Sunday, September 25, 2016

Timbers Tumble in Texas...And It All Made Sense. It All Made Sense

Depressingly uncomplicated, actually.
"You see results that are head scratchers."
- Caleb Porter, Timbers head coach, post-game
I expected moments like Houston’s Raul Rodriguez biting too hard on Portland’s Darren Mattocks' run, a lunge that allowed Mattocks to follow Darlington Nagbe's leading pass into the space behind (we all know how this one ended, ball off post, Diego Valeri (of course), doing his right-place/right-time thing to tap the in Portland’s goal, no, it’s equalizer!). Or maybe when Valeri later picked the ball off (again) Rodriguez and Portland almost scored. Both of those came during a solid 20-25 spell in the second half, a time that, according to the script I’d written in my head, looked right side up. It fit the standings, after all, plus...we're the better team, right?

But was the game right side up in those moments? Was this really a “head scratcher?” That’s the thrust of Porter’s comment. It tracks my preview post, too, and a handful of tweets I put out the week prior: it tracked the assumption that, because this was Portland’s best chance for road points at this point in the season, those road points were therefore available. The logic leapt from “A-to-C,” in other words, but without any more reason than Houston’s weaknesses and/or unknowns. That’s weird because the empirical evidence points to something else, something much, much simpler.

The Portland Timbers are terrible on the road. Goddamn, clarity is refreshing. The equalizer noted above, one that I took as some kind of given, only warded off a 3-1 loss that felt inevitable by the end. The question is why I (and, I'm assuming, other Timbers fans) expected something different. I mean besides wishful thinking and blind faith. The Portland Timbers suck on the road: that's not just reality, it should be the first sentence written for every Timbers away game. "Well, obviously, the Portland Timbers suck on the road." And it'll be true. Until it isn't.

Give Houston credit, by all means: Ricardo Clark and Alex Lima won the midfield, with their best combined moment coming in the pick-pocket scheme they hatched on Darlington Nagbe, which Lima almost parlayed into a profoundly humiliating goal (more later). Clark, in particular, had a lot of good moments, from wrestling Diego Chara to a near-pin and forcing a great save from Jake Gleeson late in the game; meanwhile, Lima looks like Nagbe, only with the talent/hunger balance reversed. Hmm...there's head scratcher. To stick with that theme a little (and reverse it), Mauro Manotas' game/hat-trick simply has to count as an anomaly. Anyone who said he (or she) saw that coming is a goddamn liar, because, at best, that guy was an unknown unknown. Still, I checked the box score to confirm (to the extent it can) my sense that Houston out-shot Portland by, like, a lot. (They did.) Houston won, no question, and Portland can’t argue they didn't deserve it. Now...turning to Portland.

I'll start by just hanging this question out there: has Portland had a good road game in 2016? I can't think of one, but that doesn't mean one didn't happen. Also, no looking. If you can't remember it, it's only sensible to treat The Houston Messy Bathroom Incident (e.g. the game) as the norm.

Look, Portland has problems. It's time to stop waiting for another magic September, because October's close enough that I just smelled the fart it left in the proverbial elevator (not a proverb) – aka, the road game against the Colorado Rapids. With the road thing showing every sign of being fatal, the entire upside of this squad includes: a reliable home-field advantage, a good goalkeeper (Gleeson) who at times tickles the belly of greatness, two reliable scorers (Fanendo Adi and Diego Valeri), a decent defensive set-up in midfield (Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara), a league-elite right back (Alvas Powell), and a possession piece that...possesses the ball (Nagbe). The Timbers had a bright spot (Darren Mattocks' rounding into good form), but the bright spot tweaked its hamstring and the league-elite right back dropped the "elite" in this one. I'm not saying it's gonna continue, so much as I understand that tape will be reviewed. And, hell yes, that's a lot of upside, and good for Portland! The problem is, it only goes so far.

It's useful to stick with Powell because that gets at just how thin the Timbers' margin is. From what I gather (I don't read news), Lucas Melano has a busted ding-ding (or a busted "general environs of his ding-ding"). Mattocks going down, assuming it happens, drops Portland to Plan C – aka, The Barmby Protocol – and, in spite of the things I sometimes say about, say, Amobi Okugo, I know that the coaching staff watches these players every day and that they stick with one player, or combination of players for a reason, and, therefore, I should not count on Barmby revealing himself to be The Embodiment of the Best Six Months of Jorge Villafana's Entire Goddamn Life anytime soon. Or, per the short form, Jack Barmby is Plan C for a reason.

