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Three Thoughts: Chugging along

On finding “the guys”, apologies, and margins of error.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Nashville SC Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers have collected eight points from a possible twelve after the international break, have collected all of said points from Western Conference rivals, and have scored eight goals in the process.

Decent start to the second half of the season, in my humble opinion.

Before we look ahead to rivalry day, here’s three thoughts on the last two games for Portland:

Eryk Williamson and Santiago Moreno, please take a bow

One of the biggest questions the Timbers had yet to answer before the summer was “who is going to step up and be the guy for this team in 2022?” In the past that guy has been the likes of Diego Valeri, or Sebastian Blanco, or even Dairon Asprilla when decided to go supernova last year.

But this season, it hasn’t really felt like any player has stepped up to really take hold of affairs and spark a win seemingly on their own.

That was the case, at least, until last week.

With two separate but equally impressive performances, Eryk Williamson and Santiago Moreno showed they can be those guys. Both showed the quality to not just shine as Portland’s best player on the field, but also become game-winners for the Timbers.

Moreno was the first to light things up, as he tallied a brace in Portland’s win over Houston last week. Portland’s inaugural U-22 Initiative signing has been a somewhat under-the-radar contributor this season: he’s appeared in every match the Timbers have played this season, and started in 15 of them (14 in MLS, one in the U.S. Open Cup). He has had his ups and downs, but earning that type of consistent trust from the coaching staff usually means you’re doing something right on the field.

And of course, the game against the Dynamo showed just how right Santi can do things:

Moreno was just one saved shot away from bagging that ever elusive first ever Timbers MLS hat trick (thanks Steve!), and he would have more than earned it after his standout performance last week. He was dangerous, electric, and a constant threat for the Timbers cutting inside from the wing.

Eryk Williamson turned in a fantastic performance next, as he was instrumental in helping Portland fight back against Nashville on Sunday. I’ve written before about Williamson’s influence on the game, so I won’t rehash all the good things he did here (because he did basically all of them again).

But I will point out that he changed the game, tallied the assist on the equalizer, and earned a Team of the Week nod after playing just the second half.

If Williamson and Moreno remain on their game and replicate their recent performances, the Timbers may have very well found themselves not just two solid performers, but two match-winners on the roster.

Jaroslaw Niezgoda, please accept an apology

Much hay has been made out of Niezgoda’s early season struggles, and how his ineffectiveness has had a trickle down effect on the rest of the team. He hadn’t really been scoring or creating chances, and his runs of good form where overshadowed by stretches of anonymity where he struggled.

And while he was mostly anonymous for much of Sunday’s proceedings, he popped up at the exact right times. First, he earned a penalty for the Timbers by being smart and determined, taking advantage of a young ‘keeper’s mistake.

And then he did this:

That is the type of play that Timbers fans have been longing to see Niezgoda make all season: a smart read of his defender, a subtle and effective cut off the back shoulder, and a very well-taken finish.

His goal on Sunday brings Jaro’s tally to three goals in the past three games, which is double the amount he has scored since the season began. Niezgoda has drawn a good deal of frustration from the fanbase (some of it warranted) for his performances, and was drawing it again in the first hour of the game on Sunday.

And then he turns around and made us all want to apologize. If he keeps up this type of scoring form, I think bigger apologies may be warranted.

Standings watchers, please remember to keep breathing

Yeah, I have to end this on a bit of a downer. For as good as the past two weeks have been for Portland, the Timbers are by no means out of the woods yet.

Two wins and two draws over the last four games is a great return and should be applauded as such— especially in the context of how Portland’s 2022 has gone prior to the month of June. But because it went so poorly up until recently, the mountain the Timbers need to climb still looks steep and arduous.

A quick peek at the Western Conference table reveals as much:

Portland sits within touching distance of the playoff line, but it’s important to note that they have played at least one more game than the teams around them. Games in hand are of course only as good as what you do with them, and there is a school of thought that teams would rather have points in the bank over games in hand. But the fact remains that other teams have more opportunities than the Timbers left to earn points— and pass Portland in the process.

That means that the margin of error for the Timbers is still very small. A four game unbeaten run has started to turn the vibes around, but in the context of the rest of the season it is just the start, and must be converted into something more long-term. Indeed, the shine of these past few weeks will fade quickly if Portland falls into another tailspin, loses pace with the teams around them in the standings, and then has less games in hand to try to turn things around (again).

The Timbers will need to maintain this form for most of the summer— perhaps even the rest of the year— if they hope to fully revive their season. The next step in that journey comes when they venture up North, and re-ignite the best rivalry in MLS.