Monday, September 5, 2016

Downed by Dallas: Some Cheap Hope and a Remedy

I call it Plan P. You WILL remember!
I was able to believe that the Portland Timbers would find their way back into the game for quite a while. Until the 53rd minute, to put a number on it. That I felt like Portland had a chance against FC Dallas going in very likely had something to do with it; I mean, who doesn't want to see his/her hunches confirmed? And it's not like the Timbers didn't give people reason to hope: about five minutes after Dallas' opener a long ball from Liam Ridgewell found Lucas Melano over the top, who forced an error from Dallas 'keeper Chris Seitz, and one big enough to keep Dallas' defense dancing for a few full seconds. Even after Dallas raised the margin for victory to 2-0 at the very end of the first half, Melano meandered across the top of Dallas' attacking third, a move that, 1) threw off Dallas' defense and, 2) put him in position to later thunder a shot off the crossbar. It didn't go in, nor did Fanendo Adi's follow-up header. Still, think what drawing first blood in the second half could have meant to the contest. Or think what an answer to Dallas' first (soft) goal five minutes after it happened could have meant.

That paragraph above is loaded with a whole lotta what-might-have-been. Things felt decidedly over, sadly, once Walker "I Make 'O' Faces" Zimmerman blasted the ball over Jack Jewsbury's head and past Portland 'keeper Jake Gleeson for Dallas' third, final, and entirely sufficient goal in the ultimate 3-1 win (and with Steven Taylor clinging to Zimmerman's jersey like a damsel begging him not to leave). Zimmerman's goal launched the inquiry, basically, into what went wrong in Dallas this past Saturday.

I thought I had a pretty good narrative, one that I typed into my phone on the (long, almost interminable, really) train ride home. Those notes flagged details like a reminder of Portland's better days, back when the double pivot worked, germs of a theory on why Ridgewell and S. Taylor (goddammit, guys; sign fewer Taylors!) make for a lousy tandem, a belief that Dallas turned Diego Valeri invisible in the second half, and, finally, they argued that the Timbers have a "wing" problem. It all sounded very simple, basically.

Well, without claiming it's definitive, I have to admit that not a lot of what I just witnessed in the 20-minute mini-game matches my notes. I haven't read anyone else's take on the game (only dipped in and out of Twitter in the most precise way since), but I did see a headline (for this post), which judging by the headline, didn't see a lot to love in Saturday's outing. And so, to review, everything I'm typing here right now comes from notes that don't sync up with one curated version of reality, my own personal (hazy) memory of the game, and 20 minutes' worth of said curated reality. And, so, like Vizzini said, I should go back to the beginning, maybe stick with what feels concrete.

I have one note on Dallas. In spite of the well-reasoned researches I did for the preview post, research that gave really solid numerical support for Dallas' broad season-long superiority (now backed by a 16-point lead in the standings), I mistook Dallas' lack of dazzling possession-based attacking play as a sign of weakness. What I missed is exactly what killed Portland on Saturday. Some snakes kill with a quick strike of venom; they bite and then linger over their suffering prey with those cold, dead eyes (and terrifying absence of legs) that make snakes so goddamn creepy. Other snakes, though, they seize and constrict their prey, slowly suffocating the life out of them...well, typically after biting their fucking heads to hold them in place, so maybe that's not the best analogy. The point is, Dallas basically suffocates its opponents, then using Mauro Diaz to find his assassin on the end of a killer ball. It's a good system, and I was naive to dismiss it.

