Friday, May 1, 2015

Portland Timbers v. Vancouver Whitecaps, Plus MLS Week 8 Previews

A fate to be avoided....
All the best stuff happens in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference for Week 9: DC United hosting Columbus Crew SC; New England Revolution v. New York Red Bulls; hell, even Philadelphia Union v. Toronto FC, if only to see if either the Union can sink deeper than the ocean floor, or Toronto can’t revive any team’s dreams of a better season.

I’ll get into all that below (briefly*), but I have to start with my preview for the game that hits closest to me.

(* I’m sure I’m not the only person who reads some of what I post here and thinks, "Yes, yes, you’re very clever. Please kindly get on with it.")

Portland Timbers v. Vancouver Whitecaps! Part Dos!
I somehow got it in my head that the Timbers had its best outing of the season the last time they played Vancouver. A couple errors in thought, there: 1) the win over FC Dallas – i.e. the hopeful highlight of this worrisome 2015 – came the weekend after; and 2) it turns out I crapped all over everything and everyone except Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell up to and until they 70th minute. It appears Portland turned it around after.

Related note: my gods, I am a bitchy, bitchy man. Good thing I don’t coach the team...

At any rate, my review of Portland's loss to Vancouver makes for interesting reading – especially in light of the somewhat trying times between here and there. First, and I note this fully aware that he has generated a lot of what offense the Timbers have managed, I stand by comments on Darlington Nagbe (e.g. the stuff about how long he keeps the ball and why he should shake that up – and more than a little; see second talking point). Second, and most painfully and obviously, mind the persistent, recurrent defensive gaffes; further, note that if it’s not Borchers and Ridgewell, it’s Kwarasey (see; MLS Week 8, e.g. "The Playful Kitten Goal"). La plus ca change, etc.

This week, however, something will change. Timbers fans know neither when, nor for how long, but the Timbers brass have been talking up Diego Valeri's return for this Saturday's game. This is, unequivocally, good news. No one player has made Portland's attack better, or more coherent, than Valeri over the past couple seasons. And yet, it's very, very wise to temper near-term expectations. Not that I’m speaking from actual knowledge, but I don’t think he’ll start, or even go 60 minutes; moreover, I wouldn't want Valeri out there for all that long. Ease the man in, and for the love of Christ do absolutely nothing that even remotely risks aggravating his injury. Ahem. All I want just a taste of Diego, a little early-season, one-nibble appetizer that will assure me that I’ll enjoy, what will be, a five-course goddamn extravaganza served up by Chef Valeri for the rest of the goddamn season.

As such, the rest of this preview (not much to go; stay with me!) will assume no, or minimal Valeri. On to some bullet points:

1) How I Want The Timbers to Line Up
And, wow, I LITERALLY just changed my mind on this. I was about to advocate for the 4-4-2 with an eye to getting the Timbers' overall line of engagement higher up the field. Given that the 'Caps attack best when they attack in transition, this feels like the opposite of what Portland should do. To throw something out there, I believe that Portland's 4-2-3-1 is a 4-5-PR-Stunt-1 – that’s to say, I think the club lays that out to put an attacking line-up on paper, while the team functions in a fairly defensive shape. I’m OK with this. Albeit with a caveat...

2) What (Former) Captain Jack Said
"The reality is our main role is on the defensive side."
That comment came up in comments Jack Jewsbury made about Valeri's impending return. And there's something a little disturbing in it. Last weekend, especially, Portland punched even with an essentially punch-less Seattle Sounders squad; I read this as a failure to commit numbers forward. Even if you don't accept that particular premise, please assume it in service of the following point: if Portland wants to win – and this is until Valeri’s return – the team needs to send either FC Jack (new nickname for Jewsbury) or Diego Chara (nickname pending) forward with some regularity. This isn’t an easy call, by any means, because I feel both players suffer their own limitations, but I’d make it FC Jack; Chara covers ground and breaks up play more effectively, and I think his passing is safe to the point of being obvious. Bottom line, though: Portland needs another player closer to the attack and more often. Diego will provide this soon, but the club needs something in the now.

