Tree Rings: Consistently inconsistent
Whoops - the Timbers are bad again (not really, but vibes sure aren't great).
Once again, we sat on the precipice of the Portland Timbers showing us that they can truly get the 2023 season back on track.
And once again, we witnessed them instead trip and fall right back on their face.
Sigh. Let’s count ‘em out.
What made last Saturday’s gut-punch of a last-second loss to Minnesota feel so deflating was that it came at the end of game where the Timbers had a chance to truly cement their turnaround. Portland had put together a decent little run leading into Saturday, posting two draws and two fairly convincing victories in their previous four games. It felt like this Timbers team was starting to turn a corner and Saturday was meant to be the capper to that process.
Still, Portland couldn’t break down Minnesota’s well-executed low-block. Portland’s attackers didn’t move the ball fast enough to crack open space, and Minnesota collapsed on the ball time and time again, denying quality looks and quality service. That left Portland with settling for low-quality looks in front of goal (a trend which we’ll get to in a bit).
The Loons meanwhile looked markedly fearless on their counterattacks, attacking with pace and directness on pretty much every opportunity presented. Portland had to give them one final opportunity at the death, and, well…
…we all saw what happened. It was a brutal end to a game where Portland maybe didn’t do enough to deserve to win, but also probably didn’t deserve to lose either.
And so, we’re stuck right back where we were: analyzing a Timbers team that showed us the signs that maybe they could pull it all together, but proved to us on the field that they simply can’t yet.
The reality is that at the moment the Portland Timbers are a consistently inconsistent team. They are capable of putting in solid and complete games (like the wins over Vancouver and St. Louis) and also prone to throwing stinkers (like the draw against Austin and the loss last weekend).
That inconsistency exposes problems on the field that as yet do not have solid solutions. Chief among those is the offense. Portland has started to find the back of the net more frequently, but the underlying numbers do not suggest that that is sustainable.
Over the past five games Portland is posting a 1.4 goals per 90 goal scoring average, but according to FBref they have posted just 0.94 expected goals per 90 over that stretch. While xG can be noisy and sometimes not definitive, we can gather a strong amount of evidence from that stat to suggest that the Timbers are over-performing what the underlying numbers suggest their goalscoring form should be. That extrapolated over the course of the season the Timbers does not bode well for Portland’s ability to score goals when it counts.
Case in point was last Saturday, when the Timbers peppered Minnesota’s goal with 18 shots, but generated just 0.7 xG. The offensive performance as a whole was an example of the quantity being there, but not the quality.
Their defense also still isn’t playing well enough to support that kind of statistical performance. Portland’s expected goal differential per 90 (-0.35) is currently tied for the second-worst in the Western Conference, and fifth-worse in MLS. Teams are still exposing the Timbers’ aggressive fullbacks, and the team as a whole still can’t scramble and defend in transition well when they’re out of shape (see the clip above for the latest piece of evidence).
But the Timbers are not bottom of the barrel. They aren’t getting smacked around like they were earlier in the season, and are looking relatively competitive against any opponent. They have generated very good performances over the past month, and have shown that they can temporarily pull it together for dazzling results.
The problem is that the Timbers haven’t been doing that enough. Portland isn’t a bad team — they just aren’t a particularly good one at the moment.
Is that good enough for a return to the postseason? Probably. With the expanded playoff field more teams than ever are making the postseason, and so just through sheer statistical odds Portland stands a good chance to make it in.
Will that make the last few months of the season a stressful high-stakes pressure cooker where every game feels like a must-win and we’re all living and dying on every kick off the ball? Oh most definitely. For the umpteenth time we are facing the reality of Portland placing its postseason ticket in the hands of a barnstorming late-summer run.
If they do make the postseason, do the Timbers look like a team that is good enough to make a run? At this point, signs point to no. The Timbers will have to show more offensive consistency and defense solidarity in order to truly be thought of as “contenders” rather than “also-rans” when the calendar turns to October.
Can they show those things? I’m not wading into that one — at least not yet. At over two months into the season the Timbers somehow still feel like a work-in-progress, and the question is whether that will eventually resolve or continue in perpetuity.
One of the more likely outcomes is that we are going to be doing this until the autumn: analyzing a consistently inconsistent team that is capable of moments of brilliance and moments maddening frustration in equal measure. At least, until Portland can finally prove otherwise.
Counting out the rings
Oof: The Timbers have now won just one regular season matchup with Minnesota United since April 14, 2018. Portland’s regular season record against the Loons during that stretch is one win, six losses, and two draws.
Oooof: According to Opta, the Timbers have now conceded 12 result-changing goals in second-half stoppage time since that start of the 2020 season, more than any other MLS team in that time.
Oooooof: The Timbers have now dropped six points at home from either winning or drawing positions this year: a 1-0 lead over St. Louis turned into a 1-2 loss, a 2-1 lead over Austin turned into a 2-2 draw, and a 0-0 draw against Minnesota turned into a 0-1 loss. That’s more points than they dropped from similar positions at home through all of the 2022 season.
In happier news, Sebastian Blanco logged his first MLS minutes of 2023. If he can even close to his peak 2021 form, it would be a huge boost for the offense.
He hasn’t gotten back onto the scoresheet, but Evander has still been active offensively. He generated 10 shot creating actions, completed 13 progressive passes, and completed eight progressive carries last weekend according to FBref.
Cristhian Paredes continues to be a consistently important presence in Portland’s midfield. He is putting some of his best shifts in a Timbers shirt in 2023 — and I am saying a prayer every night for the health of his hamstrings.