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One Big Tree: A feature, not a bug

On losing the magic, patterns emerging, and running out of time.

Seattle Sounders FC v Portland Timbers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Welcome to One Big Tree, a weekly(ish) highlight of something memorable or noteworthy from the week that was in Portland Timbers, along with some smaller important(ish) things.

This week’s One Big Tree: A feature, not a bug.

There was a moment on Sunday night where the old magic seemed to be back. George Fochive had just scored the equalizer to make it 2-2, and Providence Park was rocking. The smoke was blowing, the chainsaw was revving, and the atmosphere was crackling.

What made that moment so impactful was it was a moment when the Timbers felt like the Timbers again. It was a feeling that has so seldom been felt in 2021. This season has been defined by deflated performances, blowout losses, and a lack of the traditional Timbers grit and magic that has come to define the team.

For a moment we thought Portland had started to put all of that behind them. But instead, we were subject to one of the worst capitulations from the Timbers this season — and maybe from any Timbers team ever.

And we all learned that a fleeting moment of magic before conceding four unanswered turned out to unfortunately be simply that — just a moment.

SOCCER: AUG 15 MLS - Seattle Sounders at Portland Timbers
If facial expressions could tell stories... this would be a sad one.
Photo by Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In a vacuum, the Portland Timbers’ Sunday night blowout loss against the Seattle Sounders was not something new. We’ve seen this team lose at home this season. We’ve seen this team lose to Seattle at home this season. We’ve seen this team get blown out this season.

But we’ve never seen all three happen at once. Sunday night was a moment when somehow, in a season of lows, the Timbers found a new one. The added insult to injury was that it happened against those guys, in our house.

Maybe it was hearing the Seattle supporters as the dominant voice in Providence Park, or maybe it was seeing six separate jubilant Sounders’ player celebrations, or maybe it was suffering seeing three different golazos scored against the Timbers. For whatever reason that may have caused it, last weekend may have been when the dam broke for you, and you realized that something might be pretty broken with the Portland Timbers.

Sunday night might have been when you realized that demoralizing, frustrating, embarrassing blowout losses may not be a bug of the 2021 Portland Timbers — they may be a feature.

The loss to Seattle marked Portland’s fifth multigoal loss in the 2021 campaign. They are far and away the league leaders in that category — no other MLS team has more 3+ goal losses this season than Portland’s five. The next closest are the LA Galaxy and lowly FC Cincinnati, each with three.

This many blowout losses (Portland has matched their 2012 number of 3+ goal losses, and there’s still three months of season left) is reflective of a deeper rot within the team. It suggests that when this team faces enough adversity, their heads go down and they lose their fighting spirit — arguably the thing that has defined successful Timbers teams in the past. And what results is the disorganized, disinterested, and dispirited performances we’ve seen too many times this season.

The amount of blame to go around is plenty, and no one is immune. There were multiple egregious fouls in the defensive third that led directly to Seattle goals. And Portland’s set piece defending on Seattle’s fifth goal was, once again, bad. Multiple players at multiple positions did not execute well on Sunday, and that is squarely on the 11 players on the field.

But the buck truly stops with Giovanni Savarese and his coaching staff. It’s their job to ensure that the team is prepared for a game and anything that develops out there. What’s most worrying is that it’s also their job to train a team to be resilient and still put in a complete effort even while being down goals and up against it.

We have seen enough performances that lack that fight to start to believe it is becoming a trend. And that it turn reflects a trend of a lack of effective action from Gio and his staff to interrupt it. For what it’s worth, Gio is at least identifying (some of) the problem, and directly calling out the lack of effort from all involved. Externally, he is at least signaling that he and his staff know what needs to change, and is presumably taking steps to correct.

He’s been saying the right things, and yet ... there has to be a reason Portland is leading the league in 3+ goal losses this year. Despite what is said externally, you have to start to wonder what is (or isn’t) being said and done internally to correct the course, or even if the coaching staff is even recognizing that things are even off course to begin with.

If you want to argue that the staff still has time to course correct, fine — that’s entirely reasonable. Portland still has 16 games left, and are just rounding the corner of getting back to full health (for the first time this year).

But Portland currently sits in a precarious spot. The Timbers face five straight games on the road. They still sit above the playoff line, but perilously so by virtue of total wins. And they have three teams all nipping at their heels.

And not much suggests that the Timbers have it in them to hold their foes off. Portland has earned only four points on the road — the worst of any team in the Western Conference (tied with FC Dallas) and second-worst in the entire league. They also have the worst road goal differential in the West (a whopping -12) and the second lowest points per game average on the road (a measly return of 0.5 ppg).

The next four weeks for the Timbers will be pretty close to season-defining, and if the Timbers stumble through it they may find themselves in a hole they cannot dig themselves out of.

The team has been here before — right on the edge of the season careening away. The Timbers have surprised us before in seasons past by going on season-defining runs when their backs were against the wall.

But do any of us have full faith that is going to happen this time? Based on everything we have seen from this team so far has there been enough to suggest that these poor performances are just a bug that needs to be worked out? Sunday night might have been the most definitive data point for us to answer that question. For some, it was the final straw.

Stats, Stems, and Leaves

Moment in the Shade

By far the best part of Sunday night was Rodney Wallace’s retirement ceremony. Honoring him and having him sign the one day contract to retire a Timbers player is one of the coolest things the Timbers FO have done in recent years, and it was a worthy moment and occasion for a true Timbers legend.

The fact that Wallace was mic’d up on the broadcast as Sebastian Blanco scored his goal was icing on the cake. I personally loved how Rodney stayed as cool as he looked while watching and hearing Providence Park explode.

Perhaps the nicest moment came well after the final whistle. The stadium had emptied, the press box corps was still typing away, and I was just packing up to leave. I glanced down at the field, and I saw that there were still a few people still on the field: Rodney Wallace and his family. His daughters, sporting jerseys and stylish pink tutus, were sprinting up and down the field. His wife was taking pictures of him beam while holding a Timbers scarf high in front of the North and East ends. His joy and admiration to the club was clear, even from far away.

After a night where a lot of people’s admiration for the club was shaken, it was heartening to see a bona fide Timbers hero still hold his scarf high for the team he loved.