Offense wins games but defense wins championships. Or at least that's what the old adage says. Though the Portland Timbers are going to need goals to get back into their two-legged semifinal series against Real Salt Lake, the defense will need to keep a clean sheet on Sunday night at Jeld-Wen Field for any realistic chance of qualifying for the MLS Cup final. That's no easy task, given Portland's continued struggles to keep RSL off the scoreboard in their previous five games season. Only the October 19 0-0 gives any hope in that regard, while simultaneously cluttering the view from an offensive perspective.
So what does Caleb Porter need to do to get his defense working again? After allowing just three goals in its final eight games of the regular season, the Timbers have given up seven in three during the playoffs. It's true that all three of the goals against the Seattle Sounders came after Portland held significant leads but the fact remains, the Timbers have given up a ton of goals in a really short period of time.
All season the potential for defensive exposure has been there. As you may or may not have noticed, I've spent time chronicling those possibilities since the summer. Down the stretch of the season, as Porter slightly altered his offensive and pressing styles, his defenders received more consistent coverage. That shift in style really began in the September 20 defeat of Colorado Rapids at Jeld-Wen Field and also coincided with Andrew Jean-Bapitste's removal from center back with Futty Danso joining Pa Kah in front of Donovan Ricketts. As Porter had his team play more conservatively, his defenders had more of Diego Chara and Will Johnson helping out as they bombed forward less frequently.
It's also worth noting that Porter specifically suggested that he needed a more experienced team to play down the stretch against so many good teams. Said the Timbers manager after Portland's 1-1 draw at Chivas USA on September 14:
"There was a bit of casualness at times out of our play. They're professionals and they understand that part of being a professional is showing up with the right mentality. Listen, if they don't, we're going to continue to be at the end of games feeling like we're feeling right now."
And that was after a draw. As bad as Portland's regular season 4-2 loss was in Sandy, last weekend's first leg loss was worse. Set piece defending was poor, communication was lacking and individual mistakes were made more glaring by Salt Lake's clinical finishing. The question is, can Porter do anything about it or does he have to trust that his usually reliable players will shape up and play better in what could be the final game of the season?
Jean-Baptiste's departure from the line-up so perfectly aligned with the Timbers' return to form that it has been easy to dismiss him as the change that made everything better. But is that accurate? Could Jean-Baptiste spell Futty in the second leg and give Porter the same chance at a second leg comeback, or even a better chance?
Futty has had horrific performances for the Timbers in the past, and it's fair to say he's recovered nicely from them. The main difference in this instance is that unlike his games at FC Dallas and at Seattle last season, to give two particularly bad examples, he does not have the time to put into rebuilding his confidence and reestablishing the rhythm that made him such a strong addition to the latter part of this season. Porter will have to make a gut decision on whether he thinks Futty's disastrous first leg will haunt him in the second, or if the 30-year-old can brush it off and give the Timbers the best chance at a clean sheet.
If he chooses the former, Porter really only has Jean-Baptiste as an option with David Horst still not back and Mikael Silvestre out for the season. Whether or not Jean-Bapitste makes a clean sheet any more likely is certainly up for debate, though. In his last eight games before removal, Jean-Baptiste was part of a back line that allowed thirteen goals. He scores just about as frequently as Futty and offers more potential for inexperienced mistakes, though to be fair, none could be worse than Futty's performance in Utah.
Though Jean-Baptiste was part of the unit that struggled through the Timbers worst patch of the season, he was also a consistent starter alongside Kah during Portland's 15-game unbeaten run earlier in the year. While he and Kah sometimes bring out the riskiest behavior in each other, they also formed a very athletic and physical pairing that in a one-game circumstance could be very effective. Jean-Baptiste has not played in either of the last two meetings between the clubs so a change to his more bruising, athletic style could give Salt Lake trouble, not to mention give a more adequate effort on the speed of Robbie Findley. And like Futty, AJB has been known to score goals in dramatic ways.
It's a really tough call for Porter who has both done his share of line-up juggling and tried to pick a regular XI and stick to it. Now's not necessarily the time to overreact but the conditions for advancing are also very specific: give up any goals at all and the season's just about over. Apart from forward, there is little chance of another change that could make a difference against Salt Lake, so perhaps a move is worth the risk. Or maybe Porter believes the team that got him this far is the one that deserves another chance at one more advancement.
Should Porter remove Futty and replace him with Jean-Baptiste for the second leg? Or has Futty done enough to earn one more game to right the wrongs of the first leg?