The Portland Timbers are supposed to be one of the dominant teams in Major League Soccer.
The 2013 campaign saw the team soar to the Western Conference final after an abysmal performance a year earlier. This season, the team's best players have returned with new talent intended to bolster the winning strategy of second-year coach Caleb Porter.
The media narrative around the Timbers so far has been that they just need time to jell and settle into their style of play. They have shown real promise. They will be brilliant any moment now.
But that storyline tiptoes around a basic fact: The Timbers, despite all their talent and promise, are so far one of the worst teams in MLS.
Winless after seven games. Third from the bottom in terms of points for and goals allowed. The Timbers' only score on the road came from the other team's own goal. The team has a worse record now than it did at the same stage during the fiasco that was the 2012 season.
"We've been gloomy for a month," says Roscoe Myrick, a contributor to the blog and podcast Portland Timbros. "If we were bad, it would be fine. It would be like dying in your sleep. But we're good, and we're not getting results. It feels like you're waking up while someone's ripping out your heart and you have to eat it."
It doesn't seem right that the team's playoff hopes look so dim so soon in the season. But Portland is on a trajectory to mediocrity without some big changes.
Here's what seems to be going wrong—and what the Timbers can still do about it.
The back line is a mess.
In the past five games, the Timbers' defense has given up late goals that have robbed the team of wins and key draws. Without allowing those late scores, the Timbers would have 11 points, not four. They would be one of the league's better teams, and we wouldn't be having this conversation.
Since the team joined MLS, the Timbers' defense has often been a problem. In the offseason, Porter went looking for an answer to the inconsistent play of the team's defensive line and came up with Argentinian Norberto Paparatto.
"He is technically and tactically sound," Porter said during the preseason. "We look forward to integrating him into an already deep back line."
Paparatto has since been benched after blunders that allowed the Seattle Sounders to rally for a 4-4 draw after the Timbers were up by two goals with five minutes left to play.
Paparatto hasn't been the only problematic acquisition this year, but the shuffling around of him and defenders Mamadou "Futty" Danso and Pa Modou Kah has underscored the back line's inconsistencies.
"Heading into the offseason, they knew they had to get better defensively," ESPN columnist Jeff Carlisle says. "I think they thought they solved that problem by getting Norberto Paparatto. He certainly has not delivered."
The midfield is off-kilter.
The Timbers' game plan is built around keeping possession of the ball and intricate, often complicated passing combinations. If they have the ball, their opponents can't hurt them. And if they move it around quickly enough, they can open up gaps in the opposition and create opportunities to split the defense with a killer pass.
"There's immense skill there that should be able to take over games at this level," Timbers Army board member Jeremy Wright says.
This year, statistics show, the Timbers' passing and possession game has eroded. Last year, only Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City—the two teams that met in the 2013 championship— had more possession time than the Timbers.
This year, Portland has dropped from third to eighth in the possession table, and in terms of how often the team successfully passes the ball, the Timbers have sunk from third to 12th.
"It seems like they've got more ballplayers in the lineup," Carlisle says, "but whatever the reason, the balance isn't right."
Left winger and 2013 standout Rodney Wallace, sidelined with a knee injury, has been replaced alternately by Kalif Alhassan and Gastón Fernández, another new signing.
Fernández has been impressive. The Argentine has scored twice this season, both last-minute equalizers in the team's first two games. But Fernández and Alhassan both prefer to drift into the center—unlike Wallace, who liked to play wide and gave midfielders Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe an outlet for their creative passing and moves.
The Timbers have said Wallace could return sometime between May and July.
"Maybe when Rodney comes back," Portland Timbros' Myrick says, "that alleviates the situation."
The Timbers have two slots open for designated players—players whose wages aren't counted against the team's salary cap. Myrick says the Timbers could use those to boost the roster if things don't improve.
"What could happen," Myrick says, "especially if the team continues to struggle, is you're going to see some really big signings."
Morale and mentality are low.
In the past week, there have been murmurs from inside the Timbers camp that something isn't right with the team's mentality.
Carlisle thinks the team may be the victim of its success in 2013, when it reached the Western Conference final and drew plaudits from across American soccer.
"Another difference this year is, there were very high expectations," he says. "That can play tricks on the psyche of a team."
Credit Porter with trying (at least publicly) to continue to be upbeat, almost to a fault.
In Utah last weekend, the Timbers played well in a 1-0 loss to Real Salt Lake. Porter told reporters afterward that the Timbers looked like the better team.
"We have the better of the game, we had the better chances on the day," Porter said in comments that have echoed other postgame observations. "The game went according to plan…outside of the finishing, outside of the result."
It's not clear how long Porter has before such explanations wear thin.
After the loss to Real Salt Lake, one player, captain Will Johnson, was as blunt about the rosy spin about the woeful Timbers as he is against opponents on the field.
"I'm a little bit sick and tired of hearing that," Johnson was quoted at MLSsoccer.com when asked what he thought about all the talk of positive signs as the team keeps drawing and losing. "It's all about results."
With the scaling back of expectations for the team, though, there can be benefits. Wright says he sees a silver lining.
âItâs good,â he says, âto be underdogs again.â