Portland Timbers – What Has Gone Right And What Has Gone Wrong After 12 Matches?

In 12 seasons as a Major League Soccer club, the Portland Timbers missed the playoffs just four times. The 2022 campaign was the most recent time the Timbers missed the postseason, thanks to a 46-point haul from 34 matches. 

Last season’s struggles came on the heels of an almost magical MLS Cup win. Felipe Mora’s goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time forced extra time against New York City FC in the 2021 showpiece game. It felt like the capacity crowd at Providence Park had inhaled the ball into the back of New York City’s net. Yet, the excitement was short-lived, as the Timbers fell 4-2 on penalties against the Bronx Blues. 

The hangover from the MLS Cup final defeat carried over into last term. Manager Giovanni Savarese has been with the Timbers since 2017. He has experienced ups and downs in Portland. Savarese twice led the Timbers to the MLS Cup final, only to come away on the wrong side. He has also experienced 11th-place and 15th-place finishes as Portland’s head honcho.  

The 2023 season was a chance to start over for the Timbers. Portland added Brazilian midfielder Evander from Denmark’s FC Midtjylland. Defender Eric Miller joined the club from MLS club Nashville SC, and forward Franck Boli signed from Hungary’s Ferencvaros. On paper, the three additions would strengthen the squad. Darion Asprilla, Sebastian Blanco, and Diego Chara provided a nucleus to the team, with the three new players expected to hit the ground running.  

Unfortunately, Portland’s start to the 2023 campaign has been slow. Yet, as every MLS fan knows, it isn’t how you perform in the regular season that wins titles. MLS’s structure, with 18 of the 29 teams making the postseason, means you simply must be one of the best 62% of the league to play for the MLS Cup. 

Portland are currently sixth in the Western Conference, with 15 points from 12 matches. Eight points separate them from the West’s first-place club, the Seattle Sounders. Meanwhile, ninth-place Minnesota United are just three points off the Timbers. A cold streak over the next month could see the Timbers fall out of the top nine in the Western Conference. A bad run of form can be difficult to overcome in MLS, especially when the summer heat hits and the long, arduous travel impacts teams even more. Yet, a strong run through May and June could see Portland at the top of the table.

A combined MLS table has Portland in 15th place. Several teams are playing similar soccer to the Timbers right now, with eight different teams locked on 15 points. It is the .500 nature of MLS. Some onlookers call the evenness of MLS parity, while others call it dull. Either way, the Timbers are middle-of-the-road in MLS right now. 

Portland picked up a 3-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on matchday 12. It was a solid performance from a squad starting to come together. Winter signing Evander scored twice to lead the Timbers to the win. Evander’s second goal of the game was the pick of the litter as Juan Mosquera laid the ball off for the Brazilian to hit on the half-volley. Boli picked up the third goal of the game, showing that the new boys are starting to gel under Savarese.  

Portland is a Jekyll and Hyde team this season. The team’s home form is propping them up, while its away performances are dragging it back into the muck.  

The Timbers are unbeaten in three straight games, with two ending in wins. Providence Park has been as close to a fortress as possible in the early months of the season. Portland has a record of 3W-2D-1L and a goal difference of +5.  

It is Portland’s away form that is their Achilles heel. Just one win was recorded from six games on the road, as the Timbers secured a pitiful four points. Four of Portland’s six road matches finished as defeats. The defense has struggled away from Providence Park, conceding 13 times, while the attack has been anemic. Just six away goals were scored in the opening six road fixtures.  

Three of Portland’s next four matches are on the road against Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders, and Sporting KC. Two of the three teams are outside the Western Conference playoff places. The third, Seattle, are top of the conference and have the second-best points total after 12 matches in MLS.  

Evander may have scored twice against Vancouver Whitecaps, but the two strikes were just his third and fourth of the campaign. The Brazilian spent four and a half seasons with FC Midtjylland. The 2021-22 season was his best in the final third with 12 goals. Evander is more of a No. 10 than a No. 9, however. He has always been able to top up his goalscoring with assists. This season, he has scored four times and assisted two goals, contributing to six Portland goals, for a third of Portland’s scoring. Evander’s xG of 2.3 shows he is scoring goals from low-percentage chances. His goalscoring is likely to tail off based on xG. 

Mosquera, Boli, and Asprilla have two goals apiece. Portland has 18 goals this season, the fourth-most in the Western Conference, with the goals being spread around.  

The problem for Portland has been the defense, which has allowed 19 goals to opponents. Only Real Salt Lake’s 20 goals conceded are more than Portland’s figure in the Western Conference. If Portland wants to make the playoffs and go deep into the postseason, Savarese must sort out what has been a disappointing defensive effort this term. 

Defending in wide areas is a weakness. Savarese prefers a 4-2-3-1 formation with a double pivot to protect the defense. The nature of the formation leaves the full-backs exposed to opposition attackers.

In the MLS combined table, Portland has allowed the fourth-most goals this season after 12 fixtures. It is a poor record that can lead to the team missing the playoffs for the second straight season.  

The building blocks are there for Portland to improve this season. The win over Vancouver could be the spark needed. The Timbers are solid at home and need to improve their away form to qualify for the playoffs. The MLS Cup playoffs are a game of roulette, and anything can happen if the team makes the postseason.