Having something to be bitter about is almost a step forward. Almost. Ultimately, the Portland Timbers are, again, dealing with disappointment, with an official’s decision piling on a 2-1 scoreline that favors FC Dallas.
We’ll get into that decision in a moment, because undoubtedly, that will be one of the biggest memories from today’s result. But another memory will be feeling of helplessness in a six-game winless start, as well as questions about when that streak will end. If the Timbers play, over the coming games, like they did today – particularly in Saturday’s final 30 minutes – results are going to come. But the main questions coming out of the performance in Frisco, Texas, is whether it can be repeated next week. Is this a change of direction? Or is it another ebb in a larger pattern’s flow?
Those are questions for next week, when the team returns to the training field, turning their attention to next week’s opponent: Columbus Crew SC. For now, it’s time to take inventory of What We’ll Remember from today’s loss.
Back to what worked?
There couldn’t have been too much surprise among Timbers fans when today’s staring XI was announced. In Andrés Flores and Cristhian Paredes, perhaps some of the names were unexpected, but in the formation fans could infer from the 11 selected, there was an obvious message. The team was going back the 5-3-2, a formation that seemed to work two weeks ago, in Carson, California, against the LA Galaxy. Over the previous four games, that 2-1 final is the closest the Timbers have come to a result.
The context around that decision went beyond the Galaxy game, of course. Three goals conceded in the first half last week, at San Jose. Three conceded in Cincinnati, four weeks ago. Four allowed at LAFC, before that. Portland came into the Dallas game needing to do something, anything to staunch the bleeding at the back. The 5-3-2 was always going to be an option.
In that way, the formation was a tone-setter. As we’ve discussed before, it’s too reductive to see a 5-back as inherently defensive, but there was a stabilizing element to Portland’s approach. Three center backs. Three central midfielders. At a minimum, when it came to the team’s defensive problems, the Timbers would have numbers to throw at the problem.
A very 2019 goal
Not many of the goals Portland’s allowed thus far have been the result of bad luck, but that didn’t keep Saturday’s first score from feeling like a very 2019 goal. All of the misfortunes that gets attached to a 0-5-1 start were projected onto Jesus Ferriera’s ninth minute tally, one that was only possible when an errant Dallas pass went off Diego Chara, behind the Timbers’ line, and into the path of the young attacker. He had Jeff Attinella in a helpless position before the game’s opening goal.
At other points in the first half, the breaks went Portland’s way; at least, they went the Timbers’ way in terms of potential scores. Attinella had to come up big on a Michael Barrios chance in the 27th minute. Pablo Aranguiz probably should have had a goal in the 31st, though he skied a 12-yard shot into FCD’s supporters’ section. Five minutes later, Ferreira had Attinella’s right post to himself after a series of Timbers errors, though his shot, mercifully, went wide.
That kind of luck is normal within a match. Call it variance, if you want. The first goal, though? It was a strange moment, but the 1-0 deficit Portland carried into halftime could have been worse. The only goal may have been a moment of fortune, but after 45 minutes, the scoreline felt just.
Saying the obvious about a bad call
Last night in Chicago, this was a penalty:
Today, this isn’t:
Teams can never, ever let games come down to official’s whistles, if for no other reason than officials, like the rest of us, get things wrong. You can’t plan for perfection, and you always have to be prepared to provide response.
But make no mistake about it, Marcos de Oliviera got this one wrong. Perhaps the night’s lead official didn’t feel there was enough video evidence to reverse his orginal non-call, but his VAR seemed to. That had to be why Hilario Grejada recommended the play for review. Even if de Oliviera felt like the video was inconclusive, that only puts more emphasis on, the first time, making the right call.
Over the course of a season, these things get a broader context. Remember Dom Dwyer play-acting his way into a penalty last season, against the Timbers in Orlando? It was a terrible decision to give the penalty, but within a 34-game season, that incident was a hiccup. It was almost funny, in the end, given how Portland’s season eventually played out.
Right now, though, 2019 has none of that context. Six games of the 2019 season have only provided disappointment after disappointment. The penalty that should have been – as well as a non-call on a Jeremy Ebobisse chance earlier in the half – could have provided a needed reprieve. Instead, Portland’s lost five in a row.
Was another 2-1 progress?
It was the theme of our first point in this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report. Of course, compared to last week, what we saw from the Timbers on Saturday was progress. One is a 3-0 loss at a struggling team. The other is a 2-1 defeat to a good one. On one hand, those descriptions say it all.
On another hand, this is where the Timbers were two weeks ago, when they took an identical scoreline out of Dignity Heath Sports Park in Carson. Back then, the team could rightly say they’d taken a step forward, that there were positives in the underlying performance, and the group was pointed in the right direction. There was reason to expect a win in San Jose.
The memories of that optimism should provide a note of caution, though. The Timbers have been here before. And, recently. And rather than being a step forward, Carson’s near-miss ended up being a false start. At some point, Portland’s going to need an actual result.
Still, the last 30 minutes of today’s game may have been the first time all year that Portland truly put an opponent on the back foot. They legitimately troubled Dallas, in a more consistent, heightened way than they did in Colorado, or at LAFC. That situation may have been created by the game state, with Dallas given reason to relax after going up 2-0, but by game’s end, their three points really were in doubt.
Almost any other time, today’s performance could be seen as a positive. At 0-5-1, and with the way today’s match ended, that’s a hard place to get to. But undoubtedly, the way Portland played was far better than last week. It’s just a question of whether half-full glasses are possible, right now.