Monday, July 27, 2015

Portland Timbers' Loss to FC Dallas, in a Big Frame

Adi was about this aggressive...
Because this is one to two days late (by my usual pace), I thought I'd try to add a little value to the post by stitching the Portland Timbers into their place in the Western Conference milieu. First, and because it serves the larger plot, let's explore the Timbers rather outsized loss to FC Dallas last Saturday night.

I'll get to the game in, literally, the next paragraph, but I do want to pause to praise the Dallas bugler who includes at least two Texas classics in his/her in-game repertoire – e.g. the theme from Dallas and "Deep in the Heart of Texas." Sa-lute! Now, the game...

The best thing one can say about it is that the Timbers pushed past being four goals down deep into the 90 and scored a late, late, if meaningless goal. How meaningless? Well, Dallas' three- goal-gap contributes visibly to the Timbers now -4 goal differential (please, refrain from dissecting the logic of that statement). Though still on the right side of the crimson, velvet rope that separates "winners" from losers (use of scare quotes both intentional and attributable to MLS's stupid playoff format), Portland's recent run has left them vulnerable to getting over-run by the teams below them – hence the point of the "milieu" project.

On that late goal, though, some unseemly squabbling preceded it. The new guy, Lucas Melano, drew the penalty and, (presumably) wanting to show his team a little more of what he can do, Melano also offered/insisted on taking the penalty kick he earned. In a show of poor manners for the new arrival, two longer-term Timbers, Fanendo Adi and Gaston Fernandez, both, they insisted on taking the same penalty. Adi won in the end, mostly by grabbing the ball and turning a deaf-ear to further input from the Argentine Delegation. To his credit, Adi stepped up and buried the penalty kick. Though it was, as noted above, meaningless.

Yes, yes, there's typically a process in place that decides who takes penalty kicks, it probably is Adi (though I say that without any knowledge of the relevant process), and process is process, and without it there will be chaos, etc. Given the stakes involved in the game in question (low, low, low; one "low" for each goal against), and given the larger, more pressing task of bringing a new (expensive) player into the team, it strikes me that the larger, wiser gesture would have been to let Melano take it, score it, and thereafter envelope him in the hot, ample bosom of his new club. There's healthy competition and there's back-biting rivalry...follow the modifier to see which one think is best for Portland.

Moving on, here's an interesting, relevant stat: Portland has scored the fifth fewest goals in MLS in 2015. That goals-for figure probably reads worse than it is – this being MLS and all, there's rarely too much distance between anyone or anything - but eight MLS clubs have scored five or more goals than Portland in 2015. To push past numbers and argue directly, the Timbers have slipped a few games past the halfway mark of the season without coming up with a consistent method for breaking down the opposition. I'm not looking for some sort of clearly established Plan A, so much as an approach to goal, some combination of players doing something, or even some kind of semi-reliable set-piece, that the club can look to when goals are needed. So far, it still feels very much like throwing a bunch of forwards at the wall and starting whichever guy doesn't bounce off.

To their credit, Portland created an entirely respectable number of chances last Saturday, but the set up almost always promised more threat than was ultimately delivered. I mean...well, let's check on how many saves Dan Kennedy made Saturday...two saves? Wait, what? Bullshit! Lower! How about blocked...what? One blocked shot for Dallas? Again, bullshit? Matt Hedges got two on Diego Valeri alone. Damn the new math! Fuck it, I'll lean on the Timbers’ low shot total...ugh, how do three shots on target and four off-target combine for 10 shots? Never mind, never mind, never mind...goddamn Common Core!

Anyway, the bigger concerns come on the other side of the ball, and that had less to do with the four goals conceded than the manner of them. The first two resulted from seriously poor cover in transition – e.g. the question of why Diego Chara had two players to cover on Jorge Villafana's left flank on the first goal, one of them being Michael Barrios who was allowed to run unmolested through an inside-wide channel (and beat Adam Kwarasey to the near post at a bad angle); or why Nat Borchers had to run to the same general area to shut down Fabian Castillo when he ran across the face of goal in the build-up to the second goal: bad rotations and slow reactions in both cases, and bad signs all around in a season where defense has been a strength, if not the one, general, comforting constant. This is faith on in shaken...yes, sometimes I try too hard...

The third goal was even worse – e.g. Kellyn Acosta's unchallenged push toward Portland's goal. A loose constant for all three goals was Liam Ridgewell, who endured a clear off night. Again, that's not the hugest of deals in a one-game context, because Ridgewell has been steady all season, but he put both feet wrong tonight in different places, while doing different things. Given a couple notes above, it's clear that Villafana didn't have a great night, either; Castillo wound up on his side, after all, when Borchers ran to cover on the second goal, and that ain't good. It was Borchers and Alvas Powell, then, who had good games – the latter, especially – and that wasn't enough clearly.

