The Portland Timbers still don't have any breathing room, but they do finally have enough room to draw a breath.
That's thanks to a 2-1 win over the Red Bulls in Harrison. Let's take a look at a few things that – finally – went right for Portland:
1. The Difference Maker
Maximiliano Urruti came to MLS in the middle of the 2013 season with a pretty good helping of expectations. And before he could even settle in, he was traded from Toronto FC to the Timbers.
Eight months later now and Urruti has settled in, to an extent, in Portland. The Timbers defend much better with him in there – he's one of the most relentless pressing forwards in the league, and has good defensive instincts to go with that motor. He also tends to get into good attacking spots in transition, which is a necessity since he struggles to make himself available in possession and isn't suited to do the type of back-to-goal work that the guy he replaced, Ryan Johnson, did last year.
But the real problem has been his finishing. Or it was a real problem, anyway, which is why Portland went out two weeks ago and got Fanendo Adi, a prototypical target man.
Apparently, it lit a fire:
Urruti now with four goals in his last 130 minutes played. That's a decent strike rate. #NYvPOR— Thomas Floyd (@thomasfloyd10) May 25, 2014
Obviously the motivation of losing your job probably has something to do with Urruti's turnaround, but it's also worth noting the long and storied history of high-expectations attackers coming in mid-season and failing to deliver, then figuring things out the following year.
On that list are two guys Urruti faced on Saturday: Thierry Henry and Bradley Wright-Phillips. When they're going well, New York win. When Urruti's going well ... the sample size is too small to draw any definite conclusions. But if the Timbers finally have their go-to goalscorer, that can cover up some of the blemishes that have revealed themselves over the last 10 weeks.
2. The Worry
Live by the Kah, die by the Kah. It's been a helping of both this year, and Pa Modou Kah continues to be one of the more divisive figures in the league both for Timbers fans and pretty much everybody else.
Kah's struggles defending in space are well documented, but even on his worst day he's been a money, lockdown defender in the 18. He's been physical, of course, but like Aurelien Collin seems to understand just where the line is for most refs.
That wasn't the case on Saturday. He conceded a PK that was soft, but not exactly objectionable. If you drape your arm around an attacker, as Kah did, then you always run the risk – especially if you have a rep.
He's a veteran, and will doubtless figure out how to adjust his game a bit. The bigger concern is this:
That's Wright-Phillips absolutely undressing Kah in the 18 before the woodwork intervenes. This is a special play, of course, but it's emblematic of a creeping problem: Kah hasn't been as physically able to shut down forwards in 1-v-1 situations as he was last year.
He's about to turn 34, and has spent this season next to a rotating cast of underperforming partners. The pressure is on him to be a leader, a tone-setter, and a dominant presence in the box as he heads into the twilight of his career.
The first two aren't really up for debate at this point. The third? It's starting to feel like an open question.
3. The Adjustment
Earlier this season, nobody was easier to beat on restarts than Portland. Every game, they were giving up at least two or three good looks, and every single time they defended a corner, it was must-see TV.
The nadir was the game against Seattle two months ago, a 4-4 draw that, to put it mildly, got away from the Timbers. That was also the last time they defended zonally on corners, and with only a few exceptions they have since become one of the better teams in the league on restarts.
That was one big worry taken care of. Urruti's goal binge is another. The Timbers still have concerns, issues to work through – but for the first time all year, they now have some momentum on their side as they try to sort themselves out.