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Timbers wobble, but stay on pitch

Loss to amateur club shines bright light on Portland's weak spots in MLS race
by: Christopher Onstott, Fans at Jeld-Wen Field haven't had a lot to cheer about this season, as forward Kris Boyd and the Portland Timbers have struggled to score and win consistently, as they did in a 0-0 draw with Columbus on May 5. But with two-thirds of the MLS season remaining, the team has plenty of time to turn things around.

In the long history of professional sports, San Diego Chargers coach Tommy Prothro may have delivered the greatest post-defeat speech.

The lowly Chargers, who would finish the 1975 season 2-12, had just dropped a game 12-10 to the Kansas City Chiefs, making San Diego's record 0-5.

Prothro walked into the locker room and stared at his team for several moments as he took drags on his cigarette.

"You guys suck," Prothro finally said.

That was all Prothro could think of to say.

After taking another drag, he turned and walked into his office, closing the door behind him.

That speech would have been very fitting after the Portland Timbers' 1-0 U.S. Open Cup loss on May 30 to visiting Cal FC, a fifth-tier amateur club.

Everyone -- Portland coach John Spencer, owner Merritt Paulson, the front office, the players and the fans -- is trying to figure out what is going wrong with this club.

The Timbers have had plenty of time to think. They have been without a match since the Cal FC debacle. Portland's next match is 4 p.m. Sunday on the road against the Los Angeles Galaxy -- a team struggling even more than the Timbers -- at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.

Right now, all the talk around the Timbers is simply rhetoric. But it is important to keep some perspective after what was quite possibly the worst loss in Timbers history.

• The Timbers' biggest problem is goals.

With 12 goals this season, Portland ranks 16th out of 19 teams in MLS.

Former Timbers striker Kenny Cooper, now with the New York Red Bulls, is tied for the league lead with 11 goals in 13 outings. He has shot 38 times, putting 20 on goal.

During the Cal FC match, in which the Timbers shot 37 times without scoring, the Timbers Army began chanting, "Care like we do."

Caring too little is not the Timbers' problem, though. If anything, the team cares too much. The Timbers simply have a bad case of the yips in front of goal. No matter what they do, the ball seemingly just will not go into the back of the net.

Maybe the Timbers need to spend more time working on finishing during training. Maybe they need a sports psychologist. Maybe they need a witch doctor to remove the hex on the goals.

Whatever the Timbers need, they do not need to care more.

• Portland has a highly touted striker in Kris Boyd, who is the Scottish Premier League's all-time leading goal scorer. The 28-year-old Boyd has four goals -- a team-high -- this season. He clearly has the ability to score.

What he does not have is the ability to create his own shot. Boyd is like an NBA center. He needs the ball given to him in a position where he can do something with it.

Good service has come at a premium for Boyd this season, though. Portland's offense does not need to focus solely on getting Boyd service.

But, just as the Timbers need to be more accurate in front of goal, when Boyd springs free, they must connect with him on passes into the box.

• Boyd could receive some help from newly acquired striker Danny Mwanga, who the Timbers received last week from the Philadelphia Union in exchange for striker Jorge Perlaza.

Mwanga, a former Jefferson High and Oregon State standout, was the No. 1 overall choice by the Union in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.

Things never quite panned out for him in Philadelphia, where he scored 12 goals and recorded nine assists over the last 2 1/2 seasons.

The 20-year-old from the Congo is talented, though, and a fresh start in his American hometown could help kick-start both his career and the Timbers' offense.

• The Timbers' defense has been fantastic recently. In the last four MLS matches, Portland has given up just two goals.

Captain Jack Jewsbury's move from the midfield to right back has been a perfect fit. At 31, Jewsbury no longer has the legs to keep up in the midfield. But, as a defender, he is smart and tenacious.

Goalkeeper Troy Perkins has been the Timbers' best asset. The 30-year-old has been superb this season. He has given up 13 goals -- slightly more than one per match -- and he has made some spectacular saves.

Playing behind a stronger back line, Perkins could be considered the best goalkeeper in the league.

• After the loss to Cal FC, many fans called for Spencer's job.

Blaming Spencer for the problems is unjustified. The No. 1 job of a soccer coach is to inspire his players and make them play hard. Spencer has done that since he became Portland's coach.

If the Timbers are not able to right the ship, it is possible that Spencer will not be back in Portland next season. But, as far as Spencer being fired before the 2012 season is completed, ask yourself whether Paulson is really the type of owner who would fire a coach midseason and continue to pay his wages without getting anything in return. It probably would take a serious turn for the worst for that to happen.

• If the Timbers are not very good -- which right now, they are not -- it is more rational to blame Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson than Spencer.

But the criticism of Wilkinson is unjustified, as well.

With Wilkinson's options limited mostly to players that other clubs did not want and draft picks, he has brought players to Portland who have competed.

And Wilkinson has set up the club for future success with a plethora of young, talented players who may not be ready to do the job now, but could be ready in the future.

• Remember that the Timbers have played just 12 MLS matches, or one-third of the 2012 season.

The Timbers, 3-5-4 (13 points) are sitting tied for seventh in the nine-team MLS Western Conference table. But, after the top three -- Real Salt Lake, the San Jose Earthquakes and the Seattle Sounders -- the conference is filled with mediocrity.

Surprising Vancouver has 22 points in 13 matches, good for fourth place, but can the Whitecaps keep up that pace?

Colorado owns the fifth position but is within sight; the Rapids have 19 points in 13 matches.

Chivas USA is sixth with 15 points, also in 13 matches.

Portland and FC Dallas are tied, and Dallas has played 15 times.

The Galaxy, the 2011 MLS Cup champion, has 11 points in 13 starts.

So, as grim as things look in Portland, the Timbers are just a few points out of the playoff picture (the top five teams in the West make the 10-team MLS postseason).

And, consider that 12 matches into last season, the Timbers were only 5-5-2 (17 points).

That is not to say that the Timbers do not have problems. They do. A lot of them. For instance, they are a curious and so-so 3-2-2 before the home fans (and that's not including nonleague matches). And, after a loss to an opponent like Cal FC, it is reasonable for the club to take a good, long look at itself in the mirror.

But while they are gazing into the mirror, the Timbers must keep a single loss, no matter who it was to, in perspective.

And they must remember that there is still a long road to travel this season -- starting this weekend, when either the Timbers or the Galaxy could revive its life as an MLS contender.

This is a very important stretch of the season for the Timbers; their next 10 MLS matches, from Sunday through Aug. 5, are against Western Conference opposition. Five of the games will be at home, five will be away. The landscape could shift a lot -- good or bad -- via the eight Timbers league matches before July 25 MLS All-Stars play Chelsea July 25 at PPL Park in Philadelphia.