Sunday, March 12, 2017

Portland Timbers 1-0 Los Angeles Galaxy: A Parade of False Flags

Early season stupor. Also, unfamiliar.
Tonight, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people of good, clear insight. The Portland Timbers picked up their first road win since 2015 when they beat the Los Angeles Galaxy 1-0, and that’s a big deal. Something else slipped past me, given my anxious state, but the Timbers also kept a clean sheet today. So, thanks to @cobolsky and @brioe162, for being wiser men than me.

Still, that “anxious state” followed me home, and it revealed itself in the way some sort of invisible safety net left the game when David Guzman walked off, holding his left arm all funny. Guzman jacked his shoulder, as we all know now, even as we don’t know how badly, on what wound up being a second-yellow challenge from the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Jelle Van Damme. I watched that specific replay often as they showed it, and I’m still not 100%-clear as to whether Van Damme hit Guzman at knee level, or whether Guzman hurt himself on a leap/dive to get around Van Damme’s lunge. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme, I mean, Guzman will take the same amount of time to heal, whether fair or foul, and that’s my biggest take-away from this game.

Things went some form of haywire after Guzman stepped off. Portland’s central defensive arrangement has functioned like a triangle through preseason and Game 1 2017 – e.g. Liam Ridgewell and Lawrence Olum, and with Guzman running in front of them in defense, and dropping between them when Portland had possession. Basically, Guzman really has (near as I can tell, and I can’t promise proximity) played as pure a No. 6 role as Portland will allow, and, once he went off, Portland reverted to Olum and Roy Miller (Ridgewell’s sufficiently creditable replacement) behind Ben Zemanski and Diego Chara, who receded to the back line in order to protect the lead, and the win. The sweet, sweet road win. Smells like honeysuckle on a June night, I tell you…

That was nice, right, sweet reverlry? Now, back to the panic…
LA was bad tonight. Like, global bad. As so often happens, they got sharper after going a man down, but that still doesn’t mean they threatened Portland’s lead. In fact, the best chance I remember them having came at the very, very end of tonight’s game, with a late header by…not looking it up, forced Portland ‘keeper Jake Gleeson’s best moment of a shaky night (seriously, Gleeson flapped at the crosses that he didn’t fail to get to all night and, yikes!). Overall, though, LA stayed away from Portland’s goal the same way that boys dodge cooties by neither talking to nor touching girls. Because, cooties.

That’s the essential caveat for today, and for the 2017 season so far: Portland thoroughly outplayed Minnesota United FC, an expansion team, and the Galaxy rarely got near enough to Portland’s goal to generate any kind of panic, so…so, what do we have here, and I mean on a team level? If Portland beat a team that was clearly not figured out (Minnesota), and then beats a team that doesn’t know how to attack, and by just one (fucking glorious; I mean, did you see this?!) goal, what’s that mean? The Galaxy hasn’t looked good yet this year, and that’s even with Jack McBean looking better in MLS Week 1, and, by that I mean they haven’t consistently sorted out getting into the attacking third, never mind making anything good happen once they get there, so…It’s about broad incoherence in the attack. Their only current focal point is Giovani dos Santos, and he plays(/played) too deep to get near shooting distance and, with Jack McBean starved of service and…just, nothing going on anywhere else for LA, it’s hard to get much out of this besides the Timbers playing to a muddle against a team that’s, to be blunt, not what it once was…and that includes during Bruce Arena’s 2016 stewardship.

I don’t see LA improving under Curt Onalfo, at least not on current evidence, even as Onalfo was handed a pretty detailed user’s manual, one that probably read, “Keep doing exactly what Bruce did. EXACTLY!” Onalfo might be trying too, but one can only see and work with the eyes he or she has, and I’m not sure Onalfo has that.

