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.

I didn’t pick up on Chara being suspended till after; the same for Liam Ridgewell, though I am pissed at him, not the ref, for his little piece of (perhaps revenge-driven) idiocy. Poorly as Ridgewell and Steven Taylor have paired, they at least had some reps under their belts, plus Ridgey’s seniority to keep things familiar back there. And without Chara in there to help cover that central unit (think Jack Jewsbury’s more important in that role; still)…think I’ll just close my eyes and pretend Nat Borchers will suit up when I’m examining the starting eleven next week.

The way Colorado racked up some offense in the second half puts a little fire under that concern. The Rapids, a team far and away from the slickest attack in MLS, forced at least one big save out of Jake Gleeson (and, look; just tell me you saw Cronin everywhere and I’ll shut up about him), pinged two off the woodwork, and added two more solid shots besides (none of which went on frame, apparently; but, whoa! Did not expect possession to break down like that). Remember that this came in Fort Providence (so fucking frontiersy!), and with them playing without their biggest threats. More on that later, though, because it’s time to check in on all the other results that whispered the incantation for Portland’s unlikely resurrection (RELATED: If you had to say who among Caleb Porter, Gavin Wilkinson and Merritt Paulson was the likeliest to indulge in a satanic ritual to get the desired result, who would you choose?) And with that, we’re talking about other teams.

With Portland’s fate out of its hands, the real story, at least in the Major League Soccer’s Western Conference, turned on something going wrong for the other teams. Damn near all of them obliged too, especially the ones that counted, something that I’m calling tragi-cool till further notice.

I’ll start with FC Dallas’ costly 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders (why, the cost of a Diaz is incalculable!), not least because that one requires some staging – i.e., Seattle’s potentially season-killing draw at home to the Houston Dynamo. Seattle went into their final three games needing to win just one of them to, more or less, put themselves out of reach. Houston certainly looked like fruit hanging low enough to touch the ground, but, instead of three points, Seattle came out of that one with Andreas Ivanschitz injured (a player who, mediocrity aside, they need) and Osvaldo Alonso suspended for a tantrum that was historically stupid by his standards. Fast forward to Dallas, and it gets doubly-tragic (for Seattle, anyway; I gotta say, their tears are delicious in these parts).

Dallas threatened early and reasonably often, but Seattle hardly got run over. They scored first for one (on a free kick that will forever mar Seitz family lore), and had another called back for __________? (Srsly; the call was a Roman Torres barreling the Dallas defense into the goal, or?); they even responded well enough when Dallas equalized. The unsolvable problem(s) came with Mauro Diaz’s knack for finding paths to Seattle’s goal that the Sounders didn’t even know about (the assist on the winner was n-v-t-s) and the way Seattle kept coughing up free headers (a sun-blind Matt Hedges, and a fully-sighted Ryan Hollingshead). It’s time for people (and me) to face up to the fact that Dallas is just good…or was. Both clubs left some measure of unhappy: Dallas, due to injuries to Diaz (shit!) and Kellyn Acosta (eh, he’s got cover); Seattle because they burned through their games in hand and have only a thin, one point lead to show for it. They’re hosting RSL, a team that’s keeping games tight lately, on a weekend when anything but a win spells, “oh shit.” Speaking of RSL…well, and SKC.

RSL certainly looked the better team in this goal-less draw and, for a lot of the game, it was a case of shots (RSL) versus crosses (SKC). To muddy the waters a little, SKC created a few of their own late (and, yeah, Benny Feilhaber should have got a penalty kick that wasn’t given and, sure, Kevin Ellis should have hit his free header from six yards out; no links, sadly; this game is very highlight poor). For all that, RSL had multiple chances to put this one away and to sleep a little more soundly this week. They can hang a couple misses on SKC’s Tim Melia, but their persistently crap finishing hurts them more than the best gosh-darn pool ‘keeper in MLS ever could; Yura Movsisyan, in particular, has this thing about getting the ball stuck in his spokes. Agonizing, I tell you.

Between Portland, Seattle, RSL and SKC, it’s just real, real hard to say who will perform next weekend. But I’m gonna leave that aside for now. There’s still the (frankly, more interesting) Eastern Conference to track. Besides, I wanna bury predictions at the end.

DC United slapped a 3-1 sign-o’-the-times win on New York City FC. DC blew open what had been a stingy game when Lloyd Sam got way the hell behind NYCFC’s line and had his pick of players to score the opener; two goals would follow within the first half, one of them...just hide the children, or they will never believe. That gets at something important (well, to me) about DC United: they’re hitting the playoffs hot – only the New York Red Bulls have gone longer without losing (and DC has won their last four) – because they finally figured out how to balance all the found items they’ve picked out of the bargain bin down the years. Players like Sam, Patrick Nyarko and Luciano Acosta have enough skill to let DC attack with fewer players going forward, at least initially; Rob Vincent and Jared Jeffrey add numbers on late runs (or at least that’s my semi-distant working theory), and, as noted above, it’s working. As for NYCFC, they’re not sputtering or anything, but, on current form, this result should have them worried. As in, they might find themselves on the wrong side of encore in their first post-season. NEXT!! 

