Sunday, February 12, 2017

Portland Timbers 2-2 Minnesota United: A Comeback That's Less Stirring than Reassuring


With the Portland Timbers clawing back to a 2-2 draw against MLS new kids, Minnesota United FC, it feels like we’re finally getting to a place where fans and weirdos like me have a deep enough sandbox to play in. This being (my personal) first contact with Minnesota, I want to dig into them first.

Overall, though, tonight’s lessons are:

1) Minnesota has enough of a plan.
2) Portland has a better one.
3) And Portland has both (some) depth and a plan for it.

All that’s pure speculation, of course, me projecting fantasies into a Being Caleb Porter automaton that is more me than Caleb Porter, and therefore is it really Caleb Porter?

At any rate, on Minnesota United FC
Combine a little distraction (e.g., dinner and Grammys) with a more than a little unfamiliarity, I cannot tell a lie, but I’m not sure about when, if or whether Minnesota made changes on the field. All my notes are therefore, 1) general, while also being, 2) about players who stood out. All in all, Minnesota feels conservative, a team that will use solidity as a platform from which inspiration can jump that much higher, and I’m drawing that less from their roster, than from a one-game sample – tonight’s game, in fact, and that’s totally it. You’ve been warned.

The one player I kept seeing for Minnesota was their Brazilian midfielder, Ibson. And, for frame of (potentially meaningless) reference, Ibson’s more Dunga than Socrates. Based on tonight’s game, he plays more safety valve than weapon, and that’s nothing to sniff at: teams need calm and pacing and Ibson looked good in that role. It probably also helps that he's familiar to the club, a sort of anchor for the transition. He also benefitted from having a stopping block behind him in the person of Joseph Greenspan (yep, U.S. Navy kid); he’s a big kid, maybe the next Axel Sjoberg, even though Greenspan never looked as elegant. So long as Minnesota has Kevin Molino (who not so much smoked as evaporated (an admittedly stranded Zarek Valentin), Christian Ramirez’s (at-first-blush) intriguing attacking tools, and – golly! – if Bashkim Kadrii didn’t present as someone to watch this 2017: yeah, I think they have stuff to work with. I don’t expect a flawless start, but that team – the one I saw for the first and only time – looked like they’ll be competitive enough.

But now, Portland
Porter started his depth tonight, so I went into the game in a good mood, y’know, positive. As Dear Leader himself said, “what the hell have you got to lose?” Moreover, the Platonic form of that starting line-up inspired the idea that “preseason doesn’t matter.” The Timbers First-Team-Sub-A did their damnedest to show up that cliché by coming out amped! Some players showed better than others – for me, Amobi Okugo looked a little better than Ben Zemanski, but both looked fine – but, on a basic level, only Victor Arboleda stood out. That kid tried all kinds o’ shit within the first 15, and it was fun to watch; he faded a bit, but never stopped being menacing and solid, even if broadly.

Still, the defensive unit/response lacked a bit with this group.  I’ll start by wishing I had a clearer idea as to which iteration of Minnesota faced the Timbers tonight, but Minnesota’s first goal raised the red flag…about a couple of players in particular. Re-watch that and you’ll see Zarek Valentin look like an immediate cause for that goal; it took the broadcast crew to point to the deeper problem of Marco Farfan’s swing and a miss near the midfield stripe, which thereby isolated Valentin against Minnesota’s Molino, aka, one of those situations with a very, very predictable outcome (e.g. the significantly slower Valentin being forced to accept, “well, at least I didn’t fall on my bottom” as a Pyrrhic victory for his self-esteem).

The second goal actually felt a little worse, if only by way of feeling more systemic – specifically, a failure to having an in-the-moment way to assume responsibility. I don’t have video, so, hope your memory matches mine, but Kadrii made that goal happen by pushing the ball into a seam equidistant from all nearby Timbers players, and that action that produced the kind of vicinity-specific paralysis that makes good stuff happen in soccer. Give Minnesota’s attackers full credit for the rest of that attacking sequence – I mean, it really was something, especially Kadrii’s (probably) leading flick to Johan Venegas (probably) – but that first breakdown caused the problem. And that’s when a team needs better defenders, and…left hanging because Portland simply is not deep at central defense, not unless Costa Rica made Roy Miller go all novus homo on the soccer world.

