Monday, August 1, 2016

The Portland Timbers And Their Eternal Transition. And Sporting KC.

AAUGGH! Connor Hallisey!
[Each week I (try to) watch three full, 90-minute games. And I write ‘em up. Part 2 of 3, for Major League Soccer’s Week 21.]

Why This Game? Because I watch the Portland Timbers every time they play. Sporting Kansas City just sort of tagged along...

And the reports that feature the Timbers games will wind up giving somewhat short shrift to their opposition, but I will try to give those teams at least some of their due.

On the Result
Yeah, yeah, they almost just scored. I still think that watching Sporting KC attack is like watching a toddler paint.”
- Conifers & Citrus Official Twitter feed during the game

“what does that say about the Timbers then!?”
- ik3, some hours after the game.
Just about everything you read below weaves in, out and between of the above exchange. I honestly don’t think that much of SKC, a strappingly, stupidly stoned-on-athletics team that only hits the broad side of the barn because they run headlong and relentlessly into the people standing between them and the barn. They’re unsubtle, inaccurate and, to my mind, mostly containable...and yet, there but for the grace of Jake Gleeson, the Timbers barely contained them. Portland came very close to forcing a draw at the end – twice, too – but they owed that opportunity to Jake Gleeson, the man who parried a ten-minute shelling with everything up to and including an artless flail-slap. The game ended at 1-0 to Sporting, and it's har...rather, it's pointless to argue with that.

Even if they got an assist or two from Good Fortune – more on this in the section below on SKC –the Timbers didn’t cough up naked chances all day or anything, and the team played all right in a broad sense. I don’t mind the goal that won it: Amobi Okugo was in reasonably good position, Jacob Peterson just got the better read on the ball, and hence contact, hence goal. And Portland’s late chances were good; Jack McInerney’s attempt would have been the more satisfying finish (is that citrus?), while Fanendo Adi’s felt like the surer, if graceless, chance (no easy to find video; sad!). Lucas Melano’s brain-freeze returned, so the Timbers lost a couple promising chances, but, all in all, the team created chances and they defended all right...and I’m pleased that the Timbers held their ground against one of MLS’s more brutish teams. And there it is, an unremarkable and acceptable result in every sense except the missing points and timing. The Timbers have only eleven games left to get everything rolling on the right track (or 15 games if you view the Timbers’ upcoming CONCACAF Champions’ League games as chances at figuring their shit out as opposed to a program designed to fatigue your team’s players). That puts a pretty simple question in play: how close is Portland to getting everything rolling on the right track? I’ll get to it...first, let’s look at SKC.

On Sporting KC
I hinted at “assist(s) from Good Fortune” above and that took the form of Sporting’s best chances falling to Connor Hallisey. Who’s that? Well, he shares a description with a lot of players in MLS, in that he’s a sort of reverse answer to the old question of why the U.S. hasn’t produced its Lionel Messi - i.e., because we mostly produce Connor Halliseys, it’s just what the sausage looks like when it comes out and, wow, that’s a funny phrase/thought when you think about it...

I read somewhere that Peter Vermes really likes Jacob Peterson as a player. Along with what the author of that thought probably concluded (this guy, probably; and he’ll almost always be the reference for anything I’ve read till I can make The Kickoff part of my life and, say, does anyone have a gun they can put to my head, because I’m having trouble with focus), that says plenty about SKC. It’s not an elegant bunch to start with and, with Peter Vermes in charge, technical ability isn’t likely to trump the giving of copious effort any time soon. That’s the environment where Hallisey is developing; it’s possible he never really had the technical ability, but it’s also unlikely that he’ll be encouraged to develop them in Kansas City, at least so long as Vermes is in charge. As a result, you wind up with a player who can get himself in good position, but who is less likely to have the ability to take advantage of the opportunity.

Hmm...there’s a certain irony in that last statement, seeing as I implied something similar about Melano above (see: Brain-Freeze). The distinction between them, at least in my mind, sort of continues the thought that started the first section: like any other team, SKC has a toolkit. Unlike most teams, however, SKC’s toolkit contains mostly hammers. They might do better or worse than other teams on any given day – and, this year, they’ve obviously done it more than Portland – but I think the team’s approach, and the personnel they choose to take it, limits them.

