Thursday, June 25, 2015

Timbers v. Los Angeles: A Collapse in Five Parts

I fear nothing! At least once!
The Portland Timbers dared the Los Angeles Galaxy the punch them in the stomach hard as they can! So, LA did. Five times, in fact. For all intents and purposes, though, the Timbers dropped after the second goal. It might have been after the first goal, really.

OK, no, that’s not really what happened. The Timbers didn’t strut down to LA all cocky and certain. Caleb Porter, for one, said all the right things, talked about club’s recent streak with due humility, etc. And yet, Portland was due. First of all, four-game winning streaks are damn rare in Major League Soccer; as we’ve all heard ad infinitum and beyond, Portland has only managed two-game streaks since joining MLS. The point is, one doesn’t have to watch MLS for all that long before one sees the whole “parity” thing intervene. Clubs rarely win for very long. When long streaks do happen in MLS, they generally hit/victimize clubs in the form of nightmarishly long losing streaks.

In that context, each win after the second straight one tempts the Fates to give your team a little kick in the teeth. And, thus, MLS nips hubris in the bud.

That said, was there any reason for the inevitable loss to be so damn brutal, so unbalanced? Did anything in the past four wins come with an assist from luck, or did something sniff of too much hype and Timbers fans seeing what they wanted to see? Maybe the Timbers beat either shitty clubs (the Colorado Rapids; who doubled-down on their incompetence just tonight), or clubs on a distinct downswing (e.g. the New England Revolution, who doubled-down on their incompetence just tonight). Maybe it’s simply that Western Conference clubs (e.g. the Timbers) are better than Eastern Conference clubs (e.g. DC United and New England) and everyone’s better than the Colorado Rapids (except FC Dallas). Or maybe it’s simpler still: LA is back to their best and Portland just picked a bad time for a visit.

LA sure as hell looks back to their best. By combinations of passes and movement that look so simple and straightforward in action, the Galaxy finds attacking players in two yards of space (see LA’s opening goal, in particular) – and all that begs the question, what was better; the pass or the run? Either way, it all ends with the opposition’s ‘keeper sitting on his ass in the dirt while one of his stunned defenders picks the ball out of the net behind him. The Timbers had a couple of those moments tonight. And that, for the most part, was that.

Not to let the attack off the hook, because, personally, I don’t think that even the attack’s opening 10 minutes was enough to get them on the hook. As stated and/or implied in various preview tweets I posted yesterday, the Galaxy are hell to break down. For all their faults in 2015, LA has always defended fairly well inside their defensive half. Timbers midfielders and forwards struggled to find a way through last night and, when they did, they reflexively opted for not being ruthless (e.g. attempting just one more super-awesome pass) over being ruthless (square your fucking hips and go for goal. Wuss.)

Anyway, the streak had to end. A couple positives for the Timbers would have been good, but the Timbers will have to lean on something else for inspiration this weekend when Seattle comes to visit on Sunday. Say, the magic motivation of just fucking hating the other team.

That’s the big picture. A couple other thoughts come to me as I sort through this one.

1) Squad “Rotation”
Most traffic through central midfield went the wrong way for the Timbers tonight: LA found their forwards in central positions with alarming ease, while Portland’s attacks got stuffed or pushed wide somewhere between 35 and 25 yards from LA’s goal. Basically, the one thing I that I would have guessed wouldn’t happen – i.e, Juninho and Baggio Husidic outplaying Portland’s pairing of Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury – did happen. The optimist in me wants to read this as going a little defensive, both in terms of personnel (e.g. Jewsbury over Will Johnson) and tactics, with an eye to reserving some extra energy for Sunday’s play-date with Seattle. By way of full disclosure, that optimist doesn’t read the paper, or the Webs, so I don’t really know whether that was the plan or not. I am content to believe it, even if a large portion of that premise begs the question of whether Johnson, even at his very best, has enough talent and ability to tip the scales in a game like that. At any rate, say it with me and maybe it will come true: it was smart and deliberate; it was smart and deliberate; it was smart and deliberate...

2) Dealing with, um, "Accidental" Squad Rotation
Again, no one shined bright like a diamond for Portland, but only Liam Ridgewell did something fool enough to take a major mistake from this game with him into the next. Or, more accurately, he won’t BE at the next game due to the stupid (soft?) red card he picked up for that little mini-karate kick on...I want to say Omar Gonzalez. (CORRECTION: Nope, it was Alan Gordon) Based on what conversations I have with other fans, Portland will miss Ridgewell this Sunday somewhere between considerably and a freakin’ shit ton (see…there’s this guy on reddit). Leaving aside, for now, the question of whether or not that card was justified (even with the somewhat direct nature of the act, I view it as overly harsh), continuity at central defense would certainly have been nice. And, among Ridgewell’s strengths, I credit him most for keeping Portland’s back four organized. That is definitely a big deal. Whatever, what’s done is done. Sunday’s game will test my theory that Norberto Paparatto has rounded into a solid, reliable back up for Ridgewell and Nat Borchers (see #1).

3) In Defense of Gargans
Man for man, and a few major exceptions aside (e.g. Robbie Keane over any Timbers forward, past, present, or imaginary), I’d take the players on Portland’s current roster over LA’s. But LA is the team with all those MLS Cups, so maybe I’m an idiot. I think it was du nord’s podcast that treated the ongoing employment of Dan Gargan in MLS as one of the game’s great mysteries. That’s fair opinion, obviously, but one that removes whatever limitations Gargan has as a player from the context of the Galaxy’s overall success. For all the stars who have suited up in Galaxy whites down the years, LA coach Bruce Arena has an incredible, even career-making, knack for getting enough quality out of enough unlikely players to keep winning trophy after trophy after trophy. Players like Gargan, or Baggio Husidic, or Alex Sorto, or Ignacio Maganto. Whether credit goes to smart players perfectly understanding their roles as part of a well-functioning system, or the magic of The Bruce’s motivational mind, will remain a mystery. An irrelevant one, in the end, because winning trophies has this way of answering questions without actually needing to answer them.

Well, that’s it for this one. Bad as the loss was, I’m not terribly bothered about it. I think viewing this as a particularly painful object lesson is the way to go. And I think the Timbers are doing that. At least that’s what they say they’re doing. Let’s join them in washing that game right out of our collective hair.

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