Last Sunday, down a man against Sporting Kansas City, the Portland Timbers dug deep. This weekend at RFK Stadium against DC United? Not so much.
Blame the weather — so oppressively hot that kickoff was pushed back an hour — the cross-country travel, the efforts of a competent opposition, or the not entirely unexpected shortcomings of a number of players, but the Timbers never got out of first gear on a night when DC led from wire-to-wire.
It was a loss that you could see coming from a mile away. Portland has rarely shown well in the heat during the Caleb Porter era, and this year, they've had trouble connecting wins — piling up the points that ensure playoff security come the fall.
Playoff security, of course also comes from superior road form, and from Porter's arrival in 2013 through last season, the Timbers were the best home team in the league. But this 2016 team is still winless on the road this year, without a goal away from Providence Park since mid-June. Up next? At Seattle a week from today.
In fact, Portland's next two games — a home-and-home with the Sounders — are looking a shade more daunting. If Seattle wins the three games in hand they have on the Timbers, they'd be a point above them in the Western Conference standings.
We know that the Timbers are capable of plenty. They can hit heights and play notes that only a handful of other MLS teams can match. But it's not going to matter much that Portland has a championship gear if they only find it every third game.
On Saturday night, the Timbers barely existed for long stretches. Liam Ridgewell — good for at least one calamitous miscue when temperatures rise above 80 degrees — played a poor pass across the backline that ended up in a corner converted by Steve Birnbaum to give DC the lead after just seven minutes.
Portland's only truly positive moment of the first half was a sublime turn and pass from Darlington Nagbe that had Jack McInerney bearing down on goal, but McInerney's shot was expertly saved onto the bar by DC's outstanding goalkeeper Bill Hamid.
It was a slog. The Timbers, without the suspended Diego Chara, started the game in a sort of hybrid 4-4-2, with Lucas Melano restored on the wing and Darlington Nagbe in central midfield, and looked out of sorts. Diego Valeri had limited influence, while the connection between McInerney and Adi remains nonexistent.
But the goal that sunk Portland could be traced back to Jermaine Taylor, who probably wouldn't notice a car if it was about to hit him. Taylor failed to clear a simple chip from Patrick Mullins, and Luciano Acosta was allowed to chip Jake Gleeson to make it 2-0 before the break.
Considering the heat — without taking into account the Timbers' sub-standard play — they were done.
Taylor, it has to be surmised, is surviving solely on his reputation at this point. Porter puts plenty of stock in the pedigrees of certain players, and the fact that Taylor is an MLS veteran and longtime international has won him plenty of misplaced trust over the year.
Futty Danso, who has played every minute of this season in the NASL for Rayo OKC and has scored in consecutive games, would be a significant upgrade right now. So, of course, would Norberto Paparatto — who now turns out for FC Dallas.
That's not to say that the Timbers' woes on Saturday were on Taylor alone. No one played particularly well, with the possible exception of the eminently dependable Jack Jewsbury and Gleeson, who, three-and-a-half months on from his coming-out party against Toronto, is still red hot.
It's also worth mentioning that DC United, playing what they considered a must-win game without suspended manager Ben Olsen, were worth their three points. It's a club that epitomizes MLS mediocrity — filled at low cost with journeymen players — but they were at it on Saturday. That they spent plenty of time high-pressing dealt a blow to the Timbers' built-in weather excuse.
But the time has come for the Timbers to kick it up a gear. The chances of them waltzing into the playoffs without picking up road points from here on in are extremely slim. The first move next weekend, the club hopes, is to have Steven Taylor starting at center back next to Ridgewell.
There's no guarantee that Taylor, whose career in the US began inauspiciously with an own goal for T2 against LA Galaxy II last weekend in Carson, will be as good as Ridgewell has been. But the Timbers might need him now as badly as they needed his compatriot when he arrived to the Raushawn McKenzie—Danny O'Rourke circus in 2014.
The Timbers missed Nat Borchers on Saturday. They missed his play, but they also missed his competitiveness and zeal for the game. In his place, Porter should have started Amobi Okugo — not Taylor, who has played the entire season with the awareness of a sloth.
The Paparatto to Taylor downgrade has hurt the Timbers greatly this year. Interestingly enough, Dairon Asprilla, Gaston Fernandez, and Maxi Urruti all scored on Saturday. So did Futty, Kris Boyd, and Adam Moffat.
This game, in itself, is a throwaway. But the Timbers have failed to win all eleven of their away games this year, and the regression of the team's role players from last year to this has played a part. Jack Barmby? Good kid, but shouldn't see the field the rest of the year.
The Timbers are facing a massive two weeks. They can finish the Sounders' season, or let them back into the playoff race. It's not a good time to try to integrate a new central defender, nor is it a good time for Porter not to know his best formation.
McInerney is good, but he can't play with Adi. Can Nagbe fit in central midfield? Does the team have any able wingers? Porter has a big job in front of him. It's consistency, remember, that wins the Cup. Portland went nine games unbeaten to end last year, winning four times on the road and drawing once.
On Saturday, it was DC United. But next weekend it'll be Seattle, and sooner rather than later, if they don't find it within themselves to play up to their considerable potential away from home, the Timbers will simply run out of games to play.