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State of the Timbers: Halfway home ... and not happy

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The season so far, why it hurts so bad, and where it can possibly go from here.

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Sigh.

If there is any action that fully sums up the opening six games of the 2019 season for the Portland Timbers, it’s that: a deep, audible, and dejected sigh.

It’s a sigh of frustration and exasperation, mostly borne out of the results on the field. Portland stands at a record of 0-5-1, with one solitary point to their name. Even that lone positive result was frustrating: two points dropped after a last-minute, stoppage-time equalizer in Winterfell Colorado that really should have been avoided. To compound matters, the performances from the team have ranged wildly from “encouraging, but unlucky” to “decidedly pretty bad” to “oh my god, we actually got destroyed by freaking San Jose.”

Bad results, bad performances, and bad vibes. This past month and a half has been a resoundingly miserable one for Timbers fans.

If your stomach can handle it, let’s dive into those three areas to see what we can make of this season so far, and see if there’s maybe just enough of a glimmer of hope to give us a reason to not immediately reach for our pint glasses.

Bad Results: “Poor Points, Poor Product”

Perhaps we should have seen this coming. The team stands halfway through a grueling gauntlet of 12 straight games on the road, set to be the longest road trip to open a season in MLS history. And season-opening road trips have historically not been kind to MLS teams — just ask Sporting Kansas City in 2011 or DC United last year. Getting points on the road in MLS is also notoriously difficult.

Even with all of those caveats, this team’s form is unquestionably poor. Portland has scored a scant six goals in six games, while giving up 17. The last competitive game the team won of any kind was the second leg of the Western Conference Finals with Kansas City waaaayy back in November. The results this season have been like a steady but brutal tumble down a mountain, and despite the fact that we may have seen this train wreck coming, it still hurts to watch.

A five-game losing streak feels bad. Knowing that we sit dead last in MLS feels bad. But it’s not just the results that tell the whole story of the malaise that’s struck the fanbase: It’s the look of this team, the way they have been losing, that is causing chants like “We’re not mad, just disappointed” to ring out at away games. (I was there in San Jose. This actually happened.)

Some of the performances this season have been some of the most dispiriting and disappointing in recent memory, all for distinct, yet similar, reasons. Let’s check the highlights:

  • Letting in a last minute equalizer
  • Collapsing and shipping four goals (albeit to a really good team)
  • Looking utterly disinterested and confused in Ohio while giving up three goals
  • Getting played off the field by the worst team in the league in 2018, in the process giving up three goals to a team that until that point had only scored two
  • Putting together maybe the best 20-minute stretch of the entire season, only to ultimately lose for being on the bad end of some controversial calls (yep, I’m still salty)

The above combined with the numbers plainly tells us one thing: The Portland Timbers have been bad in 2019. The reality is that Portland is one of the worst teams in MLS at the moment, and it wouldn’t even be that big of a stretch to say that they are indeed the very worst (others sure think they are). Yes, there have been flashes of promise and good play (we’ll get to those in a little bit). Overall, however, what we’ve seen has not inspired confidence for the prospects of this team moving forward, and it’s made watching this team more of an exercise of pain management than enjoying a sporting event.

It would be one thing if it were just some bad games and bad results. Poor runs of form happen all the time in MLS. But on top of dispiriting results and dispiriting play, we have the added specter of players who are delivering ...

Bad Performances: “2018 Feels Like Years Ago”

In 2018, this team turned into a group of grinders. After a similarly horrible road trip to start the year, the Timbers turned it around, banding together around a new coach and a new philosophy. They embraced their identity as a team that sat deep and killed on the counter, relying on little bits of magic from their stars like Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, or Diego Chara to carry them through to win the day.

And it worked: They rode that identity all the way to the MLS Cup. The journey there was fantastic. Watching this team grind out results through gritty toughness, solid organization, and moments of brilliance was thrilling. Getting playoff wins against Dallas, Kansas City, and Seattle (especially Seattle) were all-time moments of an ultimately successful season.

Last season, we had a team that fought for each other and played united.

This season, we get instagram stories featuring Lucas Melano and popcorn.

This team does not look like the team that ground its way to Atlanta for the final game of the season. As my previous point showed, the product on the field has been on the whole disappointing, but, put into the wider context of last season, this drop-off in form feels so much more like an agonizing thud. To me, this is the most worrying part of the season so far.

Across the board, this team feels like a shadow of its former self. We have yet to see, or even know, what a definitive first-choice back line looks like. To call the defense a disorganized mess might honestly be an understatement, and it’s made worse by an attack that’s barely existent. The team has scored just two goals from open play. Any sort of rhythm or flow is absent, and I sometimes really wonder if this team forgot how to, y’know, pass. How many times this season have we seen a sloppy touch kill a counter, or a misplayed pass lead directly to a chance (or a goal) for the other team? The composure isn’t there, and the identity isn’t there. The Portland Timbers look like a team that is lost in the wilderness.

On one level, this is because the players that have been expected to step up this season have repeatedly tripped over their own shoelaces. Larrys Mabiala looks shook on a weekly basis, and Claude Dielna might not be good enough to even make the bench, let alone start. Jorge Villafana looked solid last season in his return to Portland, but this season has been burned on the left side of the defense time and time again. David Guzman’s lack of positional discipline — and, at times, a simple lack of effort defensively — regularly leaves gaping holes in the midfield for opposing offenses to exploit and rip the Timbers to shreds.