As much as it’s true that the game could have played out differently (see first paragraph), then, it never really seemed likely. Put another way, until Valeri scored Portland's "pride goal," each individual Timber looked just as surprised as all of us watching at home did every time a chance materialized. Valeri showed up in virtually every segment in the 20-minute mini, but he was invisible for a lot of the game, and that has plenty to do with the suffocating tactics described above; Portland’s best chances came when they played over Dallas, as opposed to through them; hence, less Valeri. More importantly, though, each goal the Timbers conceded felt essentially avoidable, but only if the person who screwed up did something different in the moment, and that feels like an unreasonable stupid ask in situations that happen at the microsecond level (e.g. Jewsbury should be taller and better in the air against Zimmerman, and Taylor should totally not let him waltz past as if Taylor had welcomed him past with a courtly, "after you"; no one planned to fail, or be short, in that scenario).

A couple questions follow from that. First, how to get the team get to a point where the players aren't forced to decide between the lesser of two evils on the microsecond level? Second, and a bigger one: how to un-fuck the Timbers' collective heads when they walk onto foreign soil (or, more simply, when they play on the road)? I’ll start with the bad news: the road game thing is a confidence thing, and only good results can fix that. And, here, I mean good results – as in wins, not gutsy draws. So, repairs for that will come by way of some combination of a weaker road opponent (why, hello, Dynamo!) (And yet, will that really be enough?), a better, more specific game-plan (as in start scouting Houston now), and...I dunno, I don't know how to knock anything loose except by way of a good phone book upside the head. Or guilt. Like heavy, heavy [insert ethnic mother stereotype here] type guilt. Works with my kids. Sometimes. Never mind. Get the phone books...

There's a lot of obsession over strength of schedule down the stretch and there's a wee silver lining in there for Portland: the Timbers' remaining road games include the Houston Dynamo, the Colorado Rapids and the Vancouver Whitecaps. Two of those teams are struggling (for the unconscious, that’s Vancouver and Houston), while the other team genuinely struggles with scoring (Colorado; then again, their home record is Dallas-esque). If Portland's going to build road-game confidence before season's end, the schedule is doing close to all the lifting it can. The home schedule isn’t all that bad, either (Real Salt Lake, Philadelphia Union and, again, Colorado), so, yeah, playoffs still feel possible. Now, it's just a matter of getting the basics – e.g. the line-up right.

And that's where the other thing comes in – i.e. the one about avoiding non-ideal situations. I count the news as a combination of bad and...less bad there. The bad news is that the Timbers have who they have for the rest of the season – and I don't see enough of the ugly ducklings turning into great alabaster swans between now and MLS Cup. As for the less-bad news, I think Portland has the personnel to be good enough in the near-term to make the post-season and, under that scenario, they should/could/might have the requisite confidence for a respectable run. As such, and this is barring call-ups, injuries, stuff I haven't taken into account (please advise), here are the meaningful choices that I believe Portland faces down the stretch.

1) Discard the Undesirables
Barring emergencies, I don't want to see Zarek Valentin suit up as a defender for the rest of the season. The same goes for Jack Barmby...anywhere, even as I see the applicable emergency situations (e.g. no wingers) arising at his "best" position (know where I would try Valentin; wing; why not?). Fortunately, Alvas Powell solves the Valentin problem by not being on international duty and breathing/walking. After watching him all season (and especially on Dallas' second goal; watch him check his shoulder when Mauro Rosales gains on his outside; he missed him), I'd argue that Valentin switches off too often to work as a defender...and notice the lack of qualifiers in front of "work" (by which I mean he simply doesn't work). Barmby also doesn't look good. Or, more bluntly, I consider a breathing, walking Jack McInerney as a better option at the wing before I call in Barmby.

2) Pick Your Taylor
By that I mean, Portland should start either Jermaine or Steven for the rest of the (regularly-scheduled, all-options) season and never, no, not ever, look back. Even if you think the best "choice" would be to sign a new central defender, that ain't happenin' this season and that's all that's left right now. Since starting The Taylors together seems like madnessuicide, that makes Ridgewell an automatic start (when healthy). Between the Taylors, then, you have a choice between two roughly competent, yet flawed players: both lack high-upside pace (but I think Jermaine is faster), and both make mistakes with reading the game (Jermaine, with ill-advised lunges; Steven by dropping off too much, or stepping to the wrong spot), but only one of them is still learning MLS. So, I'm a Jermaine man. Unless...

