Tree Rings: A step forward
Portland's last three weeks have started to show signs of the team taking a tentative step in the right direction.
The Portland Timbers have exited what had been the hardest three-game stretch of their season so far with six points, a +3 goal differential, and the vibes starting to tick back towards “good”.
Signs of life! Let’s count ‘em out.
Look, we all knew that Portland’s spring was going to be rough. The Timbers have basically never had a consistent start to an MLS season, and that proved to be true yet again in 2023. You could chalk it up to injuries, chemistry still developing, or just early season MLS wackiness but whatever the case may be, the fact was clear: the Timbers were not a good soccer team through the first two months of the season.
Then came Seattle: a signature win which felt oh so good, and also provided the first fleeting positive sign of a turnaround.
After that came Cincinnati: a disappointing result where Portland actually played well enough to win. The result didn’t come, but that game represented that the team was still pointing in the right direction.
And then of course came St. Louis last weekend: a first road victory of the year over a good team that had been leading the conference for the better part of the season. It felt like the first time all season that the Timbers put in a complete performance, and they came home with a well-earned three points to show for it.
For those reasons, I would argue that last weekend was Portland’s most impressive display of the season. Yes, getting off the mat and putting Seattle to the sword a few weeks ago was awesome. But it’s performances like last weekend that are the sustainable ones — and the ones that represent a real substantial step forward for what has been a struggling Timbers team.
There’s a lot of little things that you can see on the field that are evidence of the starts of a turnaround. One of the biggest ones is how Portland’s counter-attacking has started to look dangerous again. Passing looks crisper, players look like they’re starting to get on the same wavelength, and offensive pressure is becoming more consistent.
How much more consistent? Portland’s shot numbers have enjoyed a marked uptick over the past three games: 17 shots against Seattle, 14 shots in Cincinnati, and 14 in St. Louis. That’s a long ways from the game in Vancouver where Portland could manage only just a feeble two shots.
That rising confidence in the offense is having a trickle-down effect of helping to ease some of the pressure of the defense, and Portland isn’t having to scramble as much. Transition defense continues to be a weakness for the Timbers, and the more their offense is able to alleviate pressure and prevent those kinds of opportunities for opponents, the less goals Portland will concede.
Keep in mind that this is the Timbers we’re talking about though — they still have a lot of work to do to shake off the weeks of disappointing soccer.
For example, Portland’s defense is still leaky, and they still have a bad habit to drop their line of defensive pressure way too deep after taking a lead. We saw it a bit in St. Louis, where Portland’s mid-block was doing a good job of stymying the hosts’ attacking buildup for most of the game. After Portland took the lead, they dropped their line, St. Louis said “thank you very much” and then the Timbers got caught on their heels and inevitably conceded. The Timbers recovered, but man they did not make it easy on themselves.
Despite encouraging signs, the Timbers have yet to achieve some semblance of consistency. A run of two wins in three games sounds good, but doesn’t mean anything at all if Portland doesn’t continue to right the ship.
Nevertheless, over the past three weeks the Timbers have started to take a step forward. The only question is now whether they will take another — or trip over their shoelaces and faceplant yet again.
Counting out the rings
The biggest recurring theme of the season that nobody asked for continues to be injuries. David Ayala’s ACL injury is the latest blow to Portland’s squad depth, and is the second central midfielder that Portland has lost to an ACL tear in three weeks after Eryk Williamson underwent surgery to repair his last month.
For what it’s worth, I personally chalk Ayala’s injury up to mostly awful luck: his foot got caught in the grass at CityPark in St. Louis while he was twisting to catch up to a ball. But of course, that caveat doesn’t mean the injury sucks any less for player or club.
Without Ayala, Cristhian Paredes is more than ready to step into the full-time starting role for the rest of the season. He completed five key passes and won 85.7% of his duels on Saturday, and both of those stats were major contributors to why the Timbers had the game in control for most of the night last week. For a player like Paredes whose biggest knock has been consistency, these past few weeks feel like an important step forward.
Another man who is continuing to take important steps forward is Evander. He scored his second goal of the season, and is continuing to look more and more comfortable in the attacking third. The discourse of Portland’s newest DP being a “bust” has been rumbling online, and it’s mostly tied to the Brazilian’s production. Yes, he hasn’t lived up to his price tag yet. And yes, I am saying we should continue to exercise a bit of patience and wait to see how he pans out — especially as the team potentially improves around him.
Expected Goals Nerd Corner, part one: After averaging just 0.86 xG through their first seven games, Portland is averaging 1.7 xG over their past three games (according to FBref). xG can be a noisy stat, but if you want evidence of Portland’s offense showing signs of sustained life, here it is.
Expected Goals Nerd Corner, part two: If you want evidence that Portland’s defense still has some work to do, then here that is: according to FBref Portland tallied an expected goals against number of less than one (0.9 xGA) last weekend for just the first time since week three (which was ironically almost the exact same number against the exact same team: 0.8 xGA against City SC in March). It’s just the second time Portland has allowed less than 1 xGA all season by FBref’s metric. There’s still some tightening up to do at the back.
In culinary news, I didn’t realize one of the main seasonings used in St. Louis was salt.
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