What's Ailing the Timbers Defense?

Remember when Caleb Porter first came to MLS in 2013? Remember Porterball? The way Portland pressed teams all over the field, content with trying to outscore people to win games? Porter himself admitted his style has changed drastically from that first year. The Timbers no long look to dominate possession or string together 400 passes a game. Portland won an MLS Cup last year on the strength of its defense, a defense that allowed just 39 goals in 34 games (only two teams allowed fewer goals). That defensive mentality, combined with a devastating counterattack, helped Portland finish third in the west while losing just 11 times in 2015, tied for second fewest in the league. It was logical to assume with much of the same roster back the Timbers would again finish near the top of the West while challenging for the Supporters Shield.

Two­ and ­a ­half months into the season, however, Portland finds itself second to last in the West with zero road wins, six losses already and the most goals allowed (22) in the league. It’d be easy to point to Portland’s big off season departure, left back and breakout star Jorge Villafaña, as a plausible reason for the defensive struggles. But when you watch through the goals Portland’s allowed this year, it’s individual errors dooming the Timbers.

Goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey struggled mightily before tearing a ligament in his finger, his most glaring mistake was getting beat from the halfway line by Quincy Amarikwa.

Against FC Dalls, Kwarasey let a very save­able Tesho Akindele shot slip under him.

Jake Gleeson looked fantastic in relief of the Norwegian and then proceeded to single-handedly cost the Timbers points with a howler against Vancouver.

Sure, there have been more spectacular saves than errors from Gleeson. Making highlight-­reel saves is great, but when your keeper is forced to make several every match, it might be time to start pointing fingers at the back line. 

Portland’s back line hasn’t been much better. Whether Nat Borchers is simply in a slump or age has finally caught up to him, we’ll have to wait and see, but he’s been uncharacteristically bad this year. He’s turned the ball over in terrible spots leading to goals.

He’s been beaten 1 v 1 on set ­pieces.

This own goal against Los Angeles, in a match that ended 1-1, is just one of many mistakes in a frustrating campaign thus far.  

Jermaine Taylor wasn’t much better while filling in when DP center back Liam Ridgewell was injured. Not that Ridgewell’s done much to help; Portland’s gone 1-­3-­0 since his return to the lineup. Alvas Powell is still just 21 and has always been more of an attack-­minded right back, but he played 31 games and over 2700 minutes last season, he shouldn’t be caught ball-watching the way he has on multiple goals this year. Here's an example from the match against Orlando City.  

There are clearly defensive issues with this team, however it's only been 12 matches. This is MLS,  and there’s still plenty of season left to get the defense back to the level it was at last season. Caleb Porter adapted once. Now, faced with another challenge, he might have to do it again.