Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Portland Loses to Real Salt Lake Again. Competition/Venue Notwithstanding

We tried to wake him on the charter. He didn't look so good.
I'll start by owning some ill-advised tweets. For starters, when I said Real Salt Lake was "thin" all over and the Portland Timbers "thick" I overlooked the presence of Javier Morales and Joao Plata; the same statement also ignored Sebastian Jaime, the RSL forward who has been coming on of late, and Luke Mulholland, who has been RSL's ironman/most consistent contributors for going on two years (yes, it’s still true even if goal posts confuse him).

When I was tweeting what turned out to be utter crap, I was actually talking about RSL's defense, which had not only lost local legend Jamison Olave to a dodgy hammy, but also back-ups Chris Schuler and Justin Glad. In my defense, I said something about Phanuel Kavita...which is a thin defense seeing as he didn't play tonight. Aaron Maund did, I think, and he did fine. They all did fine. But does it matter who lined up for Real Salt Lake when the Timbers did so very, very little to put that defense under pressure? No, obviously.

Whether from fatigue, lack of real interest in the U.S. Open Cup, a pre-agreed upon lackluster night, the Timbers never really took the game to Real Salt Lake. Altitude wasn't an issue, Kyle Beckerman wasn't a problem (because, not there), so unless the entire Portland team gasped for air the second they stepped off the chartered bus, there's no not so much an excuse for tonight as an acceptance that the club, collectively, didn't want the U.S. Open Cup trophy (and the CONCACAF Champions' League spot that goes with it) nearly enough. And, so, they lost 2-0.

As much as I basically missed the entire first half, it didn't really look all that different, at a glance, from the second half – of which I caught every exceedingly dull minute. The Timbers got players forward, and more than once, but soft diagonals to the flanks generally replaced the passing and movement that Portland uses to create their best chances. And all the crosses that I saw got cut off three yards from the crosser’s boot, so, no, not very effective.

As with the loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy, it's all right in the end. Yeah, it's one trophy pissed away, but, let's face it, it's also one less obligation. I guess my only wish is that Portland recognize the U.S. Open Cup as the lowest-effort obligation in the domestic game. To come at it from the other side, (1) it takes eight months' worth of consistency (or three really great three months) to win the Supporters' Shield; and (2) it takes a combination of a steady enough start and a late-season peak to win MLS Cup; and (3) winning the CONCACAF Champions League has something to do with forgetting about absolutely everything else and basically becoming a shadow Liga MX club, or having a top-to-bottom kick-ass club that stays healthy forever, a la RSL 2010/2011.

The U.S. Open Cup, on the other hand, requires nothing more than 5 games of total focus and just enough talent. I'd argue that the Timbers have just enough talent. Sadly, they didn't do the "total focus" thing tonight. It wasn't just personnel; it was also tactics and attitude. Because I've already hinted at arguments for both above, I'll only state that the Timbers left urgency at Providence Park, opting instead (by my reckoning) to keep it tight, play a bit lazy, and hope to win/recover off a counter. And that didn't happen.

It's a choice in the end. The Timbers gambled on too much of a B-Team tonight – particularly at central midfield (which gets at another failed tweet) – and it didn't go so great. I don't blame any of the various people involved for that, because the Timbers are balls-deep in a really, really busy stretch, which necessitates resting players, both key and bench. Between all the competitions, MLS clubs have a lot of games and only so much bandwidth. (A persistent myth argues that "top European clubs" don't cope with exactly this same problem, but it's only that – a myth. Sure, a Premier League club almost always wins both the League Cup and the FA Cup, but, for the biggest clubs, that's just gravy that the pour over the bigger, more elusive trophies. Which is to argue that doubles, nevermind trebles, are always a bitch). (And, by way of an added bonus, those elusive trophies are entirely out of reach of, oh, all but five clubs in the Premiership. Fun!)

Now, we get to the nitty-gritty...

Tonight, Caleb Porter opted to bring the (bar-)band back together by replicating the early/pre-/desperation pairing of Jack Jewsbury and George Fochive. While said pairing worked in terms of keeping goals out over several games earlier this season (and only "-ish" at that, too), it was never going to hold up well against the seasoned, heartbeat of RSL constancy of Morales and Mulholland. I want to argue that this is why the Timbers never got forward, but that ignores the fact that Portland struggled to get forward all over the field. Put another way, even when you can't attack centrally, your midfielders can lie deep, contain and launch attacks up the flank. That happened only rarely tonight, as the result showed. I'd be shocked if Portland managed more than four shots – and fewer still went on goal. Cheap didn’t work. RSL might have even game-planned for cheap. Again, hence the result.

I have been talking about the Seattle Sounders finding the bottom of their depth for the past couple weeks (during which, they have been comically awful). I think we've found the bottom of Portland's with tonight’s U.S. Open Cup loss. Portland might be able to shut out an opponent on any given night, but the team that Portland fields to keep the other clubs out isn't terribly well-equipped to the Portland team that can beat the other team.

I guess the way to end this is to ask if I'm comfortable, personally, with what Portland gave up tonight – specifically, a (or even the shortest) shot at a trophy. I'd start by arguing that the Timbers barely had a choice. They've done well enough in the league lately that it seems short-sighted to focus on anything but, whether in terms of playoffs, or, dare I say it, the Supporters' Shield. That said, given the state of Real Salt Lake's defense, I can't help but wonder if Portland didn't pass on a great opportunity tonight.

Also, goddammit.

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