Thursday, May 21, 2015

Toronto FC v. Portland Timbers: A Clash of Fine China

Next-level Red Rover....
To shorten these preview posts a bit, I’m going listicle on the Portland Timbers’ previews and, when looking ahead to other games, I’ll stick to talking up (or down) only those with a good hook/angle. And, yes, this Wednesday game business is driving me goddamn nuts, because Sporting Kansas City v. New England Revolution? That there was a quality match-up, friends. It looked just as good on the menu as it did when it arrived on the table. (A missed penalty, a dubious penalty, big soccer players making big soccer plays; had it all, I tell ya!)

On to the main attraction: Toronto FC v. Portland Timbers. First, let’s set the stage...

Toronto FC. The buzz-boys of 2015. Major League Soccer’s big spenders. As Twitter announced yesterday, they spent over three times what the Timbers did to create their roster (just north of $20 million versus just short of $6 million). And what has all that scratch bought them? Three points fewer than Portland – though they can go even on points by winning this weekend and a keep a game in hand to boot.

Will they do it? The trends read better than the results, at least some of them. TFC started 2015 on a seven-game road-trip. Said trip started great and ended well, but a chasm yawned between in the form of five straight losses that surely reminded every Torontonian of a deeply-cursed former life (shudder to think of the atrocities committed by the former selves of every player who has ever pulled TFC’s red jersey over his shoulder). But two wins in their final road games (cough, Orlando, cough, in the bad days, cough, cough, Philly!) sent TFC rolling back to an embiggened BMO Field confident and hungry. The schedule handed TFC an opponent that looked entirely beatable, too, in the Houston Dynamo. A clear day broke. Toronto fans provided the theater, chanting and marching their way to the field. Promise swelled like the biggest, ripest fruit the club had ever seen...only to burst into a rancid puddle when Houston cut into the skin.

Toronto didn’t do so great against the New England Revolution last weekend, either; most reports I read said the draw flattered them, so there’s that, too. So, will Toronto make that big, beautiful stadium bounce when the Timbers come to town?

Good question. An answer in three parts unfolds below, but, first, let’s put some framing around Portland’s side. The Timbers lost to that same Dynamo club, for starters - and by a bigger and, frankly, dumber margin. Houston might have run over Toronto, but the Timbers, in a fit of fuck-knows-what, invited their own demise. One could call last week’s loss passive, but passivity implies some form of life.

Nope. Still not out of my system. Time for the preview, which, per the Rules of the Internet, I’ll present as 3 Questions.

1) Will Caleb Commit? (This Weekend. Or Ever?)
While I hesitate to use the word “guilty,” I have counseled a little rope and a little dope as a game-day approach for the Timbers on a theory of “Absorb and Observe” – i.e., learn the opponent, etc. This one’s different: Portland should go at TFC and straight from the whistle. Portland may be mentally fragile, but porcelain-delicate psyches are as much a part of Toronto’s tradition as their red jerseys. Waiting for the other foot to drop is the club culture (as for Portland, hey, we’re working on it). Structural reasons in the current squad argue for this (see Point #2), but the underlying assumption of this directive relies on the Timbers committing enough numbers forward to accomplish it...but will Caleb Porter do it? Will he send forward enough players to put real pressure on TFC? Past games (and results) don’t even feint in the general direction of encouraging: set pieces aside, Porter’s “attack” typically sends four guys forward, five if the friggin’ tequila’s flowing around the bench. Here, though, I mean commit – five guys reliably and with a high line of engagement. Create those overloads that are part of the once-promising possession game; Portland should do their damnedest to possess deep – especially with a key player (Diego Valeri) back to make it work (honorable mention, The King of Keep-Away, Darlington Nagbe). Sure, there’s room for going direct, especially if it’s “on” – because, that switches the tempo, thereby adding more pressure – but one potential tactical aim relies on stuffing Michael Bradley against the top of his own defense...which segues nicely to...

