Friday, October 30, 2015

Timbers Top KC: On the Most Epic Night in Portland Soccer History

We're all Patty Hearst now.
[Editor’s Note: The bastards at MLS Live have yet to release the full game to the archives and I don’t have cable. As such, the deeply detailed conclusion to this report, which I promised yesterday, yeah, that ain’t happenin’. Time’s too short.]

[A Note from Randall: I went through and chopped out some of the kudzu from the original post while Jeff’s back was turned. The man loves his words and analogies irrationally and too well.]

Between getting home late [Thursday] night, drinking all the water in the entire goddamn neighborhood, trying and failing to relax using a (literally) numbing variety of sleep aids, and waking [Friday] morning with a pack of wild dogs tearing at the wrinkled matter between my ears [we’re talking about one of those existential hangovers of the soul] […cut more stuff…], I had [to put off posting] anything about the Stockholm Syndrome spectacle that the Portland Timbers put its fans through last night until [today].

Having reviewed the [severely, unjustly limited] tape, I’m going to put [my best foot forward, the one without athlete’s foot] to [make some sense of that rare, magnificent thing, the genuine historic game]

…and I’m still coming to grips with how I’m not going to die in a bar Sunday afternoon from watching all those games. So, check your local news for that one ("Man Dies in a Hillsboro, Oregon Bar: Could This Story Be More Depressing?") We're talking David Blaine-level feats of street magic idiocy.

[Editor’s Note: Caught Randall, the little shit; locked him in cellar with a two pound bag of carrots and a case of Snapple. Everything’s below is different. Moving on.]

I’ll begin by saying that I learned a thing or two last night. For one, I learned that men over 40 should not yell for two straight hours. The medical term for this is “stroke risk.” Whatever, I earned it: the goddamn terrible ref (Armando Villarreal), whose series of coin-flippingly perverse decisions put health and safety at risk, let the physical crap get out of hand, and then came a penalty kick shoot-out that…that…look, the thing existed in a world beyond sensation, in spite of itself. The level and frequency of wobbly penalty shooting was enough to make a member of the English National Team blush; a less invested audience would have shifted out of tension and into impatience. And yet, could anyone at Providence Park have been anything short of all-in?

I want to pick up the Stockholm Syndrome theme because I think it’s endemic to sports fandom. The defining rule of one team per trophy means that, with each of Major League Soccer’s competitions, major (MLS Cup, the long lusted-after CCL trophy) and minor (U.S. Open Cup, Supporters’ Shield), means that 19 teams miss out every single time. For those 19 teams, a given fan’s peace of mind, his/her sense of the season, turns on how early into the journey his/her club falls. 12 of MLS’s 20 clubs are now officially out of the running for MLS Cup; only one of those, e.g. the same Sporking…ooh, typo, but I like and am sticking with it. Anyway, of all the clubs out of the running for MLS Cup, only the same Sporking KC club has a consolation/prize trophy to validate their season.

Stripped of variables like the quality of the players, a good coach at the helm, various curses (looking at you, Toronto FC) every team in MLS has a 5% chance of winning one of the three domestic trophies. Even with the variables in play, the sheer mass of vagaries built into MLS as a competition, argue in favor of sticking with that 5%. Basically, disappointment is the likeliest conclusion to any season for virtually every soccer fan in the country. And yet a fan is bound to his/her club. He or she pushed past expectations of disappointment, or even abuse for fans in Chicago, Colorado and Philadelphia, and just invests in the club. In that sense, then, fans are captives, sometimes abused ones, and yet they always love their captors.

The team rewards its fans on a good day: think of Thursday as the sort of day when our collective captors give us a little more chain and drop some fresh fruit into the will-sapping gruel they normally serve. Regardless, the Portland Timbers did us all a solid when they lugged their proverbial “big, brass balls” longer and further than they had to, or arguably should have. We all just witnessed history, which is a privilege anytime it actually happens. I know I’m thrilled I was there for it. Super fucking glad, honestly. It was an honor to share the evening with each and every person in that stadium, as well as the unknown thousands watching at home.

