Thursday, October 8, 2015

Portland's Drunk-Strewn Path to the After Party: On Faith and Its Opposites

Cherished. Pointless.
I posted a piece a couple nights ago about how Darlington Nagbe presents as the most likely savior for this manic-depressive (if medication-modulated) 2015 season (reference to meds acknowledges that the highs haven't been that high, nor the lows that low – more later). The argument for this is messy and, as it turns out, large. Real, real large. To put that another way, nothing that comes below will clear the tangles cited in the title.

Nagbe played a good game this past Saturday. The dead-end dribbles made their usual cameo, but Nagbe put a pair of thoroughly respectable shots on goal; that's on top of playing in Lucas Melano for the Portland Timbers' best attacking sequence on the night, a good shift for anyone. And yet, as all Timbers fans know, none of those three efforts, or any of the others, went in.  As noted in that same post, this is the sum of Portland's season. With Nagbe, specifically, impressive moments, even relevant statistics, don't matter against the broadly well-justified, oft-repeated knock on Nagbe: what good is all that game-changing talent if it fails to actually change the game?

I've carried image at right (and above) in my mind for about a month. I have a collector friend or two, the kind of guys who buy their favorite toys twice, one to play with and the other to save in pristine, packaged condition for a presumed later payoff. The investment piece pans out sometimes, but, other times, it ends with nothing but a grown man carting around kid's toys embarrassingly deep into adulthood. Even with his reputation taking hits (like this one!), Portland still possesses one of the most coveted toys in all Major League Soccer. Nagbe had one visibly great season (see 2013), one that had Timbers fans dreaming/drooling about future seasons. What we got instead were the past two seasons, which shifted the whole goddamn mess back to potential. It's as if some shady collector stuffed our Darlington back in the original packaging and shoved him back on the shelf for everyone to admire for...I dunno. By which I mean, I just don't know. What I do know is that I was always the kind of kid who ripped that toy straight out of the packaging because, honestly, the fuck's the point of a toy if you don’t play with it?

That same image was to top one of the most vicious hit-pieces to ever percolate up from the fetid sink of doubt and worry that bubbles in the depths of my body. The plan was to tick through each position on the Timbers line up and list the players from around the league – that is, just within MLS – that I rate higher than each player on Portland's roster. Look, I love these players and absolutely want them to succeed, but only two struck me as hard to shift in the end – Diego Chara and Nat Borchers. So, yeah, ugly post borne of ugly thoughts and, yep, Nagbe inspired it. And yet I can still call him Portland's likeliest savior. When it comes to questions of faith and certainty, Hamlet has nothing on me...

The (written) St. Valentine's Day Massacre on player personnel envisioned in the paragraph above executes a pivot I've been meaning to make for some time now – one that shifts attention from the players on the field to the guys who put them out there, and how (by which I mean, how they put them out there, as opposed to some gosh-gee-willickers exclamation of admiration). I have bitched about Nagbe more times than anyone but a stalker would dare, but, under all the complaints (and perhaps out of lingering infatu...affection! I meant affection! (He's mine, Felicia! I'll cut you!)), I have often wondered whether Nagbe plays in his oft-tentative way because that's what the coaching staff asks of him. And that indicts coaching. Which is tricky, very tricky, even as the case for doing so becomes more compelling.

Less tricky, especially when it comes to Timbers fans, is indicting the man responsible for finding personnel. I can't say I've had the pleasure of meeting anyone who likes, never mind rates, Gavin Wilkinson. I swear that, provided the cover of anonymity, Wilkinson's own mother would admit he doesn't quite know what's he doing (personally, I'd like to think she's leave in the softening modifier, because, mom; Merritt Paulson's another matter...semper fidelis, eh Silver Spoon?) At any rate, that project of naming a complete replacement roster hits pretty directly as Wilkinson's body of work. It's not just seeking the right (or even non-defensive) DPs, either: nothing gets me wound up about Wilkinson quite like seeing non-"big-name" players succeed upon coming into MLS, the kind of players that Portland rarely sees – e.g. Sebastian Lletget, Mike Grella, Laurent Ciman, Damien Perrinelle. That's off the top of my head; I can pick through rosters and name names all day, people.

It's possible that any dialogue about coaching and player acquisition dies before it gets started because I don't get the sense Porter sits on a legitimately hot seat (then again, the whole Shep Messing "thing" came up today) and lord knows what Wilkinson would have to do to pick up a pink slip (the mind boggles with criminal designs). I view pointed explorations of both roles as a very, very useful exercise. Perhaps that's the project of the coming, perhaps early, off-season – e.g. combing through the archives to count up all the instances when coaching decisions flummoxed the masses. There's no need for that on Wilkinson: I figure I could call him a war criminal without anyone objecting, and yet...I can only hope that I'm not the only one who makes that attempt, because no small part of me thinks this gets closer to the heart of the problem.

