Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Portland Timbers at Mid-Week: Looking Back (at RSL), Looking Forward (at LA)

No, no, no! It'll be too late by St. Patrick's!
The question that has preoccupied me since, oh, last weekend – not coincidentally, when I learned of it – was the history of barren March...shit, what's the plural of March, the month? Marches? Anyway, it seems that Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter has never won a game in March. So said Stumptown Footy in its 3 Questions post after last weekend's draw to Real Salt Lake. Call it one of those fluky stats that is defining in some mysterious way. The Timbers haven't won in March since entering MLS. Damn.

A couple notes on that. First, picking up a win in March won't come easy in 2015. Portland has the Los Angeles Galaxy this Sunday. After that, it's back-to-back away games against Sporting Kansas City (shit!) and the Vancouver Whitecaps (shit. punctuation matters here). Second, the reviews are in on Portland's draw against RSL and they read least when judging the quality of the contest. "Playoff intensity" says World Soccer Talk (well, roughly). There were more raves, but I won't link to them. Expecting people to sit through all those damn podcasts is a big ask, but, scout's honor, plenty of pods talked up the on-field quality of Portland v. RSL.

Sadly, that doesn't translate directly on-field quality for the Timbers: power rankings from, in particular, put the Timbers at the barest edge of the playoff picture, but a couple other rankings recognized the recurring role of one Nicholas Rimando in thwarting Portland from, to borrow a phrase, being all they can be. MLS's site put it best with their one-word summary: "Rimando'd."

That's last week: what about Sunday's match against LA? I took in the second half of LA's season/league opener against the Chicago Fire. Unlike, oh, everyone on the friggin' planet, I saw a bit of good in Chicago (meanwhile, the rest of the world would relegate them to youth soccer were such things possible), but LA won that game by doing what LA does – e.g. defending resolutely and picking up the necessary goal(s) to walk away with three points. Or a trophy. Look, the Galaxy's first goal was garbage. Jose Villareal did well to finish the chance, but that bounce was luc-ky. Said goal smothered Chicago's already limited will to live and the Fire finished the game running toward locked, enough with the implied evil nursing home metaphor: LA won and it's their defense, combined with that knack for scoring whenever the hell they wanna that worries me.

Portland's defense has garnered well justified praise since last week's outing. As it turns out, talk about the Timbers improved defense predated First Kick; however you weigh its worth (call me mildly dubious), the Timbers are on a shut-out streak of some magnitude. And that's the first step toward picking up at least a point. Which is good...but how does the club get to three points?

Diego Chara might take the field Sunday, but that's the only expected change of any magnitude from last weekend. Personally, I'd hold off on starting Chara till he's fully recovered; with George Fochive playing at a solid level, why push it? Sure, Porter could pair Chara and Fochive, but how does that make sense given the generally positive reviews of Jack Jewsbury's shift in the opener? Given a preference, I'd put in Chara late, maybe as early as halftime, in order to get him back with the club in a real-time match situation. Just sayin'.

That leaves the real question: how to pick up that March win for Porter against a rock-solid defensive outfit like the Galaxy? Because that requires goals...

Slide 2 (yet Page 3, somehow) of The Oregonian's "Five Takeaways" post after the RSL game addressed the formation – e.g. how the 4-3-3 worked for Portland. Personally, I found Fanendo Adi near useless against RSL, but size doesn't buy much against beasts like RSL's duo of Jamison Olave and Chris Schuler. LA paired Leonardo and Omar Gonzalez against Chicago, which is solid, but they're not the same physically. I raise all that by way of wondering whether Adi is the solution at forward. Or if the 4-3-3 is the way Portland wants to go against LA?

OK, let me back up. By all accounts, 1) LA didn't play all that well against Chicago; and 2) Chicago was absolutely wretched. What I'd like more than anything else is to have Adi battling LA's large, yet less violent centerbacks, with a speedy forward like (my favorite) Maximiliano Urruti running off him. The pisser comes with the effect two dedicated forwards does to the midfield – e.g. can the Timbers really line up Rodney Wallace, Darlington Nagbe and Dairon Asprilla with only...uh, Jewbury, Chara or Fochive as defensive mid? Against LA?

Uh, no. You give away legs, health, and experience, respectively.

Given that, Portland is probably doomed to play a 4-3-3, one much like they played against RSL...which I just decided, per MLS's "line-up" page on their recap, was closer to a 4-2-3-1. Whatever, still no room for Urruti and you have the same problem in midfield.

Breaking down LA is going to be hard. It was always going to be hard. I wish I had solutions, but I'm not sure where the roster presents them. My best stab would be replacing Adi with Urruti, but that replaces Adi's hold-up play with trying to get past LA's admittedly slower, less scary centerbacks on the ground. I'm not sure that's an improvement, in all honesty.

I don't envy Porter on this decision. Personally, though, I'd stick with Adi. The question is, which midfield player you task with sticking close to him for knock-downs. And I'm not sure who he picks between Wallace, Nagbe, and Asprilla. Seriously. No idea. Shit.

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