Mikeal Silvestre and David Horst are slowly working their way back, but for most of the season, Portland has been without their two best central defenders. Futty Danso, next in line, has been out for the better part of a month, leaving Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Pa-Modou Kah to hold down Caleb Porter’s defense. One is a hyper-athletic, promising, but inconsistent player in his second professional season. The other is an experienced stop-gap whose mistakes are adding up. It’s not the ideal duo for a team that found itself competing for silverware, especially when Will Johnson, the team’s linchpin in central midfield, can’t get back on the field, either.
Factor in Jack Jewsbury’s absence and the suspension of Kah (yellow card accumulation) and you can see why Porter went to a three-man defense Friday night at Real Salt Lake. Unfortunately for the him, it only took Jason Kreis’s team nine minutes to exploit the experimental set up, with left-center back Michael Harrington vacating his position, allowing Luis Gil to get in behind midfielder Rodney Wallace for the opening goal.
Six minutes later, Joao Plata, beating Baptiste before a surgical finish from left of goal, doubled RSL’s lead, and although Darlington Nagbe cut that lead in half near the half-hour mark, Portland spent the rest of the night chasing the game. Diego Valeri left early with an injury, Alvas Powell’s introduction switching Portland back to a four-man defense. Ben Zemanski saw straight red just before half time, reducing the visitors to 10. By the time Javi Morales scored with a bicycle kick in the 55th minute, Portland’s formation looked more frenzy than function. Just keep going, play hard, and hope to get the goals back seemed to be the approach, but at that point, desperate times called for desperate measures.
Unfortunately, they were playing the best team in the league. Eventually winning 4-2, RSL extended their lead in the West to eight points (although second place LA have three games in hand). Their 52 goals are 11 more than the league’s next most-prolific attack, already claiming a franchise record with six games to play. And with two wins and a draw from their three August meetings with Portland, RSL won the Admiration Cup the two clubs seemed to create with their effusive praise of each others’ approaches. Be it on results, goals, or style points, RSL is proving themselves the team to beat.
They may not have been the best team for Caleb Porter to try a 3-6-1 against — Salt Lake seemingly blinking only once before pulling the defense apart — but given the Timbers’ fitness, Porter may have felt he had no other choice. With Kah suspended, former RSL defender Rauwshan McKenzie was pressed into his Timbers debut. There was no Will Johnson or Jack Jewsbury, leaving Portland with limited options to protect their defense and match RSL’s midfield. Why not try an approach that overloads in the middle with the hope (albeit slim hope) that you can strangle the game from your hosts?
Of course, that didn’t happen, the result being Portland’s worst performance of the season, one that gives Porter his first two-game losing “streak” since jumping to MLS. Depending on results in Columbus and Vancouver, the Timbers could find themselves in sixth by the end of the weekend, left wondering if their injury woes will cost them the postseason spot many assumed they’d claim.
Before Portland hosts Toronto next Saturday, things should improve. Johnson, Jewsbury, and Frederic Piquionne aren’t that far away. Bright Dike, the linebacker-esque striker out all year recovering from an ACL tear, dressed for the first time on Friday. Danso and Horst’s returns can be charted in weeks, not months.
Every team seems to hit a rough patch, and between injuries, suspensions, and schedule, this is Portland’s. It’s the first rough spell of the Caleb Porter era, one that’s cost them shots at the U.S. Open Cup and (likely) the Supporters’ Shield. But for Portland, the goal this season should have always been making the playoffs, so while more grandiose achievements were briefly in view, if the injury bug leaves in time for the Timbers to claim a top-five spot, the season can still be seen as a successful one.