Heading into a crucial stretch of the MLS season, all is not well with the Portland Timbers. The club has won just once its last four home games and once in its last five games overall, scoring a measly five goals in the process.
On Sunday afternoon, the Timbers drew Atlanta United 1-1 at Providence Park. It was an entertaining if mostly unremarkable contest, except for the fact that Atlanta — just less than three months into its first ever season — controlled a staggering 70% of possession over the 90 minutes.
What Atlanta did with that possession was attack Alvas Powell and the righthand side of the Timbers' defense. Powell held on defensively, but was an unmitigated disaster with the ball. He completed just six passes in the first half, and 12 out of 27 in the game. As a result, Portland couldn't hold the ball.
It was the most frustrating afternoon of what has been an indifferent start to the season for Powell, whose progress — two years after a standout season en route to the club's MLS Cup championship — seems to have stalled.
Why? It could have a lot to do with who is missing from the Timbers' backline.
Nat Borchers' influence on the Timbers — even as he regressed last year — was hard to overstate. The team lost seven straight road games after he was injured last July, after getting points in six of the nine road games he started he started in the months before. But his influence on Powell might have been even bigger.
In 2015, when Powell and Borchers started next to each other 34 times across the regular season and playoffs, Powell had a career year. He was so good, in fact, that the soccer analytics website WhoScored rated him as the fourth best player in MLS — behind only Giovinco, Omar Gonzalez, and Kei Kamara.
Powell was third in the league in tackles that year, and posted still-standing career highs in interceptions and clearances.
There were reasons why Powell's numbers might have been slightly inflated two years ago — one being that the Timbers played much of that season on the back-foot — but the numbers told a story that matched what was being observed across the league.
The Powell of 2015 was a fearsome defender: fast, aggressive, and coming into his own physically. As excellent as Jorge Villafaña was, Powell's role in the Timbers' Cup-winning season was not a small one.
But 2016 was trying. Powell injured his wrist in mid-April and returned just shortly before Borchers ruptured his Achilles tendon in late-July. 2017 hasn't been markedly better.
Powell is still an above-average defensive fullback, but he looks far less sure of himself than he did at his peak. His numbers are down in almost every major defensive category, and he's struggled mightily this year against intelligent attackers like Christian Bolaños and DaMarcus Beasley.
His abysmal passing showing against Atlanta on Sunday — when he completed just 44 percent of his passes — suggested a player low on confidence. Powell has always struggled in possession, but a number of those giveaways looked like nothing more than brain freezes.
Powell looks slightly uncomfortable. Without Borchers next to him, it's not hard to understand why.
Borchers was extremely vocal on the field, and seemed to relish the opportunity to mentor Powell. The two had a tight bond that included a bet that resulted in Borchers dying his beard green and Powell his hair blue and orange before the Wild Card game against Sporting Kansas City in 2015.
"On and off the field, he [Borchers} talks to me a lot," Powell told The Oregonian in February of last year. "That's what I need. He's been in the league for many years and I can learn from him. ... Each day in practice, he keeps talking to me. He keeps pushing me to even be better."
For Powell, who first arrived in Portland as a shy, uncomfortable 17-year-old, that mentorship was extremely valuable. The two made a good pair: Borchers' ability to read the game helped cover for Powell; Powell's speed helped cover for Borchers. Maybe more importantly, Borchers helped Powell ease out of his shell and into Portland.
Although this is Powell's fifth year in the league and third year as an everyday starter, he's still a very young player — and Steven Taylor, Lawrence Olum, and Roy Miller haven't and aren't providing the kind of leadership that Borchers did.
Certainly, there's a case to be made that it's time for Powell to step up himself. His passing and crossing, two crucial skills for a fullback, remain just about as poor as they did when he the Timbers bought him and have very little to do with who is playing center back next to him.
But Powell is a unique and much-loved character with the Timbers. Caleb Porter said in an MLS feature last year that he wouldn't trade him for any player in the league.
There's logic there, apart from sentiment. Good fullbacks — let alone good young fullbacks — are the rarest players in soccer. In their MLS history, the Timbers have had just two such players, and, in the one full season they played together, the team won MLS Cup.
Powell isn't going anywhere. It's crucial, then, that the club bring in a high-caliber, right-footed center back when the summer transfer window opens. The Timbers defense, which has just one clean sheet in its first eleven games, needs it. Powell does too.
At this stage in his career, Powell is going to be as good as those around him. In the spring 2014, when the Timbers' defense was a mess, Powell was too. In 2015, when it was excellent, Powell was as well. The talent is there. The temperament often hasn't been.
The Timbers as a whole miss Nat Borchers greatly, both on and off the field. But it's hard to imagine that anyone misses him more than Alvas Powell does.