Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Timbers Advance: An Open Cup Victory Sprinkled with Sweet, Sweet Humiliation!

Wait! Right, left, down, A...STOP IT! What's the move?!
First of all, wow, is this going to throw a handful of ground chiles all over the next Cascadia match. The Seattle Sounders turned in a meltdown worthy of toddlers, I tell you. Clint, you've added to your legend, buddy. Congrats! Back to the regularly scheduled post...

If you've ever played Mortal Kombat, and if you're as terrible at it as I am, you know what it's like to master one even mildly effective attack. Say, it's a jab, something you can work against an opponent due to a fluke of timing, so you use it to shave off a narrow band of health at a time. This only gives you the illusion of winning. If the guy you're playing has mastered his avatar’s "killer move," you can land all the jabs you like, but your opponent has still lost only two thirds of her bar, and she'll lay your ass OUT after just two attacks. And if you're not on the floor with your entrails sprawled to the sky after that, your sad little spandexed man is swooning on his feet to set up the same humiliation.

That's the rough experience of playing against this edition of the Seattle Sounders: no matter how badly they've played all 90 long, the Sounders have the talent to score at absolutely any moment and steal the game. Turns out the tale unfolds a little differently when you push Seattle to the 120th, when, again, they melt down, get three players sent off, and just generally act entitled. And so your club wins, 3-1. Can't we game-plan this for next time?

Anyway, great, deeply satisfying win for the Portland Timbers – and I absolutely look forward to the hair-rending amongst Sounders fans (even if I'm not likely to see it), because, yes, two of those cards were harsh. One wasn't (e.g. the two yellows to Brad Evans), not that they'll either care or remember, and Sigi Schmid's game management followed roughly the same script that Caleb Porter might have followed if he was a complete idiot and left Diego Valeri in to the end of the game. But he wasn't, so Portland didn't...and now Portland is in, Seattle's is out, etc.

Then again, wins in a Cup tournament come in isolation by their very nature: they’re not part of the season overall, naturally, which means patterns from that regular season matter a lot tonight, while, at the same time, they don't matter at all. I'll attempt to draw a line between league play and Cup play below, but it won't last long. And there will be bleeding.

About Tonight. Just Tonight
How Pissed Should Both Teams Be About the Injuries?
This divide is an absolute bitch, because both arguments make sense, while defeating the point of the other side at the same time. On the one hand, the U.S. Open Cup doesn't matter, so why not blood your babies (as Seattle did; more below), and rest your starters? But the fact that your club rests your starters for U.S. Open Cup games devalues the tournament going in and isn't that exactly why no one gives even a cold shit about this tournament? The injuries that happened tonight cut right to the heart of that problem. Alvas Powell went down for Portland, which sucks, while Obafemi Martins went down for Seattle with a "chest injury" which is potentially catastrophic. Now, ask any fan going in if he/she's rather have a key player for the season or for the Open Cup, he/she will almost certainly answer "The season." And follow that up with, "Are you fucking stupid?" As well as U.S. Soccer and Major League Soccer have done with rewarding the winner of the U.S. Open Cup (i.e. with the CONCACAF Champions League berth), a lot of clubs continue to devalue it by sending out the scrubs. I got over my resentment of that just today. It's a choice your club makes and, as fans, you just have to live with it. Or bitch about loudly enough to force management to change. But then you're stuck with the choice above – e.g. Powell tonight, or Powell all season? In the here and now, yes, I'd rather have Powell for the rest of the year. And if that sucking chest wound doesn't heal for Oba, I imagine that Seattle fans will rue the waste of the decision to ride Martins as long as they did.

The Kids Are...Fuck It, Let’s Give 'Em a Trophy!
Seattle played a lot of youngsters tonight. I'm sure the reasons varied – e.g. resting this starter (Osvaldo Alonso, I'm guessing) or covering the international absence of this one (again, guessing, but Marco Pappa), but they fielded some whelps tonight. That told in all kinds of less favorable ways during the full 60 minutes when the Timbers sat back and, basically, invited Seattle to attack. So, part gamble, part necessity, Seattle threw the likes of Christian Roldan, Andy Rose, and JJ Kovar at Portland's experienced (and slightly make-shift) back four. Kovar was the most effective, kid damn-near scored (and, oh, what could have been), but the young bucks weren't up to shoving their elders around and, as a result, most of Seattle's attacks died with Martins running all over across the top of the Timbers' back four with nowhere to go and no Deuce to pass to. All in all, Seattle either didn't have, or didn't commit, the talent to deal with Portland scoring first. They gambled that they could win the U.S. Open Cup on the cheap, basically (or maybe), and for decent reasons. They just lost in the end.

