It was their best week of the year, one that not only saw the Portland Timbers collect their first two shutouts of the season but also post lopsided victories across two competitions.
In a season that’s seen road test after road test keep them from building significant momentum, Portland used their first back-to-back home games of the year to flash their potential. A 4-0 win, more than 500 passes in U.S. Open Cup play against the LA Galaxy. A 4-0 win, more than 500 passes in a Major League Soccer match against the Houston Dynamo. Both opponents were forced to start hamstrung lineups, but even in circumstances where Portland was expected to win, the team exceeded expectations.
What’s next is a game that looks like a schedule loss – a term applied to a game which, cast into one of the least advantageous points of the calendar, makes a team an underdog regardless of the opponent. In the case of Wednesday’s game, Portland is making one of their longer road trips of the season, doing so on short rest after playing the previous Wednesday and Saturday. Their squad was already taxed by a congested schedule. In addition, they’ll lose a day’s training and subject themselves to the ills of travel to play mid-week against the Montréal Impact (4:30pm PT, FOX 12 Oregon (KPTV)).
Part of this is just what teams have to go through a couple of times each year. Particularly in a season that takes a break for the start of Concacaf’s Gold Cup, there’s going to be some congestion in a 34-game schedule. Part of this, though, is the reality of playing in Portland, from where longer road trips are more frequent. And part of this still seems to be either misfortune, coincidence, or just lack of imagination. For a midweek game requiring travel, the Timbers really couldn’t be sent to some place closer? Some place like, say, San Jose, Salt Lake City, or Colorado?
At this point, that question’s irrelevant. The Timbers have this obstacle. Now, they have to confront it, even if how Portland approached the Galaxy and Dynamo could impact what we see against Montréal.
Here are three areas of focus for tonight’s match in Quebec, this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report:
This is where we talk about rotation
Since he said it over two weeks ago, we’ve used this quote twice. Might as well make it a third, because on the back of two games where he chose a mostly full-strength lineup, head coach Giovanni Savarese’s words have acquired an if not now, when tone.
“There are going to be moments that players are going to have to rotate and be prepared for certain games but not others,” Savarese said before the Timbers’ June 12 Open Cup game against Seattle. “That’s why we need the entire group to be ready.”
That moment was not in Tacoma. It wasn’t against the Galaxy. It wasn’t against Houston. On short rest, with transcontinental travel, will that moment be at Montréal?
This isn’t to say it should be. I’m not sure there’s a clearly right or wrong answer to that question, and to the extent there is, the justification would require more room than it makes sense in this space. Given personal privacy issues, it’d be imprudent to go into it here, and to be frank, I’ve seen more paranoia about player rest than valid concern. Maybe that’s the right balance in this discussion – better to be more concerned about player health than less, especially given some sports’ history of treating players like they’re disposable – but aside from a narrow band of people who work with the players on a daily basis, we’re all, unfortunately, speaking from ignorance.
It is fair to wonder, with an open mind, who will and won’t be able to play in Wednesday, or to what extent, in general, the circumstances in Montréal would justify players being pushed. It’s also worth circling back on Savarese’s comments from two weeks ago, remembering the prognostication of rotation, and ask how the forecast fits Wednesday’s outlook.
The mixed indicators around Montréal
Allow me to paint you two pictures of Wednesday’s opponent.
With 27 points in 18 games, the Montréal Impact currently sit second in the Eastern Conference, their eight victories tying them for the fourth-highest mark in the league. That’s the first picture.
The second one is a little nuanced. It’s a picture that’s more clouded, lacking the clear, blunt themes of the first. Yet in the cloud’s detail, it’s far more informative.
The Impact’s minus-seven goal difference ranks 20th out of 24 teams so far this season, as do the 1.17 goals they’re averaging per game. They rank 23rd in shots per game (10.6), 21st in shots on target (3.5 per game), and rank 17th in both possession (48.1) and pass percentage (79.1). The number of passes they’re completing per game (441.4) is also below average, ranking 16th in MLS.
The team is great at preventing shots (9.8 per game, third) but are still below average (15th) in goals allowed per game (1.56). This team may sit second in the East, but their underlying indicators describe a team that’s likely closer to middle of the road.
So, what do we trust? The record, or the indicators? Don’t feel the need to decide, and keep in mind: the Timbers aren’t lights out in all of those metrics, either. There’s a context to every number that augments its definition. Perhaps Montréal definition makes those numbers more palatable.
Just know that there are two different ways to look at the Impact – two different pictures, if you will. One depicts a team which is finding a way to get it done. The other hints that, if they continue playing as they have, the Impact will come back down to their earth.
Applying the lessons from the road
The first half of this MLS season may have been about the trials of the road, but for the Timbers, those trials have produced virtues. Going back to April 13, when Portland lost a close match at FC Dallas (2-1), the Timbers are 5-1-1 away from home in all competitions. Perhaps three out of their last four games at home made us forget how the team was performing on the road, but over their last two months’ travels, the Timbers have been very, very good.
Of course, that record stands in stark contrast to their first months on the road, where the team went 0-5-1 over their first six matches, but the difference reflects a flip that’s been switched – as if, sometime in April, the Timbers solved their problems, started taking their solutions to the field, and found a new formula that works.
You know what would be a great way to test that? More road games. If the Timbers truly have moved beyond the ills of March and figured out life on the road, the upturn of mid-April and May should be replicable as we move forward. If, however, it was just a matter or momentum or a short-term confidence, the team may need to rediscover what made them so good last month.
Let’s figure it out. Maybe the circumstances of this week make Montréal a poor test of whether the Timbers have truly mastered the road, but let’s keep it in mind over the rest of the season. If the 12-game gauntlet the Timbers had to run before their home opener forged a tougher squad, the benefits should be evident in the season’s most important months, as well as the playoffs.