Michael Orr is sharing some of his opinions as a guest writer here on Stumptown Footy. Michael is one of the hosts of "Soccer Made in PDX," a weekly podcast covering the Timbers, and is the author of "The 1975 Portland Timbers." Michael also covers Australia's A-League for SB Nation.
There have been games this season that have not gone perfectly for the Portland Timbers. Of course the losses to the Montreal Impact and Columbus Crew come at the top of that list, but giving up two early goals in Colorado, the miscommunication in defense against New York, the ease with which Seattle scored at CenturyLink Field, and San Jose's aerial domination are some of the other instances where the Timbers were not at their best.
Jack Jewsbury's performance against the Philadelphia Union is the most recent, and is among the most damning, instance in which the Timbers have struggled this season, given where and when it occurred. Perhaps this is a bit harsh, especially when Portland not only left Pennsylvania with a draw, but a scoreless one. In this season of unbridled optimism, any overt criticism will seem like a deliberately cynical view.
Accepting all of that, Jewsbury's inability to mark Danny Cruz is a worry.
"As I get into this stage of the season, it's less about growing, developing and figuring out what we're doing. It's more about, you are who you are, you're the team that you are, whether you like it or don't like it," said Caleb Porter after training on Tuesday.
Though there are the famous ‘fifteen or sixteen starters' on this team, the reality is that Porter has chosen his lot for the stretch run. Jack Jewsbury is part of that group.
While Ryan Miller and Ben Zemanski are viable options at right back, Jewsbury is Porter's chosen starter. For most of the year, Jack has earned his playing time, serving as the balance to Michael Harrington's seesaw and defending well in key spots. Yet on Saturday in Chester, Danny Cruz opened Jewsbury up and, more significantly, opened the playbook on how to best attack the Timbers.
Porter can make adjustments to alleviate an unforeseen, or at least unexpected shortcoming. And he did on Saturday as half-time adjustments protected his right back.
Said Jewsbury on Monday, "There were a few times where I probably stepped a little too quick, and [Cruz] has got some pace so he got by on the outside. I was a little disappointed in that. A few times we'd get in on a tackle and it still squirted by. We've got guys, that, when one guy's maybe getting beat, are covering each other and Donovan [Ricketts] is making saves when he has to. It's a team effort. We changed a little bit at half-time but nothing too crazy. Just stuff that we needed to be aware of."
While this is a perfectly reasonable explanation, it ignores the larger issue for the Timbers. Over the course of the season, performances like Saturday's first half can be written off as aberrations or bad luck. Or with the aforementioned examples, early season development and working through a learning curve. Yet as Porter said, that has passed and his current group is the one that will be expected to get the Timbers into the playoffs after such a strong start.
One counterpoint to this Jewsbury discussion is Michael Harrington's first half performance against LA Galaxy just two weeks ago. Hector Jimenez tore Harrington apart with darting runs while LA midfielders sent ball after ball past an over committed (offensively, it should be said) Harrington and into wide open spaces on the Timbers' left. Jimenez assisted on Marcelo Sarvas' opener before Porter recalled Harrington from his marauding runs and provided more cover against the quicker winger later in the game.
Through a full season, Jewsbury can have that off game. Indeed, everyone is entitled to a bad day at the office. Just look at Pa Kah's eleven minutes in Ohio. Yet the expectation with Kah is that he will not falter like that when the game, or season is on the line. We'd all like to think that Jewsbury is similarly reliable. Maybe he is. But Danny Cruz is hardly the best left-sided player in MLS. In a playoff circumstance later in the year, it might only take that over-stepping to give an opponent the one chance needed to send the Timbers home from their debut in the post-season.
If Jewsbury cannot be relied upon, or even if opponents simply believe he is the weak link in what has been a stout defense all season, we might see more experimenting against the Timbers' right side in coming weeks. After all, the defensive cover provided by Darlington Nagbe, Kalif Alhassan or especially Diego Valeri is not exactly the best possible for helping a right back in trouble. Against Philadelphia, Andrew Jean-Baptiste had to put in a wonderful shift at center back while Diego Chara and Will Johnson had to keep their focus in defense instead being free to aid in attack - an absence that was noticeable, especially during the middle part of the half when they combined for just three passes near the final third, one of which was backward.
Again, is this nit picking? Yes. But it is something to keep an eye on as the Timbers enter August and a difficult stretch of opponents. Porter likes to match wits with the best managers in the league, and he'll get that chance with Jason Kreis, Schellas Hyndman and Sigi Schmid coming in five consecutive matches next month. In the meantime, there is one match left in July to see if Jewsbury needs full-time protection or if Saturday's problems remained in Pennsylvania.