Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Houston Game Showed Portland the Way: Can They Take It?

A Portrait of the Author on the Silver Screen. Or in World War II. Been to both.
In a post last week, I wrote a check against future credibility that I'm not 100% sure I can cover. To refresh memories, I studied all 25 goals the Timbers have scored in 2015 (now 28; thank you to persons involved) as a frame to discuss what the Portland Timbers do when they attack the opposition, or try to. I ended that post, 1) a bit in my cups; and 2) by suggesting...no, stating that I would talk about how to fix the problem this week. And with the personnel on hand.

Looking back on it all, I feel OK saying that whole idea was crazy. Or, better, beyond my knowledge and talents. If I could put together a post on that, and one worth reading, I may as well go start climbing the coaching ladder. Because professional stability is my personal "woobie" and on the suspicion that I'd probably start hiding from my players after the first confrontation (think Major Major from Catch-22), that's out. Another obstacle came with a morning-after-sane-light-of-day realization that the only things I could think to say on the subject echoed things I've said in the 20+ game reports on this site – e.g. I'm a fan of overloads. And...and...well, this is why I don't coach. Well, that plus the conflict anxiety thing.

But the statement obligates some kind of stab at the subject, no matter how feeble. I won't lie. When the first wave of writer's block hit, I consciously blocked out time to watch all of last Friday's game between the Timbers and the Houston Dynamo days after it happened (this is braver than it sounds; I actually caught enough of the match to see all four goals in context; then I watched the 20-minute mini-game; followed that up with the full 90 tonight; my family is looking at me in a way I can't quite translate; will call for help if needed; anyway). The hope was that the team would bail me out; I waited for them to put on a clinic, so I could sit down tonight and simply say, "like that. Portland should attack like that."

Happily, and in spite of the damned thing ending in a draw, the Timbers crafted several examples Friday night. This was helpful – to them and me - because Portland hadn't scored multiple goals in a game since the end of June. The Timbers looked sharper attacking than they had for about a month, and for a lot of reasons.  That month matters, though, because it's hard to know what to think when you put the Houston game against, oh, the last five or six results. Bottom-line: the well had dried up, the river had run dry, and the little fellas paused on that vital journey upstream, etc. Chances had only trickled in. Portland looked out of ideas. Worse, it was some of Major League Soccer's weakest clubs that stumped 'em. Part of the writer's block came from wondering whether it made sense for the Timbers to switch to more of a counter-attack approach, basically to lean on the defense that has carried them so far this year.

Whether that Houston game is a blip or an indicator matters, and it doesn't. While it matters to the rest of Portland's 2015, it's only relevant to this post insofar as it provide great examples of how Portland should – and, crucially, can attack. If only against the Houston Dynamo. (Hey...so the game did bail me out!) I'll dig into some specifics on the Houston game down below. First, however, I'd like to swim a ways out into the open, innavigable seas of amateur theorization. Let the riptide carry me, if you will. Anyway, don't forget your grain of salt, but kindly leave your bullshit detectors at home.

To go broad and generic, if someone asked me how I think a soccer team should attack, I'd probably say, "Like the New York Red Bulls." I caveat the rest of this paragraph with the phrase, "based on what I've seen from them"...continuing now, the Red Bulls attack with lot of movement and, generally, short passing; apart from the standard resets (e.g. switching the ball, the odd long-ball/over-the-top, or long booming cross-field diagonals), they play the ball on the ground. They perform best when able to execute both methodically and quickly – i.e. to drag speed and deliberation into holy alliance. They've been able to do this pretty well this season; even when the goals weren't pretty, the process of getting them there often was. To shift to numbers, they're still tied for 5th in goals-for with the Vancouver Whitecaps, this in spite of being idle this past weekend, and having played only 23 games so far. Apply whatever qualifiers you like to that (cough, cough...Eastern Conference! Cough!) and...moving on.