On Portland Timbers
For the Timbers’ side of things, I’m going to look to the future. I ran a poll today to get a broad sense of what the sub-set of Timbers fans I talk to expect from the pending arrival of Steven Taylor – not least because I don’t watch the EPL (busy with this shit) and I don’t know a thing about Taylor (well, this was passed on and, helpful). Personally, I accept the necessity of Taylor’s arrival – i.e., the Timbers absolutely running out of bodies (Zarek? You there, buddy? Zarek?) – but the prospect of more transition in the defense, more disruption, leaves me a little queasy and fatigued. Put another way, when Nat Borchers went down, the last real pillar of stability in the defense went down with him. That might seem like a silly thing to sweat given Portland’s defensive record, but, pending word on Zarek Valentin’s situation, the status/speed of Liam Ridgewell’s recovery, the Timbers could very well roll into the regular season’s Days o’ Reckoning on the back of a near-total transition. While that can be good…well, thank god for Jake Gleeson; in my prayers, he comes right after mommy and daddy, and, at this point, just before Alvas Powell.

As for the other side of the ball, I second Slide Rule Pass’ concern about the attack (yep, actually had time to read other stuff before posting for once!), while also thinking it needs some context*. Portland’s scoring has dried up over the past six games, but the opposition explains that to some extent: two of those games came against the best defenses in MLS, the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Colorado Rapids; SKC tilts pretty far toward the better side of average, too, so maybe failing to score against them on the road ain’t the crime it appears to be. In the grand scheme of those results, I’m most disappointed by the Montreal draw, at least from an attacking perspective, because that came at home and Montreal – which separates it from another draw against the New York Red Bulls, which came on the road (and their defense has gotten much, much better since the beginning of their season).

All the same, notice I used the verb “explains,” as opposed to “excuses.”

Sports are about winning titles and I’m pretty sure Portland wants to win another title (tho the Supporters’ Shield is ever so slightly out of reach this season), but that obliges them, and any team aspiring thereto, to figure out how to score against its league’s better defensive clubs. Slide Rule Pass floated some ideas on how to do this (yeah, yeah, the link could have gone higher, but this is their post’s sharpest question), and I encourage people to read/ponder those, but, the longer the season goes on, the harder this business of waiting for Melano to actually turn the corner becomes. It’s nothing like time to end the experiment, but...well, why not turn this into a pointed question:

What is the thing that Lucas Melano does well?

Put it this way: if a firm answer to that question doesn’t present itself by this time next year, that has to prompt a reckoning. The Timbers might even have to start seriously considering writing Melano down as a loss. I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that, for both team and player, and there’s no question that Melano came to Portland as a project. Still...

All in all, neither the loss to SKC nor the broader situation constitutes cause for actual alarm; that's just a game a team will drop in the regular course of a season. It's what comes next that matters - specifically, this weekend, because anything less than three points in this one? Yeah, I'll start getting nervous. More to the point, I hope/believe adjustments are possible – e.g. what if Taylor (the new guy) is so super-fabulous that he can turn, say, Okugo into a defender/midfielder who floats between those roles, playing in the back when the team is compact, but releasing forward with the team, and what if both factors afforded Diego Chara the freedom to push this box in which he tos-and-fros to get pushed a little higher up the field, and I like this because defensive solidity is the building block for attacking freedom and the fewer players you need to stay home equals more players to fling at the enemy fortress, etc.

I’m dreaming there, or at least I’m pretty sure I am. Those also read like dreams for another day. Bottom line, though, I see the shouts of optimism on twitter, I see people drawing a through line between last year’s defeat by SKC and this most recent loss, and I just can’t get there. The difference between last year and this is that Portland is still bringing in parts this time around. So, unless New Taylor is like some sort of god (Old Taylor is a decent shape-shifter at least), and unless Okugo can provide a heretofore missing link, I don’t see thing solidifying enough at the back to provide the requisite freedom going forward...

...then again, if Melano gets sufficiently woke, the Timbers might be able to get good on the cheap. By which I mean, that’s the only shift I can see that would boost Portland’s fate in the near-term. And near-term is all we got, peeps. I think the team will make the playoffs, but it's hard to see this group going all that far when they get there. Transition years just aren't easy and, whatever's causing it, the Timbers are definitely living one.

* Prior unintentionally arrogant phrasing now fixed!

No comments:

Post a Comment