Giovanni Savarese #2, Timbers at Orlando, 4.8.18
(USA Today Sports Images)

Why Portland Timbers' 2017 issues tell us nothing about 2018's problems

While Giovanni Savarese drills down on Sunday’s 3-2 collapse in Orlando, Portland Timbers fans may be taking a broader look at their team’s late-match failures, one fueled by the numbers ESPN’s Taylor Twellman relayed during this weekend’s broadcast. For the second week in a row, the Timbers had come from ahead to draw, continuing a trend that saw Portland drop 20 points from winning positions last season.

When evoking the past, the implication is there’s some connection between then and now; else, why would you reference the past at all? Does anybody talk about Kenny Cooper or Kris Boyd when talking discussing the team’s current forwards? No. There’s no context where they’re relevant. Maxi Urruti, though, comes up because the acquisition of Samuel Armenteros gives the team two top strikers for the first time since the Argentine’s departure. There’s a link. That piece of the past is relevant.

So what, exactly, when it comes to the team’s 2017 results, is the link to the current squad? Hold that thought for a second, and let’s look at the numbers. Here are the amount of times the Timbers have dropped points from winning positions since 2013.

Portland Timbers, points drop from winning positions, 2013-2018.
Season

Games

Played

Games Played,

Winning Position

Losses Draws Points PPG
2018 5 2 1 1 5 1.00
2017 34 9 2 7 20 0.59
2016 34 6 2 4 10 0.29
2015 34 2 0 2 2 0.06
2014 34 6 2 4 10 0.29
2013 34 4 2 2 8 0.24

Five-plus seasons aren’t a great sample, but if you’re guessing based solely on these numbers, you’d say 2017 and 2015 look like outliers, that losing eight to 10 points per season is a reasonable expectation and, although the 2018 team is on a 34-points-dropped pace (yikes), they’re still likely to regress to something much lower than 2017’s total.

All of which should probably be ignored – again, small sample -- but finding a broader trend, here, isn’t really the point. The question that should be asked when comparing 2017 to 2018 is what qualities, from 2017’s performance, could possibly be carrying over to this season?

Obviously, the head coach has changed since last season, so to the extent 2017’s late-match problems were a product of Caleb Porter, that can’t explain 2018. Even if Porter contributed to last season’s results, we’d have to ask what about his approach was so different from the previous seasons, including the excellent record of a 2015 campaign which, by the end, saw the Timbers willing to play without ball, sit deep, and try to extend their leads by hitting teams on the counter. Really, that’s not so dissimilar to what Savarese is doing now.

Even if the coach has changed, though, the personnel remains the same; at least, that would be a theory behind linking 2017 to 2018. But it’s no secret that the Timbers roster has experienced significant turnover between seasons, so when you’re looking for specific players who may be contributing to the problem, it’s difficult to identify any patterns.

2018 Portland Timbers appearances vs. 2017, focus on Chicago, Orlando and late match appearances.
Player

2017

Games Played

2018

Games Played

Games Played

Chicago and Orlando

On the field

Chicago, Orlando comebacks

Blanco, Sebastián 33 5 2 2
Valeri, Diego 32 5 2 2
Gleeson, Jake 21 5 2 2
Valentin, Zarek 19 5 2 2
Mabiala, Larrys 13 5 2 2
Chara, Diego 29 3 2 2
Tuiloma, Bill 0 3 2 2
Paredes, Cristhian 0 3 2 1
Adi, Fanendo 22 4 1 1
Asprilla, Dairon 37 3 1 1
Olum, Lawrence 30 3 1 1
Powell, Alvas 23 3 1 1
Flores, Andrés 0 3 1 1
Polo, Andy 0 2 1 1
Vytas 23 1 1 1
Farfan, Marco 6 5 2 0
Armenteros, Samuel 0 4 2 0
Cascante, Julio 0 1 1 0
Guzmán, David 25 2 0 0
Ridgewell, Liam 15 2 0 0
Arboleda, Victor 5 1 0 0

The final column notes who was on the field during Chicago and Orlando’s comebacks. Only seven of the players were there in both games, and two of those are obvious attackers: Sebastián Blanco and Diego Valeri. That’s not to say neither had a part in the last two results. Both players found woodwork with second half shots that could have killed off Sunday’s game. But if you’re looking for reasons why Portland’s allowing late goals, those midfielders aren’t part of the problem.

Go back to our main question, about the links between 2017 and 2018, and it’s unclear how Bill Tuiloma can be part of the issue. Larrys Mabiala and Zarek Valentin weren’t regulars for most of last season, and Jake Gleeson was replaced by Jeff Attinella by year’s end. Only Diego Chara, out of all the players who have been on the field for both of this year’s opponent comebacks, was a given in last year’s late-match lineups. With players like Cristhian Paredes, Andrés Flores, Andy Polo, Samuel Armenteros and Julio Cascante not even a part of the club last season, it’s uncertain how much 2017 should apply to 2018.

The one parallel that is obvious is the results. The Timbers were bad at holding leads last year, and five games into the new season, they’ve somehow been worse. While it’s tempting to try to look back to try and find answers, 2017 doesn’t provide much to go on. Over the last five months, the two Timbers teams have become too different. Direct comparisons confound their issues.

The one line that does connect 2017 and 2018 underscores every coach’s task while analyzing problems. At some point, every issue on a soccer field comes down to approach, execution, or a combination of the two, and while execution is certainly an issue when players can flick on corners close to the near post, or Dom Dwyer is turning defenders in the penalty box, both Porter’s and Savarese’s teams also had issues of approach.

Porter’s group noticeably changed character whenever they had a lead, so much so that the idea of a totally different “plus-one Timbers” persona took hold among me and others in last year’s press box. You could see Portland deflate, release all their ambition whenever they went on top. For Savarese, the approach issues might be more straight forward. The adjustment to a new, 4-3-2-1 formation might include players sitting too deep, being too risk averse when it’s time to kill off matches.

Perhaps the team will grow out of that. If they do, 2018’s points lost may end up looking a lot more like 2016’s, or 2014’s. But even if the problems persist, there’s little to be gained by connecting them to 2017. Too much has changed too quickly to think last year’s faults will be this year’s pitfalls.

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