chalkboard from the last time all three players played, in Portland’s 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake a few weeks ago, which shows the summation of their defensive actions:
I think that’s emblematic of the type of job those three have been asked to do all season: close down space, force attackers wide, and then win individual battles via the help of numbers. That in turn is reflective of the Timbers' overall defensive scheme which, when it clicks, makes Portland formidable.
Why do I highlight those three players in particular? For one, their positions (defensive mid & fullback), are make-or-break areas for the Timbers' defensive plan. The other is the tackles plus interceptions numbers for the entire roster:
You can see that those three players put in the lion’s share of tackles and have made the majority of interceptions for the Timbers this year. They were asked to carry a good bit of the defending in space - perhaps one of the most important phases of defense in MLS.
There is a separate discussion to be had around how well those players performed, but I’d argue that the Timbers would not be in the position they are today if those three did not do at least a decent job at what they were asked to do during the regular season.