Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Portland Timbers 2016: Patterns and Pratfalls (and Possibilties?)

No, think harder. What do you NEED?

I had plans to duck Darlington Nagbe entirely in this review (what do you mean, “you don’t believe me”?), but Stumptown Footy posted something last week about Scottish giants Celtic FC comin’ a’-courtin,’ and it sums up Nagbe’s game really well, so, y’know, what the hell?

“As fans in the Rose City know well, however, Nagbe provides much more than goals, assists, and tackles won. Although it’s a role that is typically far from glamorous, Nagbe is an elite shuttler who facilitates the Timbers’ transition and possession play in often spectacular fashion.”
To draw out a point: does what Nagbe bring to the team provide “much more than goals, assists, and tackles won?” And what the hell does “elite shuttler” even mean? The phrase implies that the Timbers transition better than all other teams in MLS, or even most of them, but do they? (By way of a quick comparison/name-drop, Ignacio Piatti starts and finishes his transitions.) Basically, I credit Stumptown for as tidy a summation of how Nagbe uses his considerable talents, but the actual productive value of that contribution remains an open question in my mind. And I hereby leave it open for anyone who reads this to answer…according to his or her judgment/conscience.

One final, preliminary comment: Timbers fans strike me as a fairly sentimental bunch. They connect to (most of) the players with genuine interest and a kind of familial fondness. I didn’t have a deep connection to any team for much of my soccer-viewing life, not a real one, and I have only one year in as an actual member of any supporters’ group and didn’t do anything meaningful with it when I did have it (nothing personal; I’m just not much of a joiner*), I’m not clear as to how normal this is among fans. (*That said, on this Saturday after Thanksgiving, I am genuinely thankful for having found a motley collection of people to watch games with. Yay!)

I don’t care if Timbers fans are unusually…clingy, honestly, but, when it comes to really cleaning a house, sentimentality often just sort of gets in the way. Sometimes one has to view grandma’s wish to be buried with her collection of cat statuettes for what it is: a little bit of madness. Those statuettes are worthless junk, so let’s bite the bullet and get rid of them…

…speaking of Lucas Melano. Guys, I’m kidding! Not that mean (am I?). Still, whether by fate or sub-par performance, he offers a good starting point for the story of Portland’s 2016 season.

As spring heated up into summer, the Timbers put together a nine-game unbeaten streak – May 27 through July 22. It got buried under parts of the Copa America Centenario (for the record), and that may or may not have factored into how things played out (i.e., did this team have “performance anxiety”? is it blue pill time?), but, regardless, this was the best run Portland made all year. They went 4-0-5 – of which, not great, just 12 points from the 27 on offer – but some other numbers looked brighter: after 14 games without a clean sheet to start the season, Portland posted three during this run; their goals against came down to 1.0 (Portland would end the season at 1.56 goals against overall), and their goals for raised to 1.78.

Lucas Melano’s most positive press of the season came around the same time. Reading between the lines in the archives of this site, I’d peg “peak Melano” (see #5) somewhere around July 4, 2016. The game that day was a scoreless draw in Colorado, but Melano looked like one of the Timbers’ better players that day; he looked better still in a 3-2 win over Houston the week before; add an earlier win over the Seattle Sounders, a body of work lent at least some support to the idea that Melano had arrived. Stumptown Footy saw even brighter greens in Melano’s “green shoots”: the two summer wins over (Number 2) Seattle probably got Chris Rifer in his most effusive mood, but conditions typically attached to the enthusiasm, as made sense in this 2016.

