Friday, June 15, 2018

U.S. Open Cup, Portland Timbers 1-0 Los Angeles Galaxy: Good is Good, And That's Good

What Portland defeated tonight, helpfully translated.
Just real quick, in a fit of enthusiasm, I want to talk about the Portland Timbers' 1-0 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy in the U.S. Open Cup. This’ll be bullet-style (will it?) and refreshingly straightforward, but also stylistically frustrating. I walk the line…

When I talk about the Timbers being “good” - even in a post like the last one, where I’m shoving a ceiling on top of the conversation - a game like tonight is exactly what I’m talking about. This Timbers team is organized, it knows what it’s doing out there, and it has reasonable flexibility on top of all that. That’s how a team wins a “Cup” tournament - and, yes, I’m talking U.S. Open and MLS, if the stars line-up right - only Giovanni Savarese and staff haven’t figured out how to weaponize that yet, into the unstoppable force that wins titles without blinking. But it’s working well enough, like, nine games in a row well enough.

More to the point, Portland plays well. The team moves the ball to where it wants it to go well enough that I can poo-poo possession like the mediocre appetizer it is. The coolest detail comes with how they came up with a smart way to play the ball forward out of the back, especially against teams that press - i.e., diagonally, and outside-in; it doesn’t just beat the first line of pressure, it means the team can switch the play, or keep it on the same side.

After that, this Timbers team gets vertical real goddamn fast.

Also, Portland is fine without Darlington Nabge. I’m still trying to figure out if it’s not better.

Back to this particular Open Cup tie, LA came into this game 3-1-1…on that, um, just checked the opposition across that time (e.g., @ MTL, v. SJ, V. FCD (this was the loss; noted), @ Portland (the draw, and one of Portland’s flattest games of the season), v. RSL), and I take back what I was about to say, LA wasn’t quite so much on a tear as a run of reasonable expectations with good fortune riding in the side-car. LA is adequate at this point, maybe even playoff-reasonable, but that 3-1-1 amounts to getting results any team with a remote chance of success should get. In other words, this is a result to celebrate for the Timbers, but not get cocky about.

For those who do want to feel cocky, on the other hand (not judging; I’m raising my hand in that tentative way people do when they only think they know the answer), think about how Portland managed the keep-away, how they passed well almost as often as they did, the fact they created - what? - 4-5 quality chances, and that’s at a minimum. The defense cleaned up what it couldn’t prevent from coming in - and hats off and thrown on the ground in gratitude for the mighty, reverse goal-line header by Mabiala to make Portland’s one goal stand up.

Just to note it, even with Liam Ridgewell out, Portland has a decent four-man deep rotation in central defense right now: Mabiala, Tuiloma, Julio Cascante, and (worst-case) Lawrence Olum.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

FC Cincinnati 2-2 Bethlehem Steel FC: A Brand New Them (Dammit!)

Incredibly, I'm not first to that analogy.

This has to be quick. It’s late, I got all kinds o’ shit ahead in the next two days, etc. etc. etc. [Ed. – Disregard; I passed out in the pasta salad before I could post last night. Still I preserved most of the mess.]

Where to begin, usual caveat applies - e.g., this counts as my second, 90-minute game with FC Cincinnati - only with a twist - e.g., motherfuckers changed the whole damn line-up on me. I come from Portland, Oregon, people. Portland. It takes injury (and inexcusable) jogging to get knocked out of the Portland Timbers starting eleven. I’m used to almost pointless predictability in my line-ups, that’s all I’m getting at. Anyway, moving on…

FC Cincinnati cannot be happy with that game - i.e., the one where they broadly outplayed Bethlehem Steel FC from about the 15th minute, if with major ups and downs between that point and the end. (See here for all the stats and highlights on offer here; I'll try to find other sources going forward.) That game absolutely became Cincy’s for the taking after the 55th minute with the rather stupid sending off of Olivier Mbaizo, a Bethlehem defender(?) who tackled too hard and then couldn’t manage the slew of mini-provocations that followed.

Now, hold that thought, because a whole bunch of crazy crap happened roughly ten minutes after that sending off.

How to keep this short? OK, it took both teams a while to get rolling in the game, but FC Cincinnati generally took over when noted above, but Bethlehem still scored first, the cheeky bastards. That took a piece of raw persistence from Derrick Jones, someone Philadelphia Union fans should recognize (I think) and also definitely in the Top 3 players on the field tonight, but that also kicked the game into “give-a-shit” gear for both teams. Cagey switched to combative, to some extent. And that’s when things turned.

