Timbers Better Buckle Down
Thursday, August 28, 2014
As the regular season winds down and CONCACAF Champions League gets into full swing, the 2013 Western Conference regular season champs face a strategic puzzle regarding which players to play and when to play them.
On one hand there is the Major League Soccer playoff push. On the other, a chance to advance out of the CCL group stages. That would be a first for the Timbers and a prime opportunity for the reserve roster to get valuable touches without jeopardizing an MLS playoff opportunity.
Handling the CCL and MLS schedules simultaneously is a new domain for head coach Caleb Porter and the Timbers. With a 4-1 victory in their first CCL game against Guyana-based Alpha United, the Timbers face the dilemma of which games to prioritize and how to adjust the lineups.
Having just completed a 10,000-mile road trip for away games against New England and Alpha United, Porter remains confident in his team’s stamina. This has been the first time all season where Porter has had the benefit of choosing from a healthy first-choice and reserve roster.
So despite standing just outside of the fifth and final playoff spot, Porter said he was pleased about the position his team was in heading into the matchup with Seattle Sounders FC.
“I like the fact that at the end of the year we’re moving in a direction that’s hopefully up, gaining momentum versus some teams that are going to have to fight off teams like us that are breathing down their necks,” Porter told the press in an interview on Aug. 23.
On Aug. 24, five days after their trip to Guyana, Portland played host to Seattle, arguably the best team in the league and currents leaders in the West.
The traveling appeared to take its toll, as Seattle defeated Portland 4-2 at Providence Park.
Frankly, after the first half, Portland’s chances of stealing points from the West’s top team shifted from feasible (think 50-50 chance) to "I'm going home at halftime." Despite a statistical advantage in shots, possession, and corners, defensive mishaps paired with strong runs from Dempsey and Martins left a once-raucous crowd quiet and a backline unfit to handle the adversity.
“We didn’t manage situations defensively very well today," Porter noted. "There were a lot of chances that they created that shouldn’t have been chances.
"But again, I want to watch the tape to offer reflections to my group and to obviously figure out what we need to do next week to correct those things.
“It seemed like every chance [Seattle] got was in the back of the net. I don’t think the score is indicative of how the game and the flow went, but at the end of the day it comes down to how many you put into the net.”
The bottom line: mistakes cost
It is easy enough to say this, but given the statistical advantage, it is apparent the Timbers had opportunities. After all, they scored two goals.
So by taking a step back, we ask ourselves: What factors played into letting four goals in?
Answer 1) The back line and holding midfielders were caught off guard on the counter too often.
Answer 2) Defensive pressure deflated after going down 0-2 in the first half.
After watching Martins spin-off a defender, do a quick give-and-go to,then split two uncommitted defenders and finish over a flailing Ricketts in the 76th minute, well, that should never happen. Period.
The visiting team is up 3-1 with their forward outside the 18. Give him a bump, pressure the referee to make that questionable call before an influential home crowd. Do something.
All in all, it was a disappointing loss to a Cascadia rival, but the Timbers still hold a strength-of-schedule advantage for the remainder of the season.
"It’s looking like it’s going to come down to us, Vancouver, Colorado, maybe San Jose creeps in for that fifth spot," Porter said after the loss to Seattle.
According to current standings, Colorado and Vancouver, both contending for the last playoff spot in the West, face a statistically tougher schedule throughout the rest of the season.
A glimpse at the next three games and the opponent’s average goals per game (GPG):
Aug. 30: @ Vancouver (Vancouver’s Avg. Home GPG: 1.83)
Sept. 7: vs. San Jose (SJ’s Avg. Away GPG: 1.00)
Sept. 13: @ Colorado (Colorado’s Avg. Home GPG: 1.86)
Next game: The Timbers head to Vancouver Aug. 30 to take on the Whitecaps FC for a shot to overtake the last Western Conference playoff position. View up-to-date League standings here.
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