At any rate, all the above amounts to framing for the rest of the post – e.g. the argument that Portland's defense, a strength in the early season, might again be coughing up soft goals. As for the offense, yes, I sputtered to basic incoherence above, but I was building toward an argument that Portland's attack could stand a little more sharpness and, perhaps, methodology. As much as I'm all for keeping the opposition guessing, a time comes when you're making enough changes in how your team attacks, and with whom, that you leave your own team guessing as to how to attack as well. Yes, yes, mitigating factors – e.g. injuries to Valeri and Johnson to start the season, Rodney Wallace coming in and out of the line-up, etc. There comes a time in every season when all the bad luck is just the reality of that particular season.

With 22 games played by Portland, and only 12 to go, now feels like a pretty good time to take stock. Just as I picked through Portland's defense and offense, I'll do the same with the rest of the Western Conference clubs. Going about top to bottom in the standings as of Week 21. The layout should be pretty self-explanatory (and, just to show where I went wrong between, here's what I said after Week 18).

FC Dallas (38 points, 21 games, 5-0-0 in their last 5)
Defense: With Zach Lloyd and Matt Hedges (or Walker Zimmerman) anchoring the center and Dan Kennedy (or Chris Seitz) behind them, it was always decent. I've heard rumbles, and have seen some evidence, that putting Victor Ulloa and Acosta in front of them has only helped.
Offense: This Texas club was only waiting on a counter-balance for Fabian Castillo to give them more options. Mauro Diaz has stepped up the past few – and sure as hell did last Saturday. I can drop more names, but, suffice to say, the attack isn't a problem for Dallas.
Verdict: Better than Portland, both sides of the ball.

Vancouver Whitecaps (36 points, 22 games; Last five: 2-2-1)
Defense: I love their wingbacks (Jordan Harvey and Steven Beitashour), and like the back-up (think Sam Adekugbe can go either side). The emergence of some depth at central defense in Christian Dean and Tim Parker, plus the 500-grit pairing of Gershon Koffie and Matias Laba in front of them spells solid. Plus, David Freakin' Ousted, 'keeper of the year for me.
Offense: The 'Caps set-up does a decent job of elaborating what I mean by methodology above. It's more about roles: Octavio Rivero is a goal-dangerous pain-in-the-ass, Kekuta Manneh is a laser-knife that cuts through everything and they're both a handful with some combination of players (Nicholas Mezquida, Pedro Morales, and Mauro Rosales) pulling the strings behind them.
Verdict: Better than Portland, both sides of the ball.

Los Angeles Galaxy (34 points, 23 games; Last five: 3-2-0)
Defense: Solid, if unspectacular, or spectacular because they're solid, LA possesses a very fundamental defense/concept in that they have three basic defenders in Dan Gargan, Omar Gonzalez and A. J. DelaGarza, with only Robbie Rogers having license to really join the attack, outside set pieces.
Offense: Steven Gerrard will find his role certainly, and that'll spell....something, but things are fine for LA so long as Robbie Keane is out there with enough of a supporting cast; even Baggio Husidic levels up nicely so long as he has enough more capable decoys – see, Sebastian Lletget, a lucky addition.
Verdict: Better attack than Portland; defense is more solid, but less dynamic.

Sporting Kansas City (33 points, 19(!) games; Last five: 3-2-0)
Defense: It says a ton that they survived Ike Opara going down. They got lucky with Kevin Ellis and Amadou Dia, but picking up Janil Anibaba shows real savvy. Add Sony Mustivar and a great, full-field destroyer like Roger Espinoza a little further up-field and you have a solid formula.
Offense: It sputtered last weekend, while also showing what it can do (see: Benny Feilhaber). The only knock is that they lack a little size up top, but they have good firepower in Krizstian Nemeth and Dom Dwyer, on top of a pretty good system for feeding them.
Verdict: Better than Portland, both sides of the ball.

Seattle Sounders FC (32 points, 22 games; Last five: 1-4-0)
Defense: I was about to pull some line about "suspect" out of my ass, but the third best goals-against mark argues otherwise. Chad Marshall and Stefan Frei are obvious rocks, and Tyrone Mears has proved an all-around positive, but the supporting cast must be doing its part, too.
Offense: More reliant on their aces (Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey) than previously suspected, I'd argue, and going from ample production to zero backs it up pretty well. The aces will return, but I think the cracks they papered over will stick around as well.
Verdict: First, they're above us how? In brute terms, though, better on defense, but I think Portland’s attack may prove stronger down the stretch.

