Here’s why the West’s former best are now trying just not to lose

Can Darlington Nagbe and the Portland Timbers rediscover their 2015 magic?

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SiriusXM Editor
October 21, 2016

There are four teams competing for three spots in the Western Conference playoffs as MLS heads into its final week. Back in March, a couple of these could be expected. Real Salt Lake is transitioning to a younger squad and Sporting KC is not yet admitting they have to do that. But Seattle? Reigning champions Portland? What are they doing down here?

For the Portland Timbers, seventh place is no small tragedy. Coach Caleb Porter’s decision to stop playing pretty and start winning ugly was seen as a great transition. Darlington Nagbe was supposed to be the next great American soccer player from the moment he became American.

But last autumn’s optimism hides how gosh-darn mediocre the Timbers were for the first half of 2015. This year has been a step back to that. Nagbe has been more serviceable than remarkable, and Porter’s efficiency was predicated on noted aged planks of wood Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell not getting any more aged. The defense has been rough – 49 goals against! – and the offense hasn’t had enough firepower to keep up.

They’re off to Vancouver and pretty much need to win to sneak into the playoffs. Portland might pull it off because whew, Vancouver is pretty bad, but it’s tough to see the Timbers go through two different teams to get back to the Final.

In many ways, 2016 is another year in the education of Caleb Porter. His team went for depth in the offseason, but there weren’t a ton of centerbacks to help support the tiring legs of Borchers and Ridgewell. Now Portland is in a tougher position: the midfield is getting old as well. Defensive engine Diego Chara is 30, as is trickster god Diego Valeri. Ned Grabavoy and Jack Jewsbury are retiring.

Vytas has been one of the league’s best left backs since coming to America, and he can make a nifty little core along with fellow 26-year-olds Nagbe and gargantuan center forward Fanendo Adi. Lucas Melano is still only 23. Together, these folks can play the sort of pass-to-death/run-to-death ball that Porter prefers…if they can stay together under MLS salary rules. Porter has to either re-emerge or go back to the drawing board this winter, which makes a result on Sunday seem much less important compared to the question marks incoming.

Seattle has similar problems, but is heading in the other direction. After a brutal summer in which they went 2-6-2 for June and July, Clint Dempsey left the squad due to heart issues. Things looked very bad until Nicolas Lodeiro came up north and Roman Torres emerged in the defense.

Lodeiro’s free kicks and Jordan Morris’ discovery of his left foot have covered up a lot of holes. None of Aaron Kovar, Oalex Anderson or Victor Mansaray have developed as predicted. Brian Schmetzer may or may not the right man for the job. Christian Roldan seems very talented, but the entire state of Washington seems unsure what to do with all of that talent.

Seattle will host Real Salt Lake on Sunday in a bit of an awkward match: they will repeat the same match a few days later in Utah if they tie, but in Seattle if the Sounders can win. It will be interesting to see if either team plays aggressively at all or if they agree to settle it 72 hours or so later.

Salt Lake, of course, is that squad that is far more boring than anyone with Joao Plata, Yura Movsisyan and Burrito Martinez leading the line should be. They have loads of fun young players: Justen Glad, Jordan Allen, Omar Holness and Olmes Garcia have all logged serious minutes for them so far. But this is still the team that is relying on an aging midfield of Kyle Beckerman and Javi Morales.

Much like Portland, a first or second-round playoff loss does not change what are serious existential questions surrounding Salt Lake, and may in fact just hide them. For years, Salt Lake used a vicious midfield and an absolute pest of a keeper (not to mention lung-sucking altitude) to be one of the least fun teams to play against in the league. For soccer aesthetes, it would be a shame to force the current crop of players into that mold. For Salt Lake fans, a new mold isn’t exactly forthcoming.

In Kansas City, everyone knew that an aging team was not going to be able to keep up with Peter Vermes’ gegenpress-on-the-prairie style. That is exactly what we’ve seen. Having to beat a woeful San Jose side to remain in sixth place suits them like an old jacket.

All four teams are caught in transition periods, which may be what separates them from the cream of the MLS in the 21st century. Sides like Los Angeles, Dallas or even the Red Bulls have been able to keep a core identity and cycle new players through it. These four? Not so much. Seattle has had arguably the most success, but they are still a few trophies short of a cabinet. Everyone else has been guilty of overreach, with 2016 appearing as the time they had to pay.

In some ways, this final week of the season will be their final chance to make good on a frustrating season. In other ways, a false hope may just prolong mediocrity when the management really needs to do soul-searching. There will be winners and losers come Sunday evening. But perhaps a real winner won’t be the one up on points and in the playoffs.

This post was composed by freelance writer and swell guy, Asher Kohn. Reach out to him and discuss all the soccer happenings from around the world on Twitter at:@AJKhn. Catch up with all of the latest soccer happenings on SiriusXM FC