After Mbaizo lost too much of his shit to be ignored (he practically begged to be sent off), Cincinnati took advantage, even if it took 10 minutes to take advantage. Cincinnati’s two goals came within (roughly) one minute of the other, and they also followed from a sort of poetic justice. The guys who scored them - Russell Cicerone and Nazmi Albadawi - had been Cincy’s best players on the night, so seeing that rewarded felt good. Cicerone scored the prettier goal and he scored second, but the after-glow on that fucker got snuffed out under one minute later when Bethlehem’s theretofore invisible Fabian Herbers turned a short feed/burst of speed (relative to Cincinnati’s Jem De Wit) into Bethlehem back in the game. He leveled the score, and that’s where the game ended, 2-2, and with Cincinnati with the bigger disappointment.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

North Carolina 0-2 FC Cincinnati: Mostly Groping Toward Understanding


Hell adjacent, but also a start.
First of all, I’m gonna fuck up some names. Second, I don’t really know this team, FC Cincinnati, either, because this was my first 90 minutes with them. A speed date, if you will. That said, I think I picked up a reasonable sense as to who does what on FC Cincinnati, or at least this specific version of their roster. Or against this specific opponent. Again, this is the first step to me knowing what I’m talking about, and give it a month or two.

Hold on, backing up: FC Cincinnati beat North Carolina FC 2-0 in the Containment Area for Relocated Yankees, North Carolina (that’s Cary, NC). They looked reasonable for the win, but North Carolina gave them plenty of breathing room by taking…just terrible shots, more around than on goal. And that “around” was very general. As noted in my catch-up post on FC Cincy, they have a decent knack for creating wide-open chances, and tonight was no exception. There, I’m thinking their second, more than their first: when Nazmi Albadawi found Emery Welshman in that much space on Cincy’s right, it isolated the (surprisingly nimble) forward against (I’m guessing) Carolina’s left-sided centerback, and Welshman sat him right on his can with a cut inside, fired the shot, and, boom, FC Cincinnati bags their insurance goal in the 87(-ish) minute, game very much over, and Cincinnati three points clear on top of the United Soccer League’s Eastern Conference. (Just five points behind Western Conference leaders Real Monarch SLC; also this puts Cincy level on points with Timbers 2, but with a game in hand.)

To step back still further, it’s sort of a trip starting with this team where I did - i.e., tonight - but I don’t think my personal experience differs so much from an “O.G.” Cincinnati fan. (Again) This team is two years old and counting, for fuck’s sake, and, at time of writing, I’m not sure how new or old any of these twits are to the team. For instance, Emanuel Ledesma, team points leader, came over from the New York Cosmos just this season. Russell Cicerone, the player who stood out most tonight, turns out he’s a rookie, an at least one-time MAC player of the year award, and, no, I’m not looking that up, because who cares what you did in college, kid, but damn good game tonight. You made that first goal, but, wow, didn’t Danni Konig literally wrestle that fucker home? And that was Cincinnati’s first goal. Also, when did Konig sign? Ah, just May 2017.

My point is, players can’t have deep roots with this team, because this team does not have deep roots. There is no “street cred” with this bunch. We’re all fucking newbies at this rodeo.

Now, to the game itself and what it told me about who does what, I absolutely insist on beginning with the statement that you can’t possibly know the tip of shit about a team by watching one game. There are too many variables involved - starting with the quality of the opposition (wait for it) - to allow any reasonable person to think he (or she) can make any kind of firm statement about any player, the tactics, or just anything about a team after just one viewing. With that firmly in mind, dig this…

Portland Timbers 0-0 Sporting Kansas City: Touching the Ceiling

Welcome back, guys!
“Unbeaten in Nine”

Look, I’m happy about last night - if the performance more than the result - but I’m not having that shit. I pulled that from the official Portland Timbers webpage, so I get that Pravda-esque cheering comes natural, but “Unbeaten” isn’t good enough, not when it leaves two points on the table in consecutive home games. Basically, aim low enough and you risk shooting your damn foot. OK, enough of that.

Because I said “yes” to something I should have said “no” to, this review will necessarily be a little impressionistic. It’s not all a blur: for instance, I remember seeing “No. 32” for the Portland Timbers charge up the gut and asking the people around me at the bar, “Who is that? Is that Cascante?” only to see it was Marco Farfan ranging forward (from a more natural fullback position) and nearly stabbing home a goal. I also remember the name of the dude I introduced myself to after the game - for regular readers, this is the person I conversationally ambushed about a penalty kick last week. That thing where you repeat a name over and over until it sticks really does wonders for sufferers of CRS (that’s “Can’t Remember Shit”).

