Heartbroken but still alive: Timbers' 17th chance to end road nightmares is their last
PORTLAND, Ore. – If Sunday’s 1-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids was the reminder, Wednesday’s draw with Deportivo Saprissa was the rebuke.
Three days after MLS’ defending champions, the Portland Timbers, produced a must-win victory over the then-Supporters’ Shield favorites, Caleb Porter’s team failed to summon that same timely command. A 1-1 draw in the second of three must-win games in a week, left the Timbers second in their CONCACAF Champions League group, sending Portland out of the regional competition at the group stage for the second time in three seasons.
“This one hurts. It hurts probably as much as any game since I’ve been here,” Porter confessed during his postgame press conference. “We wanted to win this game badly. We wanted to get out of the group stage. It was a big priority.”
In the lead up to Wednesday’s game, some speculated a knockout round-place was more important to Portland’s coach than a return to Major League Soccer’s playoffs. To see the fourth-year boss broken in the bowels of Providence Park was to see a man in disbelief, still coming to grips with what he’d lost.
“The guys left everything on the field,” he explained, only able to muster the most basic of thoughts. “They gave everything they had. You saw that at the end. We fell short. It stings.”
Can the Timbers respond? Their 2016 season depends on it. Normally must-win games coincide with the end of a season, and in terms of Champions League, that was the case against Saprissa. But with a win-and-in MLS finale looming on Sunday in Vancouver, Portland is in a unique position. Almost paradoxically, the Timbers have to shake off season-ending defeat in order to prolong their campaign.
“There’s a lot to still play for, but it’s a cruel game sometimes,” veteran, retiring midfielder Ned Grabavoy offered. “It’s a cruel way to lose, and it’s just unfortunate because I really think we knew as a club how important this was to try to advance, and we just fell short.”
The loss leaves Portland trapped in a dilemma of its own making. The Timbers could have picked one competition to focus on. Now, instead of the CCL loss being a speed bump en route to their MLS goals, Portland must recover from one devastation to stave off another.
“It’s a very devastated locker room in there,” Porters confessed. “They all feel it. That’s how I feel, too."
Road win now a must
In a way, the loss could prove a positive; at least, it could be positive as it concerns the Timbers’ playoff hopes. Not only will the humbling remind the team of its mortality, potentially inspiring a new level of focus, but it overshadows what had been the main talking point: The team’s inept record away from home.
“The reality is it comes down to one game for us to extend our season,” retiring club captain Jack Jewsbury explained on Sunday, when asked about Sunday’s trip to Vancouver. “That just changes the mindset. It’s not the sixth game of the season on the road, where it’s hard to see the end line. It’s do or die when we go to Vancouver.”
As a way of explaining why Sunday might be different, it all makes sense, especially the implication we should judge on how they play when they want to win most. Under Porter, Portland is nearly twice-as-likely to win an MLS game in crunch time, in October, than it is over the rest of the schedule. With nine wins in 14 games, Porter has posted a 64.3 career win percentage in the season’s last month. The rest of the season, his Timbers have only won 36.8 percent of its games.
Those ratios cast some doubt as to how much we should read into the team’s 2016 road record, which is an abysmal 0-10-6. So does the team’s overall mark; after all, how likely is it that a team that won 12 of 17 at home all of a sudden becomes one of the league’s worst teams away from home? It all seems like a fluke, especially since the Timbers were 17-18-16 on the road in their first three years under Porter.
Then there’s the little matter of Vancouver, where the Timbers have always been successful, including in last year’s conference semifinals.
“I don’t think anybody is worried about results on the road,” Porter says, though he’s clearly spent a lot of time trying to decipher the problem, offering up three explanations as to why Portland hasn’t broken through this season.
Dissecting the reasons
“A lot of it, though, has been about the holes we’ve had in the team, of you look back through the lineups,” Porter offers as an explanation. “That tells a story. We’re been a little bit thinner on the road with our personnel.”
To a certain extent, that holds up, whether it’s by design or not. It’s possible Portland is less apt to push injured players when they also have to travel. Regardless, Liam Ridgewell did miss the team’s first four road games with a calf ailment. Darlington Nagbe missed a separate two while away at Copa America. When he came back, Diego Valeri went out for two games, which was then followed by another Ridgewell absence.
If you concede that the Timbers have four necessary and irreplaceable parts – Ridgewell, Nagbe, Valeri and Fanendo Adi – then Porter has a point: The team has had all four for very few of the team’s road games. Unfortunately for Porter, the five times that quartet has been available on the road, the Timbers have lost each time.
“I think the second thing is some of these teams we’ve played have been in high heat,” Porter also offered, though this is not unique to Portland. Houston may be MLS’ most notorious heat destination, but the Dynamo has lost five times at home this season. Orlando’s lost four times, as has Sporting Kansas City.
“The third thing is we’ve played more, because we chose not to play through international windows,” Porter also offers, “Except for one (break), we played in more compacted windows than average. A lot of our road games [have been] three-in-seven, three-in-eight.”
Again, the fact check here is a little less clear. Only once this season has Portland had to play a road game on less than a week’s rest (May 11, at Dallas), but there have been six times this season the Timbers went on the road to start a three-game stretch covering less than 12 days. Portland’s record in those games, 0-2-4, is slightly better than it’s overall road record, 0-10-6. When the games aren’t being strung together and the Timbers have adequate time to prepare, they do seem to improve...slightly. You’d imagine most teams would.
All of those counter-indications may support a more likely explanation, though: that there is no obvious reason why the Timbers haven’t broken through on the road.
“We just didn’t get a couple of early wins that we should of,” Porter laments, “and like anything, it just builds. The pressure builds.”
Now, the pressure has peaked. One game, on the road, and just as over the Timbers’ last two games, it’s winner take all. And if they do win, they’ll likely hit the road for a mid-week, postseason one-off.
How Porter rebuilds his team’s psyche after Wednesday’s disappointment compounds matters, but the bottom line remains the same: Focus has to move to Sunday’s finale.
The good news: If there truly is no reason why Portland hasn’t won on the road this season, history shows it stands a good chance of taking three points in Vancouver. The bad news: There may truly be a reason why this team hasn’t broken through on the road.
Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.