Sunday, June 28, 2015

Portland Timbers' Win Over Seattle Sounders: The Tale of the Hydra

(In your best "Keanu," say) "What do you do? What do you do?"
Do I feel elation?

It's closer to contentment, which is better. Elation implies "surprise" on some level – as in, you're so goddamned excited, at least in part, because you didn't see the good thing coming. The cards set up pretty favorably for the Portland Timbers tonight.  They took down the Seattle Sounders 4-1 in Portland, but that was hardly a surprise with Seattle limping in with half the line-up missing (more on that later). The Timbers fielded a team (sorry!) One and a Half Men short of the best (Liam Ridgewell and, for some, uptight dickholes, (e.g., me), Maximiliano Urruti on the bench accounts for the other missing half) and that was more than OK. The Timbers first team,'s pretty goddamn good lately. The basic math works pretty simply: Portland(2) > Seattle (0.5). So, no, I'm not elated. Content? Yes, and all kinds of.

With the way this set up, the Timbers had to win this game. Blowing out Seattle complemented the evening elegantly (?) as a shot backs a beer, but a win, any win, was all Portland needed to back up the argument that the Timbers' own blowout loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy was an anomaly, the soccer equivalent of putting in overtime on a bad night at the office, sucking the rust off a trailer hitch, etc. etc.

All that's great (and gross), but the greatest thing slips sweetly into the talking points:

1) All Cylinders Blazing
A couple posts went up on this site a couple weeks back that looked at how reliably the Portland Timbers forwards score goals. The final tally pointed to a pattern that was, 1) historically/statistically underwhelming, and 2) something like the norm in MLS. Fanendo Adi knocked in two tonight (and the, he loves us!), but the thing that most struck me about the Timbers attack against Seattle tonight was how Portland spread the chances among different players. Greek mythology taught as that killing the Hydra is a bitch, and tonight's game showed how hard it is for teams to contain an attack that's finding openings for everyone to fire on goal. Jorge Villafana lined up; Gaston Fernandez had his rips; Diego Valeri pinged a couple goal-wards; then there was Adi and, hallelujah, Darlington Nagbe...of which more below: Seattle faced shots from all over tonight and from four or five players, particularly in the first half, which made deciding which head to shut down a working example of the Choice Paradox. If there's a camp that argues that the Timbers attack best when it attacks amoeba-istically (not a word), I am in the camp. Portland just doesn't play better when the midfielders fire as much as the forwards, I believe that Caleb Porter (with, to be clear, zero knowledge of his mind) arranges the attack with this in mind. That explains (to me, anyway) why Portland sends only a couple attackers into the box to fight for crosses – i.e. instead of "crashing the goal" Porter coaches players to run behind the play sniffing for passes cut back from the wings, or rebounds to clean up from goalkeeper bobbles. No less importantly, those shots from range keep a defense honest by forcing them to step to the midfielders. That opens up channels behind the first line of defense for the forwards, channels that Adi and Urruti can use to run onto goal. And, again, nine goals ain’t bad for Adi, for Portland, especially midway through the season. I checked. But no less impressively...

2) Secret Weapon Deployed (Finally)
Sure, his goal came from a space above the Sounders 18 that they mysteriously left open on two occasions prior, but, at long last, Nagbe heeded the prayers of the Timbers' faithful and shot the goddamn ball already. And how! And how. He piled on by making Portland's second, without question: that run absolutely flummoxed Seattle's midfield. And Adi's finish. Again, subtle as garlic rubbed around the inside of a bowl (just came to me; read a few recipes this week). For the first time this season, Nagbe seized man of the match honors according to all three (of the little) judges (who live in my head; Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of them): timing, technique, ability, hunger; when a prodigy lives up to his billing, it's something to see. The small part of me that watched Nagbe tonight and wants to bleat "about time" can kiss my rosy-red ass. All I want to say to Nagbe is, thank you, and more, please. Point #1 gets at why it’s so important. Defenses forced to defend shots from Nagbe (and Valeri and Villafana and Will Johnson and Fernandez) will have to choose more often to shut down the shot than to double-team, or, better still, even follow, runs by Adi or Urruti.

3) On Beating Up the Toady
I think everyone knows this, but it bears repeating, underlining, maybe even bolding. The Sounders team Portland beat tonight isn’t anything like Seattle’s Best. Michael Azira will measure up to Osvaldo Alonso, maybe, when Alonso’s 42, 43. Lamar Neagle is a great second forward, but something less as a first forward; Chad Barrett will try all day long, maybe even pull off the odd moment or two (memories...of a time in Van-cou-VVEEEeerrrr!!): put together, these players combined to make one Obafemi Martins or one Clint Dempsey (and a better behaved one, too), but not both. Riding those three guys alone, Seattle generally bullied the Western Conference in 2014 - Dempsey absolutely shit on a sure Timbers win damn near all by his lonesome - tonight, though, the bully was grounded. So he sent out his toadies to see if they could hold down the block. Nope. Anyway, the thought process here goes back to something at the top: I'm content with this win because the Timbers losing to Seattle with half its starters missing...well, it would have looked bad. And felt worse. It would have painted the club's first ever four-game winning streak as a potential trick of the imagination, a gambler's hot hand, one that the house is about to con into taking more chips after plying him with women and drink. And great, great shows. Great shows.

A look at the absent players for Seattle noted above reveals a pattern: they're all attacking players, right? And that's the deeper point – call it point 3(a) given all the absences - the Timbers should absolutely have contained the Sounders' attack. And they did, that one (sleepwalking) goal aside. What's most encouraging tonight, though, is the fact that – let's call this 3(b) – the Timbers attacked a reasonably stout, and mostly starting, Sounders defense a couple notches above ably. The box score tells the story. Do the Timbers attackers owe some part of those 23 shots (11 on goal!) to Alonso’s absence? Probably. Or, to put it another way, please keep playing like you do, Portland. Stay frosty...

Well, think those are my biggest thoughts on tonight. The defense looked fine (even if tested below the regular standard), and I absolutely owe Diego Chara an ode of some kind, Valeri still looks rusty to me, but that's OK, Adam Kwarasey still has this sometimes-maddening habit of catching crosses behind the attacking player, etc. etc.

This was a good win, though. The first 30 minutes looked as good as anything I've seen out of the Timbers this season, especially with no advantage in energy, or being a goal up, etc. And all those goals? Total keepers, all of 'em. A glimpse of what this club can do, when, per talking point #1, they're filing on all cylinders.

Pouring a beverage now and contemplating brilliance of the blue sky. Salud!

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