Just like everyone else, I want(ed?) Melano to come good. He wrote the last chapters of his resume (and into Timbers’ fans weeping journals) by riding pine down the stretch, and punctuating the whole thing with that sickeningly shitty miss in Vancouver on the season’s defining day. My faith in Melano was never strong, and that brings me to the best/smartest post I wrote all season, as well as the thinking behind it. That went up on or about July 17, after Portland’s first win over Seattle – which was also the last…let’s call it uncomplicated memory of the regular season. If you take the time to read that post, you’ll see that I focused on where Seattle was at that time (nowhere good), not what Portland did or didn’t get right. That's because they didn't seem as significant. In the talking points, I started with Melano. Here’s the relevant passage:

“…tempted as I am to spy signs of improvements between [Melano’s] two performances – e.g. instances of brain freeze versus Montreal [that] thaw[ed] into two nifty assists against the Sounders – I can’t carry that one over the doorstep. Here’s the reason: I can’t exactly go on about how unfinished Seattle is above, nor can I chip in additional thoughts about how a back-four that’s 3/4 “old” (Chad Marshall*, Zac Scott, and Tyrone Mears*) suits Melano’s skill-set just about as well as anything, without implying that, yeah, I think Seattle’s just not a good team. More than anything else, it’s the way Montreal forced Melano into the difficult decisions – and it’s here where the thought/action mechanism didn’t always click through [for Melano] – that makes me think that, if you wanna know where Portland is in the full, rich confusing context of MLS, look to the Montreal game.”
I started putting more thought into opposition/circumstances for any given game this season and what those meant (earliest shot came here), and I found a little more clarity when I came at things from that angle. Yeah, yeah, all fans think about the other team’s form going into a game, but this is more about application and even then, it’s hardly linear. To give an example, after Portland beat Real Salt Lake 1-0 back in September, Stumptown Footy spotted signs of hope in a good outing for Liam Ridgewell and Steven Taylor. The way the season ended proved that statement true, irrelevant, and falsely encouraging all at once. That RSL’s attack looked good going into that game – 10 goals scored in five games prior (just...go here, move the cursor around as needed) – accounts for the sense of accomplishment. That game, however, marks the beginning of the end for RSL’s attack. They would score just twice over the next five regular season games, and just once more in the post-season. But, and this matters, that only became apparent after the fact. (Another detail worth flagging: in the 10 games prior to the five games cited above, RSL had scored only 9 goals, so low scoring held up in a 15-of-20-game sample.) As such, Stumptown got it right and wrong. Like we all do. Let’s face it.

It’s tough to phrase the argument buried in the paragraph above, but the closest I get is “false flags and the myriad real-world limits on spotting them.” I felt good about the points I made on that July win over Seattle; I feel even better about it today. The same goes for my hand-wringing over the two goals Portland coughed up in their later 4-2 win over the Sounders at the end of August: that probably read like a report on someone throwing a throwing stink-bomb into a victory parade, but it pointed to one problem that haunted the 2016 season into the fucking grave: the pattern of coughing up goals that would stress them out in the best cases and soil an evening/afternoon in the worst cases. The problem never truly resolved; maybe that’s why people talked about it all season long.

More patterns hold than don’t, even in Major League Soccer, but the league throws out a shit-ton of false flags, and that makes it hard to see them. Sometimes multiple patterns collide: say one team’s weak defense (Pattern 1) comes up against a couple related and/or complimentary patterns (say, meeting one team in a slump, then another with a crap offense, then hosting another team that’s bad on the road, etc.; collectively, Pattern 2); if you’re not tracking all of that, it only takes a couple drops of optimism (or other liquid courage) to make Pattern 1(/a nasty curse) look like it’s been broken, gods be praised. Only it didn’t – see, Portland’s defense. That doesn’t mean patterns never break in Major League Soccer – e.g., the somewhat miraculous way the Montreal Impact rescued a season that showed multiple causes of death (e.g. a string of bad home results, plus…just everything). Further, not every shift amounts to “breaking a pattern” – e.g., after looking dead for most of the year, Seattle got better with Nicolas Lodeiro. More than a few people predicted he would and with good reason, but changes in personnel aren’t the same as team figuring out its best self…

…and that’s why Timbers fans spent almost all year fretting over the player pool, especially when the injuries piled up. As they’re wont to do…