Can Portland do this? I think the Timbers max out at in part, as in, they can play that game here and there, but nothing how about their personnel and how they've played tells me the can ride this horse all the way to Glory. They can pull it off when they can create, yes, overloads – see, the Houston game (and in gifs the day after I get this particular part of my shit together; in the off-season, Judy, I'll do it in the off-season). Portland worked the flanks smarter against Houston than they had in a while – specifically, by consciously keeping enough bodies near enough to the touchline to provide real options for passes inside. More importantly, they played those passes more than they have recently, by which I mean, they didn't just wait for the overlap to materialize and run with it when it did. There is a caveat to this. See below.

That said, Portland seems very comfortable, even most comfortable, stretching the field vertically and along the touchlines. It's how the club transitions and, really, it does work provided that players do something worthwhile once they get the ball up there. And, for all the bitching I do about Portland crossing the ball (4th in my personal obsession rankings), they did more things right with crosses against Houston than they have all season. It started with the simplest of things: getting bodies into the box. Against, the Dynamo, the Timbers routinely had at least four players in the box. Find yourself a still of Portland's second goal and you'll see six players, maybe even seven; moreover, five of those guys waited at the back post with just two Dynamo defenders to mind 'em...it should be pretty clear what that caveat is by now, but, wait for it...

The difference between Friday night and the past few weeks could have been conscious, unconscious, or very much related to that hanging caveat was pretty straightforward. When the ball got pushed wide enough to advise, or even necessitate a cross, the players who had provided support for the overload bolted to the box the second it became clear a cross was coming. When those players joined two or three others, Houston suddenly had a lot of mess to manage. And, crucially, some of that mess was moving, not standing and waiting. This rules out the early cross, in my mind, or at least argues for a more judicious use of it. The element of surprise has its place, right alongside attacking quickly, but so does trying to game out a better path through – e.g. the honor I'm trying to gift to New York, whether they really earned it or not. At any rate, I think this is what a lot of people mean when they ask for a little patience in the attack. Speed of movement and execution is great...right up until it trips over the line into spazzing.

The Houston game provided great examples of all the above. And that's the caveat. Houston was damned gappy in defense. They let the Timbers play, which isn't a huge deal, but they also afforded Portland's players pretty wide gaps, even within the back line. This made no sense, either, because, outside those overloads, the Dynamo also defended narrowly enough to leave Powell, especially, tons of space to run into. Or Lucas Melano, for that matter. Or Diego Valeri. Hell, this is why Darlington Nagbe was able to bounce "out wide" for Portland's first goal, and without being wide at all. And yet there were gaps. Then there was Portland's second, framed above. There was terrible defending all over that prize pig, but, for all the degree difficulty on that shot, Houston left Melano a damned comfy pocket in which to pull it off. And three more Timbers stood all on their lonesome close enough to the far post that I'm not sure you don't need to drop the "far" from "far post."

It wasn't a good defensive outing for Houston, basically, and, if only in interest of keeping a level head, I want to re-emphasize the Timbers recent struggles in the attack. To put it bluntly, could Portland do all that against Houston precisely because it was Houston? Moreover, was it because it was Houston without genuine key players like DaMarcus Beasley, Ricardo Clark and Giles Barnes? At least two of those names make for a great segue to my talking points on the Portland Timbers.

1) A Gap of Our Very Own
The Timbers opted for a high general line of engagement, at least as I saw it; the forwards and top three midfielders started harassing Dynamo players on Houston's side of the middle third of the field. When Diego Chara and Will Johnson pushed up to support this high line, this left a wide gap between Portland's twin midfield dynamos and the back four. Clark would have thrived in that space  - he's been there a lot of the year – and Barnes could have cut into that same space, Nagbe-style, or played into with a full head of steam behind him by another Dynamo player. I'm assuming this was deliberate on Caleb Porter's part – i.e. he asked for a more aggressive stance/performance – and it largely paid off. Still, that gap won't do every week. I'm not sure it would do most weeks. Just implying there's a payoff.
1a) The Gadfly
I give Boniek Garcia honors as Houston's player of the game. He was a real pain in the ass, and on both sides of the ball, but he's not the guy to exploit the space the Timbers left open.

