A tale of three late game winners: one brings jubilation to a newly full Providence Park, one sends an equally as full Providence Park into wildly unexpected delirium, and one sends all of us collapsing to our couches in disappointment. I am of course referring to the late game dramatics that brought the Portland Timbers a pair of home wins — and then doomed them to a gut punch of a loss on the road.
Portland’s loss last weekend at Minnesota United was emblematic of their road form thus far in 2021 — pretty poor. While the performance was improved (for about an hour or so, until legs started to give out), the end result was reflective of the Timbers’ overall woes away from Providence Park.
The Timbers stand at a 1-5-1 record on the road, with that lone win coming at San Jose way back in May. They have a -9 goal differential in away matches and a +5 goal differential during home games. They’ve only picked up four points from seven road games, which is the second to last rate of return in that metric in the Western Conference.
Beyond just the box scores and standings, the underlying numbers are not kind to the Timbers either. According to FBref.com, Portland has an Expected Goal Difference per 90 minutes (xGD/90) of -0.73, the third worst in the Western Conference. In layman’s terms, that means Portland is allowing their opponents a much greater quality of scoring chances than the ones they are generating, with the analytics suggesting that they are currently expected to be outscored by nearly a goal while playing on the road.
In even simpler terms, Portland’s quality of play on the road has been straight up bad, and the results have followed in due course. The team’s aptitude as road warriors has been less “Mad Max: Fury Road” and more “National Lampoon’s Vacation”.
Much of this — as well as much of Portland’s poor results overall this season — can possibly be chalked up to the fact that the Timbers have yet to be at full strength in 2021. Between recovering from old injuries, international absences, and recovering from new injuries, key pieces have been missing from the team since the jump. Much of that has encompassed Portland’s top end talent, which thereby hampers their game-winning ability.
But all of the above doesn’t excuse the poor results. Limited team sheets or not, the MLS teams that contend for trophies are the ones that can put up respectable performances on the road. Portland doesn’t have to become world beaters and masters of the away win, but they have to start putting up better performances and earning more points on the road.
There was a glimmer of hope last week in St. Paul. Yes, that loss was an aforementioned gut punch. But for about 60 minutes, it was one of the most cohesive and competent away performances the Timbers had put together this season.
In a season that has been marked by limp and lifeless multiple-goal thrashings in the state of Texas, the Timbers looked dialed in and focused for a good chunk of the game at Minnesota. They were composed defensively, limiting the number of dangerous chances for the Loons. And they were dangerous in their own counter attacks, as evidenced by the “Dairon copied Seba’s homework” Felipe Mora goal:
Unfortunately, soccer is a game of 90 minutes and not 60. As could have been expected while playing their third game in a week on short rest, the Timbers started to tire, and the focus and cohesion started to wane. Minnesota inversely ramped up the pressure, and we all saw how that ended.
It was a much improved performance, and it was a shame that it wasn’t rewarded by an improved result. At the end of the day, results are the things that matter the most for the team. Poor road form was what doomed the Timbers to an opening round playoff game, and subsequent opening round loss, on the road in 2019. And it was what ultimately cost the team a playoff berth in 2016, when they (shudder) went winless on the road that year.
That impossibly low bar has thankfully been cleared this year, but if the Timbers want to position themselves to be a serious contender for MLS Cup in 2021 they have to start piling up more points from away fixtures.
They’ll have a good chance to do so this upcoming Friday at the LA Galaxy. Yes, LA’s home record has basically been about as good as Portland’s, but their recent form has left a bit to be desired. LA is winless in their past three games and have been without their own set of players due to international call-ups and injury. Star striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has been injured since early July, and the Galaxy are coming off a 4-0 licking at the hands of the kids of FC Dallas. On paper, it’s a winnable game for the Timbers.
It of course won’t be easy — nothing in MLS ever is. But if the Timbers want to truly start getting this season fully back on track, they have to do the hard things to improve their form on the road. And if they’re able to put in a full cohesive road performance like they did last week, and maybe add a dash of the late dramatics like they have been keen on doing lately, Friday night will be marked by all us being sent into jubilation once again — only this time from our couches.