PORTLAND, Ore. – With less than 30 minutes to go in last Saturday’s game, the Portland Timbers were down a goal, facing another week outside MLS’ Western Conference playoff picture, and were about to give three points to a Sporting Kansas City team that would be back in the playoff hunt. Two goals and a week later, the Timbers can climb has high as third place in the West with a win on Sunday against D.C. United at Providence Park.
They would need some help. The San Jose Earthquakes would have to lose at New York City FC while Seattle Sounders FC would need to drop their home game to the New York Red Bulls. A game between Real Salt Lake and Minnesota United FC, two teams above Portland in the standings, assures the Timbers can’t climb higher than third. But such is the state of the Western Conference: Over the course of eight days, a team could go from outside the playoffs, to about to be caught by another team in the standings, to in line for a home game in the playoffs’ first round.
This is where Portland hoped they would be at the start of the season, one which commenced with 12 straight road games. Now, though, it’s time to follow through on that vision. If the Timbers were supposed to be peaking right now, as they enter the regular-season’s end with five of six games at home, they were also supposed to be piling up points, and perhaps already passing a Western Conference field that seems intent on giving them every opportunity to catch up.
Recent losses at home to Atlanta United FC and Seattle wasted one chance to surge toward second. Now, the Timbers have another. They have to start making the most of these shots.
Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report: three areas of focus as Portland welcomes D.C. United to Goose Hollow Sunday (12:30pm PT, TICKETS, ESPN) – the first of five games in a 15-day spell:
You look at the key indicators, and there is no pattern. There’s no progression. For those who watched the games, it may feel like there’s been incremental progress from one game to the other – from the Timbers' performances against Atlanta, Seattle, Real Salt Lake then Sporting.
But beyond the goals scored column, below, there’s no pattern. Perhaps, overall, there’s improvement, but on the surface, it has been an uneven run.
Important context here, though, is game state. Think about the two columns added at the right, below.
For a game in which the Timbers were chasing for 86 minutes, the numbers verses Atlanta could be better. Possession is still even, despite Portland needing to control the game. The opportunities (in terms of shots) stay mostly even.
Against Seattle, those numbers look better, as did the goals scored column. The win didn’t come, but control of the ball and chances (in terms of quantity, at least) improved. Within the context of the game’s state, Portland seemed to perform a little better here, on this very surface level.
Now, let's consider the Real Salt Lake game through the same lens. An early goal from Diego Valeri meant RSL chased the entire night. The visitors had the edge in possession but not chances. They were shut out. In terms of a team achieving a single night’s objectives, there’s reason to see the performance as progress.
Then, Sporting Kansas City. A fluke goal happens. How do you respond? Portland had their biggest edges in possession and quantity of chances. There were more challenges than eight days before against RSL, but there were better responses. That is how that game's profile is supposed to look. Again, progress, if that’s how you choose to see it.
D.C. United is the team’s next chance to move forward. The Timbers aren't at the level they’d like, yet. The games against Salt Lake and Sporting were too close. But the path to that level is in place. Progress could be measured by the challenges that emerge on Sunday, as well as the quality of Portland’s response.
What D.C. is now
A look at D.C. United’s key indicators, and we see a pretty average team. Points-per-game-wise, they’re right in the middle of the pack, albeit with somewhat one-sided profile. The attacking indicators? Pretty weak, despite having a squad we associate with all-star-level attacking talents like Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta and the recently acquired Ola Kamara. The defensive indicators, though, are very strong.
You could split this into road and home results, but there wouldn't be much difference. D.C. United is slightly worse on the road (5-6-4, as opposed to 6-4-5 at home), with certain indicators like possession (down to 46.9) and shots allowed per game (up to 17.7) only taking a slight hit. Home or away, they are what their numbers say they are.
Where the big change has happened is over the last two months. Since July 1, the team is only 3-6-2, having allowed 20 goals in those 11 games. All three of their wins during that time have come against teams outside the playoffs (Cincinnati, the Galaxy and Montreal). Though the overall picture describes United as a tough, middle-of-the-road team, recent results have not been as strong.
There’s still talent, there. Like Giovanni Savarese implied on Tuesday when asked if Rooney will play, Portland has to prepared for D.C.’s best, no matter what. What, exactly, D.C.’s best is, right now, has become hard to tell.
Depth coming back
Over the last games, the situations at goalkeeper, fullback, center back and central midfield had become dire. Before the match with Sporting Kansas City, the depth chart only had two healthy, present names at each position – inconvenient when three of those positions require multiple players in the starting lineup.
Seven days later, everything feels so new. Cristhian Paredes, Andrés Flores and Renzo Zambrano are back among the midfielders, and while Zambrano is ineligible for Sunday’s game (suspended), Savarese and staff have something that was missing against Sporting: options. Same goes for fullback, where Marco Farfan and Zarek Valentin have trained all week, with Valentin also giving Portland a potential option in central defense. Who knows if they’ll be healthy enough to be selected on Sunday, but as of the beginning of the week, they were moving back into view.
In goal, the foot injury that kept Kendall McIntosh off the bench last weekend may leave him a doubt. If he can't go, Aljaž Ivačič will be on the bench, again. Regardless, when this weekend’s match arrives, the thin state of Portland’s depth chart should have passed, bringing life back to something closer to normal.