3) Scouting Vancouver
When I think of the 'Caps in the context of them facing Vancouver, one name sticks with me: Octavio Rivero. Yeah, his goals have dried up a little since his early-season days of stealing the 'Caps three points on the weekly, but his upside, and the challenge he poses, becomes immediately clear if you watch even what he did in a wild effort against DC United last weekend. In a word, the man is relentless. He's mobile to boot – which gets at the clammy, arrhythmically-beating heart of the matter. If there's a big weakness among all of Portland's defenders, it's tracking players. A slippery shit like Rivero requires a lot of attention. Worse, he's got a cast of great-to-rockstar midfielders feeding him. Key on him too much, another Canadian (actual, or honorary/temporary) gets free; go back to them, and suddenly you’ve lost Rivero again.

The second point is this: Vancouver's defense has exactly two weaknesses: Pa Modou Kah and Kendall Waston's temper. Both outside backs are really, really good – even their depth is sound. Basically, scoring on the 'Caps will be hard. Matias Laba being out does hurt them, but Gershon Koffie is a solid back-up. And Russell Teibert's a straight-up pest.

Bottom Line
I feel that patience is key. If the Timbers have to chase this game, it's going to be three-legged-race complicated. The advice I have reads like so: start in an honest 5-4-1 to feel out the game, but definitely shift that thing to that 4-2-3-1 before too much of the 90 is gone.

I have some faith in this one. Honest.

OK, on to the rest of the mess.

Houston Dynamo v. FC Dallas
I feel goals in this one. Houston ships 'em, Dallas scores 'em. But it's April/May, Dallas' Season of Suck. Plus, there's a cannon involved! Eeeeeee!

Real Salt Lake v. San Jose Earthquakes
The equation is a little ugly on this one: RSL struggles to score, but defend pretty well; same goes for San Jose (from what I gather: all I know for sure is that I’m honoring my personal pledge to sit through the full 90 of a San Jose game for the first time this season).

Philadelphia Union v. Toronto FC
Philly's desperate energy meets Toronto's capacity to genuinely ball when they want to...and to cough up back-breaking goals: throw this one in a box, shake it up, and dump the contents on the ground. More interesting than most games this weekend, if you ask me. If I'm the Union, I am absolutely keying on Nick Hagglund.

DC United v. Columbus Crew SC
Cold, calculating discipline (DC) against (intended) artistry (Columbus). Kei Kamara ability to win just about everything passed/lofted toward him helps even out the physicality a little, along with the Crew’s back of feisty Argentines. DC doesn't need the ball to beat anybody. Which makes them a little maddening.

New England Revolution v. New York Red Bulls
The next feature in what promises to be a fun 'n’' full weekend (exception: DC v. Columbus; and Portland v. Vancouver, probably; or if only for the locals). The thing to watch here: if Red Bull can't get their infamous/occasional roll-‘em-like-drunks press rolling, New England's going to take full measure of their defense. In other words, this sucker could get awfully revealing...

Los Angeles Galaxy v. Colorado Rapids
One injury-ravaged squad meets another injury-ravaged squad. Add heavy legs for the Rapids and a home game for the Galaxy and this one appears pretty straightforward: three points for LA, only without the valiant effort. I'm expecting 1-0. Sadly, there will be no grudge match for Marcelo Sarvas (not that he’s ever so much as hinted at that mind-set).

Sporting Kansas City v. Chicago Fire
Another one with promise. If you have not watched David Accam play for Chicago, do yourself a favor and watch David Accam play for Chicago. I'm guessing (and I totally mean that) that KC lives and dies in this one according to how well they boss the midfield. And I mean that in the negative sense. If they can keep Chicago in front of them, I think they get this one.

New York City FC v. Seattle Sounders
I simply cannot imagine this will go well for NYCFC...

All right. That's the weekend ahead. Savor this one, people. Then again, this is from the same guy who thought Week 8 would suck.

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