2) Red Rover, Red Rover
Remember the childhood game, Red Rover, the one that one wins by, basically, lining up the smallest kid in a row of kids holding hands with an eye to running the little fucker straight over? That’s a pretty sound game-plan for TFC; it’s also why Portland should go right at them. Everyone knows about Toronto’s big names – e.g. Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley (and, yeah, Jozy Altidore, but he’s out and therefore trapped between parentheses) – but some budget players and, to be harsh about it, make-weights populate the rest of the roster. They’re all over the field, too – e.g. the promising, oft-naive Nick Hagglund in central defense; Ashtone Morgan wears the same descriptors but with less emphasis; Jonathan Osorio, the man of middling performances who tucks inside in front of Morgan; then there’s the mess/puzzle of choosing between Benoit Cheyrou (who has impressed me, but who doesn’t work great within the team) and Collen Warner, whose main role boils down to allowing Bradley to shine. Look, I’m not mocking these players – see the line/maybe proverb about stones and glass houses – but I’ve seen all these guys beat and thwarted in a rich variety of ways this season; Hagglund, in particular, has suffered outing that surely made his mom cry. To put some names on this, TFC has one consistently reliable defender in the person of Justin Morrow – which leaves three players to exploit in TFC’s back-line alone. This doesn’t even preclude running at Morrow, because a little keep-away on his side causes Toronto’s defense to shift and, two passes later, Portland could find a player or two on the weak side running at those symbolic stand-ins for the small children mentioned at the top of this section. Going at these guys – and generally trying to carry the attack – has the added bonus of occupying Toronto’s star players because there is some real talent there. And, dang me, if these aren’t seguing nicely today...

3) Portland’s Defense: Anomaly or Reality?
Last week was bad. 2014 bad. I have read at least three different interpretations as to who was at fault for each of the three goals Portland handed Houston – and that’s the sad, searing, scary thing about it: is that space-cadet crap Portland’s defense? Go back to the loss to Vancouver and one starts to wonder. Personally, I view last weekend (and The Vancouver Brain-Freeze) as anomalies; the Timbers have generally defended well this season. And yet staying sharp looms large for Saturday, because Toronto, even without Jozy, absolutely has the players who can mess up a sleepy/stupid defense. Hell, Giovinco can do it on his own, like he did against FC Dallas (if after a lengthy rain delay). Assuming the Timbers go forward – which, personally, I’m betting they won’t – the question only becomes more urgent. Isolate Giovinco against any Timber and he will fucking kill him; even getting his head up could pose game-threatening problems. If TFC has shown one consistent positive this season, it is a capacity to straight-up ball. While neither permanent, nor consistent, it is entirely real and, as we all know, Portland has fits of coughing crap up like an octogenarian smoker. In the event Portland doesn’t go forward, I consider Toronto eminently containable. It’s just that the Timbers more or less give up on attempting a win if they sit back.

To bring all that together, yeah, I think Portland can beat Toronto. At the very least, they can play well against them. To lean on a cliché, I expect central midfield to matter in this one, but with a meaningful wrinkle: Portland doesn’t need to control central midfield so much as they need to dictate what Bradley does in there. The Timbers don’t want him surging forward – at all – but they also don’t want him scheming from a deeper position. Hell, stick someone on him if/when it makes sense. Another key likely comes with preventing a scenario where Giovinco has only one Timber to beat, on either a pass or a run toward goal. Cutting down on set pieces would be good, too, but, wish-lists being what they are, I’d rather keep Bradley and Giovinco in some form of check and hope that’s enough.

Right, on to the rest of the mess. Or the good ones, anyway.

Columbus Crew SC v. Chicago Fire
I can’t quite find the hook in this one, but like the fish that winds up on land, I can’t resist the lure. The Crew should roll Chicago, especially at why don’t I think they’ll do it? I mean, is it really simple as that banner shot of Federico Higuain and Shaun Maloney at the top of the MLS homepage? On a deeper level (which I’m all about tonight, apparently), Columbus’ style tends toward a high-wire act and, on their day, I think Chicago has the tools to knock them off.

New England Revolution v. DC United
The marquee matchup of the weekend, probably, and made more interesting by New England’s loss to KC  last night and DC’s slight little hic-cough last Saturday against Philadelphia. For what it’s worth, I think the Revs are about to start a mid-season slip. A blowout probably won’t happen, but a slow, constricting strangulation? That’s a distinct possibility.

Colorado Rapids v. Vancouver Whitecaps
Yeah, yeah, obsessed with Colorado, I know. The smart money is on a draw (cruelly, and, no, I’m not kidding), but the ‘Caps road struggles give them as good a chance as any to actually grab three points. And if the Rapids new guys are out there, there’s the thing to watch for.

Seattle Sounders v. Sporting KC
Again, tonight’s result (as in KC beating New England) puts a little pepper on this tasty slab o’ meat (no, I don’t know why I went there). Poor finishing bailed out KC plenty of times – a favor the Sounders won’t likely repeat – but their star attacking talent also lived up to its considerable potential. Could be memorable, this one...

OK, and all done. Back at all y’all after the Timbers (stupid) early game (I call bullshit on 7 p.m. hangovers.

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