Monday, November 9, 2015

Timbers Triumph: On a Plan Coming Together

Not my fault. That show was manifestly stupid.
Everyone knows the super-agent movie trope when the super-villain sets up some Rube Goldberg contraption to kill the super-spy, often one that functions on a glacial time-line, as opposed to just putting a big bullet straight through the friggin' head of his nemesis. That approach to taking care of the biggest of one's 99 problems is so obviously silly that only an obvious movie could lampoon it (one of the not much lamented Austin Powers franchise; funniest thing I've ever seen Seth Green do, for sure).

But I understand the super-villain mind. When some asshole has foiled your plans for world domination over and over and over – maybe he even hurt or killed that fluffy white cat you love with all your nefarious heart – you don’t want to just kill the guy: you want that son of a bitch to spend his last hours (and good revenge totally requires hours) tallying up all the ways he's fucked. All the ways that you, Master Super Villain, have 100%-guaranteed, and from every possible angle, that he is fucked. The goal isn't just to vanquish one's foe. For all I know, it's to see if you can't make him cry a little. (NOTE: Roger Moore squirted a few every time he had to run for a scene by the time of his long-overdue retirement from the Bond franchise; NOTE to NOTE: Apocryphal; NOTE to NOTE to NOTE: I heard he had a stunt double run for him, which isn't remotely Bond-esque, but my story about tears is 100% fabricated.)

I'm not saying I wanted the Portland Timbers to dominate and humiliate the Vancouver Whitecaps yesterday. First of all, that would be just rude, what with the classy tweet they posted today congratulating the Timbers and the Timbers Army. I mean, I can be vulgar, crass, etc. etc. I do, however, aspire to some basic quantity of class. Good taste...I'll do that later (Edit, Randall: Oh, the punches he pulls; there's some rot in the attic, people; war crimes in his head earlier today).

That said, beating Vancouver the way the Timbers did last night, and at the end of this season, shares more than a couple things with the super-villain's Super-Spy Death Trap. Timbers fans have studied its shape and structure for months now. Over time, they came to understand that the mechanics of the Timbers machine is overly complex, it has too many goddamn parts – and most of those don’t ever seem to fit together right – and it took far too goddamn long to function well, never mind as promised. And yet, isn't that glorious, mangled contraption working like gangbusters right now? I mean, holy shit, the goddamn thing works!

Because I have a fair amount of warmth for the fans and good people of Vancouver tonight, I feel horrible that it was them strapped to the table, with the lasers inching toward their "little 'nads." To have eight months of soccer end like that, especially with the way the 'Caps looked as late as August? Shit ain't right. I said it out loud at the bar last night and I'm repeating it again: the game was over once Kekuta Manneh went down...

Even with that in my head, how sharply the night reversed for Vancouver still surprised me. I can actually pinpoint the exact moment when I relaxed, when I knew that, if anyone scored, it would be Portland: the 55th minute, when Portland found a cozy spot in Vancouver's defensive third to run possession drills. That Portland could do it didn’t stand out nearly as much as the way Vancouver's defenders and midfield operated half a step behind each pass and every movement; they were so far on the back foot that their foot had said, what the hell, and settled down to grow roots.

Other spells of possession followed. Calm, cool, collected: as easy a victory as any fan could want. A friend of mine referred to the game as anticlimactic. He's not wrong in any sense, either. The heart-stopping win over Sporting Kansas City in the playoff play-in – and a big chunk of the end of the regular season, as well – trained Timbers fans to expect desperation and drama. That was the norm: fans suffered for this team. Last night, though, Portland took their fans by the hand and, with a wink and a totally non-creepy smile, they turned to their fans and quietly said, "I got this." And they did it in way that you know makes it completely 100% true, their voice not hoarse with meaning and intent, and the volume and pitch and warmth with just...I mean, spot-on! Can't you just see Darlington Nagbe doing that? Am I right? I bet he does that with his kids (...shit, shit, SHIT! My therapist said to lighten up on that stuff. Sorry. Cold turkey, cold turkey, cold turkey; it's a marathon not a sprint, it's a marathon not a sprint, it's a marathon, not a sprint...)

To quote a TV show I absolutely hated and never watched, I love it when a plan comes together. The Portland brass spent just about the entire season building their very own Super-Spy Death Trap and I think they have it working now. I can practically smell Bond's pubic patch singeing, and that's the smell of victory, people.

I'll wrap up with a couple talking points, a couple nutty stray thoughts and that end, then I’m going to spend this week and next staring at other people's stuff.

