iPTFC, 3.4.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Inside PTFC | History's context on Timbers' season-opening result in Colorado

The subtext to Saturday’s disappointment was a look to the future, with fears that, over the course of their current 12-game stretch of road games, the Portland Timbers will come to rue their early, missed opportunity.

“I think we wasted two points that we could have gotten here,” in Colorado, head coach Giovanni Savarese said after the weekend’s 3-3 draw. “It could’ve been a great start for us,” he explained, with goalkeeper Jeff Attinella eventually adding, “We let three get away. It’s pretty simple.” Such is the mood when a 94th-minute equalizer turns your three points into one.

The coaching staff and players will spend hours this week figuring out what went wrong, as well as how those mistakes might be prevented going forward. That’s not only what they get paid to do, but that’s how their professional programming works, even if Saturday’s weather conditions cast the game as aberrational. When a field is covered in snow and players are being asked to perform in a reported 18-degree Fahrenheit and colder weather, there’s little that can be transposed onto future, less Hothian environments.

The present, however, sees the Timbers with one point in the standings after one road game, a result level-headed analysis might have accepted before Saturday’s game. But with Colorado’s Axel Sjöberg drawing a red card before the half-hour mark and the Timbers claiming leads at two points (carrying the last of which into stoppage time), those level-headed views now likely agree with Savarese’s and Attinella’s. In Saturday’s 93rd minute, the Timbers may have had a win probability approaching slightly south of 100 percent, but one of those longshot scenarios came through.

Now, it’s about assessing the damage, something that has to balance intellect with emotion. In the moments after Saturday’s final whistle, one fan offered the natural response – that at some point this season, the Timbers could be left ruing those two points lost.

While that’s undoubtedly true, it would also be a mistake to think any points are more valuable than others; and, to the extent they are, the more valuable ones are usually later in the season, as well as those you keep from direct rivals for postseason positioning: Sporting Kansas City, Seattle Sounders FC, among others.

At the end of this season, the Timbers will need a certain point total to compete for the things they want in league: postseason appearance; conference seeding; Supporters’ Shield. The biggest question out of Saturday’s game, to the extent that any results-based question can be big after Round 1, is how much two dropped points will impact those goals.

The first place we can look for context is Timbers’ MLS history, an eight-season run that’s seen terrible road seasons (seven points in 2012) and great ones (25 in 2014) lead to the same place. Both of those teams missed out on the postseason.

Portland Timbers road performance, 2011-present (* - made postseason)
Year Road Points Total Points Western Conference finish
2018 17 54 5th*
2017 16 53 1st*
2016 6 44 7th
2015 23 53 3rd*
2014 25 49 6th
2013 19 57 1st*
2012 7 34 8th
2011 12 30 6th

Broadly – and gingerly, as eight seasons may not be a large enough sample size, here – Portland’s seasons have been driven by their home form. In years where the Timbers made the playoffs, they claimed 71.55 percent of their season’s total points at home. In seasons where they missed out, they claimed 65.4. Given that two of the Timbers’ fallow years (2014, 2016) saw the team miss the postseason by a combined three points, you could argue that every margin – even a six-percent one in a 17-game stretch – matters. Of course, in 2014, the team had its best road season in club history and still stayed home come postseason.

The better place to look may be beyond Portland, and at how often playoff teams have been able to overcome road woes to make the playoffs. This plays into the worst-case hypothetical, here – that one performance augurs a poor result to the Timbers’ road stretch – but it’s also helpful to know the landscape should these first three months turn into a major obstacle.

Very recent history, though, offers some good news. D.C. United started last year with 12 of their first 14 games on the road, not able to play in Audi Field at all until the summer. The team finished with only 10 points on the road for the season yet made the playoffs by five points, finishing fifth in the East while claiming 80.3 percent of their season’s 51 points at home. United only claimed 0.58 points per game away from home, last season. Likewise, all of Real Salt Lake (12 points), Columbus (14) and New York City FC (16) were able to make the postseason without averaging at least a point-per-game on the road.

Playoff teams with less than a point-per-game on the road, 2009-2018
Year Below point-per-game (on the road) teams Total playoff teams
2018 4 12
2017 7 12
2016 5 12
2015 6 12
2014 1 10
2013 2 10
2012 2 10
2011 5 10
2010 0 8
2009 1 8

In 2017, seven teams made the playoffs without hitting the 1.0 mark, including the Timbers, who finished at the top of the Western Conference. In 2016, that number was five. In 2015, the number was six. In general – at least, in the recent past, since MLS last expanded its playoffs (they did so again, this year) – reaching a point-per-game rate on the road has not been necessary to make the postseason, and while it’s a good idea to wonder whether “1.0” should be the bar, after Saturday, that’s where the Timbers are. Though “pace” is probably a worthless word on March 4, the fact the team is on its current pace should keep us from thinking too ill of Saturday’s two points dropped.

And, ultimately, teams who have had to spend so much time on the road early in seasons have not been worse off for it. The league’s previous record for longest season-opening road trip belonged to Sporting Kansas City, who did not debut at Children’s Mercy Park until the 12th game of the 2011 season. After taking only six points from 11 games, Sporting finished first in the East and made it to the conference final. The league’s next-longest opening road trip belongs to the 2016 Toronto FC team, who went on that year to reach (and host) their first MLS Cup final.

For me, the bigger lessons are less in the points dropped than to other parallels from the Timbers’ slow 2018 start. Then, amid five-straight road games to open the season, the team only claimed two points, leading to a series of questions from us media types this preseason about past lessons that could be leveraged this year. Consistency was a word that came up often from the players, as well as focus. The points the team let slip away last year in Chicago (2-2) and Orlando (2-3, loss) stung more than the 4-0 drubbing at the hands of a second-choice New York Red Bulls.

Perhaps, in light of Saturday’s result, another lesson will prove more important, a lesson the team dwelt on intensely in the two-week break after that Red Bulls’ loss. It was at that time the locker room had a choice: let lopsided loss in Harrison, New Jersey, define the short-term identity of the squad; or, consolidate the culture, remember the various talents in the locker room, and maintain belief that the team was better than their worst moment.

Compared to that challenge, Saturday’s disappointment is nothing. The team still got a result, even if it could have been a better one. But amid concerns that will need to be addressed about the team’s defending, its lack of late-game focus, or the other factors that led “3” to become “1,” the team can take heart in the lessons of 2018 and know Colorado need not be more than a single, isolated result.