By THOMAS FLOYD
WASHINGTON — There have been changes in personnel. Tweaks to the formation. Adjustments in philosophy. But away from home, there is one constant for the Portland Timbers: results.
As the Timbers continue to rack up points on the road, coach Caleb Porter feels his side is sending a message to the rest of MLS that Portland is no “one-trick pony.”
“We’re very multidimensional. We can adapt,” Porter said. “Yet we have a very, very clear structure and identity that we work from.”
For as much as the Timbers’ “Porterball” style is associated with a fluid, possession-driven 4-3-3 approach, Portland knows certain situations call for modifications.
In a 2-0 win at D.C. United (1-9-2) on Saturday, the Timbers (5-1-7) offered a different look. With playmaker Diego Valeri sidelined by a hamstring ailment, veteran striker Frederic Piquionne took his place, shifting Portland into a 4-4-2 formation. And Pa Modou Kah, in his MLS debut, stepped in at centerback for the suspended Mamadou Danso.
But thanks to goals from Rodney Wallace and Darlington Nagbe, as well as a clean sheet courtesy of that retooled back line, the Timbers triumphed all the same. In the process, they improved to 2-0-5 away from Jeld-Wen Field this season after going 3-21-10 on the road the past two campaigns.
“It just shows that everybody is ready,” Wallace said. “We have a good group of guys that anytime can come in and make an effect.”
With Valeri sidelined, Porter understood the designated player’s attacking flair couldn’t be replicated — so the Timbers didn’t try. By deploying a pair of target forwards in Piquionne (who assisted Wallace’s opener) and typical lone striker Ryan Johnson, Portland went more direct.
Although they entered the match averaging 57.9 percent possession, the Timbers saw just 47.8 percent of the ball Saturday. Yet their control of the game never felt threatened.
“[Valeri] is kind of the straw that stirs the drink for us,” Porter said. “We knew with him out we weren’t going to have as much creativity and possession, so we decided to go in a different route.”
While United produced plenty of pressure, Kah held his own in central defense alongside 20-year-old Andrew Jean-Baptiste. For a team that already has lost centerbacks David Horst (broken leg) and Mikael Silvestre (torn ACL) to long-term injuries, the 32-year-old’s quick integration into Portland’s scheme offers further optimism.
“Football is a universal language, the way you play,” Kah said. “Caleb is a coach who wants to play international football, and you see that. … Football is a team sport, so you just have to take your time to learn the system and do what you’ve got to do.”
Even though the Timbers went into Saturday’s tilt with a distinct game plan, there’s always room for improvisation. Looking to get Nagbe more involved, Porter decided to move the player up top early in the second half, swapping him with Johnson.
Moments later, Nagbe ran onto a Johnson chip before slotting home Portland’s insurance goal.
“The system and identity,” Nagbe concluded, “is working.”
With Portland’s unbeaten run overall now at 11 games, that much is readily apparent. And the Timbers’ ability to add variables to their winning formula makes them all the more imposing going forward — though Porter isn’t getting ahead of himself.
“In the locker room, we’re very humble,” Porter said. “It’s not like the guys are doing cartwheels in there. We’re happy, but we’ll move on.”
I am really taking a liking to the Portland Timbers and Caleb Porter. They have the right approach to the game and it shows.