Sunday, March 13, 2016

Portland Can't Find a Way Past San Jose...which is true of that city generally (a mess, I tell you).

San Jose's defense. I mean, how do you get through that?
Somewhere around the 60th minute (think it was the 58th, but not checking), the ball squirted out to Darlington Nagbe, who stood just outside the Portland Timbers' 18. With the ball under control, Nagbe looked up to find his options. Inside one second, unable to find an option worth passing to, Nagbe raised his arms in clear "fuck-it" frustration; by the time the full second had passed, Chris Wondolowski had poked the ball off Nagbe's foot and the San Jose Earthquakes took one more run at the Portland Timbers' goal. This was just one reason today's game ended 2-1. San Jose frustrated the holy shit out of Portland.

It wasn't always that kind of day, though. The Timbers largely dictated the opening. Right up to the 30th minute, really. That’'s when Wondolowski "did Wonolowski things," as Fox Sports' commentating team put it, this time breaking past Jermaine Taylor inside Portland's (sacred and inviolate!) six-yard box to meet a cross to the near post. So, there was that, a goal. Before that, Portland's Lucas Melano pinged a ball off the crossbar; Diego Valeri rode a tackle and put a seeing-eye toe-poke on goal, only to have San Jose's 'keeper, David Bingham, tip it to the outside of the side netting. Making matters worse, the ref missed it and awarded the 'Quakes a goal kick afterwards. In a replay of that shot later in the game, the video followed long enough to capture Valeri looking Bingham in the eye and saying, "tell him." With "him" here being the referee...and, yeah, even as I type that, I'm surprised Valeri bothered. Well, not so much surprised that Valeri bothered as I'm surprised to think he thought it would matter. Then again, of course Valeri would think that. It's not for nothing the man reads devotional literature...

For the first 30 minutes of this game, Portland attacked San Jose's defensive third in a way that promised an inevitable breakthrough. Wondo scored, of course, but the Timbers picked up after it, probing their way to San Jose's goal, and everything looked set to follow a narrative in which the question would be whether or not the Timbers could equalize. And, if so, where things would go from there? And so on.

It didn't turn out that way. In one awful (at most) five second sequence, Quincy Amarikwa – remember him? the guy who's finishing I questioned? – picked up the script, blow his nose on it, mic-dropped that sucker to the floor, poured gasoline on it, and set that fucker to flame. With that, and for the second year running, Portland again find themselves an early favorite for being the team on the receiving end of a Goal of the Year (memories...). If you didn't see it, do yourself a favor and watch Amarikwa's goal - which is even more impressive for the stuff that came before it. A lob over Adam Kwarasey from at least 40 yards out, it is a thing of perfect beauty. It also came right before the half and, arguing from the second half, it just plain freaked-out the Timbers. Even when Portland pulled back a hearteningly impressive consolation goal (sure, it's too little, too late, but that at least means Portland has ideas on how to score one of those elusive buggers), the Timbers' approach play presented as more desperate than methodical. Desperate can work, of course, but "methodical," by way of being controlled, typically works better.

As alluded to by way of the questions on Amarikwa, I missed a couple things in the Opposition Scouting Report on San Jose that I posted before the weekend. Shea Salinas didn't even start, for one; that fell to English/Jamaicaman Simon Dawkins (who was fine, if anonymous). Also, talking down Amarikwa's strike-rate suddenly feels a little like daring the gods to shit on every Portland fan in the country (SORRY! His career numbers do kinda suck, tho). For all that, though, I feel like I got the biggest part of the Big Picture right: San Jose is a team that can score at any time, and they are damn hard to beat; sub-clause, they don't give many shits about ceding possession or momentum for those two reasons. Getting back to Amarikwa, I don't think I said enough about just how immovable he can be in possession, but ol' Quincy made that point at least a half dozen times today. The point here isn't to pat myself on the back, but to double-down on my original argument: I think San Jose have a good mix/formula for the 2016 season and I think they have the depth to pull it off. Don't take this team lightly, basically, until they give you real, long-term reasons to do so.

If you want to know why San Jose won today, I'd argue that they wanted it more. Even it was just Quincy Frickin' Amarikwa who wanted it more.

That takes care of the general stuff. Time to dive into some details for the Timbers.

