Sunday, September 20, 2015

Timbers Lose to the Red Bulls: A Feel-Piece in Response

Yes, part of me thinks it's this easy.
Tonight's 2-0 loss was really, painfully simple. The Portland Timbers got outplayed by a better team. Period. So, what makes the New York Red Bulls a better team? That's the pisser. It's not that hard.

O.G. New York (my fan-boy name for that club) knows what they're doing when they have ball. They play out of trouble more effectively, and no matter where they are on the field; Red Bulls players provide better support; they create those useful little triangles by reflex, as opposed to any (apparent) design that allow their players to reliably move the ball out of danger, and get it going the other way, time and again. It didn't hurt that they beat the Timbers to damn near every piece of slop that shook loose, managed to get the requisite number of bodies behind the ball damn near every time, etc. etc. etc. But it was that piece of knowing what to do with the ball that mattered most tonight. Sure, sure, both of New York's goals relied on some form of lax defending, but New York made those chances by doing the right thing more often than not.

Unrelated, but significant, can Timbers fans please retire the "dodgy 'keeper" chant, or at least apply exclusively to those 'keepers it has a snowball's chance in Hell of rattling? Luis Robles, Jr. is not that guy. I speak for myself here, but I'd trade Adam Kwarasey, plus whoever serves as our back-up 'keeper these days for Robles. The guy is U.S. Men's National Team material, and has been for years; only Jurgen Klinsmann's profound, persistent asshole-ism/Brad Guzan keeps him out (well, yes, and his age). Need evidence? You got it.

Even without Robles pulling miracles out of his ass, Portland simply labored to get a shot on New York's goal. Too many shots came from a lack of ideas – i.e. a Timber would shoot out of a dearth of visible, or observed (as in, didn't see 'em), options. Darlington Nagbe wound up at least twice only to pummel the ball into the one or two New York defenders between him and the goal; same with Lucas Melano, Rodney Wallace, Diego Valeri...Will Johnson at least skied one off the bar, but I'm pretty sure he banged one into a red and white wall right along with the rest of 'em. It's a great idea, shooting from distance, and one I'm in favor of generally...just not when a trio of defensive players loiters in the way.

With all the above in mind, "intention" provides the theme for tonight – i.e. the sense that, unlike the Timbers, New York has a plan and some sense of how to execute it. That one goes deep, if only in my head. Why?

Marsch-Ball v. Porter-Ball
Fucking massive storm clouds hovered overhead when New York head coach Jesse Marsch took his place on the Red Bulls' coaching throne this off-season. The highly controversial firing of last year's coach, Mike Petke, and the ensuing, noisy fan protest, along with some extraordinarily significant retirements, led all and sundry to assume – fuck it, going with "presume" here – that 2015 would be a rebuilding year in Red Bull land. Setting aside the missing stars in the attack (and, here, we're talking red giants, league-legend level), even bigger questions surrounded New York's defense. No one put faith in the more or less regular pairing of Matt Miazga and Damien Perrinelle (you know that guy; he scored their second goal tonight), never mind the outside backs, all them being a collection of MLS trainees (Miazga) and unknown foreigners (Perinelle).

Things turned out a bit differently in the end (OK, we are talking night and day). They're top of the Eastern Conference, very much alive in the Supporters' Shield race, and looking like an entirely rational bet for MLS Cup. The reason, near as I can see, is that New York plays a system that every player on the roster understands. Know why? Because it's fucking simple. Moreover, the Red Bulls approach the game in a way that every soccer player on the planet – amateur to professional – grasps intuitively: it starts with the high press to force turnovers and relies on smart movement and, in all seriousness, merely competent passing after that. OK, yes, the passing is good, but, more to the point, it's confident; New York players believe they can pass into traffic, around it, over it; they go with whatever makes sense, basically, and it's panned out pretty well.

Anyone thinking I'm downplaying whatever "stars" New York may have should take a look at their roster. Every player on that roster came into 2015 with some form of an asterisk next to his name, and their still punching higher than most teams in MLS. And, again, I believe it's less about personnel, than it is about philosophy. Each player assumes the other is up to it, and they play like it.

Marsch instilled a philosophy in this club – one that, see above, I happen to find highly translatable – and that strikes me as the most singularly significant aspect to tonight's loss. Caleb Porter came into MLS carrying the same sort of idea in his briefcase; they called it Porter-ball, as every Timbers fan knows, and it worked pretty well, if only for a year. Built on possession, and patience therein, it gave the Timbers a frame in which to operate. Porter-Ball gets brought up in scare quotes these days, when it gets brought up at all. I read...well, no, I didn't even read it, but only heard about any case, I heard that Caleb took a walk in the wilderness (which, here, means England) to study what successful teams do in order to, y'know, succeed. If you think back to earlier this year, you'll recall (or should) a lot of talk about how Portland discarded Porter-Ball in favor of a "direct" approach – i.e. getting the ball into the attacking third as quickly as the ball can get there. Portland was very direct tonight, so direct that it bordered on blunt and/or uncreative – see taking shots first, and asking whether two or three bodies stood between player and goal later. When that didn't work, the Timbers went to a highly-familiar Plan A: push the ball to an overlapping back and...cross to no one.

I'm not sure I'm prepared to argue that going back to Porter-Ball will spell success. What I do know, or at least feel, is that the Timbers take the field without a clear sense of what they're doing out there. The team has a formation (e.g. the 4-2-3-1, aka MLS's Flavor of the Year), which dictates approach to some extent. Maybe it's the entire extent; I don't know, and I'm only now just thinking about it. The point is, New York takes the field with at least two clear, general approaches in mind – e.g. high-press and active combination play. Portland, on the other hand, seems to operate on a vaguer itinerary – e.g. pump the ball to Fanendo Adi to see what he can do with it (yes, yes, this is after Maximiliano Urruti steps off, tonight, or generally), or dump it down the flanks whether or not the attack is ready.

For lack of a better phrasing, I'm arguing that Portland under-thinks their approach before the game, and over-thinks it after the whistle. Just spit-ballin', people. Whatever they're doing, it looks labored as actual labor. Which, as we all know (and at least half of us can only appreciate), ain't easy.

Are there a million details within all the above? Oh, holy hell, yes, and I'll try to get to those mid-week. For now, though, I do believe the above is key when it comes to the Timbers. The club's personnel is not the best, even if for a variety of reasons. The point is, neither is New York's. No one looks at the Red Bulls and immediately envies any player on that roster; consider that people could discuss Dax Freakin' McCarty as a big missing piece for today's game and ask yourself when’s the last time anyone suffered a fainting spell, never mind a fan-boy freak-out, over McCarty. And Mike Grella. The man is my short-hand for a high-value, no-name player because he has been good all year in a way that, literally, no one on Portland's roster has.

More than any other league on the planet, MLS thrives on value – i.e. the tricky, conceptual work of getting as much as possible out of the personnel on hand. New York figured that out in 2015. Portland has not. And, for what it's worth, that’s my take-away on tonight's loss.

And that's all I've got for now. Good night, on a bad night.


  1. Inspired first look at yesterday's dumpster fire. Please do pick at the scab a little more in future posts!

  2. Will try to deliver. It's sort of a mess. In my head, I mean. Though that's not a bad description for on the field, either.