There is a lot of Cascadia in this week's MLS learnings...
1. Real Salt Lake and Portland Timbers are two sides of the same coin
Caleb Porter won the league's Coach of the Year award last year for winning the Western Conference in his first season in charge of a MLS club. His Timbers played some pretty soccer along the way, and despite drawing almost half their games (15 out of 34), they also won pretty often (14) and finished just two points behind Mike Petke's New York Red Bulls in the Supporters' Shield race. (Say what? He too was a rookie coach and he actually won a major trophy with a squad cobbled together in haste and desperation, despite having no time to prepare a "system" or really make any long term tactical plan beyond trying to win more games than he lost? You make an interesting point, but this is not the time or place for it.)
The 2013 performance of Porter's Timbers was a subject of much breathless excitement amongst the league's commentariat: here was a coach with the confidence to pursue a slick, pretty passing game - and he was getting the results to justify his vision.
Curiously, the reason the Timbers impressed everyone in 2013 but emerged without a trophy of consequence was because of MLS's other smooth-passing, system-based team: Real Salt Lake. Jason Kreis had patiently built a team around his own particular idea of how the game is best played, and the result was one of the league's more consistently good sides. It was also a side capable of besting the Timbers almost every time they met: RSL took two draws and a win out of three meetings with Portland in the league; beat Porter's men in US Open Cup, and again in the MLS playoffs. (What's that? Kreis's team didn't win anything of note either but were clearly better than the Timbers, and somehow the league felt RSL's coach wasn't as good as Portland's? Hush now - I said this wasn't the time for this sort of chat.)
RSL was definitively better than Portland last year. And RSL is definitively better than the Timbers this year: Salt Lake is the only unbeaten team in MLS; as of Sunday's 1-1 draw with Houston, Portland is winless in its first eight games of the season.
It is still too early to say whether the pattern of results for either club has any great significance for their year. The Timbers would be insane to fire Porter: he's in just the second year of rebuilding a pretty awful team (Portland lost the plot in 2012, mailed in the season, and finished 17th out of 19); he needs time, even if these results endure and Portland is winless through June. Conversely, RSL lost Jason Kreis to NYCFC, and it is not yet clear whether the early good form is the team running on the memory of its old coach, or whether the system he left behind is strong enough to survive the loss of its inventor.
What we can say at this stage - as RSL closes out its second consecutive month without losing and Portland ponders the meaning of a winless March and April - is that these two teams are currently representing the upside and the downside of the system-based approach.
For RSL, there is the upside: a good system, when it is well understood by players and staff (Salt Lake's current coach, Jeff Cassar, was a long-time assistant to Kreis), can be bigger than the man behind it. For Portland, there is the current downside: when a system isn't apparently working effectively, it is difficult to do anything other than keep hoping it will work - to do otherwise would be to undermine the coach, and without Caleb Porter, the entire team-building strategy for the past two years is tossed out the window.
Both teams picked up draws this week. Each has accumulated five ties so far. The narrow difference between them is that RSL won the other three games it has played, and the Timbers stumbled to three losses.
Right now, most teams in the league would happily take RSL's record and not one wants to be Portland. But they are two versions of the same story: a narrative that suggests there is one way to play the game right, and that's the way you play - rain or shine.
RSL's current record is the light at the end of Portland's current tunnel; and the story of the Timbers' 2014 to date is the nightmare Salt Lake's executives hope never visits them this year.
2. Portland's task is daunting
There is no reason for despair in Portland: the club's three losses have all been on the road, and it now has three consecutive games in front of its home crowd to shake off the memory of its dismal start to the year.
It should be noted, however, that the Timbers currently have the fewest points in MLS and every time they drop points, the task of making the playoffs gets harder. Last year, the lowest points total to make the cut for the postseason was Montreal's 49. The year before, it was Vancouver's 43. The year before that, RBNY's 46.
Every year since the league went to a 34-game schedule, team's have snuck into the playoffs with fewer than 50 points. But in the last two seasons, since the unbalanced schedule was put into effect, only one team per year has managed to get to the postseason with less than 50 points.
The most secure route to the playoffs is to get to 50 points as quickly as possible, and then see how many more will be required to secure a favorable seeding, or the Supporters' Shield.
The Timbers currently have 5 points and 26 games left. Plenty of time, no reason to panic. But to get to 50 points, Portland will need to run through the rest of the season at a rate of 1.73 points per game. Only three teams in the league are currently picking up points at a faster rate - FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders - and 1.73 ppg sustained over a season would have been good enough for the second or third best record in MLS over the last couple of years.
So to be just good enough to be in playoff contention, the Timbers need to be very good for the rest of the year. Even then, being very good for the next 26 games will likely only yield a low playoff seed - though, of course, Portland will have been so good for so long that no one will much care about the seedings, the Timbers will be one of the teams everyone else is hoping to avoid.
3. Seattle could be about to break free
The Sounders are on a roll: this week's 4-1 thumping of Colorado Rapids at home confirmed the suspicion that the run of form they put together on the road (two wins and a draw on a three game road trip over the last three rounds of MLS) was not encouraging news for any team heading to play in Seattle.
The team can now look forward to two more home games, and if both are won, the Sounders will be alone at the top of the league. The only team that could match Seattle's potential 22-points-from-10-games total (if the next two games are won) is FC Dallas - and the Sounders have already beaten FCD this season.
4. It is time to take D.C. United seriously again
The next step this team must take toward erasing the memory of its legendarily awful 2013 is to record its first win on the road for 2014. The club opened the season with five out of seven games at home. Over the next two weeks, DCU will travel to Portland and Philadelphia - two teams currently at a low ebb.
DCU's recent form gives it the right to expect to get some points on its forthcoming travels. And it does not, it can look forward to another lengthy home stand (three of its last four games in May will at RFK) to close out its May schedule.
DCU got 10 points out of April, and should now be expected to match that haul (at least) in the next month of the season.
5. Titi is on the brink of some big things
First, his goal against Houston was his 45th in all competitions for RBNY. It put him level with Clint Mathis on the club's all-time scoring chart: Henry is now the team's joint-second highest scorer of all time. His next goal will give him second place all to himself.
Second is probably where Henry will finish on the all-time scoring list, since he's 18 goals short of passing Juan Pablo Angel's club record 62 goals in all competitions. More likely, however, is Henry setting a new all-time record for assists. He got two in the Houston game, which lifted him past Dan Richards into sole possession of third place on that particular list. He needs seven more to match the current record of 39, jointly held by Amado Guevara and Tab Ramos.
Also, Henry's two games in week eight brought him his 98th and 99th appearances in MLS's regular season. His next game will mark his 100th MLS regular season appearance.
There are some milestones ahead for the RBNY captain. Not that he will care - the only record he appears to be interested in is winning RBNY's first ever MLS Cup.