Before flipping back to Portland, I can’t ignore the fact that LA broke another basic dictum of MLS: when you can’t outplay the opposition, out-work it. LA never seemed interesting in raising the tempo – not even at home against a Western Conference rival – and that doesn’t just go against where MLS is right now, it’s a bizarre decision on its own. LA set their line of engagement behind their center stripe – and that’s fine, it’s choice and all that – but they never decided to even try to pin Portland in their own defensive third and….well, that’s it. LA played this game bad and weird, and I’m not sure what to think about that beyond wondering how much of that falls on Onalfo.

Now, Portland…

Again, that goal was nuts. It doesn’t rely on the semi-telepathy I will shortly hint at on Montreal Impact’s players, but every piece of the transition possessed the kind of perfect precision that makes a tap-in (or a slam-dunk or blown-coverage pass in the NFL) possible. LA pressed too high (what? no, they did press up in the attack, they just never used a pretty defensively), and a combination of Sebastian Blanco, Diego Chara, Diego Valeri and Chara again, utterly depantsed LA inside half a dozen or fewer passes. I will drift off tonight, though, with memories of Chara’s divinely perfect header to unleash Valeri playing in a loop in my head.

And that’s swell and all, but I’m also sure that’s there’s a ton left to say, one way or the other. I think the best thing I can do right now is march through the parts of the team that seem relevant and drop praise or shit, as appropriate. And, in case it’s not clear, I’m only going to talk about anyone who did something visibly different from the norm – e.g., unless a player excelled, flopped, or failed to do something noteworthy, he’ll go unmentioned. Here goes…

Jake Gleeson: He looked nervy tonight. Does he have a DUII hearing tomorrow or is that all behind him?

Michael Farfan: He looked fine and that’s a good sign. Just 18 years old, and that's kinda wacky.

Roy Miller/Lawrence Olum: There was one moment tonight when I think one of these guys – and I think it was Miller - stepped all the way up to the center line to disrupt a play. I think I also saw Olum carry a ball to the top of LA’s defensive third. I’m OK with that, too, because the Timbers need a foil/buddy for the read/react (slowly? eventually?) impulses of current/potentially long-term defensive starter, Liam Ridgewell…also, wouldn’t it be funny if any of Portland’s current defenders displaced Ridgewell on the roster as a starter?

If Guzman does go down for any length of time, who’s the best player to replace him? I mean, here’s the roster, and seriously I’m about to float a really loose poll (the Zarek Valentin float) on the subject…curious to see what comes of it.

Ben Zemanski just looked weird tonight. Not awful, but also insufficiently aggressive. Look, I don’t know how much he’s to blame for Portland’s over-cautious demeanor, I’m not even sure he’s to blame at all, but I do know that he’s not even trying the kind of passes that make the opposition adjust/panic, and isn’t that every player’s god-given job? (What do you mean, no?)

Diego Chara, meanwhile, was a GOD tonight. It wasn’t just the goal, either; when Portland needed a guy to find space, it was usually Chara at least pushing into that space. Guzman going down cut into that, or at least that's my working theory...yeah, it's possible I'm organizing the team around Guzman as a first principle...we'll have to see whether that leads to enlightenment....

I have a couple other thoughts in my head, but most of them have to do with the same things I always say about Darlington Nagbe (I saw the nasty tonight and, oh sweet, wet Jesus, YES, I liked it (down to the nipple clamps), but until Nagbe feels and acts like a real threat (he got closer tonight), I, and expect other teams, will take it under advisement. Sebastian Blanco had a couple combative pokes away from the opposition, but he was otherwise quiet and, honestly, LA contained most of Portland’s attack in some rough way…and even after Van Damme came off...

And I guess that’s the bottom line. If you take away the considerable achievement of the road win (and at LA!) – nothing much happened tonight. A team that feels reasonably good and sure of itself (even if the specific states vary) beat a team in flux (LA). That’s good for Portland fans, don’t’ get me wrong. But it doesn’t necessarily spell future success. Especially not with Guzman limping off…is it just me, or did tonight make it feel like he’s Plan A & Plan B?

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