Questions back on the table after Timbers fall to D.C. United

It was the first time since the season’s second game that the Portland Timbers went into a match’s final quarter-hour chasing multiple goals, a fact that serves as perspective on both the last four months as well as Wednesday night’s result. D.C. United was going to be tougher than their last-in-the-East record implied, but being down 3-1 after 68 minutes, though? Clearly, something went wrong.

What went wrong was the Timbers blowing the lead they took in the 35th minute through Samuel Armenteros, a goal that capped a muted if controlled first half hour. It was exactly the type composure you want to show on the road, something that might rightly be forgotten in the wake of Wayne Rooney’s brace (43’, 68’) and Oniel Fisher’s game-winning goal (47’).

Come the final whistle, Darren Mattocks had added late insurance, giving United a 4-1 win and, for the first time since March, sending the Portland Timbers to their second straight loss.

“In the second half, they were better than us,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese conceded, alluding to a final 45 minutes when his team was outscored, 3-0. “They wanted it a little bit more than us. They deserved the victory that they have.”

It was a tone the first-year boss hadn’t taken since week two, when the team last gave up four goals. Then, in Harrison, New Jersey, Savarese was left taking the blame, explaining that the Timbers’ performance in front of his old club, New York Red Bulls, had been unacceptable.

While he didn’t go that far on Wednesday, Savarese was again left wondering about his team’s mindset, searching for ways to explain their season’s second-most lopsided loss.

“In the second half, maybe the guys didn’t come in with the right mentality,” he said. “At the end, it’s my responsibility, my fault. I take pull blame for this defeat, and we’ve got to continue to work.”

Even more than Saturday’s defeat to Vancouver, Wednesday’s game felt like a reality check. Against the Whitecaps, you could argue that a defensive miscue and a missed penalty chance put the team in a bad spot, chasing a team particularly well-equipped to sit deep and hold out. Occasionally, those games happen. But taking a lead then holding a team without a good chance for over 40 minutes only to see a game turn so decisively carries an entirely different feel. It feels like you never actually had control.

Wednesday was only 90 minutes. That’s the obligatory caveat, at times like these. But on the heels of a loss four days earlier, it’s also worth asking the obvious questions, even if there’s no obvious answer to them, now: How good is this team? How flattering was the 15-game run? Are the Timbers’ fortunes about to even out? Or was their first visit to Audi Field just, to use the parlance, a one-off?

Yes, this result could be aberrational. Just as the 4-0 loss in to the Red Bulls proved aberrational. Just as that initial, 0-3-2 start the team has been rebounding from now looks so out of character for this squad.

But how much do we really know about this team? That might be a question the players are asking themselves, right now, albeit in slightly different form. When you lose a game like this, you can’t help but doubt what you knew.

Maybe those doubts get extinguished instantly, with players’ faith in each other winning out. Perhaps you entertain them for a moment and move on, never admitting you entertained them at all. But unless you’re a team that has years and years of proof you’re on a certain level, you have to wonder, when faced with these types of results.

This Timbers group doesn’t have years of proof. Some players have been here since the club’s 2015 title, but with the coaching staff turning over this winter and Targeted Allocation Money rebuilding the depth chart, the identity of this team is still being formed. There’s no set formula, when it comes to reversing slumps. There are no tried-and-true way to reverse your downturns.

“Those are the moments you cannot concede,” Savarese said, of his team giving up the game’s winning goal two minutes after halftime, “because the game becomes very difficult. That’s a moment where you show what your mentality is.

“We gave up those two goals, and the game became very difficult. But as I said before, it’s my responsibility, and we’ve got to continue to work.”

That’s the context for the next two days – days when the team will relocate from D.C. and prepare for Saturday’s game against Sporting Kansas City (5:30pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS). It will be the context for this team after Saturday, too, even if the team pulls off an win at Children’s Mercy Park. In the wake of two straight losses, this team’s confidence will be shaken. It will take more than 90 minutes to get back to where they were.

How Portland responds to their doubts will define this, the third part of Savarese’s debut year. Part one, the team’s opening slump, became the foundation for part two, the group’s 15-game run. Now, sitting on consecutive losses, the team must take control of their course, before their story’s third part.

“We’ll bounce back right after tonight,” Savarese said, “and now we have a tough match [Saturday] against a good team that has some good momentum, as well.”