Portland Timbers Enter Critical Stretch Bruised & Battered, But Not Beaten
Friday, April 22, 2016
One of the great fallacies in soccer, and in sports as a whole, is that the importance of a regular season game changes depending on the time of year it is played. Late season games, conventional wisdom says, are more important, as they are the final matches that determine whether a team wins the division, gets home field, or makes the playoffs. But the “critical” three points that a team gets on the last day of the year could just as easily be grabbed in April. They are all worth the same; all counted equally in the final standings.
Which is why the Timbers’ 3-1 victory over San Jose last Saturday, despite missing four starters due to injury and losing goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey early in the second half to a dislocated finger, could end up being one of the key moments of the 2016 campaign.
Because make no mistake, Portland had their backs against the wall, even this early in the year. The Timbers had not won a match since opening day back on March 6, and had just been dismantled in a 3-1 loss to FC Dallas two days prior that, frankly, should have been worse. A second home loss in a week to San Jose would have put Portland in last place in the west and six points off the red line, leaving Caleb Porter’s squad an uphill battle to even make the playoffs.
But the M.A.S.H. unit masquerading as the Portland Timbers pulled off a minor miracle against a red-hot San Jose team, taking advantage of another Fanendo Adi brace (as a substitute!) along with what was probably Lucas Melano’s best overall performance as a Timber to earn the three critical points.
But Portland is far from out of the woods yet, and the injuries seem to just keep on coming. Right Back Alvas Powell tore a ligament in his wrist and is out another 5-7 weeks. Meanwhile, Kwarasey tore a ligament in his finger and is expected to miss the next four weeks.
But it’s not all bad news on the injury front for Portland. Darlington Nagbe miraculously will be ready to return from the sprained ankle he suffered against Los Angeles, and team captain Liam Ridgewell is expected back either next Wednesday against New England or on May 1st against Toronto. But in all likelihood, Portland will not be able to field a fully-healthy squad until the middle of June, at the earliest.
Combine the injury woes with a stretch that sees Portland on the road for three of their next four games, including trips to Western Conference foes Vancouver and Dallas, and you have the makings of a critical juncture for the Timbers.
If Portland can earn at least six points out of the next four, they can remain within striking distance of the top of the west just as key players return to the squad, and the Timbers could be primed for a run that would see them well-positioned heading into the All-Star break. However, given the injury concerns and the difficult schedule, it is just as likely that Portland could enter the summer and find themselves with a significant hole to climb out of just to make the playoffs.
Caleb Porter does not have an easy job these next few weeks. He has to hope that players, such as backup goalkeeper Jake Gleason and reserve defender Zarek Valentine, who have not had much playing time can quickly integrate into the squad, and perform at a regular first-team MLS level, because that’s where they are going to be for the next month.
Fortunately for Coach Porter and Portland, the squad will (hopefully) be back at full strength with much of the season left to play. Unfortunately, these games that Portland may struggle with in the meantime will count all the same at the end of the season, so the Timbers cannot afford to take a step back while waiting for reinforcements.
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