Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Timbers Take 3 Out of Ohio: Does a Banal Observation Explain a Big Win?

A glimpse inside Nagbe's mind at the crucial moment.
Can someone just transcribe all the shit I said last night and edit it for slurring, repetition and terrible ideas? (I'm just so tired, Judy...)

Two of my favorite non-green-and-gold clubs in Major League Soccer lost in Week 30. That'd be the Columbus Crew and Red Bulls New York ("s" deliberate, btw). Orlando City SC ran over the Red Bulls in a game that was brilliant and tragic all at once; more on that at mid-week. That result also reads a little weird given New York's current form and reputation. It's not that they're invincible, or anything – Chicago gives 'em fits, for one – but Portland's loss to them in Week 29 was only surprising for the sleepy, tits-to-the-sky manner in which they lost it.

I thought the Timbers had a decent chance going into Columbus, in spite of the New York loss, thanks to all the goals the Crew have coughed up this season ( 51, and it could have been 52 as everyone who sleeps on either side of the Willamette knows, because penalty). What's better for a sputtering offense, after all, that a permissive defense? That turned out to be true in the end, but it took a good night from Portland to make that cheap little factoid stand as tall as it did...which I include here to signal to anyone reading this that I in no way believe that I called the win.

That Portland lost to the Red Bulls at home and beat Columbus on the road still sets up a weird disconnect in pattern and placement. Most Timbers fans seem to feel like there's something wrong with the club, or at least that's what the angsty vibes that I get through twitter and  conversations in the walking world (aka, irl) communicate to me. I feel it too, obviously, which accounts for why I've spent the past couple weeks trying to pin the tail on the correct donkey, first throwing one player under the bus, then another. When that felt unsatisfying, I turned to trying to cut through to some path that leads to coaching and management. On that, let's just say I might have found the trailhead, but I haven't yet started the hike.

I’ve been carrying around something someone else said on that for about a week, something I was going to use in some post on what’s wrong with the Porter/Wilkinson brain-trust. Here that is (with the author duly credited):

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Lucas Melano, and Why He's Wrong for MLS and the Timbers

Yes, Number 175. No, just Number 175.
Thought I'd try something different today; I mean as opposed to retching out every last thought I have on some aspect of the Portland Timbers' strengths, weaknesses, limitations, or awful goddamn haircuts (hey, at least we're better than the New England Revolution – e.g. Major League Soccer's #1 coiffurial shit-show), until I'm on the floor dry-heaving, I thought I'd try a genuinely single-subject(-ish) observation. I have dreams of going brief and more frequent, but that requires listening to the little boy who lives in my mouth (Randall*) when he tells me that, yes, I really can leave out that sentence I just fell in love with, or that paragraph that, for whatever reason, I that I think is the skeleton key that unlocks the Rosetta Stone (NOTE: not how that happened at all).

(*There's Judy, too, obviously. I'm just not sure who she is yet, or where she lives.)

At any rate, exploring a single topic today – e.g., how signing a player Lucas Melano doesn't make sense under the MLS salary model.

While this has been kicking around my head for a week or so, I'd like to begin by giving credit to this week’s Portland Timbros' podcast for refining the argument. The relevant part came with the discussion of how the presence designated player shapes, or even outright warps, the game-day roster. That part of the argument only hits my point on Melano sideways, but, y'know, credit where it's due.

I'd also like to make clear that nothing predictive, condemnatory (well, I'll be, that is a word) on Melano as a player informs this position. One of the first unwritten rules of MLS is that All Players Will Require Time to Adjust to MLS, for one, but there's the fact that he's young to boot (and eager and fine, like a two-year-old thoroughbred rattling the gates at the Breeders' Cup). I never expected greatness from Melano from the first touch (though, to be clear, I do appreciate the eagerness).

To disclose my honest opinion, yeah, in my book, Melano has underwhelmed. Kid looks choked up out there, uptight; he plays the game like he's got to take a shit for the full 90. Even so, I think he'll come good fairly early in 2016. This assumes he comes good at all. He better come good, goddammit; in MLS terms, $5 million is pre-market-bust-level leverage. And, yet, it's not just the money. I'm thrilled to see the Timbers spend big (and let the record show that I just stifled a metaphor). If not that, then what?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Timbers Lose to the Red Bulls: A Feel-Piece in Response

Yes, part of me thinks it's this easy.
Tonight's 2-0 loss was really, painfully simple. The Portland Timbers got outplayed by a better team. Period. So, what makes the New York Red Bulls a better team? That's the pisser. It's not that hard.

O.G. New York (my fan-boy name for that club) knows what they're doing when they have ball. They play out of trouble more effectively, and no matter where they are on the field; Red Bulls players provide better support; they create those useful little triangles by reflex, as opposed to any (apparent) design that allow their players to reliably move the ball out of danger, and get it going the other way, time and again. It didn't hurt that they beat the Timbers to damn near every piece of slop that shook loose, managed to get the requisite number of bodies behind the ball damn near every time, etc. etc. etc. But it was that piece of knowing what to do with the ball that mattered most tonight. Sure, sure, both of New York's goals relied on some form of lax defending, but New York made those chances by doing the right thing more often than not.

