Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Revolution Comes to Portland: A Preview (+ More MLS Week 14!)

Like New England, only with WAY better kits.
(Editor's NOTE: The rush of a week’s worth of new sights and sounds meant I never made time to circle back to the Portland Timbers' win over the Colorado Rapids. (Bad amateur pundit!!) As such, that will inform the preview below as...context, I guess? And only in the first paragraph.)

For those who haven't heard, this weekend's game against the New England Revolution affords the Timbers the opportunity to do something they've failed to do since ascending into the Major League Soccer orbit – i.e. win three games in a row. One would think that, surely, Portland managed this during the annus mirabilis that was 2013, but apparently not. It’s not inconceivable that trip-‘n’-sputter run goes all the way back to the Timbers USL days…not a ton of hot streaks come to mind (but, yes, in 2009; holy...they even managed a five-game streak!).

Will the visiting Revolution squad play a sufficiently pliable (Homecoming) victim? Tough to say. As I think everyone knows by now, neither Jermaine Jones nor Juan Agudelo will suit up for New England on Saturday (injury and international absence, respectively). Such details sweeten Portland's prospects a little given the Revolution's recent run of form. Let's just say that games 4-9 (5-0-1) treated New England a hell of a lot better than games 10-14 (0-1-4). Game-day opposition might have played a role - the clubs beat in their earlier, glory run (e.g. Colorado, the Philadelphia Union (at their worst), and Real Salt Lake) are on the opposite side of the standings from the clubs they faced in later, leaner games (e.g. DC United, Sporting Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Galaxy) – but there's something neither here nor there, and both here and there, about New England in 2015.

To clarify that last mess with clean numbers, the Revolution scores like Seattle, but defends like New York City FC (well...that's among others with the latter, honestly, but most clubs who come near their 18 goals-against aren't doing so hot).

Excited as I am about this one (and I get to go to (half-)watch it live!), this game, along with several others, let Week 14 shape up pretty nicely. I'll do little bullet/point-of-interest previews for those games after previewing the main event: Portland Timbers v. New England Revolution. Let's go with...five talking points this time.

1) New England's Tale of (Some) Woe (and Some Self-Destruction)
I noted the Revs run of form above, but I didn't provide much in the way of context – e.g. they were (arguably) undone by a terrible PK v. KC; then there was the moment(s) of madness against DC with two red cards to Chris Tierney and Lee Nguyen (both of whom will be back Saturday, it bears noting); and it all ended with some a lucky bounce or two in the down-pour against LA...and, yes, one would figure that such weather conditions would favor the Revs, but there one goes. If you watch any of New England's games, condensed or otherwise, you will see a team that knows how to attack – and well. The weird thing is that they've given up 7 goals over those last three games, and, frankly, none of them look all that unforgivable. I mean, what else can Jones do when Dom Dwyer does this? This is also the same team that unearthed one of the great central defending revelations of 2015 in the person of Andrew Farrell. Still, the Revs are coughing up goals, thereby obliterating all the good work they’re doing on the other end. The point is, if the Timbers go down, the last thing they need to do is hang their heads.

2) Again with the Midfield Battle
Surely, this is the cliché-iest of clichés in soccer: that the game will be won in midfield. Again, Jones will be out, but I wish Jay Heaps had to think harder about replacements, but he's already got a ready, waiting and experienced back-up in Andy Dorman. While Dorman is no JayJo (short for Jermaine Jones; hat-tip: Bob's Burgers), he not only knows what he's doing, but, together with Scott Caldwell, he'll give whatever pairing the Timbers trot out Saturday plenty of battle. On the plus side, I think the Timbers are more than up for it: whether it's Will Johnson and Diego Chara, Johnson and George Fochive, Chara and Fochive, any of the above with Jack Jewsbury, the Timbers rarely lack in midfield fight. What the club does give up from time-to-time – or just for too much of this season? Sending these box-to-box players into the attack. I've been talking about overloads all season and New England gave a prime example of what I mean by that on New England's first goal against LA. That run Caldwell makes is the difference between a hopeful cross and causing an epic cluster-cuss in the opposition's defense. With Chara or Fochive or Johnson providing cover, there's no reason for Portland to not commit. Those central players will just be facilitating anyway, as both clubs like attacking through their width; just having that extra body, though, that second dimension, makes all kinds of difference.