I Stand for Fanendo Adi
I barked out a tweet during the game and, knowing some of the people I know, having some of the conversations I've had, I can see how that would have read as, "I told you so...STUPID!" Here's the actual tweet (language of; I'll figure out embedding soon...jeez, Judy; I'll do it in the off-season. why do you have to...look, never mind):
"Can we please bury the bullshit with #FanendoAdi. Or, better question, when does it end. #VANvPOR #RCTID"
I don't need anyone to love Adi, or to think that he's a great forward. I just need them to admit that he has scored more goals in a single season for Portland than any other forward in the MLS era. There's one more step – and this is crucial – I need them to admit that this matters. Again, a 15-goal season is a rare thing in MLS, and Adi's scored 16 in the regular season; if you count those goals alone, Adi accounted for 39% of the Timbers' goals this year (this is coming from someone who's not entirely sure he remembers how math works anymore, so grain of salt; still, 16 goals of 41 sure sounds close to 39%). And he picked up a goal and assist last night to boot.

The point of this...point isn't to claim that I'm "right" or that Adi is "good" or that Wes Anderson movies really have gotten worse and more self-indulgent as he’s aged, that he's more present in them now than before, and more than he should be, etc. People like different things in their forwards; they like them to do different things: personally, I'm a fan of what I think Maximiliano Urruti can do. The difference is that Adi's doing his thing and he's doing it better than ever now and that's fantastic, especially now that the games matter. The man is passing with aplomb, people, which knocks down my biggest gripe. Good for him, and good for us.

Diego Chara, and What I Love About the (Alleged) 4-3-3
Everyone loves the 4-3-3. It revolutionized the Timbers' season, it was the missing piece to the Super-Spy Death Trap, etc. How loosely people talk about it, though, gets the conversation closer to the truth about formations – i.e. that they are damned, dirty lies. Fans hear about Nagbe "lining up centrally," which he does, but there's also the question of where Diego Valeri plays; I think the top bank of three (e.g. the one closest to the opposition goal) lines up as it does on paper, but, even there, how often do you hear people talk about, say, how crucial it is that Rodney Wallace covers Jorge Villiafana? (Answer: A lot, and for good reason). It doesn't often look like what you see here, certainly, except maybe when the Timbers are set in, or retreating to, defense. None of that matters, though, because the crucial statement about the whole thing revolves around one sentence: Chara sits deep to cover the defense. That's all that matters. After that, the relevant conversation is all about tendencies – e.g. Nagbe plays from a deeper, central position (good; great, even), I think Valeri seems to pop up out wide, etc. Chara playing a deeper, more positionally disciplined game means that Nagbe and Valeri, especially, get to freelance. And I think that's what both players do pretty goddamn well. And that's why I like the 4-3-3. Because I like attacking.

We Still Need George, More than Ever
I was a little concerned when I saw Villafana go down late last night. Talk of him wearing a walking boot reads even worse until the next sentence explains that it doesn't matter (uh, how?). Witnesses can attest to my bunched undies on seeing Liam Ridgewell – who, as I read it, has adopted the "cover and direct" role in central defense, as opposed to the proactive role of Nat Borchers – shift out to right back after Villafana. Ridgewell did fine against Vancouver in the end, but, as noted above, they were all but licked by the time the switch occurred. High as I am on both Borchers and Norberto Paparatto (i.e. on the latter, less than others, but still both happy and impressed), the idea of having three centerbacks trying to cope with FC Dallas' Fabian Castillo and Michael Barrios seems like something we'd want to avoid. I've said this dozens of times before, but I do believe defending is a skill, and the lonely life of a fullback – being stuck out there to defend with only a distant safety net – also demands the proverbial "particular set of skills." The Timbers will do what they have to do, of course, but we'll be a lot better off with George out there, manning that corner of the shop.

Talk of Jorge, that little shift to the future, does well to close this out. While it's not great news that Portland will be without both Valeri and Wallace for the home leg of the series against FC Dallas (yellow cards, you see), the team has enough hands on deck that I expect things to be fine. More importantly, the Portland Timbers really are playing not just at their maximum potential, they're playing actually well. By that I mean, I think the Timbers can beat just about any club in Major League Soccer right now – and that includes FC Dallas. That's a couple steps beyond having it figured out. It won't be easy, but, again, the goddamn plan has come together. This is as good as it's gonna get, and it feels pretty good.

OK, one more thing before signing off: the 2015 Major League Soccer playoffs got it pretty damn close to right, in that, the right teams got through and they got through for the right reasons. All the teams involved – Portland, Dallas, New York Red Bulls, and Columbus Crew SC – are playing good soccer right now. Better, they're playing pretty soccer, the kind of stuff smart people want to watch. And all I have to say about that is...yay.

Right, that's it till after the U.S. Men's World Cup qualifier against...huh. St. Vincent & Grenadines. This is when I start paying attention to the U.S. Men. Yippee!

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