Thursday, August 6, 2015

Portland Timbers Missed Opportunities: The One Everyone Knows. And the Other One.

Wait, is this really my opening argument on Gaston Fernandez?
Gaston Fernandez wasn't directly involved in my strongest memory of his time with the Portland Timbers. That came courtesy of a guy who slotted into seats next to what were once my season tickets (which have now been passed on to, in my estimation, the best season ticket holder in the history of the species, if not the genus). During some random game in 2014, as the starting line-ups played out over the loudspeakers, the various sets of fans around me got to talking and arguing about each player as his name was called. When Fernandez name came up, I leaned over to the guy next me (a friend, btw; not some random guy) and said something to the effect of, "Yeah, he's not doing it for me so far."

Hearing this, The Guy Who Slotted Into the Seats Next to Mine (now his official name) leaned over to tell me (not a friend, btw; a random guy) and said, "He puts the ball in the back of the net." Not being the kind to let an argument go unchallenged - and, goddamn that horrible Mockney accent - I pointed out some of Fernandez's apparently hidden deficiencies. The Guy Who Slotted Into the Seats Next to Mine replied by shaking his head and repeating, "He puts the ball in the back of the net." And again with the Mockney...

That guy really bugged me that night. And for a couple nights after. I got over it, though, and realized he's a damned enthusiastic, very friendly guy. All in all, very likeable. Turns out I'm the dick. So, yeah, that thing about first impressions? Basically bullshit.

Getting back to Fernandez, no, I didn't get his game. That's to say, if you put a gun to my head and demanded that I pick Fernandez's best spot on the field...well, put it this way, the time it took for things to turn to me laying dead on the floor depends entirely on my ability to stall. That said, I can readily offer up an idea of what comes to mind when I think of Fernandez: those two or three (or maybe four or five) goals he scored early in 2014 when he kept on magically appearing on the back post, in the 'keeper's blind-spot, to tap in a shot from, at most, two yards out. I think that's what The Guy Who Slotted Into the Seats Next to Mine was thinking when he said what he did.

No, I haven't forgotten the trio-plus of, let's be blunt, great games Fernandez turned in for the Timbers while everyone was waiting for Lazarus (or, Diego Valeri) to rise (still a work in progress). What can't be denied, though, is that Fernandez played only an occasional hand in guiding Portland's fate for as long as he's been here. And it's not just opportunity denied, either, because I've personally seen the guy turn in some aimless turds (and, to be clear, that analogy is 100% specific, referring here to the way your dog sniffs for three blocks and then, on "finding a spot," he turns three circles before deciding that wasn't the place he had to poo, after all).

My impressions aside, one sentence in Abe Asher's farewell post to Gaston in the Portland Mercury begged a question that never really went away, even for the doubters. Here's that:
"He then scored against Colorado, scored against Houston, and by the time Seattle came to town, he was rolling. That match was the only time the Timbers have looked great on offense all year. The front four were Darlington Nagbe, Valeri, Fernandez, and Adi. It would be La Gata's last MLS start, and the only time that lineup ever played together."
Ever. Played. Together. That last sentence settled an argument in my head that I didn't even know was going on. The inescapable conclusion: Fernandez really never had been given a shot to claim any one role with the club. Instead, he was subbed in all over for the most part, used to plug in holes. It's part the curse of versatility, to be sure - Shea Salinas does not have this problem - but he wasn't so bad at that, either. He was a bit expensive for that role in one context – e.g. the corpus entirio (not actual Latin) of his career – but not in another – e.g. the sly poacher from 2014, and, in 2015, a decent guy to (why not?) pair with Valeri in rotation and/or competition with Darlington Nagbe.

What might have been, yeah? Truth be told, I've been dying since the Timbers hit MLS to shoe-horn in what I to this day view as the Timbers Original Missed Opportunity: so, who remembers that Portland pulled Dax McCarty in the 2010 Expansion Draft? (NOTE: Full disclosure, I had to change the year twice.) For anyone who has forgotten, no worries, I'll hold onto that memory at least 10 years after McCarty retires.

To settle a non-existent mystery, I love midfielders: I value them more highly than any other field player, I believe, in broad terms, that their collective effort decides every single game. Suffice to say the etc.s continue beyond their worth. Even then, there is a hierarchy of personal value among midfielders: I like passers, frankly, whether simple circulation or the lacerating pass, I am a straight-up whore for any player who passes any kind of well. (This one's for you, primality; a team can never have enough midfield depth. Ever.)

