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Struggling on set pieces

While the Timbers boast one of the league's best defensive records, goals from set pieces are preventing crucial points in the second half of the season.

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

After his team's 1-1 Cascadia Cup draw against Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday night at Jeld-Wen Field, Caleb Porter praised the Portland Timbers' effort and commented that it was a good sign that his players were so disappointed in sharing points. Yet one sentence at the end of a longer statement is more valuable in assessing exactly where the Timbers stand at this point in the season.

Said Porter, "I think even though it was a tight game, even though this was, for me, a typical MLS game, a playoff-type game, end of the year where teams are playing for playoffs, that's a 1-0 win if we make a play on the corner kick."

The problem for Porter is his team's inability to make a play on key set pieces in three of the past five games. Jordan Harvey's 69th minute header took two points away from Portland and gave Vancouver one at a stage in the season where every single point is extremely important. If it was an isolated incident, as Porter makes it seem in his post-game comments, perhaps it would not be worthy of further discussion. Yet this trend should be worrisome for Timbers fans and the team's coaching staff.

Before going any further, let's make sure we know who is responsible from the coaching side. While Porter is of course overseeing the entire team, the manager indicated where he delegates set pieces within the coaching staff after the Timbers' 2-1 defeat of LA Galaxy on July 13, saying,

"A lot of credit needs to go to Sean McAuley and Amos Magee because we kind of give them the set pieces, and that's their job to sort those things out. They weren't happy after last game when we gave up a goal against Columbus."

To blame assistant coaches for on-field failings is not really fair, and that is not the point of mentioning it. But it is interesting that Porter has only identified those specific coaching responsibilities after a successful result, not to deflect blame after disappointing results.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what has changed in recent weeks to lead to poor defending on set pieces being a noteworthy storyline. Yet after points dropped in three of the past five matches due to inadequate efforts, two on corner kicks and one on a free kick, we have to consider that the Timbers simply are not very good on set pieces right now.

Now, this isn't a problem that's limited to the past five weeks. If you remember Donovan Ricketts' Save of the Week in Week 5 at Colorado, poor set piece defending has popped up intermittently throughout the season. In that case, Ricketts' save kept the Timbers at a 2-1 deficit, which eventually allowed for an equalizer and a nice early season away draw. And of course no team goes through a season without allowing a handful of goals on set pieces.

What we've seen over the past five weeks, however, has been a two-pronged issue for Portland. First, since winning in the US Open Cup quarterfinals in Dallas, and scoring three goals, in late June, the Timbers have scored just four goals in five games. Two of those came against LA Galaxy in the only victory of this stretch. The slowing of scoring has made defensive mistakes more likely to directly affect results. That issue would need an article all its own.

The second problem is the point of this article, which is poor defending on set pieces. Who exactly is at fault is often a matter of opinion, but in several instances, Pa Kah and Andrew Jean-Baptiste either end up both marking the same player, or marking no one at all. Rodney Wallace could not keep up with Harvey against Vancouver while no one bothered to mark Bernardo Anor in Columbus. In fact, in rewatching those two goals, the arcing runs by the player who eventually scored were remarkably similar. In San Jose, it looked like no one even knew Steven Lenhart was on the field. More than anything, it seems like the Timbers do far too much standing still in defending corner kicks in particular, and opponents have learned that even the slightest amount of misdirection will present an unmarked head, usually at the near post.

While the Timbers' defense remains very composed and effective from the run of play, set pieces are killing the team's chances of making a move to the top of the league table. That's not to say Portland isn't a competitive, strong team that can challenge for a playoff position as the season rounds into its final third. But exactly where the Timbers wind up in the Western Conference standings will be greatly determined by how they fare during the month of August. The trend toward poor marking on set pieces, coupled with the recent dip in scoring production, is not exactly coming at the best of times.

There is no magic combination of players that is more susceptible to giving up set piece goals, though Kah and Jean-Baptiste have been the starting center backs in each of the three games in question. That said, the pair also started four league games and the US Open Cup quarterfinal without allowing a set piece goal, dating back to May 25.

Maybe it's just random that the frequency has increased so much since July began, or maybe others now understand how best to attack what is such a stout defense when the ball is in play. Porter likes to say his team defends with the ball, taking away opportunities for opponents by holding possession and limiting chances that way. On a set piece, the onus is completely on those defending. It's really the one facet of a game that cannot be explained or manipulated by Porter's intricate offense.

All we know for sure is that those three goals have been match-winners or equalizers that have directly cost the Timbers points. If that part of the game does not improve, expect very well coached teams like Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas to capitalize.