If only more goals were like Sunday’s second. Then the conversation around the Portland Timbers, a team that’s conceded 10 goals in their season’s first three games, would be completely different. Instead of focusing on concentration at the back, it could focus on bad breaks. Unfortunately, too few goals the Portland Timbers have allowed, this season, were like this one:
When a low-percentage shot leads to a deflected ball – one that happens to drop to an opportunistic attacker – you can only to do your best and hope. Hope the breaks turn your way. Hope that, for your opponents, the next fluke isn’t as fortunate.
And Zarek Valentin did that. The Portland right back gets to FC Cincinnati’s Allen Cruz, keeps him from turning toward goal, and does almost everything you could reasonably ask of a fullback in that spot – including playing the initial deflection and getting into a place to contest the shot. Ever try to predict where a deflected ball is going to go? Me neither, but it seems really hard!
Still, that’s the way things are going right now for the Timbers, which makes it even more important the team take care of business around the flukes. Random back heels rolling into corners, or multiple deflections that find sliding players in the six-yard box (as happened in Los Angeles, two games ago)? Sometimes, those bounces are going to go against you, which is why even the stingiest defenses concede goals. That’s high-level soccer. Sometimes, making the right play is not enough.
Even ignoring those plays, though, the Timbers’ defense hasn’t been good. Eight other goals have gone in, leaving many wondering what, exactly, has gone wrong. Is it the scheme, one that seemed to work so well at the end of last season? How about the personnel, which no longer has a player like Liam Ridgewell in the defense’s middle? Or is it just a lack of familiarity and communication, where Ridgewell’s tenure and experience were big parts of both?
Portland’s goals allowed column leaves those outside the coaches’ offices with a brainstorming scenario, where there are no bad ideas. Whatever your theory is around the defense’s struggles, walk to the front, write it on the white board. Put it with the others. There’s no wrong or right in brainstorming. There are only ideas, and until something starts clicking with the Timbers’ defense, it’s hard to disprove any.
“It’s a collective work of an entire team that allows us to defend well or attack well …,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, last week, implying the brainstorming need not focus on one of the team’s parts. “We have to concentrate throughout the entire match. We cannot give away moments to then have to catch up, again, in the game. That’s one thing we have to be better at.”
The theory that’s gained steam over the last three weeks has been a lack of communication, something that both feels intuitive yet is impossible to prove. From the distance of a television feed, it’s mostly theory. We aren’t on the field as these players are trying to work the problem. We don’t hear what is or isn’t being said. All we know is what it looks like, from the TV angles, above.
Yet the communication angle is one Timbers themselves are starting to espouse, even if, like the rest of us, the context has a very brainstormy feel.
“Maybe I can be better organizing, or doing things to prevent these balls from coming in,” goalkeeper Jeff Attinella said, from the field at Nippert Stadium. “I think, as a team, it’s just about being on the same page. When these runners are sneaking in, in between maybe it’s a lack of communication. Maybe it’s guys losing their marks a little bit.”
Attinella’s three “maybe” uses could be about softening his tone. But he does, no doubt, turn to communication as an issue. Yet in the same thought, he also implies that there are no obvious answers, except for the way the team needs to solve the problem.
“The first thing for every one of us, it starts by looking in the mirror,” he said, “and figuring out what we can do to make the team a little bit better, and get this thing turning in the right way.”
Larrys Mabiala struck a similar note in the days before the trip, saying on Talk Timbers, “People are expecting (leadership) from me,” before applying that thought to the result in Los Angeles.
Mabiala picked up two yellow cards against FCC and will miss the team's next game against the Galaxy, but his sense of personal responsibility was the same as Attinella's – an accountability that extended back to a crucial goal allowed during Portland's last trip to Los Angeles. The implication: Every player needs to ask if they can be doing more.
“In last week’s game, I felt like maybe I didn’t do what I was supposed to do, in this moment,” he said, describing the game’s crucial fourth goal, one that put LAFC up 3-1 en route to a 4-1 victory. “I’m taking my lessons, too. I hope to step up much more for next game and do better.”
That word “moment,” though, feeds into the broader theory within the team, one that ties other words Mabiala used: “concentration,” and “consistency.” “What was wrong was the lack of concentration in some key moments, and the consistency,” he said, then, an explanation that also fits what we saw in Cincy.
Did, on a team level, a lack of concentration and consistency lead to the first goal? In the broad sense, no. It was a foul conceded in a dangerous place followed by the lack of execution in man marking. But did a lack of concentration or consistency lead to the second goal? Again, not really. A deflected shot from a manageable area led to an opponent’s opportunistic backheel. If anything, the concentration was good on that play.
The third goal, though? The one that put the game away for Cincinnati in the 63rd minute? That’s where the concentration and consistency were really lacking. It was one of those “moments” that people like Savarese and Mabiala have talked about – one which, like the goals conceded going into or out of halftimes, or in a match’s waning moments – where the team seemed more focused on the context than the process. Still hurting from the surprise goal moments before, Portland gets beat on a 50-50 ball in midfield, allows Valentin’s side to be overloaded, lets Cincinnati play the ball across and back in the penalty area, and gives their opponent an almost unmissable shot from a place they should never be allowed to shoot:
This is a breakdown – arguably Portland’s first one from open-play in the match. The timing of it, however, is as concerning as the execution. There are moments in each match where you have to establish your footing, making sure you have a platform to build from: the opening moments of each half; those minutes when you’re preserving a lead, or need to get into halftime, when you know a goal allowed will hurt more; or, the minutes just after a goal when you can’t let the other side’s momentum build. Those are the moments, more than any others, where Portland is coming up short.
Is that down to communication? Perhaps, but the communication would look a lot better if the concentration was there, which would then alleviate concerns about consistency. As Savarese alludes, though, this is a front-to-back issue, not only in the sense that defending from the front prevents access to the next levels, but also in attack, where more consistency and a greater threat might provide a deterrent to runs like Mathieu Deplagne’s, above.
Allow me, though, to offer one other word that begins with a C: confidence. Right now, there are only a couple of Timbers playing as if they’re fully confident in their responsibilities – a confidence that tells a player when it’s time to take a risk, when you have to leave your position, or when you need to sacrifice some of your core tasks to help cover for someone else. As Sunday’s second goal shows, Valentin is doing that, and in Attinella’s willingness to go into crowds on crosses showed, he is there, too. But elsewhere? Over the first two weeks, it’s been Diego Chara, Sebastian Blanco, and then, question marks.
Confidence is going to come from better breaks, as well as a string of good results. That’s what happened last year, once the team returned from their five-game stretch on the road. But confidence is also going to come, in central defense, from more time playing together, and just knowing when and where partners are most likely to move. Higher up the field, the transition out of defense needs to be better, allowing the back line to be assured they can start to push, and the attack to know when they can start bombing forward.
Heck, confidence can come from pure luck. Cincinnati certainly got a boost from their backheel goal, just as LAFC was greatly aided by a deflected shot finding Christian Ramirez before half time. Portland haven’t gotten those breaks since Colorado; then again, teams have to be able to push through scenarios where they’re presented with that misfortunate.
Maybe that comes down to confidence, too, and right now, the Timbers are playing without theirs. Players are waiting for good things to happen rather than making them happen on their own. Few are making proactive decisions to track runners, attack spaces, or adapt to situations. The confidence in those decisions is too low.
That’s a hard state to solve when you’re 0-2-1, but as Attinella said, “it is a little bit of a gut-check time.” Schemes may have to be adjusted, but ultimately, players are going to have to respond:
“We got to just dig in. We’ve got to watch the film. We’ve got to learn from these mistakes that keep happening.”