Unrelated, but significant, can Timbers fans please retire the "dodgy 'keeper" chant, or at least apply exclusively to those 'keepers it has a snowball's chance in Hell of rattling? Luis Robles, Jr. is not that guy. I speak for myself here, but I'd trade Adam Kwarasey, plus whoever serves as our back-up 'keeper these days for Robles. The guy is U.S. Men's National Team material, and has been for years; only Jurgen Klinsmann's profound, persistent asshole-ism/Brad Guzan keeps him out (well, yes, and his age). Need evidence? You got it.

Even without Robles pulling miracles out of his ass, Portland simply labored to get a shot on New York's goal. Too many shots came from a lack of ideas – i.e. a Timber would shoot out of a dearth of visible, or observed (as in, didn't see 'em), options. Darlington Nagbe wound up at least twice only to pummel the ball into the one or two New York defenders between him and the goal; same with Lucas Melano, Rodney Wallace, Diego Valeri...Will Johnson at least skied one off the bar, but I'm pretty sure he banged one into a red and white wall right along with the rest of 'em. It's a great idea, shooting from distance, and one I'm in favor of generally...just not when a trio of defensive players loiters in the way.

With all the above in mind, "intention" provides the theme for tonight – i.e. the sense that, unlike the Timbers, New York has a plan and some sense of how to execute it. That one goes deep, if only in my head. Why?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Open Letter to Darling: A Quiet Hit on a Quiet Man

When this man says, "let's tear it up," you do it.
(Strained reference to Something's Gotta Give")
Darling – can I call you, Darling? – look, we need to talk...

I’ll hang up the first-person open-letter gimmick. I doubt I could sustain it, for one, but there is something about Darlington Nagbe that begs for a reassessment – and this is borderline Come-to-Jesus-on-Judgment-Day - whether it’s his, um, too-subtle production or his approach to the game.

Before diving into...everything, let me pass on the necessary disclaimers. Yes, he’s talented, extravagantly so: the man pairs feet soft enough to polish bird-bone-brittle china with the strength, balance and durability to survive a half-dozen instances of naked assault and battery every single game and still keep the ball at his feet. And just about all season long, too. He has had his games - he carried the Portland Timbers through the early part of this injury-plagued 2015 campaign – and he has had his moments (ah, sweet, sweet #18). But has he had enough of either?

And, yet, for reasons I assume most people know and just about everyone can appreciate, Nagbe drives me fucking crazy. The short version comes in two parts: 1) while he’s fine attacking defenders with the ball, he’s maddeningly timid about attacking space without it; and 2) he’s under-achieving, obviously, one could even argue dramatically. All I can think when people enthuse about him joining the U.S. Men’s National Team is…why? Does he need another score-sheet to avoid, or something?

I don’t actually hate Nagbe; it’s like hating, I dunno, a cow or a chameleon or some other pleasant animal. He does, however, inspires me to call up a thesaurus to find some perfect word between “irk” and “hate,” one seasoned with a couple shakes of “resent.” “Scorn” feels like the best fit, due to its association with words like “reject” and “refuse.” (Let the record show that I was tempted by “discommode” and “incommode” – because, “commode,” because funny – and “discommode” comes pretty close, but, as with “irk,” it implies only mild exasperation).

Why is that? My argument is that, something’s gotta give. Whether it’s internal to Nagbe – on which I’ve stopped holding my breath for fear of suffocation – or doing something different with him. Three options lurk in that prior sentence:

Sunday, September 13, 2015

MLS Week 28 Review: Blow-by-Blow, Team-by-Team

Our interns, hard at work.
As regular readers know, we at C & C Labs (Conifers & Citrus Laboratories, LLP) experiment continuously with framing, formatting and concepts, all with the long-term goal of presenting the perfect readable post. Yes, we've laid some mutant eggs – let us not forget...well, shit, already forgot it, apparently, but, suffice to say, we've laid some eggs that the mother not only walked away from, but quietly pushed off a cliff. And she's right. Fuck those things.

At any rate, somewhere in the middle of spacing off during...again, I dunno, some game, we came up with another approach, this one involving a full-spectrum review of Major League Soccer review that taxes neither writer nor reader. And doesn't that sound...just nice? This is really straight-forward (for once): I frame every game that happened in the week just past and wrap it up in one of two ways:

1) I provide three talking points for each club for the games where I went the full 90; and
2) Just one talking point per team for each game where I only took in the 20-minute mini-game.

Nifty, I think, and clear, I hope. The "interest rankings" have been updated at right. So, let's get rolling.

MLS Week 28
It's pretty easy to frame the week as a whole: the clubs that look ready showed it by winning where and when they should. The clubs that didn't? Well, they choked, didn't they? Some more than others, too, but most begged questions along the way. In the former column (winners!), you've got Columbus Crew SC, New York Red Bulls, the New England Revolution, and, if you're stretching, FC Dallas. So, who blew it this weekend? How about the Houston Dynamo, the Seattle Sounders and...goddammit, the Portland Timbers. Yeah, we're in there...especially given what Orlando did to Sporting Kansas City just today. Jeez-and-Us. Then again, guess who else slipped? The mighty, mighty, almighty Los Angeles Galaxy. So the league condenses again!

