PORTLAND, Ore. – Two is a trend, three is a streak, and together, those two sayings have become cliché, especially in sports. There is even research that confirms the feeling. In terms of perception, there is a big difference between two and three. Three is when the human mind starts to think a pattern has emerged.
If that’s the case, the Portland Timbers’ problems defending have hit streak proportions. In three games since Major League Soccer’s regular season resumed, the Timbers have conceded 10 goals. All those games were at Providence Park, with the opposition scoring at least three times in each one.
Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to the LA Galaxy became the latest entry in that streak, and while the Timbers heavily rotated their lineup for the match – selecting 11 new starters from Saturday’s 4-4 draw with Real Salt Lake – the bottom line remained the same. The Timbers left Providence Park having conceded too many goals.
“Let’s start from the fact that we’re not happy that we conceded too many goals,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, when asked about his team’s defensive performance. “But today we saw a lineup, it was more about giving minutes to the guys, to make sure that we can count on those players, that we have them, that way we also have a team with a lot of energy for a big game that we’re going to have this weekend …”
The Timbers play Seattle Sounders FC on Sunday at CenturyLink Field (7pm PT, ROOT SPORTS).
“We didn’t want to concede as many goals,” Savarese later reiterated, “but the way we play at home, we try to be more open. We try to be a team that [plays] more up front, and tries to pressure a little bit higher.
“That comes with some consequences, sometimes. We’ll continue to work, and I’m sure with the attitude that I saw today, there’s going to be a lot more games that we’re going to win.”
The contrast between the Timbers’ play over the last 10 days and the success they had at the MLS is Back Tournament has become stark. At that competition, Portland played seven games in just over a month’s time, conceding only seven times, and with only two goals from open play. Most of the times Portland conceded in Orlando were the result of isolated mistakes, not repeated shortcomings.
Over the last five days, Portland’s opponents have matched the number of goals conceded at MLS Is Back. Add in the three goals Seattle scored against the Timbers on August 23, and the streak comes fully into view. After Wednesdays’ games, only one team, the San Jose Earthquakes, have allowed more goals in Major League Soccer this season.
“The moments that we gave up the space [against the Galaxy] were, one, on top of the box, which we didn’t follow the runners,” Savarese said, describing the game’s first goals, “and the second goal was one in which we reacted a little bit slow. But it happens, sometimes. Overall, I liked the energy.”
The Galaxy exerted pressure on Portland from the start, with LA earning six corner kicks in the match’s first 25 minutes. While that pressure only produced four shots, one of those shots beat goalkeeper Jeff Attinella in the 15th minute, with Efrain Álvarez scoring his first MLS goal.
Though Portland began to assert more control over the game before halftime, the Galaxy struck early in the second half, using a long diagonal pass to set up Cristián Pavon in the 50th minute. From there, the Timbers would only be within one goal for eight more minutes: the four between Felipe Mora’s 67th-minute score and Joe Corona’s 71st-minute response; and the four between Diego Valeri’s stoppage time tally and the final whistle.
“We were not able to manage the game in a way where we could [get] the score on our side in the second half,” explained Valeri, whose late goal made him only the third player in Major League Soccer history with at least 80 career goals and 80 career assists.
“They scored the second goal really quick in the second half,” he continued, “which changed the game a lot. We had to gamble a little bit. We created some disorder, and even when we got the first goal, they scored the third so quick. And then, obviously, the game gets open.”
With any streak, two questions seem obvious: why is it happening; and when will it stop? The whys of Portland’s defending have been dissected after each match, seemingly leading to different conclusions. Against Seattle, there was an emotional element to the late-match collapse, with the Timbers allowing all three goals over the last 18 minutes. Against Real Salt Lake, the team gave up three of the four goals off second balls in the penalty area. Against the Galaxy, both Savarese and Valeri noted LA’s chances in transition, with Attinella adding a related hypothesis.
“The first two goals, they just kind of got behind us, and they have good players when they’re in and around the box,” the night’s captain explained. “They’re going to be able to finish, especially on that second goal. It takes that little deflection. That's kind of the luck that those good players have.
“Maybe we could do a better job of getting a little bit tighter in the box,” he said, “once they get behind our backline, making sure we tighten up and make the chances a little bit harder … It’s something that we’ll watch on film on. It’s not for lack of work. It’s not for lack of trying to figure it out.”
As for the second question, it’s unclear when Portland’s new streak will stop. On one hand, the team has shown it’s capable of defending better, and it has done so as recently as the tournament in Orlando. On the other hand, two of the best teams in the Western Conference are next on the Timbers’ schedule. On Sunday, the team travels to Seattle for another meeting with the Sounders, with Portland set to fly to Southern California a week later to take on Los Angeles FC.
Those are teams Portland expects to compete with at the top of the Western Conference. For those games, the Timbers will likely have their first choice lineup back on the field. But even with the team’s starters playing from opening kickoffs, this streak was allowed to build. The reserves have only played a small part.
Whatever the means, Portland’s next task is answering question number two. “When will this streak end?” The answer needs to be “Sunday in Seattle.”