Are The Portland Timbers For Real?

Posted In Features - By Kevin McCauley On Monday, May 23rd, 2011 With 0 Comments

After playing their first third of a season in Major League Soccer, the Portland Timbers have won five games, or half of their MLS games. They are undefeated and untied at home, while they are currently winless on the road. Recently, with a big glut of games coming at home, the Timbers have taken 10 out of a possible 12 points in their last four games with the lone draw being at Qwest Field in the rivalry match against the Seattle Sounders.

The Timbers are fifth in the Western Conference as a result of their recent successes, which is good enough for them to sneak into a playoff spot, but it’s tough to tell on first glance how legitimate a contender the Portland Timbers are for a playoff spot. Their recent run is impressive, but their combination of a lack of depth and a terrible away record raises concerns. Additionally, their home wins are currently coming by the narrowest of margins.

It’s easy to get caught up in results-based analysis, but at this point we don’t have enough of a sample size to say that Portland’s results are meaningful. They are 10 games into their first season in the league, and they have only operated with their first choice starting XI intact for the last four games. For the public to analyze the Timbers’ results and call them meaningful, this group needs more time together and the team as a whole needs to play a larger sample of games.

So, what can we look at to determine how good this team is? Their play on the field and the previous performances of players on their roster is a decent start. The latter is a little more concrete and slightly less subjective than the former, so it’s probably a solid starting point.

Most of the Portland Timbers’ first choice XI has seen at least moderate success elsewhere in their professional careers. Troy Perkins struggled for DC United last season, but was an excellent player prior to that. While Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso does not have an extensive professional career, he has fantastic physical tools and he has been very good over the last two seasons in the second division of US soccer. Eric Brunner, the other starting central defender, was solid off and on for the Columbus Crew, but was inexplicably stuck behind Andy Iro for a while. So, in the cases of the goalkeeper and the center of defense, we have some serious question marks but reason to believe that this can be an MLS Playoff-quality group.

The fullbacks are a much bigger question mark. Jeremy Hall is young and probably still getting better, but he did not look very good in most of his time at New York Red Bulls. Similar things can be said about Rodney Wallace and DC United. These players will likely both improve in the coming years, but they are currently the team’s weak point.

On the wings, Portland has similar youth but less question marks. Kalif Alhassan, Darlington Nagbe, and Sal Zizzo are all 24 or younger, with Alhassan and Nagbe being under 21. None of these players have a lot of professional experience, and they are probably all best evaluated based on what they are doing right now, rather than what they did in the past. Injures have slowed down Zizzo’s career, while Nagbe and Alhassan have only played at lower levels (and not extensively in Division II) to this point. All we can go on is what we have seen so far, and what we have seen so far is impressive.

The center of midfield is perhaps the strongest part of Portland’s team. The combination of the talents of Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara, along with the fact that most MLS teams play 4-4-2, allow them to win most of the battles in the center without a third midfielder. Jack Jewsbury was arguably the most consistent player for Sporting Kansas City last year and was traded purely for salary cap reasons, while Diego Chara enjoyed a very good career in Colombia before moving to Portland as a designated player. Based on their previous play and their play so far this season, these two would make a playoff quality pairing for almost anyone.

Up top, the Timbers are similarly solid. Kenny Cooper and Jorge Perlaza are a perfect big man-fast man combination, and Cooper’s technical skills make them a little bit more than a simple old-school strike pairing. Cooper struggled with injures and disputes with managers abroad, but his goal scoring record in MLS speaks for itself. Perlaza also had a very good goal scoring record in Colombia, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t continue to make a great partnership.

Now, onto the play. It’s a common criticism of the Timbers that a very high percentage of their goals come from set pieces, but based on their personnel, it’s obvious that this is not purely luck or something that will stop working for them. Jewsbury’s delivery on set pieces has been fantastic and they have three giants (Cooper, Danso, Brunner) in the middle that can win headers against the vast majority of the people that will be marking them. Their set pieces also look much better though out than the majority of the league. It’s not luck, it’s the right planning and right personnel that has them scoring on set pieces. And honestly, the proportion of set piece goals to open play goals is more about bad luck than good luck.

Over their last three wins, the Timbers have looked great from open play and have actually been very unlucky to not score more goals. Chara and Jewsbury have great vision from the middle, Cooper and Perlaza make a very dangerous combination on the counter-attack, and the Timbers’ wingers are much better as far as passing and tactical awareness than the average MLS winger, who is often a glorified fullback or a track star who is okay at kicking a ball. Their forwards allow them to play on the counter, while their midfield has the skill set to play a slower, more patient game if the situation is right.

Whether or not the Columbus Crew are a decent side is a completely different debate for another article, but the Timbers completely outplayed them on Saturday. The game ended with a 1-0 Portland victory, but the hosts easily could have scored three or four goals. They were better than Columbus in every facet of the game, and they looked like a team that could score in a variety of ways. The same was the case against the Philadelphia Union, where they once again won by one goal, scored on a set piece.

The biggest criticism of the Timbers is their depth, and that could be a problem. They actually have a few decent players up top, but all three of their backup players have suffered injuries. As a result, though the Timbers front office didn’t do a terrible job assembling their roster, they now suffer from a lack of depth. If Cooper or Perlaza is injured, the Timbers face serious problems.

Defensive depth is also a problem for the Timbers, as everyone behind the starting back four is unproven (or was poor to start the year). If any of those players go down, the Timbers could be in some serious trouble. The good news is that they have plenty of depth in midfield, where they have great replacements for all of their starters.

The biggest problem for this team, as was mentioned previously, is at fullback. Over the last few weeks, the Timbers have not had to face teams with great wing play. This week, they have a match against DC United, who feature some talented wingers. The Timbers’ play and talent in the starting XI appears to make them a playoff contender, but if there’s one reason they aren’t, their fullbacks might be it. Next week, keep an eye on how they deal with Chris Pontius and Andy Najar.

If you’re tl;dr: Yes, the Portland Timbers are for real. If they suffer an injury to one of their starting forwards or one of their starting defenders they could be in some trouble, but for right now, they are a playoff contender. Their talent on the field and their style of play suggests that it’s all in their head on the road, and they should be able to pull out an away win in the near future. When they finally get that monkey off their back, the rest of the league needs to look out for the Timbers. Their depth is questionable at best, but their starting XI is vastly underrated.

About Kevin McCauley - Kevin McCauley is the Editor in Chief of The Allocation Order. He is also the world football editor at SBNation Soccer.

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