Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Timbers Take 3 Out of Ohio: Does a Banal Observation Explain a Big Win?

A glimpse inside Nagbe's mind at the crucial moment.
Can someone just transcribe all the shit I said last night and edit it for slurring, repetition and terrible ideas? (I'm just so tired, Judy...)

Two of my favorite non-green-and-gold clubs in Major League Soccer lost in Week 30. That'd be the Columbus Crew and Red Bulls New York ("s" deliberate, btw). Orlando City SC ran over the Red Bulls in a game that was brilliant and tragic all at once; more on that at mid-week. That result also reads a little weird given New York's current form and reputation. It's not that they're invincible, or anything – Chicago gives 'em fits, for one – but Portland's loss to them in Week 29 was only surprising for the sleepy, tits-to-the-sky manner in which they lost it.

I thought the Timbers had a decent chance going into Columbus, in spite of the New York loss, thanks to all the goals the Crew have coughed up this season ( 51, and it could have been 52 as everyone who sleeps on either side of the Willamette knows, because penalty). What's better for a sputtering offense, after all, that a permissive defense? That turned out to be true in the end, but it took a good night from Portland to make that cheap little factoid stand as tall as it did...which I include here to signal to anyone reading this that I in no way believe that I called the win.

That Portland lost to the Red Bulls at home and beat Columbus on the road still sets up a weird disconnect in pattern and placement. Most Timbers fans seem to feel like there's something wrong with the club, or at least that's what the angsty vibes that I get through twitter and  conversations in the walking world (aka, irl) communicate to me. I feel it too, obviously, which accounts for why I've spent the past couple weeks trying to pin the tail on the correct donkey, first throwing one player under the bus, then another. When that felt unsatisfying, I turned to trying to cut through to some path that leads to coaching and management. On that, let's just say I might have found the trailhead, but I haven't yet started the hike.

I’ve been carrying around something someone else said on that for about a week, something I was going to use in some post on what’s wrong with the Porter/Wilkinson brain-trust. Here that is (with the author duly credited):
Yesterday's performance was inexcusably flat for the situation. Tactics and personnel are on the brass. Commitment is on the players.
- Chris Rifer, Twitter, approximately 9:15 p.m. Monday night (9/21)
Does that one little tweet contain the essential truth about why the Timbers lost to the Red Bulls (again, at home), but walked out of Columbus with the full three points? Is it just Portland's players "committing" in one game, but not the other? There’s a word for that, people, and it's banal. That's the throwaway shit a coach says to his players in the pre-game speech when he's out of ideas; and he'd be well-advised to sell that one by squirting out a couple tears.

Wait, wait. Before I dive into the details, let the record show that I'm going through MLS Live's 20-minute mini-game of the Columbus win as I'm writing this and I just noticed that their video guys quietly erased the blown penalty call. It cuts off just as Darlington Nagbe enters the box – e.g. before the Crew’s defender tried to take off his shorts and before he got cut down. And, wait, wait, wait. Hold up. There’s no clip of it in the "Key Moment" gallery, either? What. The. Cold. Fuck. MLS? What is this Orwellian bullshit about "disappearing" the uncomfortable failings of your referees?

Nagbe actually provides a good place to start because last night's game underscored the incredible importance of being earnest, I mean, of Nagbe continuing his runs, of continuing toward goal. That's what created the penalty kick (you know what, MLS? Fuck it. I'm just going to go ahead award Portland that goal...there, I'm doing it now, writing in pen, "Portland...has scored...32 goals...this they' -3...for goal...differential." There, now it's reality, assholes); it's also how he created Portland's first goal, which came by way of him dribbling, dishing to Rodney Wallace, who returned a simple little ball to get Nagbe still more central, from which point he squibbed it into Fanendo Adi.

It's worth lingering on that pass because that, that is the quintessential Darlington Nagbe pass.  He's not one for the perfectly-weighted ball, at least not often, he's not your man for the big, sweeping reset pass. Often as not, he's dribbling, dribbling, dribbling, then "OH SHIT, PASS!" It's as if he's thinking "hot potato!" as some sort of internalized scream, and there goes the ball. For what it's worth, I think this is the body of all those "key passes" for which he's credited. And rightly so, I guess. Maybe. I mean it certainly worked in that moment, and it was a really good, clearly deadly pass. Credit to Adi for staying onside...makes you wonder about how often Nagbe's been left hanging on one of those.

And I'll be damned if he didn't make the same kind of pass around the 30 minute mark. And, hmm, there's something about it. Just...aesthetically, that I can't bring myself to appreciate. Fuck it, it's my hang-up. Moving on...