For now, though, the Timbers have to ride the current personnel and the current coaching staff as deeply into the season as they can. So, may god have mercy on Timbers' fans' souls and bless our patience. There is one "now here’s a funny thing" in all this: had Portland won last Saturday, that result would have left the Timbers on 47 points, and KC on 45. That's how friggin' thin the margin is, people, especially after the previous weekend's stirring win over Columbus. This is what I mean when I say the highs haven't been that high, the lows that low. Every team in MLS sits in the same precarious lifeboat waiting for rescue and/or the OK to strut past the Velvet Rope. No one's secure, really, and a string of bad results - or good ones - forever waits around the corner, even if no one's sure when anyone's going to round the corner, never mind which one (are you tracking me? Jesus, am I tracking me?) And that's a damned fine segue...

Let's turn our thoughts to who (the teams) and what (piles of drunken, sleeping bodies) stands between at the messy goddamn path to The Big After Party that ends it all – the MLS playoffs. What's it going to take to get Portland on The List? Before getting started, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: in spite of the manifestly mutinous, back-biting commentary above, I really, really want the Timbers to make The After Party. That Portland might immediately pass out on getting there (i.e. even if they lose in the first half of the first round), I still hope they make it. The reason is simple: the results they would need to pick up would feel so goddamn good. I know I'd feel good if they got there. Wouldn't you? If only in the beautiful now?

So, what are their chances? The Timbers highest possible points total stands at 53 points. This means that, on paper, they can overtake any Western Conference club. Portland has the following games left this season: Real Salt Lake away (October 14); the Los Angeles Galaxy away (October 18); and the Colorado Rapids at home (October 25). So...probably not gonna happen, that 53 points thing. The odds of that happening would likely bend the laws of probability past the breaking point, so let's leave the bullshit on paper and focus on reality.

This brings the conversation to something brighter – e.g. the considerable wiggle room baked into the cake when one mixes MLS's playoff structure with the league's (generally-) mandated parity (see, well-trafficked conspiracies about string-pulling in major markets). It's parity that matters now, as in results in MLS aren't just unpredictable, so much as they're full-time bat-shit crazy rolling-a-20-sided-die-three-times-over-and-there's-your-answer unpredictable. In practice that means, for every result that makes sense – say, the New York Red Bulls beating the Montreal Impact just this past week, you get results like this, this, this and this. And all of those happened within the past month. So, the phrase "anything can happen"? 100% in play.

I'll conclude this post with a full list of the remaining schedules for all the relevant Western Conference teams. Between here and there, I'll dig into the details with an eye to exploring potential wiggle room that could (or could not) open up courtesy of results that appear likely, at least on paper. To start the conversation on safe, if uncomfortable, ground, I hereby posit the following: Portland is fucked and buried if they lose the next two games. (Hell, I expect Timbers fans to pass into some form of pain beyond feeling if Portland drops the RSL game – even as all will not be lost then. Just most of it.) Setting aside the nightmare scenario, well, what's up?

First, the good news:

1) It's a pure intra-conference slug-fest for every club in the Western Conference from here on out. That boils down to teams on either side of Portland (OK, yes, just two are south of Portland in the standings) taking points off one another and that equates to potential for all this shifting beyond our understanding. Messy as that is, here's to hoping the clubs below bear most of the brunt.

2) Three Western Conference teams – LA, Vancouver, and, most crucially, RSL - have away games in Central America shoe-horned into their schedules. The 'Caps have the biggest cushion (8 days), but, for the other two teams, "rest" on those barely registers.

And...that's it for good news. Well, sorta. Some kindly soul pointed out on twitter that a loss at RSL takes the Timbers' fate out of their hands, and that's not great. With LA on the road up next, that's pretty close to missiles launching and hoping what comes next doesn't sting too badly. The point is, the RSL game is big, damned big. More significantly, RSL isn't the team Portland edged back in mid-August. Joao Plata is back, for one, but they've upgraded at forward (apparently) through Juan Manuel Martinez. RSL has also done pretty well since the loss to Portland, going 4-2-0 against a mix of good teams (LA) and bad (Colorado, most recently).

Here's another fun fact: if Portland beats RSL, they go even, if only on points (no, it's only points), with Seattle. I'd spell out "that’s where the fun begins" if it didn't take so damn long. Anyway, something to think about...