Regardless, the real patterns actually held for Portland: the defense couldn’t stop coughing up dumb/inopportune goals and they got further from winning on the road just as each failure mattered most (end of the season; Stumptown had given up hope early as September 3). Hence their season. Obsessing over those problems proved to be the right thing to do: Stumptown was asking, “is it time to be concerned about the backline?” as early as March 19 (follow up: May 7th); I wouldn’t shut up about it either (think this one, which featured a running gag with Amobi Okugo, was my best work; included a diagram, also from May). As noted in my last (now penultimate) post on the Timbers this season, a lot of the people in my orbit anticipated a 2015-esque turnover, even expected it. That was crazy, in retrospect, and I’m not holding myself aloof here: multiple witnesses can verify that I went into the early September road game against FC Dallas absolutely convinced Portland would win it (they, um, didn’t). I think this is just what fans’ brains do: they believe. If I have a goal for next season, it’s to stop thinking like a fan, at least when I’m writing and thinking about what I want to write, because, as noted up top, sentimentality can get in the way of a lot of things - including and up to seeing things as they are. Also, who likes to break hearts? (JK, me.)

Melano would have at least one other good performance down the stretch – hey, against Seattle again, and it was good enough for Stumptown to declare that, “Lucas Melano looked like a bona fide designated player in the first half against Seattle” – but, even that describes so long as you start where the sentence did: “After a pretty terrible four weeks…” Like Melano, Portland enjoyed a good game or two down the stretch, but they were largely the predictable ones (e.g. v. Philadelphia Union and even v. Colorado Rapids), but the stuff that mattered most stayed close to a few through lines – e.g. Portland’s pattern of blowing leads, the fact that persistent struggles with lightweights like the Houston Fucking Dynamo and RSL demonstrated Portland’s actual level, and, yes, a just plain lack of nerve (see, Final Day Disaster).

Well, that's that dead horse now turned to glue. Let’s shift to the coming rebuild. I’ll start with good pieces Portland still has, and then to move on from there. One caveat here: “good” doesn’t have to mean signing an entire roster of Diego Valeris and Fanendo Adis. First, and for each of them, there can be only one. I’m also resistant to the idea that Portland “needs” a player at any given position. I picked at why above and will touch on it again below, but, all I’m really saying is, beware of systems: they’re both organizing and limited.

What = Good
I count only four names and one position something close to unambiguously good, sure-footed seasons this year (albeit with one reasonable addendum): Diego Valeri, Fanendo Adi, Diego Chara, Jake Gleeson and [Right Back], which, here, stands in for both Alvas Powell and Taylor Peay. This does not mean that they were always perfect. Powell, in particular, had a couple dire moments, including critical mistakes in Timbers’ last, best hope for a road win, the September 24 road loss to Houston (Stumptown singled him out in that one, and with more venom than me). Regardless, each player had a clear role, sometimes a difficult one, and they laid only a couple eggs doing it, and that makes them reliable, therefore valuable. I’ve heard talk that Adi might not come back and, wow, will that be a headache, but I’ll cross that bridge when it comes…all while thinking, sweet jesus, is there something this team needs less than another year of transition? Each player above is young enough that another year on the legs shouldn’t matter too much, so I see all these guys and building blocks, locker-room pater familii, etc.

As for the addendum, yeah, it’s Jack Jewsbury. Caleb Porter offered up an accidental tribute for what he brought to the team (quoted here) even in his last year. Jewsbury stayed relevant this season, and that might have surprised me more than anyone (so Jack even got the timing of his retirement right. damn…). All the same, because this section is about the future, Jack’s out – albeit with one final “thanks, god bless, and good luck!” to the club’s first MLS-era captain. I hear Ned Grabavoy retired too. Um… (Seriously, no, good career, and good luck, Ned!)

