Monday, March 27, 2017

Columbus Crew SC 3-2 Portland Timbers: Slow Reflexes and Broken Ladders; MLS Week 4 (Hangover)

David? Darling?
True story, I failed the oft-tricky Eastern Time v. Pacific Time test this past weekend, so I missed catching the Portland Timbers v. Columbus Crew SC live. Whatever. It was a short, stupid weekend regardless, so the whole thing felt half-assed, and I’m going all over the record on this point:

MLS Week 4 is not over until at least the majority of Major League Soccer’s teams have played their 4th game of season. So, no, this was not MLS Week 4, this was farce dry-humping a charade, and I refuse to have any part of it.

Except now, when I talk about it. At some length.

By the time this post goes up, I’ll probably be, oh, an hour, maybe an hour and a half, after finally sitting through the full 90 minutes (plus stoppage) of the Timbers weird, but not crushing, 3-2 loss to Columbus. I’ll spend the balance of this post going over what I saw in that game, but I’m going to start with this weekend’s – let’s call it what it is – smattering of MLS Results during what this shite…I mean, site (hmm) has decided to officially call MLS Week 3 MLS Hangover .

The whole thing (and the backstory as to how I cocked up catching the Timbers game) kicked off with the U.S. Men’s 6-0 win over Honduras in a World Cup qualifier that brought the U.S. soccer community ten fistfuls of Rolaids worth of relief. I tweeted a couple thoughts that aren’t novel enough to repeat here, but my personal bottom line is that, if Arena…wait, hold on. Shit. OK, I have another embarrassing announcement to make: my head is so far up the ass of someone who is very, very far away from the CONCACAF qualifying schedule that I didn’t really fully realize how loosely people were apply “must-win” to the Honduras match.

Guys, the U.S. has seven games to play (including Panama tomorrow). Yeah, choking against Mexico hurt, and Costa Rica was like pulling the U.S.’s pants down on a very, very cold day indeed – and, if you think you're glad Jurgen Klinsmann’s gone, I'm just more glad than you (if perhaps for different reasons) – but, again, the United States Men still have seven games left. Sure, you might have known that, but I just found that out (and will improve on due diligence going forward), and only two of those seven games come against teams that, no offense, the U.S. should beat at home and draw on the road, at a minimum, and with more or less whatever personnel we have on hand. So, that’s the U.S. game.

I already posted on the other game I watched over MLS Week 3 Hangover – e.g., the New England Revolution kicking Minnesota United FC 5-2, and while they’re down…by which I mean a couple inches recessed into the Earth down, but, no, it’s not going well. for the MLS team everyone should love (for now). At any rate, I have about posted about a page’s worth of content on that. And that leaves the only other MLS/U.S. game of the weekend, the sullen draw between the New York Red Bulls and visiting Real Salt Lake.

New York Red Bulls 0-0 Real Salt Lake
This was one of those games that remind you how hard it is to score on soccer – a good (and, hopefully, sobering) reminder after watching the U.S. score off just about everything they kicked toward goal. Back to the game at hand, honestly, the biggest point of interest on this one may have the broadcast guy’s habit of pronouncing “Felipe” as “Fa-Leep-EE.” To hit in broad strokes, RSL threated to score early (and really should have, at least twice), but New York rallied strongly enough to argue that they should have won it. As for the rest, I have a couple quick thoughts.
Real Salt Lake
Some part of me has started to think of Yura Movsisyan as a failed assumption of RSL’s 2017 game-plan; I mean, he’s supposed to be the focus of their attack, and while it’s great(??) he scored RSL’s only goal this season, he, like the rest of the team, has also scored just that one goal. I’m also concerned that Sunday “Sunny” Stephen is a liability out there; the guy fouls like Diego Chara, but without the smiling subtlety, and he’s a sloppier passer.
New York Red Bulls
They did come reasonably close, all things considered. Bradley Wright-Phillips missed something he’d normally bury, and Kemar Lawrence looked like the best player on the field, etc., but, to explain New York in guy, I’m going with Frederik Gulbrandsen. He’s good, he had some good and useful moments (some very useful), but that’s just it: he’s just good. That applies to a lot of New York’s current team, even a kid with decent prospects like Aaron Long (he plays 24; thought he was younger); is that enough for 2017?

Anyway, that’s probably too much of that. Will seek to shorten future. Started with the last sentence. Just imagine the articles…

Columbus Crew SC 3-2 Portland Timbers
First, was Columbus the better team? I’d say yes, even if only down to that whole thing about dictating tempo. For all that, Portland had their shots, maybe even better ones all in all; Fanendo Adi demanded the best of Columbus ‘keeper Zack Steffen with a point-blank header, Valeri hit the post and, outside a stretch around the high-30s mark, Portland found ways to kick the ball at Columbus’ goal with thoroughly decent regularity. So, Columbus “dictated the pace,” but Columbus fans shouldn’t love their win and Portland fans shouldn’t hate this loss.

