Friday, September 30, 2016

MLS Snapshot: Week 31 Begins and Another in a Long Series of Posts Explaining How I Make Peace with the Fact That I'd Totally Let Nagbe Leave

 He knows what time it is.
[NOTE: Linking policy:  I’m going to limit my linking in these things to the recaps to each of the games;’s recaps are pretty thorough, easy to navigate, so if I you muck around in those things, you'll find most of what you need.]

Look into my eyes…Major League Soccer Week 30 (31? It was 30, right? Shit! Breaking the spell!) Look into my eyes….MLS Week 30 never happened, MLS Week 30 never happened, MLS Week 30 never…hap….zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz………

Wow! Time to dive back into the hot MLS action after that short break for [Re-Education.] [Cheery picture of Dear Leader.] [Re-Education.]. Hi, friends!! MLS Week 31 kicked off early, just the way we like it!! There were just four games to clock Wednesday night. I’ll pick through the highlights in the next couple paragraphs, but there’s only one real reason this post’s going up at all: something triggered my Darlington Nagbe obsession. I tucked that at the end, everything in its time, and so on.

OK, proceeding now, per the proper procedures, here are some things you should know from this week’s games! And, apologies, I don’t mean to dissent, but, in the interest of the party, I feel compelled to point out that, every so often, MLS Live repeats segments. Actually, it’s once every game. And yet, I am ever so thankful for everything! Long live Dear Leader Garber!!! (Ugh, can’t keep that bit up. Sorry.)

Wednesday night was all about the Eastern Conference, what with six Eastern teams vying across four games. The games all mattered, though how much depended quite a bit on where one lives. Put another way, in the normal course of events, a guy couldn’t give a shit about the Chicago Fire visiting the Seattle Sounders. Lord knows the teams didn’t do much to keep neutral tuned in. Even the goddamn goal was predictable. And yet, here we are Portland Timbers fans, checking the rearview. Where a most unwelcome sight looms into view.

League-wide, the two all-Eastern games probably mattered most on Wednesday: DC United’s 3-0 win over an (allegedly) “resurgent” Columbus Crew SC, and Orlando City SC’s stiff (yet perhaps promising) rot-stopping,goal-less stalemate against Toronto FC. Between the two, I DC’s win felt bigger, due mainly to ongoing evidence that a little style has arrived in the nation’s capital (and, personally, it’s nice that this site’s talk about this being the best DC team in a few years hasn’t yet fallen flat). Lamar Neagle broke Columbus’ back when they, inevitably, pushed forward to save the game and their season, but it took only Lloyd Sam’s goal to turn the game. It was one of those simple masterpieces built from the little things – e.g., just one player (Patrick Mullins; this is why people love him) opening space for the other guy (Sam) by taking just a few steps. DC also pulled together a nifty street-ball-esque moment in the 61st, which suggests there’s more where that came from, and ignore that shit at yer peril. That’s also Columbus’ season well-fucked. Probably…next.

Orlando definitely kneed their chances in the groin and, again (for me), when Brek Shea lost a challenge, lost his shit, and then proceeded to earn a yellow for whining; that’s after a pair of former/current teammates (Drew Moor and Michael Bradley) tried to calm him down. Orlando is, hands down, the most immature team in MLS. That’s their burden. For all that, Orlando rolled into Toronto with something close to their best formation. Jonathan Osorio (who I really like) and Steve Morrow probably posed the biggest threat for Toronto, with honorable mention going to Jozy Altidore (moments) and Marky Delgado. Still, that’s points and a Supporters Shield charge squandered for the Canadians.

Returning to the Sounders’ playoff-vaulting 1-0 win over Chicago, the only surprise came with (as @iamseanspencer pointed out) why the hell Chad Marshall – e.g. the guy who ties DC’s Steve Birnbaum as the most targeted player on corners in MLS – was left that open on a corner. Anyway, that happened, they picked up three, tied the Timbers in the standings and so on, but the real point of interest that came out of going (or attempting to go) the full 90 on this one came with a HOLY SHIT EPIPHANY ABOUT THE PORTLAND TIMBERS! (This happens quite a bit, actually, because, when I watch other teams, at least half of what I’m doing is trying to solve a problem for Portland, #loyal). Did anything else happen in this game? Do I care? No? OK, moving on…all I’m gonna say is, Chicago will be better in 2017. I think they’re building a good foundation. Seriously.

OK, one more game to go before I get to that revelation for Portland. No, not yet. There’s another…look, just eat your vegetables. I said eat your fucking vegetables!

