The spring is now behind us, and we enter the heat of summer (Yes, I know it’s not officially summer. But it hit 80 degrees last week. That’s summer in my book).
The Portland Timbers have endured a bit of a roller coaster start to their 2021 season. Last minute penalties, missed penalties, bad blowouts, a Dairon Asprilla regular season goal — you name it, this season has had it thus far. It’s been rough, but the team is still fighting.
As the club recovers during the international break and prepares for the next phase of the season, it’s worth taking a pause to take a look back at the previous months that were for the Portland Timbers, and identifying some key takeaways:
Portland is battered and bruised, but still battling
Let’s start with the biggest and broadest takeaway: the Portland Timbers are currently above the playoff line in the Western Conference.
A month ago, I don’t think a lot of us thought they would be there. The Timbers had just been bounced from the Concacaf Champions League at the hands of Club America, and then suffered a gut punch of a loss against the Seattle Sounders. Confidence was low, and then to make matters worse, the injury wave hit.
The team announced that at least nine players on their roster would be out with injury, including their starting and backup goalkeepers, their starting defensive midfielder (and godfather), their backup defensive midfielder, and first choice central defender. Add them onto two still recovering Designated Players, add a dash of “having only three points after four games”, and you have a recipe for another miserable spring for the Timbers.
Instead, the Timbers rattled off two straight shutout victories and buoyed themselves to be in a position to still be just in the thick of the fight as they entered this current international break. I wrote back in April that Portland needed to keep the pace as they juggled multiple competitions in order to stay on track in league play. I’d argue they’ve just about done that, despite their CCL campaign ending in disappointment.
It hasn’t been the prettiest, but the Timbers have survived pretty much the worst that this early season could throw at them. They’re battered and bruised, but they haven’t quit, and they turned what looked like a mini-tailspin into a gritty recovery.
"With a limited roster... Six points in three games - and two away from home - against three good teams. I'm very proud of the group."— Portland Timbers (@TimbersFC) May 31, 2021
Although it was a disappointing result today, Gio Savarese looks at the big picture. #RCTID pic.twitter.com/IeXu93GOl9
Has it been the best it could? Certainly not. Getting blown out on the road by FC Dallas and the Philadelphia Union were bad losses, and losing to Seattle always sucks. The Timbers will obviously have to play better in the summer to live up to this team’s potential. But right now, they’ve positioned themselves to do so from a decent position.
And Portland’s position in the standings is no doubt in large part thanks to...
Meet your MVT (Most Valuable Timber): Eryk Williamson
There are a few people that I never want to get on the bad side of — Gordon Ramsey, Megan Rapinoe, and Michael Jordan being some of them.
I now need to add Eryk Williamson to that list, especially as he appears to be channeling Jordan himself lately:
That was tweeted after Williamson’s sublime performance against the San Jose Earthquakes a month ago, presumably as a direct call out of USMNT U-23 coach Jason Kreis, and his decision to not bring Williamson to the Olympic qualifying tournament (where the USA failed to qualify for the Olympics).
It also appeared to be a shot at San Jose holding midfielder Jackson Yueill, as Williamson was playing the same position for the Timbers (holding/defensive midfielder) opposite Yueill in that game. We all saw how that went:
Williamson bagged two assists, and was overall one of the best players on the pitch. That game was emblematic of his overall play, which has been pretty much stellar for most of this young season.
According to FBref.com, Williamson is one of the league leaders in interceptions per 90 minutes and among the top players in the league in progressive carries and dribbles completed per 90. Those don’t necessarily mean much in a vacuum, but when you factor in the positive impact it is having on the Timbers on the field, it reflects just how essential Williamson has been for whatever amount of success the Timbers have found in 2021.
After being left off the Olympic roster, Eryk Williamson has stepped up his game to another level early into the MLS season. He has had an electric start and more than proved he belonged in the Olympics. He's arguably been Portland's best player thus far and isn't slowing down. pic.twitter.com/ZPuQrO5fjk— Caleb Adams (@itscalebadams) May 17, 2021
It seems that when Williamsom has a good game, the Timbers have a good performance. With other key players still on the mend, Williamson has had to shoulder much of the playmaking and attacking burden. And he has handled that burden with a great deal of proficiency. He’s stepped up to not just be the most outstanding Timbers player of the spring, but one of the better players in the league through seven weeks of league play.
Williamson’s influence on the Timbers cannot be overstated at this point, and until players return from injury, it is likely that he will be the key for any positive play from the Timbers. That especially holds true when you consider…
The starting striker battle is wide open
Going into this season, one of the biggest early season storylines would be how the battle for the starting forward spot was to progress. With Jaroslaw Niezgoda sidelined while recovering from ACL surgery, Jeremy Ebobisse and Felipe Mora looked set to battle it out for the right to be Portland’s early season starting number nine.
Instead, Ebobisse wound up starting the season injured, Mora wouldn’t score in league play until late May, and Diego Valeri and Blake Bodily both started games as false nines.
The the situation at center forward has been pretty weird in these early days. I’m not saying it’s a disaster — just that as of now no one has really staked their claim as “Portland’s best forward” so far in 2021.
The one who has come the closes has been Mora. He scored in Portland’s first match of 2021 against CD Marathon in Honduras, but then didn’t find the net again until converting that wild last gasp penalty in the first leg against Club America. He didn’t score in league play until the 3-0 trouncing of LA a few weeks ago — an opportunistic but respectable brace. While it’s, y’know, something, it isn’t close to the level of production Portland needs from their starting number nine.
He hasn’t scored a ton, and he’s also left his fair share of chances on the table. Misses in the matches against the Vancouver Whitecaps and Club America loom large, and they’re emblematic of his underlying numbers. According to FBref.com, Mora is underperforming his expected goals value by about two goals, which shows that he hasn’t quite found his shooting boots yet.
Ebobisse has been clearly working his way back into form, as his numbers haven’t been up to his regular standard. He’s appeared in just five of Portland’s league matches thus far, only four of those starts (and three as a winger), and his sharpness or positioning doesn’t quite seem to be quite 100% yet.
Again, this is not a disaster. Strikers need time to find their form early in the season, and if the past is any indicator, both Ebobisse and Mora will be just fine, especially as more offensive weapons like Sebastian Blanco get healthy. But they have left the door wide open for someone like Niezgoda to come in and claim the spot once he is fully fit.
The MLS season is long and a battle of endurance, and so all strikers on the roster will presumably have their chance to make their case to be the man up top down the stretch. But as is the case with essentially every other part of the season this far, nothing is settled, and it is all still to play for.