Monday, November 23, 2015

Timbers Top Dallas in Leg 1: Rumors of a Steady State

The man at left is Caleb Porter's copilot. Good times.
It all hinged on The Goal of Destiny. When a random scrap player from your team – say, Dairon Asprilla – scores that crackerjack, out-o'-nowhere special goal that your team of choice so rarely scores, it's time to set aside all sense of doubt, to suspend all reasonable disbelief, and, when all's said and done, to believe that all the trends might be too irresistible to resist, and to accept that, yes, things are going really goddamn well with your local soccer team.

As all who care to know know by now, the Portland Timbers built a big beautiful lead in the opening game of their home-and-home series against FC Dallas tonight, taking a 3-1 win (familiar? yes!) over Texas' historic also-rans (yep, I'm fronting!). The Timbers won this one in the best way possible for this kind of series: they came out and dominated, from the get, from the go, and, with small exceptions, from start to finish. The Portland Timbers look really real, people, in a way that anyone watching them in August, or even September, would have given you very good money in order to buy very good drugs that promised to let them feel some lesser form of anxiety about the current and future state of all things Timbers.

But the margin, it didn't feel so large in real time as it does now, did it? Portland drew first blood with a barreling goal from Liam Ridgewell, but Dallas threatened in some achingly familiar ways. Not the most familiar ways, mind you - the Timbers defense did a good enough job corralling Fabian Castillo that teams around the league should review the tape (Jorge Villafana, in particular, appeared to have a clear mind as to how to play Castillo right – e.g. leave a gap between you and him, assuming that the worst thing he can do is get actually past you) – and they generally stayed compact when Dallas had possession (yay!) – but the Timbers allowed a set of set pieces in a spot on the field that 100%-absolutely could have spelled disaster. With Mauro Diaz misfiring, it didn't matter in the end and that's the tale of the tape: the better team (Portland) wasn't punished for some moments of less-than-perfect judgment (free kicks), so they won the game and rightly so.

Before I bury the lead, I want to say it here explicitly: the Timbers look really solid right now; this club defends at damn-near close to the highest level in Major League Soccer, but they have since figured out how to score goals...wait...doing actual research for one of, don’t spoil my moment...yes, thought so, Portland has scored 24 goals in the second half of the season, versus 17 goals in the first half; throw in the playoffs, where Portland has scored, uh, seven more goals in four games. That's not some brilliant, massive haul, but, yeah, with one goal per game giving way to something...mathematically better, I'd argue that Portland has worked out scoring goals. That's cool, but that's not the coolest thing. When your team plays defense like that, they're going to win if/when the offense comes online. And against any team in MLS. Any. Team.

Portland is good (enough) as they are, maybe good enough to win MLS Cup, but that gets to my first bullet point of the night. I'll circle back for a recap, but, yeah, time for bullet points: - kinda sorta for both clubs. In no particular order,


Dallas Is in Trouble
A 1-0 win isn't enough for Dallas next Sunday and that's huge. The precise things that Dallas did wrong tonight don't matter a ton, because none of them track like habits to me. Sure, Dallas has defended badly this season, but that's not the norm (see their basically sound goals against numbers). And that's why this game's scrappy, bundled goals – e.g. the goals scored by Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers, the ones that actually built the requisite distance between Portland and Dallas – look bigger and more important to me than The Goal of Destiny. Goals like that aren't pretty; they're better, though, in that they represent the awesomely radiant potentiality that the Timbers feel more confident, that they believe they can win the series through sheer will power. Or, to place this in a more neutral context: one team has to prove to the (admittedly small) world (that is MLS) that they (Dallas) can handle the pressure that Portland put on them tonight. Because, tonight? They didn't show they (again, Dallas) could handle the pressure. They sorta crumbled, in fact.

One Last Thought on Dallas
I don't watch Dallas nearly as closely as I watch Portland, so, clearly, take this with a grain of salt, a ready assumption of imperfect knowledge, but I have to ask why Oscar Pareja chooses to play David Texeira over Tesho Akindele. The question goes deeper than liking one player over the other: it's more about considering what one player brings, not so much as opposed to the other, but better than the other player. With Texeira and Akindele, I think it boils down to a back-to-goal guy (Texeira) versus a field stretcher/good-option for an early cross: in other words, it depends on what you want to do on the night...and, for me, Dallas should want to switch it up. I think the days of Blas-Perez-pivot is over for this club, which puts some questions to the same-model-different-player thing with Texeira (who, OK, yes, scored Dallas' one goal tonight). With a final on the plate, now is a terrible time to cling to Plan A. I'd try Akindele in the next leg.

Now, stuff about the Portland Timbers, or stuff in!

