At this time last year the Timbers were sitting in fourth place in the Western Conference, having collected 39 points through 25 games. They were also on the verge of going unbeaten in their last eight games to finish the season in first place in the West.
This season has not gone nearly as well.
Caleb Porter’s team currently sits in sixth place in the West with 31 points through the same 25 games. This weekend they have a chance to get above the red line when they face their Cascadia rivals in Vancouver in what could well be a turning point for each team as they enter the home stretch (10:30 pm ET, MLS Live in the US, TSN2 in Canada).
With that in mind, let’s take a look at three things that have been ailing the Timbers so far and what needs to be righted in order for Portland to make the playoffs.
1. Johnson and Chara not as influential
Last year Will Johnson and Diego Chara were the top central midfield tandem in MLS. They controlled the game for the Timbers and allowed Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe to do what they do best, attack. This allowed Johnson and Valeri to make the league's Best XI at the end of the season. This year, we have seen a dropoff in the way they have influenced the game.
In 2013 the Timbers were the third best in MLS in terms of possession, this season that figure has dropped off to seventh. That dropoff doesn’t seem like much but it does mean you are defending more – not necessarily a bad thing on the whole, but an issue with a subpar backline (more on this later). Both Johnson and Chara have seen the number of passes and the number of touches they get a game, in addition to the fact that we have not seen them as active in the final third.
|Diego Chara and Will Johnson|
|Year||Touches Per 90||Passes Per 90||% of Passes in Final Third|
2. No Rodney Wallace
In the Conference Championship last year, Rodney Wallace tore his ACL. This forced him to miss the first half of the season, and he is still working his way back to form after making his first appearance of 2014 at the end of June.
Few players in the league were as effective going forward and helping out defensively as Wallace was last year, and in the wake of his absence Porter has resorted to more attackin-minded options in his spot (Gaston Fernandez, Steve Zakuani). I outlined how this affected the team’s chemistry all the way back in March, and it hasn’t gotten much better.
In recent weeks Valeri has had to line up on the wing, a position he has adjusted to quite well, so Fernandez could have more of a free role and fewer defensive responsibilities. But do you really want your best player playing in his second-best position?
3. Center back issues
As I said above, the Timbers were one of the top possession teams in MLS last season, and when your team has the ball for long stretches, there's naturally less defending for the center backs. Pa Modou Kah, Futty Danso, and Andrew Jean-Baptiste were the only center backs used by the Timbers after Mikael Silvestre’s injury, and the three of them were able to develop some cohesion, enabling the club to make a run in hte playoffs
They entered this year with Kah, Danso, and newcomer Norberto Paparatto rotating in the two starting spots after trading Jean-Baptiste in the offseason. It did not work out as expected, as the Timbers let in 19 goals in their first 11 games, good for the fourth most goals conceded per game. Since then, we have seen the departure of Danso and the demotion of Kah to the bench.
The addition of Liam Ridgewell on a Designated Player contract has helped shore up one spot but there are still plenty of question marks about the other.
All of these issues are not independent of one another, and if one part of the team is not working properly it affects the rest. There are sure to be differing opinions about which one of these issues is the biggest, but even solving one of these problems could go a long way towards pushing the Timbers over that red line.