Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Great Rio Tinto Smash-'n'-Grab (A Template for the Rest of the Year)

Think this is where the Timbers are. I'm OK with it.
Well, that one left me...confused.

For me, the defining moment came in the second half when (I'm working without notes; forgive the vagueness), Diego Valeri received the ball from _______ (blank intentional) and broke toward Real Salt Lake's goal with Darlington Nagbe on the opposite side of the field. The two Portland Timbers had just one RSL defender at their mercy – I'm going with Aaron Maund as the junior partner (though, let’s face it, Jamison Olave is on the wrong side of pretty much every metric), but that's not important – when Valeri, a man normally so bright and bold and proactive, took a few steps inside RSL's half, squared the ball to Nagbe, who was still 45+ yards from goal. The implied message of that pass was, "Here ya go, kid. Hope you got ideas, because I got nothin'."

That play didn't end the game. Credit for the Timbers 1-0 win over RSL goes to Nat Borchers, who, tonight, proved that Third Time's a Charm is a thing when he knocked his third header inside RSL's area past Nick "Portland Kryptonite" Rimando for the game winner and his third of the year at the death-rattling death of the match. Let's see...that’s two run-on sentences now...

What leaves me so confused about everything that happened tonight is how precisely I feel like I understand what's going on, the general trends. And yet I'm not entirely sure I'm right. How's that for an Alice in Wonderland lede?

Tonight was rife with paradox. For one, Portland organized in the simplest of defensive shapes...which, as it turned out, resulted in RSL playing all kinds of crazy, tight passing stuff against, and through, the Timbers. Going the other way, Portland managed only a few, a happy few, attacking sequences that really threatened RSL's goal. Outside those moments, just about everything about the Timbers attack (one sequence aside) looked like pin the tail on the donkey. In all honesty, I thought we looked a little bit like grab-astic shit all over the field going forward tonight – more on that later – but I...think....maybe, that all that was by design.

For all that, can I just say that I am absolutely thrilled by this win?  I mean, who knew they'd do it in the end? There were – what? – three to four breaks for Portland, plus a couple corner kicks? And yet all of those somehow felt more threatening the actual, persistent threats that RSL managed (OK, barring a couple real quality chances...say, Luke Mulholland's screaming shot that Adam Kwarasey pawed away like the King of Some South/Central American jungle). The Timbers picked up all three points in the end, something I find particularly great because at no point did I think that Portland would win. Honestly, this is RSL and, as was pointed out again and again before the game and throughout the broadcast, RSL and/or Nick Rimando had held the Timbers scoreless for some ungodly amount of time. And then they didn't...though, let the record show that they pushed that record to the absolute limit that they could before conceding the deciding, season-crushing goal.

At any rate, that's the easy stuff. Time to step out onto the wing of that make four points about all this:

1) I Think This Is the New Normal
First, I think this could be what the brass had envisioned in the home game Chicago game. The trouble was, there, it didn't make sense. Against, Real Salt Lake, though, and on the road, it made perfect sense. I think the Timbers have settled on being a counter-attacking team. As in, the high-press is dead, long live the counter-attack. The weird tautology of the sentence from which that is borrowed is entirely deliberate: for years Portland fans have expected, and generally enjoyed Porterball (again, whatever that is; fill in your own blanks) – that is, a high-pressing, quick combination approach that seeks to dominate the other team (maybe; honestly, it was just a buzzword in my mind). Based on tonight, though, I think the club philosophy has shifted to something a lot like rope-a-dope, and that this choice came about with the sole, clear purpose of making the 2015 Major League Soccer playoffs. That is, play it safe as you can, and hope to steal something with the legion of skill players at the club's disposal. Basically, I think that the practicality that seeped in earlier this year has soaked straight through the pantaloons. I think this constitutes The Plan.