Real Salt Lake (29 points, 22 games; Last five: 2-1-2)
Defense: I rate Chris Schuler pretty damn highly and think RSL will get a great center back out of three currently undergoing a life-or-death trial (Aaron Maund, Justen Glad, and Phanuel Kavita). But potential doesn't pay today's bills and that, combined with some weirdness at the wide positions, an aging Kyle Beckerman, etc. etc. The point is, they're vulnerable.
Offense: Much has been made of Javier Morales' longevity, but he's the one steady piece waiting on odd flashes of brilliance from others. Joao Plata looks like he's coming back and that'll help, but the drop off drops far after that. A shocking amount depends on Sebastian Jaime...
Verdict: Portland is better in defense (p-shaw...numbers) and I think the Timbers have more weapons, and better ones, in the attack.

Houston Dynamo (27 points, 21 games; Last five: 2-1-2)
Defense: Seeing that Raul Rodriguez was dying on the right and fixing it via Sheanon Williams (from Philly) certainly speaks well of the organization. They've ridden an old Horst further than one would think possible, but they're pretty rugged/solid back there, even as I think they haven't figured out their cover for the defense (Nathan Sturgis was a good start).
Offense: Sporadic, like Portland's, but they have an MLS-proven talent coming in (Erick "Cubo" Torres), while Portland has a higher(?)-upside mystery (Melano). Aging in key spots, otherwise – e.g. Ricardo Clark and Brad Davis – but also blessed with one of the attacking revelations of 2015 in Giles Barnes.
Verdict: Houston makes me nervous, because I think they can beat anyone. I'm calling this a pure wash (as in, I can't choose between Portland and Houston).

San Jose Earthquakes (25 points, 20 games; Last five: 1-4-0)
Defense: I'm going to accept that San Jose's defense is officially struggling: the last five has friggin' blown up their goal differential (to the tune of six goals for and 12 against). I'm struggling to wrap my head around this because I rate all their players. Hmm...
Offense: Rumors of total dependency on Chris Wondolowski could actually be true – see the recent run – and being tied for second-worst on offensive production proves the point. Good as they are, Shea Salinas and Matias Perez-Garcia need a target...and there's only one.
Verdict: Times argued for a more favorable rating, but they're looking worse than Portland on both sides of the ball.

Colorado Rapids (24 points, 20 games; Last five: 3-2-0)
Defense: I think Clint Irwin is shaky, or will be soon, but Drew Moor carries this team miles so long as he's healthy. And that's far as the numbers prove. Even with bruising Bobby Burling, Moor has a pretty capable stable of mentees (Shane O'Neill, Axel Sjoberg) in the center and, so long as they're healthy, Sam Cronin and Marcelo Sarvas give a lot of cover. So, yeah, small wonder on low numbers.
Offense: Luis Solignac stands as the great bait-and-switch of the season for me, but that could be down to my ignorance – i.e. I read him as a ringer, as opposed to the $65K player he is. That doesn't answer the mystery as to why Colorado doesn't score, but they are, in a sense, back-weighted (e.g. too concerned about the defense to make the offense go far enough), so I guess I get why they're not totally panning out.
Verdict: The Rapids have a better defense, but Portland has the better offense. For now...

...and I end with that "for now" for a reason. There was a point to all that typing and, for anyone who made it through, here it is: Portland holds its fate in its own hands and I think the front office knows it. A club doesn't splurge on Lucas Melano unless all concerned believe as much.

On the other hand, that's the optimist's take. If you read the above my essential view on where the Timbers stand should be pretty obvious. In case it doesn't: barring everything falling into place (e.g Valeri getting all the way back in form, Darlington Nagbe transforming into a marauding aggressor, Melano paying off in a way that defines the offense, Wallace or Dairon Asprilla coming all the way good, and either Urruti or Adi supplying steady numbers all while the defense holds and improves), I think there are four teams in the Western Conference straight-up better than Portland – Dallas, Vancouver, KC, and LA. That leaves spots five and six for Portland and...yeah, I think everyone else to fight it out over. And it's not gonna be easy.

Laugh all you want, but Colorado is on a three-game winning streak and, with two more wins, they're just two points behind Portland in the standings - and with that defense. Shit is real, people, no matter how very slow moving. And the Dallas game was not at all encouraging, either. Long as this was (horribly), the point was to frame the scope of the challenge. It's not huge, really, but Portland will be required to show up at least every other week. If not more.

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