On to the games, full 90 first!

Portland Timbers v. Sporting KC; already written up, and in some distress.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Portland Timbers Draw Sporting KC: A Study on a Work in Progress

Sacrificed my smallest finger. What have you done, Timbers?
I have to admit it. The Portland Timbers goal-less draw against Sporting Kansas City left me feeling...feelings.

As the Twitter-verse pointed out, and against the general way of the drinking world, can we all agree that we're all better off forgetting that first half and holding onto the bright memories of the second? The second half presented the Timbers Army, and affiliated fans, with a great big doozy of expectations. My right hand still bears the reddened evidence from all the times my fist hit a barroom table. (Consider that an offering: if I break my hand on the table after the miss that inspired it, can I parlay that brief moment of pain for a Timbers goal at their next attempt? If not, why not? Trade makes the world go 'round, allows the wheels of commerce to turn, etc.)

Getting back to the first half, however, that played out pretty much as expected. Kansas City plays to make the game ugly; they're a classic high-press, disruption-first kind of team; they set out to make it hard to play just about anywhere on the field (which makes them an excellent primer for the Timbers' next opponent, New York Red Bulls). Something shifted at the half that gave the Timbers the moxie and space to attack – and I hereby raise my hand to confess that I have no idea what that would be – but would humbly submit that maybe it was nothing more than that little bit more moxie that created the space...these are the mysteries of soccer, especially when one sits down to try to write the first, second draft of history (in this modern era, the first draft always goes to Twitter).

Whatever happened, Portland piled on the chances in the second half – and in a manner reminiscent of last week's loss to Seattle Sounders FC – only to find themselves "Melia'd" at every turn (and, sweet Jesus, is there some kind of passing of the torch going here, wherein KC's Tim Melia becomes the heir-apparent for fucking over the Timbers, a la Nick Rimando?). As a very smart man I watch games with suggested, does Portland just bring out the best in opposition goalkeepers? I mean, is this our club's fate?

The pisser comes with the fact that that little edge – e.g. a standing-on-head performance from a 'keeper – is all any given team needs to take a gigantic shit on a basically acceptable night for the Timbers. Being the sociable type, I didn't catch every single minute of tonight's game - there will people to meet, etc. - but I damn-skippy caught Graham Zusi's shot off Adam Kwarasey's left post (as well as a couple headed shots off set pieces that rather kindly landed at or near Kwarasey to make for comfortable saves). 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...

...suffice to say that the second half of tonight's game made up for the first half, excitment-wise. Heart-in-throat stuff. And that's why we tune in, isn't it? Is that enough random junk in the  (long) lede? Let's review...

Thursday, September 3, 2015

MLS Week 26 Review/Week 27 Preview, Plus: Best & Worst DPs And...9 Quick, Hot Takes

Official Conifers & Citrus spite of what some memories I note below.
(Posting late again. I know, Judy. I know. Next week. Or maybe the week after. I know you can't stop it, Judy, but can you make it slow down?)

Time to slip out of the small, scenic pond where the Portland Timbers reside (Lake Oswego?) and into the big, rollicking ocean that is Major League Soccer as a whole. While I'm still refining the format – and believe that this feature will be more fluid than fixed until 2016 – I do feel like I'm getting closer. At any rate, lots to get to below, which include:
1) The Review/Preview, the lede that looks both backward and forward at trends in MLS;
2) This week's feature on the best and worst in designated players for 2015; and
3) Takes, Quick and Hot, e.g. quick, (ideally) worthwhile thoughts about MLS teams, players and...or just me sharing my pulling out my next wild hair.
OK, that's it. Time to dig in.

Week 26 Review/Week 27 Preview
MLS stuffed a heavy work-week into Week 26, featuring 12 intra-league games in all. The general schedule piled on a few more games for MLS clubs, courtesy of the Canadian Championship (which ended in a comfortingly sensible manner) and the CONCACAF Champions' League (CCL). The overall set up asked more of some clubs than others and, to be fair, some held up better than others. The trickier issue comes with figuring out why.

Fatigue, or some version of it, offers up an obvious villain in all this. For instance, DC United could argue that all those midweek airplane miles combined with the New York Red Bulls to kick their ass last Sunday night. Sporting Kansas City could finger the same guy in the police line-up (still talking about fatigue) as the reason for their now-100% apparent slump, and so could the Montreal Impact, who also played two games in Week 26 and lost both - and Laurent Ciman, for a bit (and, it bears noting, they will play catch up the rest of the season). It's not a perfect excuse, though, as demonstrated by several examples, including the Colorado Rapids (played two, won two), or, to compare apples to apples, why not ask why the Seattle Sounders, a club that logged more miles than DC, came out with results that ran the opposite direction.