What a difference a year makes for the reigning MLS Champions.
This year so far? Ironically, zero. Portland are tied for the most goals conceded in the Western Conference (18 in 10 games). Defense was the driving factor that took the Timbers to the MLS Cup in 2015, but in the early going this year, it’s been something of a liability.
The raw numbers offer a partial picture: The Timbers have been out-shot in their last seven games, lately by lopsided margins. Against Vancouver on Saturday in a 2-1 loss, the Timbers allowed a whopping 26 shots. Of those, 13 were on goal, 17 of them were taken from the penalty box and, drilling down further still, 10 were taken in the penalty box between the goal posts.
Coach Caleb Porter dismissed concerns over the shots the team has faced and cautioned against generalizing the stat.
“You’ve got to look at, when were the chances, when did they occur, how did they occur, those are the things I look at,” Porter said, during a Tuesday conference call. “So I don’t generalize the shots, I look at the depth and the detail of, are they good chances, are they not, how are they getting the chances?”
Possession, however, is one stat Porter acknowledges could stand to improve.
This season, the Timbers have been out-possessed by their opponents in all but three games out of 10 played. Gone is the era of “Porterball,” the nickname for Porter’s early-MLS preference for possession-heavy passing high up the pitch. Now, more than ever, the Timbers are willing to sit deep and wait to counterattack.
But there may need to be a balance struck. Ahead of Portland’s match Wednesday night in Dallas (6pm PT, MLS LIVE), Porter said the team has worked on avoiding the rut of sitting too deep for too long and waiting to attack in transitions.
“We’ve been relying on the counterattack too much,” Porter said. “We’ve been defending deeper for longer periods than we want and relying on the counter. Part of [addressing] that is keeping the ball better because, if you do that, you move up the pitch and you control the game. You make the opponent drop and defend you now.”
“The other side of it is pressing better. The last two days those are major points of emphasis. By having more of the ball, in theory you’ll get more chances and the opponent won’t get as many chances. By pressing a little higher, you’ll have the ball more.”
Tactics aside, the Timbers have also been confronted with a string of very bad luck on the backline.
Designated Player Liam Ridgewell was out for seven games with a hamstring injury. Left back Chris Klute missed the first four games of the season due to offseason surgery. Right back Alvas Powell has missed four matches and is still recovering from a wrist injury that is expected to keep him out up to six weeks.
On top of the injuries, Porter and his back line are still adjusting to life without Jorge Villafana, the standout left back who was just as important on defense as he was in pushing up into the attack, but was sold to Liga MX’s Santos Laguna in the offseason.
“We’re not happy that we’ve given up the amount of goals we’ve given up. We’re not satisfied that we haven’t put up a clean sheet,” Porter said. “But to generalize the overall defending, you can’t do that because we haven’t been able to put the group together in a way we want consistently. Part of it is personnel and not having that chemistry.”
“Defending, a lot of it comes down to chemistry and understanding. We will gain more understanding the more we can keep a set group together … I’m confident we will start putting up clean sheets and we will defend better because it’s definitely been a point of emphasis.”