Home Editors' Picks Making sense of a nonsensical season, both on and off the pitch

Making sense of a nonsensical season, both on and off the pitch

After a deeply disappointing home loss to D.C. United, the Portland Timbers (13-4D-12, 43 pts, 7th in West) head into the home stretch of the season. Despite constant belief that “games in hand” and “home field advantage” will automatically launch Portland into a decent playoff spot, the Timbers ended Sunday night in 7th place. Again.

Standings via SofaScore

While Portland still does have that game in hand and four out of five remaining matches at Providence Park, this team is still largely facing the same questions it has all year. Despite relative success in the U.S. Open Cup, Portland have failed to put together three consecutive MLS wins since last school year (remember that weird pocket of victories in Columbus, Toronto, and Salt Lake?).

Heading into a midweek match against the usually-formidable New York Red Bulls (12-5D-13, 41 pts, 6th in East), Portland need more than a win—they need a convincing one. New York is having an off year by their standards, coming off three straight losses and the Timbers will likely have their starting lineup back in the attacking half. This will be the second match of five in fifteen days for the Timbers, but defender Jorge Villafaña didn’t seem too concerned about if affecting them on the field: “It’s all out. You can’t save anything [when on the field]. Having matches every three or four days…we like it, and we just try to do everything possible to be ready for the games.”

The biggest tactical flaw in Portland’s offensive system has been in the Timbers’ inability to break down defenses…do I sound like a broken record yet? While this issue was on full display against D.C. in Sunday’s loss, it was without key starters Sebastián Blanco and Brian Fernández. As Diego Valeri reminded us postgame, “we did it last week,” referring to the game-winning goal against Sporting Kansas City in which all 11 of the opposition’s players began behind the ball.

Despite his aging, Diego Valeri is still the catalyst for Portland’s attack
Ray Terrill [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

FiveThirtyEight’s MLS Playoff projections for the Timbers have decreased a couple percentage points since the last time I wrote about them, and the most likely playoff spot is one that would require a midweek road win to advance. Sitting back and counterattacking has treated Portland well in the past, especially in the playoffs, but with the embarrassment of attacking riches, it would be much more satisfying on the ol’ blood pressure to see some better crosses to green shirts in the box.

Any squad with the three aforementioned players should have the ability to score consistently, especially when key links such as Diego Chará, Jorge Moreira, and others are in the mix. That’s at least four or five starting-caliber MLS players on almost any squad in the league. Savarese knows they’re capable, and so do they. So do the fans, analysts, and writers alike. The Timbers have the tools to get it done, but the critical touch, pass, or finish is often lacking—which is why this season has become so frustrating.

We all promised ourselves things would get better. Excuses were made, and convincing results are still yet to come.

While the on-field product has been a mixed bag to say the least, many Timbers supporters are dealing with a much larger issue—one that has nothing to do with goals, standings, or tactics. Those who know of the Iron Front saga are concerned. Those who have been affected are enraged, and you may be as well, upon further examination. (I will not be recapping said saga in this article, but you can find great reads on it here and here. I also encourage you to do your own research or ask any seasoned Timbers Army supporter; most will be more than happy to explain.)

The Timbers front office has effectively boxed itself into a catch-22: abiding by MLS’s controversial Fan Code of Conduct has clearly not fared well, and making the TA happy will likely beckon a (previously nonexistent) backlash of conflict from the other end of the political spectrum, which has already begun. For many, this season will be overshadowed by a newfound distrust in upper management, regardless of what transpires on the pitch.

We all promised ourselves things would get better. Excuses were made, and convincing results are still yet to come.

The story of this season is yet to be determined, and the ending might not be all sunshine and roses. The Timbers could realistically tumble out of the playoffs in the early rounds, or even miss them altogether. The ongoing talks between scarves and suits could also go nowhere, potentially leaving core supporters with a personal choice between the team they love and the beliefs they hold. These are worst-case scenarios, of course, but are nonetheless hypotheticals that need to be taken seriously.

So what would the best-case scenario be? First off, it would be fantastic for the Timbers to win, and then win some more, and then win a whole lot more—f*ck it, maybe even win a trophy. No matter what happens in the stands, on Twitter, or in conference rooms, winning will always be better. Even if no common ground is reached by MLS and its supporters, a Portland playoff run would only give more exposure to the Iron Front issue, and probably the symbol itself.

As far as an agreement of the Iron Front issue, I’m honestly not certain as to what an ideal result would be at this point. To those heavily invested in the dispute, the front office has done irreversible damage. Timbers Owner Merritt Paulson has already rubbed the Timbers Army the wrong way by siding with MLS, and some in dissent have even gone so far as to cancel season ticket renewals. The best course of action would seemingly be to remove the word “political” from the MLS Fan Code of Conduct, but as mentioned earlier, I fear this may create an even more violent conflict between right and left, one that has escalated considerably over the past few years in this country.

No matter how much the Timbers front office foreseeably apologizes, removes the ban, or kisses the feet of the Timbers Army, everyone will have known the course of action they took. They made a clear decision to obey Major League Soccer over the will of its most devoted fans, a choice that comes with consequences, some of which they are surely yet to face.

Major League Soccer is always desperate for attention. If you’re an American soccer fan, you know this. You have sat through countless promotions, commercials, and advertisements for anyone willing to front the bill. One in particular, Audi, uses the motto “Goals Drive Progress” to fund MLS academies. They use it in Golden Boot graphics, goal highlights, and Taylor Twellman even wrote an article about it. All that is great, and is necessary to build a strong league, but the hypocrisy presented here is laughable—MLS’s recent goals have silenced supporters, certainly not driving progress.

In order to score goals, a team must consistently create chances—the Timbers in particular need to take charge of possession, progress the ball, and be proactive. Complacency can be useful in certain settings, and it can lead to goals when provoked, but absorbing pressure can only work for so long. Creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking are of the utmost importance. If Savarese’s men can make this happen on the field, one can only hope that they will lead by example for our friends in the front office.

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The league has chosen a ridiculous hill to die on.

Doug Mellon

When you have your most loyal supporters and players coming out against your stance, it may be time to take a look in the mirror.

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