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Coming Down the Stretch: Keys for the Portland Timbers

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Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

As the Portland Timbers' season draws to a close, the club is in dire need of three wins to keep their MLS Playoff and CONCACAF Champions League hopes alive. Facing games against the Colorado Rapids and Saprissa at home and Cascadia Cup rival Vancouver Whitecaps on the road, the Timbers need to piece together three of their best performances of the year in a row if they are going to have a chance to move on in the respective competitions. Over the past two months, Portland has struggled to find any sort of consistency in their play; one week they will piece together a good game and the next the pieces might not come together. For these three games, it is absolutely crucial that all of the players on the pitch find their best performances of the season and leave them out on the pitch.

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For the team to succeed over the next eight days, it will come down to two core factors: offensive creativity and defensive organization. During the team's erratic play the past weeks, there has not been the consistent, free-flowing soccer that we saw from the Timbers during their incredible stretch last year as they were on their way to the MLS Cup. The lightning-paced counter attacks are gone, the quick 1, 2s between players, the strong hold-up play from Adi; it has all disappeared from large chunks of games. Recently, in games against Houston and Colorado on the road, it appeared for short stretches, during which, the Timbers had the better of the play and created good opportunities. During the initial minutes of the second half against Houston, the Timbers created some quality chances, including the goal that was scored by Diego Valeri. If you look at the events leading up to the goal, the Timbers moved with speed and purpose forward.

When Darlington Nagbe receives the ball from Liam Ridgewell around half field, he immediately turns up the pitch and looks to expose some of the space given to him by the Houston defense. Off of that movement, we see a dynamic run from Darren Mattocks, who ends up being slotted through behind the Houston line. Once he receives the ball, the Jamaican darts towards goal with a purpose, not giving the defense enough time to shift over. Although his initial shot bounced off of the post, Valeri was able to clean up the scraps and slot home the Timbers' only goal of the evening. Unfortunately, as the half wore on, the Timbers attacks slowed and the movement was no longer there, allowing Houston to once again take over the game and find the next two goals to seal a 3-1 win.

The dialogue was similar in the Portland Timbers' next match, away against the Colorado Rapids. The Green and Gold came out firing against the Rapids, creating some quality chances in the first 45 minutes, including an effort from Valeri that struck the post. The opportunity came after some great work along the right side by Alvas Powell, finding Valeri in the 18-yard box.

After Powell drew two Colorado Rapids players in towards him with the ball, it allowed for Valeri to find a seam in the Rapids defense and sit, awaiting the pass. Powell found his feet and Valeri quickly turned and fired a shot towards goal, beating Tim Howard but finding the post. When the Timbers attack with speed and creative movement like this, they can be extremely dangerous. However, this play is not consistently there. For the team to find its form again in these final crucial games, they will need to find that speed, execution, and ruthlessness that has made them such a dangerous team in previous games. With the weapons that Caleb Porter has in his possession, there is no reason why they should not be able to find their form once again.

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While the Portland Timbers offensive cohesion needs to find its stride, their defensive unit also needs to come together and find its organization. The unit that held so strong during the team's run to the MLS Cup last year has struggled to unite once again. Runners have been left free in the box, tackles have been missed, and the compactness that the made the Timbers so difficult to break down has disappeared in crucial moments.

Against Houston, there were too many instances of the Dynamo players having far too much time in the final third to pick players. Take this instance below, even though the final opportunity was eventually blocked, both Alex and DaMarcus Beasley were both able to pick up their heads and easily find a pass inside the penalty box; there is just not enough pressure from the Portland Timbers defense there.

For the Dynamo's second goal, the Timbers were exposed for their lack of pressure yet again as Boniek Garcia found Mauro Manotas at the PK spot for a slotted finish.

After giving the throw-in away deep in their defensive end, the Timbers players never seem to truly engage the Houston attack. Powell never finds his shape tucked in allowing Garcia to find the space. Stephen Taylor continues to back away from the Honduran as he drives into the box. Finally, as Manotas steps back to create a passing lane for Garcia's cutback, no Timbers defender follows him, allowing him to slot the ball past a helpless Jake Gleeson. For a team that is making a playoff push, and a team that badly needed a result on the road, the defensive organization on this play was just not there. In order to get the final three results that are needed to turn the tables around, Portland will need to find their defensive form that they had closing the stretch last year.

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The Portland Timbers currently sit outside of the MLS playoffs and not advancing in the CONCACAF Champions League. For any chance to progress in either competition, they will need to pick up three wins in the next eight days against quality sides. Fans have seen the Timbers pull together performances in dire times like these, including last year when they went on a historic run to lift the cup in December. In order to do so, the Timbers will need to find their form. Focusing on what led them to this point last year would be a great start: their offensive creativity, speed, and movement, and also their defensive awareness and compactness. If the Timbers can work together and place all the pieces together, they should see themselves advancing in both competitions. If not, it could be the end of both competitions.