Portland Timbers finished their first undefeated month in the Major League Soccer era with a 1-1 draw against Cascadia rivals Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday night. Having picked up at least one point in each of the four games in May, Portland has climbed from last place in the Western Conference to seventh. Kris Boyd scored his team-leading fourth goal of the season and the Timbers played an overtly offensive style for the first time this season. Yet all is not rosy as a three week break from league play commences. Just three goals were scored in the Timbers’ favor during the month, one of them coming through a Chicago own-goal. In fact, Portland scored only six goals in April and May combined, including two own-goals.
On Saturday night, John Spencer unveiled a starting XI with the potential to produce multiple goals. A diamond in midfield returned but saw the demotion of Lovel Palmer for the second time (and from his second position) this season. Diego Chará sparked possession from a deep-lying position and had Eric Alexander and Kalif Alhassan as wide options, a first since mid-April. Darlington Nagbe was set at the apex in a continuation of the role he played in Wednesday’s friendly. While it is unlikely that Spencer chose his line-up because of repeated pleadings from supporters, he essentially assented to popular wishes. As was expected, at least after the starting XI was announced, the Timbers were strong in possession, created multiple chances and were the better of the two teams for good portions of the match.
We are frequently told, by the coaching staff and front office, that statistics are irrelevant – comments most often made after poor performances – and that they do not tell the real story of how the Timbers play. It is only fair, then, to ignore the unusually positive statistical achievements in the Vancouver game. 79% passing does not matter. 22 open play crosses are irrelevant. 403 total passes inconsequential. No, statistics do not tell the full story.
In the past, I have been extremely critical of Spencer’s formation and personnel decisions. Some of those choices were dictated more by availability than anything else, yet I continue to think he can do more with what he has than has been done to this point. Yet Saturday’s game, apart from a late substitution (which will be mentioned below), was an example of Spencer getting it right. His formation was well suited both to attack a weary Vancouver side but also have midfielders available to help in defending the usually potent Whitecaps forward line. Reinserting Alhassan gave Portland a sorely missing dose of creativity and Nagbe’s position just below the two forwards gave the Timbers an effective outlet for possession through the middle – a rarity in Spencer’s team. Likewise, Chará’s depth in midfield allowed him to best take advantage of his wide ranging skills, rather than being forced into uncomfortable positions as he has been all season.
For the most part, the change in emphasis worked. The Timbers looked more comfortable with the ball, more exploratory in passing and better suited to restarting an attacking sequence when one idea broke down. These traits are so foreign to this Timbers team that it looked like an entirely different set of players were on the field. That is all a credit to Spencer, who finally put his players in something closer to their natural positions and avoided banging so many square pegs into round holes. The only thing lacking for Portland was execution by the players themselves. At least when it came to those crucial final balls. Yes, Boyd did convert a strange opportunity into his fourth goal, but for the most part, Portland simply could not convert after creating chances. Jorge Perlaza, Boyd, Nagbe and Alexander each wasted several key opportunities, either with a shot at goal or with the option of presenting a teammate with a chance.
While the frustration at the failure to score more than once, given all the opportunities, is strong, at least the formation and personnel were such that one can imagine better results with similar set-up going forward. For Spencer, creating continuity in the creative positions is the key to jumpstarting what is among the lowest scoring teams in MLS. Granting the impact of injuries on a consistency of starting XI, it should be noted that the Timbers have used a different starting line-up in all twelve MLS games this season. If Spencer can use a similarly attacking mentality with the same players against LA Galaxy when the team returns to league play in mid-June, Portland will be more likely to create and convert chances than if the entire structure is changed yet again.
With all of that said, the manager did make a major mistake in substitutions with the game winding down. Leading 1-0 from the 67th minute, Spencer had two available subs after David Horst replaced the concussed Eric Brunner in central defense at half-time. Of the five remaining outfield players available, Franck Songo’o, Sal Zizzo and Mike Fucito represented offensive options. Rodney Wallace and Palmer were available as choices that could strengthen the defensive set-up. In the 72nd minute, Vancouver inserted forward Eric Hassli in an attempt to take at least one point from the game. Seven minutes later, Spencer opted for Zizzo to replace Alhassan on the right wing, making a like-for-like substitution and keeping the formation in the same, offensively-oriented style as the first eighty minutes. Seeing Portland keep an offensive focus, despite the late game lead, Martin Rennie put on forward Darren Mattocks to give the Whitecaps a fresh and dynamic forward pairing.
When Mattocks came on, Spencer seemed to realize his blunder and moved to bring on Palmer to help give stability to the defensive third of the field. The move would have seen Perlaza come off, presumably leaving Boyd up top by himself, and dropping Palmer in with Chará in front of the back four. Yet before Spencer could get his final sub into the game, Hassli beat Hanyer Mosquera to a free kick, leaving Horst alone on the speedy Mattocks. The rookie chested down Hassli’s header, easily scooted past Horst and blasted the equalizer past a helpless Troy Perkins. Mattocks was on the field for just one minute before punishing Spencer and the Timbers. Shortly afterward, Fucito replaced Perlaza for a final offensive push for Portland, which was for naught.
Spencer has a history of like-for-like subs that increase effectiveness at the chosen position but do little to look forward to potential fatigue or opposition substitutions later in the game. Zizzo’s inclusion, while not ‘wrong’ on its face, was the choice between protecting a one-goal lead against a rival and pushing forward for the crushing second goal. Portland has no history of the latter in the MLS era while their opponents have repeatedly burned the Timbers with late-game equalizers and/or winners. Spencer’s calculation that Alhassan was exhausted was right on. His choice to eschew defensive reinforcements proved costly yet again as the Timbers failed to secure all three points.
So despite encouraging statistics and an attractive on-field product, the result was more of the same. The players deserve blame for wasting good chances. The manager deserves blame for misreading his substitution options. Ultimately a point against an intra-conference team currently among the playoff positions is not a bad point. And only allowing one late-game goal is an improvement over the way the Real Salt Lake match ended in late March. But if even the most offensively-minded game plan yields just a single goal at home, something is still not quite right.
Instead of speaking about the new look and the plan to attack Vancouver, Spencer used his press conference to bemoan the lack of consistency in refereeing. Likewise, players from Boyd to Horst complained to local media about what they considered to be bad no-calls on either end of the field. The gripes might have merit but do more to make the club look bad than actually address the issues that continue to leave the Timbers without full points.