Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What Kansas City Has That Portland Needs

Once called "cads," now just douches.
"KC wasn't good tonight, really, but any team with enough talent, or even just a reliable trick up their sleeve, can steal any game against the Timbers on a night when they don't score...”
I dropped that into the post reviewing the Portland Timbers road draw against Sporting Kansas City about a month back. Terrible sentence, obviously, but who knew how well it would serve to explain what went wrong Saturday night against KC? And yet there's something, for lack of a better word, fitting about the goal that decided Saturday’s game.

A couple little known facts: first, I have a particular fascination with two vintage national teams, one of them being the Hungarian National Team of the 1950s, the so-called Magic Magyars (or maybe "Mighty Magyars") who welcomed the English National Team back to the international game with a massive slap upside their over-inflated heads. That team has conditioned me to expect...perhaps more than I should from Hungarians players. Second, Liverpool is "my English team," or they were before I officially tied the knot with Major League Soccer all those years ago. That brief connection to Liverpool affects me in much the same way as the thing with Hungary. Basically, and whether rationally or not, put the words "Hungary" and "Liverpool" in the same sentence as any given player’s name and you have my attention.

So, Krisztian Nemeth: I am on record as coveting him, and since preseason, where he put in some visibly next-level performances. He's no Sebastian Giovinco, but it doesn't surprise me in the least that Nemeth has posted solid numbers as an MLS "rookie." Though One-hundred percent capable of making his own shot – and he produced a noteworthy Exhibit A Saturday night - it's more significant, in the end, that Nemeth does just about everything he needs to well and consistently. I smiled in spite of myself on watching Nemeth spin three Portland defenders on his way to scoring the game's lone goal (four, if you count Diego Chara twice, as seems fitting), because, yes, I do rate him that highly, even as I'm forced to wonder why all that "Hungary" and "Liverpool" has done less for his career than a half dozen months in the American Midwest. Yes, yes, the past informs the present, etc. Moving on...

I lead with Nemeth (and, again, flirtatiously wink in his general direction; come to Portland, Krisztian, we have so much culture) to frame a key question: who is Portland's Nemeth? Who has Portland been able to look to this season with the ability and mindset to hoist the team onto his shoulders to lead, really lead, the charge on the opposition goal? There is no clear answer to that question. We have a couple candidates, true, but the way no answer leaps to mind is the sum of Portland's 2015 season.

In preparing this post, I went back and read (nearly) every post-game review I posted to this site this year. The Timbers are deep enough into the season by now to make sense of that sort of broad reassessment. Beyond learning (and, hopefully internalizing) just how all fucking over the place I can be (oh, my serial flip-flops over Fanendo Adi v. Maximiliano Urruti and "King" Liam Ridgewell v. "Prince" Nat Borchers; ugh, don't ask), no pattern fell into place quite like the one that absolutely every Timbers fan knows by now and can repeat like a mantra: Portland has a great defense, but they can't score. The maddening mystery at the heart of it: why?
"The attack is the last thing to gel for any club...so the green shoots on display warms [sic] the spirit..."

"Portland hasn't figured out their [again, sic, goddammit] attack."

"I don't know that Caleb Porter has a clear starting XI, never mind its configuration."

"...the Timbers have slipped a few games past the halfway mark of the season without coming up with a consistent method for breaking down the opposition."

"I don't think there's a brain out there, a nerve center that sends pulses to the other neurons in a way that allows them to think as a unit."
Those comments appeared in posts throughout the season (in order, games 1, 7, 9, 22, and 25). Two things to note there: 1) notice the gap in the sequence, which happens to correspond with Portland's season-sustaining tear through MLS, a happy period that lasted from May 27 to June 30; 2) it is disturbing, especially in light of #1, to track the similarities in what I said in Weeks 7 and 9, then again in Weeks 22 and 25. Portland has three games left in 2015 and, the hard reality is, it sucks to look back on those goddamn green shoots that I spotted way back in Week 1, because they never grew into anything big enough on which the club can hang real hopes for 2015 (as in, winning something). I'll get back to this, but, first, let's review what Portland did do against KC this past Saturday.

