Regression or progression? Why New York, Portland are off to slow starts
They were the feel good stories of last year’s regular season, but four weeks into the 2014 campaign, both the New York Red Bulls and Portland Timbers have yet to win a game. Perhaps more importantly, both teams are playing to their poor March records. After being blown out on opening day, the Supporters’ Shield-winning Red Bulls have earned three lackluster draws, while Portland’s struggles while drawing its first two at home have led to back-to-back losses on the road. While both teams started slowly last year, too, 2014’s brought new problems.
Even before opening day disappointments, both teams’ rise last season made them logical relegation candidates, with last year’s San Jose providing a great example of what happens when everybody comes back to earth. In 2012 under Frank Yallop, the Earthquakes surged from out of the playoffs the pervious year to the top of the league, claiming the Supporters’ Shield. Chris Wondolowski won Most Valuable Player, Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart had career years, while Simon Dawkins and Martín Chávez exploded on the wings. The likes of Rafael Baca, Steven Beitashour, and Justin Morrow had unpredictably good seasons, while Honduran import Víctor Bernárdez won Defender of the Year.
Fast forward one year, and everybody simultaneously regressed, perhaps predictably so. As a result, Frank Yallop was out of a job within months, and the Earthquakes had to rally under Mark Watson to finish on the edge of the playoff picture. The team regressed.
What does San Jose’s story tell us about New York and Portland? As it concerns the Timbers, it may tell us a lot. The list of players who had unexpectedly strong seasons under Caleb Porter is nearly as long as San Jose’s, from Ryan Johnson and Rodney Wallace in attack, to Will Johnson in the middle, to Donovan Ricketts in goal. Even Michael Harrington, on Kansas City’s bench the year before, and Jack Jewsbury, moving from midfield to right back, may have been unexpectedly strong performers, while Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe may yet prove regression candidates, too. Play devil’s advocate and be pessimistic, and Portland could be 2014’s San Jose.
The obvious problem: Portland can’t score goals, and it isn’t necessarily for lack of good chances. Yes, the quality of the chances can always improve, but when you see Diego Valeri flubbing shots at the edge of the six-yard box (vs. Philadelphia), Kalif Alhassen not hitting goal with open shots inside the arch (at Dallas), or Futty Danso missing opener headers at close range on corners (vs. Colorado), player performance is the issue. All the things that were going right for Portland last year -- those things that translated onto the scoresheet, into the stat columns, and into the standings -- may not be clicking thus far this season.
There is an alternate narrative, though. Whereas San Jose’s year-over-year improvement happened under the same coach, Portland brought in a new guy, somebody with a drastically different philosophy about how to play soccer. Moving from John Spencer to Porter (right), the Timbers also completely overhauled their roster, with only Nagbe and Diego Chara returning to the starting lineup in a similar role. If the concept of regression requires us to identify a mean or baseline, it’s almost impossible to tell what Portland’s should be. The player’s based level of play under one coach may be drastically lower than expectations under Porter.
In New York, however, the explanation may be two-fold. Yes, New York may have also punched above its weight, but this year’s problems may come down to an old cliché: If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind - an expression that actually has a practical application in professional sports. In a world where athletes’ performances start to diminish after a peak age, electing to carry over an old squad could mean taking a step backwards.
Thierry Henry is 36. Tim Cahill is 34. Jámison Olave is 32, while eight others who’ve seen time this year are 29 or older. New York may not only have exceeded expectations in 2013, but the advanced age of the squad means their recoil could be brutal, perhaps explaining why this season, in 360 uninspiring minutes, New York is playing like one of the league’s worst teams.
This is not to say the Red Bulls and Timbers are destined to fail, but if we’re looking for explanations as to why New York’s 0-1-3 and Portland’s 0-2-2, regression may be one of them. And for New York, age may be another. Four games is too few to draw any conclusions, but it is enough to note some potentially disturbing patterns. Teams shouldn’t blow things up based on one bad month, but they may need to develop plans in case the trend becomes undeniable.
If March was just an uncharacteristic stretch, New York and Portland’s results should improve soon. It’s also worth remembering: 2013 may not tell the story of how good these teams really are.