Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Portland Timbers Draw Sporting KC: A Study on a Work in Progress

Sacrificed my smallest finger. What have you done, Timbers?
I have to admit it. The Portland Timbers goal-less draw against Sporting Kansas City left me feeling...feelings.

As the Twitter-verse pointed out, and against the general way of the drinking world, can we all agree that we're all better off forgetting that first half and holding onto the bright memories of the second? The second half presented the Timbers Army, and affiliated fans, with a great big doozy of expectations. My right hand still bears the reddened evidence from all the times my fist hit a barroom table. (Consider that an offering: if I break my hand on the table after the miss that inspired it, can I parlay that brief moment of pain for a Timbers goal at their next attempt? If not, why not? Trade makes the world go 'round, allows the wheels of commerce to turn, etc.)

Getting back to the first half, however, that played out pretty much as expected. Kansas City plays to make the game ugly; they're a classic high-press, disruption-first kind of team; they set out to make it hard to play just about anywhere on the field (which makes them an excellent primer for the Timbers' next opponent, New York Red Bulls). Something shifted at the half that gave the Timbers the moxie and space to attack – and I hereby raise my hand to confess that I have no idea what that would be – but would humbly submit that maybe it was nothing more than that little bit more moxie that created the space...these are the mysteries of soccer, especially when one sits down to try to write the first, second draft of history (in this modern era, the first draft always goes to Twitter).

Whatever happened, Portland piled on the chances in the second half – and in a manner reminiscent of last week's loss to Seattle Sounders FC – only to find themselves "Melia'd" at every turn (and, sweet Jesus, is there some kind of passing of the torch going here, wherein KC's Tim Melia becomes the heir-apparent for fucking over the Timbers, a la Nick Rimando?). As a very smart man I watch games with suggested, does Portland just bring out the best in opposition goalkeepers? I mean, is this our club's fate?

The pisser comes with the fact that that little edge – e.g. a standing-on-head performance from a 'keeper – is all any given team needs to take a gigantic shit on a basically acceptable night for the Timbers. Being the sociable type, I didn't catch every single minute of tonight's game - there will people to meet, etc. - but I damn-skippy caught Graham Zusi's shot off Adam Kwarasey's left post (as well as a couple headed shots off set pieces that rather kindly landed at or near Kwarasey to make for comfortable saves). KC wasn't good tonight, really, but any team with enough talent, or even just a reliable trick up their sleeve – can steal any game against the Timbers on a night when they don't score...

...suffice to say that the second half of tonight's game made up for the first half, excitment-wise. Heart-in-throat stuff. And that's why we tune in, isn't it? Is that enough random junk in the  (long) lede? Let's review...

No, I have two big generalities to touch on before getting to the handful of bullet points. First, for anyone wanting to blame the ref for anything about tonight, I have the following comment: For as much as I put referee Fotis Bazakos at the bottom of my personal pecking order, one would think that both players and fans would have by now internalized MLS's terrible refereeing and accepted as the norm. Freakishly inconsistent as that guy can be...well, so fucking what? He didn't gift KC a win, or robbed Portland of the same. Just think of it as one of those games where the arbiters of the rules make up shit on the fly and move on. Next...

Second point: I was going to lead this post with some comment about how much bigger Portland's opposition looks to me going into any given game. While that's not entirely inaccurate, my more fundamental argument is this: Portland has another set of games, or even another year, of tinkering with the attack ahead of them. Overall, I don't think Caleb Porter has a clear idea of how to best utilize the players he has. And this is more complicated that integrating a youngster like Lucas Melano into the team: other conundrums include getting Diego Valeri back up to speed (for me, he's cruising at around 50 miles per hour, where the club needs him closer to 70), as well as doing everything to keep him healthy; figuring out the overall best starting set-up for the personnel on hand (or making moves to change personnel where needed); and, as always, figuring out how to get Darlington Nagbe back to his 2013 self (and that is all I'll say about Nagbe this post; promise).

