In a spring of challenges for the Portland Timbers, Wednesday night’s game against the Houston Dynamo brings a first of 2019: short rest (5:30pm PT, ROOT SPORTS).
Though the Timbers have had to endure their season’s first 10 matches on the road, they’ve been able to maintain an otherwise normal schedule, always having at least six days between kickoffs. Since last Thursday, though, the team has, day-by-day: flown, played, flown, practiced, flown and practiced. When the Timbers wake up in Houston on Wednesday, it will be the first time in a week they’ve gone consecutive days without travel.
Once Wednesday night’s game is over, though, the Timbers will have 10 days between games. True, two of those will be spent in the air before they wrap up their road spell in Philadelphia, but before the City of Brotherly Love trip closes their 12-game road run, players will get a nice, long spell at home, enjoying their second weekend without a game this season.
First up, though, is a team that added to Portland’s road woes last season, one that has kept the Timbers from claiming victory in southeast Texas in the MLS era. Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report – three areas of focus ahead of Portland’s midweek match against the Dynamo:
The Houston challenge
Despite their two MLS titles, the Dynamo aren’t considered a traditional league power, likely because it’s been 12 years since their last championship and seven years since their last MLS Cup final appearance. But if there is any team that should hold Houston in greater regard, it’s the Portland Timbers. Over the last two years, the Timbers have played the Dynamo seven times, including two meetings in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs. The team’s 2-4-1 record over that period isn’t terrible, but the two points in three games in Houston – and the conference semifinal elimination by the Dynamo two years ago – speak to the Space City challenge.
This season’s standings also speak to that challenge. In terms of points per game, Houston has the second-best record in MLS, their 2.11 mark behind only Los Angeles FC (2.25). Only two teams have a better goal difference than the Dynamo’s plus-seven, with only two teams allowing fewer goals than the eight Houston’s conceded in nine games. Those numbers are helped greatly by a schedule that’s given them six games at home, but guess what? Wednesday’s game is in Houston.
The Dynamo are 5-0-1 at BBVA Compass Stadium this season. In players like Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas, they have forwards who can cause and exploit any mistakes a team makes along their back line. With a U.S. Open Cup title last year and a conference final appearance the year before, Houston’s Wilmer Cabrera era is proving fruitful, prolonged and, increasingly, notable.
The Timbers have never won a game in Houston, and with the Dynamo’s improvement, the task becomes even more difficult. With or without Diego Chara (see below), short rest or normal, Houston was always going to be a challenge.
Life on short rest
When you bring last year’s playoffs into view, Portland played six road games on short rest last season.
That seems like a lot. In theory, that should give us a decent idea of how the team managed this week’s obstacle, with only four days separating last Friday’s match at BC Place from Wednesday’s game in Texas.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case, mostly because last year’s performances seem to fall into two, neat, somewhat explicable categories. There are the first four games – trips to D.C. United, Sporting Kansas City, the New England Revolution and Minnesota United FC – where the team went 0-3-1, allowed 11 goals and only scored four times. The matches at D.C. and Sporting were probably the team’s worst performances of the season.
Then there were the Timbers’ last two short-rest, road games. Both came in the playoffs. Both were among the team’s most important outings of 2018. In Seattle, the Timbers officially lost to the Sounders, 3-2, but the performance was enough to force a penalty kick shootout that they advanced from. In the next round against Sporting, Portland avenged their regular-season defeat with a 3-2 victory at Children’s Mercy Park. In the team’s most important road games, the team gave their best short-rest performances.
How that informs Wednesday’s game in Houston is anybody’s guess, but there’s enough to read into it as you will. Maybe the team needs the playoff’s stakes to reach last fall’s level? Or, maybe they learned from the regular season’s struggles, taking lessons that can apply to this week’s challenge?
This is the first time the Timbers will be asked to navigate this turnaround in 2019, and with over two-thirds of the season to go, it would be too early to draw any conclusions based on Wednesday’s performance. But the team needs to be better than they were last year at D.C., Sporting and Minnesota. Based on what we saw in the playoffs, we know they have it in them.
And the absences of Chara
For the second time this season, the Timbers will be without Chara. And the first time didn’t go so well. Starting Cristhian Paredes alongside Bill Tuiloma at the base of midfield, Portland lost 3-0 in FC Cincinnati’s home opener. It’s the only time the expansion team has scored three goals in a game this season.
Despite the result, few came out of that match questioning Paredes’ and Tuiloma’s performances, something that fits in nicely with the Timbers’ lingering slump without Chara. Dating back to 2015, Portland has failed to win in 23 consecutive MLS games without their midfield linchpin, a streak that’s become as remarkable as it is disheartening. Whether replacements play well or not, the Chara-less Timbers don’t break through.
We covered this least season when Chara sat out, but there is a choice we all have to make when looking at this streak. First, we can accept that Chara is not only the most influential player in the history of MLS soccer, if not the sport, and the Timbers become an inept version of Chivas USA without him; or, we can see this as part causation and part fluke, with the two conspiring to create a run that’s become statistically ridiculous.
Either way, it’s on the Timbers to snap this streak. It’s not a question of talent, and given there’s rarely a huge philosophical shift when Chara’s on the sidelines, it’s unlikely to be a question of approach. Unless the goal has been to avoid winning without the Timbers icon, it’s hard to see why similar approaches wouldn’t, over a 23-game stretch, produce at least one win.
There’s no doubt that Chara is important, but some point, the rest of the Timbers have to want this streak to end, if for no other reason than to prove 27 guys aren’t dependent on one. This long into the streak, though, we have to consider something magical may be involved.