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?

Let’s start with a team that has already fucked up – aka, your Portland Timbers. After 32 games played, and with two to go, Portland sits on 41 points, two points behind SKC and three behind Seattle. As everyone knows (probably), Portland plays Colorado at home this coming Sunday and closes out the season on the road against Vancouver. When it comes to figuring how that’ll pan out, most stats are neither good nor entirely relevant – i.e., a negative goal differential doesn’t help, it just isolates one problem (shitty defense) – because the only relevant stat is Portland’s dismal, defining 0-10-6 away record. They might win at home, and with eye-catching reliability, but that home/road pattern has held across the past 10 games (it was last broken at home against LA on July 23, and in the  wrong way). As such, I view it as real. But what’s it mean?

Here, I’ll resist the temptation to get too clever – e.g. to argue that, say, Portland will draw at home to Colorado, but win on the road against the ‘Caps (so watch it happen, goddammit). No, the home/road thing seems endemic enough to count on, so let’s start from there. Whichever way it breaks, the Colorado game is likely to be close; the two games this season against Colorado so far have featured just one goal (scored by Colorado, last meeting), and not a lot of teams have run up the score against them, so, a 1-0 win seems like a good case, a goal-less draw, among the worst cases (another 1-0 loss, and I’m out). That said, failing to grab all three points would be catastrophic from a mental standpoint – e.g. leaving the team needing a road win, the one thing they haven’t done all year, on the final day of the season – so, here’s to hoping for a focused Portland team. If the other Western Conference games break a certain way over the next…five days, Portland could actually find themselves out of the playoffs before the season’s final weekend. Of which, fun.

Assuming they get there, then, the ‘Caps are vulnerable, no question, and make for as decent a road sacrifice as a team could want. Reports of a Renaissance for their attack don’t really add up: sure, they’ve scored seven goals in their last five games, but they scored four of those in losing efforts at home, while giving up five goals combined to Colorado (3) and Seattle (2). Moreover, Vancouver hasn’t won at home since July 13. They’re terrible in defense in a way that only Portland can appreciate, besides, and…just, how? How can Portland have reached this painful point of begging for scraps from the mouths of beggars? No time for our sorrows (well, plenty of time, actually, and even more if the Timbers choke; all winter, in fact).

All in all, I guess I’m arguing that Portland’s present ceiling sits at 45 points (for the record, I put that at 49 points not so long ago, so…). Sure, 47 points are possible, but, skipping over Porter’s Randian crap about this team getting better when its back’s against the wall, etc. (the "wall" was there two weeks ago),  asking this team for back-to-back wins, with one game on the road, it just doesn’t fit the pattern. Still, just to get shits tangling with giggles, let’s game out the rest of the Western Conference’s season-ending schedules and see where the gaps lie. Or, to return to a point above, who’s gonna fuck up enough to keep the door open for whatever Portland can muster?

To organize this project chronologically, Seattle hosts the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday, while San Jose plays away to Colorado Thursday night. Based on, oh, everything (7-1-2 over last 10 games, 4-0-0 in their last four, with both home games and away), Seattle should beat Houston tonight, a result that would put them on 47 points, with two games still to play, get this, out of reach for Portland. Why? Seattle needs only one win to hit 14 wins for the season, and total wins are the first tie-breaker for the post-season, Portland only has 11 wins right now, which makes 13 wins their ceiling, etc. Fun detail: SKC has 12 wins to Portland’s 11, so that’s another hole. Regardless, Seattle’s not really relevant to Portland’s situation, at least not barring a total disaster of losing at home a to team that’s already dead (Houston; and on a two-game losing streak to boot) and another that’s, frankly, dying down the stretch (RSL, 0-3-2 in their last 5, with four goals scored, three of them toward the beginning). Seattle also has a game in Dallas; if they win that, well, holy shit. Just, holy shit.

I’ll pull in San Jose, briefly, but I really do think they’re fucked. Their win over RSL (in San Jose) on October 1 arguably showed the sorry state of RSL, because their 10 games prior read 1-4-5, while also demonstrating that San Jose can only win when they score twice. And, being a goal-a-game team, they don’t (31 goals scored all season, so). San Jose burned through their games in hand, but that hardly matters. What does matter is the high, probably impossible bar of beating Colorado, in Colorado, and with that offense. Given everything, including their next two games (v. Vancouver and @ SKC), putting San Jose’s final haul at 41 points seems generous. Even if they get 43, that’s not enough for the post-season. As such, they feel safe to write off.

That leaves only Sporting KC and RSL. They play each other, for starters, and next weekend. TRSL is good at home (8-1-7), but far from dominant. Six of those seven home draws came within RSL’s last ten home games (they went 3-1-6). More significantly, their last three homes games rendered a 0-2-1 record, of which, oof! SKC hardly looks like the team to punish RSL’s domestic struggles, what with their recent, terrible road record (1-0-6 in their last seven; San Jose spared their blushes), so this game feels even and a whole lot like a draw, maybe even a scoreless one (also, probably as energetically boring). A draw, even with goals, would put RSL at 46 points and SKC at 44 points – e.g. on either side of what feels like optimistic placing for Portland. A win by either team would make this a one-horse race…wait, with RSL already on 45 points…shit. Pulling for RSL in this one, very much. Look, the margin sucks no matter the angle you look at it. Still…

Even if they trip up one another, the real question is whether the final weekend for RSL and SKC offer any kind of lifeline to Portland. For the record, RSL plays Seattle in Seattle, while Sporting hosts San Jose. Here where things really get ugly. Of both teams in play, RSL seems the most likely to lose both their final games; SKC should get at least the three from San Jose. In a sense, then, RSL might be the team / wounded wildebeest that Portland’s actually chasing. And that’s bad. Because that wildebeest is nowhere near as shaky as the predator (e.g. Portland) that’s chasing ‘em. So, no, things aren’t good.

I’m not yet panicking, but, if you happen to have a participation ribbon at home, you might want to pull it from the box, dust it off, and set it someplace where you can find it. It’s looking increasingly likely that the Portland Timbers won’t even give you that small consolation for this season.

Resisting writing post-mortems…even as they feel so very natural.

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