iPTFC, 10.15.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Inside PTFC | 2013 until now, how the 2018 Portland Timbers stack up

Timbers 2 played this weekend, claiming a 1-0 victory in Phoenix, Arizona. The University of Portland men played twice, too, and while the University of San Diego were able to sit on an early penalty kick to claim a 1-1 draw on Sunday, the Pilots’ 4-0 win on Friday over Loyola Marymount could see them climb from their already lofty No. 7 national ranking.

For fans of Portland soccer, those were the games that carried the weekend – a nice Friday through Sunday stretch that felt both measured and, with no Timbers or Thorns FC on the schedule, free of conflicts. But for fans who put Portland Timbers soccer first, the bye weekend was either a reprieve or a misgiving, with the previous weekend’s 4-1 win at Real Salt Lake undoubtedly leaving some supporters pining for more.

And who can blame them? We began our post-Salt Lake post with a missive about how that performance answered so many lingering questions, which is undoubtedly true. Whether the team can consistently win on the road, generate that many scoring chances, or maintain that level in a 4-2-3-1 formation remains to be proven, but the mere fact the Timbers have that type of performance in them was reassuring. After their 90 minutes at Rio Tinto Stadium, Portland’s ceiling feels a little higher, now.

With no Portland MLS game this past weekend, though, there isn’t much to add to the Timbers’ picture, but given the time we’ve had to reflect, perhaps some perspective is in order, something a roller coaster 2018 has provided little time to pursue. After all, when the team was in the midst of its season-opening, five-match winless run, all focus was on the present, and how the team could break out. Over the next 15 games, focus again stayed in the now, albeit in a polar opposite way, with a record-setting unbeaten streak leaving fans debating how long that run might continue.

The 12 games that have followed have injected some uncertainty, with the contrast between the team’s surge and their regression leaving few certain of the team’s true level. In terms of the club’s history, though, this year’s 51 points through 32 games is a relatively high mark. In fact, only the 2013 team that finished first in the Western Conference put up more points by this part of their MLS season.

Portland Timbers points, through 32 games, 2013-2018
Low Average High
33 (2012) 44.6 53 (2013)
2018 total: 51

My first reaction, here, is that Targeted Allocation Money may be creating a greater divide in the standings, a topic that’s perhaps better pursued in depth elsewhere. But whereas the 53 points the team had in 2013 put them on track for a No. 1 MLS Cup Playoffs seed – and the 47 points the team had last year did the same – this year’s 51 currently projects to a five seed, once Seattle Sounders FC’s game-in-hand is considered. With more talent being concentrated among MLS’ top teams, 51 points may not be worth as much as it used to.

Secondly, the Timbers should be performing above their historical averages. The club has only had eight seasons in Major League Soccer, not enough to prevent their benchmarks from being pulled down by those Initial Learning Experiences (rule: 2011 and 2012 are always tagged as ILEs). Coming into the season with seven years’ worth of knowledge, Portland should be outperforming their average results.

The point total, however, is only one factor in considering a team’s resume, particularly if you are trying to predict how a team is likely to play going forward. While we don’t readily have our preferred measurement, here (Expected Goals), for games going back to 2013, we can at least use another column in the standings, goal difference, as a quick and dirty way to balance to raw point numbers.

Portland Timbers goal difference, through 32 games, 2013-2018
Low Average High
-22 (2012) -0.6 +16 (2013)
2018 value: +4

This measure is more in line with how 2018’s felt: neither amazing nor terrible; ultimately, above average. Last season, the team’s goal difference through 32 games was plus-five – practically the same as this year’s. And the year Portland claimed MLS Cup, in 2015? The team had a minus-four goal difference going into their final two games of the season.

Perhaps that’s a reminder that form is more important than the underlying indicators, come this part of the MLS season. The difficulty with form, though, is trying to distinguish flukes from fact. Is the Portland win at RSL nine days ago an upturn in form? Technically, sure, but as it concerns a meaningful trend, we’ll need more time to find out, leaving the team’s last result in that unsatisfying, uncertain ground.

The one thing about the 2018 team’s record that might explain that uncertainty is the team’s inconsistency. One weekend, they’re losing by three at Houston. Less than a month later, they post a 4-1 at RSL. Sports teams will always have a certain degree of inconsistency – that’s why they play the games – but going from one to the other in the span of three weeks? It feels all over the place.

Turns out, when you actually look the numbers, the Timbers are having their second-most inconsistent season ever; at least, by one measurement, they are. If you take the individual goal differences from the season’s first 32 games, measure the statistical variance (roughly, how much each game’s result differs from the team’s average performance) and compare that to previous seasons, only 2017 sees the 32-game Timbers varying as much.

These numbers, below, won’t mean much unless you remember our Statistics 1 course, but know: the higher the number, the more individual data points (games, in this case) are differing from the group’s average result.

Portland Timbers game-results variance (goal difference), through 32 games, 2013-2018
Low Average High
1.61 (2013) 2.50 3.23 (2017)
2018 value: 2.95

Clearly (and theoretically), having a high variance isn’t inherently bad. After all, one of the ways to have a low variance is to be a consistently poor team. If you lose every game by two goals, your variance is going to be 0.

As if the record itself didn’t say as much, the 2018 team isn’t that. By points, goal difference, standing, Portland is good. The high variance, though, gives doubters a lot of single games to point at and say, “See! That’s the team I’m talking about!”

And … they’re not wrong. At times, the Timbers have been that team, but not without reason. But take any team and, before the season, chance coaching staffs and turn over some significant parts of the roster, and you’d expect less consistent results. New players need to learn how to play with old; coaches have to adapt to new personnel. Until they do, some losses are going to be worse than usual. If the pattern continues into a second season, that theory has to go out the window, but in year one – even though the Timbers’ most consistent year was in 2013 (when Caleb Porter debuted as coach) – there is at least a theory behind the numbers.

In the bigger picture, though – with the perspective a bye week has allowed – there are some obvious reasons to feel good about the Timbers’ 2018, particularly considering the team has never qualified for the playoffs in consecutive seasons. But that bar of playoff qualification should be a minimum standard for the team, with success in the postseason a more ambitious goal.

If that goal is going to come to fruition this year, though, the team will need to maintain the form it flashed at Real Salt Lake. Because to this point, the only thing separating a good season from a truly strong one might be the inconsistency of results.

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