Thursday, October 15, 2015

Timbers Top RSL And Hope's Clever Disguise

We don't do silver linings here....
As I tweeted earlier today, there really isn't much left to say about the Portland Timbers in this 2015...and yet I found a way to say all kinds o' shit below. The central premise, though, is true: Portland will either make the Major League Soccer playoffs, or they will miss them. They took a big step toward tonight, with a 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake. The Timbers very probably put RSL's playoffs hopes to the sword...fuck it, they would have done the same to Portland given one single moment of brilliance...

That said, yes, I have to shit on the parade. Because rain isn't unpleasant enough, I have one big theme to address, one that puts no small amount of effort toward rubbing off the silver lining precisely to find the clouds. It grows from a mindset that I sensed around the people with whom I watched the game tonight. At game's end, the feeling expressed as a mixture of a lot of relief and a little shock: there was a sense of, holy shit, we won?

It's not so much shock, either: after all, the Timbers have picked 6 points out of the Rio Tinto safe this season. I'd also argue that Portland was the better team tonight – that's even before Jamison Olave got sent off fairly early in the second half. And yet, the...thing, whatever it is, hangs on a pair of thoughts, each of them containing a different impressions of Portland's offense. On the good nights, when Portland pounds the opposition goal with wave after wave of attacks (an endangered species in 2015), what pops into one's head is, "why won't the fucking ball go in?" Other nights, like tonight, when the attack is lean and opportunities few, the thoughts becomes a question: "can we steal it?" Those two diametrically opposed mindsets speak to vastly different impressions of one's team, and one of them shades toward the opposite of positive.

Tonight's win didn't require actual theft. Still, the game's lone goal resulted from the most basic, nakedly opportunistic approach in soccer – e.g. a ball over the top to a fast dude. Yep, Lucas Melano corralled a pass from Jorge Villafana (who should only get a secondary assist, with the first going to Melano's noggin) and out-ran two RSL defenders, until one of them (Olave) tripped his trailing leg on the edge of and/or just inside RSL's penalty area. Fanendo Adi took the ensuing, probably justified penalty kick (it wasn't a clear-cut call, but still a good one, for me), of which... honor of a very special occasion for a guy who posts on Twitter as @noa_narnold, I just want to say, can Fanendo Adi 100% please grow the fuck up and let Melano take the penalties the kid has earned? That has happened twice now and, as noted on the first occasion, that is poor, poor social grace on Adi's part. It's also "anti-team" goddammit, so knock it off!

At any rate, great run by Melano, even if the shitty, doubting part of me is (or was) quietly thankful that Olave tripped Melano before he could shoot...because Timbers fans know that whole shooting thing hasn't always ended so great. Again, faith in the future, faith in the future, faith in the future...say it three times and it comes true, right?

Overall, the Timbers turned in a representative performance tonight, one that follows the basic template for 2015 – i.e. run a tight ship at the back (and in front of the back) and hope to score one. And that's a wonderful segue for a series of talking points, no small number of them from friends with whom I took in tonight's game.

La Plus Ca Change...

"I'm ready for next year."
I didn't spend much time tonight talking the wonderful woman who posts on twitter as @marnym10, but she laid down that succinct bit of wisdom in the two minute conversation we had. The singular comment above punctures the depressing reality of tonight's (seemingly) juicy tweaking to the Timbers lineup, a change that proved minor in the end. The lineup pointed to Portland doing something new: things laid out to suggest that Diego Chara would work the "single pivot" (in the phrasing of another twitter cognoscenti, @RoscoeMyrickTID), while the Timbers would slash open RSL's backfield through the combined efforts of Melano, Adi, Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, and Rodney Wallace. The night ended with promise alone, because Portland looked more or less as they have all season in a mysteriously conservative 4-2-3-1 with Chara, Will Johnson/Jack Jewsbury/George Fochive paired at the "2" in a double pivot. Portland still attacked mainly through counters, which, tonight, had aggravatingly little to do with RSL pinning them back.

What I like about marnym10's comment is that it cuts through a ton of verbiage and other bullshit, and gets to the heart of what defines Portland this season: Timbers fans are going to see the same team and the same approach against the Los Angeles Galaxy this Sunday, and they're going to see the same thing against the Colorado Rapids on the following weekend. The lineup can change, but the approach rarely seems to change with it; it certainly didn't tonight. By all available evidence, nothing about Portland's approach to the game will change between tonight and the end of the season, whenever that happens. And, when you get right down to it, that's discouraging. It's hard to imagine winning any kind of title doing that...not even the U.S. Open Cup.

La Plus Ca Change, Sub-Section A
Along with @RoscoeMyrickTID, I thought the single-pivot came off pretty well. Damn shame it didn’t result in more offense...because I, for one, thinks it should.

La Plus Ca Change, Sub-Section B
Darlington Nagbe. I'm just going to say his name for now. Draw your own conclusions.

Caveat Lector
Another smart 'n' savvy friend of the blog, Johnna (aka @fatanarchy) noted fairly early in the game that I (and others, who shall go nameless) blabbed quite a bit throughout the game. This rises a little above guilty as charged, which is why I bring it up. About ten minutes into the game, I noted one instance when Nagbe and Valeri moved to the same spot on the right side of RSL's defense looking for a pass. I fell into a series of conversations after this and, because of that, I split attention between game and chatter at about, oh, 70/30 (that’s 70 toward the game, 30 the other way; optimistically). This isn’t a simple act of self-flagellation, so much as voicing some regret over losing the track of a potential point of real interest. A lot of smart people seem to agree that play out of Portland’s midfield hasn’t been working great. More to the point, whatever isn’t working is subtle; it requires close, sustained viewing to work that out. No regrets on one level – taking in a game is supposed to be more fun than monastic – but things do get lost when no one’s tracking them.

Just know that I have neither the discipline nor the interest to sit through a full game twice…

When "Staying Compact" Becomes a Sin
On the one hand, fans of the U.S. Men's National Team saw it against Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup (per Jurgen Klinsmann's own comments). Timbers fans saw it tonight after RSL went down to 10 men. There is one simple question to ask yourself in all of this: did Portland look any more dangerous, at all, after going up a man? With a nod to the cliché about how teams playing a man down sometimes step up their game, RSL didn't do that tonight (that said, credit Adam Kwarasey for shutting down one near-break-through); they only came close to it, in my mind, when they pushed up high enough to, let's face it, unsuccessfully choke Portland's passing lanes from the defense. Portland had a man up for about 30 minutes, basically, and at no point did they look a lot like adding another goal. This goes back not just to the talking points contained in "La Plus Ca Change" above, but to the season as a whole.

A Personal Problem
One thing that I have studiously noted for some time now (and in spite of my aforementioned attention span), is how often Portland leaves "Zone 14" unoccupied when they attack. Watching the Timbers over the past half dozen games or so, I've noticed that the attack sets up with a couple players trying to combine down one side or the other, and about, oh, two or three players pressed flat above and/or within the central defenders of the other team. There, I mean a lot of the time, as opposed to all of the time. I saw this a minimum of four times tonight and, yes, I did quietly rip out some hairs watching this...

...there's a grand thesis related to this one, but that's another post for another day.

It doesn't show in all the above, but I am happy for the win. With it, Portland returned its playoff fate back to where it belongs – e.g. in their own soft, tender hands. The game against LA no longer looks so dire – and that should help relax the players a little bit ahead of Sunday. Sure, things can still go pear-shaped, but it’s good to know that the Timbers took care of this one game at least.

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