Sunday, January 22, 2017

Fewer Questions: The Portland Timbers, The State of Things

Stepdad 1. World 0. (C'mon, you'd be impressed. Or sufficiently confused.)

In a post last week, I hit a piece in The Oregonian from an angle. That article-show (you see, when an article loves a slideshow very, very much) put 11 Questions to the Portland Timbers for 2017. If Portland answers them right, they win! More often than not! (In case you're wondering, yes, accurate.)

As noted then, 11 questions feel like checking every side street instead of just driving straight to the destination. To pick an example (#2), if Portland lands on an effective center back pairing, a few other items (let’s go with, #4, #7, #11, #13, and #14), get answered either loosely (e.g. the presence or absence of “an effective center back pairing” behind David Guzman will go a long way to determining how he plays); by answering itself (e.g., if, say, Rennico Clarke seizes the starting job, the young players made an impact by definition); by the same logic (e.g., the team, and the back-line, will either have good chemistry or it won’t); directly (e.g., if the Timbers have “an effective center back pairing,” they will win more games on the road); finally, and again, directly (e.g., if they win more games, steal some others, they will make the playoffs).

Look, I’m not just shitting on The Oregonian’s copy. This is more about highlighting/addressing the big issues (personnel) and then tuning the machinery to get it firing optimal. Call it Formula 2015, or come up with something better, it’s about the same thing: getting the most out of the players the team has at any given moment. And, now that I’ve completely incorporated the Supporters’ Shield into my universe of goals, what’s possible in any given moment should influence how the team approaches each game.

To frame that from the longest distance, playing for the Shield should mean putting out your best team every time you can, because maximizing points every game means operating on a very much live for today mind-set. If, however, you’re most focused on the MLS Cup – and I think this is viable, even wise, for some teams from the start of the season, but, even more, as your options run out during the season - you can, say, risk dropping points in order to rest players (especially on the road, and in tough venues), and give your back-ups more first-team experiences, because that builds repetitions, therefore on-field partnerships. This isn’t a clean contrast, either, because FC Dallas threw their youth to the lions a couple times last season (I think; eh, maybe), but still won the Shield. At the same time, how much did wear on their team, and Mauro Diaz in particular, doom their Cup hopes? Just sayin’, people make choices alla time…

On a related note, and to see if I finally can’t get it right, I’ve been trying to understand why the Timbers winning MLS Cup in 2015 never quite satisfied me. Because the Timbers did the consistently inconsistent thing for most of the year, winning the Cup felt like your divorced dad, after an entire year of blown promises and blowing you off, absolutely fucking nailed your birthday party. That probably has something to do with 2016, but let’s stick to the task at hand.

Portland does not feel like a Shield winning team for 2017 (especially with the optimism/film of 2015 still on my teeth this is where it sticks) so, with that in mind, I want to see them focus on building the team for MLS Cup/The Future (if you capitalize The Future, it’s more likely to come true). For me, that means giving Clarke a number of mulligans (pick your own pain-point there), while also gutting through some changes flagged in The Oregonian’s Questions post (e.g. Darlington Nagbe at left wing…maybe; more below; the full meaning of having Nagbe and the returned Dairon Asprilla play the wings in a 4-2-3-1, assuming that’s where the team goes), figuring out how to…uh, navigate(?) the whole Chance Myers/Alvas Powell sitch, figuring out the fuck to do with Vytas Andriuskecivius, generally….

…and this is all in the backdrop of the two questions that are central to the Timbers 2017 – as in, yes, I really do believe there are only two fundamental questions in play for the Timbers right now, and those are:

1) Can Portland field a reliable starting central defense?

2) Can the Timbers vary the attack and, yes, a good, disruptive wide player feels like the best idea for this anyone seems to have.

Those are my big points and, hopefully, what comes below will explain why that is and how that works. In order to do that, I’ll give my answers to nine of The Oregonian’s 11 Questions – i.e., all of ‘em except #2 (about the center back pairing; because the team will die without that) and #3 (how to replace Lucas Melano/get a real winger/alternate difference maker out there; somewhat true, but way less than the other one).

Commence the Q & A!!

Slide #4: How will David Guzman partner alongside Diego Chara?
Maybe not at all. What if Guzman plays as a lone No. 6 on top of the defense, with Nagbe and Chara shuttling; better still, what if the defense functions well enough to free even Guzman from time to time (fantasizing, but why not?). The smarter and more synched-up your defenders (or the dumber and less-coordinated the attacking team), the more a team can cheat forward in the attack. I think we’ve all heard talk of the potential diamond midfield…just saying this could shake out a lotta ways.

Slide #5: Will Darlington Nagbe score from the left wing?
Based on everything I’ve seen, it all depends on Nagbe. So does the question of whether or not the team gets a high-profile, problem-solving winger. And the question of how long Nagbe either learns a sufficiently visible skill or finds another place to play. I know that a lot of people disagree with this, but doing everything well but nothing great has its limits. Portland feels like a reliable winger away from greatness…I can see it now…assuming Guzman pans out…if not, fuck it.

Slide #7: How impactful will Portland’s young signings be in 2017?
There’s no real data, so time will tell. Actually, no, whether or not they GET the time will tell.

Slide #8: Do the Timbers have enough depth?
Uh, they do, they don’t, or they’ll get more of it later. For what it’s worth, I like the (potential) Chance Myers move because, even as I think Powell was wholly sufficient in 2016, there is nothing wrong, ever, with a team seeking to improve in any position.

Slide #9: Will Jeff Attinella push Jake Gleeson for the starting goalkeeper role?
Unless you think Gleeson’s awful, this shouldn’t matter. May the best man win.

Slide #10: Will Portland’s starting outside back step up?
This is all Vytas for me. Powell, for now, is Powell: occasionally, but rarely, danger-prone, more than a little haphazard going forward, but also broadly reliable, and with enough recovery speed for the occasional dazzling moment. Powell can keep being Powell so far as I’m concerned, till someone better comes along. Vytas, though, feels like something. There’s something about him that feels Manichean, like he’ll either help the team or become its greatest weakness. Now that I think about it, pairing him with Nagbe on the left really could be something…guys, GUYS! Is this the plan?!??!

Slide #11: How will the offseason changes impact Portland’s chemistry?
On the one hand, it will or it won’t. On the other, what was so great about 2016’s chemistry? Next.

Slide #13: Can Portland regain its road form?
I guess my question is, what’s the alternative?

Slide #14: Do the Timbers have what it takes to make the playoffs?
I will never, ever fully crap on this article-show because, when it came to the Timbers, it finally smacked me upside the head in just the right way. Inconsistency has been a hallmark of the Porter era. Assign causation as you want – call it injuries, overwork, bad signings, etc. – but, even in the context of a league with enough bugs in the system to make excellence borderline impossible, Portland has produced one great season (winning the Western Conference), one brilliant spasm (winning MLS Cup), and, outside that, like, a lotta mediocrity.

After having walked through the entire reconstruction/mess, I don’t necessarily feel better about the Timbers 2017. For what it’s worth, I think I understand the concept on the left side (Vytas/Nagbe), but I feel like questions teem with an unnervingly kudzu-esque quality.

If there’s good news – and bad – it’s that we’re getting stinky-close to preseason. We’ll have evidence for all this crap by then, something concrete to talk about. The best.

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