Sunday, August 7, 2016

Timbers Top SKC: Holding Together the If/Then Equations

Hold on...making my point when this cuts through a tomato cleanly.
Thoughts going in: big game for the Portland Timbers, and with a stubborn, and stubbornly ugly opponent between them and all three points.

What Happened
Until Diego Valeri slammed home his one-touch rising rocket past Alec Kann, this game had goal-less, go-home-frustrated afternoon written all over it. It looked all but certain, in fact, around the 30th and 35th minute: when the Timbers’ Diego Chara got sent off for a stupid piece of frustration stupidly early in the game (12th minute, Diego; how did you get that pissy in that little time?), that left Sporting KC 78 minutes to do the laboring lover thing – e.g. 78 minutes of fairly useless groping that impresses no one. And pleases no one.

The Hell of it was that Portland really needed those three points. With that thought merely in play, season-turning moments attached to Chara’s red card. As much as Portland looked like they could stop KC from scoring all day long that still left them needing to score against a defensively aggressive team and without an equal number of options for pushing the attack. Unless I’m not totally clear on Major League Soccer’s tie-breaking procedures and/or codicils, and those codicils’ various sub-codicils, the resulting (implied) draw would have left the Timbers even on points with the Vancouver Whitecaps, but still on the wrong side of the lush, red velvet rope that, in MLS, as with everywhere else in the world, separates member of polite society from the relatives that members of polite society never mention and who they would just as soon forget.

As it happened, KC’s Soni Mustivar went in dumb ‘n’ reckless against Valeri’s (I think) right leg, a moment that went from yellow to red – and correctly. The one thing I can’t figure out: was it just a few words and a stern look from Adi that made that happen? I swear Baldomero Toledo went from front pocket to back in the split second that Adi glowered at, what does Adi have on him? Regardless, I found both red cards perfectly justifiable. More to the point, karma/shit balanced out in the end, so...we’re good, right?

Portland being back on level terms didn’t translate to much right away. Nearly 30 minutes would pass between that and Valeri slamming home the goal that turned out to be winner. The Timbers would score two more goals before the afternoon ended – one of them (the last one) almost pitiable – and they won it, 3-0. It was just desserts for a better performance, even if the margin was a bit on the puffy side. I’ll have more on the Timbers second goal later – because I have this ax, see, and there’s this sharpening stone I haven’t worked on in a while – but, first, I want to talk Sporting Kansas City.

On Sporting Kansas City
If you’re reading this, I’ll start with a question: have you seen The Lego Movie? If so, think of Sporting KC as that society – e.g. the one based on following directions. SKC attacks in very general, almost automatic ways. They actually have two favorite forms of crossing: one (slightly higher percentage) involves pushing the ball around the fullback (sorta getting in behind) and whipping in a grass-cutting cross, typically a blind one, and hoping a runner finds it/kept up with the play (usually, though…no). The second involves pushing the ball wide at the top of the attacking third and looking for the one-to-three players in the box, each of whom is making weird eye/hand gestures to communicate where they’d like the fullback to play the ball. Most often, or at least today, the latter play ended with KC attempting to reset and look for something else (which is what they should do). The end-result, though, ain’t pretty: just a bunch of guys lingering, some at/around the top of the 18, the rest of them out wide at the top of the attacking third, all of them passing the ball on to the next open man in the hopes that he’ll know what to do with it.

SKC doesn’t do either all the time, or exclusively - they had some genuinely threatening moments this afternoon (see: 56th minute, 78th), even somewhat inspired moments (see, 82nd, and Peterson?) – but, for the most part, this team’s attack starts with simplistic tactics – e.g. crosses into a congested penalty area – only to graduate to approaches that can be sound, but only when the player passing the ball has the talent/presence of mind/time (last one perhaps most crucial) to focus on where supporting players are as opposed to playing it to where he thinks where they should be - aka, the basic premise of getting one's "head up." (OK, yes, I probably just made a bunch of shit up, especially the stuff about agency and thought process. I’m probably wrong about the inputs, in other words – e.g. why KC’s players do what they do – but I think I’m pretty sound on the output – e.g., KC doesn’t have a lot of ideas about how to break down opposing defenses, so they lean on a couple classics. Or basics.)

I don’t think much of Sporting KC. Like Portland, I’m guessing they’ll make the playoffs. And, like Portland, I’m guessing that has a thing or two to do with the Houston Dynamo, the Seattle Sounders and the Whitecaps. And maybe the San Jose least two of those teams will have to be watched. I’m just not sure which one(s) yet.

On the Portland Timbers
First, am I happy with this win? Yes! Hell, yes, under the circumstances. The Timbers needed the win and they got the win, so what the Christmas Fuck is not to like?

Here’s what the Christmas Fuck...I kid. I just fell in love with that phrase...

Here’s what I liked about the Timbers today: they did well to get players – Fanendo Adi chief among them – all over the attacking third (see, on the left for the near-PK in the first half; see, going wide right to play in Jack McInerney at the 50th; see, right (again)). On a broader level, though, consider the multiplicity of ways Portland’s goals went in and you have the key distinction between Portland and KC in the attack, at least as I see it. I’d also argue that there’s a beneficial truism in there, too, from Portland’s point of view. Sometimes, it takes the Timbers attack a while to get going. While this can be a bad thing – see, going down early sucks, and equals more work, and UGGGGH! – it suggests that beneficial truism: i.e., that Portland has the capacity to figure out its opponents. To put that another way, a team that can adapt, that can shift its method of attack based on in-game events and inputs, is harder to defend/beat than a team that works a system. Or, to choke on my own bias, a team like Sporting KC.