This whole "Plan C" thing gets at something else, too, specifically the problem with the Timbers' Plan A in defense – e.g. Taylor and Ridgewell. To start nowhere in particular, Taylor, like Portland's road form, is goddamn terrible. Maybe he's just terrible right now (doubt it), or maybe he'll always be terrible: in the here and now, that's irrelevant because, for now, he's just terrible. He’s not the cause of Portland’s road form, but, whether he’s backing, backing, backing toward Portland's goal during Houston's second goal, or lumbering forward too late to get Manotas offside for Houston's third (which puts him even further behind, plus slow, when time comes to catch up), Taylor played a big role in yesterday's loss. That wasn't even his worst moment: that came when Taylor's body simply seized up (or mimed the experience) when he saw Lima dribbling in a straight line a little to his right...which happened to be an open channel toward goal (call back to the "profoundly humiliating moment" above). Even mediocre defenders have the wherewithal to foul in that situation, but what Taylor did matches his body of work in a Timbers uniform – something close to nothing (but different than the day before). And he's a starting central defender for the Portland Timbers. Wait, it gets better.

The specific circumstances of yesterday's goals also put Taylor's partner in crime, Ridgewell, under the microscope. Questions came out of the examination, starting with whether he was too slow to recognize (and, physically, just too slow to address) the dangerous rebound that lead to the Dynamo's penalty kick/first goal? Really want your brain to melt? Watch Ridgewell's head throughout the sequence that lead to that breakdown (and ask yourself if he could see Andrew Wenger's run behind him), and also watch it on Houston's second (link above; "backing, backing, backing"). Did you see his head turn at all during either sequence? I've never paid attention to this, but, often does this happen!? I'm a huge, huge head-on-a-swivel guy because, as a defender, what you don't know absolutely will hurt you. And, by translation, kill your team. And he's a starting central defender for the Portland Timbers.

My point is, Plan A looks pretty shitty. And I know this isn't simple as slotting in Okugo and high-fiving a succession of imaginary fans and admirers for that brilliant move. I don’t watch Timbers 2, well, at all, but @RoscoeMyrickTID relayed to me that Okugo’s "killing" the wrong side of things with the second team (e.g. T2's defense), a detail that, if taken seriously (and, yes, taken seriously) makes Okugo look like less of an option than a longshot. Forwarding Okugo as a replacement could be the practical equivalent of writing the word "Solution" onto the starting sheet and calling it a day. It could actually be worse than that. And yet, bottom line, Okugo (or anyone else) can only work out if he actually works out. A kicker follows from that: how can Okugo (or anyone else) work out, until he's given the chance? Just sayin', if Plan A sucks that bad...something's gotta give, even if it's not what you pull off a limited menu.

To pull all the above together, I expected better from the Timbers. The real question is why? Their actual history shows that they suck on the road. The actual history shows that the defense is vulnerable, most notably in the form of two slow (bad), reactive (worse) center backs. The Timbers’ home form, plus reliable production from Valeri and Adi gives Portland enough flotation to tread at the red velvet rope. So, we’ll make the playoffs. Probably. And neat. That’s like passing a class in high school with a “F.” It’s just someone letting you through, but what's it matter if you haven't learned anything and you still can't graduate college. From what I hear, that's not a whole lotta upside about just getting in.


  1. On a totally self referential note- Away games watched on the tv this season have been an exercise in masochism. There's been no joy in them and I knew that from early summer on I would spend each two hour session suffering and frustrated. Yet I sit there, sullenly drinking and muttering, even through last night's dumpster fire.

    I think that this team has mentally packed it in for the season. Yes, the Portland crowd will get their blood pumping in spite of themselves, but on the road, where mental toughness and focus is required we see the real quality of this bunch.

    I know the damned salary cap makes us slough off good players with proven winning attitudes (Villafana, Johnson, Wallace). But we're bringing in, or keeping on uninspired journeymen who never seem to exceed our expectations. There've been no break out players this year except Gleeson and Vytas.

    And let me say the unsayable. Perhaps Coach Porter has given us all he has to offer. Perhaps he won't improve on his own current repertoire and will give us variations on this season's tactics and man-management ideas into the indefinite future. Coaches do get stale; the players tune them out after a while. That's why most of them move on after a few years. Just sayin'.

  2. Thanks, sir, for providing the bit about the home crowd getting their blood up. I had a line a really liked queued up (“The Timbers only seem able to win when just over 20,000 people are around to tell them that it’s OK.”), but I never circled back to it.

    And sharing the unthinkable is always welcome. I’m still trying to build an airtight case for a midfield remodel, one that starts by taking out a key piece. Sure, there’s a risk that the whole thing collapses a la Jenga, but the alternate feels like a slow drift to the middle until certain key players age out of viability.

    Yay, comments!