Monday, October 31, 2016

MLS Conference Semifinals: An Assessment at the Break

As much as I like the playoffs better (and with how much more I’d like with the Portland Timbers still in it now officially noted), they don’t provide much space for analysis. A bunch of things happen over each 90-minute stretch (plus stoppage time), generally/interchangeably the same kinds of things that happen over 90-minute stretches (plus stoppage time) throughout the regular season, but there’s not a hell of a lot to say about coughing up three goals in 20 minutes than, “well, guess they’ll have to score four goals next Sunday.”

That’s FC Dallas’ situation, of course, after having a team-wide episode of “The Vapors” against the Seattle Sounders to start the second half. Sure, you can explore what went wrong on each of the goals (rough night for Maynor Figueroa, but the central defense wasn’t central on Seattle’s first two), but even if Dallas can fix those glitches on the return leg, it’s likely to have the same effect as pouring a glass of water on the ashes of your house after it burned down. I’m not a Dallas fan, so I’m left imagining how slowly time passed for them as Nicolas Lodeiro’s long run outside their defense reached its inevitable, agonizing climax. Personally, I had enough time for a sip of beer on either side of thinking “he’s not gonna miss that.”

That’s a huge win for Seattle, obviously, and a huge hole for Dallas. The only question left is, can Dallas make up the scorched ground? Not based on what they gave last night. Seattle held the edge all night, for one, but the blunter reality came with how much trouble Dallas had going forward. To borrow a term from’s Matt Doyle, Dallas is missing their unicorn, Mauro Diaz. Things didn’t look great when Mauro Diaz went down or anything, but his absence didn’t kill them all on its own. Now, however, when they need to find a way forward and a minimum of three times, too? No better time for magical beasts.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Portland Timbers Get Too Damn Drunk Before the Party. Also, the Party (aka, The MLS Postseason Hurrah!)

GUYS! There are better uses for this!

I’m not going to dwell too much on the specifics of the Portland Timbers 4-(WHAT?!)-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps, not least because it doesn’t matter just now. The only thought I really have is, the team needed this. The fan-base might have needed it even more. The Timbers community, as a whole, spent the second half of summer 2016 waiting on a turn-around in the team’s fortunes. Not pining for, but waiting for it – as in, expecting it, knowing it would come. I know this is how fans talk, but still, it didn’t come. Plainly.

Overwhelmed; supine; the sick, limping lamb laying down with an exceedingly hungry, possibly scientifically-bred wolf: quality of phrasing notwithstanding, they all work. No Portland Timber player really shined yesterday, the (arguably) second unquestionably decisive game of the season (the midweek hairball against Deportivo Saprissa being the only truly clear first), and when you can’t show up for games like that, well, things like missing the playoffs happen. Empty-handed seasons happen. If I had to name anyone, I’d go with Darren Mattocks and Jermaine Taylor, each role players for the team, and not stars, but each player’s game let him down in some way (long touches and the usual lack of…finesse, respectively). When the results continued souring down the stretch, the refrain from Timbers Brass spoke to what this team can do when their backs hit the wall, so I guess the question is, their backs are against the wall now, so…when’s that change kick in?

That’s the Timbers 2016 in a nutshell – i.e., the persistence of hope against all available evidence. I haven’t yet reviewed my work for this past season – that’s part of the research of The Big Post-Mortem – but I’ll pick through every (agonizing, misguided) thing I wrote this year soon enough. The dominant idea of the Timbers, though, bought into the Caleb Porter October Miracle, the idea that Ol’ Caleb gets ‘em up for the end of the season, every season. Except this year. That theory made some sense (I checked; see? see? see?), but it omitted a major reality from that myth’s defining year, 2015: Portland turned things around then because they could defend. The Timbers had at least one end of the field figured out in 2015, something that showed not just in their defensive stats, but also in road wins. (7-8-2?! Auggghhh! My heart!)

