Friday, December 4, 2015

Columbus Crew v. Portland Timbers: MLS Cup Primer, Enemy Edition

Shh...he's trying not to hear me, so's as not to worry.
I had more research time planned – tonight was to be the day to go deep on the Portland Timbers – but with work buzzing like an angry hive all week, and me spending more time than usual in the office, something had to give. Work pays the bills, this doesn’t, etc. (In its defense, my job benefits include daily reminders of my own, and humanity’s general insignificance. Keeps me grounded...)

Then again, I know these guys, the Timbers. Gods know I’ve spent enough time staring at them, writing about them, and talking about them over drinks. Then there are those spare hours spent spying from the bushes into the Nagbes’ kitchen, the days laying beneath Liam Ridgewell’s deck, listening to him contemplate life, soccer, and Lake Oswego (the lake, mind, not the town, which he does not care for), or the hidey-holes I have in Rodney Wallace’s walk-in closet and Diego Chara’s pantry. Close observation, people: it’s our specialty here at Conifers & Citrus. (What? Disclaimer? We don’t have a legal department, Randall.)

I did a couple mini-games tonight, and fond memories, including last weekend’s massive draw against FC Dallas and the September 26 win over Columbus Crew SC – and, crucially, in Columbus. Such a lovely trip down Memory Lane…more on that later, obviously...

As for Columbus Crew SC, the Timbers’ opponent in MLS Cup 2015…wait, again, HOLY SHIT!! Even with several friends making the pilgrimage to one of the Holy Places of American Soccer, my head’s only two-thirds of the way around this particular reality. Bear with me.

I didn’t have the time I wanted for Columbus, either (I worked late last night, Judy; you saw, you were here…yes, ice cream when I’m done typing.), but I did manage to take a long (90+) minute look at their MLS-Cup clinching win over the New York Red Bulls, plus the three preceding mini-games (just...look it up if you don’t know; there’s a lot below) I feel like I got a fair amount out of all of that – I’m sick to death of the color green right now, if nothing else (e.g. soccer field color) – but I’ve got what I’ve got and, uh, here it is . (I know, Judy; sell myself; I remember the self-confidence seminar…I am affirming every day. OK, most days. The offseason, Judy; I’ll get better then.) Firstly...

Portland Has Won There (As in central Ohio) Before
The good results have become habit, which makes it hard to recall the malaise going into that September 26 game. It wasn't just fans, either: immediately after kickoff, the commentators pointed to a “disconnect” between Portland’s midfield and defense; they went on to muse about just how shitty Portland had been at scoring goals the year through- and right after Fanendo Adi scored Portland’s first. That’s why that win was so damn big. Hell, it was a goddamn turning point by the looks of it. Portland rode a 0-2-2 into Columbus and the spirits, well, they just sorta sucked. And with games on the horizon looking one helluva lot bigger then than they do today? It was the Great-Recession-level funk at a minimum. After the win, though? Well, point of fact Portland lost right after – to Sporting Kansas City, as it happens, but after that, after that (echoes of that Swamp Castle bit from Monty Python’s Holy Grail springing to mind)? The Timbers closed out the season with three straight wins. And, as we all know, the good times have rolled on like a mighty river since (I don’t see impediments). Moreover, that game featured a couple key moments: a(nother) Adi brace and, more significantly still, Diego Valeri looking like himself for the first time in 2015 (confirmation dots these highlights).

That September game didn’t come at their darkest hour, but, I tell you, that night light flickered, revealing the shadows of boogeymen dancing on the walls. Even with a hiccup or two (see: The Eternal Shootout or The Great Oklahoma Rally (as in it was almost a rally just like Oklahoma is almost in Texas)). Now, though, yea, the nightlight shines brightly, like a lava lamp powered by a 2,000-watt bulb (and seen through pupils chemically dilated to the size of tea saucers). Or, in fewer words, if Portland could win in Columbus then, why they can’t do it this Sunday?

