The Portland Timbers were supposed to be built for a title this year. Maybe multiple titles – the Supporters' Shield, certainly, and the CONCACAF Champions League, which they'll enter later this year.
They also always take the US Open Cup seriously, and you know they want an MLS Cup.
But they're miles from all of the above in their current shape.
Following their 2-1 loss at FC Dallas, let's take a look at why:
1. Norberto Paparatto has been a liability
His recognition is pretty decent in the build-up, when the game is basically stuck in a possession phase. And he steps up nicely to provide an outlet for his teammates.
But he doesn't transition well, which is a critical liability when combined with his lack of foot speed:
That's Blas Pérez – who's probably in the bottom 25 percent of MLS strikers in terms of pure foot speed – streaking past Paparatto and onto the cross from Jair Benítez. Seeing Pérez manage that is an eye-opener, and every team Portland face from here on out will try to beat the Timbers for speed in the open field.
What was worse, though, was Paparatto's lack of reaction on the first Dallas goal, which you can watch HERE. He turns, watches and then drifts to the penalty spot instead of sticking with Pérez.
A rookie who did that would rightly be ripped for a lack of concentration. Paparatto's no rookie – he's a 30-year-old veteran. And that is a huge worry.
2. Separation on the flank
FC Dallas had speed advantages all over the field in this one, not just against the central defense. Nowhere was it more pronounced than against the Timbers fullbacks.
When Portland are at their best, they compact the field and switch across all three lines – defense, midfield and attack. Right back Jack Jewsbury and left back Michael Harrington spend as much time mixed in with the midfielders, providing width in possession, as they do defending.
Or they used to, anyway. The Dallas wingers scared them into holding their lines today:
FCD is basically begging Jewsbury to advance on the right.— Matthew Tomaszewicz (@shinguardian) March 30, 2014
With Fabián Castillo pinning Jewsbury back on one side, and Je-Vaughn Watson pushing Harrington back on the other (before they got sent off), there was no interchanging for Portland. There was a clear delineation between defense, midfield and attack, and that is not good.
The biggest victim was Darlington Nagbe at right wing. As spectacular as he is as an individual, he's magnitudes better when he has players around him to combine with. FC Dallas, by pinning Jewsbury back (and Jewsbury has to help on defense more than usual as Paparatto tries to settle in), robbed Nagbe of anyone to provide width and verticality on the right. They were separated, and have barely combined at all.
3. Troubles with set pieces
The difference between Sporting KC and Portland, who were two of the three consensus favorites entering this season, is that Sporting can play poorly and still kick the hell out of you on dead balls. You know that as long as either Graham Zusi or Benny Feilhaber is out there to serve it in, and as long as Aurélien Collin is out there to rise up, they're a threat.
More importantly is that Sporting don't give you any cheap set pieces. Yeah, Dallas got them two weeks back – but that was a perfect ball from Michel, and an even better header from Matt Hedges. You have to be precise against them.
Díaz is a special player, and he will make other teams look silly many more times this year. But Sporting – Collin and Matt Besler – would have cleared this whole thing to three zip codes past midfield.
Portland, right now, are a cut below. The chance at titles could still be there, but first they have to figure out how to survive.