Taylor Peay Makes His Debut
I haven't checked on Powell’s injury – and I don't expect to until the morning – but tonight's injury treated Timbers fans to a quick twirl for one of Powell's understudies, Taylor Peay. To me, he looked entirely adequate. True, when it came to attacking, he only got about 20 yards short of where Powell usually does before running out of ideas. That said, he held up fairly well against Seattle's Dylan Remick when he came forward and...it was probably still Kovar by then...or was that who Dempsey came on for? At any rate, Peay had one major flub and nothing came of it. Not a terrible debut for such a youngster. And he at least argued that he belongs, something that all of should be glad to know. Right?

OK, the rest of the comments will be general and, hopefully, brief. The notes apply to season-long trends that have existed and, ideally (at least in some cases), they will continue beyond tonight. Or even the last three Timbers games. Did I say games? Wins, I meant, wins.

The Divide – aka, The Sad Days When Our Fathers Didn't Believe in Us
For tonight's game, the Timbers reverted to, not so much a formation, as a style of thinking that dominated the first half of the season. I only just realized this tonight, which means several things, frankly, even down to the fact that I could be making it up. Anyway, when Portland lines up Jack Jewsbury and George Fochive in central midfield, a couple quiet assumptions come into play – chief among them that neither Fochive nor Jewsbury will go that far forward; the basic idea is that Portland will attack through Rodney Wallace, Darlington Nabge, Diego Valeri, and Fanedo Adi, while Jewsbury and Fochive stay at home. The set up divides the team in half, basically. This makes sense on some practical levels: Jewsbury lacks the range, while Fochive, for now, lacks the talent. Start thinking about this for too long and you start to wonder how much it meant to get Will Johnson back from injury. Johnson gets forward, not necessarily as an attacking mid, but as an extra body, an outlet for the ball, someone to circulate the ball near the opposition third, etc. More to the point, he has the legs to get back to defense when possession switches. The Timbers have missed that; they missed that tonight. Will Johnson matters. I get it. The divide was a bad thing for as long as the Timbers had to put up with it. Here’s to hoping it's either a choice that Porter no longer has to make. Or, perhaps better, that he pushes the players he can field to play a role closer to Johnson's than to Chara's.

Kwazy Kwarasey
So, the guy who swatted away Kovars' point-blank, near-certain goal – and this came after a pretty insane double save - is the same guy who flubbed the cross that wound up giving Seattle their goal, right? Hard as it is to wrap one's head around the idea, yep, that's the same guy. As much as I've made my peace with Kwarasey's approach to the game, I'm still not sure the guy isn't a liability. While it's necessary to adjust to any 'keeper's style of play, I have never seen a 'keeper as generally, even reflexively, passive as Kwarasey. He looks anxious, even hesitant, any time he strays to even the edges of his six-yard area to challenge for the ball – something that's far out of the norm for MLS, where "commanding the area" is the general rule. Part of me argues that the Timbers defense can learn to play with him; maybe they already have. All I know is, I'm not yet ready to watch him, at least not without squirming.

Adi Finds His Level
It's somewhere between Evans and Chad Marshall as it turns out. Marshall owned Adi whenever the latter tried to body him, but Adi could shove Evans around pretty much at will; Adi walked him back about ten feet at one point in the first half. Sure as I am about Adi netting 10 or more goals this season – and, no, that's nothing to sniff at – I'm still conflicted on Adi, not just in terms of what the club is paying him, but with how he plays with the rest of the team. For every good layoff Adi had tonight, he lost the ball or made a pass that was either stupid or sloppy on the other two plays. Portland could work with him…wait, no. That's a bigger topic for another day. Moving on to the wrap up...

How does a sincere Portland Timbers fan hate that win? I'll be honest, in the end, Portland didn't do a ton more than score two meaningful goals (the third was salt in the wound that somehow tasted sweet while being served cold), but I did love that win. Why? Because it featured controversy and it at least ended well (face it, the first 50 minutes were terrible). More than being very, very funny, the avalanche of red cards that fell on Seattle now go into the history books as another wrong that one team picked off the other. Basically, this becomes another tale in the larger story of why these two clubs hate each other. That's good stuff, all y'all.

I’m just glad to come out on the winning side this time.

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