1) Depth of "The Field"
If there's one thing that made tonight's game worth watching – and credit to Dallas for playing it as such (I mean it) – was the way both teams spaced the field vertically. The tacit agreement to expand to a general 40+ vertical band left space to pass and receive the ball – and for both teams. Given all that acreage, both teams opted to actually play soccer as opposed to waiting for a chance to capitalize on the other side's cock-ups. It's just a good spirit, right? And...not coincidentally, I think that plays to Portland's...particular set of skills. Which starts with, inevitably...

2) Yes, Darlington Nagbe.
Everyone agrees that shifting Nagbe centrally has made him a better, more effective player, yes? But what did that really mean? In other words, "how better," and "how, more effective"? On the most satisfying level, I'd argue that Nagbe has looked better defending than anyone (or just me) thought he would. That's sort of the "better" to me. As for the "more effective," I think that happens deeper on the field. It's not a bad formula – i.e. Nagbe turning to run upfield (and pretty goddamn effectively) from right above the defense – because it serves the same purpose: keeping the collective defense of the opposition reactive as much as possible. The trouble with that, and it's not a huge one, so much as one to consider, is that Nagbe coming from a deeper position means that subsequent lines of...wait, no. I'll stop. Look, I'm obsessing. Peak Nagbe is kind of implicit goal of this site and the, suffice to say, the subject doesn't know about the experiment, never mind participate in this. Put it this way: Nagbe is unlocked and effective on one really crucial level (possession from depth), but there's a missing link separating the Portland Timbers from "good" and "unstoppable." Nagbe is part of that answer, at least I think he is. What's the other answer? Diego Valeri? Maybe. The long answer...that's the future. That and keeping Nagbe in Portland. Which could be tough. Hmm...

3) Lucas Melano, The Next Timbers Conundrum
I'd say that, with the current line-up and in form, the Timbers are damn close to their collective ceiling. The only player on the roster who I can see changing that? Lucas Melano. He gave glimpses of potential tonight with a couple slashing runs that Nagbe fed well in the first 20 minutes. After that, though, Melano shrank until he didn't matter a whole lot. I really liked a thing or two from Melano tonight- chief among them, the slick little feint that freed him for a shot on goal somewhere inside the 10th minute....but that's the other, inevitable part of the act: in that instance, and all the others, Melano failed to conjure anything that would make a difference. Good players, the ones that you spend good money on especially, make those moments happen.

I haven't given up on Melano, by any means. I still expect something messianic from him, or at least notably worthy of beatification, by the end of next season. Failing that...well, then I’ll have my doubts about that signing.

4) Ode Nat Borchers (and Others)
I just wanna say, god damn. God. Damn. Nat Borchers, you might be the best signing this club has ever known. At least at defender. And that's pretty goddamn good. Nat, my man: you read the game like a guy who has read every goddamn book in the book store. Good stuff today, good stuff all season. And, hey, know what? I want to shout out a big "Hell, yes!" to Ridgewell, too! I offered up a nice mention to Villfana up above, the thing about how he defended Castillo (often as he had to), and all that spelled a fine night for the Portland defense. That's what fans expect from them and, look at that, they deliver. Game after game. For the most part. Say what you want, but that's the rock on which The Church of Portland Timbers' 2015 was built, that defense. So get with the singing, yeah?

5) Alvas Powell, The Timbers Permanent Mystery
He defends competently (and in complex contrast to the pretenders to his crown). Most of his attacks progress to, and peter out at, roughly the same spot on the field – the (or Portland's) right side of Zone 14. This alleged/developing attacking prowess is what separates Powell from the field (e.g. the pretenders to his crown), so if that upside doesn't exist, then...

Then what?

6) Yellow Card Count
This is the last relevant thing I can think to talk about: who the hell will suspended for the next leg? OK, pulling up the series preview and...I think we're good on this, at least unless Ridgewell picked up a yellow...and, nope. So, that means Portland has everyone for Leg 2, as well as for the finals? Or do the damn things carry on? Eh, fuck it. We'll all have a week to figure that out between the end of the semis and MLS Cup. Which I am in no way seeing as completely within Portland's grasp. Still, good start. Seroiusly, how fun was that?

To circle back to the top, I guess the deeper point comes in there. Portland got a crucial, maybe even a back-breaking goal (such was the power of the theoretical physics for Asprilla's goal), from a depth player. That was The Goal of Destiny (maybe), the bolt from the proverbial blue (again, proverbial?) that portended (again, maybe) the Portland Timbers inevitably ascent to MLS Cup...where god knows what will happen. I mean, those Eastern teams? They look good? And, no, I don't really feel like I've the measure of either of them...shit...

Getting back to the positives, Jack Jewsbury came on tonight to cover for Valeri, even if only in partial capacity, and Portland still came out of the night with a two goal margin. The depth holds up all right; better still, the starters look as good right now as they have all season long. Wanna feel better? See whose name I haven't mentioned so far? That's right, Adam Kwawarsey! What does that say? Ask yourself, what does that say?

Good things, people. Good things.

No comments:

Post a Comment