3) Replacing Swagudelo?
This could very well be the Revs' greatest conundrum: replacing Juan Agudelo, who is (rightly) away on international duty. Swagudelo might have only four goals on the season, but, watch any games past the first few of New England's season, and you'll see he's a goddamn Swiss Army knife on the field. It's the little things like heading a tough ball toward DC's goal that count – because that shot that allowed a simple clean-up for Charlie Davies. Agudelo gets the ball wide, centrally, deep: the man has room to roam because he's earned it. And all that's part of New England's (sometimes) whirling dervish attack. The Revs have players to replace him...if only they can recall those players at their best form from past seasons. Kelyn Rowe, Diego Fagundez, Nguyen, Bunbury, Davies, hell, even Steve Neumann can do damage on any given day. Trouble is, only Bunbury and maybe Davies have lived up to their form from 2014, or even 2013. Form aside, all these players can pop up anywhere on the pitch and all of them have the ability to cause splitting headaches. The question is whether they have that certain je ne sais quoi. Agudelo has this season, but he ain't home. Whatever happens, I hope Portland doesn't take their chances with any of them. Because Rowe's pass to Agudelo, whether he's there on Saturday or not, is a play that most professionals bury.

4) New England’s Mighty Righty?
Setting aside all of the above, the knot that lives in the pit of my stomach has two names stitched into it, both of them "berry" based (if only loosely): Teal Bunbury and London Woodberry. Those two players will be going at Jorge Villafana and, probably, Darlington Nagbe. Woodberry has been, to borrow a generic/over-used word, "a revelation"; Bunbury, meanwhile, has one hell of a two-way game on top of speed and strength; Nagbe matches him on speed, but neither he nor Villafana come close in terms of strength. A player in the same "monster winger" mold as the Philadelphia Union's Andrew Wenger, Bunbury provides one of those match-up nightmares that coaches rightly dread. And Bunbury's work frees up space for Woodberry who crosses a mean ball – e.g. precisely the kind that Portland doesn't deal with so well, etc. No matter who else doesn't rate him, I like Villafana. For all his lack of flash, I think he's a hell of a smart player. And he'll need that Saturday, and on a day when he's likely to have to stay home. That's OK, so long as he frees up Nagbe to pin back Woodberry. And whomever else he can across New England's back line.

5) The Fernandez/Urruti Show
I have been dying to talk this up ever since Stumptown Footy's Chris Rifer put the idea into my head. Watching (20 minutes' worth of) both Fernandez and Urruti against Colorado only deepened the fascination. I can't imagine that any single player's stock has risen quite like Fernandez' over the past week; and, Urruti, well, he's generally been my go-to when it came time to name a forward. Whatever gifts Fanendo Adi has – and I mean to address these, probably in the dead week after the New England game – neither great mobility nor close control made their way under his Christmas tree. And, personally, I think the Timbers do better with more active, and generally mobile, players. Fernandez, in particular, looked great against the Rapids in the deeper role Rifer pointed out, so maybe he's rounding into form, or has found some kind of niche. He was able to play off Nagbe's movement as well as anyone this season – whose runs into that massive gap between the Rapids midfield and defense were so damn fun - so I say keep putting him out there until we've got 100% of Diego Valeri to roll out onto the field.

And, as usual, that seems like plenty. The number of times this phrase has taken a large piece out of my ass notwithstanding, I like Portland's chances for a third this Saturday. For all their considerable talents and qualities, New England is in a tougher patch than Portland. Plus, the Timbers are at home. They should be able to put in another quick, lively performance in the knowledge that they'll have two weeks to nurse bruised bodies and tired legs back to fine-tuned raiding and pillaging material. So, let's wrap up what has been, frankly, the best week of the season. You got this...

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

Philadelphia Union v. New York City FC
Two or three weeks ago, this would have been the toilet bowl. Now it's either another chapter in the narrative of Philadelphia’s resurrection, or NYCFC's return to the Land of the Living. For what it's worth, I think the smart money is on the whole "another chapter" thing for Philly. But, y'know, good luck New York. Absolutely no one is pulling for you.

DC United v. Toronto FC
Had DC not roared back against Chicago at mid-week, a little shine would have come off this one. As it stands, fans have a Toronto team finally living up to its billing/paychecks vs. a DC squad built so goddamn capably on reclamation projects. Ben Olsen (or his GM) needs a nickname that runs along the lines of Junkyard Wizard. Because that's what he is, dammit. Savvy v. Dollars: what more can any narrative-driven fan ask for?

Sporting Kansas City v. Seattle Sounders FC
The unquestioned Battle of the Heavyweights for Week 14. Seattle has everything New England doesn't (uh, defense), while KC has spent the past two weeks looking as close to a complete package as any team in MLS. The venue saves this one: KC having home field should mean Seattle has to work to win this one. And, based, on what I saw last weekend against the New York Red Bulls, I don't think Seattle copes all that well with presses – not with guys like Krizstian Nemeth cleaning up the slop, anyway.

Los Angeles Galaxy v. Vancouver Whitecaps
Last, and probably, least, the Galaxy has finally made their scrubs turn something close to good. Vancouver on the road should prove a decent test. That said, the 'Caps game against Montreal provides the real backdrop for this one: Vancouver stands at something of a crossroads.

All right, that's it. Enjoy Week 14. Looking forward to wrapping it up during and after.

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