Fanendo Adi. Diego Valeri. Darlington Nagbe. Sebastian Blanco. David Guzman. Diego Chara. These six names are the cornerstone of a Portland Timbers attack that claims to be one of the league’s best. And, when all goes right, they are. Those six are responsible for 13 of Portland’s 16 goals so far this season. Valeri and Adi account for ten all by themselves. Seven out of their ten assists also come from this fearsome unit.
The Portland Timbers Attack Needs Depth
Dairon Asprilla. Darren Mattocks. Jack Barmby, I guess? You can throw first round draft pick Jeremy Ebobisse in there, but he is yet to see the pitch with the senior team. These are the names of the options Caleb Porter has off the bench in a late game situation where a goal is vital. That’s a steep talent drop off from such a wonderful starting lineup, and that is where the Timbers have stumbled in two of their last three matches.
Substitutes Aren’t Changing Games
The Timbers took on the disciplined defending of Sporting Kansas City last Saturday at Providence Park. The team was outshot 12-10 and eight of those ten came after SKC was already up a goal. It was clear that the usual plan wasn’t working for Caleb Porter’s troops, but it was also clear that there was nothing for them to fall back on.
Two substitutions were made to little, if any, effect. Mattocks showed up in the 71st minute to replace Guzman. He manned the wing while Nagbe fell back to Guzman’s post in the central midfield, but the overall plan remained the same. Mattocks would play for a total of 24 minutes and touch the ball all of 11 times. Nagbe had four times the touches in only three times the minute in the same position before the sub was made. To be fair to Mattocks, he did get two shots off and probably should have scored on one of them, while Nagbe has never been much of a shooter.
Asprilla entered for Marco Farfan for the final five minutes of stoppage time. This was a clear attempt at getting more numbers forward, but never worked due to the lack of talent on the pitch. Asprilla had four touches and one blocked shot during his ten minute cameo.
When you see late game substitutes having such a small impact, and maybe even making the team worse, it is easy to see why Porter defiantly refused to make a substitution a couple weeks ago against New England Revolution. That was a more defensive situation, and the defensive depth issue is entirely due to injury, but fresh legs in the defensive midfield could have helped keep the Revs from scoring their late equalizer.
Porter just doesn’t have talented bench options to get the job done, however. The Timbers would rather keep a fatigued Nagbe, Guzman, Adi, or whoever in the game than put out a fresh Asprilla, Mattocks, Barmby, or, eventually, Ebobisse because these players aren’t good enough.
No Tactical Flexibility
There is also the lack of tactical flexibility on the bench. The team can’t change up their attack without drastically altering their shape like they did last weekend. Asprilla came in the game and a conventional 4-2-3-1 turned into an awkward looking 3-5-1-1 with a couple guys playing out of their comfort zone. Valeri remained in the number ten role, but he didn’t have as much help on the wings to create chances. This led to fewer balls getting forward to Adi and the attack petering out before it ever got started. They only took two shots after this second sub, so the team didn’t find a late, draw salvaging goal and was never going to.
What the Timbers need is someone to play the role of 2015 Maxi Urruti. Urruti was, and still is with FC Dallas, a talented striker who came off the bench and provided a different look to the bruising style of Fanendo Adi. He was quick, nimble, and could get himself into threatening positions with ease. He scored many a late goal for the Timbers, none more powerful than his equalizer deep into extra time in the first round of the playoffs against SKC.
Jack McInerney was supposed to be this player last season, but he never stuck. He had a shot to play that role again tin 2017, but was released from the squad just before the regular season and just signed on with LA Galaxy.
Ebobisse could be that guy in the future, but he’s clearly not ready. He has started a pair of games in the USL with Timbers 2, but hasn’t done much of anything in 180 minutes of play. He has one off target shot in all that playing time.
The team probably needs to bring in a depth player or two before the May 8 transfer deadline or these late game comebacks will continue to elude them. Everything looks rosy when they take a multiple goal lead on the strength of their skill on the attack, but it all falls apart when they need a goal in the final few minutes with no fresh legs, or fresh tactics, able to come on and make a difference.