Shaky defense could keep Portland Timbers from MLS title contention

There has always been something Jekyll and Hyde about Caleb Porter's Portland Timbers.

In the early years of his tenure, there was a notable contrast between the confidence with which they took leads and how nervously they protected them. Last season, the dichotomy was between home and away: They dominated opponents at Providence Park, yet finished as the only team in the league without a single road win.

So far this year, the divide can be drawn along the midfield stripe.

Portland's attack is as fearsome as any in Major League Soccer and leads the league with 20 goals in 10 games. Defensively, however, it has been shaky. The Timbers have conceded 15 times, more than any Western Conference team occupying a playoff spot.

Just last weekend, they were torn up 3-0 by a San Jose Earthquakes team that doesn't often strike fear in opposing back lines.

The Timbers' attacking front is so good that they are almost assuredly a playoff team despite the defense. But if they want to be considered title contenders on the level of Dallas and Toronto, they must improve on the other end.

It's not as though Porter and the Timbers' front office are unaware of the deficiency. There has been a hole at center-back ever since now-retired Nat Borchers tore his Achilles last July, and it wasn't a position of strength even before his injury.

Some of that is bad luck. Nigerian international Gbenga Arokoyo was supposed to contend for a starting spot but suffered a season-ending Achilles injury during the first week of training camp. Journeyman 32-year-old Lawrence Olum was acquired to provide depth but has instead started all 10 matches.

Portland targeted a new central defender throughout this offseason, just barely missing the deadline to add a new piece before the spring transfer window closed Monday.

"We missed it by the skin of our teeth," Porter said in a phone interview.

As ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle reported earlier this week, reinforcements will arrive in July -- but no sooner. There are a lot of matches between now and then, including two against bitter rival and defending champions Seattle Sounders.

It's a cause for concern more than downright alarm. Last weekend's performance in San Jose was poor, but it was also just one game. Portland isn't Minnesota United, who have given up 25 goals in 10 games, including a mind-boggling 11 in their first two.

"We're very close," starting center-back Liam Ridgewell said. "We're still learning and still getting used to each other. But that's football. We're gelling and coming together."

Ridgewell also responded "that's football" to brush off concerns that Portland's openly shopping for new defenders could impact the psyche of the current group. The Englishman has been around for long enough to understand the business side of it. "It's good that the organization is growing," he said. "It's great to have competition."

Especially in comparison to recent seasons, the Timbers have given themselves a comfortable buffer above the playoff cutoff line, should that San Jose loss turn into a slump. Portland has been a notoriously slow starter under Porter -- prior to this season, it had managed just one March win in three years under the head coach -- but 2016 was a wake-up call.

The Timbers didn't start defending their title with any kind of urgency until late May, and despite a nine-game unbeaten streak between then and mid-July, by then it was too late. They missed out on the postseason by a single win.

"It was a little kick up the ass," Ridgewell said. "... It has focused us all in from the beginning."

They've already banked more points than that had by June of last year. Portland's two road wins are already two more than the team managed a season ago, and the 2-2 draw at FC Dallas late last month was also an impressive result.

"When we're at full strength and we're healthy and clicking, we can beat anybody in the league," Porter said. "But that's the league. ... We have shown in our results that we can win home and away. We also showed that if we don't show up, we can lose to anybody too."

The key is consistency, with the good Timbers taking the field more often than the bad. That means defensive competency, at the very least, providing just enough support for that electric front six. If the current group can't manage that, it means nailing that summer signing if Portland is to legitimately challenge for MLS Cup.