Farfan’s Foray (TM) didn’t make the highlights (I mean, what the fuck’s up with that? the kid had a moment), but the rest of them rang a bell when I saw them again (for the record, I have modified CRS; my memory works just fine if prompted correctly), and all the other prompts I have in front of me now confirm the same thing: the Timbers played pretty solid soccer in last night’s 0-0 draw at home against Sporting Kansas City. The game played out about the way you’d expect from two good, defensively-stout teams. Both sides found their chances, but they definitely had to look for them, and both sides contained the other’s biggest threats…again, take a bow, Marco Farfan (and welcome to the party, Modou Jadama).

I don’t have much to add about the game itself, but was instead going to move on to chatting about Portland’s game. That said, I just read the comments to the official recap, and I’m kind of glad I did, because it runs into the teeth of those comments. Loose suggestions of a “reorganized defense” come in and out of those (along with this question, which I very much second: “Are you really not considering Valentin a starter at this point?), and I guess I don’t get the premise. “Reorganized” from what?

To back up a little, seeing Lawrence Olum set a couple pre-game butterflies fluttering. He is, without question, a down-grade from Diego Chara (no offense intended, Larry), but Olum can play a role so long as you assign him a role he can play. That is, you’ll never get Chara’s manic herding dog dynamism from Olum, but he can clog the center and manage safe-not-spectacular distribution; playing him means resigning yourself to losing a little something on the attacking side, but, when you’ve got no choice…only the team does have a choice, and his name is Eryk Williamson, and I guess I’ll just leave it there. I don’t watch Timbers2 enough (or ever, I suppose) to make a case that Williamson should start over Olum, but that’ll remain an open question in this space till we get the real-world data to resolve it.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Guys, I've Met Someone: On a New Team, Swinging, and the Solution to Everything

Just 2015? No shit?
I’ve always prayed for this day, without believing it would arrive. At long last (fucking long, guys!) the much-fabled, oft-misunderstood Soccer Gods finally smiled on one of their longer suffering Jobs. (That’s me. I am Job. Or Gob. I hear some people do that.)

At various, yet shockingly consistent, and yet also virtually never wire-to-wire…um, years, since a severely misguided internet made it possible for every asshole (again, me) to write about Major League Soccer, without editing, never mind overseers, I have written about Major League Soccer. A three-four year stretch of me writing about the Portland Timbers in the lower leagues happened…and that might have two-three years, mind you. (And I can’t prove it either. Once I sour on a blog, I delete the motherfucker like I never knew it. Seriously, I am Cronos and I eat my children.) In most of those years, I tried to cover every part of whatever league I invested in most that season. That always ended with me overwhelmed, bummed, or jaded (in all honesty, it was jaded, like, 3/4 of the time) before the first ball rolled in the playoffs. Still, I could fake keeping up until, oh, 2010. Once expansion really kicked off…forget it. I’ve been gasping by Week 15, if not before, ever since. Even for the glory years with the condensed games.

That brings me to the miracle. Its name is FC Cincinnati, aka, the answer to my prayers and the solution to my problem. Also, the team that will join Major League Soccer in 2019.

If I haven’t mentioned that I was born in, and spent the first 13 years of my life in Cincinnati, Ohio, yes, I spent the first 13 years of my life in Cincinnati, Ohio. I once heard it said that Danny DeVito collects people from New Jersey, wherever he can find them; that’s me with people from Ohio, only the shy version of it. In other words, whenever I meet people from Ohio (or, sometimes, that general area of the Midwest, if mostly north of the Ohio River…um…), I quietly, but almost automatically love them. I left Ohio, basically, but it never left me. I’ll agree that identifying with a place you almost never visit doesn’t make much sense, but I still rarely go a week without thinking about Ohio. And which one of us is crazy, because I don’t think it’s me.

Close observers might have caught the pronoun I slipped in front of “Portland Timbers” up above. Yes, that was “my.” I stand by it. I love my Portland Timbers and I moved to Portland, Oregon not once, but twice in my life. I ultimately settled here  and that was very intentional. I love Portland. And yet I still look at real estate prices in Cincinnati from time to time…shit would blow the mind of a Portlander....

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Portland Timbers 1-1 Los Angeles Galaxy: The Plans to Our Personal Death Star

And, if it's been this easy all along...?
“The Timbers run unbeaten streak to seven, draw 1-1 with LA”
Ah, the pointless urge to euphemism. That's the text the Portland Timbers' website put over the Recap/Highlights for last night's home draw against the Los Angeles Galaxy. I don't bring up the euphemistic phrasing from a place of disappointment, either, because the Portland Timbers were bound to drop points at some point, and losing a game is inevitable, even at home. The educated guesswork I put into Friday’s tweet-storm preview titled me against the Los Angeles Galaxy as the team to stall Portland’s winning streak, but they did. Time, now, for the post-accident ritual of checking the vehicle for dents.