Control won Saturday because Portland let in three goals, but those goals resulted less from…what the hell, let’s make up a term and call it indirect bad defending. It’s actually a fairly revealing concept. For all intents and purposes, two of Columbus’ goals were random. The second goal, spectacular as it was, best fits that bill: Portland’s Jake Gleeson absolutely screwed up (won’t lie; hasn’t been great the last couple, kid), but how often does he come that far out in the normal course of events? Almost never, so, moving on, aka Columbus’ first. The commentating team focused on bad marking, but I think that misses the real issue – e.g., failing to defend the first cross. Or, to put that another way, once a crossed ball hits ground in the area, anything can happen. And that’s why your better defenses never let that happen.

That’s why I named the phenomenon “indirect bad defending”; there’s a “but, for” element to the breakdown, as in “but for Gleeson chasing a ball he couldn’t get,” or “but for Portland losing that first ball to Johathan Mensah.” I’m relieved by that, personally, because that meant Portland didn’t cough up the goals by way of losing defensive shape during play (though Columbus’ third goal comes closer to that; also, I'll allow that's a switch-off by Powell). Or, to hit that from the as-yet-unmentioned “absentee problem” (I’m really liking the scare quotes tonight, yes?), I don’t think that having either David Guzman or Darlington Nagbe on Saturday would have prevented those goals. That’s not to say they weren’t missed…

Portland’s biggest problem on the day was damned, depressing simple: they couldn’t pass the goddamn ball out of the back fer shit (this is the....shit! I didn't once mention a broken ladder till now?). Columbus pressed high, whether by game-plan or because they smelled sweat/blood, and, in doing so, they choked off Portland’s path between defense and attack; this didn’t matter all the time – as noted above, Portland got their chances – but this absolutely showed up in terms of Columbus “dictating the game.” To drop the weight of this on two players’ shoulders, I’d point to Lawrence Olum and Amobi Okugo. Olum…how to put this? Olum could find Adi from the back, but not reliably, and anything shorter than that, even the stuff out to the fullbacks, failed to come off way too often. But I think Okugo was the bigger story…

Amobi Okugo is a player I’ve defended in the past, but tonight was enough to get me wondering whether MLS has passed him by. The one thing I particular I spotted was him walking into, and standing in, pockets that took him out of the game. Overall, though, not commanding enough for central defense, not fast enough for fullback, and not skilled enough for central midfield, I’d argue that Okugo has only one place on an MLS roster, and that’s as backup exactly where he showed up on Saturday. I’m not just shitting on Okugo for fun, either, so much as I’m acknowledging that he’s a major, meaningful drop off from Guzman, and on two levels: Guzman plays the ball out of the back better than any deep-lying player the Timbers have, and he’s totally fine operating without a net. If you put Nagbe anywhere in front of him, and Portland can break out anytime and, with that, you have a game that looks nothing like Saturday’s. And that’s why I’m not sweating this one. If Guzman goes down, then we’ll talk…and that’s not…where I want things to be. Moreover, it would take very special central defender to fix that.

Before I close this out, I do want to comment on/credit Columbus. Their pressure absolutely worked, and they survived what was, for me, an off-night (in an off-couple-years) for Ethan Finlay, on top of a night where 6 of 10 passes by Federico “Pipa” Higuain went wrong (the secret to Pipa: every, oh, 12th pass he hits is perfect, and everyone 20th potentially lethal); Higuain’s secret is persistence; how much he moves and does, when combined with enough talent, means he’ll give you a handful of chances just about every game.

Columbus has some intriguing shifts after that. Based on this one game, newly-promoted captain Wil Trapp upped the intensity/aggression this season. The bigger plot point comes with Brazilian arrival Artur, the (as I read it) like-for-like replacement for Tony Tchani. They’re actually an interesting contrast – e.g., Artur feels like a more patient player in how he manages possession, but Artur didn’t look all that different on the aggression scale, down even to the penchant for heavy (but not yet cheap) fouls (a Tchani specialty, sadly). So, in my mind, that’s one to watch with Columbus.

And Ola Kamara. Sure, he only hits that shot, say, 3 times out of 10 attempts, but he’s gonna score goals. Unlike, say, Movsisyan. And, hell yes, that counts.

There’s one more quick, big picture caveat I want to throw out – and this applies to all teams, even as it was the Timbers, in particular, who inspired it. I think fans sometimes forget that it matters that their hometown team faces a different opponent every week. Columbus, for instance, loves pushing their fullbacks way up the field, and that gives fits to the opposing teams’ fullbacks – in this case, Alvas Powell and Zarek Valentin. To his immense credit, Valentin had as good a defensive game as I can remember; Powell, meanwhile, wasn’t at all perfect, but he also faced the stronger half of Columbus. Little wrinkles like that are hell to keep track of – to go a little deeper, they form a plausible foundation for the love/hate relationships that sometimes develop between fan and player – but they sure as hell matter.

OK, what’s left? Oh, I like Roy Miller, at least based tonight. He’s very vocal, for one, and that’s a key job description for a lot of central defenders, but I also saw him shifting to cover positions between the back four and the deep midfielders with a comforting alertness. We’ll see where that goes, but nice early return. Oh, and Sebastian Blanco: I’m not sure the Timbers have him sorted yet, but I have a good feeling on him, even as I worry that he’s gonna make us narrow.

Finally, where are people on Dairon Asprilla’s performance? Think I’ll ask twitter…

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