Sunday, November 1, 2015

Timbers Draw Vancouver: Expectations Managed

Dear World: You're welcome.
Before getting into the meat of this thing, I want to state that I will post some thoughts on the first legs of the other three MLS Conference semifinals. It's only the mini-games for Montreal Impact v. Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders v. FC Dallas. I sat all the way through DC United v. New York Red Bulls...of which I could say I have no regrets, but...

While we're on the mini-games, something struck me as I reviewed the (limited) tape for the Portland Timbers goal-less draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps. They're funny things, the mini-games, in that they inflate the competence and calamity of any given game. Don't know why that never hit me till today, but, yeah, that's a pretty distorted lens in the end. Have no goddamn clue how I'll adjust to that next season.

Wait, they're also the opportunity to pick up on little things one might have missed – e.g. because I watched the game with muffled sound, I didn't know that Taylor Twellman and Adrian Heath spotted a naked tricyclist in Portland last night. Ah, shine on Rose City, you crazy diamonds. I also missed how Madden-esque Twellman has become (e.g. obsessed with his own sometimes trivial fixations at time; see, potential concussions and theories on the state and presence of Steven Beitashour's wedding ring). There's a certain charm to it, really, Anyway, the game. The game, the game...

At least three people today told me that they were satisfied with the result, again the goal-less draw that, let's face it, anyone reading this post watched earlier today. Once one takes in all the factors – injuries/ailments to Diego "Mystery Ailment" Chara and Adam "Flu" Kwarasey, respectively, as well as a sometimes visible lack of rest (for some more than others) - that's a damned hard position to argue against. And I don't intend to argue against that, so much as to drag the result back to a kind of cold, neutral perspective. Because, to be clear, today's draw would pop little beads of sweat into Timbers fans' brows, and rightly so, under virtually any other set of circumstances. And so begins today's tale of acceptance...

To start with the biggest picture, today's first leg pitted a team that didn't want to win (Vancouver) against a team that couldn't (Portland). More than one Portland player put in a request for just one more day off through body language – e.g., legs trailing behind the body as he ran, as if the mind struggled to pull the body along with it. I spotted this in Jack Jewsbury (some sloppy, nearly lethal give-aways) and Jorge Villafana (getting beat more easily than usual), in particular, though I also sensed an overdose of lactic acid in a couple of Diego Valeri's more stumbling touches. No need to dig too far into the reasons for that – e.g. hell, I just yelled and drank for three hours Thursday and my system’s still catching up. So, yeah, those players get a pass, particularly in light of holding on for the draw.

For me, the central mystery of the entire game centers on Vancouver: why the hell didn't they press Portland? I honestly can't think of a single phase of the game where Vancouver applied sustained pressure to the Timbers and, to be blunt, that was stupid. I can understand the caution going in, but Portland presented enough soft spots within the game – e.g. signs of fatigue in both Jewsbury and Villafana, and pretty clear vulnerability on Alvas Powell's side - that one would think that the away-goals rule alone would provide ample incentive for 'Caps coach Carl Robinson to go after the game at some point. And yet Vancouver never did. It took watching the mini-game to notice just how absent players like Matias Laba, Gershon Koffie and Russell Teibert were on the attacking side. Koffie put a tame (and weird) shot toward goal, but that's the end of what I recall from Vancouver's (again, weird) trio of midfielders.

Vancouver based everything – as in more than usual – on picking up a cheap goal off a counter, say, through Kekuta Manneh or Christian Techera running at one side or the other of the Timbers defense. The Timbers answered by stacking defenders pretty capably – e.g. when Manneh beat Powell, he'd run into Nat Borchers rushing in right after his first turn. I'd go so far as to argue that Vancouver gave up attacking even with reasonable numbers shortly after Portland brought on their attacking subs, Dairon Asprilla ('round about the 60th minute) and Maximiliano Urruti (just about exactly on the 70th)...and I note the timing for two reasons: 1) I think Caleb Porter timed his subs about as well as he could, and 2) a guy who watched with me, and whose thoughts and opinions I trust, absolutely nailed the 70th minute call.

