For every goal, every close chance, every reason the Timbers attack gave fans reason to feel optimistic on Sunday against the San Jose Earthquakes, the defense gave just as many reasons to be concerned. In the post-game press conference, Caleb Porter expressed his feeling that it is easier to tighten up a sloppy defense than to draw out a lackluster offense and get them scoring goals. In his mind, the Timbers have the hardest part down: they're already scoring plenty of goals. Even if this is so, the defense has quite a mountain to climb before they're ready to face Thierry Henry and Co. on March 3rd. So let's look at what went wrong on Sunday.
Things started off badly for the Timbers. Obviously, you cannot defend a penalty kick, but all sorts of things went wrong before it got to that point. First Diego Valeri gave the ball away cheaply in the Timbers' half and Will Johnson missed a tackle. The real problem though is that as Shea Salinas brought the ball forward, Andrew Jean-Baptiste was caught ball watching, actually drifting towards Salinas and away from his mark, Mike Fucito, who was making a strong run into the box behind him. Jean Baptiste was whistled for the handball as he tried to recover and get back between Fucito and the goal. Jean-Baptiste should never have been so far away from Fucito as Salinas' cross came into the box. With his height and speed, he absolutely would have been able to win that ball and stop Fucito from ever getting a chance on goal thus, theoretically, eliminating the handball call and the PK.
Things almost got worse about 30 seconds later, when Alhassan turned over the ball to Fucito and San Jose had more players forward than the Timbers had defenders to cover them. Only a late run from Michael Harrington saved the Timbers from a likely second goal. In this case, the Timbers probably ended up outnumbered in their own half because Harrington, Ryan Miller, and most of the midfield were already pushing forward into San Jose's half.
The Earthquake's second goal was simply bad set piece defending, with Victor Bernardez rising for an uncontested header and putting on frame easily. Hanyer Mosquera, ostensibly marking Bernardez appeared to make little effort to win the ball. It was as if he just did not read the danger.
Goal number three for San Jose was the weirdest of the three, with the build-up beginning with a terrible clearance attempt from Kalif Alhassan that fell for Justin Morrow just outside the box. He cut it back to the top of the 18 for John Bostock, and that is when Dylan Tucker-Gangnes took out Diego Chara, who was marking Bostock closely. Donovan Ricketts saved Bostock's shot, but Harrington could not quite beat Fucito to the rebound and Ricketts was helpless against Fucito's shot.
Patterns, Problems, and What's the Fix?
Clearly there are a couple of patterns here. Tucker-Gangnes accidentally tackling Chara was a weird incident that is less concerning because it is not indicative of a pervasive issue, but more likely just a result of a rookie's nerves on his first outing. However, two of the goals and a couple of decent chances for the Earthquake's started with careless passing. The first and second goals each saw one of the center backs switch off at the wrong moment. Porter is probably right that the sloppy passes can be cleaned up easily enough. As the Timbers settle into this style of play more and more, the passing will get better.
Far and away the more concerning issue is the fact that Jean-Baptiste and Mosquera had major slip ups that led to goals. Furthermore, this is not a new issue for the Timbers, but rather an ongoing problem. Several goals against the Timbers last season came as a result of a center back losing their mark or not challenging for crosses and set pieces. Not one Timbers center back gets off scot-free in this regard. No one expects perfection, but a team also cannot expect to be successful if the defense suffers on-the-field brain farts so often.
When I finished my first draft of this piece, the Timbers had not yet signed Mikaël Silvestre and I concluded with a pretty pessimistic paragraph about how it seemed doubtful that the Timbers had the personnel to truly fix their defensive problems. It's way too soon to write off Jean-Baptiste, but I felt unsure whether our older center backs could really iron out these problems in their game. I was going to suggest that the Timbers probably needed a new center back and that if they didn't bring one soon, they would almost certainly be looking for one by midseason. Apparently, the club reached the same conclusion.
With the signing of Silvestre, there is more cause for hope when it comes to our defense. Silvestre cannot cover everyone else's defensive mistakes all the time, but one stabilizing presence on defense can help eliminate some of those mistakes. In the friendlies in Tucson, Silvestre appeared to communicate well with his teammates. In dangerous situations, he was always checking to see where his mark was, not just where the ball was. He also had a calm on defense that his teammates clearly felt, as the midfield and the fullbacks would often look to pass back to Silvestre when the pressure was on. If can continue to provide all of those aspects of the game that were lacking on Sunday, things should be looking up for the Timbers defense.