Portland passed on McCarthy in the end and, no, I haven't really forgiven it. To paraphrase Lancelot from Excalibur (terrible movie, btw, but, hey, Patrick Stewart?), this is the old wound. Anyone who has watched McCarty play for the New York Red Bulls knows what this guy brings, and what he can do. He’s got a phenomenal work-rate, for starters, but the longest of his several long-suits is ball circulation, i.e. the ability and simple brilliance of letting the ball do the work. While I have seen him play a dozen killer passes at minimum, McCarty does his thing every single game – e.g. whether closer to, or further from, the attacking third, he finds teammates in space with time to do some damage. This goes beyond seeing opportunities; it's more about seeing the game, and possibilities two or three passes beyond what anyone else does.

McCarty is not a play-maker, at least not as I see it. But I think he'd be both incredible with, and complementary to (in love with that sentence structure tonight, sorry), either Will Johnson or Diego Chara. Hell, he'd even be fine with George Fochive. The point is, I love the idea of McCarty roaming the center of Portland's midfield and sending probing passes to Valeri, Nagbe, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla, or even feeding Alvas Powell as he streaked up the right side. Them and whoever plays at Portland for forward the week in question. I'm guessing he’d see all of 'em at once and find the right pass 7 times out of ten. Portland could have used that Year One. They can still use that kind of player in Year Five. Dammit.

OK, that's all for thoughts on the Portland Timbers tonight. For the record, I am hoping to make this a regular thing – e.g. a weekly feature on...something Timbers on top of the match reviews after every game. Call this Installment #1, and may there be many more. And, yet, I'm not totally done. Ideally, another part of this feature will include a (quick) update on MLS news for the week. By that I mean actual news, and genuine points of interest. And so...well, here goes.

Trade Talk, The Best to the Baffling
First, has two ways of alerting fans to which player has gone where, one good, and one just clustercussingly bad. As all of you no doubt know, the transfer window closed today (which, still relevant, didn't close off all Team Improvement Mechanisms), which has a lot of people taking stock of the comings and goings. The title of this section notwithstanding, I want to focus on the one trade the interests me: e.g. the one that sent Jack McInerney from the Montreal Impact to Columbus Crew SC. For starters, look at Columbus' attack – the five-headed monster made up of Kei Kamara, Ethan Finlay, Federico Higuain, Justin Meram and...whoops, turns out it's a four-headed monster. And yet the point remains: where does McInerney slot into that line-up? The cheap foul aside, Higuain already does pretty much shit for defending and few to no clubs can stand having three players focused, more or less, exclusively on the attack.

Here's the other thing: I actually rate McInerney. Even if he misses...well, with Will Bruin-like consistency, he's got a strong shot and good instincts, he combines pretty well, too, if mostly with if it's mostly the give-'n'-go-but-you-know-this-ends-with-me-shooting variety.  Basically, the whiff of "if played right" comes off this kid like ammonia off cat litter (guess what I did tonight! Tweet your answer and, if you get it right, I will buy you one (1) beer of your choosing). If Portland picked him up tomorrow, I'd totally roll with it, maybe even get a little giddy – even as it's a 100% an open question as to whether the Timbers would play him right. He's only 23 besides, Gregg Berhalter has been real and/or cyber stalking him for years, apparently, so he can't be all bad (though it's worth noting that I have my doubts about Berhalter; see #2).

Aside from wishing both McInerney and Columbus, especially (don't ask), all the best, I don't see how McInerney fits. It reads like resource hoarding – e.g. grabbing a player so another team can't – but that's not a thing in MLS, not with its salary structure. So...why? I can't get this one. I can't.

Anyway, some interesting trades went down over the past...let's call it 48 hours. To circle back to the title, one of those guys could very well become the Best signing of this transfer window. There's no way of telling who - I mean, I don't watch the Argentine league (though I have; solid) - so, yeah, I just let it go. Hell, even Columbus picked up a couple guys who could change their fate. Seriously.

OK, that's all for tonight. My plan is to have this post become a permanent feature post on the Portland Timbers and to close that with a wrap up of any worthy news from MLS between Monday and Thursday every week. Anyway, there's a project in here (tapping my head now...hold...just tapped it...wait...shit. OK, count to one and then I'll be tapping my that will let me post more, and shorter, posts. Hopefully better ones, too. Stay tuned.

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