What = Complicated
This is sort of a big, ambiguous group, one that players fit into in a couple different ways. With Darren Mattocks, it’s an argument that, if/when whole, he feels like a promising piece (one who popped up as an option earlier than I remembered). With others, it’s a case of, for all their upside, they’re hard to fit into the line-up without some kind of complimentary part. That group includes, Nagbe (who, again, don’t know what the fuck to do with him; some thoughts in here, tho), Vytas Andriuskevicius, and Jack McInerney. Vytas, for instance, reads as a decent left back, but, between his value to the attack and instincts for it, his runs need to be covered by something mightier than two aging Brits in central defense. That egg can get peeled a number of ways (e.g., can we get a bargain on DaMarcus Beasley, pending another, longer-term solution? (I’m guessing not)), but playing Vytas requires getting the right people around him; the same goes for Nagbe (and on both sides of the ball), and the same goes for McInerney, who brushes the belly of “goodness,” but only when he’s got service. And, whoops, forgot one: Liam Ridgewell. Without the right partner, I feel like he slips into another, decidedly undesirable category. Hold on….getting ready for a big stretch…

Unless his salary is just nuts (mmm…eh, fuck it; you decide), I’m a big fan of holding onto Jermaine Taylor. Might be the only member, but, fuck it. As I’ve argued (perhaps a little too strenuously) all season, Taylor provides good depth in across the back line; he only hurt Portland this year because fate forced the team to start him. In doing research for this post, I came across a stray passage on Powell that applies to Taylor just as much in another post:

“Sure, he got beat on LA’s second goal, but I yelled ‘Y’Alvas!’ a lot yesterday (which, for the record, is a contraction that translates  as ‘(Hell) Yeah, Alvas!). He lost one key battle against LA’s Emanuel Boateng – OK, yes, and slept-walked on that opening goal – but he outplayed and out-smarted Boateng the rest of the game.”

Dedicated readers (the ones who hit the link) will notice that I make the same argument for Taylor in that post as I’m doing here. Yes, Powell and Taylor generally make the same mistake – e.g., they switch off. But when each player is on and tuned in, they do well enough (though, to be clear, Powell better than Taylor). And arguing for a player whose central failing just happens to be the one that I just argued sank the team this season almost certainly makes for some cognitive dissonance. That’s a fair point, and an easy argument, but it misses what, for me, is the bigger one: Jermaine Taylor is not the problem; the lack of a good quality centerback(s) (are) is the problem and should therefore be the priority. Keeping Taylor in the team’s pocket as a known quantity helps keep the focus where it belongs – i.e., on getting starting centerbacks.

Finally, it feels right, or at least decent, to address the rest of the roster. With most of these guys, it’s not knowing enough to judge – the balance of them, actually: Gbenga Arokoyo, Nick Besler, Nico Brett, Amobi Okugo, Ben Polk, and possibly Jack Barmby. Three of those guys feel like projects that go on largely behind closed door (or just doors that I don’t open – e.g., Besler, Brett, and Polk), but I’d like to see why the club picked up Arokoyo (to solve problems, yes?), and I’d like to see more of Okugo (somewhere) and more of Barmby (albeit with patience sharply curtailed; unimpressed with that one). Uh, what else? I wouldn’t mind Dairon Asprilla coming back, but the argument there tracks pretty closely to what I said about Jermaine Taylor up above. Speaking of Taylors, would I give Steven Taylor a little more time? Personally, nah, but I’d give the club about three months to prove me wrong before I reached for the pitchforks again; I hold roughly the same opinion on Chris Klute.

That leaves three names out (well, four plus the third goalkeeper, Wade Hamilton, but third goalkeepers are just something you have, like that pressure cooker you never use): Zarek Valentin, Ben Zemanski and Nat Borchers…who seems a really bad fit in here, but the other two first. It’s nothing personal – they both seem quite nice, in fact – but I’d simply let both go. Zemanski makes for the harder call (see #2 below), but he’s struggled with fitness for months and, when he has played, there’s no real, stirring sense that he’s an actual solution – e.g. a reliable, or better than reliable, No. 6, to name one role. With Valentin, he seems like one hell of a nice, sincere person, but he’s just not this level, based on most of what I’ve seen. Sucks for them, and I wish them well whatever happens (even if they stay on), but that’s where I am.