It bears noting that, outside defense and Benny Feilhaber, KC started a B-team; being on short rest following their mid-week win in the U.S. Open Cup final explains part of it, but injuries have forced KC to start with the letter "B" for a while now. Portland took the game to the scrubs, as well as they should have, creating at least four great chances on goal, shots that absolutely could have gone in had a big pasty something not got in the way (Diego Valeri made more out of one them than he had any right to*; just hope they slipped that "key moment" into the goddamn highlights). They managed a couple after KC started inserting starters – one of them being the best of the bunch**, for me, in that all the players involved did just about everything right. This is all well and good. Really. Only none of those shots went in. And that means everything. Especially this late in the season.

Here, we're back to a refined version of the question that started the conversation: if Portland did so many things right last Saturday, why the hell didn't they win the goddamn thing? One plausible answer presents itself: Nemeth, who put away the one chance he had, as well as one of the few KC had all night. This is sort of a funny frame in that I'm not sure KC fans would pick Nemeth as their "go-to player." And yet that only turns matters toward a worse conclusion: Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, Fanendo Adi and Lucas Melano, all of whom had at least one crack at goal (I have two for both Valeri and Nagbe), and not a one of 'em could bury just one?

In the interest of fairness, maybe it's time to turn around the question, did Portland lose because Adam Kwarasey failed to make the one save he had to, while KC's Tim Melia (the aforementioned "big pasty something") made each of the half dozen that Portland fired at him? The pattern I pegged above – e.g. the persistent, repeated trouble with scoring – goes some way to discarding the argument that it's the 'keeper. To put that another way, a time comes when complaints about getting "Rimando'd" become nothing more than a euphemism for lousy finishing. Portland's repeated failure to score has become defining, basically, which leaves only one question: how do the Timbers break out of it? Or, more to the point, who breaks the Timbers out of it?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, yep, it's Nagbe. It has to be Nagbe. To cast off a few obvious contenders:

Valeri: His heart is 100% in it – I noted as far back as Week 23 that "Valeri looks more frustrated than I've ever seen him" – but the body is still coming online. Along with everyone else, I want to believe he's close, but, again, it was Week 9 when I wrote, "...even a half-fit Valeri made Portland visibly better." With Week 32 looming, “now” for Valeri was a couple months ago.

Adi: My serial non-sensical vacillations on the big Nigerian aside (seriously, please don't read all those posts; said some silly shit), there's no denying one major statistic: Adi holds the Timbers single-season scoring record. Further, he's a good forward in the context of MLS history. For all that, though, he absolutely requires a set up; Adi simply cannot do what a guy like Nemeth does – e.g. create his own shot and make the people around him better. Yeah, yeah, he can dish assists, but not as a matter of course, and not on level high enough to shift the Timbers fortunes.

Melano: I will hold onto faith that young Lucas will come good in 2016 like a nun waiting to "give herself" to Jesus, but nothing I've seen even suggests he's even an answer for this season.

And that leaves, again, Nagbe. For all the delicacy of the situation, as much as one has to make this argument in the face of perceptions and statistics that highlight Nagbe's very real talent and considerable upside as a player, here, it is important to be blunt: Nagbe needs to post numbers. Period. All that talent simply doesn't mean enough without hard numbers attached to it. That, in the end, is the difference between Nemeth and Nagbe: the former posts numbers, the latter doesn't. And that does matter. It sure as shit mattered on Saturday. The entire conversation about Nagbe, has been cute so long as it has remained academic. Sure, he does wonderful things, and all over the field - he fucks up other clubs' defensive shape with the casual disregard of a cad destroying a marriage. Like the cad, though, too many of his moves die without issue.

Every sport on the planet obeys a rule so simple and obvious that it's offered sarcastically almost as often as it's offered at all: You can't win if you don't score. If something doesn't change, if someone doesn't step up to change it, the Timbers will end their season on the wrong side of that rule. Nagbe simply strikes me as the man most likely to. Then again, a trip through this season's history reminds me of just how often I've said as much throughout 2015.

* MLSsoccer.com has taken down their "Key Moments" library. Bastards will force me to learn "giffing" (which I really hope isn't some kind of sex act, because I'm about to Google "how to gif").

** Here, I'm referring to Nagbe playing in Melano. They did great work...just a better save. Goddammit. Video at the 2:00 mark.

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