iPTFC, 9.17.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Inside PTFC | What to do about a Timbers defense that's so different away from home

T2, Portland’s USL side, came through with a come-from-behind, 2-1 at Las Vegas Lights FC on Sunday night, meaning two of Portland’s professional soccer teams took steps forward this weekend: T2 taking another step toward a postseason appearance; and, with their own 2-1 win this weekend – on Saturday, at Providence Pack, over the Seattle Reign – Portland Thorns FC earning the right to defend their title in the NWSL’s 2018 Championship Game.

In light of those successes, it might be easy to overlook what happened to the Timbers on Saturday. Alas, the 4-1 loss to the Houston Dynamo probably deserves just as much attention, if for no other reason than to figure out what happened and how it can be prevented in the future.

“It wasn’t good enough,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, four words that would read unremarkable without the contrast of some of Savarese’s other post-game reactions. After defeats at D.C. United (4-1, Aug. 15) and Sporting Kansas City (3-0, Aug. 18), Savarese shouldered the blame, at least in part, taking responsibility for how he handled the Timbers’ squad rotation amid a congested schedule.

“In the three games that we played, we tried to do certain things that didn’t work out ...,” he said about a stretch that began with a weekend loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps. “I assume responsibility for this defeat.”

The aftermath

On Saturday, though, the coach’s tone was closer to the one after his team’s 4-0, March loss at the New York Red Bulls, when he said, “for the fans of the Portland Timbers (the performance) is not good enough. They deserve a lot more …”

That reaction resurfaced in Houston.

“These type of performances, it’s going to be difficult to go far, because we had the game in control,” Savarese said. “We had a game that in the beginning, we found the goal early, we were moving the ball well and then we became overconfident, too comfortable in the match, and then we allowed them to be able to find spaces …

“We will have to talk to [the players],” Savarese said, betraying the fact that he still, in the moments after the match, wasn’t sure why his team had failed. “I don’t know if it was the heat, but we didn’t look like ourselves.”

That look was apparent in the 32nd minute, when a restart after a Zarek Valentin tactical foul saw Houston’s Alberth Elis beat Lawrence Olum to head home a Dynamo equalizer. Larrys Mabiala was beat on a far-post cross in the 39th minute, allowing Mauro Manotas to give the home side their winning goal, while Jorge Villafaña lost his one-on-one battle with Elis ahead of Manotas’ second. When Mabiala lost track of Alejandro Fuenmayor before the game’s final goal, fans were left with a highlight reel reminding them what a fast, athletic Dynamo attack can do when a defense doesn’t bring their best game to Houston.

“The only thing we take away from this game is that we had a very good start ...,” Mabiala said, describing a match where the Timbers scored the first goal and finished with more shots (12-11) and passes (460-377) than their hosts.

“In a place where it’s difficult to play, where it’s hot, it became very difficult for us to just play our game. The game is just on us because we had the game in control once again and we just let it go.”

The reality

To boil those goals down to one players’ decisions (as the paragraph, above, does) oversimplifies what happened on Saturday, and as we discussed in the wake of the Red Bulls’ result, when extreme results happen, it’s rarely because one players’ level has dropped. Yet this is now the fourth time this season that the Timbers have gone on the road and had what could be called an extreme result, to use a term too loosely ...

"Bad" losses (by more than two goals), Portland Timbers, 2018 MLS regular season
Date Opponent Result
March 10 at New York Red Bulls L, 0-4
August 15 at D.C. United L, 1-4
August 18 at Sporting Kansas City L, 0-3
September 15 at Houston Dynamo L, 1-4

… and compared to the other teams on track for playoff appearances in the Western Conference, the presence of four, three-goal losses on their resume doesn’t speak well of the Timbers’ consistency.

"Bad" losses - Defeats by >2 goals in 2018, MLS Western Conference playoff-positioned teams
Rank Team Points "Bad" losses
1 Sporting Kansas City 51 0
2 FC Dallas 50 1
3 Los Angeles FC 47 2
4 Real Salt Lake 45 4
5 Seattle Sounders FC 44 1
6 Portland Timbers  44 4

The intriguing part of the Timbers’ inconsistency, for me, is how much Saturday speaks to the team’s actual level. On occasion, the Timbers have put in very poor performances, but the larger body of work still suggests those performances, while more frequent than any team would want, are still out of character. Even in the context of the team’s road record, strong performances at some of the best teams in the league – Atlanta (draw), Dallas (draw), Los Angeles FC (draw), Seattle (win) – say the Timbers aren’t the team we saw in Houston.

That they’re capable of being that team, though, has to be a source of confusion, particularly given how the team has been performing at home. What we’re seeing at Providence Park is more than just the typical MLS, home-road split. The way the team defenses – the composure and control they have, minute-to-minute – makes it difficult to imagine a Houston-, D.C. United- or Sporting-esque barrage occurring in Goose Hollow. There’s nothing in the team’s play in Portland that suggests it could allow teams to turn a match like the Dynamo did in Houston:

2018 Portland Timbers, Home/Road, Last 5 MLS Games
Date  Home Opponent Result Date Road Opponent Result
Aug. 8 Philadelphia Union W, 3-0 July 18 Los Angeles FC D, 0-0
Aug. 11 Vancouver Whitecaps FC L, 1-2 Aug. 15 D.C. United L, 1-4
Aug. 26 Seattle Sounders FC L, 0-1 Aug. 18 Sporting Kansas City L, 0-3
Aug. 29 Toronto FC W, 2-0 Sept. 1 New England Revolution D, 1-1
Sept. 9 Colorado Rapids W, 2-0 Sept. 15 Houston Dynamo L,  1-4
  Goals Allowed / 90 Minutes 0.60   Goals Allowed / 90 Minutes 2.40

The obvious thing to mention here is Liam Ridgewell. Of Ridgewell’s nine appearances, this season, seven have been at the home, and while he was scheduled to start (but eventually had to be scratched) for the team’s April game in Orlando, a combination of injury, schedule concerns, personal reasons and coaching decisions have limited Ridgewell’s minutes to Providence Park.

The divide

During those minutes, though, the Timbers have been near impossible to score on, despite some of that time coming against the likes of Los Angeles FC, New York City FC, Seattle and Toronto. To be at field-level during that time – watching hints as to what Ridgewell brings – provides easy explanations for the uptick. Ridgewell remains somebody whose presence, within a team dynamic, is defining. The level of experience he brings to a backline is evident in his communication, distribution, and reactions to whatever an opposing team might throw at the Timbers backline. He organizes a team in a way that, beyond the home-road dynamics, makes it easy to see what a team might be better with him on the field.

Ridgewell being rested for the team’s trip to Houston doesn’t explain the entirety of the team’s result, but it does fall into a larger pattern, one that is proving a weakness rather than a quirk. There are, right now, two versions of the Timbers’ defense: One that plays in Goose Hollow, and one that goes on the road. And, unfortunately, one version is performing much better than the other.

There are only three road games left, this season, for the Timbers, but they’re important ones. In particular, trips to Real Salt Lake and Vancouver, down the stretch of the season, could determine whether the 34th game of the year (at BC Place) will be Portland’s last.

Come those trips, the factors that have kept Ridgewell in Portland may be alleviated, and the team may be able to take its best defender on the road. But if those conditions still exist come Oct. 6’s trip to Utah, the team will have to figure out what it is about Ridgewell which, somehow, someway – potentially through somebody else – can be taken on the road. Because while the team’s propensity for a big loss on the road might not necessarily cost them a place in the postseason, it’s difficult to see Portland making a push for a conference or league title without figuring out how it can defend at its best on the road.