There's not much Portland can do about RSL – apart from beat them, that is – but the team of most interest is the one they're fated to watch passively - e.g. San Jose, the team the Timbers are even with on points, and the team with the 50-point ceiling. San Jose has two games left, one against the dodgy, yet lately resilient KC at home, the other against FC Dallas on the road. With KC, the scariest thing comes with the much-needed rest KC will get between beating Portland and playing San Jose – 13 days for those counting at home. KC won't have a full starting XI back by then, but they'll have enough firepower to beat San Jose. Anyone who needs to can pull the security blanket a little tighter around their shoulders with thoughts of San Jose facing Dallas, in Dallas, with the Supporters' Shield on the line...

...which brings me to one more thought: I don't think that the Timbers are in legitimate contention with Dallas, LA, or even Vancouver. KC might be off limits, too, which brings me close to realizing an unwanted prediction from the end of goddamn July (see second to last paragraph, goddammit!). What could have been after last weekend!

With all the above now mapped out, and referring back to the dark stuff that started this post, do I think the Portland Timbers make this year's Big After Party? I don't think the math is that bad, in all honesty. I definitely see a sweet spot between an exhausted RSL and a tough schedule for San Jose. It'd be great if Seattle had a tougher schedule, but their last two line up pretty goddamn favorably: Seattle should be able to get a point out of Houston on the road and, if they can't beat a leg-drunk RSL at home they're frankly in no better a position than Portland. Like everyone else, though, I'm praying for a comedy of errors to ensue.

That would leave 6th place for Portland, which means a one-off game, on the road, against (I'm guessing) either Dallas or LA or Vancouver. Here's to hoping for the 'Caps because, there, at least the trends aren't great (2-4-2 since mid-August; plus they've got CONCACAF Champions League fatigue in the mix). But, yes, that's getting ahead of, well, everything. Portland can render this all moot by losing the next two. And if you think that's out of the cards, my gawd, I'd like to borrow your pills, because birds must sing Mozart in harmonies so rich you can touch them when you're on those fucking things.

To bring this whole damn mess home, however, a deeper question lurks under all this. Who among Timbers fans sees good trends right now? Who believes that Portland's team, as currently constituted, can win MLS Cup at any time in the near future? Looked at through that lens, missing the playoffs, regardless of how I feel about it, could become a salutary shock to the system, the one needed thing that prompts the necessary shake up...

...I tell you one thing, if from an entirely personal perspective. If Nagbe can light it up between now and the end of the season – by that I mean, whenever it happens – I will return that gesture with something like full and perfect faith. I'm not exactly fully known in the online world, but, take my word for it, I don't do faith a whole lot or well.

Western Conference Schedules, All 'Round
FC Dallas - X
Games remaining: Vancouver, October 14 (@ Toyota Stadium); Real Salt Lake, October 17 (@ Rio Tinto); San Jose, October 25 (@ Toyota Stadium)
Current: 51 points; Ceiling: 60 points

LA Galaxy - X
Games remaining: Portland Timbers, October 18 (@ Stub Hub); Comunicaciones, October 21 (@ Guatemala); Sporting KC, October 25 (@ Sporting Park)
Current: 51 points, Ceiling: 57 points

Vancouver Whitecaps - X
Games remaining: FC Dallas, October 14 (@ Toyota Park); CD Olimpia, October 22 (@ Honduras); Houston Dynamo, October 25 (@ BC Place)
Current: 50 points; Ceiling: 56 points

Sporting KC
Games Remaining: San Jose, October 16 (@ Avaya); Colorado Rapids, October 21 (@ Sporting Park); LA Galaxy, October 25 (@ Sporting Park)
Current: 48 points; Ceiling: 57 points

Seattle Sounders
Games Remaining: Houston, October 18 (@ BBVA); Real Salt Lake, October 25 (@ Century Link)
Current: 47 points; Ceiling: 53 points

San Jose Earthquakes
Games Remaining: Sporting KC, October 16 (@ Avaya); FC Dallas, October 25 (@ Toyota Stadium)
Current: 44 points; Ceiling: 50 points

Houston Dynamo
Games remaining: Santos Laguna (friendly? @ BBVA); Seattle Sounders, October 18 (@ BBVA); Vancouver Whitecaps, October 25 (@ BC Place)
Current: 41 points; Ceiling: 47 points

Real Salt Lake
Games remaining: Portland Timbers, October 14 (@ Rio Tinto); FC Dallas, October 17 (@ Rio Tinto); CSD Municipal, October 20 (@ Rio Tinto); Seattle Sounders, October 25 (@ CenturyLink)
Current: 41 points; Ceiling: 50 points

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