Monday, August 31, 2015

Seattle v. Portland: The Timbers' Best Worst Loss of 2015

No, keep looking. This is for your own good. Focus...
The worst thing about the Portland Timbers' 2-1 road loss to the Seattle Sounders was that it allowed Sounders fans to feel happiness. The sweet buzz of victory couldn't have lasted very long, not with how Seattle played – and especially not against the backdrop of their recent results – but, in the moment, I saw their fans singing without a hint of irony or embarrassment. If Portland laid an egg like that, every gaffe and shortcoming would go under the magnifying glass and expletives would fill the air. Do I begrudge them the moment....well, yes. Obviously.

The result itself was the second worst thing. Because it was not fair. Weird officiating comes in at #3, even as I'm entirely willing to accept that the Timbers lost this one more than the ref stole it from them (see: total shots on goal). And at #4...well, there is no fourth worst thing. Not really.

Tonight, I'll be doing one of the easier things in fandom: celebrating a good performance and spiting the loss. Portland played pretty friggin' well on Sunday: they piled up a genuinely impressive number of chances, and didn't miss all of them by much; the defensive shape and pressure in midfield snuffed out nearly all Seattle's attacks before they could get going (the two to four that got through, though, holy shit, did those turn out poorly; more later); among the most impressive things about the game came with how well Jack Jewsbury and George Fochive covered for midfield stalwarts/dynamos Will Johnson and Diego Chara. Hell, ol' Jack turned the old line about old dogs on its head by being the most the dangerous man on the field.

It couldn't have gone perfectly, of course, or I'd be bragging about a win and Seattle's long fall from Olympus. For starters, throw that first goal onto the Steaming Pile of Shitty Goals, right next to that other piece of shit from the early season loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps. The flailing, the falling, just the plain shock of the damn thing. I mean, jesus, if I didn't throw up a little pulling up that clip. Worse, the same clumsiness that let that one slide past showed up a couple more times in the first half. I mean, clearing the goddamn ball. That's park-ball stuff.

As for the second goal...look, I wouldn't have called it, either, but it wasn't that egregious. No matter how inadvertent, Adam Kwarasey did keep Obafemi Martins from getting to a ball that he very likely would have run down. Put it this way: call it most unjust in the grand scheme of the game and move on.

The "unjust" tag holds for me because Martins was about the only thing, or person that went right for the Sounders. When the Timbers weren't bullying them off the ball all over midfield, Seattle's players coughed up the ball by what I have to view as some kind of honor system; I mean, everyone took turns. Seattle coach Sigi Schmid sent in the big guns one by one in the second half until the gang was just about all there, but even that didn't make much of a difference. Stefan Frei kept a few out, certainly, but I didn't see him standing on his head so much as getting himself in the right spot over and over again – still, credit to him for keeping it smart and simple. For whatever reason, I use Lamar Neagle's 2015 form as a shorthand for everything that's wrong with Seattle. Watch him and witness a man battling himself in almost existential terms.

Again, everything noted in the paragraph above only makes this loss more baffling, that little bit harder to take even. What comfort I find comes from knowing that the Timbers could have tied it early had Jewsbury nudged that first-half free header a yard (or two) to the left, or that Lucas Melano could have tied it late had he home that truly sweet late attempt. Because Portland had struggled so much with making chances in the games prior to last week's win over the Houston Dynamo seeing all those chances felt like seeing 20 double rainbows over a magical rain forest with exotic birds taking wing on all sides. The flipside of that is ugly, no question – i.e. failing to put away chances can be fatal, as it was Sunday – but, to take a page from Peggy Lee, I'm sticking to the sunny side of the street tonight.

I'll close with a handful of talking points, most of them happy...but I will sneak in a little gripe or two at the end. Because, tradition. One of them so very long, and so very proud.

1) No Excuses, No Need For Them
The guy who posts on Twitter as High Rant District said something I liked on the Friday before the game: he expressed the hope that no one would excuse a loss by pointing to Chara's and Johnson's absence. The basic argument is that all of your team counts, not just your starting eleven. And that's not just smart, it's also appropriate what with the way Seattle's absences have, of late, killed them. I hinted above at how well Jewsbury and Fochive stepped in, but worth fleshing that out. I credit Fochive for the bigger contribution due to his penchant for popping up in the rough vicinity of just about every Seattle turnover. He got Portland going the other way after most of those turnovers, too, and smooth as you like. Jewsbury didn't stand out for me as much on that side of the ball, but his most visible contribution wasn't just his several shots on goal, but the work he put in to keep the ball on top of Seattle's penalty area on set pieces. All in all, Jewsbury and Fochive provided eerily like-for-like cover at the position the Timbers needed most. Look, I love depth; it warms me like good bourbon. Then again, even bad bourbon works on the most relevant level, and I guess that's the point I'm making about Fochive and Jewsbury: it's not what how much your club spends, or how much fans talk about any given player; all you want in the end is the right answer to the question, "does it work?" And both Jewsbury and Fochive are better than bad bourbon, honest. Fochive, especially...the kid looks good. I'm a little less worried about Chara moving on, as he must one day, every time I watch him.
1a) The Gap, Which Is Perhaps Built In
In last week's Timbers post, I pointed to a gap that opens up in front of Portland's back four every time Chara and Johnson push up to support a high line. It showed up again on Sunday, if not as often (come to think of it, though, Fochive seemed to catch Sounders' players from behind often as not). I originally viewed this as a problem, but something I read this morning argued that it's a bug baked into the "double-pivot":
"The double pivot – a midfield lineup in which there's no true defensive midfielder, instead relying upon two box-to-box midfielders sharing responsibility – always causes the exact problem (open ground in front of the central defense) it's supposed to solve if the team chemistry is not good."
That particular note applied to DC United (who got torn apart versus the New York Red Bulls, apparently), but I have two thoughts on that as it applies to Portland: 1) the trade-off of exposing the back four in exchange for more pressure higher up the field and, subsequently, more options in attack, works for long as it works, but I also figure it's not too hard to adjust in-game; and; 2) the Timbers are pushing it when they play Jewsbury in this system. It worked against Seattle, but, again, dire outing for them.