What changed between this year and last goes deeper than a change in personnel. Well, maybe. It might be closer to argue that the issues with personnel, and even inj…fuck it. Every time I try heading down that road, I get nothing. My point is, it shouldn’t have mattered as much as it did. Wait, no. Should it have mattered as much as it did? Based on Portland’s now complete 2016, and off the top of my head, post-mortem pending, I see three big tasks ahead for the Timbers:

Friday, October 21, 2016

Vancouver v. Portland: One Game and A Whole Lotta Marbles

When life gives you grapefruit, make grapefruitade.
In my brief (won’t lie) researches for this post, I noticed the’s injury page lists Diego Valeri as “OUT,” with an “undisclosed injury.” On reading that, I hit up twitter, where @KipKesgard helpfully informed me that Timbers Brass will decide Valeri’s fate/health on game day. Now, personally, I’m guessing that Brass’ll slip a little “happy, numb, numb” into Valeri’s veins, and pray his hamstring doesn’t explode during or after the match. After all, Sunday’s game, when the Portland Timbers will face the Vancouver Whitecaps in BC, will be that most exotic of creatures in Major League Soccer, a decisive game.

I think Valeri will make it, and it’s fairly important that he matters out there (so whatever drugs they use better include active ingredients that confer at least the belief in god-like strength and self-belief, e.g., whatever Tom Cruise is on). For the reasons why, I’m going to pass on @Shotboxer told me when I asked him for notes (because I didn't watch it) on the Timbers’ midweek draw-that-was-a-loss to Deportivo Saprissa (the bit I’m fixating on in bold):
“I think we played well enough given the circumstances. In the first half it felt like our passing was crisp and in form. I think part of that was Saprissa played like a team with a point lead on the road on a weird and wet pitch. It was fairly clear that we couldn’t break them down. Regardless petty good effort for a team with little depth and its two best players out.”
When you need to win, you need to score and Valeri sure seems like the guy most likely to make that happen (see: 13 goals, 7 assists; and, holy poop, how did Portland win 2015 with Valeri at those numbers?!). Aside from Fanendo Adi, not a lot of other Timbers have posted the kind of numbers to steel fans’ spines, but Adi will be busy bodying up against the ‘Caps Kendall Waston, one MLS’s bigger defenders, so, yeah, now would be a great time for Lucas Melano to come good on the investment. Or for Darlington Nagbe to channel his inner rage demons (think about all that time on the U.S. Men’s bench, darling, and let it make you powerful!) and post a hat-trick. Speaking of Waston. And Vancouver…

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

On Nagbe, and Rallying the Wounded

Klinsi v. Nagbe
A nice, very Will-Parchman-esque post went up yesterday asking whether the Portland Timbers Darlington Nagbe sabotaged his chances of playing for the U.S. Men’s National Team for so long as Jurgen Klinsmann may reign thereover by refusing an invite to the friendlies against Cuba and New Zealand. First, confession time: I totally missed this whole chain of events; honest, I thought Nagbe was not only in camp, but also on the roster; turns out he wasn’t and, factually, I still don’t care. Second, I think Nagbe made the right decision, because 1) bullshit friendlies; 2) he would have played chump minutes, assuming he played any minutes at all; 3) Nagbe’s club very much needed him more, trust me on this.

Parchman’s piece dwelt on the lose-lose nature of this dynamic – i.e., Nagbe screwed himself due to Klinsmann’s essentially vengeful (petty? let’s go with petty) nature, while Klinsmann hurt the National Team by losing a player of Nagbe’s…particular set of skills – but there was one phrase in the whole mess that, me being me, I zeroed in on:
“…it’s fair to say Klinsmann was still attempting to figure out where Nagbe fit in his ever-shifting tactical construct.”
Isn’t this universal, really? Or, to phrase this as an actual question, have the Timbers figured out where Nagbe fits, really?

In spite of playing one of his better attacking games of the season last weekend, this space has argued, and probably will always argue, that Nagbe isn’t a winger. There are multiple reasons for this (e.g. disposition, proclivity, where Nagbe makes the most difference, etc.), but, yes, I believe Nagbe’s best in the middle and I’m good sticking to that argument. Dissuade me if you wanna.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Portland Timbers Survive, Plus The 2016 Season's End Days

The Portland Timbers had just one job this past weekend: getting the result they needed. Well, two technically: the other involved prayer, meditation, counting the rosary, listening to a god-awful goddamn sermon, flagellation, fasting, e.g., the devotional act of each Timber’s choosing. The Timbers got that result (guys! it was my lucky shirt!), and in a weird one (two penalties in one game, nay, one half? Are the soccer gods making up for 2014 all at once?) with a1-0 win over the till-then Supporters'-Shield leading Colorado Rapids. The game could have ended 2-0 to Portland, 2-1 to Colorado, or even 1-1. It didn’t and good for all of us.

Resisting the urge to explain new formatting concepts…resisting…resisting…winning…let’s, uh, dig into the details of Portland’s win, shall we?