Players: The Best, The Worst, And the Rest in the Meaningless Middle
For me, Melano was the most dangerous Timber out there. More than anything else, I appreciated seeing him try to do a little more – e.g. to make a pair of slashing runs at the San Jose defense. San Jose handled it just fine in the end, but it unsettled them; I also like seeing Melano pushing for that next gear. On the way to breaking my own rule about having only a best and a worst, I hereby nominate Nat Borchers as the "safest" Timber. Further undermining those rules (fuck it; rulebook gone; terrible idea anyway), while I wouldn't call Diego Valeri the Timbers' worst player tonight, his long slow fade from relevance/clarity tracked the entire team's fall into that oily neutral (ht: Withnail & I; good movie) that Nagbe signaled with the frustrated gesture I referred to in the lede. By the time the game ended, Valeri's errant passes killed off more promising moves than they started, something that wouldn't have mattered if not for the entirely reasonable deference Valeri's teammates show him. I don't think any player should hang for this loss, especially not Valeri. Yeah, yeah, Taylor lost Wondolowski; one defender or another lost Wondo 110 times before (just counting the regular season,too). And, sure, Portland struggled to create clear-cut chances, and they only scored when they went a little ugly, but the 'Quakes scramble with methed-up, slap-fight fury (uh, by that I mean, all the flying limbs and bodies make for a lot of obstacles). Bottom line: there will be a next time (April 16, in fact) and Portland will either have to try something different, or play better.

How to Contain Nagbe (And I'm not Even Sure San Jose Did It)
It wasn't until the second half that I noticed San Jose players drifting to Nagbe inside Portland's defensive half, with an eye to be near him. I spotted Wondolowski either near, or on Nagbe at least three times. I don't want to say that this happened today, because I didn't catch it early enough to claim it did. What I am saying, however, is that, if I were a coach playing against the Timbers, I would take this as my first step for containing Nagbe, and, through him, Portland. Whenever the Timbers' defense regains possession of the ball in their defensive third, I'd have my forward (or the closest one of the two in a two-forward set) stick to Nagbe, even if just till the ball goes past him upfield. Nagbe's helps the Timbers the most by pushing the attack from depth; attempting to keeping the ball away from Nagbe by putting one guy near him, especially a forward in the attacking, or central third, feels a lot like a simple, low-risk way to stop Nagbe's dribbling before it starts.

I Have No Problem with Taylor and Borchers as a Centerback Pairing
And I don't care what you think about it (till further notice but, yes, absolutely forward counterpoints in the comments, or on twitter).

Right Back, Left Back, Right, Right, Right
Something else I missed in my preview: I would never have guessed that San Jose's first goal would have come through Portland's right. That's to say, I have so sold myself on Powell as lock-down defender that I was completely sure that the 'Quakes would pry into The Great Unknown that is Portland's left. The lesson here is that, teams will attack from the side of field where they feel strongest, or even up the middle if said team is up to it. And that's without reference to some random knock or injury on Portland's roster. Scouting missions go astray when they follow the wrong trail, basically, so I need to be a little smarter about how I read the markings going forward. None of the above demands crapping on Powell, either: he got pulled a little forward and inside on the cross that led to Wondolowski's goal; shit happens; the entire goal of coaching and practicing is to make sure shit happens less often.

A Corollary
I don't think that Zarek Valentin was tested often enough to nail down anything. He made one major mistake that I can recall (a wayward pass inside and towards Portland’s goal), but he was fine. From what I understand, the Timbers lack options, but I'd still like to try Valentin in central defense and Taylor out at left back. That’s mostly to see what Valentin can do from a central position. I got this from Emilio (the guy with me on the MLS Minimum Reserve All-Stars podcast), but I'm not saying he endorses it; he can tell you if he does or not. He just told me what he saw for line-up and said that could be what happens and I liked the idea. And I still do. You say risky, I say early days, people. Fuck it. Roll the dice.

Finally, Our Subs
Jack McInerney scored Portland's one goal (now, I'm getting to this?), but he also dropped deep a lot looking for the ball and, for the ten minutes he was out there, he generally did well with keeping possession and pushing the ball forward from those spots. Before moving on, I should mention that I was neither surprised, nor disappointed to see McInerney replace Dairon Asprilla. Asprilla didn't do a lot out there tonight, for one, but I'm more intrigued at seeing Portland switch to a two-forward set when chasing the game; as far as I'm concerned, the player who comes out should be the guy struggling the most. Ned Grabavoy also came on fairly late, too, and finally looked like his old, slippery self. As I'm sure all y'all remember, he slipped a nice pass into Adi, who came reasonably close to tucking it away. He also flew into a tackle at the very end. Missed the damn thing clean, too, but it was good to see him looking like part of the solution in his limited time.

OK, all for this week's game. Sure, it was disappointing, but it happened for pretty understandable reasons, the Timbers are still three points better than we usually are at this point in March (or, at worst, one point better), and there's a goddamn truckload of season left to play. Learn from it, I say, and take San Jose in April. As well as a shit-load of teams between here and there. (Or just four teams: RSL, Orlando, LA, and Dallas).

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