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Odds, numbers, and Portland’s fight for the playoffs

Analytics gives the Timbers a 14% chance to make the playoffs. Let’s talk about why, and how Portland can beat the odds.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Sporting Kansas City Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday wasn’t pretty. Not only was it the second multi-goal loss the Portland Timbers suffered in as many weeks, but it was also a multi-goal loss to one of the worst teams in the league at a time when Portland is mired in an absolute battle royal for the final playoff spots in the West.

As a result, the numbers are not on Portland’s side. An article from MLS Soccer utilizing data from FiveThirtyEight suggests that Portland has just a 14% chance to make the playoffs, based off of their form.

That number is low, the situation feels dire, and time might be running out for the Timbers. Ahead of an absolutely pivotal rivalry matchup, let’s look at why the odds are bad— and how the Timbers can beat them.

Why the odds are not in our favor

A wild afternoon in St. Paul, one kinda okay home draw, one gut-punch home draw, getting blue-shelled by a couple of Italians in Canada, and then getting rocked by the bottom team in the West.

The past few weeks have not been good for the Portland Timbers, and each of the above games exposed some of the main deficiencies this team has at the moment. In all of the above games except one Portland lost the expected goals (xG) battle, and in the game they didn’t (Dallas @ home) the vast majority of their xG generated came from a penalty (and the subsequent follow up).

That stat exposes how finding goals has been an almighty struggle for the Timbers. It also shows how Portland’s defense is simply not good enough to win games on their own. To be frank, it is way too easy to score on the Portland Timbers. Set pieces in particular have been an area of weakness, and recently we’ve also seen fullbacks lose individual battles in key spots on the field, causing the knock-on effect of other defenders having to scramble or make hard decisions in the box.

Another reason the odds are low is that out of the teams fighting for a playoff spot, Portland faces one of the toughest roads based off of the points-per-game of their opponents. Out of the seven(ish) teams all fighting for the final three playoff spots, Portland also has the lowest points-per-game. All of those points they dropped earlier in the season have now put them in the tough spot of needing to get results against good teams to fight back up.

That all adds up to a team whose underlying numbers suggest simply isn’t good enough to make the postseason, and whose play on the field has them fail the eye test as a potential playoff team as well.

But crucially, the playoffs don’t start just quite yet. It’s a tall order, but there is slim way forward that Portland can beat the odds and push their way into the postseason this year.

How Portland can beat the odds

The biggest thing working in Portland’s favor is that the race for the final playoff places in the Western Conference basically feels like that scene from Game of Thrones where Jon Snow is stuck in an absolute mass of humanity: a messy bunch of teams all bunched together and nobody can really say for sure who is going to come out on top.

Just six points separate fifth from eleventh in the West. With eight rounds left in the season a significant swing in points is well within the realm of possibility, especially in the chaos-fueled arena that is MLS.

Also within the realm of possibility is a run of good form by the Timbers. Giovanni Savarese’s Portland Timbers teams have essentially been defined by “wait I thought they were cooked where the heck did they come from” runs from out of seemingly nowhere.

How do they pull that off? It might be an oversimplification to say “be better at both ends of the field”... but they really do have to be better at both ends of the field. Portland hasn’t been scoring enough goals for about a month now, and in the past two weeks they have been conceding way too many goals way too easily.

Starting with the offensive inefficacy, you can basically draw a straight line to the scoring form of Jaroslaw Niezgoda. After a revitalization of his form at the start of the summer, Jaro has gone cold: he hasn’t scored in his past four games, hasn’t managed over 0.1 expected goals since the Minnesota game, and got pulled off the field at halftime on Sunday (in favor of definitely-not-a-center-forward Dairon Asprilla). The early summer run suggests that when Niezgoda is scoring, the Timbers are getting wins. And when he’s not, well, they’re not.

It would also do a world of good for Portland’s primary playmakers— namely Sebastian Blanco, Eryk Williamson, and Santiago Moreno— to start to find consistent form. Whether due to injuries, fatigue, or other factors, none of those three players have been firing at the same time. If they can all get healthy, and rediscover their top form, then Portland’s sputtering offense has a shot to improve.

The increased offensive output matters, as it helps alleviate some pressure on the defense. After getting more stingy in June and July, Portland’s defense conceded four goals against the Loons, three against Italy Toronto, and then four against Sporting. The solution to fixing it might simply come down to cutting down on individual mistakes.

Too often this year have Timbers defenders been slow to close down space and pressure an attacker, and too often have players missed a rotation and leave a forward free on a set piece or recycled chance. Tightening up the individual performances in the back was one of the keys to the 2021 run, and I suspect it might be the key to 2022 as well.

Climbing up the table isn’t going to be easy. The journey continues on Friday against that team from up North, in a game where you really do have to throw the record books and form charts out. If Portland falters yet again, then the 2022 season might be on life support, and the odds might actually be right.

But if they pull it out, then it could be the start of something special. Savarese’s Timbers have been defined by pulling themselves off the mat when the going gets tough, and Friday presents as a perfect opportunity to do so, with authority. The challenge has been thrown, and all that remains is to see if the Timbers answer the call.