After putting up such ornate framing, it’s time to turn to the game, what happened in it and what it might mean going forward. Anyone who read this post’s first iteration knows that I cut and pasted the thing into something other than what it was (and something better, hopefully). One crucial confession, however, needs to stay in place: which I’ll preserve in the block quote below:
“Talking about what needs fixing is sort of this site’s Prime Directive. The urgency of a do-or-die game runs said Prime Directive right the fuck over: all I could see [Thursday night] was the ball and where it was or wasn’t going. I was too busy pleading with Timbers players and all the gods whose names my mouth could still form to get the ball in the correct fucking goal (this was a short list in the end, outside of gods named “Oowwauggghhh, FUCK!!!”). This lead to some weird things.

“First of all, I can only remember the goals that came in extra time: Krisztian Nemeth’s, the one that put KC up a goal late and forced my heart into my throat, and Maximiliano Urruti’s; but I only recall the latter as a bulge in the net. I only know who scored the other two (Rodney Wallace, for Portland, and Kevin Ellis for KC) from reading a couple write-ups today.”
I left in a couple hasty first impressions as well, but I’m only keeping the three I liked. Here are those:

- I want to nestle inside Nat Borchers’ beard for as long as this season continues. It bet it feels safe in there. (Just saying it again, Borchers has been excellent this season; second only to Diego Chara for me in terms of importance.)

- Things got steeply fucking worse when George Fochive came on. Last Word on Sports slipped a graph into its review (supplied by the Armchair Analyst) that pointed to a decision on Portland’s part to bunker and try to ride out the win. Whether or not that was true*, Fochive stood out time and again by playing the ball behind and generally away from teammates. By the time he stepped up to take his PK, I had zero faith that he’d put it away.

- * Oh yeah, Liam Ridgewell lumped a ball straight up the middle during this period, and..I think that’s when my voice gave out. And the little vessels in my brain went, “pop!”

OK, onto the new stuff.

As I read match recaps of game, the one idea that I kept coming across was Portland’s “domination” of the first half. This is precisely why I’m cranky about not being able to review all, or most of the full, archived game, because the 20-minute mini-game simply can’t capture this. Not being able to directly verify that – and I need to verify due to the gaps in memory and perception noted above – leaves me stumbling through this post like some stoned, half-prepared teenager trying to mumble his way to a solid C on an oral presentation. Again, fucking MLS Live. To carry on, dutifully…

Up to the point when Wallace scored Portland’s opener, that condensed game showed an early feast of corners for the Timbers, a couple cracks in the KC defense that Sporking quickly patched up (Matt Besler got a pretty big shout-out in ExtraTime Radio’s review), and a couple fouls by KC that most people (ETR’s neutral professionals included) agree could have been red cards (again, my frothing frustration with Villarreal is both fresh and totally justified). The box score gives Portland a meaningful edge in shots overall and…and…hold on, just digging into the interactivity of the box score feature. Holy shit. Anyone else know about this? Feel like I’m in one of your higher end science museum for kids. What’s this button do….ooohh…..

Anyway, the numbers that best match my memory of the game show up in Portland’s possession and passing accuracy stats. The accumulation of give-aways proved maddening by game’s end; as noted above, Fochive was terrible on this score, but he had plenty of co-conspirators by the end of the second half. Possession with Purpose forwarded a decently plausible theory that the shift brought on when Fochive came on for Lucas Melano cratered Portland’s possession by ceding too much of both the field and the ball to Sporking KC. Again, I thought I saw this earlier, again, I confessed to not remembering the goals, which are sorta a big deal, so take a big lick of salt before swallowing this here shot of tequila.