2) It Wasn't George (At Least Not Entirely)
During halftime, I friend of my sent me the following text (paraphrasing): "Both goals came on George's side." For me and many others, Jorge Villafana is "George." And, yes, both goals came through his side of the defense. That said, I don't fault Villafana for either goal. On the first goal, as well as the assumption that Portland had a handle on clearing the ball after a Houston corner, Villafana pushed out of the defense; he was up high enough, in fact, to make an attempt at intercepting the entry pass. He didn't, obviously. The sequence for Houston's second started with a turnover in midfield. When the Dynamo got forward quickly as they did, most Timbers players were caught upfield, including Jorge. He recognized the problem with Will Bruin's run before it happened, but was too far upfield to get back to it; the man tried, though. And yet he wasn't at fault for me, either. So...who was?

3) Liam Ridgewell Needs a Rest
Ridgewell looked positively logy out there. Both goals lowlighted what feels like another off-night in a string of 'em for the Brit. On the first goal, he headed the ball high instead of out, and then got caught trotting back while Boniek Garcia rounded him; he didn't even build up the momentum to lay himself out, though he was the best positioned to do it (e.g. outside the goal mouth). He was even worse on the second goal, mostly by way of terminal indecisiveness. All three Portland defenders (Powell, Ridgewell, and Borchers) back-pedaled as Bruin charged at them, until it became clear someone had to step to the guy with the ball. Watch the replay closely and you'll see Borchers start to lean forward to go to ball in the split second before he sees what Bruin's up to. And he had to follow that because Ridgewell damn sure wasn't, not lost in a narcoleptic fog like that. Borchers basically worked through three decisive decisions and acted reasonably quickly on the correct one, with Ridgewell back-pedaling besides him. That’s harsh on Ridgewell, but this is an argument for a rest, not transfer or retirement. This is the reason we cultivated three solid-to-quality central defenders, so why not use them? It'll get Oh Boy Norberto Paparatto some more valuable seasoning as a bonus.
3a) Borchers Does Not
Borchers looked outstanding for me against Houston. I've been shy about naming him most reliable, but he cleaned things up all night, most notably on a breakdown or two through Powell's side. Borchers' sharpness only draws Ridgewell's malaise in sharper relief. Anyway, with Borchers where he is now, I have every confidence that Paparatto can step in without Portland missing too many beats.
3b) Uh, what about this Sunday’s game?
Well...maybe not...shit. Hmm...

4) On Melano
I hereby 'fess up to hating on Melano's first several outings in a Timbers jersey. It was mostly that his touch looked elephantine and he looked in need of more repetitions with the guys around him. Melano looked great against Houston, though. His speed showed through time and again – see, the feed by Valeri that would have ripped the net if Tyler Deric hadn't blocked it – and, besides scoring Portland's cracking and/or unjustly overlooked goal, he set up Valeri for what damn-skippy should have been a goal. So, good night for the new kid. If he keeps it up, the worst we'll do is make back the investment if a bigger club comes a-callin'.

5) Will Johnson Is Portland's Most Important Player This Year
This has threatened to come out for a while, but the Houston game really nailed it down for me. Johnson's work on both sides of the ball has been key. Or maybe talismanic is the better word – as in, where Will goes, so goes Portland. And I'm OK with that.

And, that's plenty. I still have thoughts on Nagbe (always do), I'm liking Kwarasey better and better as he settles in, Powell is the human embodiment of whatever it is in Chinese that symbolizes crisis and opportunity, Jorge Villafana is best when playing at his level, the Timbers might have found their level, etc. etc. All for another day...

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