I’ll close this out by going a bit more granular. Talking points time...

Diego, Our Lord and Savior
How many times has Valeri stepped up to save the Timbers this season? Surely it’s not each of the 10 and 2 1/2 times that show in his stats (e.g. 10 goals at 1-time per goal, and 5 assists and 1/2-time per), but it’s often enough to make sense of this idea: yeah, Valeri is carrying Portland as far as they’ve come this season, albeit with a big assist from Adi. He (they) haven’t carried us all that far, really, and that’s sort of the story of the season so far. More is needed in the attack. Well, that and the defense…touching on both those no particular order...

What Taylor Said About Darling
In the broadcast, right after Darlington Nagbe set up Jack Jewsbury for Portland’s second goal, ESPN’s Taylor Twellman went on a praise/rant on Nagbe. Nagbe should have very real statistics that give tangible measure to his talent, he said, “10 goals and 10 assists, year in and year out.” My response: God. Damn. Right. The way Nagbe turned himself in circles near the top of the 6 not to get a shot on goal, but to find an assist, highlights his compulsion to be the supporting player, rather than the star. That only becomes the right decision because Jewsbury scored the goal; take that away that particular money-shot and you’ve got another instance of Nagbe squandering a great opening (one set up by Ned Grabavoy, but the best of it, all Nagbe’s doing) by refusing to shoot. A clearer example came earlier in the game, when Nagbe, on a rush toward SKC's goal with Fanendo Adi in front of him, passed the ball to Adi and then held up his run, leaving Adi to battle two defenders with no threat beside him.

If I’m being honest, I’m to the point (or back to the point) where Nagbe’s neurosis – yeah, went there – forces a choice in his development trajectory. Well...I guess that’s overboard, but hear me out. When it comes to said development, I’d like to see Nagbe lean decisively to one side of the field or the other: either he works on the tackling/reading component of a defensive midfielder’s game, or he kinds the kill-switch that makes him want to score every time he so much as fucking sees a goal (whether the real thing, a photograph, a drawing, or even something that only vaguely resembles): at this point, I want to see him go all in. And seeing as I think Nagbe’s better suited to something that fits him dispositionally – e.g. his clear preference for being part of the solution rather than all of it – I’d rather see him work the d-mid side.

OK, now, let the record show that I thought our attack was good. Has been all season, really.

Defense: A Nest of Problems and Green Shoots
First, fuck me, is Alvas Powell injured? Was this actually the first game in 2016 that ended with a back four that did not include one single defender from the 2015 MLS-Cup-winning team? I was nervous the second I saw that cleat off Powell’s...foot (can’t remember which one), because Powell had a nice, complete game today. To turn, now, to happy thoughts: Taylor Peay stepped on for Powell and, at least on the defensive side of the ball, I feel like Peay is sound. That’s another way of saying that Portland’s depth worked. And that’s good. It is. I really do think it’s simple as that.

As for the rest – and this will be familiar – I can’t really hype Portland’s defense against a team that I honestly believe attacks like very enthusiastic, but totally blind people. All the same, Portland’s defense held up/posted a clean sheet against an offense I don’t rate, and that’s a good thing. That’s what you want, so, yay! A couple slips happened – Peterson’s slick little gambol into the area being the worst of them – but slips happen. Vytas Andriuskevicius (looked it up!) looks comfortable out there and seems up to staying connected; Jermaine Taylor looked totally switched-on every time I saw him out there, willing and able to snuff out most of what KC threw at him. So, all good on all that, too. There’s just one little thing to consider.

At one point in the second half – I can’t find it, not even in the condensed game, which means I can’t find it for now – Amobi Okugo received the ball, inside the 18 and with nothing behind him but Jake Gleeson and the goal. The pressure came right away and Okugo stepped around it with all the skill and poise you’d expect from a midfielder; he played it out and things were better than good, crisis averted, etc., because there was no crisis. When I get my hopes up about Okugo – or any player present, prospective, or entirely theoretical – what I’m getting excited about is a player who can both defend, and play out of the back under pressure, and/or just straight-up play soccer from out of the back. If Portland can nail this – if Okugo, or even one of the new guys – lets this happen, the Timbers can get one more player into the attack...

...and that’s always my goal when I think about this stuff: how to get one more player upfield without leaving the backline open to pillage.

OK, that’s it for tonight. A bunch of other stuff goes up tomorrow. Broadly, though, the more I think about the games and what we, as fans, expect to have happen, the more I lean into “if-then” thinking. For instance, today’s game read as, “if Portland scores first, then they’ll probably pick up all three points.” That might read as clich├ęd thinking on the most basic level,  but it contains a pretty plausible point about today’s match-up, or any other match-up. Unexpected goals have this way of making expectations fly out the window...and that’s where I’ll leave it, a case for teams to manage expectations to the best of their ability. The Timbers did that today and that’s why they’re back in the playoff frame. Where they should be. And they'll stay there so long as they can keep that whole "if/then" thing working in their favor.


  1. Very interesting and original insight

  2. Thanks! And thanks for not pointing out that I didn’t get all of Vytas’ first name in there! Even after looking it up!