Perhaps the scariest part of all of this may be that those moments of magic from last year just aren’t there. I love him, maybe more than my own family, but Valeri does not look like Valeri. Blanco is out there trying his hardest, but he’s starting to drift out of games and is not having the influence he once did. Chara might be ageless, but he doesn’t have a ton of defensive help, and he can’t be everywhere at once. The players that the team bet on to perform well and carry them simply have not been able to shoulder the load.

The guys that have so many times before proven themselves to be genuine stars are not shining, and that low-key terrifies me.

Maybe we can chalk a lot of this up to the fact those guys only had a six-week offseason. Maybe it’s a tough combination of rust and exhaustion playing on their legs and minds. All of these feelings will start to improve once Portland gets a chance to play at home, right? That would be true, if it weren’t for ...

Bad Vibes: “Creeping Anxiety”

I am the type of fan that just can’t relax. During any given season, I’m the person who constantly checks the standings on a weekly basis, lying awake at night doing calculations about what results need to happen for Portland to move up in the standings. (I might have a problem.)

But even I have been able to resist the urge to check the live standings and stress about playoff positioning … so far.

We’re bottom of the table, but we’re also not even a quarter of the way of the way through the MLS season, so it is probably still too early to start worrying about that red line … for now.

This whole season has been predicated on the fact that Portland closes the season with the majority of its games at home, playing 17 of their final 22 in the cozy (and freaking gorgeous) confines of Providence Park. The Timbers historically are exemplary when playing in Portland. The general narrative for the season has been “survive the road trip, and then turn it on and finish strong at home.”

But what if the the mountain the team needs to climb is too gargantuan to summit? What if by the time June 1 rolls around, the team is in too deep of a hole to climb out of? Looking at the remaining six games until then, there is a very plausible reality that the Timbers will come home without a win. And even if they pick up two or three, the gap that the team would need to make up is still significant.

I’m not saying it’s time to panic. And I’m not necessarily saying that Portland can’t overcome a worryingly large point deficit. I’m reasonably confident the Timbers can go on a run at home and pick up wins. But if the gap is indeed large, the pressure on the summer will be immense. Every home game will be absolutely critical, and realistically we may be looking at a scenario where Portland is in “must-win” mode as early as August. And that may be just to make the playoffs, let alone host a game.

It’s this creeping nervousness in the back of my head that is making these first seven weeks of the season feel so much more agonizing. All of the pundits and prognosticators are saying it’s going to be fine and that Portland will figure it out at home, just as SKC and DC did before. What if they can’t? Can we as a collective fanbase survive a summer where every game has massive implications? Can Timbers fans stomach living on the knife’s edge, week in and week out?

One thing that might calm our nerves is if the team can start to turn the flashes of competence into something. There is a path forward for the Timbers, if they can just build on …

The Good Moments: “Just a Little Bit of Hope”

This goal from the game against the LA Galaxy might be the best moment of the entire season so far:

Everything about this goal is pretty awesome. The way that the team moves the ball around the field, the organization and spacing, the awareness to know where each other are ... All of it is a flash of the Timbers of old. We even get the patented “Chara clapping” goal celebration at the end there.

The second half, particularly the last 20 minutes, of the FC Dallas game was also a hopeful flash. Once Cristhian Paredes scored, the team started to play with real urgency, showing the fight that has so far been absent. And if one of several questionable refereeing decisions goes the other way (again: still salty!), Portland potentially walks out of Dallas with its second point and perhaps best performance of the season.

The signs are there that this team is capable of performing up to the level of its collective parts. They may look off, but those two moments suggest that Valeri is still capable of playing like an MVP, Chara is can still look like an all-consuming destroyer, and Blanco can still be a game-breaker.

The key is if this team can turn those flashes into “a flash that starts a fire,” rather than “a flash in the pan.” Results notwithstanding, the first step to this team winning back the hearts and hope of its fans is to start to put together complete and consistent performances.

To accomplish this, Giovanni Savarese clearly seems to have zeroed in on that much maligned defense. Those two encouraging moments came from games where Portland was lined up in a 3-5-2, putting the tactical emphasis on mucking up the midfield and defending in a solid block. His line of thinking may be a simple redux of last season: Shore up the defense first, and then start to work the offense back in.

If this team can address its most visible weakness, they can start to put together more complete performances. And if they can start to put together more complete performances, the results may start to improve.

But as I’ve outlined, those are pretty huge “ifs”. The Portland Timbers of 2019, as they stand, are bad. They will need to make a real effort to build on the small flashes of promise we’ve seen, and, barring some drastic and dramatic revelation, it will take some time for them to figure it out.

And while the team figures this out, we loyal Timbers supporters are left to continue to sigh. We still have six games of this arduous road gauntlet left. It’ss probably not going to be pretty — this team has a long way to go. In seasons past, we’ve seen them respond. For the rest of 2019, for better or worse, we get to see if they can do it once again.

47 days since this season kicked off. 44 days until June 1. Just about halfway home.