Portland Timbers promise to be "ruthless" to overcome slow start, stagnant attack

BEAVERTON, Ore. – It seemed all was well with the Portland Timbers.

Star attacker Diego Valeri had returned to the lineup after missing the first two months of the season. In his first start, Portland’s sputtering attack returned to life in a 2-1 win over the Montreal Impact on May 9, ending the longest goalless stretch under head coach Caleb Porter.

Since then, all has not been rosy.

Portland have lost two straight games for the first time this year, with a 1-0 loss to Toronto FC on Saturday following a 3-1 defeat the previous week against the Houston Dynamo. To top it off, Valeri is out again with a sprained ankle suffered against Toronto.

Now in ninth place in the Western Conference with 13 points from 12 games (the exact same point total Portland had at the same point in their disappointing 2014 campaign), pressure is mounting in the Rose City heading into Wednesday’s home match against East leaders D.C. United (10:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE).

“We talked about Valeri coming back and helping, and he’s out, and we have to find a way to get it done, simple,” Porter said after Tuesday’s training session at the team facility. “I can talk here for another 20 minutes about the last game, what we didn’t do, at home about what we haven’t done, the next game what we’re gonna do, but for me, we have to get three points, plain and simple. We have to get three points tomorrow, and we will.”

Sitting with the lowest points-per-game total in the Western Conference, there’s unlikely to be a lot going right. But their defense, minus the three-goal setback on a steamy night in Houston, has been solid – giving up 13 goals in 12 games, seventh in MLS.

The attack has been the problem, which comes as a surprise, considering it has been among the league’s best since Porter came on board in 2013. The Timbers' 10 goals scored in 12 games rank 19th in MLS, ahead of only New York City FC.

Porter has largely focused on finishing, saying the chances created are cause for optimism. But against Houston, Portland had just one shot on goal. In Toronto, that number improved to five, but few of those really tested goalkeeper Chris Konopka.

In both games, Porter highlighted, the Timbers allowed an early goal.

“We had a few moments, but it’s tough, it’s not easy,” Porter said of unlocking a bunkered-in defense. “It doesn’t matter what level, it’s not easy. So I think the key is we need to score first. … For me, I didn’t like our urgency when we got in the final third. We got in some positions where we need to drive, we need to accelerate, we need to look to penetrate, get shots.”

They’ll likely face the same challenge against D.C. – even if they do not fall behind – a team willing to sit back, especially on the road, and look for the counter. Without Valeri, who Porter said will be out this week, and with wingers Darlington Nagbe and Rodney Wallace in scoreless slumps, that task becomes even tougher. Captain Will Johnson, who was in the 18-man gameday roster in Toronto for the first time this year after recovering from a broken leg, is still a question mark, although Porter said Johnson will play either against D.C. or on Saturday against the Colorado Rapids.

“We are going to be ruthless in trying to get three points at home every single game from here on out, starting tomorrow,” Porter said.

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.