Sunday, June 7, 2015

Timbers Top New England: The Wonderful Efficiency of the Counter-Revolution

Yes, that is absolutely as fun as it looks.
A couple things escaped my attention while watching the Portland Timbers' late (late) 2-0 win over the New England Revolution. Holy yellow cards, for one. That ref really seemed to get a kick of pulling stuff out of his pocket.

One thing that couldn't be missed, however, was how well Portland pinned New England into the wrong end of a shooting gallery. I can't check the box scores yet (still games to watch; still results to parse), but I'd be shocked if Portland managed more shots on goal in any game this season as they put up against the Revs. The reputations of the club reversed a little, in fact, with the Timbers playing the short, quick, slick stuff on which New England built their little near-empire over the past couple seasons.

There's not much to say about New England, really, who got something close to over-run last night. The worst thing one could say is that they lost all of Adi on Portland's opening goal. They had a couple chances, of course, and Adam Kwarasey bobbled a couple of them (but on a night, and in the context of looking better every game), but the Timbers crashed into them one wave after the other. Something about harnessing the Power of the Pacific. Which, as everyone knows, is the superior ocean.

And there it is: Portland's first three-game winning streak in their short life in Major League Soccer. It's a bit of a shame, really, that the Timbers have next week(end) off, because thar be wind in the sails and a fair wind it is (Arrr, me mateys!) And there's a little irony in this because before this streak started, most Timbers fans would have killed for this week off with any eye to buying time to get Diego Valeri back on field. And that’s a good place to start into the talking points.

1) Waiting for Godot
Nothing has defined 2015 so much as waiting for Valeri, first from last year's injury, then from this year’s injury. Samuel Beckett's play just popped into my head as a tale of personal redemption, a testament to figuring shit out on one's own – e.g. that the Timbers had it within themselves to be good team all along...but that's just some weird mash-up with The Wizard of Oz, which...just going to let that go. The point is that the Timbers put together a pretty damn impressive run without their impresario. They accomplished this the simplest way of all: by playing good, fluid soccer – soccer, which, for me, culminated in last night's performance. Gaston Fernandez and Maximiliano Urruti have picked up positive press over the past couple weeks for a good understanding, but Darlington Nagbe joined the fun last night as if he'd been kicking the ball with them in the halcyon days of youth in Argentina. It's a little tempting, personally, to put Urruti at the heart of that – he's combining like a motherfucker, for one, but he's also the common denominator in the relationship – but that short-changes the other two players. Put another way, I couldn't pick a man of the match from last night and that's great: there's nothing wrong with excelling by committee. It's likely that Portland will get better once Valeri's back, something that's kind of hard to wrap one's head around, but passing and movement is a good gospel to follow and the Timbers have found a righteous path. There's talent on this team and it's...just nice to see it.

2) #Adios?
Dissatisfaction with Timbers forwards is a tradition among Portland fans almost as entrenched as hating the Seattle Sounders. Figuring out which forward the Timbers will ship away has become something of a parlor game on the Soccer Made in Oregon's podcast (they floated the hashtag above on their most recent episode). Urruti's recent quality run has pointed the fickle finger of fate (hat-tip: Laugh-In) at Fanendo Adi. The frustration isn't unfounded for any Portland forward – e.g. Fernandez, Urruti, or Adi – because they've all endured their barren patches. And there's no reason to suddenly project any of the three's (well, two's) promising form over the past three games as a new normal for the rest of 2015 – though, let the record show that I'm 100% not against that actually happening – unless, that is, someone (e.g. Caleb Porter, or one of his minions) figured something out. Fernandez has improved markedly since shifting a little deeper, which suggests the possibility that he wasn't being played properly. The same idea regarding Adi bounced around my head during this site's brief (and quiet) hiatus: have the Timbers been playing Adi "wrong" – or, more accurately, have they been asking Adi to play away from his strength(s)? To approach the question the other side, I don't think Adi dribbles well; he's not a great passer, and, personally, I think he's fairly weak as a back-to-goal/post-up forward. What, then, does Adi do well? Further study is required, but it could be that Adi's chief skill is making the most of an opening – and maybe only wide openings, e.g. those that come when he's running onto a ball facing the goal. In other words, he's not one to make his own shot, he's not one work combinations in and around the 18: Adi's at his best shooting, just shooting. He's a poacher, basically (and a really big one), which means the team should play to that (limited) strength. The question that renders him too much of a luxury, especially on that salary.

3) Will-Power!
I don’t know how much credit Will Johnson deserves for the Timbers defense giving up just one goal over the past three games (and that one was a beauty), but things definitely sharpened the hell up around the time of his return. New England launched a couple shots from (what I think is) Zone 14, but the Timbers generally forced turnovers before their defensive third – from which point they positively rocketed toward the Revs’ goal. What Diego Chara and Johnson didn’t stop, the Timbers back four mopped up very, very ably; Nat Borchers boinking Lee Nguyen’s dangerous cross over Kwarasey’s crossbar was the most memorable moment of danger and he handled it with aplomb. While there have been lapses, Portland’s back four feels stable and solid like it hasn’t in years. That pre-dated Johnson’s return to my mind, but it’s following a pretty damn promising upward arc these days...

...and fairly reasonable optimism fills these days, here, in the southern-most city in Cascadia. Three wins in a row. Dang me, who would have believed this in the middle of May?

Yee and haw!

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