Wait, pausing again for a shout-out to the other side. I just watched Tony Tchani play this utterly amazing line-breaking pass to Kei Kamara, the pass that found him on the left of Portland's 18; Kamara went onto square it to Federico Higuain, who barely sent the ball over. I'm telling you, people, that Tchani is something. And, fuck me, what is the defense doing on that one? What's Jorge Villafana doing stepping toward the ball while Nat Borchers is already out there, and who the hell was tracking Higuain's run into the gap Villafana's movement opened up? (Shit. I really have to work out gifs. I'll probably have to change blogging platforms, dammit.) OK, enough about that, enough about those clowns.

I want to talk about one Timbers player in all this because I think he may get overlooked in the afters. It's Rodney Wallace. He played a strong game, in my mind. The wall pass noted above was well and good, but the half dozen times or so when he kept the ball at his feet through a challenge mattered every bit as much. In a game where he loses that ball, that kicks off a counter-attack, often with Portland's players leaning forward; with the way Columbus went at his side (and, per their positions, Villafana) that could have put the Timbers in all kinds of trouble last night. He didn't, though, and credit to him. Wallace also made sound little decisions – little things like a decision to pivot around the ball when Columbus appeared to look for a pass – that unbalanced the Crew defense. He had a good night, basically.

Maybe that's the root of it. Maybe that one guy stepping up spells the difference between failure and success. Maybe Nagbe plays the same goddamn game every time, but there are games where there's no Rodney Wallace to give him that tiny, simple wall pass and, with that, a way to make more of his run.

Jesus, I'm not even through the mini-game yet. Going back in...

There's my final talking point (otherwise, this'll never end): The Liam Ridgewell Situation. When Columbus' one and only goal went in last night, I remember thinking two things: 1) wondering why it was Wallace who covered him, and 2) why Ridgewell was where he was on the play – e.g. just sort of standing between Wallace, Kamara and the goal, where he was unable to do shit? The goal just played (no, still not in the second half) and that answered both questions: 1) Wallace wasn't guarding Kamara, he was guarding the near post; Kamara came around his blind-side and beat him to it; 2) Ridgewell was covering Kamara and he ended up where he was because that's where Kamara left him. (Again, a gif would be really nice right here...sorry; next week, Judy, I'll get to it next week. So tired...).

I feel like a lot of people's perception of Ridgewell has shifted. I know mine has, now that I'm watching him closely. The man seems to defend zonally and does a lot of directing of other players besides that, pointing as to who should go where. He also has a terrible tendency to trot once he gets the feeling the play has passed him by: to put that in example form, I don't mind that Ethan Finlay beat him on Columbus' first attack, because Finlay's simply faster. What I do mind is seeing Ridgewell move to cover the central channel – where Justin Meram is crashing toward goal – at a fucking trot.

Contrast that with Borchers, who played Kamara, in particular, very tough last night. There was some point in the second half, where he put this magically subtle check to Kamara's hip when he went up for a header on goal. For me, Borchers has been smarter, more aggressive, just better than his central partner for the second half of the season if not longer. If this is where Ridgewell is at this point, I don't care what the club spent on him, the guy belongs on the bench. That goes double when we’ve got a good option.

OK, lemme round this out with a couple loose points. This went about a page longer than usual, which I don't like, because I'm sitting here picking through a replay, which I kinda do like. Guess that's something to think about...

- I will say this every time I see it: Adi is at his most effective as a goal scorer, when the team plays the ball to his feet running toward goal; find a way to do that often as you can and you'll get the most out of Adi.

- Didn't remember that Wallace assisted on Portland's second (and if you listen to whatever the Portland Timbros post, and assuming they don't edit out this part, you'll hear that I didn't even remember the goals about an hour after the game), but that underlines what I said above about his game and why he mattered. Guess that means Wallace had a very good game.
- Just personally, I liked the second goal more. It just feels more "right" to me, for whatever reason.
- And helluva an entry ball from Valeri. Everything that succeeded in that play succeeded by inches.

- Finally, I blurted this out last night when Valeri almost chipped Steve Clark. Valeri is something special precisely because he pulls off the unexpected and often does it so well. We'll be a better team when he's completely recovered.

Good god, that's enough. To pull it all together, I'd argue that one key difference between the loss to New York and the win over Columbus has to do with getting just that one more player to step up. Also, the Timbers might not give up that one goal if Ridgewell gets out of the picture. Call it two steps forward and one step back. Which gets Portland going in the right direction.

I think I said some half-crazy shit last night (to people in the room, perhaps into a microphone; can't quite track where I said what to whom) about some need to choose between Nagbe and Diego Valeri in the midfield. I feel like that can be filed under a personal need to just say shit, or maybe force false choices. Then again, I did just call it half-crazy, so maybe there's something behind it. Film at 11, I guess.


  1. Don't you just hate it when a player we've consigned to "shadow of the 2013 version" status has a very solid game? I hate it because I now have conflicting thoughts about Rodney. Ultimately though, unless he has a couple more of these solid performances in the final four games, it was just a very nice anomaly.

  2. Agreed. I still like the overall thesis, though: it's it not Rodney who steps up, Portland just needs...someone in order to increase the odds of success (I hope).