Two days are left for you to practice gut retention exercises. Go do some sit-ups, some crunches, hit the Roman chair, find an annoyingly large exercise ball, do whatever it takes to make those muscles strong, because come Saturday you are likely to get punched. As is often a metaphor for a team’s fortitude, Saturday represents the first real gut-check moment of the season. Things do not look good and against Real Salt Lake they are likely to get worse if the Timbers do not address flaws that should have been addressed in the off-season as they were the season before.
At this point in the season last year, the Timbers had a record of 2 wins, 3 draws, and a loss. They were sitting on 9 points as they headed into the second game of a turn-around series with San Jose. Things looked up for the club as they entered into one of the best unbeaten streaks the league was likely ever to see. Fifteen games on the trot without a loss. Who knew that would happen? The team was young, they had worked together only a few months, and they were just learning how to play together under the new coach’s system. Things looked much different last year than they do now.
Not even a third of the way into the season and the Timbers have already allowed a third of the number of goals they did the entire 2013 campaign. Eleven goals. 11. The numbers put up by this year’s leaky defense (a defense that really needed and overhaul at the end of last season yet did not receive one) so far do not bode well for the rest of the season. Frankly, they do not bode well for this weekend’s match against last season’s boogeyman team—Real Salt Lake.
I think we can all agree that Real Salt Lake had the Timbers number every game last season. They knocked the Timbers out of the US Open Cup in the first week of August and then proceeded to win three of the next five games they played, drawing the other two. In the end, they knocked the Timbers out of the MLS Playoffs with a humiliating first-round beating that proved the Timbers did not have the defensive backbone necessary to make a deep run into the playoffs. We all lived those games, so why take the time to relive the scores? Well, in those six games, Real Salt Lake exposed the Timbers defense for what it was and is—a slow, positionally naïve, piecemealed group of players, who, with the exception of Michael Harrington, should not be starting in MLS. They were so bad Ricketts could not even bail them out as he did on numerous occasions, disguising their ineptitude. The facts were there: Kah, Futty, and Jack were all burnt by Real Salt Lake in ways that suggested the time had come for them to make way for younger, better talent.
That did not happen. With the exception of Alvas Powell, who is as much of a liability on the right as Jack is, the Timbers go into Saturday’s game with the same group of players who were scored on 15-9 over the course of those 6 games. But this year they have bigger issues in the back than were exposed when giving up 5 goals in the finals. Kah and Futty may work together, but Kah still feels it is his job to worry about the well-being of every other player on the pitch than his own standard of play. And, to be honest, he does a poor job of mothering. Powell has been burnt handedly for 4 goals in the last two games and Kah has been as culpable for the leaks as he. Sure, much can be said about the new “stud centerback,” but his form is just as poor as that of everyone else on that backline. All of this leaves us asking questions.
Why, if the problems were so visible at the end of the season, did the Timbers not upgrade?
And, if upgrades were not on the table, why do they still not address the tactical issues that affect the backline?
Obviously, these questions will not be answered before Saturday, nor will they be addressed by that time. So, the Timbers go to a venue where they were beaten 4-2 twice last season by a team well-trained in a system they still have yet to determine how to breakdown. The grim reality is that, as much as I loathe the possibility, the Timbers will likely not find their first win of the season until May.