Finally, the Montreal Impact’s 3-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes feels simultaneously like aberration (Montreal) and confirmation (San Jose). The way one feeds the other tells a slightly different story than the tale of the game: look, for what it’s worth, I thought San Jose looked the more aggressive team – Darwin Ceren, especially, looks like he brought everything Orlando lost (except the indiscipline) with him to San Jose – and I think they should have won. They lost, though, and badly, because mistakes are mistakes and they count and matter. Bottom line: Montreal scored far too easily, and on three too many occasions. The weird thing is that this win, coming when it did, might have saved Montreal’s season. Five points above the New England Revolution with just nine points on offer means something, a lot probably. Just not so much after.

NOW, here’s the thing that came to me about the Timbers as I watched Seattle’s dreary, depressing, fuck-them-for-playing-it win over Chicago. Remember how last year, I talked about dumping Darlington Nagbe? Yeah, that horse just wandered back to the ranch, so I’m gonna ride it. And it’s Matt Polster’s fault, so send your hate-mail to him. Pretty sure he’s on twitter and really cool about DMs from randos.

People sometimes talk about building a team around a player. It’s usually an attacking player, and I think the Timbers have built around a couple guys – e.g. Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi, especially. I think there was a goal/assumption that Lucas Melano would form another piece on the attacking side...the defensive side’s sliding, meanwhile, hence the season. I think Nagbe comes into the frame, but only obliquely, and that’s the detail that makes him so confounding.

The shorthand for Nagbe reads something like this: no one has to be convinced of Nagbe’s talent, but everyone has to be convinced of his desire. This usually comes up in the context of the attack, the idea that it needs a little more Darling, but, as 2016 grinds on, I’m coming around to the idea that it’s bigger. I’ve argued that Nagbe should lean his talents to one side of the field or the other (i.e., raise either his attacking or defensive game) a couple times at least, but what I haven’t done is explain why that matters. Timbers fans all know his upside – e.g., great at maintaining possession, completes a lot of passes, there’s probably key passes knocking around as well (where does one find those?) – but the real question turns on the meaning/impact of that upside. Moreover, the conversation needs to focus on BOTH sides of the ball.

The idea that Nagbe doesn’t get into the attack enough has probably achieved “truism” status, but what about the other side? Is he a strong enough defensive piece to matter enough on that side? Any answer but “yes” points to the real dilemma, specifically that the Timbers have, in effect, a player who kinda, sorta takes away at both ends of the field. This would be OK if Nagbe’s liability as a defender didn’t loom so large in the larger set-up. Playing Nagbe as a winger wouldn’t hurt if Nagbe played as a winger. He doesn’t. Instead, Nagbe drops deep, usually into the central right channel, where he gets the ball and drives it forward. In the final analysis, then, Portland has something like four central midfielders: Diego Chara, Jack Jewsbury, Diego Valeri, and Nagbe. Maybe you can take Valeri out given how high he pushes up, but that’s still three central midfielder, practically speaking, and a problem with redundancy.

Eh, “redundancy” isn’t quite it. It’s more a question of fit, i.e., how each player complements the players around him. That’s how Polster comes in…and takes the conversation somewhere else. When I watched him play, I thought of what Portland’s midfield would look like with Polster playing next to Nagbe. The next thought was, necessarily, which player Polster would replace. When I started ticking off names, I only got as far as Diego Chara…and then, and then. That’s when a thought hit me: why not ask what it would look like if Polster played next to Chara. Why does Nagbe need to stay in there at all, after all we could move him to the wing, but he’s already on the wing – theoretically – and he’s not all that interested, so, maybe the Timbers gets Nagbe back next to Chara, goes out gets a new winger, I mean, they have to anyway, but we already know that the Chara/Nagbe pairing stopped working early this season, so…

And that’s how it ended. Well, sort of: I actually got to a point where I was drawing little formations in my head based on building the team around Chara and, look, I’m not saying it didn’t get a little feverish, so, I adjusted my tin-foil beanie, and decided that I’d just stick with the idea that the team needs a winger, or some form of attacking threat, more than it needs another central midfielder who prefers playing behind the ball. (And it needs better, younger central defenders, or at least one of them, very, very badly.)

In the end, what I’m getting at is the question of roles, not as opposed to talent, but of players having talents that fits a role. It’s possible that my greatest frustrations with Nagbe comes down to the way his talent renders him a wee bit sacrosanct. It’s as if Timbers fans are so dazzled by what Nagbe can do out there, or even the next-level way that he does it, that they don’t spend enough time thinking about what he actually does. Put another way, how many teams honestly struggle with getting the ball from one end of the field to the other. Most of them do it well enough, even if they have to do it less elegantly, that I have to wonder whether the Timbers aren’t doing the soccer equivalent of driving for groceries in a Jaguar, when all they really need is Chrysler. Anyway, just a thought. Or several of them. Uh, don’t shoot?

Finally, because DC happened to be on the same night, I even got to concocting trades that sent Nagbe to DC United in exchange for Rob Vincent and Taylor Kemp (Jesus, they'd be good). No offense to Chicago, or Michael Harrington, but I’d take Polster, Harrington, not so much…

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