2) The Plan, Which Starts at the Back
A couple weeks back – it might have been either the draw against the San Jose Earthquakes, or the win over the Chicago Fire – Liam Ridgewell was quoted as saying that the Timbers went "back to basics" in order to keep the clean sheet (or the other clean sheet) (and who knew how readily he uses that one). Though I scoffed at the idea at the time – and publicly – what I saw tonight argued powerfully against such loose scoffing. Portland defended in the historic "Banks of Four" tonight, and deep; "basics" as you get, really. Isolated harassment Lucas Melano aside (and one was great; more on him this Thursday), the Timbers were fine with RSL getting as close to 30, 35 yards from goal...where they would meet the first of said banks of four – e.g. the bank of midfielders – which would expand back against the oncoming attack. As implied above, RSL found several ways through; things went haywire, in fact, when players like Javier Morales and Luke Mulholland found space between Portland's defense and midfield (which they did often enough). Generally, though, the Timbers kept to the two ranks of four. RSL found seams, but without creating a ton of clean chances. And, when they did, Kwarasey cleaned them up. Or...

3) The Central Pairing, The Beating Heart of It All
Liam Ridgewell had a hell of a night tonight. He stuffed a certain goal by taking a boot to the side of his foot. He later took another boot to...some part of his (generally) upper anatomy, for sure, and went down one more time besides, but Ridgewell wasn't the star/issue. That honor goes to Borchers, who, literally, did everything tonight. He fucked up, and won the game; he got pulled too goddamn far upfield time and again, thereby an alarming gap behind him; and, again, he won the goddamn game on his third headed attempt: that, my friends, is a full night. Put them together, though – that is, Borchers, Kwarasey and Ridgewell – they kept out everything that RSL threw at them tonight. Their effort was assisted by the efforts of Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana who, as I saw it (and until some Opta tracking service proves me wrong, I say) tended to stay back tonight. All in all, and for the past several games, I think the Timbers have stopped pressing their outside backs forward with any kind of regularity. So, again, and for what it's worth, I think the Timbers have gone defensive. More to the point, I think there's a somewhat troubling reason for that might explain some measure of the Timbers' broad dysfunction. Why...I blush to even conceive of such things, but...

4) Indecent Thoughts
At some random moment tonight, when, with a little momentum blowing behind them, the Timbers tried to take the game to RSL. Players moved around and the ball scooted between them, but what stood out for me was how little each player's movement connected to the movement of the ball and the course of play around him. In other words, while Timbers players moved off the ball, I never got the sense that there was anything coordinated in all of it. I saw a lack of understanding all over out there. To be clear, this could be One Hundred Percent (100%) confirmation bias. And, yet, I don't think there's a brain out there, a nerve center that sends pulses to the other neurons in a way that allows them to think as a unit. As I think I've mentioned before – and this might even have been last year, on another site - I see a bunch of soloists running around the field. No one symbolizes this sort of "bold auteur" stuff like Nagbe. He made two runs tonight, at least that I remember, and both were patented Nagbe: he bolted forward, slicing open the opposition on a tight-rope with otherworldly balance as he feinted and shimmied past two or three defenders. Even deep in his own end he managed this. But nothing really came of it...and now, we touch real heresy...
4a) The King's Right to Rule
Tonight, and for the first time, I wondered how much Caleb Porter's time at Akron University relied on deploying talents like Nagbe's to go solo against opposing defenses. Am I stretching? Oh, yeah. All the same, think about someone on Nagbe's level against college kids. Think what he could do against lesser defenders. And what about Steve Zakuani? That pace, against college kids? It's barely a contest on paper. The point is, what if Caleb's just a goddamn brilliant scout? What if his game-plan boils down to vague directives about where each player sets up, complimented by some motivational speaking buzzwords for success?

With that, I have plunged the depths of doubt. And that's where I leave it.

Still, I'm happy. That was a good goddamn win. And, for what it's worth, I do think Portland will attempt to ride defense the rest of the year. What's more, I think that might be a good idea.


  1. I love your observation about the Portland offense being a bunch of talented guys who rarely have a moment of zen with each other. If I'm boring in on goal, make a quick layoff pass and then continue my run in hopes of a quick give and go exchange- and it never happens, then the cumulative effect is that I'll stop making those runs at goal. And if everyone in the attacker group sees it that way, then players become static and just lob balls towards the goal mouth out of desperation.

    I think you're right: Porter's great success at Akron was recruiting physically dominating players. The current state of the Timbers indicates to me he's not the coach to instill a style of play the takes advantage of what our current players might do. Some of the blame is for assembling a group of players where the whole is less than the sum of individuals. That might fall as much on Gavin as Caleb.

  2. Holy shit! A comment! And with better phrasing! (Thanks!)