PORTLAND, Ore. – The bottom lines from Sunday's game at Providence Park hint at some clear solutions. Hint, though, is the operative word. Shut out for a third straight home game – albeit level on the scoreboard with Minnesota United FC after their 0-0 draw – the Portland Timbers have gone 270 minutes without a goal. Creating a number of good chances over the last two games, though, it's unclear how the team should change their approach.
"It's not anything bad that we're doing, it's just that things are not going our way, right now," Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese said after his team's Sunday draw. "We have to stay on our path."
During Wednesday's loss to the New York Red Bulls, chances by Diego Chara, Jeremy Ebobisse and Brian Fernandez went unfulfilled. On Sunday, the list was slightly longer. Ebobisse and Fernandez were still there, but so was Andy Polo, who put in a strong performance from his right-wing position. Sebastián Blanco, returning to the lineup after a calf injury, had chances, too, as did Cristhian Paredes and Diego Valeri, who combined to stress Minnesota goalkeeper Vito Mannone on a late Blanco cross.
Blanco found the crossbar in the first half. Paredes hit the woodwork in the second. Larrys Mabiala got shots off set pieces on both sides of intermission, while a collection of other Blanco balls across the penalty box never ended in shots. Every way they could create a close call, Portland found it.
The Timbers aren't the first soccer team to be in this position, and like each of their predecessors, they have one, clear objective: Find a way to break through. But when the chances are there and, defensively, the work is solid, the solution may be as simple as "keep going and hope the work pays off."
Here's What We'll Remember from a frustrating Sunday at Providence Park:
Going for 49
Savarese was asked after the game, at the end of his press conference: Have you remember a game that had 49 shots and no goals? No question, it was a rare occurrence.
"There's not too many," Savarese said. "If you look at stats, it was incredible. But then, if you analyze the game, there was a little step (too late) to get to the ball."
The shot totals made for an enjoyable game from a viewer's perspective. From both teams, there was a want to push for goals while maintaining their balance. The changes one side took higher in their formation allowed teams to get through the middle of the field and into their attacks, where the risk-taking stopped. Be it Mabiala and Steve Clark on one side or Michael Boxall and Mannone on the other, both defenses had standout performances.
For Portland, though, enjoyable wasn't enough. Whereas Minnesota could look at a road game versus a team like the Timbers and be happy with a draw, a home team has to look at 0-0 as points lost. Good on the eye, but for the bottom line: more of a mixed result.
The defensive returns
For the first time since shutting out Real Salt Lake four games ago, the Timbers got to full time without allowing a goal, and while the performances of Clark, Claude Dielna and Jorge Moreira played a big part, the returns of two defenders from injury were also a key component.
Mabiala hadn't played in over a month, but in his first action since August 14 against Chicago, the Congolese international looked close to his full self. Particularly against Minnesota attacker Darwin Quintero in the first half, when the center back had to turn and race to the byline before making a sprawling block, Mabiala showed the effects of his leg injury may be passed. The Timbers' most-important defender appeared ready for the stretch run.
"I've been working very hard to be able to come back very quickly and be ready to help the team," Mabiala said. "Obviously, we couldn't get three points – that's why I'm a little bit disappointed. Personally, I'm very good."
On the defensive's left, Zarek Valentin was back in the XI for the first time since injuring a hamstring on August 23 against Seattle Sounders FC. Versus a team which, particularly in the second half, favored attacking down their right through midfielder Kevin Molino and right back Romain Métanire, Valentin held up well, not only contributing to a clean sheet in defense but taking up high positions in midfield during the attacking phase.
"Me and Larrys rehabbed together for about three-and-a-half, four weeks, and we miss it," Valentin said, of being back on the field. "Obviously we didn't get the result we wanted, but I think we showed improvements on the past few games."
For much of September, the Timbers have been hamstrung in defense, missing not only Mabiala and Valentin but, at times, Bill Tuiloma, Marco Farfan and Modou Jadama. Now, Savarese and his staff have some semblance of a defensive depth chart.
Above the line ahead of another short turnaround
Earning a home playoff game has been an explicit goal most of the season. At this point, though, the Timbers' thoughts have to be more modest. Above the Western Conference's playoff line for the moment, Portland has to focus on internal improvement. If that improvement leads to a chance to earn a home playoff game, they can deal with that when it comes.
What comes first, though, is another quick turnaround. Monday will be a re-entry day for those who played today. On Tuesday, the team will train, albeit lightly ahead of Wednesday's kickoff. Then, a New England Revolution team trying to keep their own playoff hopes in focus will visit Providence Park (7:30pm PT, TICKETS, FOX 12 PLUS (KPDX)).
By the time you read this, FC Dallas may have comeback against New York City FC, and the Timbers could be below the playoff line once more. But for the moment, the team has taken a step forward – progress that must continue, particularly in attack, come Wednesday's kickoff.