It didn’t show up in the score-line, but the field hella tilted toward the Vancouver Whitecaps’ side of the field throughout the night. And that’s just one reason why the Portland Timbers beat them by an understated 2-1. All the same, that understatement has a lot of qualifiers.
It starts with Vancouver’s starting eleven and, frankly, a bunch of stuff that I’m simply not getting from the commentating crew. For instance, if Vancouver is treating this game as one last dress rehearsal prior to ducking into their CONCACAF Champions’ League series against (pretty sure, but I don’t care enough to look it up) the New York Red Bulls, then, no, I don’t understand that starting line-up. Sure, I can see Russell Teibert out there over the (later to be proved more effective, and, c’mon, who’re we kidding?) Andrew Jacobsen, but why is Nigel de Jong playing (maybe) the Left 3 in a 4-2-3-1? Because, golly, that’s not his skill-set. Giles Barnes is an on-acid vivid open field player, so who the hell came up with the terrible idea of stuffing him into the No. 10 role, where he’s got goons nipping at his heels at every turn? That man is pure quick-slash-with-the-dagger, not the player who picks the lock.
All in all, I went into the 60th minute thinking that Portland’s coach, Caleb Porter, had held the better cards (seriously), but played the weaker hand, but I premised that on the idea that Robinson rested his starters so that they'd, 1) not burn too much going into the big games; and 2) they'd turn the tables on a tired Portland team. I was wrong, wrong, wrong, though, because, take away the Cristian Techera free-kick (and, for the record, missed the foul, but does it really matter? I mean, that stuff happens), and the Whitecaps barely showed up tonight. Hold on…I’m scouring my notes for exonerating details for Vancouver’s overall outing. I think I end on the over-arching and important statement that Vancouver will not be this bad again this season (and, if they are, god bless you Carl Robinson, because you’re fucked) and David Ousted looks close to possessed in his mission of absolutely fucking killing every last ghost of his sharply sub-par 2016 season. We’re talking Biblical and/or Rome v. Carthage level hatred. Serious shit, basically.
As for Portland, I have, literally, one complaint. I’ll get to that shortly, because I want to start with one fun detail. Tonight, more than any thought or moment, confirmed a couple ideas that seem fundamental to the Portland Timbers’ 2017. In no particular order:
1) I would take as little as possible from tonight’s game because it demonstrates one of soccer’s great truisms: if one team can’t find a way to pressure the other, the game will necessarily be lopsided. An attack that depends on de Jong finding a way around an outside back without a leading pass to help him, and using Giles Barnes to combine through traffic, and all of that with Erik Hurtado up top, has more going against it than for it. That’s less about those players than playing those players (yes, aware of the pile-up of “player”) in weird, dumb spots. All I’m saying is, I’m continuing to think about Carl Robinson’s place in the world, not starting to.
2) On Portland’s side, it’s still very much the Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi Show. As much as I think the night belonged to Vytas (cheerio, pip, pip!), and as much as I thought Adi looked a little sloppy here and there tonight (screw it; the man deserves a few nights off), both players facilitated play all over (Valeri, especially, who looks as good as he ever has, if not better in terms of preseason), and, as is their wont, showed up in the decisive moments, too. That’s less a knock on the rest of the team (Dairon Asprilla excepted, though even he improved over the course of the game) than to say that, if Sebastian Blanco really starts rolling for Portland…holy shit. Just, HOLY SHIT!
Before digging into details, I want to flag just one moment in the game – and it’s not even a moment that lead to anything, but it framed an idea like a photograph, only in real-time. First, there’s a little prefacing: Portland gloriously worked its way into Vancouver’s 18 at least twice during the period after the ‘Caps put on a few of their starters – so, by that I mean, the Timbers were playing something closer to Vancouver’s best…and they still walked the ball in. Both shots fell to Darren Mattocks and he did good by both of them; Ousted did better by one, and Mattocks could only stab at the other. Still, if Portland can do that all year, we are in A World of High Upside.
Le Moment Magique in my mind was a little more subtle. To set the scene, the ball found Valeri a few steps on top and to the left of Vancouver’s 18; Darlington Nagbe, meanwhile, lurked to his right near the top of the 18. What made this play fun was watching Nagbe hang back while Valeri lunged in; that mattered because Nagbe knew that, by hanging back, he created space for Valeri’s lunge; more to the point, Nagbe also knew that, even if Valeri got a step ahead of him, he was fine holding his run because Valeri would be able to skip the ball to him, even if from a step ahead, and Nagbe knew he could cope with the pass that followed too. This goes without saying, but, when the level of faith is that high, it’s a little easier to believe. (TM)
All in all, I’m feeling real, real positive about the Timbers’ chances right now – and that’s even without the team signing a starting centerback. As I see it, and – UGH, jesus, YES! I know this is preseason – Portland looks, like, eye-catchingly solid in the middle, if only when the starting line-up takes the field. All the same, I mentioned a complaint up top, so I better get to that before I start falling all over myself (and dramatically fainting onto the chaise lounge, and posing provocatively over the arm of the couch), about how the Timbers look this season.
1) Lawrence Olum Doesn’t Pass Very Well, And This Is More Interesting Than You Think
For a small stretch immediately after halftime tonight, I joined in a frothy debate on twitter about Liam Ridgewell’s relative quality when it comes to centerbacks with good ideas about how to pass out of the back. My opponent came at me with statistics (valid ones, too), I came back at him with the eye test. When it comes to soccer, I might think stats are largely shit (no, in virtually all cases I do), but I’m also not willing to discard a raw number just because the eye test tells me to. As such, and to get back to the title of this sub-section, I’d be willing to accept that Olum underhit, overhit, and generally caused more problems than he solved tonight while passing out of the back, but I’m still OK with him in the defense, so long as he serves the primary purpose of any good defender – e.g. getting in the way.
Swear to god, people over-think this shit. And, yes, I still question the meaning of that long-ball statistic. Hell, I’m not even sure “saves” means shit as anything beyond the loose, useful reminder that your goalkeeper was busy.
2) Vytas and Nagbe
This partnership worked tonight pretty well as I assumed it would – e.g., Vytas goes forward while Nagbe leans back. While a couple more goals would have been nice, especially given the relative dominance, I do believe that Portland has a great two-pronged attack from the left, and promising (and well-compensated) seeds of the same on the right. I can’t close this section without admitting the Vancouver’s defense dropped too deep on both of Portland’s goals (e.g., they ball-watched), but Valeri’s run on the first goal (late, even if not by much) speaks eloquently to the Lithuanian’s upside as a Timber. And then Nagbe drops back, per his natural inclination…..drool…
3) The Anchor
GUYS. Based on tonight alone – and, crucially, with just, like, a month to build it up - the Diego Chara / David Guzman central midfield pairing looks like two well-oiled cogs turning one another in righteous circles. As someone who indulges in (positive) hyperbole on cycles that track eclipses (rare? right?), I think Portland has an actually elite midfield pairing for 2017, for as long as it may last (by injury and/or act of an angry god) and may god bless it. I read the same thing about how immediately simpatico Guzman and Chara are right now, but I never thought I’d see it on the field so soon. My point is, and this comes from nothing, these guys talked about soccer on the way in. They look good right now.
Overall, I don’t read anything into Portland’s preseason beyond anything that feels like something the team can work with. And, happily, I’m seeing that stuff, as well as greenshoots all over…
…here’s a funny thing, though. What if everyone else does what we’re doing, only better?
I think we’re about to enter into a VERY interesting time…