There might not be another team in MLS more looking forward to the end of the World Cup break than the Portland Timbers. After a tumultuous start to the season, the Timbers finished off the unofficial first half of the season having lost just one of their final eight matches. The final match in that run was a resounding 3-1 victory over Real Salt Lake on Saturday, marking the first time in franchise history the Timbers had beaten the boys from Utah at Rio Tinto Stadium.
It was a near-perfect road performance, something the Timbers are turning in with remarkable regularity these days. Despite giving up an early goal, the Timbers were able to go into halftime with a 2-1 lead, drew RSL into a red card early in the second half and finally put the match away with a rare penalty. RSL arguably had the run of play, but the Timbers got a few good saves from Donovan Ricketts and mostly limited the danger.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it should be noted that the Timbers are still outside of playoff position in the West. Due in no small part to their shocking inability to actually win at home, the Timbers are stuck in sixth place in total points. They've got some very real issues with the way they defend and Ricketts hasn't been able to cover them up as well as he did a year ago. So there are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical.
But as pompous as Caleb Porter can be at times -- just check out his postgame rant from last week -- he also has an appreciation for being pragmatic when the time calls. We saw it last year when he showed that he's willing to put aside the beautiful game if that's what's required to get a road result, a perfect example being the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal against the Seattle Sounders.
This year it's a slightly different kind of pragmatism that Porter has sheepishly embraced: the true target forward.
At first glance, the addition of Fanendo Adi seemed a bit odd. After allowing Ryan Johnson to walk away at the end of last year, the Timbers came into this campaign without a classic No. 9. Gaston Fernandez has gotten minutes there, Maximiliano Urruti has looked good at times, but neither one of them is really known for hold-up play. They'd much rather be scoring goals than turning their back to goal and setting up teammates and doing the dirty work.
Fanendo, though, seems capable of doing all that. In just 226 minutes, the Nigerian has four goals and two assists. Two of those goals came on Saturday, one a header and the other cleaning up a rebound. But it's not just his goals that are helping the Timbers. The 6'4 monster is banging bodies, winning headers and generally making life difficult for opposing center backs.
Porter may not love the way his team looks when Adi is on the field, but he surely likes the results. It's probably too late for the Timbers to make a serious run at the Supporters' Shield -- as many predicted they would -- but this pragmatism should carry them into the playoffs where they should be a handful.
What happend to RSL?
As much as the Timbers may be itching to get back on the field, RSL couldn't get to the break fast enough. What was a 12-match unbeaten run has morphed into a four-match winless streak, coinciding directly with the loss of several key players to World Cup duties.
It's not just the lack of wins that should be concerning, either; it's how lost they've looked without Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Alvaro Saborio. Since that trio left for their respective national teams, RSL have been outscored 8-2. Their only two results are a pair of ties against an FC Dallas team that was on a seven-game winless run and a Columbus Crew team that had gone 1-4-4 in their previous nine.
To some degree that should be fixed shortly after the break when Beckerman and Rimando return from their stints with the United States national team. The bigger concern is how RSL replaces Saborio, who is supposed to be out for three to four months while his broken foot heals. Saborio had been enjoying another impressive season with six goals in less than 900 minutes, but he's been replaced in the lineup by a combination of Devon Sandoval and Olmes Garcia, two players who have combined for zero goals and just one assist in about 1,000 minutes.
A complete collapse seems highly unlikely, but RSL's bid to qualifying for the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season could be a bit more of a struggle than it seemed to be a month ago.
Kids, this is why Panenkas are hard
A couple weeks ago, Seattle Sounders midfielder Gonzalo Pineda converted what the soccer world calls a "Panenka," essentially taking a penalty down the middle while the goalkeeper hilariously dives in one direction. When done correctly, it looks so easy that you find yourself asking "Why doesn't everyone just do this all the time?"
Well, Fabian Espindola was nice enough to remind everyone why on Saturday.
Whitecaps remain a mystery
There might not be a team that's more fun to watch these days than the Whitecaps. Fulfilling their early-season promise, the Whitecaps have continued to pour in goals at an impressive clip with a combination of speed and skill we don't get to see that often.
But there's another side to all that flash: They give up goals at almost equally alarming rate. Two weeks ago, they outplayed the Sounders but had to settle for a 2-2 tie. A week ago, they nearly blew a three-goal lead against the Timbers before escaping with a 4-3 win. This week, they blew a 2-0 lead and were actually trailing the Philadelphia Union 3-2 before they were awarded a penalty that allowed them to salvage a point. In their last seven games, the Whitecaps have allowed 14 goals and given up multiple goals in six of those games. It should also be noted that the Whitecaps are 3-0-4 in those games.
But when you're giving up two goals in a game to the likes of Conor Casey, you probably want to take a long hard look at the defensive philosophy you're employing.
As much fun as that must be for neutrals -- and as encouraged as their fans must be by the results -- that doesn't seem particularly sustainable over a long season.
Revolution crash to earth
In an Eastern Conference that still lacks any semblance of order, the Revolution are probably still the best team. But after losing their last two games by a combined score of 4-0 to a pair of teams out of playoff position, it seems safe to assume that they aren't quite Supporters' Shield contenders yet.
Their latest loss, to the New York Red Bulls, highlighted their biggest shortcoming: Aside from back-to-back five-goal games, this is a team that struggles to finish. Take their wins over the Sounders and Union out of the equation, and the Revs have scored just 11 goals in 12 games. Against the Red Bulls, the Revs managed to squeeze off 22 shots but somehow the best save Luis Robles was forced to make came off one of his defenders.
As reluctant as the Revolution are to spend money, chances are that any fix is going to have come from within their current roster. They have the talent, but it may be a bit early for it to shine, still.