Just when you think the Portland Timbers are about to make a move up the Western Conference standings, they take another hit, ending the false dawn of upward mobility. The Timbers’ back-to-back losses to Minnesota United and Sporting KC ended a decent run of form, leaving the team on 16 points from 15 games.
Even hardcore Portland Timbers fans would have had low hopes of the team getting a win last weekend against Seattle Sounders at Lumen Field. Seattle was second in the Western Conference ahead of the rivalry game. Yet, the Sounders had hit a patch of poor form going into the match, losing three of their last four games.
What ensued at Lumen Field was far from a classic Portland-Seattle game. It wasn’t easy on the eyes, with the match ending nil-nil. There were some promising takeaways for Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese. Portland outshot Seattle 11-5. Yet, the team only hit the target two times compared to one for Seattle. Portland is still struggling to create good goalscoring chances and failing to put them away.
Seattle dominated possession, posting a figure of 60.7%. Possession is a figure in soccer that can be misleading. It doesn’t necessarily lead to wins, which was proof of Seattle’s inability to break down Portland’s defense. According to FBREF, Portland posted an xG of 0.3 for the match. Seattle matched that figure with an 0.3 xG of their own. The rivalry game wasn’t a great advertisement for MLS and attacking soccer.
What’s working for Portland Timbers?
It should be a bit alarming that Portland has scored just one goal in their last four MLS matches. Scoring is not a strength of this Portland team. Just 19 goals were scored in the club’s opening 16 MLS fixtures. The good news following Saturday’s nil-nil stalemate is Portland is just two points off the top nine in the Western Conference. Yes, nine teams make the Western Conference playoffs, with just five teams missing out.
Portland did collect their fourth clean sheet of the season against Seattle. Although the team failed to score, posting a shutout was a significant step in the right direction. Two of Portland’s last four MLS games saw them keep a shutout. Defensive solidity is vital, as the Timbers conceded 24 goals in 16 matches. The team has allowed the fourth-most goals in the Western Conference.
If Portland can keep more shutouts, their lack of goalscoring may not be a problem. This isn’t a team capable of chasing games right now. After 16 matches, Portland has an xG of 15.5. If you aren’t familiar with xG, also known as expected goals, it is a statistic that takes into account the type of shot, distance from the goal, the pass leading to the shot, and other variables. Portland’s xG is slightly lower than the 19 goals they have scored.
Therefore, the xG tells us that Portland is not creating good goalscoring chances. Rather, Portland has scored some goals that were low-percentage, from long-range, or should have been saved by opposing goalkeepers.
In comparison, the team’s xGA (expected goals against) is 21.1. Portland has allowed 24 goals. While not a completely damning difference, the Timbers have conceded goals from positions they shouldn’t have. Defensive lapses, poor positioning, and bad judgment have all led to Portland conceding goals to opposing teams.
Plenty of time to get things right
There is still plenty of time for Portland to right the ship. Some fans may worry about Portland’s chance of making the postseason due to the number of remaining MLS games. Eighteen matches are left in the season for the Timbers, and 54 points are up for grabs. There is still plenty of time in the marathon MLS regular season.
The MLS regular season will soon go on hiatus for one month. The one-month break will occur following the matches on the weekend of July 15. The MLS All-Star Game will occur four days later, then the ridiculous Leagues Cup tournament.
The Leagues Cup tournament will begin on July 21 and end on August 20. It will feature all 29 MLS clubs and all 18 teams from Liga MX. The tournament is a cash grab for both leagues and a way to increase soccer’s appeal ahead of the 2026 World Cup. It is also an unnecessary midseason tournament that will see teams focus their resources elsewhere – never mind the casual fans’ potential lack of interest or possible confusion.
The month break could be the exact thing Portland needs. Although the team will play in a three-team group stage against UANL Tigres and San Jose Earthquakes, it could be an opportunity to rest key players. Savarese could also use the competition’s group stage to play the team into form. Regardless, the Leagues Cup shouldn’t be seen as an important competition to the Timbers – not like the MLS Cup.
Can Portland turn around the 2023 MLS season?
The simple answer is, “Yes, Portland can turn around their 2023 MLS season.” Of course, with the various elements of the MLS campaign, there are different meanings to “turn around the season.”
Portland is good enough to go on a run of wins to finish the campaign in the Western Conference’s top nine. This would allow them to make the playoffs. Once in the postseason, anything can happen, and Portland could progress to the MLS Cup final. Perhaps the last part of that is a bit hopeful.
Adding to the squad is essential this summer. The team needs a new defender to improve the backline and keep goals out. Eric Miller arrived in the offseason as a free agent. He started at right-back against Seattle, but it was only his eighth start of the campaign. Further competition at the back could help in the last third of the season.
Portland was tracking a defender during the transfer window. General manager Ned Grabavoy traded Bill Tuiloma to Charlotte FC in the offseason but failed to find a replacement. The club must now focus on adding a new center-back in the summer transfer window.
Grabavoy may have wanted to wait for the summer window, with players from Europe seeking transfers. A quick search of Transfermarkt shows a long list of defenders available as free agents if Grabavoy and company want to go down that route.