I still feel pretty positive about what I saw in Portland’s depth. They started strong, just straight-up owned the first 15 minutes. Sure, it was a little grabastic, but individual players showed their upsides here and there: as noted above, Arboleda has the skills to test tired and/or untried players (and he’s not bad on the other side, and can clean up his game, etc.), and his near-assist to Dairon Asprilla showed real thought and poise; when the game started to turn against Portland, I thought Okugo played a lesser version of the same calming role Ibson played for Minnesota. Based on tonight, and pending further evaluation, I want to see Arboleda stick in the game-day 18. And I’d pick Okugo over Ben Zemanski.

Finally, I caught glimpses of the (sorry) B-team playing the same system I saw when David Guzman plays – e.g. the defensive midfielder dropping between the two centerbacks, who split wide when Portland has/wants possession. I could be misremembering, but I swear that last season (especially), when the Timbers had possession, they had just the two centerbacks (Nat Borchers (too soon) and Liam Ridgewell) all the way back and about 30-40 yards apart. I think the master plan has Guzman (or, tonight, Zemanski, and sometimes Okugo) drop all the way back centrally to both keep hold of the ball and, then, from that foundation, move it forward using Guzman/Zemanski/Okugo. It feels right, really, because it allows Guzman to fulfill Darlington Nagbe’s role in transition, but with Guzman’s…essentially, half-psychotic desire to dominate that area of the field in a way Nagbe never could. I’m not sure Chara can do it either; Guzman has the physical presence.

At any rate, Portland’s center looks positive with Guzman in there so far and, if mostly through the presence of Lawrence Olum, I think it’ll function well enough if the team has to try the same thing with Okugo. Or Zemanski. Honestly, it’s close between those two. Measuring hills instead of mountains, but, sometimes, you have what you have. Still, the real test comes if/when you lose both Guzman and Olum, or, god forbid, Guzman and Ridgewell. There's the clammy thought for your nightmares.

So, that’s the defense. The game shifted dramatically not so much when Portland’s starting attackers took the field, but about 10 minutes after. From there on, though, it was all “holy shit, Minnesota!” What I saw from the attacking unit tonight really did make me wonder how great Portland’s defense needs to be. If that attack – and, to be clear, I’m talking about a total of eight players at various points – stays healthy, the Timbers have some serious potential for 2017.

I had vague theories about how a left wing composed of Nagbe and Vytas Andriuskecivius would work (e.g. Nagbe drops (because, Nagbe) while Vytas flies forward), and that was the lion’s share of what happened. For all that, Nagbe will always be free to use Vytas as a decoy to attack the channel between fullback and the opposition’s central defense. It was fun watching Sebastian Blanco tonight. I noticed that his wasn’t a ‘speed” game; while he’s capable of the novel touch, he’s happier combining (say, with Diego Valeri; some tight-rope shit toward the end), and playing a leading pass…say to Alvas Powell. Basically, Portland has a situation where they can potentially go around the fullback, or pull the fullback wide to open up the seam, with two dribbling schemers (Nagbe and Blanco) screaming in (well, maybe in Blanco’s case? Maybe?). And, moving around all that space between like free radicals, you’ve got Valeri and Fanendo Adi. guys, that’s like, a lot to cope with. And it feels awesome, and promising, and....oh my god, am I crying?

This was a good game overall. Think I’ve said that before, but...well, I hope the elaborations filled in the blank(s). With Portland’s starting eleven feeling something a lot like clear, I’d like to see 60-30 splits, with the B-Team starting over the A-Team, right up until the final preseason game against the Los Angeles Galaxy. And I’m not sure that I wouldn’t want to see it there, either. I still want to see more of Rennico Clarke (because, um…), plus Chance Myers looks like he could use a little more time before he’s a good back-up at right back, and I want a clearer heir apparent to Guzman’s specific (so far, really) useful role, etc. Failing that, I want a secondary system nailed down as much as it can be.

There is some promise here. The last two games felt lousy with guts. And that’s a good first step. I think Portland has better personnel than I credited the team with having, and that’s just all kinds of great.

Yours in over-enthusing!

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