The Portland Timbers didn't exactly roll into their two-week break for the Gold Cup tournament. But last week's 2-2 draw with league-leading Chicago featured some clear positives:
n Sebastian Blanco scored his third goal of the season — and his first at Providence Park. The first-year designated player has three goals and four assists in his first 19 MLS games. Those aren't eye-popping numbers, but by comparison, former designated player Lucas Melano had five goals and nine assists in 50 games (including playoffs) with the Timbers.
If Blanco, whose passion is evident in his effort and feisty personality, can play with confidence over the remaining 14 matches it will make the Timbers significantly more difficult to defend.
• Dairon Asprilla is delivering more consistent play on the wing, which includes defending. His athletic ability was on full display when he soared above a Chicago defender to head a ball that led to a penalty kick.
• Darlington Nagbe, midfield magnet. The Timbers' run to the 2015 MLS Cup championship happened with Darlington Nagbe sitting in deep midfield along with Diego Chara. He was not as impactful there last season, in part because the team didn't have a strong replacement on the left wing when Nagbe shifted inside.
But in the two games since Chara suffered a hamstring injury and David Guzman departed for the Gold Cup tournament, we were reminded how effective Nagbe can be as a connector in midfield. Nagbe's ability to quickly dribble out of pressure and consistently make the right pass might be under-appreciated given the thirst to see his talent translate into goals and assists.
At Sporting Kansas City on July 1, Nagbe completed all 53 of his passes. Against Chicago, he completed 54 of 57 passes. Nagbe's ability to move the ball quickly out of the defensive third was a vital ingredient in Portland limiting Sporting KC to seven shots (one on goal) and Chicago to six shots (three on goal).
• And then there's Ben. Alongside Nagbe in the absence of Chara and Guzman, Ben Zemanski has provided tackling grit and decent service going forward. He also has been taking corner kicks and some free kicks. His contribution is a feel-good story because it demonstrates the depth coach Caleb Porter believes he has this season — and because he has persevered through injuries. Zemanski missed all of the 2015 season with a knee injury and had played only 81 minutes this season prior to starting the last two games.
• Larrys Mabiala impact — The Timbers' newest central defender will be eligible to make his debut when the Timbers play host to Real Salt Lake on July 19. His arrival is vital if the Timbers are going to reach the potential Porter sees for this team. With Liam Ridgewell, who has played only eight full matches this season, sidelined for at least another month, the Tmbers need the 29-year-old Mabiala to become a take-charge defender alongside veteran Roy Miller.
• Schedule factor — The Timbers will split their 14 remaining matches between the road and home. If they are going to make the playoffs, they will need to win, not draw, at home. That begins when Real Salt Lake (6-12-2, 40 goals allowed) visits on July 19. They play two of those home games three days apart in August — right before a string of three challenging road matches. The good news? If the playoff race comes down to October, as it usually does, the Timbers play three of their last four at home.
— By Paul Danzer