PORTLAND, Ore. – Giovanni Savarese climbed the capo stand after the final whistle. It was the first indication of how he felt about the result. After the Portland Timbers’ fourth home loss in six games, the team’s head coach ascended into the stadium’s North End, taking time to pay tribute to the team’s most ardent fans, the Timbers Army. After more disappointment, Savarese felt compelled to show his gratitude.
What exactly is going on? It’s a question every player, coach, fan and bystander should be asking after Wednesday’s result. After the New York Red Bulls claimed a 2-0 victory at Providence Park, the Timbers have only six points in their last four games, all at home. Thanks to the night’s result in Seattle, where the Sounders were held scoreless by FC Dallas, Portland has lost their place in the Western Conference’s top seven. They still have a game in hand on Dallas, who moved into the conference's last playoff spot with their draw, but time is quickly running out. With only four games left, last year’s Western Conference champions are on the outside looking in on the postseason.
This is not how the run-in was supposed to go. The team was supposed to suffer in the first part of the season, when they started with 12 games on the road. This was the time of year when they were supposed to be reaping the rewards. This was when they were supposed to be climbing back up the conference.
Instead, the Timbers find themselves at a point of reckoning. Few can look at this team’s roster and the results they’ve posted in locations like Seattle, at Los Angeles FC, and Philadelphia and doubt the team’s ceiling. Portland has reason to believe they can win any game, any place when they play to their potential. But too often over the last month-plus, that potential has been lacking. As much as Portland’s capable of beating anybody, struggles against teams like Orlando City, Colorado and Chicago show they can also play down to their competition.
The good news: Portland still controls their playoff destiny. And with a home schedule that includes Sunday against Minnesota United FC (1:03pm PT, TICKETS, ESPN) and Oct. 6 versus the San Jose Earthquakes, the team could still climb into the West’s top four, earning a home game in the playoff’s first round.
The bad news: Portland’s season could go the other way, too. After four losses in six games, the Timbers have to turn things around. Now.
Here’s What We’ll Remember from Wednesday night at Providence Park:
More early goals allowed
The common thread through the team’s four recent home losses – defeats to Atlanta United FC, the Sounders, D.C. United and the Red Bulls – is early goals, though Savarese is right to note: they’ve all come in different ways.
“I think today was something completely different than other games,” Savarese explained. “Today, we didn’t start with the right energy.
“Unfortunately, in those first early minutes, we didn’t match up with (New York's) intensity. And also, we didn’t (track their) runners, and that’s the worst (thing) you can do against a team like that.”
Against Atlanta, is was the inability to clear the chaos after a corner kick. Seattle’s goal came after a Sounders winger took advantage of a one-on-one battle. D.C. United benefitted from an own goal while the Red Bulls overwhelmed the Timbers for a weakside chance in third minute. True, there is no one way that the early goals are happening, but from a certain point of view, doesn’t that make it worse?
In each of these games, the Timbers are letting the games be defined for them, something that shouldn’t happen at Providence Park. As a result, the Timbers have been unable to leverage their backloaded schedule.
The could have beens
The things that distinguished Wednesday’s game from the loss to D.C. United three days before were the chances that could have been. Whereas United closed shop after getting their own goal, playing defensively and giving the Timbers no clear chances, the Red Bulls persisted with their usual style and ended up out-shooting Portland on the night. As a result, though, the Timbers were able to create a number of good chances of their own.
“Definitely,” Savarese said, when asked whether he felt has team generated enough opportunities on goal. “We should have won this game.”
Diego Chara in the first half, hitting the crossbar with a chance mid-way through the first half. In the second, Jeremy Ebobisse was played over the defense but pulled his chance wide of Luis Robles’ left post, while a late Brian Fernandez chance was also sent wide of its mark.
All three were chances the Timbers should feel good about creating. All three finished off the mark.
“We need to change our luck,” Savarese said. “It’s up to us to do that.”
Progressing in the wrong direction
Before this weekend’s game against D.C. United, we noted that, from a certain point of view, the Timbers had made incremental progress over their four preceding games: from losses against Atlanta and Seattle to wins over Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City. After the last two games, though, the trend has reversed. Whereas Sunday was a one-goal loss to a team that sat deep after an early goal, Wednesday’s was a two-goal defeat to a team which didn’t drastically alter their approach.
That’s part of the urgency Portland has to take from tonight’s result. Ideally, you’d want a team to take inventory after a weekend defeat and, given a quick turnaround at home, put the past behind them with their next performance. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Timbers again allowed a visitor to define the match. Although there were still positives in how the team performed, the game played out as New York would have wanted.
“We knew exactly what they came here for,” Savarese said. “We knew they were not going to be a team that was going to bunker. We knew they would continue to play the way they usually play.”
At some point, if Portland’s play doesn’t improve, the Timbers’ postseason destiny will be taken out of their hands. The confidence they have in their ability to win anywhere, against anybody, won’t matter. Instead of letting opponents define single games for them, Portland will be letting the league define their season.
“We have a game on Sunday, (and) we cannot afford to lose any more points,” defender Jorge Villafaña conceded. “We have a lot of reflecting to do."