Diego Valeri breaking all-time MLS scoring records has taken all the headlines, but just as importantly over the last 6 games the Portland Timbers have finally been finding some defensive fortitude.
Average Goals Against might be the statisticians measure of a defense’s quality, but nothing puts a smile on the face of a defender and a log-slice on the mantle of a goal-keeper quite like the good old clean-sheet.
In games 1-25 the Timbers managed to keep the ball out of the net for the entirety of a game on just 2 occasions – in the last 6 games they have done it 3 times. When you keep a clean sheet you are going home with at least a point – when you’re the Timbers and you have scored in every game but 3 this season, you are taking all 3 points.
Looking back over Caleb Porter’s tenure we see a trend, successful seasons have a lot of clean sheets:
2013 remains Portland’s finest regular season performance in MLS, when they weren’t blowing teams out of the water they were well capable of grinding out a 1-0 home win, or snatching a point on the road in a scoreless tie. In 2015 most of the regular season was a grind, in Valeri’s absence the Timbers set-up a defensive stall and were pretty boring for long stretches of the season – they couldn’t score, but they didn’t concede much either. The return of Valeri and a couple of astute line-up changes from Porter took the shackles off the midfield and they went on a late season tear which propelled them to a famous MLS cup win.
Make no mistake – the defense won that championship.
Looking at the clean-sheet numbers, this season has more in common with the 2 seasons that the Timbers failed to make the play-offs than their successful ones. Yet the Timbers are sitting in decent shape and should secure at least a top four finish. Their scoring ability this season (again shut-out only 3 times) has kept them in the hunt. As well it should, the Timbers are not a small budget team punching above their weight this season. According to players’ union numbers, as tallied by the Denver Post they were second in spending in the West this season. That spending was heavily front-loaded with their 3 attackers Adi, Valeri and Blanco all making 7 figures. But when you have fewer clean sheets than an 18th century brothel all those goals are not going to turn into points.
Getting back to this season, even when the Timbers have been scoring their defending has cost them points. The trend started in March when they took an early lead in Columbus , but fell to a 3-2 loss. Other games where they scored 2 goals, had leads, but failed to take home 3 points were:
At Dallas – ahead twice but only a 2-2 tie.
At Minnesota – ahead twice but lost 3-2
Home to Seattle – dropped a 2-1 lead to a Dempsey equalizer in injury time.
Home to Chicago – scored first but could only manage a 2-2 tie.
At Houston – ahead twice but only a 2-2 tie.
The inability of the team to field a consistent back four certainly didn’t help. Every team drops some points, even after scoring first, but these kind of results taken together suggest something more than a series of individual or collective defensive mistakes. There was a team wide lack of confidence in their ability to hold onto a result.
Has something changed in the last 6 games or have the Timbers just got a little more luck?
The goal-keeper has changed, following Gleeson’s injury in Toronto, Jeff Attinella has manned the sticks for the last 6 games and done quite well. Whether he is better than Gleeson and can take his spot in the long term remains to be seen, but his performance, while steady, can’t be the only factor.
The defense hasn’t suddenly become a consistent back four either. Olum, Miller, Mabiala and Ridgewell have all started in the middle and Miller and Vytas have started 3 games each at left back. The one consistent feature is the presence of Zarek Valentin on the right. Alvas Powell has not started since a poor showing in Toronto. The Jamaican wasn’t the only below par player that day, but he has been given multiple chances this season to play himself back into form and hasn’t done it. Valentin is not as good as 2015 Powell, but he is definitely better than 2017 Powell.
The Akron alum has been steady – and that’s exactly what Portland’s defense has needed. While not blessed with Powell’s speed he is tidy on the ball and, importantly for a defender, has a very clear understanding of the strengths and weaknesses in his game and plays accordingly. He is more likely to stay at home, but when he does get forward, it usually ends in a quality pass that doesn’t leave him out of position.
Mabiala has been a steadying influence as well, he can he go through multiple games without really being noticed – that’s a good quality for a center back. Olum and Miller have come up from the depth chart to get more minutes than they probably expected this season and have deputized admirably, but both tend to make one or two notable mistakes a game. On the left Miller has also filled in for Vytas, who seems to have a lingering shoulder injury – one suspects the Lithuanian will eventually win that spot back, though he may be encouraged to stay home a bit more to help maintain this good defensive run.
Liam Ridgewell has finally come back from injury, but has only started the last 2 games, so he hasn’t been the difference maker. But if he and Mabiala can form a good partnership over the next 3 games, it will put Portland in good shape for play-off battles were experience is a primary asset.
Over the last 6 games the defensive midfield has been a merry-go-round as well. It seems that Chara and Guzman is still the preferred partnership, though Nagbe has filled in for both when needed. Against Orlando, Chara definitely showed the passing range to play as an ‘8’ – but over the course of the season, despite an excellent start, Guzman has not shown (or perhaps not been shown) the necessary discipline to play as a ‘6’ in front of the back four.
So player-wise, Valentin aside, one can’t really put a finger on why the Timbers have had a nice run of clean sheets recently. So has it just been luck? Well that never hurts, but clean sheets, much like scoring every week for Valeri, are habit forming for a defense. Like a striker who suddenly can’t stop scoring after a long drought it is a lot to do with confidence.
The home win versus New York Red Bulls might have been that turning point. One nil up against a depleted Red Bulls side and down to 10 men following Mabiala’s red card, the Timbers gutted out an eventual 2-0 win. It wasn’t pretty but it was just what they needed.
While everyone is looking at the MVP candidate at other end of the field the Timbers may just be building a capable defense. Just as 2015’s late run was built around a few small changes leading to more scoring, any hope for a prolonged play-off run this season must involve keeping the clean sheet habit.