How the Portland Timbers Might Have Saved Their Season.

The Timbers have won three of their last five games, earning 10 points out of a possible 15. They've moved from last place in the Western Conference to ninth, the last spot in the play-in game. Is this enough to save their season?
NY City FC vs Portland Timbers
NY City FC vs Portland Timbers / Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/GettyImages

The reports of the Portland Timbers' death may have been greatly exaggerated a.Three weeks after losing to their archnemesis, the Seattle Sounders, in a demoralizing and “end-of-the-world” game, the Timbers have been able to revive their playoff hopes after an excellent five-game stretch that saw them go 3-1-1, earning 10 out of a possible 15 points. They have also climbed from the cellar of the Western Conference to ninth place, the last spot in the Western Conference play-in game.

After the loss to Seattle, Portland hit rock bottom. They had just finished their ninth consecutive game without a win, were last in the Western Conference, and looked utterly directionless, with no end in sight. That team seems completely different from what we see now. Manager Phil Neville certainly thinks so, “I think there was a real flatness in the dressing room at the end of the game because we really wanted a 9-point week.

He continued, “I think that shows how far we’ve come in such a short space of time, say two, two and a half weeks ago, I think we would (have) snatched your hands off with 7 points out of 3 games, and now we're disappointed we didn't get nine. So, I think that is a real testament to how far we've come.”

During this five-game stretch, Portland has broken a few streaks, which has course-corrected their season for now. They won their first set of consecutive games in 2024, something they didn't accomplish until September of the 2023 season. They recorded their first clean sheet of the season, defeating Austin FC 2-0 on the road. This was also the first time Austin was prevented from scoring a goal at home in 20 games. Also, the mid-week match against Los Verdes was their first clean sheet of the season.

It feels like Portland has turned a corner where results and points are expected. Neville believes there was a shift in culture after the San Jose win. The match before that against Sporting Kansas City snapped a dubious streak of allowing 2+ goals in 10 games. No other MLS team has ever done it in league history. Also, while not the result the Timbers wanted against Houston, the tie did break a three-game losing streak against their Western Conference foe. And even the loss to Minnesota was not as momentum-stopping as it might seem. The Loons have dropped only one game at home this season

“San Jose, I thought, was a turning point, even when we didn't get the right result in Minnesota. I thought, I thought that the tide had turned for us. I thought the feeling had turned I thought there was a mentally growing in the squad.”

The Backline is Showing life

The Timbers have improved slightly defensively. Portland has now moved up to 27th instead of 28th in goals allowed this season. Jokes aside, the TImbers are playing better on the backline. During this five-game stretch, Phil Neville has switched between having a back three and four. Both have worked at times. The three-man backline allows for three centrebacks to concentrate on defense and two wingbacks to continue to push the ball forward and help back when needed. This is advantageous to the Timbers, who love to push and gives them extra men on the wings to help widen the field. 

Not everything is going to be fixed overnight. Portland’s defensive third still suffers from mental mistakes and easy turnovers that lead to easy scoring chances for their opponents. Both goals against Houston are examples of that. But with that being said, the defensive performances versus Kansas City and Austin can give the Timbers Army hope for a turnaround. 

One name that has made a real difference for Portland is Croatian center-back Dario Zuparic. Since being slotted in the starting lineup against Seattle on May 12th, Zuparic has been in the lineup ever since. His motor is palpable, and he sets the tone for the backline to continue pushing through difficult game stretches. 

Before becoming a permanent fixture in the starting lineup, Zuparic had been subbed in four times, started just once, and did not suit up in five games. If the Timbers want to continue to improve their defense, keeping Zuparic in the starting lineup is a must. 

The Usual Suspects

The Timbers' playmakers have really started to shine and have been consistent in their gameplay. Felipe Mora, Jonathan Rodriguez, and Evander made the Portland attack one of MLS's deadliest and most efficient. With 32 goals scored, Portland is third in the league and second, only to Inter Miami in xG vs. actual goals with .71 above expected goal. The attack is still as good as it was at the beginning of the season, and when this attack is at full strength and speed, as it was in the latter part of the first half against Houston, it will be hard to stop Portland from scoring. 

Evander is having the best season in his short time in Portland and is poised to make an All-Star push. The Brazilian is tied for fourth in the league in assists with eight. Mora is also having a career year as he leads the Timbers in goals with 8. He is eighth in the league in xG, with 7.36, just behind Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, with an xG of 7.76 and 7.51, respectively. 

While the Timbers can be proud of their work to save their season thus far, the grind must continue as the start of the second half starts on Saturday against St. Louis SC. If the first 17 games indicate how the second half of the season will go, then the Timbers Army and the rest of the MLS are in for a wild second half from Portland.