After a two months filled with strong, skillful performances, the Portland Timbers threw up a stinker on Saturday night at Avaya Stadium: Losing 3-0 to the San Jose Earthquakes in a game that was never truly contested.
It's usually a bad sign when the opposing center back has two assists, and this one got away from the Timbers early. San Jose led for 82 minutes en route to their biggest MLS win since in almost two years.
The Timbers, missing both Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe, never got serious about contesting this game. They were beaten all over the field all night long. It was the kind of lethargic, lopsided road loss that sunk the team's playoff hopes last season.
To this point, it was also the kind of performance that had been pleasantly absent from the Timbers' 2017. Not anymore.
San Jose is not one of MLS' better teams, but they rarely give games away. Beating the 'Quakes takes a measure of tenacity — and the Timbers, for whatever reason, never locked in. Conceding an early goal didn't help.
Just eight minutes into the game, a Danny Hoesen cross took a double deflection and sparked an almighty goalmouth scramble. It ended when Chris Wondolowski deadened a shot on the doorstep for Jahmyr Hyka to pounce on and fire into the roof of the net.
With the Earthquakes emboldened, the Timbers' struggles deepened. Lacking a creative outlet, Portland had all kinds of problems connecting passes and relieving pressure — and no amount of coaxing or prodding from Caleb Porter could help a group that looked an awful lot like it had excepted its fate.
The Timbers got nada from Dairon Asprilla and Darren Mattocks wide, and were short of attacking ideas in general, while San Jose had a surprisingly easy time disconnecting Portland's central midfield from its backline. The result was a shooting gallery.
Just after the half hour mark, the 'Quakes doubled their lead. Adventuresome German center back Florian Jungworth bounded up the field and picked out Wondolowski on top of the box, where the U.S. international collected the ball on the turn and swept a shot past Jeff Attinella and into the far corner.
Halftime did nothing to change the nature of the game. Ten minutes after the restart, Wondolowski nipped in behind Lawrence Olum, ran onto Jungworth's through-ball, and found the far corner again with a deft chip past Attinella to make it 3-0.
The rest of the evening for the Timbers was mostly academic. Porter was able to hand debuts to Victor Arboleda and Jeremey Ebobisse, two players who the club has high hopes for going forward. In comparison with the rest of the team, their energy was arresting.
A couple of frustration yellow cards to Sebastian Blanco and Vytas later, and the Timbers packed up and went home. It was, except for the two rookies, an entirely forgettable night.
Every year gives us a couple of laughers. The 2015 championship team lost 5-0 at LA and 3-0 at Philly. There's a sizable margin for error in MLS, and it's extremely difficult to compete at 100 percent for 34 games over eight months.
This is, after all, a league known for wacky results. Just this weekend, a very good Orlando team lost 4-0 at Houston. Sporting Kansas City were swept aside by Minnesota. The defending champion Seattle Sounders lost at home to a mostly second-string Toronto FC. There's no reason for the Timbers to panic.
That being said, there were concerning elements in this non-performance — mainly that the Timbers, playing their first-choice back six, conceded three goals to a team that hadn't scored three in their last 32 MLS games.
A couple of truly sublime finishes from Wondolowski — who became the first MLS player to score double digit goals against the Timbers — padded the final score, but the Timbers' defensive performance was still troubling.
In 2015, we saw the Timbers' backline keep the team afloat while Valeri was injured. Those defenses seemed to enjoy carrying games. The defense we saw on Saturday night was not similarly empowered.
Olum and Liam Ridgewell struggled to track a shifty 'Quakes front three that included two natural strikers in Wondolowski and Hoesen starting in wide positions, while Vytas got beat on the opening goal. Alvas Powell, whose play usually mirrors that of those around him, was unfocused in turn.
There are no easy answers at center back, where the Timbers likely aren't going to sign another player until the summer. Portland needs more from Ridgewell. But at left back, where Vytas had a poor first half, there is another option.
There's no reason why Marco Farfan, who was so good at the beginning of the year, should have gone from starting to out of the first-team equation because he lost Dom Dwyer in the box a month ago. In games that the Timbers expect to be on the back foot in, Farfan should be in the team. He's the club's best defensive left back.
Instead, Farfan played for T2 on Friday night at Starfire against Sounders 2, and Vytas got burned on the opening goal. Perhaps Porter would have done it differently if he had the game back. He almost certainly would have set his team up to play on the counter, instead of allowing for a relatively open game.
But that kind of open game — even without Valeri — worked just fine for the Timbers in Dallas. This was a bad day. Better have one now than, say, on the last day of the season in Vancouver. If this Timbers team is as good as they've suggested they might be, we'll see a response next weekend.