After an optimistic start this season, the news is grim: The Portland Timbers have staked undisputed claim to Major League Soccer's Western Conference basement.
The Timbers (1-4-1) are mired in a four-game losing streak—the longest in their brief MLS history—and have only four points after six matches. Their only win is against another lowly team, Philadelphia, and they lost to teams they should have handled, New England and Chivas USA.
The Timbers have shown this year they can hold their own against quality teams. Portland confidently maintained a lead against contender Real Salt Lake until the 89th minute, and it bedeviled the defending MLS champion Los Angeles Galaxy throughout the first half of an eventual 3-1 loss April 14.
But the Timbers' last three games—against the Galaxy, Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake—have ended in last-minute heartbreaks after solid starts. Portland's back line has been on its heels, under fire, struggling to clear the ball or even get to midfield. Goalkeeper Troy Perkins has looked helpless against open strikers who were able to finish off the wilting Timbers.
If this all feels familiar, it should.
In a two-month span during the 2011 season, the Timbers lost the lead or fell out of a tie seven times after allowing goals after the 70th minute.
The late collapses robbed the Timbers of 11 points last year, probably costing them a playoff berth. They missed the postseason by five points.
A focused, motivated Timbers team that can win games—and reach the playoffs—hasn't taken the field this season for an entire 90-minute game. And as Woody Allen has said, 80 percent of success is showing up.
Even at this early stage of the 2012 season, it makes sense to ask: Why are the Timbers losing? And is it likely to continue?
There are daunting challenges the Timbers must face:
Shaking off the slump
If the Timbers' failure to maintain focused play for 90 minutes is a mental lapse, then it belongs to that most mysterious of sporting ailments: a slump.
The solution is a mystical or psychological one, involving the love of Susan Sarandon or a halftime speech's magical inspiration.
The Timbers' recent change of fitness coaches, however—swapping Karim Derqaoui for John Ireland—seems to imply the team believes physical fitness is at least partly to blame.
Changes in the lineup
The infinite games of positional Parcheesi played out on the comments sections of soccer blogs would lead one to believe that swapping this or that player would result in immediate success.
But the fact is that any change in a team's lineup will almost always require a period of adjustment. The absences of striker Kris Boyd, midfielder Franck Songo'o and forward Darlington Nagbe during the preseason—as well as a number of recent positional changes—have meant these adjustments are happening in the regular season rather than in exhibition games.
Boyd shows hints he may fulfill his promise—the Scottish Premier League's all-time leading scorer was acquired to punch them in, and he has three goals in nine on-frame shots.
"Boyd is an important member of our squad," Timbers coach John Spencer tells WW, "but he's still getting used to the type of service we're putting in the box, and the type of service we're not putting in the box."
The upshot: Portland's inconsistent play, despite a talented squad, may in part be the result of early-season growing pains. If the lineup stabilizes (which it has yet to do, given defender Lovel Palmer's substitution into the midfield last week), the Timbers can only improve as the players become more accustomed to each other.
Despite its poor record, Portland is actually tied for fifth in the league in scoring with eight goals. However, the whopping 11 goals it has set them back.
The Timbers' weakness in marking attacking wings has cost them dearly. So, too, has allowing attacking players plenty of room to move.
Portland recently gave up blistering goals in stoppage time by L.A.'s David Beckham and Real Salt Lake's Kyle Beckerman. In both cases, these dangerous players floated around unmarked and were allowed plenty of space at the top of the box.
The Timbers have no magic bullet here. The team's most effective defense has been to apply pressure forward from the midfield. But when the midfield slackens—as it often does late in games—the backfield folds.
There are other issues at play, of course—one could cite Portland's over-reliance on the midfield wings to run its offense, or its tendency to get physically pushed around by more aggressive teams.
But the most fundamental difficulty with the Timbers remains the largely ineffable one: a lack of continued focus for the length of an entire game.
The absence of obvious reasons for this inconsistency—aside from possibly poor physical fitness—means there is no obvious reason why the problem will not just as inexplicably disappear.
Whatever its cause, this problem—given that it has surfaced in two consecutive seasons—must hang very uncomfortably around the neck of Spencer.