With awards season in the rear view mirror, and a number of Timbers’ mantles freshly adorned with individual awards, it’s hard to recall a time where there was doubt about the Timbers’ fortunes in 2013. But remember that as the dust settled on the Timbers’ regular season opener, there were significant questions about whether this Timbers team could compete consistently in MLS.
For the second time in two weeks – the other being a 3-3 preseason draw against San Jose Earthquakes – the Timbers offense had dazzled Jeld-Wen Field with a dynamic, dizzying performance in netting three goals over New York Red Bulls. Also for the second time in two weeks, however, the defense had blundered its way to conceding three times in the pair of specious, if entertaining draws.
After the tie against New York, and a first half in which the defensive gaffes were particularly cringe-inducing, I asked Caleb Porter whether the defense was good enough to regularly win games in MLS. Porter’s clenched-jaw answer was at once confident and defiant.
“Yes . . . Yes.”
Eight months, thirty-three regular season games, and only thirty more concessions later, Porter’s defiant confidence was justified. Portland’s 33 goals conceded in 2013 were second in MLS to Cup-winning Sporting Kansas City and – more tellingly in the potent, deep Western Conference – best among the teams on the frontier and five goals clear of the next stingiest conference foe.
But it didn’t happen all at once. Portland continued to ship goals – and sink points – through March, conceding two to Montreal a week later, and at Colorado two weeks thereafter.
The Timbers midfield wall righted the ship, however, protecting a still-fluid backline. Come April, the Timbers only conceded three goals all month – the same number they bled in twenty-eight terrible minutes against the eventual Shield winners. And the Timbers would repeat their three-concession month in May before bettering it by only giving up two league goals in June.
July and August brought a flurry of calls-up, injuries, suspensions, and resultant concessions, but by September the midfield rudder was back in tact and the Timbers sailed to one concession against seven tallies as the stretch run began. Finally, despite a run-in that included games against RSL, Seattle, and away to then-playoff-contending Vancouver, the Timbers only allowed two goals in October to secure their conference crown and a place in CONCACAF Champions League.
Thus, while so many MLS observers were enthralled by the Timbers offensive system and the lip-licking goals it produced, defensive stinginess is what really separated the Timbers from the rest of the MLS pack.
But the way the Timbers defended and a comparison to their trophy-winning Eastern doppelgangers, Sporting Kansas City, reveals just where the Timbers need to get better to take the next step. While Porter stabilized the backline situation, it never entirely solidified, as the ultimate playoff loss to Real Salt Lake showed. Rather, it was the Timbers defensive midfield pairing of Diego Chara and Will Johnson – which was often out of service in the dog days of summer – that protected the Timbers backline. With DieJo together, the Timbers conceded 0.69 goals per game. With the band broken up, they shipped 1.88 per outing.
So while Porter’s defiant “yes” to my March question turned out to be correct, it was perhaps only qualifiedly so. The defense improved, but it wasn’t because of the backline coming together as much as it was secondary to Portland’s league-best midfield controlling matches and making matters difficult early in opponents’ buildup.
The need to protect the backline cuffed Porter’s string-pulling hands somewhat, requiring him to be more conservative with his fullbacks and get creative in his efforts to create space for his attack. When Porter showed faith in his backline by getting aggressive with his outside backs, Portland often gave up goals, as they did in the first leg against RSL.
This is where the juxtaposition with Sporting Kansas City comes in. Unlike Porter, Peter Vermes has the luxury of Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler in central defense. Against RSL – as he frequently did in 2013 and before – Vermes was able to pull Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic forward and go toe-to-toe with an outstanding Real Salt Lake team despite a midfield that, while good, falls materially short of Portland’s. Despite the Timbers outpacing the Wiz at virtually every other position on the field, Kansas City gave up fewer goals and earned more trophies because they had a backline that allowed Vermes to be aggressive in midfield.
So, while the Porter gave a good answer to the question about his defense in 2013, it merits asking again in 2014 if the Timbers are to take the next step. If his search for a stalwart central defender is fruitful, Porter may be tactically unchained with his fullbacks free to join the attack, spread the field, and open up space for the likes of Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe.
And if ever there was a formula for trophies, that’s it.
Onward, Rose City!