2) Of Defenders, Gaffes, and Subtle Upsides
I'm guessing that, after 2014, a clear defensive gaffe hurts and/or scores a Timbers fan like few things in this league or on this Earth. Nat Borchers – god bless 'im – he all but died on that opening goal (watch him immediately after it went in; think the way he "shit his pants" got painfully close to literal; the man basically assumed the position before his knee buckled). On the second goal, I spotted Liam Ridgewell trailing behind the play at a trot, which may or may not have been reasonable given that he was behind the play, Borchers was running onto it, etc. Whatever their faults, though, I'm seeing both Borchers and Ridgewell expanding their value to the club on the other side of the ball. With Borchers, he's becoming impressively dangerous on set-pieces: the man never stops moving as his teammate lines up a corner or a free-kick; while Jewsbury might have stolen the show this week (scoring helps), Borchers terrorized Real Salt Lake right up to the point where he broke them. Ridgewell is more interesting still: while he's always been pretty involved with playing the ball out of the back, he appears to be doing it differently lately – i.e. he's been carrying it out lately, moving out of the back with the ball at his feet; this replaces the previous strategy of long, hard passes straight to the forwards' feet, and with something better to my mind. I'll be the first to admit that I might just be late in noticing something that Ridgewell has done all along...whatever, I like it. Obviously, it's hard and misguided to gripe much about Portland's defense, as well it should be: simply put, the defense has been very good. Still, it's great that the club appears to be getting a little more still out of both of them.
2a) Am I the only one who believes Portland is slowly rounding into a decent team on set pieces? ESPN's commentating crew slobbered all over Diego Valeri's delivery, and rightly so, but the other players seems more effective lately with getting on the end of it. Long may it continue...

3) A Very Expensive X-Factor
I suspect that Melano will be an ongoing object of interest, study and fascination. I have a couple observations to add to the talking points:
3a) It looks like Portland wants to use him to stretch the field vertically. Before anyone chimes in with "duh," allow me to explain. While it's probably not new seeing the Timbers try to play the ball over the top behind the defense, the effectiveness of that tactic seems to have improved a little since Melano's arrival. This strikes me as a good option in that it keeps people from keying on and suffocating Fanendo Adi's post-up play. Melano absolutely has the wheels to punish teams who play a high line...well, mostly...
3b) Melano plays young sometimes. Here, I'm thinking of the (legimitely) beautiful through-ball Nagbe played to him in the first half. Melano's decision to rush a shot highlights what he needs to work on to become a great player. To go a little Euro-snob on this, I think asking whether he can pick this up in MLS, and with Portland in particular, is all kinds of valid. That said, the counter-point works just as well: would Melano really be better served warming the bench for some European giant?
3c) But isn't that the question of these times?

4) Our Best, Our Worst, Our Ceiling
During the game, I tweeted posts on both Adi and Alvas Powell that read (paraphrase), "The best of [insert player's name], the worst of [insert player's name]." That came up, of course, because I saw both players do wonderful things one minute, and terribly, painfully indicative and familiar things five minutes later. For Adi, it was his hold-up play; as I saw it, he put in some of his best work with that particular skill in the Seattle game. Adi's worst came (think it was in the first half) when he had the ball at his feet facing a Seattle defender; Adi attempted a fake, then a feint, but the man's legs swept over the top of the ball at tortoise-esque speeds, which allowed the defender to wait until Adi either made an actual move, or a shitty pass. Either way, Portland lost the ball and a chance died. Powell rolled his best and worst into one play: starting from midfield (and from a turnover, I believe) he surged out of his right back position toward Seattle's goal, leaving defenders both in his wake, and on their asses; he then found himself in shooting range was just awful. In all honesty, I held my breath more in dread than anticipation, because I knew how bad the shot would be. He later killed a super-promising play with a bad trap. While it's tempting to file under, "hey, it happens," it happens enough with Powell to make a pattern.

This applies to another player, too, one I didn't tweet about: why Darlington Nagbe, of course. Nagbe had a decent game. I noted the pass to Melano above – which, it bears noting, was perfectly weighted – but Nagbe also skipped a quick pass wide to Diego Valeri, who cracked a great shot on goal. Both of those moments were unquestioned highlights of Portland's afternoon. But Nagbe also killed Portland attacks – or more accurately, failed to bring them about – by refusing to run forward into enticingly wide-open spaces, areas blessed with wonderful views of Seattle's goal, air conditioning, a swimming pool, and granite countertops, in both the 37th and 82nd minutes. Let me emphasize that these were clear opportunities, and with ample defensive cover behind him in both cases. And yet Nagbe dropped to a supporting position both times.

I point to all of these things with a helpful heart beating in my chest. I believe all these issues can be resolved, improved or made to work for the Timbers' advantage given adjustments that let these players take the things they do well and making them work for the team. That's to say, maybe the club relegates Nagbe to a deeper position...but, that's the point: no one goes there because it makes no goddamn sense. Sigh.

OK, all for this week. And, for personal scheduling reasons, I am very happy indeed that the Timbers don't play again until September 9th. Gives players time to get well, gives me some time to actually talk to my family, etc. I hear they're still around...

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