As for Nat, look, The End Is Near. That’s all kinds o’ shitty, but all players live on borrowed time past a certain age. And if there’s a place to well and truly bury sentimentality, it’s here. The Timbers have a very huge need in central defense, and even defensive midfield. I don’t know when Nat turns 36, but between new starters and useful depth/prospects, there’s no sound reason to keep a player like Borchers on your roster. That idea doesn’t come easy for me because Borchers ranks near the top among the pantheon of Timbers I admire. Valeri sits on Olympus’ throne, but that’s the only guy that really comes to mind.

Moving on…

Our Hierarchy of Needs
OK, with all of the above now re-examined, what do I think Portland should do in the off-season? In order or importance…

1) Rebuild the Central Defense
To be clear, the goal here should be a player with a future. If Arokoyo is the answer, I only ask that the team confirms that he has a working groin (or whatever it was that kept him out). My guess, though, is that the Timbers will have to find someone. Personally, I want two central defenders signed (or just one signed and one promoted) above all other concerns, and one of them must be starting caliber. I’m agnostic as to Ridgewell’s fate, but, in my book, he’s welcome to wear the shirt till another player clearly replaces him.

2) A Solution in Central Midfield
I don’t care how the club does this – either with a No. 6 to free Nagbe, or a second No. 8 to bring back the double-pivot with Chara, or _________ - but I’ve never wandered too far from the idea that too many teams seized central the midfield from Portland this season. When I look at the current collection of players, I simply don’t see how Porter lines them up as something coherent, at least not with Jewsbury’s retirement (even there, I feel like it fell short as often as…well, it did). So, yeah, we need new blood here, even as I’m open-minded as to how the team gets it.

3) Wings Don’t Always Make You Fly
Somewhat recently, Porter talked about “needing the right kind of winger” in order to make his system work. I think that’s valid, so long as you remain in his system, but I think it’s worth keeping an open mind, too – think what Seattle did with Lodeiro v. Martins. No small part of whatever Portland does likely turns on Melano – and he poses a devilish problem. The Timbers could opt to give him one year/one more chance to prove his worth, both to Portland and prospective buyers, but another year like 2016 wouldn’t do anyone involved any favors. I don’t hold all the variables – i.e., I’ve never watched Melano train and regular conversations with him are out of the question for a variety of reasons – and, as such, I’m willing to loan a little trust to the people who do regardless of what they choose. If he does go, Portland would need to sign someone, even if Asprilla and Mattocks both return. Of the current crop, though, I’d like Porter to give Mattocks another crack at the starter’s role, if with a fairly conscious probation period; Mattocks busted ass out there most games and, when he got hold of his control, he did real damage, especially late in the season.

Could Portland use an upgrade at forward? Sure. Better depth at left back? Absolutely. In the above, I just ranked the problems as they stood out for me given the current roster. What I do know, though, is that one good new piece in one place can open other opportunities in another; the right player (say a Kyle-Beckerman-level #6) can make an existing piece finally work correctly (say, Nagbe, or even Chara). I also appreciate that, having a good, active, threatening winger impacts how the other teams’ wing and fullback react during a game. Having a smarter possession hub (say, Dax McCarty) can change how a team plays too. Moving parts cause other parts to move; shit’s fluid, basically, and coaching and GM-ing are nothing more or less than squeezing the balloon just so.

Do it right, you wind up with 2015 and MLS Cup in your cupboard. Do it wrong – or get screwed by circumstances – you go home early, a couple of your players pick up fairly weird DUII’s, and suddenly everyone’s worried about his job. Tough times…

Anyone who’s made it this far (thanks!) has probably noticed that I didn’t make much of pre-season exits, or even the injuries. There’s a reason for that: it’s all spilt milk; for all that those caused problems, none of the departed players are part of the immediate solution and whining about an injury won’t stitch together an Achilles tendon. Next steps, people: in this world, we work with what we have, or go get new parts. According to most thinking, the Timbers are very much in new-parts mode. As such, the next step comes with seeing who they get, then figuring out how to best argue about them. What? It’s not like we’re gonna pick the players…

Well, that’s all for tonight. Hope anyone who made it this far enjoyed the stack of data and details, or, failing that, at least found it educational. New MLS stuff will pop up through the offseason. Mapping the terrain at present and I think I have a plan.  

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