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One Big Tree: Disappointed, but not surprised anymore

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On not being surprised anymore, coming home to roost, and how much more can it take.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Austin FC Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The worst part of Saturday night’s loss to Austin FC might have been that no one was really surprised.

Sure, the early penalty that basically torpedoed the game before it ever really started was pretty bad. The subsequent first half meltdown wherein the team conceded some soft goals was pretty bad. Another multi-goal loss was pretty bad.

But no, the worst part of the Portland Timbers’ latest listless loss was that as it was unfolding, the general mood of Timbers fans was to sigh, drop the shoulders, and shrug. We’d seen it before, and we weren’t surprised to see it again.

Last week’s disappointing results, along with many similar results this season, came down to moments of poor preparation, poor execution, and poor concentration. And unless something drastically changes with this Timbers team that does surprise us (in the pleasant kind of way), it is looking increasingly more likely that the season’s end will be a disappointment, whether that’s missing the playoffs altogether or another early round exit.

Why do things seem to be trending this way? One reason is the aforementioned consistent pattern of disappointing performances and results, which might be a consistent feature of how these Timbers teams are being set up on the field.

Another reason is the underlying stats we’ve been seeing throughout the year. All season long, expected goal difference and expected conceded goals have suggested that the Timbers have been bad, but a little lucky. They were winning games that the stats suggested they shouldn’t have and not conceding goals the stats suggested that they should have.

Well over last week’s road trip, those underlying stats came home to roost. Over the course of the two games, Portland totaled 1.8 expected goals, according to FBref, and scored twice. Portland’s opponents amassed 4.2 expected goals, and wouldn’t you know it, over the course of the games that’s just about as many as they scored (4).

Let us recap the goals Portland conceded:

Noticing the trend? The breakdowns that led to those goals all have the same DNA: the Timbers’ lack of full concentration on defense, slow (or nonexistent) defensive rotations, and poor pressure on attackers in the midfield. It has been a consistent problem all season, and up until semi-recently the Timbers had been doing barely enough in other areas of the pitch to paper over it and still get positive results.

Who’s to blame for this, and how can it be fixed?

To the former, there is always a degree of culpability on all aspects of a team, particularly on the players and their ability to execute - that’s just how this game works.

But to the latter, I can’t help but come back to the coaching staff’s ability to properly prepare a team with clear instructions as to how to execute a game plan and achieve a successful result.

With two-thirds of a season’s worth of inconsistent performances as evidence, it is a fair question to wonder how much is being done by Giovanni Savarese and his staff to address Portland’s consistent issues effectively. The problems are clear, and they’ve been clear for some time now. It’s not that the roster is bad - this team still has the firepower to go toe-to-toe with any team in the league when they are well organized and have the proper motivation to put in a full shift.

Neither of these things have happened on a consistent basis in 2021. And I feel like that’s on the coaches. We have another pair of lackluster results and performances to reinforce that feeling. Therefore, Gio’s coaching seat has to be at least a bit warm at this point, possibly more so.

I think this clip of Sebastian Blanco after the game is prescient, because it kind of reflects the feelings of where things are at, and may suggest that the consistent lack of organization is starting to be noticed by the players.

He does his best to praise the positives, and also stays professional in not offering his opinion on a half of soccer he didn’t play in. But his exasperation is apparent in the interview when he tries his best to identify the specific areas in which the team needs to improve. Blanco cites organization and pressure and then comes back to just working harder. You can tell he’s frustrated, both with the match and possibly with how the season has gone up to this point.

Seba, one of the fieriest Timbers players out there and a decent proxy for the heart and soul of this team, laid his disappointment bare. All of us feel this disappointment and make it clear when we react and process after yet another bad loss.

The question is how much more the decision makers for the Timbers can take before they make theirs clear as well.

Stats, Stems, and Leaves

Moment in the Shade

Dairon Asprilla scored his fifth goal of the season on Saturday night (and almost injured himself in the process). He has already surpassed his previous MLS regular season scoring record by three, a stat that is reflective of the high-mark season Asprilla is currently enjoying. To be specific, Asprilla is statistically enjoying his best season ever.

Up until 2021, Dairon was best known amongst Timbers circles as a cult hero, having built his reputation off postseason heroics (The 2018 Seattle Car Show will forever be his apex mountain). His regular season returns were usually middling, but this year he has been as close to a difference maker as any player on the roster for the Timbers. He’s tallied five goals and two assists, and is putting in career highs in both expected goals and expected assists - and there’s still about two months left in the season.

While it only amounted to saving the Timbers from yet another 3+ goal loss, his goal on Saturday was a nice reminder of the energy and work rate that Asprilla has brought this season. In a year where so much of the Timbers season has been defined by lackluster effort, Asprilla has gone out there every game and worked his behind off.

He might not be the flashiest or most technically gifted player, and he may try the spectacular when perhaps the ordinary may do better (he is going to hit on one of those bicycle attempts one day), but Dairon Asprilla has been the torchbearer for grit and effort this season when many other Timbers haven’t, and that deserves to be recognized.