I’m happy to see I wasn’t the only person who filed Adam Jahn under “Good Fit Theory” (my notes read, “Jahn finding space in [Columbus’] scheme"; Matt Doyle flagged the same somewhere in here, and smarter), but, like…oh, 10-11 clubs before them, Columbus Crew SC got ambushed by the Red Bulls lethal press and clinical finishing. And, like….some number of clubs before them (fine; ball park it at eight), they dropped another pants-soiling scare of a result gone bad on the Red Bulls (speaking of Jahn, this helped). The whole thing ended 3-2; just like the Red Bulls' prior game. Columbus’ season’s done, of course, and I expect changes there next year…just globally. For all that New York plays the prettiest stuff in MLS, and for all that they’re just about every fans’ second choice to win MLS Cup, that defense is going to fucking kill Jesse Marsch – especially when Bradley Wright-Phillips retirement/transfer means they can’t run up the score anymore. So I expect to see changes there, too.

Finally, and finally, the New England Revolution learned something I believe to be true – e.g. that the Chicago Fire will be better in 2017 (at least if they return most of that personnel). The Revs managed to pull together one of their familiar streaks of late, but one little-talked about time-bomb (at least in league-wide circles) came rarely enough to escape my notice – e.g. that -12 goal differential heading into the weekend. Even if they won – and they didn’t, Chicago got ‘em 2-1, and deservedly – they were four points behind and with that burly goal differential to climb over as well. So, on one level: why were we talking about them? Second, New England never found a first-choice line-up this year, at least not near as I can tell, and the out-of-whackness of their defense threw off everything else (again, near as I can tell). I don’t know what next year’s SuperDraft will look like, but I’m betting the Revs hope to find the kind of gems that Chicago and Philly found this time around.

My original draft treated the Philadelphia Union’s 2-0 loss to Orlando City SC as an event, but nah. Winless since August sums up Philly’s end run and their prospects for the playoffs well enough.

OK, that leaves only predictions, or just some vague collection of thoughts on what I expect to happen in MLS Final Weekend, 2016. Starting with Portland’s specific challenge…

The Vancouver Whitecaps haven’t looked good all season, glimmers here and there aside, they looked pretty damn toothless against the San Jose Earthquakes; I'm as concerned about what Andrew Jacobson will do to Portland's attack as I am of anything/anyone for Vancouver (honorable mention to Matsuko Kudo for a pair of solid attempts) (and, wait, people call them the Shitecaps, right? I mean, that’s already covered like in the early 2000s?). As much as I fretted about Colorado’s string of second-half chances above, Vancouver’s just about the best road opponent a road-shy team can face in MLS: they don’t score freely (just three more goals all year than Colorado), their defense is Eastern-Conference terrible (51 allowed…whoops, that’s just two more goals than Portland – shit!), and their home record is league-worst or close to (5-5-6). As Abe Asher pointed out in his write up for The Portland Mercury, if Portland doesn’t win on Sunday, they probably don’t deserve a post-season. Then again, who else does? Let’s review…

Seattle should take RSL at home, but the Utahans have enormous incentive to grind out a road draw (preferably a goal-less one). It makes sense on other levels, too, in that RSL hasn’t scored in bunches since early September. It’s enough to wonder whether RSL should play a pure counter, maybe try to isolate Joao Plata or Juan Manuel Martinez (can’t hurt; not like they’re thriving in traffic). SKC, meanwhile, should be damned thirsty for a win and, like Portland, they have as pliant a victim as they could hope to have…shit.

At the risk of jinxing it, yeah, I think Portland has a decent chance at this (have the odds changed, btw?). SKC should win, a result that would take them to 47 points and safety. Seattle v. RSL strikes me as the real wild card, but the one result I’m struggling to see is an RSL win. I…look, it’s very, very hard to accept that Portland is one win away from the post-season, especially with the bulk of the season weighing down on my psyche. And, yeah, if they don’t win, they don’t deserve it. It’s there for the taking.

Uh, what else? Oh, Colorado looks even better for the Supporters’ Shield (now there’s two words you never thought you’d see in the same sentence) what with Diaz out – and has there ever been a more cruel blow to such a promising season? Back in the East, the Red Bulls look pretty safe to take it (I mean, I’d rather play Philly anywhere than Columbus at all); even NYCFC and Toronto’s final spots feel in play…though, to take the next step, I’d rather play Columbus than Chicago at this point, so there’s that.

Anyway, all for tonight, and all for this week. Back next Monday, probably to talk about playoffs, because regular season results won’t matter by the time the sun goes down next Sunday.

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