Sunday, February 5, 2017

Timbers Tie Seattle, and a Theoretical Update on the U.S. Men

Mom/Caleb makes me walk away.

I know I said I wasn’t going to comment on any Portland Timbers preseason games until the two before the season. I also know that I’ve run out of ways to say, “MLS Team X picked up Player Y. I don’t know anything about Player Y, so this move feels Z.” (And that's been the staple of a lot of the Late Tackle posts). I still want to talk about soccer, so, in two parts, I’ll write what I’ve got about yesterday’s 1-1 draw between the Timbers and the Seattle Sounders; after that, I’ll close a couple notes on the state of the U. S. Men’s National Team. Or at least what it feels like after a short sample…

Speaking of short samples, and I say this with love, I never know how much heart and brainpower I should invest when the Timbers play the mix of trialists, draftees, T2 guys and players from the Siberia end of the bench. Even if I like what I see, what are the actual odds that I’ll see that player again? Like petting a puppy at a pet store, I tell you…

Meanwhile, on Seattle’s side of the ledger, they sent out one of the rare MLS line-ups that I greet with a rare, but literal and thorough, “who the fuck is that?” Anonymity notwithstanding, one of those guys forced a penalty kick and forced the tie. And, yeah, I know Harry Shipp, and best o’ luck to the poor bastard. He’s on the tough end of a chunky depth chart. (And, guys? That picture? The one on the team’s roster page? He looks like a still from an ISIS snuff video. Maybe do a re-shoot, yeah?)

To wrap up Seattle, that seems like a good place to start. So, they got that Swedish cat, Gustav Svensson, and he seems to lurk around the same part of the field where people got used to seeing Cristian Roldan last season, so what’s that mean when Osvaldo Alonso comes back? As much as I preach squad rotation, players can get restless watching and, before you know it, a guy like Roldan accidentally winds up in the bin marked “surplus to requirements,” and then what, y’know? Depth is good and all, and I support it; it can have consequences. That’s all.

Seattle looked pretty slick yesterday; thanks to some good ideas about how to move the ball through the lines, they got to goal fluidly…where all people watching were treated to an human-scale exposition on the difference between Will Bruin and Jordan Morris. Dempsey looked OK, even if more as part of that process of moving the ball toward Portland’s goal, and he had a nicely athletic flail on goal before coming off, and that was nice, etc. If anyone stood out for me on Seattle’s side of the ball yesterday, it was Joevin Jones. He’s really becoming something, that one…

OK, now, Portland…just some stray notes, yes? It’s preseason for all of us…

First, they looked far, far more coherent than they did against the New York Red Bulls – and that’s either a statement on how good the Red Bulls will be this year or a supporting argument for the value of another week’s training. And I think that held, even in the second half. I have only a few specific notes there. I’ll address the low-hanging point first: for all that Victor Arboleda, possesses good physical tools, and even decent instincts, he’s pretty damn loose with the ball. That’s not a strong comment one way or the other, especially given the sample size (two games), it’s just being noted.

On the second point, someone (Back Office Gavin) tweeted a note that reads, “Ryan Johnson needs more looks.” Given the context, it’s possible he’s being facetious, but that kicked off one of those conversations that pop into my head as I drift off during a game and one chemical or another kicks in: between Johnson and Jack McInerney, which player better fits the Timbers’ line-up and how they play? If I just think about both players in terms of their attributes, I’d say Johnson, but McInerney made that a harder choice yesterday. It wasn’t just that great feed to Augustine Williams that maybe shoulda lead to a penalty (did it? put it this way: I think the call was reasonable), either. I caught at least a dozen soundly smart, well-delivered passes from McInerney, and in different parts of the field. He was able to do good things when he dropped deep, basically, and while that doesn’t have to mean anything, it…well, noted.

As for the first half, the Timbers looked good enough to get a couple daydreams started. It’s also possible we got a glimpse of how the David Guzman/Diego Chara central pairing will work. While I saw Guzman cheat upfield here and there, he appeared to stick pretty closely to that deeper role. There are times when he’s deep enough to look like part of the defense and, for what it’s worth, I think that’s, 1) by design, and 2) a possible path for Portland to cover the back four until/when the Timbers sign that starting centerback that they talked about (PROMISED!!!) during the broadcast. Chara, then, would push higher on the field to pressure the ball and that feels like a decent system to me, even I’m not sold on Chara as a particularly inventive passer of the ball. I mean, he’s clean, and that’s good…look, I’m not knocking the guy. Chara has a role, and he’s good at it…

…but what kind of fans don’t aspire to godhead?

The only other specific comment I have is that I feel like Dairon Asprilla finally has a clear role for this team. He’s a defensive sub, someone the team can put on to protect a lead, someone who will stay tight and just wrestle the ball off the opposition and kill time. He doesn’t strike me as an attacking solution – and I think that was always the (reasonable) knock on him – but, by winning the ball off Seattle players over two-thirds of the field, he put in a good shift yesterday.

As for the rest, it’s some combination of fine and contingent. By the latter I mean, the team will cohere and (could be wrong, but) I know we haven’t seen this team’s Final, First-Choice Iteration for 2017 as yet. Once that unit starts playing – and this holds even if injuries rob the team of talent between here and the first game; I mean you have who you have when you have them – fans and pundits can start talking about what the chances look like for MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield (yeah, yeah, the U.S. Open Cup; that one’s a total crapshoot). I was encouraged, yesterday (actually, all this happened today; keeping that straight has driven me fucking nuts throughout this post), by hints that Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi still look great and signs that the center of defense could hold against a decent, if rusty Seattle attack (c’mon, they looked all right). For all that, it’s too early to say where this Portland team punches in MLS circles.

