Thursday, February 25, 2016

Portland v. Vancouver: A Timely Experiment (that should end right now).

Not pictured: Blas Perez running in to kick these kids.
Well, that was fun, yeah? Seeing a collection of (metaphorical) toddlers run out against a bunch of (metaphorical) first-teamers. (OK, yes, low blow. Vancouver Whitecaps fans, you have my apologies. And yet...)

Immediately after I told the guy sitting next to me something to the effect that the Portland Timbers were doing pretty well in terms of keeping Vancouver's first team off the scoreboard? Of course they scored. Of course...a better fan would have gone piss immediately after to insure that the Timbers would have scored in his absence. I guess I'm not that fan, but, then again, scoring wasn't really on the cards for the Portland Timbers tonight, was it?

In case it's not clear by now, the Portland Timbers trotted out a clear B-Team tonight, to play against....yep, that's pretty much the Vancouver Whitecaps starting eleven. Well, give or take on Vancouver's starting eleven, but, still, they had more of their A-team in the game than Portland did, and by a country mile. Any Timbers fans losing his/her mind over this....well, first of all, he/she shouldn't. Not even the guy on the MAX who wondered out loud to his girlfriend how a team that won MLS Cup only a few months ago could lose at home in their preseason. He seemed especially disappointed that this happened right after beating Minnesota United so comprehensively just a few nights ago? It's not that shocking, is it? (And, to his credit, the same guy acknowledged shortly thereafter that Portland started virtually none of their, uh, starters, so...again, he was surprised, why?).

Speaking for myself, I didn't know what to expect when I showed up tonight – and that's mostly down to willful ignorance of Portland's staring eleven on any given match day. With that in mind, any and all can paint me all colors of giddy about what I watched out there tonight – e.g., our depth against (most of) an MLS club that many people expect to do pretty well in 2016. For this lukewarm mess of a team to lose just 2-0 to a club that scored once with a new striker (left wide-open on the back post) and again with one of last year's starters? Well, I wouldn't say I learned a ton about what to expect from the Timbers as a team this year. What I did learn, however, was a thing or two about Portland's depth, plus a likely sub here, maybe a starter there. And that's what the rest of this will be about. Ready, steady...go!

The Lukewarm Mess in Midfield
For reasons I'm still trying to puzzle out, Caleb Porter (and, therefore, presumably not some B-Coach standing in for him today, by way of some kind of reality show contest) decided to start Jack Jewsbury, Ben Zemanski and Ned Grabavoy in central(-ish) midfield. OK, here's a test: tell me how you'd organize those three players in a midfield: who would (generally) go forward, and who would (generally) stay back to cover the back four (and that's to the extent you feel that's valid; then again, think about tonight's back four before you answer that question). To answer my own parenthetical, I would have had either Zemanski or Jewsbury cover the back four, thereby (roughly) replicating what Diego Chara did late last season for the first team. Obviously, that assumes the existence of some kind of in-house system, which may or may not be valid. And, on the evidence of tonight, I was wrong about all of the above, and on at least two levels.

I've already enjoyed a good conversation about this over twitter, so consider this an elaboration on the theme. Given those three players, I would have pulled either Zemanski or Jewsbury deep and had Grabavoy do the work of linking defense to offense. If that was the plan tonight, it wasn't evident. Grabavoy, in particular, seemed to play deep, or at least that's where I spotted him more often than not; I saw Zemanski pushing forward more often. Jewsbury just kind of ambled around, made himself available as an outlet, an option, a...wait, that's pretty much what they all did. Nothing about the alignment of midfield made sense for that reason – i.e. Portland had three players doing the same thing. More to the point, that's the general game for two of those three players (Jewsbury and Zemanski; file Grabavoy under "Other" till further notice). This was less a game-plan than telling three players to go out on the field and circulate just, y'know, around the middle of the field.

It's here where I get to lay into Grabavoy a little. Operating on the theory that most professional athletes' dicks swing more than a little, I would expect Grabavoy (or Jewsbury; maybe even Zemanski) to read the game and, when applicable, to ignore whatever coaching edicts didn't make sense and to push the game a little. As noted above, it was Zemanski who did this and, obviously, I feel like that should have been Grabavoy. But it wasn't. He was oddly passive, instead. No, the general collection of loose passes through midfield didn't help him (that's to say, he was chasing his share of shitty passes), but it didn't help anyone.

A more damning moment for Grabavoy came when, on the corner leading to Vancouver's first goal, he bossed another player off the ball (I wanna say #25 off the that even a guy that makes sense? And...shit, maybe. Not all the new guys have numbers; at any rate) to cover Kekuta Manneh? I'm not saying that this lead to the ball being played clear across the area to a wide open Blas Perez (whose continued asshole-ism is a living testament to consistency), but it is a non-sensical switch that Grabavoy should know better than to request. No, this doesn't mean I think Grabavoy is a mistake as a signing. Tonight, though, was more than a bad night: Grabavoy didn't fit tonight, and that's a larger issue. I think he can, but, yeah, work on it. OK, with that little character assassination over...

Let's Talk About Who Else Underwhelmed
Anthony Manning
While he cleaned up well enough defensively, Manning had a terrible habit of punting long balls to...Jack McInerney? I assume? The point is, Manning gave the ball away with something worse than safety-first style passing – i.e. he wasn't just clearing danger, but making bad decisions with his passes out of the back four. And, really, he didn't play lights-out defense, either, so Manning has work to do, in my book, till he's even a first-team back-up.

Now, Let's Talk About Green Shoots...Including Some We Might Rely on for Food
Jack McInerney
For me, JackMac was Portland's best attacking player tonight. Did he bone more than a few passes? Oh, hell yes. The man had a couple straight up give-aways out of the attacking third, back passes, basically, to Vancouver's midfielders. Those moments aside, though, his runs were good, in that they opened up space, he squared a few good balls from those positions, he had one of the Timbers' better cracks on goal, and, those couple occasions noted above aside, he kept possession in the attacking third as well as any Portland player. I know people doing stats on this sort of thing, so I'll be very curious as to how this argument holds up on closer observation, but I liked what I saw from McInerney tonight more than any other attacking Timber.

Zarek Valentin
Yeah, the guy I've been most nervous about all preseason (I've even held up Andy Thoma as, perhaps a better option; and, frankly, Thoma looked OK tonight, too). Valentin played centrally tonight (pretty sure) and what I've liked about him all along is what I've liked about him so far: his passing. For me, Valentin did for Portland tonight what's Armchair Analyst, Matt Doyle talks about Brad Evans doing for Seattle – i.e., he passes really smartly and coolly out of defense (where? working on it; I'll link when I find it). That's just a thought for the long term. There was one moment, in particular, early in the second half that cemented it for me – a nice short pass to Jewsbury between two Vancouver forwards, and through a small seam. I've mentioned this a couple times now, but I do like what I view as potential in Valentin's poise and (apparently? hopefully?) next-level thinking on the ball.

OK, those are my key thoughts after tonight. It was kind of a garbage game in the end, but a useful exercise all the same. It's pretty damn important to know what one's depth can and can't do. It's even better to know what potential starters and, potentially, game-changing subs can do. After all, a team can't play to their strengths if they don't know them.

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