Yep, this is the one!
Nice win and all, even if about as inspiring as watching a basically average team pick up three late-season points. (Wow, literal and really close to home.) As for a big take-away, you can I was right, you can see I was wrong, you can say I don’t take MLS’s capacity for whimsy even sort of seriously enough; fuck it, I’m happy that I low-balled Portland’s chances pretty severely in this post (my only defense: severe is what I do). I’m not saying the Western Conference end-game is pretty. Think Bum Fights, only less desperate and disgusting (ugh, can't use this as an image). More on that later.

There are some grim take-aways. First, raise your hand if you think the Colorado Rapids got the better chances (in case the implication’s not clear, my hand is up). All in all, the Rapids look like a team that knows what it wants to do – or, more clearly, that defense knows what it’s about and that only leaves the offense needing to get lucky. And the defense buys them a lot of time. (Anyone else recognize that recipe for success? Something about 2015?)

That said, credit Portland’s defense (mostly; think what might have been if it was Marlon Hairston, or even Dominique Badji running onto that ball in the 5th minute instead of Caleb Calvert) for giving the Timbers enough time to find a little inspiration. The perky little wellspring who brought the required aggression when it was needed was Vytas Andriuskevicius (from Lithuania with love?). He bustled into the box twice and picked up a PK on each trip, but I do think the cosmos weighed its scales about right in the end. I don’t think Vytas was fouled on the first call, the one Fanendo Adi scored, but he was fouled on the second – e.g., the shot Adi missed. Twice (The second time certainly looked like the gods shitting all over hubris.) Vytas is growing on me. He could have big upside, provided Portland can provide cover for his forays ahead; maybe Porter can find a way to cheat with him the way Columbus Crew SC cheats with Harrison Afful (though hopefully, like, better, and without the defensive liability).

At any rate, that one goal got Portland there. As I tweeted at the end, at this time of year, it’s not what you do to earn the result, it’s just getting it. A couple other Timbers helped make that happen, or failing that, kept Colorado honest just long enough. I like Darlington Nagbe in the latter category; he looked 2015 in transition and he forced as many smart, controlled turnovers as anyone but Diego Chara (still the king), and a healthy number of them came in the attacking third; he also showed a rare interest in the attack, which was nice, even if the quality and/or advisability of the shot added up less and less as the game wore on (shut it, Bull, or the kid might stop shooting again). Diego Chara did stand a little taller for me, though, stacking up the slick little steals and the only person I’m pissed off about that soft (soft, soft) yellow is Silviu Petrescu. Chara will be missed…even if I didn’t catch that till after the game.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Portland Timbers and the Quest for Sick, Wounded Animals

That's close to the perfect visual for Portland's pursuit of the post-season.
Remember the days when Portland Timbers fans smothered their worries about an ever-flagging 2016 season under assurances that, under head coach Caleb Porter, the team always ends strong? When the results didn’t come, the received wisdom (elsewhere and here, too) shifted to the idea that Portland would at least make the playoffs – an idea that most people rightly treated with all the enthusiasm that comes with getting a “Participation Ribbon.”

Even that final, fatalistic consolatory assumption broke down, though it’s unclear as to when (each fan probably holds a personal breaking point in his/her wounded heart). And, so, here we are, facing the embarrassing possibility of a year without even a fucking participation ribbon – e.g. no playoffs. And the situation is bleak: for Portland to make the playoffs, Sporting Kansas City will have to fuck up, the Seattle Sounders will have to fuck up bad, and Real Salt Lake will have to fuck up real, real bad. And those are just the teams within reach: neither the Los Angeles Galaxy, FC Dallas, nor the Colorado Rapids can fuck up badly enough to save Portland. No paths to glory, in other words, only narrow, overgrown trails to bare competence.

Anyone searching for a draught of something real nasty should take a swig of this: the San Jose Earthquakes could leapfrog the Timbers, even if neither of them make the playoffs (not seeing it, but still). That’s not the point of this project, however. Rather than bury the Timbers, my goal here is to find The Team Likeliest To (Fuck Up, that is). So, whose gonna fuck up?

Monday, October 3, 2016

MLS Week 32 (Fuck It; Don't Care) Snapshot: All Games Good and Meaningful

This feels closer, actually. Some of us are waiting on...some stuff.
With word that Major League Soccer will sit calmly, politely and (ideally) criss-cross-applesauce over the upcoming international weekend, I just realized that I don’t have to produce a Part II to this post, to your relief and mine, I’m sure. There’s even more upside: I’ve been saving this segue to the 2016 season’s final days for at least a month now, and it’s time to dust it off. Eeeee.

