KBSR, Timbers @ Crew, 4.20.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

KeyBank Scouting Report | Progression, prevention still the dominant stories as Portland visits Columbus

Pity the youth that will never know the sound; or, maybe, as we’re well into vinyl’s resurgence, all of us already know: the rhythmic, metronomic skip, skip, skipping noise of a record player’s needle at the media’s inner circle. The static from the trackless middle. The bursts, persistent yet intermittent. When a side’s songs were all played out, the old record players from the 1970s and `80s would keep their discs spinning, with needle and arm sitting above a small, inside circle, emitting a skip, skip, skip from the monotonous core.

Five games into a losing streak, with no home games in sight, the first months of the Portland Timbers’ 2019 season have reached their inner circle. We’ve heard all the songs, and even though there’ve been different tracks, some have sounded too similar. The lopsided losses in Los Angeles, Cincinnati and San Jose. The close calls in Carson and Frisco. Commerce City was certainly the most interesting of the album, but yet, there’s still a sense that we’ve run out of tunes.

Something has to change. The record has to be turned. Passing the halfway mark of this season-opening, 12-game road run, Portland needs a new song. They need something that moves this album forward, and while games against the LA Galaxy and FC Dallas have given them reason to hope, hope doesn’t matter once it’s extinguished. At some point, hope has to lead to change in order to matter, at all.

On Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, the Timbers will have their latest chance at change (4:30pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS (KPDX)), and if last week’s game in Dallas is any indication, this may be their best opportunity since early March. Foiled last week by officials’ eyes and (lack of) whistles, Portland saw the only thing separating them from a streak-breaking result lie out of their control. Perform as well this week, and see better fortune from others’ parts, and the Timbers could escape the loss column.

At this point, that escape has taking on a Shawshankian feel. Here are three aspects of that Redemption on Saturday against Columbus Crew SC, this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report:

If only Porter were the story

When Major League Soccer released its 2019 schedule, Timbers fans were right to focus on their team’s seventh game. For an entire season, the club’s former coach, Caleb Porter, sat on the sidelines, transitioning to the next stop in his career. Now, the MLS Cup-winning coach will finally get to face his former club.

Under normal circumstances, Porter against the Timbers would feel like the week’s defining story line. Right now, though, it feels forced. Such is the weight of Portland’s season-opening run. Yes, the mood implies, it would be nice for this week to be about that subplot. Sports needs that kind of drama. Unfortunately, there’s no ignoring: the Timbers’ real drama, right now, lies someplace else.

It is worth noting how Porter is doing, so far, in Columbus. Though the Crew are coming off a loss to the Montreal Impact, early returns have been encouraging, with a stellar defense that has already kept four clean sheets leaving Columbus second in the Eastern Conference. The goal-scored column may be concerning to the naked eye, with the Crew averaging a mere one goal per game, but in the way Columbus has gone about their business, there’s a sense they haven’t really pushed for extra scores.

It would be nice if those details were more important this week. The real importance, however, from Portland’s point of view, is in how the team moves forward. Be it against Porter or any other coach, the team just needs a result.

Progress is a must

Even with 2019’s season-opening draw in mind, Portland’s best performance of the season may have been at the LA Galaxy, where the 2-1 loss featured the Timbers’ best goal of the year and no shots allowed from open play. Unfortunately, Portland built on that with their worst performance of the young campaign, conceding three goals in the first 45 minutes to San Jose.

If the Timbers are going to get back to level ground this season, 2019 can’t be a series of fits and starts. Steps forward in places like Carson or, last week, in Frisco can’t be answered by performances like that at Avaya Stadium. Until the team starts consistently winning games, every half-step advance has to be built upon with urgency. Performances like San Jose’s rendered all previous progress irrelevant.

There’s no doubt the Timbers can build on last week’s. The question is whether, regardless of the result, they will. Do that, and a victory should come somewhere, soon; else, spring will continue to be played in circles.

Preventing goals becoming a bottom-line business

The biggest place where progress is needed is goal prevention, with the 2.83 goals the Timbers are allowing per game marking the worst rate in Major League Soccer. The results in Frisco were better, with Portland only conceding twice, but when that return matches your season’s best performance, the results have to drastically improve.

This is where the mindsets of the two managers may be most interesting. Last week, Savarese went back to a 5-3-2 formation, one that threw numbers at the team’s key areas of weakness. Although Dallas generated multiple good chances in the first half, the performance was improved, with only one of the hosts goals coming from open play.

At the same time, Dallas’ style was more aggressive than we’ve typically seen from Columbus this season. Perhaps that’s because the Crew have, for the most part, been able to get first goals and sit on them, but we have rarely seen Columbus truly push for goals. While defending has been Portland’s main weakness, the Crew’s strength has been in its patience, control, as well as their efficiency in letting opponents undermine themselves.

Does that change this weekend? The type of overloads we saw Dallas use against the left side of Portland’s defense. Does Columbus do the same with Pedro Santos, Federico Higuain and Hector Jiménez? The way Luchi Gonzalez shifted Michael Barrios into the space wide of Larrys Mabiala, putting the veteran defender into foot races against Dallas’ fastest man? Does Porter do the same with Gyasi Zardes this weekend?

To this point, Columbus has rarely had to be extremely aggressive in attack, but at some point this year, that quality was bound to surface. The Crew just haven’t needed that aggression to claim wins, before. But against a Timbers team that may be thinking accountability first, does Columbus get more aggressive, and try to build on the success other teams have had against Portland, thus far?