Saturday, March 4, 2017

Portland 5-1 Minnesota: Guts, Glory, and Blown Timelines Edition

Two men enter, one man leaves. And keeps the bird.
Had you asked me when I went to bed last night about the side of the field Diego Valeri was on when he scored his penalty kick, I would have said the far side. Had someone disagreed with that, I would have said, “Well, guess there’s only one way to settle this,” and rolled up my sleeves for some deadly-serious arm wrestling.

And yet, I would have been completely wrong. Valeri scored his penalty kick right in front of me. Portland would score four more running toward my seats – Fanendo Adi surged straight toward my seats (if a little under them) when he made his second-half stoppage-time solo raid – but, overall, I lost the hell out of the sense of when just about everything happened in last night's 5-1 win for Portland (just linking to full highlights for now; I'll get links to individual goals up later/probably). In case it’s not clear in the above, my sense of timing would have meant that Valeri scored his penalty kick in the first half.

But Portland scored just one goal in the first half, that ugly, blessed thing by Lawrence Olum poked over Minnesota’s ‘keeper John Alvbage. It might not have been the prettiest goal (OK, no, it was ugly), but it came as a hell of a relief, right? What’s better than an early goal to soothe doubts and calm the jitters?

The way the time-line slipped up has the subtle, secondary meaning: that Portland always looked more or less in control of the game. Between the way my memory works and all the dumb ways I handicap it, most games live in my head as a series of events; sometimes they’re linear, but most often they’re not. For instance, for last night’s game, I never lost track of the fact that Portland scored five goals and that, at some point, Minnesota United FC (wow, that’s the first time I mentioned them?) pulled back a goal. That’s the salient detail – that Portland always had the lead – so the sequence doesn’t matter…or at least that’s what I tell myself so I don’t start asking too many questions about how things are working upstairs. (Where did you put my memory pills, Judy? Randall can’t find them.)

The other thing that didn’t work last night – and this was a bit of a surprise – was Minnesota’s defense. There will always be the question of what leads to any given goal, whether it’s attacking brilliance of defensive idiocy, and I think Portland’s second goal (and the winner) offers up a good case for dissection. While it’s true on the one hand that Portland maneuvered the ball smartly into Minnesota’s final third – the way Alvas Powell played the ball into Adi with his back to goal, and Sebastian Blanco shifted into acres of space outside, where Adi found him for the (inch-perfect) cross to Valeri (who really seems to like scoring with his head this year) – it’s no less true that, on the other hand, Minnesota’s defense didn’t rotate anyone out to Blanco until it was far, far too late.

I’m not completely sure where I got the idea that Minnesota would defend well this year, or whether that’s a narrative I somehow concocted, but that back four had “expansion team” written all over it. While none of their defenders covered themselves in glory – Jermaine Taylor lurked uselessly nearby on the Timbers’ first two goals, and was it Vadim Demidov who pulled down Adi both times – but left fullback Justin Davis had the shakiest night of the bunch. That short little drop to Alvbage, the one that Adi almost picked off, was just the lowest lowlight.

To flip the script back over again, and to flag my personal highlight from Portland’s perspective, Blanco forced Davis into a lot of those fits. For as long as preseason lasted, one question persisted: what kind of a player did the Timbers get in Blanco. To give one answer: if Blanco can do to other MLS players what he did to Davis last night, Portland landed one hell of a player. Blanco retrieved the play that led to the Timbers’ first goal by chasing down and wrestling for a lost-cause ball with two Minnesota defenders (wanna say Calvo and Davis), one that followed from a return pass that Valeri overcooked and caromed off Blanco’s run. That shining moment was just the one that shined brightest, because Blanco put in a great shift on both sides of the ball.

David Guzman’s night tells a similar story – he had this one moment where he spun two Minnesota attackers in Portland’s defensive third and then kept himself between them and the ball until they fouled him – and that’s the happy first chapter in Portland’s 2017 so far. Portland had three positions of need at the end of last season: they needed something different in defensive midfield, they needed a winger/new attacking threat, and they needed a central defender. The team went out and got players for two of those problems – Guzman for defensive midfield and Blanco for the attacking piece – and both not only look like upgrades, they fit in well with the existing good parts that the Timbers already had. And, watching the replay this morning, I heard chatter about a new central defender arriving in May, so there’s something to get excited about, but, but, that’s with what we have – Guzman, Olum and Liam Ridgewell – working well enough as a defensive unit.

That name, Ridgewell, does bring me to my one gripe about the evening: the Timbers failed to keep a clean sheet. Again. As much as I’m not one to shit on isolated moments – at least not until patches of isolated moments build up until they become a field big enough for me to shit on – I only ask that people go back and look at Minnesota’s goal. Now, watch what Ridgewell did on that play and ask yourself: why the hell is he standing several steps away from Christian Ramirez with his arm up to call for offsides, and at an angle that isn’t goal-side from Ramirez? Why isn’t he more focused on stepping up, or at least closing that lane toward goal – e.g., the one through which the ball would eventually pass?

It doesn’t make sense to end a report on a 5-1 win on a downer, so I won’t. Minnesota didn’t put together too many threatening moments last night, and that’s down to Portland being well-organized generally on the defensive side, and delightfully aggressive in the attack. I commented to the person sitting next to me (the kind soul who kicked over the ticket, in fact; helluva lady) on how Portland didn’t give Minnesota a way through during much of the first half, and I think that held pretty well save for a couple breakdowns when the Loons scrambled up the Timbers’ defensive scheme in the second. There was also a time around the 30th minute when Portland expertly circulated bodies around in its own area to keep Minnesota from firing, a stand they followed by launching an absolutely hair-raising counter-attack. Controlled, then lethal makes for one hell of a one-two.

For all that, I want to restrain my optimism. Minnesota didn’t threaten Portland much, and we have yet to see whether that’s about a bad night out or if that’s about their level as a team. That goes double now that, upon review, I have a better sense of this game’s timeline. Portland might have looked in control all night, but how many teams will have a better shot at turning Portland’s 2-1 second half lead into a 2-2 draw instead of a 3-1 hole, as Minnesota did last night. Still a whole heap of questions out there, people. We’ll dig into that next time.

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