3) Plan O
I told @RoscoeMyrickTID that I'd give him a best imperfect line-up with the existing Timbers roster...even if I didn't slip in that "imperfect" modifier. Sadly, I'm not sure its founding premise still holds. Anyway, long story short, I've seen a couple of occasions where both S. Taylor and Ridgewell see a threat and drop-off, a combined maneuver that had disastrous results at least once (though I thought I saw it again against Dallas). My point in the moment was that any defense should function on the assumption that, once the ball gets between the defensive midfielders and the defenders, one player needs to step to the ball more or less automatically (less, because what if it’s on the opposite side of the field?). More to the point, I think you want one central defender on high alert for those break-throughs, searching for them, so that he’s ready to pounce on the break and kill it, while the other defender drops/holds the line/organizes what's in front of him.  Again, I'd rather employ Jermaine than Steven next to Ridgewell and I think Jermaine is better suited. But, again, I’d also like to see what Amobi Okugo could do there. And that’s where the rest of the plan comes together.

Basically, for the rest of the season, I’d like to see Gleeson in goal, with (from right to left) Powell, Okugo, Ridgewell, Vytas in defense. In front of them, I want Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe playing centrally, with Chara generally shading defensively and Nagbe generally shading toward the attacking side. Yeah, yeah, I know we’ve been down this road, but I’m hoping that having a defender more at home as a d-mid (Okugo) will get the Timbers a little more front-footed defensively. In a sense, then, Portland would use Chara and Okugo as a defensive midfield tandem, except when they're actually defending, leaving Nagbe free to slip his way through the middle to create.

I won't lie: that makes the attacking organization sort of an after-thought, but I think it takes care of itself to some extent – e.g. put Melano on one side, Valeri on the other and...McInerney, I guess, maybe orbiting around Adi like some sort of idiot moon looking to clean up/augment his knock-downs? (Don't mind the "idiot" thing, Jack. Just liked the combination of words.)

I’m mostly exercised about getting that defense in shape, basically, and that's all I have for this week in any case, well, apart from the rest of the MLS stuff. I didn't emphasize this above, but I feel like Melano did all right last night. If nothing else, he showed up twice in that first paragraph, the one about what might have changed the game. That tells you something.

And Valeri scored again. At least that's normal. Anyway, till the win over Real Salt Lake...


  1. Dear Conifer- I think we're in different stages of the grief process for this season. You're still denying that it's a lost cause and you're bargaining with well thought out duct taping solutions to keep the leaky boat afloat.

    As for me, I'm sighing, with my head starting to droop as low grade depression creeps into my Timbers soul. The mix of players is not gelling or has never had a chance to gel. The coaching and man-management is not lifting this group of moderately talented players to the apex of their potential. I have begun to look with hope towards the off season rather than the remaining games of this year.

    Sorry, but if something transcendent happens in the next two months, that's wonderful and I'll love it, but it's not due to some enormous potential we're all aware of that just had to be tapped.

  2. Can't blame you for being where you are, either. I figure when you're in a sinking boat, you may as well keep on rowing...with broken the middle of a of the Great ones, possibly, too. Yeah, we're fucked...

    Like you, I'm not finding solace in the roster, and, barring a pretty clear turn-around, I certainly wouldn't try to go through 2017 with the same line-up. The defense just never got to functional; Borchers going down pretty much killed it (I thought he and Jermaine weren't far off); moreover, Borchers has a full year at most in those legs. The attack can work, but it's far from methodical.

    Fortunately, Portland doesn't need a ton to stay viable and the teams around/below them are pretty much stalling, too. It's less about how good Portland is, then, than how much their moderate schedule helps them out. God willing, it'll fool them into believing they're on another run.

    So, yeah, little bleak...