It's not all bad news: I honestly believe our defense is damn-near set (if only for a couple years), and I think we have another couple years left at a minimum on the Will Johnson/Diego Chara pairing, with George Fochive as an entirely reliable back-up (and, goddammit, we better hold onto that kid!). To state the obvious, it's the attack that needs...let's go with clarification. I view that as a full-on work in progress. To put that in stark terms, even if Portland makes the playoffs this season, I don't see this team going to MLS Cup its present condition. In fact, barring a major run of form (and, for the record, I put this at a torrid run over, say, the final four games of season), there's no great virtue in making the 2015 post-season. What's so great about making it if you're only going to flame out in the first round? That's the kind of fodder I use to make fun of Seattle.

Then again, I am the same guy who has insisted, through all of 2015, that Sporting KC is the best, deepest team in MLS. And here are the Timbers, a team I'm calling a work in progress, sitting right beside them in the standings. So, yeah, run your tongue all up and down that salt lick before calling any of this insight.

So, those are my feelings. I'll close with set of quick talking points before calling it a night.

1) Luxuriating in Complete Comfort
I rate Kwarasey and Jorge Villafana as men of the match, but feel free to throw include Nat Borchers, Norberto Paparatto and Taylor Peay onto that big comfy couch, because, again, I feel fine with the Timbers defense. Yes, of course, I saw all the foot-tangled clearances tonight; I accept that the Timbers had a couple nightmare moments, and Kwarasey had at least two all on his very own. And I don't care. The fact is, the Timbers lead MLS in shut-outs; second fact, emergency defending can still be good defending and Portland did a decent job of containing KC's chances tonight, much as they have club after club in MLS all season long. Moreover, Kwarasey has started playing the "sweeper-'keeper" role that club ownership promised fans they'd see when he was signed. Hell, for me, Kwarasey goes down as the Timbers' most improved player of 2015. Basically, the Timbers have a good defensive core, and, as I said above, it's going to be around for a while. Everyone knows the old cliché about defense winning championships, and that's swell so far as it goes. There's that no-less-important corollary, though, about how you can't win if you don't score. Working on it.
1a) I am perfectly, 100%-OK with deploying a defensive scheme that rests on the assumption that your team's defenders go forward both conscientiously and sparingly, so long as that arrangement frees up the rest of the team to attack. Yeah, yeah, yeah, overlapping fullbacks are the key to the modern game. etc. These things go in phases; there's always another flavor next month in terms of formation and tactics. At any rate, if it's Villafana and Peay starting back there – who, for my money, is a better defender than Alvas Powell will ever be – I'm OK with that.
1b) And, no, I haven't remotely given up on Powell. I just know his limitations.

2) What to Do With a Guy Like Fanendo?
I put Fanendo Adi at the top of the list of the pieces that I don't think Porter has figured out yet. I'm still of the opinion that his near-miss on that brilliant through-ball that Valeri played is Adis best approach to goal. True, he had a couple headed attempts besides (one saved fucking brilliantly by Melia, who was slipping, fer crissakes!), but I'm pretty sure that Adi scored most of his goals this year by running onto passes (and I'll continue to lean on this earlier post for confirmation). Portland still leans on Adi for post-up play and there's nothing wrong with that; a forward that big and powerful should absolutely have that part of his game in his wheel-house. And yet, there's that whole aspect of coaching about letting a player do what he does well, often as he can. I don't necessarily blame Porter for struggling to figure this out, because it really isn't easy or obvious. Still, it's a thing that needs working out, and, crucially, complementing, if Portland is going to get to the next level in MLS play.

Well, that's it for the big stuff. I'm going to close with some quick takes, read some news, maybe watch the 20-minute mini-game of the Colorado Rapids v. Vancouver Whitecaps and then pass out. Off we go...

- Lucas Melano still needs to work on his decision making and speed of thought. Some of those misses tonight - especially the one where he got the feed from Valeri and took the extra touch that gave Melia the chance to smother a word, ARRGGH! Still, he's close...and if and when he crosses over into understanding, well, the kid has potential to be lethal.

- I also see ton of potential in Dairon Asprilla. I think he's a big part of the answer for how to get to a better 2016.

- Rodney Wallace is not.

- If you've ever seen Orlando City SC defend (small sample), you will thank every lucky star in the Milky Way that you are a Timbers fan.

OK, really it now. Good night!

No comments:

Post a Comment