KBSR, Timbers vs. NE, 9.25.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

KeyBank Scouting Report | Timbers below playoff line ahead of visit from New England

PORTLAND, Ore. – There’s still an “8” next to Portland Timbers.

Go to the standings page, and you’ll see it. Only the top seven teams in each conference make the postseason, and although the Timbers briefly poked their head above the playoff line on Sunday, a result later in the day pushed them back under water. Yes, Portland still has a game in hand on FC Dallas, one of the teams they’re battling for the West’s last playoff spots, but given the Timbers' recent form, games in hand don’t necessarily mean points in the standings. The team's struggling to get back in the win column.

Over their last seven games, the Timbers are 2-4-1, a mark that looks like a mild slump until you’re told all of those games were at home. Whereas Portland posted an 11-2-4 record in Goose Hollow last season, 2019’s home slate has produced only seven wins and three draws in 15 games. Perhaps the all the home games in a backloaded schedule have come too close together, leaving too little room to recover mentally or physically. Whatever the reason, Portland has failed to take advantage of their own field, and they'll go into Wednesday's match winless in three at home.

With two of their final three games at Providence Park, that may need to change if the Timbers are to return to the postseason. Wednesday marks the next chance for that change to start (7:30pm PT, TICKETS, FOX 12 PLUS (KPDX)).

Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report, a look ahead to a mid-week visit from the New England Revolution. 

Before and after Arena - New England’s form

Record: 10-10-11 (41 points, seventh in the Eastern Conference)
Goals for: 45 (tied for 15th in MLS)
Goals against: 52 (19th)
Goal difference: -7 (18th)

Hold on. We need to redo those numbers, because New England has been two distinct teams this season – two teams divided by an obvious point to change. On May 9, the Revolution fired then-head coach Brad Friedel, eventually replacing the U.S. goalkeeping legend with one of his national-team managers, Bruce Arena. 

Since Friedel’s departure ... well, you be the judge:

Record: 8-3-9 (33 points, fourth in the Eastern Conference)
Goals for: 34 (eighth in MLS)
Goals against: 27 (tied for sixth)
Goal difference: +7 (tied for fifth)

For over four months, now, the Revolution have performed like a solid playoff team, and while the summer addition of Argentine attacker Gustavo Bou was a significant boon, Arena has been the biggest change to New England’s fortunes.

Recent history: Who needs wins or losses?

Last game: 1-1 draw at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 1, 2018
All-time: Portland is 2-1-6 against the Revolution

The Timbers and Revolution have faced each other nine times since Portland joined Major League Soccer in 2011. Six of those games have ended in draws, including the last three.

Why? Why so many draws? Without digging deep on each game, it’s impossible to say, but as a starting point, consider the context around Wednesday’s game for the Revolution. The trip is already one of the longest, most taxing they’d take any season, but this one is coming midweek, after playing at home on Sunday against Real Salt Lake. Combine a short turnaround with a long flight and the congestion of the MLS’ end-of-season schedule and you can see why the trip would be hard – why a road team might elect to rotate their lineup, play more defensively, and be happy with a draw against a team from the other conference.

Also, consider what the Timbers did last season. Coming off a Wednesday game at home to Toronto, Portland had to fly cross-country on a short turnaround. They were playing on NFL turf in a game that wouldn’t possible give points to a conference rival. As such, neither Diegos Chara nor Valeri were in the game-day 18. Samuel Armenteros and Jorge Villafaña were in uniform but didn’t play. The team played a Christmas tree formation with Dairon Asprilla up top, adapting their tactics to their different personnel. The goal: Get out of New England with a result. The outcome: a 1-1 draw, where a chance created late for Lucas Melano almost claimed full points for the squad.

Between the distance in miles and the fact that these teams only visit each other once every two years, Timbers-Revolution matchups will always feel a little weird. That doesn’t explain why there’ve been so many draws, but it’s no surprise that, on aggregate, the results of this series have been a little outside the norm.

Focus player: Attacking midfielder Carles Gil

Season: 31 games (all starts), nine goals, 14 assists
All-time: Same (this is Gil's first season in MLS)

Any focus applied to Bou is natural. His acquisition has coincided with New England’s rise up the standings, and with seven goals in his first 886 minutes, the Club Tijuana import has given the Revs a much-needed, go-to scorer.

Carles Gil, however, deserves some attention, too. The 12 primary assists he’s record this season are tied with FC Dallas’ Michael Barrios for the league lead, while his nine goals put him on the cusp of a benchmark 10-10 (goals and assists) season. The 3.2 shots per game Gil’s created for teammates ranks fourth in MLS, while the number of passes he attempts per match (56.3) is among the league’s highest for his position.

At 26, and already with experience in the Spanish and English top flights, Gil was an under-appreciated acquisition when he arrived in January. Since, the Spaniard has been one of the more productive players in the league. Bou has rightly gotten attention since his July arrival; Gil deserves some headlines, too.

Focus matchup: Sebastián Blanco versus Brandon Bye

Blanco returned to the Timbers XI on Sunday but started in an unusual position, and while he has all the skills necessary to perform as an attacker in central midfield, his customary spot is on the left, matching up against the opposition’s right back. With regular attacking midfielder Diego Valeri expected to return to the starting lineup on Wednesday, Blanco should resume his wide positioning, set to take on New England fullback Brandon Bye.

Arena could always rotate his starting lineup on Wednesday, meaning Bye could go to the bench, but if the Revolution stay with their normal team, the 24-year-old fullback will get one of the day’s most difficult assignments. Now in his second year of being converted to defense, the natural attacker has all the athleticism needed to keep up with Blanco. Whether he’s developed the technique, yet, to slow one of Portland’s primary creators is less certain.

In truth, that sentiment could be applied to almost any MLS right back. Blanco is a tough assignment less because of a particular fullback’s weaknesses than the talents he brings to the field. The Blanco versus Bye matchup isn’t key because Bye’s weak. It’s key because Blanco’s strong.

As for the Timbers …

The closed right eye that forced midfielder Andrés Flores to be subbed off early on Sunday may yet keep him out of Wednesday’s game. With Giovanni Savarese set to talk to the media on Tuesday, we won’t know for sure until closer to game time. Other than that, though, the Timbers’ availability list is largely unchanged. Larrys Mabiala and Zarek Valentin are back. Cristian Parades’ leg is fine. Julio Cascante, Modou Jadama and Jeff Attinella are still out.

Overshadowing all of that, though, is the team’s goalscoring drought, one that will extend into its fourth-straight game once Wednesday’s match kicks off. In terms of solutions, the answer is obvious. The team needs to finish the chances they’ve created over the last two games. In terms of the scoreboard, though, it’s about bottom lines. Whether it’s own goals, penalties, deflected shots or optical illusions, Portland has to find a way to get on the scoreboard. They have to put themselves in position to win games. The drought is threatening to cost the Timbers their postseason.

Of course, the best way to do that is to finish chances, but it’s not as if the Timbers’ attackers aren’t trying to do that now. Nor can you really say the team needs to try harder. There’s no reason to doubt the team’s effort, before. At some point, though, it’s too unsatisfying to just wait idly, hoping the finishing improves. Whether other solutions exist, you can’t help but search for them.