BEAVERTON, Ore. — The Portland Timbers will try to extend their five-game unbeaten streak on Saturday night, but they’ll do so without one of their most important parts. When Real Salt Lake makes their second visit of the season to Providence Park, the Timbers will be missing centerback Larrys Mabiala, who will be serving a one-game suspension for accumulating too many yellow cards.
The Timbers’ defense has struggled for much of the 2021 season — they’ve allowed the fifth-most goals in Major League Soccer — but over the team’s last five games, Portland’s only conceded three times, and none of those goals have come from open play when both teams have 11 players. Two goals were conceded to Colorado while the Rapids were playing 11-on-10. The third was the result of a penalty kick after a hand ball.
In that time, Mabiala has been one of the team’s standout performers. He was highlighted as such with a place in Major League Soccer’s Team of the Week after Sunday’s win, but his impact can also been seen in some season-wide numbers. The plus-one goal difference Portland has when Mabiala is on the field is tied for best among Portland defenders, while the Timbers’ plus-0.07 goal difference-per-90 minutes in Mabiala’stime is best among the team’s backline. Each of the team’s other centerbacks is negative in both numbers.
Part of those discrepancies may come down to the sample sizes. Players like Zac McGraw and Bill Tuiloma haven’t been given huge minutes at centerback this season. To judge a player like McGraw, for example, on the outlying result at FC Dallas would be unfair. Still, even if the numbers might not do justice to what could happen going forward, they do describe what happened before. And to the extent the Timbers backline has been successful, Mabiala seems to have played a significant part.
That obviously can’t happen on Saturday. Thanks to an early first-half yellow card on Sunday against Los Angeles FC, Mabiala has been cautioned six times this season. That’s second on the team (Dario Zuparic has eight) and enough to put him in the suites for Saturday. In all likelihood, Tuiloma is going to have step into the team next to Zuparic against RSL.
In terms of the numbers, above, Tuiloma is not that far off Mabiala. When Mabiala plays, the Timbers are giving up 1.32 goals per 90 minutes; with Tuiloma, that rate goes up to 1.67. Those numbers feel meaningfully different, but given the sample sizes (1358 minutes for Mabiala; 1448 for Tuiloma, with not all at center back), they may not be in different ballparks. And given Mabiala’s numbers have benefitted from the Timbers’ recent run (of which he’s been a big part), those numbers may not do a good job of reflecting the players’ actual performance.
Still, if you’d said at the beginning of the season that Mabiala would be especially important to the Timbers’ defense, few would have disagreed. Since Mabiala arrived in the middle of the 2017 season, the best stretches of Timbers goal prevention have come when he’s played like one of the better centerbacks in MLS. Over the last month, as Mabiala has played particularly well, the Timbers defense has returned to form. The consistency Portland’s had over its unbeaten run has correlated perfectly with the defense’s improved results.
Saturday is Portland’s chance to show how far that relationship goes. At some point, Mabiala was going to miss a game before the end of the season, just as it’s unlikely that Zuparic, Claudio Bravo, Josecarlos Van Rankin or Tuiloma would be available for every game between now and game 34. At some point, Portland would have to continue showing their uptick transcends any single player, game, or happenstance on the field. What we’ve seen from the Timbers since August 29 needs to be part of their DNA if the team is going to reach their 2021 goals.
Ninety minutes on Saturday against Real Salt Lake isn’t going to prove anything, but it will give us a hint. We’ll learn a little more about the depths of Portland’s recent turnaround. Has the revival we’ve seen since their loss at Austin settled into the team’s core? If so, signs of that should keep coming through against RSL.
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