I can name one right away (warning: this is bullshit): I’d got it in my head that yesterday’s game was Portland’s the last game before Major League Soccer takes its World Cup Breather. It is not. I’m less surprised about me boning a detail than I am that people didn't take the time to point it out the error and/or ridicule me for it (which leads to deeper questions like, does anyone read this stuff? Eh, barely matters. I think of this site and others as my own Zork-level The Truman Show (a carefully crafted reality of my very own!), but, to drag this conversation back on track, the Timbers do have one more game to go (two, if you count the U.S. Open Cup, and do I count the U.S. Open Cup?), and that’s against Sporting Kansas City, in Kansas City, next Saturday, and hopefully at a more reasonable hour. [UPDATE/Correction: Calling all scientists: I've developed a really screwy reading block that causes me to read "at" where I should read versus. The game against SKC next weekend is in Portland, I have no excuse, and thanks to a guy named Justin, who reminded me that I need to correct my stupid. Corrections always appreciated, honestly, especially with such a simple fact. Please read the rest knowing I know that now.]

SKC at their place will be a tough game, and now this becomes a question about the size of a letdown. Dropping two points in the final game before the break didn’t seem like much - think stubbing a toe at the end of, say, the ski run of a lifetime. The team would have a couple, three weeks to screw their heads back into the straight position, and they’d still have six reasons for optimism in their back pocket for encouragement. What if the Timbers close out First Season 2018 (e.g., the one that ends with the World Cup break, because Apertura is taken), with just that one point taken at home, when three points looked well within reason? If you’d read this site at all, this gets back into a favorite game of “blip” versus “pattern.” Time to keep checking for dents…

Here’s my big takeaway on yesterday: the reason that Portland stumbled yesterday resides somewhere between their consistent failure to anticipate where the ball would go better than LA and, crucially, the reason for that. This showed up early - e.g., with the catch-in-yer-throat moment when LA’s Chris Pontius slipped ahead of Larrys Mabiala to toe one off the post. That about being the runner-up too often became the norm by the end of the game.. The Timbers still found their spaces on the field - and even set players loose in wide-open pastures behind the LA defense (especially down LA’s right) - but LA also had a really solid afternoon of cutting out passes to Timbers players who waited for the ball to come all the way to them. They also started gobbling up the outlet passes Portland has relied on to start the counters the team has feasted on throughout the, ahem, six game winning streak*. The question is why?

Monday, May 28, 2018

Colorado Rapids 2-3 Portland Timbers: The Simplest Joys (and Choices)

Life is better when time/space bends.
“I expect more of myself than that.”
- Samuel Armenteros, saying exactly what you want a player to say
Armenteros undoubtedly endeared himself to, well, every person who cries green and gold in either mood (joy and sadness, obvs), and he hit the perfect tone with his humble and hungry post-game interview with Nat Borchers. Diego Valeri, on the other hand, probably struck a deeper vein when he had his turn to chat with Borchers; so long as a team knows what it’s doing out there, the questions start and end with doing it and, in Valeri’s words, not thinking about the past. What I mean is, sometimes a pile of clich├ęs about just doing better, being better says everything. Especially when you’re on a six-game winning streak. Alternately (or not), there this:

“The Timbers probably aren't thinking much about the big picture.”
I lifted that from MLSSoccer.com’s recap, precisely because I’m not entirely sure what it means. These Timbers are playing well and just needs to keep doing…just that - i.e., as Valeri and Armenteros said, between them, they just need to keep doing what they do, only more and better. The scales balanced out in the box score, but a Colorado Rapids team looking for bright spots needs better. The Timbers, meanwhile, have all the good news they could possibly want: a confident road win where the opposition could only score through the Timbers defense - e.g., Julio Cascante’s trying-too-hard (but thanks for trying!) own-goal and a late, late show penalty that I, frankly, didn’t care enough to get upset about. And here’s why:
“I expect boring and low-scoring. Worst-case, the Colorado Rapids hold down the fort for 80+ minutes, then steal a goal/win after Portland’s legs/lungs give out.”


“Best case the Portland Timbers scores early, forcing the Rapids to play. Could run up the score on that  (8/10)”
That tweet, by me and one day before the game, amounts to what I expect to be a mediocre movie and walking out…just thrilled. This game was my Wachowski (Then?) Brothers' Speed Racer, basically, with way less cool lights/effects (OMG, it's full of stars) and perhaps a couple fewer fleets of fancy. Don’t me wrong: that’s a good thing. The Portland Timbers have again achieved the state of semi-boring, somewhat-reliable predictability that results in one win after another. Six wins, in fact.