BEAVERTON, Ore. – In this season of whack-a-mole for the Portland Timbers, the latest bugaboo is a shortage of positive results on their home ground.
So far this year, there have been offensive struggles, defensive struggles and now struggles at what was previously a fortress through the Timbers' first three seasons in MLS. In 10 home games, following last week's 1-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City, Portland are 1-7-2, and they have not won in the Rose City in a league contest since May 3. That's a 1-point-per-game average at home, compared with the Timbers' 2.24 last year, tied for the league's best.
Yet on the road, where the Timbers have notoriously struggled since joining the league, they are 3-1-3 in league play and picked up a US Open Cup win over that same Kansas City team on June 24.
Head coach Caleb Porter has managed to turn around the team’s offensive woes, and the front office just signed a player they think can help with defensive issues in former English Premier League center back Liam Ridgewell. Now all they have to do is figure out what’s going on in the cozy – and raucous – confines of Providence Park.
Porter said he has a pretty good idea.
“In 17 games, there’s reason to believe that we could have won every single game, and some of our best performances – most dominant performances in terms of flow, possession and shots – have been at home,” Porter said at the team training facility earlier this week in preparation for their Fourth of July road clash against the LA Galaxy (11 pm ET, NBCSN, NBCSN live stream). “So I think probably the biggest reason is teams are playing a little bit more defensive. They … are happy to get a draw. And when you give up the early goal, now that puts even more pressure on your attack and allows them to sit even deeper.”
Ironically, Portland have opened the scoring at home inside the first seven minutes on four different occasions this year. But they have only led at halftime twice, going 1-0-1 in those games, which means opponents are finding the scoreboard early and, at times, often. The Timbers have yet to post a home shutout this season.
In the most recent home game, Sporting scored from an early long throw-in and made that goal stand up over the remainder of the game, absorbing wave after wave of Portland attacks.
For a similar example, Porter cited Brazil’s Round of 16 matchup against Chile in the World Cup, which was decided on penalty kicks after it ended 1-1 through 120 minutes of play. Brazil’s only goal came off an 18th-minute corner kick that could have easily been ruled an own goal.
“They had 120 minutes, and they didn’t find a goal from the run of play, and these are the best players in the world,” Porter said. “So I think sometimes people think you’re struggling when you don’t score, but sometimes that’s just football. The result we had in the last game, it’s not a result we like, but it’s a pretty normal result. You see it happen a lot, where the team pinches a goal and hangs on and they win the game.”
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Porter emphasized that scoring the first goal tends to open things up for the attack. He also said his team has to be better at dealing with a 'cement mixer'-type game full of direct play like the Sporting loss.
“My frustration wasn’t necessarily in that performance, it was more the manner of the game,” Porter said. “They had very few chances other than in the end of the game. And the few chances they did have, we have to manage those better.”
Luckily for Portland, their next game will be on StubHub Center’s expansive pitch against a team unlikely to sit back.
“They come out more attack-orientated, which means there’s more space, which means there’s more opportunities to create goals,” he said of the Galaxy. “In those situations, there’s more pressure on the home team to push the game and score goals, which has played into our hands.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.