Diego Chara, Inside PTFC, 7.23.18
Photo by Sam Ortega

Inside PTFC | Portland Timbers’ winless streak without Diego Chara makes no sense at all

Unfortunately, it was too easy to see where he would have mattered.

It was the first goal, when the Montreal Impact’s Alejandro Silva got through Julio Cascante on the left flank. The Costa Rican central defender had ventured far to contest possession and, although he didn’t win it, did enough to give his teammates time to set up behind him. But it was also too easy to imagine the suspended Diego Chara, had he been in his central midfielder’s position, preventing Silva from moving forward.

Then there was the next challenge: Silva against Lawrence Olum in open space; at least, against Olum for a moment. A small hesitation, a move to the right with the side of this boot, and the Uruguayan was into the Timbers’ penalty area, ready to cut back a ball toward the penalty spot. It was an area Montreal found too easily over the match’s first half-hour, one which served as the launching pad for Saphir Taïder’s opening goal.

There was nothing a non-suspended Chara was going to do to prevent the Impact’s second goal – he wasn’t getting over the center line to stop Ignacio Piatti’s long ball; nor was he getting behind his central defenders to add a final layer of support against Matteo Mancosu – but when the final score ends 2-2, you can point to almost anything and ask if it was decisive. Should Zarek Valentin and Cascante communicated better on the second goal? Perhaps the coaching staff should have switched Andrés Flores and Cristhian Paredes sooner in midfield? What if one of Sebastián Blanco’s second-half shots found its way on goal?

It’s hard to imagine how many other moments from Saturday’s game could have ended this Chara Streak™ – moments that had little to do with whether the Timbers linchpin was on the field or not. If Diego Valeri gets on top of Samuel Armenteros’ early cross, hits it down instead of up, is Saturday’s result different? Probably, and it’s probably different in a way that has nothing to do with the absence of Chara. But of course, you can look at every soccer game that’s ever transpired though that same lens and end up with two nearly sure-fire conclusions: First, that there’s never a single moment that is the sole cause of a any result; and second, that no matter your philosophy of causation, the Portland Timbers are still 18 regular-season games winless without Chara.

It’s a streak that extends back three years – to a 3-0, July 11, 2015 loss at Philadelphia – but it’s not one with a ton of shock results. Games like this year’s 4-0 loss at the New York Red Bulls or last year’s 4-1 thumping from a visiting Real Salt Lake were overall team failures – not something one player could have prevented – while three results against Sporting Kansas City look like downright positive performances. After all, who thinks of a 0-0 game at Children’s Mercy Park (Sept. 15, 2015) as anything but a positive result?

That’s not to mention the best result of them all, one that isn’t included in that 0-10-8 mark. The famous double-post game the Timbers endured on their way to the 2015 MLS Cup? It was officially a draw (hence, why you see many quote a 19-game winless streak without Chara), but ultimately, the team accomplished everything it wanted to that day. They advanced to the conference semifinals, doing so in the absence Diego Chara.

Still, this is a mind-bendingly ridiculous streak, one that would be hilarious if we knew, beyond a doubt, that it was only mind-bendingly ridiculous. After all, the Timbers have been a relatively successful team in the days of Chara, going 83-69-70 in Major League Soccer since the beginning of the 2011 season. Yet somehow, the team becomes one of the worst teams in soccer history when one player’s out of the team.

Portland Timbers, with/without Diego Chara, 2011-
  with Chara without Chara
Games 189 33
Wins 76 7
Win Pct. 0.402 0.212
Points/Game 1.51 0.92

Chara isn’t the only important player who has missed with a team over the last seven years. Unfortunately, given the nature of soccer, it’s quite common, with injuries major (knee surgeries) and minor (ankle turns) a regular part of the sport. Yet how many times, no matter the quality of the team or the options in that team’s squad, do we see one player go out and the team dip so much?

Rarely, and there’s a reason for a simple reason. Soccer isn’t basketball, where 20 percent of the players in your team (one in five) can have a far greater than 20 percent impact. Of course, certain players in a team contribute beyond the one-in-11 spots they occupy on the field, but how much should we expect a team’s record to falter when they miss one player? Is it reasonable, based on what we’ve seen in the history of Major League Soccer, that a team would go from above average over seven-plus years of their existence to one that’s producing worse than any team in Major League Soccer history?

Of course not, especially when there have been players around Chara who can pick up part of the slack. In terms of his defensive responsibilities, Chara has always been Portland’s best option in central midfield, but players like Jack Jewsbury, Will Johnson, George Fochive and David Guzmán have accompanied him in central midfield. The drop-off shouldn’t be absolute. His reliability in finding connections in transition has always been complemented by players like Darlington Nagbe, Valeri, Sebastián Blanco, and Johnson. Again, the drop off shouldn’t be absolute.

There are more players we could list in each group – and, in fairness, there’s more Chara does on the field than just those two things – but if there was one thing that this single player was doing which, over an 18-game stretch, condemned his team to zero or one point in his absence, what would it be, and why isn’t somebody else providing it? Either Diego Chara is the most important player that has ever existed in the history of soccer, or something crazy is happening with this 18-game run.

This is where correlation and causation meet. This is where you have to go back to the most basic of questions, if for no other reason than to test your induction. Have the Timbers struggled without Diego Chara? Of course. There is a clear correlation between his presence and improved Timbers results. But why are they struggling without their best midfielder; or, more specifically, what about his absence explains that the Timbers go from being above-average team to one that performs like the worst team the league has ever known?

Is it more likely that Diego Chara is the most inexplicably important player in the history or soccer, and possibly of all sports, or that the nature of variance, randomness, and gather observations has left us with an inexplicably outlying, analysis-defying result?

Until a real explanation appears, the team can’t just trust life without Chara is hopeless. Nobody should. Life is tougher, clearly. There’s been some bad luck involved, and at various times during this stretch, like Saturday, the team could have played better. But until there’s a better explanation than correlation for this streak’s cause, Portland has to stick to the basics: that one player can only be so important; that Chara is obviously more important than most; and that if the team can perform in line with that loss (and not owned by it), this streak will eventually stop.

But for another week, the Chara Streak™, inexplicably, goes on.