Going into yesterday’s match against Real Salt Lake the Timbers had never won a game in Salt Lake City. They still have not. Despite controlling overall possession in a game for the first time since what seems before the Western Conference finals, the Timbers fell short of that promise.
Blame the poor positioning of the central defense. Blame a gassed attacker. Blame the cross bar. Blame the fact only 4 of 9 shots were on target. Blame the fact Rimando blocked every one of those. You can play that game all day and all night, but it will not resurrect the chances the Timbers failed to bury. Perhaps the best approach is to accept the Timbers played a good game but were not good enough to close it out. This team could have won the game. They could have. But for some unfortunate stroke of luck or fate or whatever hoodoo hocus pocus is out there, they could not get over the invisible barrier preventing that first win.
Most of you have asked or are going to ask whether or not the Timbers have the right players or the right chemistry. You may ask what, other than the average player age, has changed since last year. The fact is nothing and everything. But these are philosophically searching questions that require a more esoteric investigation than what is possible in a match report. Here we try to highlight the play and discuss the issues that influenced the result—good or bad. But when a game was as evenly played as this game was the only player contribution available to assist our understanding of the game may just be the lowlights.
But before we get there, let us talk about the good things that happened. This team pressed and they did so without using the right flank. Jack Jewsbury came in for the defensively inept Alvas Powell and provided the experience necessary to protect well the right flank. Granted, the tactic used limited his efforts going forward—he rarely ventured into the final third, instead opting to hold back in support of the positionally suspect central defense. This meant all play went through the left flank. Indeed, Will Johnson and Harrington combined for 27% of the 403 total passes attempted by the Timbers. The combination between the two players in the back and through the midfield was essential to opening opportunities for Darlington Nagbe, the primary outlet for the Timbers attack.
And that worked well. Too often Nagbe made Nat Borchers, a player often considered one of the best central defenders in MLS, look ordinary. At one time, he burst past the central defender in a move reminiscent of Gareth Bale’s wonder goal for Real Madrid earlier this week, only for Nick Rimando to do what Nick Rimando does—prevents Portland from scoring. The point is things were happening and it seemed it was only a moment before the Timbers would score.
Indeed, after the first half it was clear the Timbers controlled the game. They had the better portion of possession and won the battle for midfield. Despite controlling the run of play, the Timbers put only one shot on target—Nagbe’s 15 minute, off-balance attempt after he beat Borchers for pace.
In the second half, the Timberslooked to improve upon the foundations set out earlier in the second half. They continued to spread the pitch, preventing RSL from using the multiple triangles that make the narrow diamond so fluid and dangerous. Their tempo and urgency was met with real consternation from RSL, forcing them to sub off the frustrated Olmes Garcia and Luke Mulholland. Both players made good efforts to expose the Timbers defense for their lack of positional nous. In the early moments of the first half, Mulholland skipped a dangerous cross in behind the entire Timbers backline, and Garcia took advantage of when Kah wildly and unadvisedly came off his line in the 40 minute, a miscue that nearly resulted in the opener. But they did little else than create those two moments.
Like his counterparts, Urruti had some chances. But rather than talking to the girl, he spent all night at the bar looking at her. He failed to take his chances, which was not unexpected, but still unfortunate. It seemed the way things were going that it would take only one moment to break the game open for the Timbers. Unfortunately it came at the wrong end.
In the 78 minute, Ned Grabavoy received the ball 30 yards out from Sebastian Velasquez. Nagbe tried to play the ball rather than place himself between the player and goal, Chara just loafed back into position, and Futty was caught watching the play while he enjoyed a nice tea with his buddy, Kah, 15 feet from where he should have been. Needless to say. Grabavoy took his chance, grabbed every inch of space the Tibmers defense gave him, and put the ball far post. It was a good goal. It was a smart goal. But most of all it was a frustrating goal because once again the Timbers went behind because of individual mistakes. Rather than sauntering back to the 18-yard-box when Nagbe picked up Grabavoy’s run, Chara should have read the play better and moved in to cut off the angle. He is equipped with speed enough to have reached the area behind Nagbe, but he chose not to use it. Similarly, Futty showed the better aspects of his positional awareness by just staying put rather than moving in to cut off the angle. Sure, Ricketts should have done better, but it is hard to put blame on the man when his defenders let him down in the way they did.
This was another example of players letting off because they expected someone else to pick up the slack. That never works. And that is why the Timbers lost and now sit on four points after seven games.