At the Portland Timbers’ practice July 16, the team ran a succession of Bugatti-quick six-on-six scrimmages. Perkins, the Timbers’ goalkeeper, tried to protect the net.
But it seemed every time the offense moved in, the defenders who were supposed to keep the heat off Perkins left an attacker open on the wing. When Timbers forward Mike Fucito chipped a ball into the far corner of the net, the typically even-tempered Perkins lost his cool.
“Shit!” Perkins yelled at his back line. “It’s the same thing every time!”
He was right, of course. In the Los Angeles Galaxy’s 5-3 pounding of the Timbers two days earlier at Jeld-Wen Field, Perkins watched as one opponent after another got open with penetrating runs or striking chances.
Galaxy star David Beckham—still one of the most dangerous players in the game—had all the time he wanted to tee up a blistering shot to start L.A.’s scoring in the 19th minute. Within 10 minutes, the Galaxy had scored three more goals—including a free kick from Beckham that could earn its way onto his already-crowded highlight reel.
Part of the spin from the Timbers after the team fired coach John Spencer on July 9 was that the season was not yet a lost cause and they were still in playoff contention.
But the Galaxy’s goalfest underscores what is becoming increasingly apparent but that no one wants to admit: It would take a miraculous sequence of events for the Timbers to see a postseason game this year.
In recent years, Major League Soccer teams that make the playoffs typically average around 1.4 points a game. (Teams earn three points for a win, one for a tie, and none for a loss.) That translates to about 48 points for a team to have any real hopes for the postseason.
But the Timbers—once again in the Western Conference basement—are stuck at 19 points after 18 games.
With the season just past the midpoint, Portland needs to win or tie nearly every game that remains.
That schedule includes nine away matches, when the Timbers have barely been able to score on the road—they’re the only MLS team that’s winless in any stadium other than their own.
Interim coach Gavin Wilkinson said after the practice that his goal for the season is 45 points. “I’m not saying that will get us into the playoffs,” Wilkinson says, “but that would be an improvement on last year.”
Timbers owner Merritt Paulson is probably already thinking beyond this season. He has to.
He took the first step by firing Spencer and indicating that Wilkinson won’t remain as coach.
The players showed signs the firing of Spencer was a blow to their morale. But Kelly McLain of timbersinsider.com and the North American Soccer Network show Soccer Made in Portland says the firing is probably a good long-term move for the team.
“There’s just no evidence to suggest that Spencer was going to turn things around enough to make it into the playoffs,” McLain says. “Might as well get it done and over with and start moving forward. If there’s a dead man walking, make it a short walk.”
Geoff Gibson of the blog Stumptown Footy agrees. The team’s “inability to win on the road is indicative of a deeper problem, something that obviously wasn’t going to be fixed under Spencer’s reign.”
After the Timbers find a new coach, a roster shake-up is probably inevitable.
One player who has felt the pressure so far is the team’s top-paid player, striker Kris Boyd.
Boyd scored twice against L.A., but his team-leading seven goals for the season is a disappointment given the expectations for the highest scorer in the history of the Scottish Premier League.
As WW said at the season’s start, Boyd had the reputation of a keen scorer who lacked broader skills. In Portland, he’s not shown significant athleticism, defense or ball-handling abilities.
So far, the Timbers haven’t been able to afford this luxury: Boyd has received only intermittent service from his teammates. Either Boyd has to change, or the team around him must.
Midfielder Jack Jewsbury is also under some pressure. Wilkinson has hinted at taking away Jewsbury’s role as captain. The fill-in coach praised Jewsbury’s performance against the Galaxy, but added there were no guarantees about the future. “If any player looks to drop in form,” he said, “we’ll look to make honest moves.”
Perkins, one of the league’s leading keepers in saves, has been the team’s rock. He’s in the best position to see the frequent defensive breakdowns all around him.
And as the team’s hopes fade to black, he’s becoming increasingly candid about what he sees.
“I love this club,” the nine-year veteran said after the July 16 practice. “I hate to see things go the way they are. For me, it’s a personal thing; it affects my family, it affects me, and it affects this club, which is an extension of my family. I want to do everything I can to right the ship.
“Whether it’s the right way or the wrong way,” he added, “something’s got to be done.”