All in all, though, as much as the Timbers struck me as sloppy and impatient in possession (and I accept it got worse as the game wore on), the central feat of their performance comes with going to toe-to-toe against a Sporking team that often relies on “setting the tone” – or, non-euphemistically, they foul often, hard and with less shame than they ought. Maintaining that level against the Vancouver Whitecaps team that comes to visit tomorrow – i.e. well-rested and with a “robust” presence of their own in central midfield and defense – becomes a very real challenge, if not an area of concern. I expect Vancouver will let them play more than KC did, but cracking that strong, central core won’t come without some hammering. So, god damn the short turn-around.

Since I can’t dig deep on the game (grrr…), I thought I’d close with thoughts on the three Timbers players who received too little praise for the win, at least in my estimation. In no particular order…

Rodney Wallace
Fortunately, the mini-game featured enough data points to highlight Wallace’s considerable contribution to the win. He did more than score the scrappy, opening, coulda-been-a-winna goal (which he finished ever so well), e.g., how often he stretched KC vertically, he hard he battled on set-pieces, etc. etc. etc. It does even deeper, though. When I took a tour through the Conifers & Citrus archives for a sort of big-concept post a couple weeks back, I noted how often I gave positive notice to Wallace; a recount taken just now pulled six examples of uncomplicated praise for Rodney, and across the length of the season (there were also three instances where I advocated for throwing Wallace on the trash heap; still, twice as many good as bad!). The point is, Wallace enjoyed a solid 2015 and, for me, too few people gave his season the credit it has earned. A lot of the talk has centered on Melano since he came on board – and,  yes, that comes in both good word and bad – but Wallace does a very respectable job of opening up space for Portland. His decisions aren’t always perfect – Rodney flails in crosses and lost-cause shots with the best of ‘em – but he’s also a helluva an asset and an even better bargain.

Dairon Asprilla
Very few people I talk to rate Asprilla as highly (irrationally?) as I do; I even snuck in a compare/contrast with Melano in a modest little hit-piece on our young, costly Argie about a month ago. I’d also that Asprilla lent support to my estimation of him with that performance in extra time, and even during the shoot-out. Yeah, yeah, the assist is the obvious thing, but the mini-game also featured a strong dribble/distribution sequence that did Darlington Nagbe proud (think he was even the recipient). Asprilla didn’t get much opportunity to contribute this year, never mind shine. I view that as a mistake, even as I’m as hard-pressed as anyone to come up with how Caleb Porter, et al. fits him in. My two-word answer to that: squad rotation. Along with every club in MLS, the Timbers need more of it.

Maximiliano Urruti
Urruti did very well to knock in the goal that saved Portland’s season, because, hot fucking potato. Seriously, if you’ve ever tried to re-direct a ball moving that fast I’m confident it didn’t look nearly as good as Urruti’s did. It goes without saying that it hasn’t been Maxi’s year. It’s also fair to argue that, like Asprilla, he didn’t get much of a chance either. To be clear, Fanendo Adi earned his role as First Forward (thinking First Violin for some reason), but, 2) again, squad rotation, and 1) I think Urruti’s approach to the game syncs up fairly well with how I believe Portland attacks best…

…think I’ll leave it there, otherwise, I’ll go on for another two pages. I know there’s a reckoning coming with players like Asprilla and Urruti; there are others besides, but I think Wallace is safe (better be safe, dammit). I just think this is something that the Timbers organization needs to work through very carefully, and the above players’ contribution to an historic win shows why.

As for the Vancouver series, it sucks a little to acknowledge how damn unfavorably it lines up. Portland starts with a home game on heavy legs, followed by a road game. There is a key detail in the equation – namely, that both Portland and Vancouver travel well, 7-8-2versus 7-7-3, respectively. And that strikes a curious balance in that it alludes to the possibility that Vancouver could trouble a tired Portland club at home, while also staying open for return service in the second game at BC Place.

It’ll be very interesting to see how Portland plays that first leg. Wide-open sounds very dangerous on paper. I’ll close on that. Damn. If nothing else, 2015 ended really well.

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