I didn’t need a ton from tonight. If the Portland Timbers showed some sense of purpose and direction in 2017’s preseason finale, I’d feel OK about things, up to and including sputtering throughout March. Why not, right? It’s a tradition. Still, any sign that a couple key relevant parts of the team had improved or stabilized would have been enough.
Up to the 75th minute (maybe, or thereabouts; somewhere in the deeper parts of the second half), it was possible to believe that Portland would exorcise two demons tonight – e.g., they’d win on the road and keep a clean sheet. That was a good dream while it lasted, but it’s not bad going into the regular season with one demon slayed, if only in the most glorified of scrimmages.
Yeah, Portland coughed up a goal against the Los Angeles Galaxy – a stupid little piece of disorganization, too (both (big) marks got lost, basically) – but they won on the road, 2-1, too, but, all in all, I figure it’s a little like hitting a respectable jackpot – nothing big, about $250 – after tripping over a black cat while carrying an umbrella and walking under a ladder. There’s a clean metaphor in there, I swear, but, the point is, Portland won on the road for the first time in over a year. Is that stat 100% verified? No. It’s more an allusion, but you get my point. Unless you don’t. I mean that road wins have been rare, therefore problematic. Moving on…
Do I need bullet points? Trying without…
I think the defense looks better. Sure, there’s the unsettling absence of clean sheets, and, sure, I wondered how much Portland owed their last win to the Vancouver Whitecaps, 1) starting non-starters and, 2) being broadly shitty in the attack, even with starters. The same applies to who LA coughed up tonight: the Galaxy might have fielded starters, but none of them have come up with a clear sense of how to go forward, with or without his teammates. It wasn’t till Romain Alessandrini came on and just started running headlong toward them, that LA consistently attacked the Timbers midfield, never mind the defense, and even that didn’t last more than 15 minutes.
I suppose there was an early push, moments when Giovani dos Santos broke in across the 18, or when Ariel Lassiter (in his only really good moment) broke behind Marco Farfan, and with options in front of him. Lawrence Olum cleaned up both messes; I think his failure even started the first mess, so more credit to him. The more important thing is that Portland not only survived that first wave, they pushed back until they more or less controlled the game. That balance held for a good 30 to 40 minutes, too; it really only ended when the Timbers decided to drop back starting around the 70th minute. Portland put on a handful of subs after that, and that magnified the hiccups a little more. By game’s end, though, the Timbers would stand the ball in the corner again and again, thereby winning the whole territoriality pissing match that soccer can be when it works like it’s rougher, long-forgotten sibling, rugby.
Things get both brighter and trickier when you turn to the attack. Portland’s two goals came during two distinct phases of the game, and that’s a good thing. The first came after LA’s initial onslaught, which they supported by playing a high line. Portland sorted this out eventually: Diego Valeri had slipped behind LA’s high line just a minute or two before, and Fanendo Adi scored by exploiting the same weakness – i.e., breaking in behind a high line (and how he used his body to get the leap was a piece of brilliance all on its own) – only he didn’t get fancy like Valeri did and bone his shot.
Before anyone (psychically) piles on (I don’t get a lot of comments) about giving Valeri short shrift, I’ll only say this: Valeri has been his entire Maestro Self through the whole goddamn preseason. He never has to be perfect with every touch all game, precisely because he can do something genuinely great in any given moment. Valeri might have flubbed his first goal – but, again, “flubbed” feels harsh, because it was a reasonable decision, just poorly executed, anyway, moving on – but he created the second with an edge-of-his-balance assist on Adi’s eventual tap-in.
Something else, and arguably more important: David Guzman fed the ball to Valeri on this play. He could have hit Adi, who was in a decent spot but closer to at least two defenders, but Guzman saw Valeri’s late diagonal run toward space and that got the ball behind the defense and it forced LA's defense to spread out. Guzman made the right pass, basically, the higher percentage ball, even as it’s the pass that required faith in the next couple steps (Valeri’s run, plus the square pass to Adi…again, for the tap in). Vision can mean a couple things, but sometimes it means seeing the play after the one your pass set in motion. If Guzman operates on that level…oh yeah.
I’m going to stick with Guzman, but move to the other side of the field. LA came out reasonably strong to start the second half – officially amending the above – but it never felt like something Portland couldn’t handle. One spell in particular, a minute-long probing by LA down Portland’s right, featured a lot of interchange and movement, but also in-game passing drills that don’t do much to break down the opposition. All in all, Portland spent close to two full minutes keeping LA at thoroughly comfortable bay, and inside their own half. And when LA finally got around Portland’s backline, they could only dip around from the widest position and pass in a weak cross. And who was there to pick it up? Guzman.
In case it’s not clear, Guzman looks like a big deal to me. After months of persistent, low-level pessimism (my best kind!), I can actually see Portland pushing for the Supporters’ Shield. That’s less a prediction of greatness than an allowance of possibilities, but I do think the Timbers have a back line shape that feels good – and one that might even get way with relying on three players, e.g., Liam Ridgewell, Olum and Guzman. Think of all the players that gives greater license to attack. Dream…
Am I a little over-hyped on the defense? Probably. It works on a level I can comprehend, at least, and that scoots it a little ahead of the offense. Which I don’t really get. Not really.
If you take away that great dribble past LA’s Rafael Garcia, Darlington Nagbe had a bad night – give-aways, dispossessions, etc. I don’t mean anything by that for once, but that’s an indirect path to a key point. Portland’s best chances either found or fell to Valeri and Adi and, barring further solutions, that puts Portland’s attack right back where it was at the end of 2016: It’s not a crazy stretch to call those two the heart of Portland’s attack, and that’s kind of the point: so long as they can score enough to make Portland win, what’s the problem? Sure, it’d be great if Nagbe scored more, but…?
Because I’ve basically given up on Nagbe as a scorer (prove me wrong, kid!), the player I’m most interested in here is Sebastian Blanco. So, on that, was I the only guy who saw him playing inside like, a lot? By that I mean, love or hate his game (more later), Blanco spent virtually all of his playing time tonight in the central vertical third of the field. He also doesn’t push the offside line a ton, so is Blanco another Valeri-esque midfielder? If so, how does that work? At times tonight, I thought Portland played something more like a 4-3-2-1 (oh, Tannenbaum!), with Nagbe, Guzman and Diego Chara (who was great tonight) in the three, and Valeri and Blanco in the two. Whether they did that or not, I don’t care so much. I mean, it worked out and that’s good enough.
Let’s see, is there anything else? By way of general comment, I think Valeri, Adi and Alvas Powell look more season-ready than most, but just about everyone else looks serviceable. After that, it was great to see Olum recover that big-time from a couple early flubs. A brand new starting central defender would make Portland better without question, but my faith in Olum is good (70%-ish). I also think the team will learn how to play Blanco…the way he plays centrally feels like a clue as to how that might look in the end…
…or it’s just late and I’m happy Portland won, and I don’t like LA, and so much the better they lost. Plus, GUYS?! Road win!? I think the Timbers have a good foundation all in all, and one that has some more ceiling to grow into. I feel confident, and to the point of smugness, that Portland got a good player at a good position; that’s Guzman. As for Blanco, I can’t promise he’ll arrive, but it doesn’t feel unlikely either. With all of that in mind, I’m putting nothing beyond this team. I think some part of the bench will have to come good to make Portland a contender, but, guys, I think we’ve got a team on our hands.