I’m going to spend the rest of the night (this is a lie) trying to figure out a schedule of games to watch until (and, really, through) the start of the season. For what it’s worth, I think I’ve found the limit of my use – i.e., the best thing I can do is just watch games, pass on any thoughts that feel novel, and then confirm or deny the stuff I read. That applies to both the Timbers and MLS teams, generally. Oh, and also to these guys…

Camp Cupcake, Graduation Speech
It took me some years to fully grasp the notion that any given country’s national team won’t necessarily play the best soccer that takes place on its own soil. To put that another way, even if you find and field the actual best players from any given country (which, harder than it sounds), the fact that they don’t play together all that much, combined with the reality that gaps in the player pool can’t be repaired by simply going out and finding the kind of player to fit the system (or the coach’s wet dreams), as in, your country produced the player you need or they didn’t, your team’s ceiling will never be optimal. It will only be as good as it gets at each relevant moment, and with a literal shit-ton of factors tripping up the path to the optimal like so many of the team’s own dicks.

Sorry, I just love the “tripping over their own dicks” metaphor that much…did that make sense or too many run-on sentences?

To apply all that gibberish, I was happy with the U.S. Men’s friendlies, and on a couple levels. Sure, the team played one B-team (Serbia) and one team that’s regularly considered “lesser” (Jamaica) and, yes, they struggled to score (I lost count of the number of times I heard or read, “the end-product was missing”). Well, the U.S. went in missing a player or two and they still controlled both games comfortably, if a couple near-fatal slips aside, and, generally, played like they had at least one fucking part of one fucking sense of what they were doing.

That's the big contrast from the Jurgen Klinsmann era, where it was the norm for U.S. teams to look uncertain. And that opens up a conversation. It was only toward the end of Klinsmann’s tenure that word that he didn’t give much in the way of tactical direction leaked out with enough volume to create some momentum. That detail fit something I’d detected as early as the first games in Klinsmann’s tenure – i.e., the broad hesitation in their play – and that appeared here and there throughout his time with the national team...I dunno, maybe they could already hear Klinsmann throwing them under the bus during the game...

The point is, 1) I could absolutely be only seeing what I want to see, and 2) the U.S. looked a lot like the U.S. during these past two games. And I mean that on every single level possible, good and bad. Trying hard and struggling to score is what we do, people. It’s sort of our marker on the international stage, at least until further notice. But what I saw not just Friday, but also last…whenever the fuck we played Serbia, was a U.S. team that beat the opposition to the ball; it was a team that moved around the field as if they knew where the other players were going to be: they looked comfortable, basically, and, as alluded to in the Armchair Analyst’s write-up, that’s a step in the right direction.

It could be that we’ll never climb the Ultimate Mountain (i.e., win the World Cup, then summit K2, then have the U.S. Men’s Team storm the White House Seal-Team-6 style, take out President Trump and announce the dawn of a true, free republic…OK, just the first thing), unless or until a U.S. team can absorb a phrase like “express yourself” with Rosetta-Stone-esque precision. Maybe needing direction is a crippling limitation. In the here and now, though, I think the U.S. plays in stages: we feel comfortable defensively, then we feel confident, then we start actually doing neat stuff in the attack. And with more and more players like that hitting the U.S. pipeline, I think we’re inching towards being a good team on the world stage. And if it takes a coach holding our hand and reading thoughts from a daily affirmations calendar with each and every step, so be it.

To close with some specific notes:

I’m on the Walker Zimmerman bandwagon. Matt Doyle (Armchair guy, in case you’re new; see above) wasn’t as blown away as a couple other people, but his open-field defending impressed me. To see a defensive player make every correct decision and take every correct angle, in his debut, and as he was tracking back against much faster attacking players was enormously reassuring. I’m guessing he’ll be a regular in the side by his late 20s. And maybe before then.

My other standout was Dax McCarty. He’s another player who papers over what he lacks in athleticism with next-level anticipation. More than that, he organizes everyone around him in a way that…I don’t know how to describe it beyond saying you can just see him talk and then see people respond. And, generally, he’s giving great direction. Add his ability to keep a team strung together with passing – and Doyle’s post has a great graphic on this – I’ll admit I’m a big fan of McCarty’s, maybe too big, but I’d still try to get him on the field. And for qualifiers, and all that means. I’m not even sorta kidding.

Last but not at all least, Jordan Morris looks good. By that I mean, I’m actually sold on the kid. (What? I think it’s good to give it a whole year before committing.) As for the goal, Morris absolutely deserves credit for the finish (I mean, there are more ways to fuck that up than not), but trust was the thing that really brought it about. When a team is confident, its players will make tough passes into tight spaces; once they see it can pay off, as it did with the close-knit interplay between Benny Feilhaber and Morris, they’ll believe it’s worth trying, and that’s how they’ll get good at it.

And that, to me, is why U.S. teams need to have direction and structure and defensive solidity. It creates, first the confidence, then the space, for the kind of goal that undid Jamaica. I know there are harder opponents ahead. That only makes it more important for the U.S. to find solid footing before they face them.

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