The...hold on, two paragraphs above (had to count) tell a fairly important story about how Vancouver sees the series: whether they're right or wrong, Vancouver clearly (apparently?) believes they can put this series away in Vancouver. And there's your caveat for the second leg, and your reason to sweat the first wrapped up into one tidy, nervously-picked ball. Portland drew tonight against a Vancouver team that played pretty damn conservatively. If you think they didn't, ask yourself how many times Jake Gleeson made a save that wasn’t pretty damn easy. If there's a saving grace to that talking point, it comes with the 'Caps recent form: 3-5-2 over their last 10 games, with 11 goals scored and 14 conceded in that period; take way the win over Houston in the final game and there goes one win and three of the goals (leaving a 2-5-2 over the prior 9 and a crappy goal-differential). In other words, Vancouver hasn't, and isn't tearing it up right now. So, again, why didn't they go after the Timbers today? Could it be because they can't?

With that, we're back where we started: how good was this result? The answer: we'll know by the end of the day next Sunday. That’s all there is, really, where one comes down on this result: acceptable? good? risky? The biggest concern in my mind is that Vancouver feels just as good about where they are.

A couple tiny details before I put out the lights in this 'ere saloon:

- Even if either of Urruti's two shots had gone in, I don't think the post-game conversation would read any differently. And, of course, I still wish Urruti’s second shot went in (the one that pinged off the far post...posts, MOTM for Portland's post-season).

- It's a testament to Valeri's persistence and endurance that he recovered enough, mentally and physically, to launch a great free-kick toward goal* and slip a subtle feed to Urruti - both of them late in the game, too – but his influence has felt smaller in 2015. Looking forward to him getting some real rest this off-season.

- * David Ousted is a very real obstacle to ultimate victory. Even if you hate him, the man earns props every time he slips on his 'keeper mitts.

- Related (at least in terms of defense, considered broadly): Portland should think of a way to get Fanendo Adi away from Kendall Waston. That's a post-up battle I'm not sure Adi can win (HT: Portland Timbros, for setting off the thought). Maybe start Urruti (maybe?), maybe do something slightly different with the formation (maybe?), shit, I don't know. All I know is, I expect Vancouver will set up some kind of human goddamn wall between Portland and the goal. Even if they have to take risks to get forward (unlike today), the 'Caps will likely leave a pretty solid block at the back. I strongly suspect Portland will have to devise a way to play around it, or shoot over!

- Nagbe. Nagbe, Nagbe, Nagbe. It was on you tonight, wasn't it? With Valeri a bit legless, Melano doing...his thing (though, of course, credit the kid with that sneaky first-half attempt off the cross from Wallace, of course...even it never should have reached him), and everyone else around him more recipient than donor, Portland truly needed something special from Nagbe tonight. To be clear, I don't blame him for not delivering everything, because he delivered a decent mixture of good and enough. Nagbe excelled, for instance, in carrying the ball out of danger (and, yes, I know you're all visualizing the same play that I am right now, but he did more), but he also continues to lack the instinct for hoisting his balls high and truly running for glory when it's on. Bottom line, though: if Valeri's not up to it, Portland needs a big night from Nagbe to get over and/or around the block noted above.

OK, done for the night. I'll try to get up snippets on the rest of the semifinal first legs tomorrow night. Failing that, they’ll go up Wednesday (when they'll be informed by much, much more information and perspective). Till then...


  1. "They're funny things, the mini-games, in that they inflate the competence and calamity of any given game."

    Indeed. I usually watch the Timbers and one other MLS match in full and then watch condensed 20 minute versions of 6 or 7 others (I do the same for NFL, watch 2 or 3 full and then 7 or 8 condensed 40 minute versions) and it's much easier to watch the full matches/games first and then go to the condensed versions. If you do it the other way around, you're going to be really waiting for the action to start happening in those full matches/games and it never does.

  2. Oh yeah. That's the flip side: the mini-games make your brain impatient.