In rolling the dice to try and win one big game last week, the Portland Timbers instead managed to lose three — and may have lost a lot more than just a few games in the MLS Western Conference standings.
After getting a fortuitous 1-1 draw with Club América in the CONCACAF Champions League on April 28 thanks to a penalty in the dying moments of the match, the Timbers had some decisions to make.
With the second league of the CONCACAF series at Azteca the following Wednesday, and now at least having a chance to advance, the Timbers rested most of their starting lineup against FC Dallas for their league match that weekend.
The result was a rather predictable disaster. The Timbers have one of the oldest average ages in the league, and their typical starting lineup has an average age of about 30. Against Dallas, the Timbers starting lineup average was 25. For years Timbers fans have been urging management to play the kids — but maybe just not all at once.
The younger lineup was born from logistical necessity. When you are playing another match four days later, at altitude, with one of the oldest squads in MLS, against one of the top clubs in North America, you can’t expect their legs to hold up to that grind. So the kids it was, and the result was a 4-1 loss.
The team then headed to Mexico City for its CONCACAF match. I won’t argue that the Timbers should not have rested their regulars against Dallas with a shot at the champions league semi-finals on the line. Still, they were essentially surrendering a league game with the hopes of pulling an inside straight against America or hoping that CONCACAF officials would do what CONCACAF officials so often do and hope to get an advantage thanks to utter chaos ensuing.
While the Timbers managed to salvage a draw in the first leg, America still had an advantage with an away goal going into the second leg, meaning the Timbers would need at least another one-one draw to force extra time or to score twice to win.
While they did have the advantage of not having to face a stadium packed with América fans due to COVID restrictions, they still had to deal with Mexico City’s altitude and a talented opposing side. Like so many teams before them, the Timbers crashed out on Azteca’s storied pitch, with a 3-1 result knocking them out of the tournament.
The Timbers then had to turn around and play their third game in 15 days against archrival Seattle. With their core still recovering from a match at altitude just a few days before, the Timbers once again had to hope for some breaks. They didn’t receive any.
After keeping the game scoreless for 60 minutes, Stalwart Diego Valeri missed a penalty — twice, a soft penalty gave Seattle an easy goal, and then even worse, Jeff Attinella, starting in goal in place of injured Steve Clark, himself was knocked out with an injury. Attinella gave way to 19-year old Hunter Sulte, who debuted in the Dallas debacle. That’s hardly a soft landing for a young keeper, and Seattle got another goal to put the match away. Only a free kick golazo by Bill Tuiloma kept the Timbers from blanking.
The Timbers are now 1-3 in the league, with a -4 goal differential that honestly should be even worse. The Timbers are a team that is old and will have to confront its future sooner rather than later. Diego Valeri has had an amazing career, and I will never bet against the man continuing to be amazing, but he’s 35. Diego Chara and starting keeper Steve Clark are also 35, Larrys Mabiala and Sebastian Blanco are 33.
When much of your strategy involves keeping a game close and then hoping to get a break or two to get ahead, losing a step or two due to age from your core players, or losing multiple key players to injuries goes a long way toward swinging those breaks the other way. Last year the Timbers often saw the other side of that sword by developing a knack for surrendering late goals.
This year it may be getting late early in more ways than one. They still have six months remaining in their league season, and they should soon get some key players back from injuries, but the Timbers face some hard questions about their future.
Whether or not they come up with the correct answers will have a large say on if they stay in the cellar of the western conference or can climb back to the top.