The 10 talking points laid out below came to me during the hours of quiet reflection over these past two days (actually, let’s go with painfully short evenings). I list them in a sort of vague order in which I expect them to come into play on Sunday. This will read somewhat Columbus-centric, but that’s intentional: most people who come here already know the Timbers really well; Columbus, though, maybe not as much. So, I thought I’d try to add to that side of the conversation. The stuff about Portland pops up in between, though. Anyway, here goes...

Whichever Foot to Start On?
The Timbers came out strong against Dallas in that second leg, as I saw it, closing down aggressively just about anywhere within their half. Portland also poured attacking players forward – so much that I feared their legs might give out. And I think they did, literally minutes after Adi scored the goal that, briefly, appeared to put the series out of reach. Sure, the Timbers might have opted to play more defensively, but having just watched Nagbe trot alongside Dairon Asprilla around the 70th minute of that one as if both guys wanted a nap told me something different. Feel free to be agnostic on that, but I’ll close this with two observations: 1) Columbus should punish a tired team more ruthlessly than Dallas did, so the thought of running out of gas bothers me; and 2) Columbus started very strong in the first 10 minutes of every post-season game, putting quality chances on goal in most, if not all, of those games. Given this, Portland comes out trying to win it right away at their own risk. Focus on the whole "closing down aggressively" thing and worry about pouring numbers forward later.

Columbus: General Defensive Theory (in ideal states)
Until I looked more closely at each of Columbus’ past several games, I had pretty well bought the line about “Columbus has figured out defending.” Now, it’s looks closer to them simply having New York’s number. With that two-goal cushion behind them, they harassed New York in their half with skirmishing lines (sometimes quite aggressively, and with Columbus coach, Greg Berhalter, urging them on like the Wicked Witch of the West at times), before falling back into tightly-stacked defensive banks. This tactic denied New York’s attack the depth they usually exploit with the short forward passes they’ve used to break down so many defenses this season. And, so, New York spent much of day crossing and Columbus coped with that just fine, if just for enough of the 90 minutes they needed to wrap up the series. My guess is Columbus will let Portland play wide, especially if that translates to Portland resorting to crosses. One last thing to note here: if you watch Portland’s first goal against Columbus back in September, you’ll see Nagbe and Wallace combine to break down that same stacked-bank set up. In other words, the Crew’s go to tactic might not be enough.

Gaston Sauro v. the World
Columbus feels better about allowing crosses because, now, they’ve got Gaston Sauro to cope with them. Some fans might know him as the big Gallic-looking dope who stared down Didier Drogba in the first leg of the Eastern semis while sporting bandaging like a sloppy stocking cap (cool moment, btw; felt like he made a statement for MLS scrubs against the international stars). Bottom line: Sauro is a big, bruising bastard of a center back; a yellow card waiting to happen, sure, but he’s also a(n arguably) correlative reason for Columbus’ improved overall defense. The way Adi matches up against him will be key, maybe even decisive to the series. With Sauro paired with Michael Parkhurst, a defender who reads the game on Nat-Borchers levels (serious shit, obvs.), Adi will have to be both strong and quick with his touches. Adi’s been good for that recently. Again, that’s more likely if Portland doesn’t resort to crosses. Ball to feet, people. Also, give Adi playmates in the attack, so he can make those quick releases.

The Incredible Importance of Not Playing From Behind
Put together (some of) the above and you get this: Columbus can bunker and Sauro has made them more robust. Moreover, they can pull back the fullbacks that they typically love to push high (that’d be Trevor Francis and Harrison Afful) and make it tricky to get around their flanks; ask New York about this. A deeper problem: Columbus can transition out of that bunker at incredible speed. To borrow a scenario from that September 26 win, Portland tried to pin Harrison Afful deep in Columbus’ half; Federico Higuain had just dropped off a simple ball and, smelling blood, Chara and Jorge Villafana collapsed on him. Instead, Afful pinged the ball between Villfana and Chara back to Higuain, who then launched Ethan Finlay into a foot-race against Liam Ridgewell that ended...let’s go with predictably, and a goal damn near ensued. Columbus does 0-to-60 as well as anyone in MLS. I’ve seen it a bunch during my researches and that’s why I don’t want Portland playing from behind. Again, ask New York about that.

