Portland Timbers strikers "confident and in form" after early season struggles, spark team's rebound

PORTLAND, Ore. – It wasn’t that long ago when the question of “what’s wrong with the Portland Timbers offense?” was being asked.

With just nine goals scored through the first eight game of the season, many wondered if Portland’s high-flying attack birthed in head coach Caleb Porter’s first season at the helm had been grounded in Year 2.

But as badly as the season’s first two months went for the Timbers, the script has been entirely flipped over the course of May and first week of June heading into Wednesday’s home match with FC Dallas (10 pm ET; ESPN2).

Suddenly, the Timbers have the second highest goal total in the league with 26 from 15 games. They’ve scored multiple goals in five consecutive games and are on pace to score 59, which would be five more than last season’s total.

Which begs a new question: What’s changed?

“I think the big thing is that our strikers are scoring,” Porter said following Tuesday’s training session at Providence Park, his club coming off their unprecedented win on the road Saturday against Real Salt Lake. “We were playing well early in the year, it’s easy to forget that. … We were playing really well early in the year but weren’t finishing.”

It very well could be as simple as that.

Even before the addition on a short-term loan of Fanendo Adi, who promptly recorded a brace in each of his first two starts for the Timbers, Portland’s strikers have reversed their fortunes.

Both Gastón Fernández and Maximiliano Urruti now lead the team with six goals apiece.

“We’ve got strikers that are now confident and in form, and we’ve got different types of strikers, so also we’re unpredictable for opponents and can pick different guys,” Porter said. “And we’ve got other guys healthy that we didn’t have early in the year, so we can really set up a game plan and an approach where everyone fits together and also that fits the game.”

And, in turn, that’s opened things up for Porter’s possession-oriented system led by the talented on-ball attackers in Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri & Co. Adi’s presence against Real Salt Lake, Porter said, allowed the Timbers to win the midfield battle, something Portland struggled to pull off consistently early in the year.

Now, Valeri leads the league with eight assists and is on pace to eclipse his league-leading total of 13 from a year ago. And while Nagbe has yet to find the back of the net, he is second on the team with three assists.

“I think when you have a bunch of different guys scoring goals that makes it harder for teams to defend, and all of a sudden you’re getting open quicker and you’re getting more looks,” midfielder and team captain Will Johnson said. “I think early in the year we were too predictable and too easy to defend because we didn’t have anybody who was scoring. It was all getting locked down.”

It’s all led to a scenario in which Portland could enter the World Cup break in a tie for third place in the Western Conference with a win Wednesday against FCD. And that has the Timbers singing a far different tune that they were just more than a month ago.

“It’s exciting that all we’ve been through that we could be tied for third place going into basically midseason,” Porter said.

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.