Two winless months into the season, the Portland Timbers
finally hit rock bottom after last weekend’s draw in Houston.
A tie with the Dynamo
left the Timbers at the foot of the league table after fellow strugglers, the Montreal Impact
and San Jose Earthquakes
, picked up their first wins to climb above Portland.
Now, the Timbers are desperate for a win at home on Saturday at Providence Park against DC United
It shows you how bad things are going for the Timbers that the result that consigned them to the bottom was actually their best of the year so far.
The 1-1 result against Houston was the first result other than a loss Portland has had on the road this year. As building blocks go, it's not much, but the Timbers have to take what they can get, and there were promising signs.
Since coach Caleb Porter
benched Norberto Paparatto
for club stalwart Futty Danso
at the heart of Portland's defense, the team has looked better at the back, even if it hasn't entirely stopped leaking goals yet.
Going forward, though, Portland might have finally found a reliable avenue for goals again after replacing striker Maxi Urruti
with Gaston Fernandez
Urruti's struggles have been perhaps the most fraught narrative of the season for the Timbers. At 23, he clearly has huge potential, and Portland fans love that he runs himself into the ground chasing defenders down when Portland loses the ball.
Urruti has, though, squandered chance after chance this season, and a turning point appeared to arrive when captain Will Johnson
appeared to implicitly blame the April 20 loss at Real Salt Lake on Urruti, not naming Urruti in particular but pointedly describing one of Urruti's many misses.
A week later, Porter dropped Urruti and brought Fernandez in.
Urruti is quick, strong, industrious and young enough to make Timbers fans salivate at the thought of the player he could become. Fernandez, 30, is none of those things, but he is confident and experienced, and all of a sudden, with three goals, he's Portland's top scorer this season.
With Portland a goal down against Houston, midfielder Kalif Alhassan
rolled the ball forward. Two Houston midfielders inexplicably missed it and the pass trickled into the penalty area like a stone slowly bouncing down a hillside.
Suddenly, Fernandez was rocketing in from the left, pouncing on the ball and slamming an impossibly precise shot into the top corner of the Houston net.
Throughout a career in Argentine and Mexican soccer, Fernandez has played in two-forward systems, floating behind a main striker and providing support and elaboration. He has never been a consistent scorer. Porter doesn't even play with two up front, so he has had to adapt.
The Timbers will hope he can continue in the same vein against DC United.
Portland's opponents are in a four-way tie for second in the Eastern Conference and are fresh from a complete rebuild in the offseason after finishing dead last in the league in 2013.
DC United brought in all-new pairings in the heart of defense and the center of attack. Bobby Boswell
now anchors the defense alongside ex-Seattle man Jeff Parke
. The team has the best defensive record of any team that has played seven or more games.
Up front, DC United has replaced an ineffective strike force with proven quality in Fabian Espindola
and Eddie Johnson
. (That's the American who used to play for the Seattle Sounders, not the Englishman who used to play for the Timbers.)
Surprisingly, Johnson hasn't scored yet this year, but Espindola already has four. Both will be a handful for a Timbers defense that can struggle against teams that play two strikers.
All defensive pairings are more prone against strike partnerships than lone frontmen, but Portland's is particularly so for two reasons. First, neither Danso nor Pa Modou Kah
is quick or nimble on the turn, and both therefore struggle when isolated against a single player, with strikers often pulling them out of position to make room for midfielders charging through on goal.
Second, the Timbers' midfield doesn't adequately protect its defenders. Diego Chara
is the only player who supports the backline, meaning he's hugely overworked. He takes on two or three players at a time and covers the entire width of the field, always forced into desperate challenges. That's one reason he’s Major League Soccer’s leading fouler.
Portland hasn't kept a game scoreless this year, and that situation doesn't look like it will improve against a pair of hungry, talented DC United strikers.
That means the Timbers will need to hope Gaston Fernandez really is the answer to their attacking worries.