On Higuain
It took me a while to get Higuain. His mental wheels spun well enough, even on a higher level, but the weight and precision of his passing got away from him more often that it does with an elite bear. I also thought he dropped too deep looking for the game, and too often. It turns out, that’s his game. It’s also why I spotted him combining with Afful a lot in those post-season games (Afful’s a very polished passer, for one, and slippery as shit on the ball; short answer; don’t bother trying to pin Afful if Higuain’s around). Higuain gets to go pretty much wherever he wants (as shown on the graphic in here which has made the rounds for good reason) and that’s problematic. The question posed to Portland head coach, Caleb Porter, becomes what to do about that – especially when it comes to Chara. My answer: don’t have Chara track Higuain, at least not all over the field, because, fool’s errand. Keep Chara close to Portland’s defense, where he can cover the channels when the fullbacks wander too high, and totally stick him on Higuain near and inside Portland’s defensive third. Otherwise, just kind of pass Higuain off between Portland players further upfield, apply pressure as needed, etc. Make Higuain find his players, which could be harder than it sounds.

Columbus’ Dynamic Duo
As much as Wil Trapp is learning the game (defensively, I keep hearing), he has precise and long-range passing down fucking cold. Tchani, meanwhile, bulls through the midfield, riding challenges when he has to and holding the ball until he unleashes the kinds of through-the-channel passes that New York’s original maestros could only envy last weekend. Give Tchani time anywhere inside your own half and you will rue the day; give Trapp time anywhere inside his own half and prepare to get ever so slightly fucked up. Between Trapp spraying those long diagonals wide toward Francis and (especially) Afful (again, pushed way the hell up the field) and Tchani’s finding Columbus players in the lanes that those long diagonals open up, and Higuain buzzing all over, you’ve got enough defensive headaches for two teams. I rate Tchani the better defender, even though it’s Trapp who usually plays deeper (see those booming passes, also, never underestimate the value of a simple physical presence). Columbus is really strong in the center, even if stronger only on the attacking side. That’s why it makes some sense to stick Chara deeper tomorrow than usual.

The Big...VALLEY, Valley, valley...valley........valley...
(Anyone on that old TV show? Anyone?) One thing that stood out –particularly against New York – is how big Columbus likes to make the field. All that space is precisely what facilitates the work that Trapp and Tchani do so well, as noted immediately above. New York laid off far too much, and more than usual, and that failure resulted in too many carve-ups and near-misses. With that in mind, Portland would do better to look at how the Montreal Impact handled the same tactic. The Impact kept their players close to Columbus’ when the Crew had possession and basically ignored, or just managed, the big gaps/passing lanes between all the players. Unfortunately, this whole “wide” phenomenon poses a big-ish challenge to Portland. If Porter goes with a 4-3-3 (as I hope he does), two players in the second three – e.g. Valeri and Nagbe – both prefer playing centrally. That could result in pinning back Wallace and whichever player starts between Asprilla and Lucas Melano. And, that, my friends, could limit the attacking value of those two players...and that’s not the end of the world. Stick with me...I mean a while.

