Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Portland Timbers Review/Preview, Week 4/Week 5: Little Things, When Big Things Are Needed

Portland needs this guy. He's pinning stuff down blind.
Caught in a crazy, busy week here at Conifers & Citrus, I don't have the time to do the usual Tour d'Agony through all that Portland Timbers-related commentary and speculation. Then again, is it really necessary? I mean, we all know happened, right, in that distasteful loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps? A mighty comeback, even a near-win via Fanendo Adi's second crack at damn, dirty David Ousted (there's yer twitter handle, son; I suggest you take it), undone when That Goddamn Pass met a Keystone Kops Kaper from Nat "Natty Bo" Borchers and Liam [Nickname Pending] Ridgewell ("Ridgey" is wholly inadequate). It's a sad song, but at least we all know the tune.

Even with Matthew "The Armchair Analyst" Doyle threatening to provide numbers that demonstrate that Darlington Nagbe roared like a lion through March (on Twitter; and then Doyle provided; well worth the read), I'm done looking back...Oh, all right!

I'll keep my over-arching point short and sweet. Sure, the second defensive collapse of the season is a big, glum cloud, but a silver lining surrounds it: the Timbers played decently last week, and are playing decently enough, despite the absence of two key players (arguably more once one throws in Ben Zemanski, who can help kill games, and Jack Jewsbury, who (I don't care what anyone else says), provides a range of passing in deep midfield that helps the team overall). Portland has been in every game, complete with good-to-great spells. It's just pinning down the result that causes the headaches and absence of points.

This week's brief Tour d'Agony supported that point and it didn't. Stumptown Footy's Chris Rifer put together what was, in all honesty, a compact, yet nutritious review of the season so far in service of arguing that coaching isn't the problem. And, yep. Chris Gluck compiled a bunch of stats for the same site, which revealed where the Timbers came short. Or didn't. That's the funny thing with numbers, when it comes to soccer: too many damn variables – e.g. possession against this team isn't possession against that team. Gluck notes the averages, though, which I'm sure communicates something. Uh...moving on to the familiar ground of naked speculation.

My favorite talking point of week came from The Oregonian's Jamie Goldberg, who pulled a question out of a substitution: what caused the Timbers to become so much more effective last Saturday when Dairon Asprilla came on for Maximiliano Urruti? Rooty-Tooty-Maxi-Urruti whore that I am, I'm pretty resistant to the evidence of significant improvement after the substitution, even as my own lying eyes bore witness. My own personal short answer is this: while I've seen Adi do serviceable hold-up work, I don't think that's his full-game strength; as such, Adi and Urruti don't fit the big, small forward system all that well. What Portland had instead was two guys doing well to pressure the ball, while failing to do a whole lot together.

Could that pairing improve with time? Probably. On a deeper level, Asprilla's day fits better with how the Timbers attack: a little deeper through their midfielders crashing in off limited post-up work from Adi. Just a theory, one that feels like it needs more thought...hmm...

That brings the conversation to this weekend's home game against undefeated FC Dallas. For me, Dallas plays like Vancouver, only better. They replicate a lot of the pieces – e.g. Michel for Pedro Morales (I find the former more consistent), Fabian Castillo for Kekuta Manneh/Erik Hurtado, Chris Hedges and Zac Lloyd for Kendall Waston and, well, Diego Rodriguez for one game, and Pa Modou Kah for two. While I'll admit the comparison at central defense is apples-to-pears at best, these teams follow a similar template: a run-'n'-gun attack backstopped by a strong defense. Vancouver's Octavio Rivero has made a strong start in MLS, but Dallas has a proven answer in Blas Perez; his history of cool finishes (and, yes, sleazy antics) aside, Dallas' Panamanian probably even does a better job of combining with teammates in dangerous areas. If nothing else, Portland should be prepared for what Dallas throws at them.

For all Dallas' talent, set-pieces count as the biggest concern with Dallas. Portland's defensive mids – Diego Chara and, presumably, George Fochive – along with Timbers right back, Alvas Powell, cough up a lot of free-kicks around the area. Borchers and Ridgewell handle the resultant service better than Ridgewell and Kah, but it's not every week that Portland faces service at Michel's level. The next worry comes with Castillo's potential to unsettle Portland's defensive shape just about anywhere on Dallas' left/Portland's right – as in, where Powell plays. All this could be worse – the open-play stuff in particular – if Mauro Diaz suits up for Dallas after missing Week 4. (Last I heard, though, he was "training normally," only he wasn't.)

All in all, though, I feel more nervous about that than panicked. I like the Timbers chances at controlling the heart of midfield, between Chara and whomever Caleb Porter pairs with him. Villafana does well enough on both sides of the ball that the main adjustment should come with helping Powell manage Castillo – something else that feels pretty doable. My guess is that they'll invite Portland forward to create space for Castillo. It's important for the Timbers to stop Dallas; of secondary importance is giving up as few free kicks as possible. Dallas will pose problems, but there are ways to limit them.

The question is what players Portland will use to answer. Adi has proved too reliable at this point to start someone else in his stead...uh, then there's Nagbe, who, often as I fault him, has done more to carry the attack for Portland this year than any other Timber. And the attack is doing well enough, even with Rodney Wallace not quite started, and Asprilla still learning the team – but looking pretty damn promising last weekend, uh, the crosses aren't working, but the little over-loads have been...

...I guess the point is that it's not so much about personnel as it's about Portland doing the same things they've been doing, only a little better. And to knocking off with the fucking up. Damn, that seems unglamorous. Still, I think starting Asprilla over Urruti makes as much sense as anything. That's just a little wrinkle, though, and that points to a draw when the Timbers really need to get the full three points.

No comments:

Post a Comment