First, a little framing ahead of the results for MLS Week…32? I’ve been trying to come up with better framing for what matters most in MLS since before the Portland Timbers stormed MLS Cup last season (ah, memories!). “Getting hot at the right time” always felt a little broad, largely because it is. Here’s a better phrase: how a team hits the playoffs matters, maybe more than anything else. By that measure, I’d say the happiest teams hitting this post-season include: DC United, FC Dallas, and New York Red Bulls; hell, I might even throw in New York City FC, Seattle Sounders and the New England Revolution…assuming they last two make it. Seattle feels good right now, New England too, seeing as they’re playing even ball with everyone above them.

That feels like a good place to start the framing for the particular weekend just passed, because the Eastern Conference’s trio of insurgent campaigns makes for one of the better stories right now. It’s not just DC (who look great) and New England (who definitely feels hotter than their next two opponents), but Columbus Crew SC has also crashed its way into the mix. Columbus 110% has to win their next game (at Chicago) for their next two chances to feel good (and how the hell’d they end up with three road games to end the season?). Then again, just think what they’ll be if they win all those. DC and New England, though, look like real threats to the conference leaders, so, yeah, good times in the East.

Meanwhile, back in the Western Conference…look, don’t any of these teams even want to be good? I mean besides, FC Dallas. Oh, maybe throw Colorado in there, but, damn, are they dreary. As for the rest, between Real Salt Lake and the Los Angeles Galaxy on one tier, and the Timbers and Sporting Kansas City on another, frankly shittier tier, the central question about the West remains: don’t any of you assholes want this? Well, I’ll tell you who wants it: Seattle does.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Portland Timbers Cash Out in Commerce City

Damn poppies are almost shooting sarin gas by now...
It was always going to be about which team could swipe the till. A smash ‘n’ grab. The Portland Timbers’ Diego Valeri went close a couple times in the first half, real close once, but he never broke through to score. The Colorado Rapids did, though, and on one of Portland’s first real breakdown of the game. Marlon Hairston slipped past Vytas Andriuskevicius (is that right? again, didn’t look it up!), then pinched between the sadly hesitant Scylla (uh…Ned Grababovoy) and Charybdis (Diego Chara; I’ve always been partial to Charybdis), to gallop toward goal close to the end-line; he found Sebastian LeToux wide open near the spot, which left only wrong-footing Jake Gleeson with a reverse to the back post. Then the Rapids set up (more) shop, then Portland died slowly, so slowly…1-0 loss, man. Dammit. There's nothing worse than playing a team that can defend, but can't score.

What a boring game. You're lousy hosts Colorado (No hors d'ouerves?) And yet, it was consequential. Colorado got all three points, plus a playoff berth. The Timbers got nothing. Well, I guess they got a couple things: the flutter of hope in the eye-blink midst of Valeri’s “infiltrator” slips behind enemy lines; also, the question of whether Portland’s most effective attacking option really was having Valeri feed off Fanendo Adi’s knock-downs/scraps lingers, and it should. With the surer options queuing up for the doctor's office, the line-up looked limited from the off. Playing Grabavoy and Nagbe on the wings meant Portland had no wings (which goes some way to explaining the attacking tactics, but it wasn’t a lot, and it isn’t nearly enough, not while running down an ever-narrowing stretch. And now there are just six power-ups (fine, points) left for the Timbers to put toward getting over that sweet, silky red velvet rope….and, dude, if Rihanna’s in there, I’m totally asking for a selfie. My duck face is sick.

There’s not a lot to say about this loss. To get the obvious out of the way, yes, Portland sucks on the road. I've hit Valeri's moments above (for twas all we had) and, after him, Grabavoy was the only player who threatened (feebly), and once should have threatened (where the hell was Diego Chara looking in the 56th minute?) Colorado’s goal. After that, all the things that seemed good relied on assists from Colorado to make it happen. For instance, before anyone argues that the defense looked good today, just pause and think how often the Rapids menaced the Timbers goal outside their one, shining moment. Before I lose that thought, let me just say that, after the past few games, it’s important to note that I don’t think either Liam Ridgewell or Steven Taylor were responsible for that goal. I’m not sure Alvas Powell was either, even though LeToux was probably his man. Look, shit happens fast. Besides, Powell had a great game besides.