Battle on the Wings
I’m only getting to the wings now? Seriously? SO much of the game could very well turn on that narrow band of (stupid, hated) grass on either side of the field. Today, the Armchair Analyst’s “what to expect” post floated the idea of swapping Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay. For what it’s worth, I think those match-ups favor Columbus in their usual state – e.g. with Meram running at Alvas Powell (because guile) and Finlay running at Villafana (because speed). Fortunately, Portland has Wallace in front of Villafana to even the battle against Finlay/Afful and that’s why my bigger worry lives on the right, where Meram/Francis take on Asprilla (or Melano) and Powell. Meram often looks like a one-trick pony – e.g. he feints toward the end-line, but (inevitably) cuts inside to look for a shot. His timing, though, has flummoxed MLS defenders all season and, for all that recovery speed, Powell does flummoxing. And once Meram sets that up, he’ll Francis overlapping as a steady option to further flummox Powell. Or to limit the attacking effectiveness of Asprilla/Melano. I can only hope that Portland’s coaches made Powell review tape and mediate on his role for Sunday a la Clockwork Orange. It’s not going to be a picnic for Villfana, either, coping with Finlay’s speed – especially if Finlay starts working the channel between Villafana and Ridgewell/Norberto Paparatto, abetted by those killer leads from Tchani. OK, not thinking about it, la, la, la, LA, LA, LA, LA, LA, LAAAAA!!! (For the curious, this explains the hamster image.)

Kamara v. Beard and a Player to Be Named Later (Sort of)
This might not have played widely in Portland, but Kei Kamara really wants to win MLS Cup. How do we know? Tchani had a moment of (arguably) red-card-able poor judgment and his biggest threat in the moment was Kamara. As it turns out, Kamara has just missed winning MLS Cup with multiple MLS clubs (something I hadn’t put together till listening to his spot on ExtraTime Radio), so he’s a little amped up for this one. And he’s a very, very capable contributor. He’s damn good in the air for one, where Portland is good, but not outstanding. Columbus also has a lot of ways of getting him the ball - e.g. early crosses, getting behind the outside backs, or even just getting in that inside channel, and sliding the ball across: Kamara has capitalized on some version of all of those all season long. For what it’s worth, I like the idea of Ridgewell covering Kamara (even though he combined to allow this goal in the September win); Paparatto, at least I feel, just isn’t as good in the air, and that’s mostly down to alertness and minor issues with ball-watching. Nat Borchers…I think he’s tasked with seek-and-destroy and I’m good with that. The point is, Portland should do what they gotta: they just need to understand just how much Kamara wants this. That and how good he’s been all year.

Atomic Subs
Cedric Mabwati is scary; this clip shows why (or, actually, the several seconds toward the end of that). So is Melano, if more as a sub than otherwise, at least in my view (again, see clip). Just something to keep in the back of your heads as the time ticks down on the game for either team. Thar be game-changers on the bench...

OK, that’s it. Portland’s screwed, right? Not really. No one’s dismissing them, certainly, and I’ve heard more than a few people even talk about them as narrow favorites. I pulled together all of the above mainly to cool the hot cockles, to prepare the Timbers fans who visit this site for a stressful (if stupidly early) afternoon. Columbus has weapons and, yes, I think they upgraded their defense in one key position, while also giving it more ways to defend.

For Portland, I think the game turns on the extent to which the team either, 1) manages the flanks, or 2) sees their central players pull the game inside. The more the Timbers can get this game central – particularly starting through the middle third of the field, and forcing Columbus to play toward Chara – the more control they’ll have over the game and its tempo. Big games from Nagbe and Valeri, both of whom have been playing really well, will go a long way to making this a reality. As implied in the first point, I do want them to come out cautious, then to gradually ratchet up the pressure. Ride out, say, the first 10 minutes, get a sense of where Columbus feels best playing – and do all this while looking to poach opportunities on the cheap to discount range. Portland has the defenders to do this, especially with the player who was, for me, the best defensive midfielder in MLS through 2015 (Chara, for those not tracking).

I don’t do predictions until closer to the game (when my gut speaks in a language I can understand), but I do think these teams match up at damn-near 50/50 – and that’s with Columbus at home. Am I nervous? No. But that’s probably because I haven’t thought a lot about it till now.

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