Sunday, March 19, 2017

Portland Timbers 4-2 Houston Dynamo: Referees and Comeback's a Bitch

Referees pictured at right, toward the top...

I can’t speak for the rest of Providence Park, but, the second the halftime whistle blew, my little corner of it positively raged at the referee (Alex Chapman, right?). So many middle fingers; didn’t think there were enough hands to hold all of ‘em. And  yet, a couple notes on this.

First, referees are as the gods; we are but their playthings. To put that another way, try to think of them the same way the ancient Greek thought of their gods – i.e., as capricious beings meddling in the affairs of mortals – and you’ll keep your blood pressure in check, your face won’t develop lines later in life because you’ll twist it into contortions less often, etc. I guess this makes the crowd a Greek chorus of the crowd, and the players the armies at the foot of Troy’s walls…c’mon, we’ve all read The Iliad, yes?

As for the job of refereeing itself, I view keeping a lid on potential violence during a game as their primary mission. After that, I assume they all try get things right, but I also understand that they’ll bone a few calls most games, and it is what it is. All in all, it’s a shitty, thankless job that both fans and players make worse. A world without referees is a world without soccer, so can we all move on from this particular whining point?

OK, next point…hold on…gotta climb down from my high horse…

Second, in most cases a referee can only hurt a team when they’ve left themselves in a position to be hurt. And that’s at least a bit of what happened last night in the Portland Timbers' (eventual) 4-2 win over the Houston Dynamo: the Timbers coughed up free kicks all around their 18, and most of the fouls were legit – including the one that lead to Houston’s penalty kick. Roy Miller got his leg around Erick “Cubo” Torres, a call was reasonably made, etc.

As for the penalty call itself, once Chapman called DaMarcus Beasley’s thing a handball, he had no choice but to make the same call against Diego Chara. Chara’s handball was worse if you ask me. And maybe that’s part of the reaction in that third paragraph. You want a bad call? Look at the one Johan Kappelhof picked up in the Chicago Fire’s loss to Atlanta United FC. That fucker was draconian, and it buried the Fire (or just helped bury them; we’ll never know).

Even if you found the referee offensive, what about that game, eh? The first half was all frenetic beauty, with each team throwing wailing haymakers at the other. The second half, though, should inspire big dreams in Timbers fans because, once the Dynamo’s dam broke, they flailed in the resulting deluge…gods, floods…what the hell have I been reading lately?

To stick with Houston a bit, their second goal was what I expected/the thing I fretted about on Friday. (can't embed tweet; still in media blackout) Even so, that pass by Alberth Elis deserves respect; no, plaudits; also, the finish by Romell Quioto was nowhere near as easy as he made it look. And, something that might get lost – and it’s important that it doesn’t – it was Torres who flashed the header wide to Elis that got the whole play running. Those three look very good together so far with Torres, especially, finding inventive ways to play to the Hondurans’ strengths (Elis and Quioto are both Honduran; should mention that). The good news for Houston doesn’t end there: Beasley figured out a way around Alvas Powell at least a couple times, and I’ll talk up Alex Lima (who had a minimum of two quality and well-taken chances) to anyone who will listen. If there’s a problem on this team, it’s the back four. I don’t think they’ve managed a clean sheet yet (can’t check, though; behind schedule on everything else), but it’s also fair to pose one big question here:

Is Houston’s defense actually bad, or is Portland’s attack that good? These are the questions we should all struggle to answer definitively, at least in the regular season’s opening weeks. Still, what’s Portland’s goal-differential right now? +7? That’s one hell of a magic sword, people…

Happily, there appear to be an ever-expanding number of reasons why it’s working so well. First and foremost, the Old Reliable – i.e., the Fanendo Adi/ Diego Valeri connection – looks even better this year than it has in the past. They found each other inside the first 30 fucking seconds, and they had a minimum of three similar plays in the first half alone, and that’s a number I’m consciously low-balling. Each player seems to know where the other is, and will ultimately go, without needing much in the way of communication, and they’ve both got the skill to do real damage to any team.

It’s the other pieces coming together that’s contributing to the Timbers’ broad lethality. Yes, that narrow, frustrating win over the Los Angeles Galaxy should temper enthusiasm, but there’s green shoots of what could grow into some damn big trees all around – e.g., Darlington Nagbe’s “Sweep the Leg” assist on David Guzman’s go-ahead goal; Guzman playing in Adi for Portland’s back-breaker (i.e., the fourth goal; though it’s not like anyone was tight on Adi), or, perhaps as interesting as any of it, Valeri’s early-2017 mania for scoring with his head. That tying goal was a weird one, too, from the way Adi bobbled the entry to Zarek Valentin’s half-weird cross (it was effective, but the way he got his body around that ball was so conscious that I could almost hear him talking himself through it in the stands).

All that stuff paid off last night, and the stuff that didn’t completely pay off – e.g. Sebastian Blanco and Powell’s collaboration on Portland’s right (though Blanco earned Portland’s PK, and he’s finding his feet, and he busts ass out there; looks like a SOLID pick-up so far) – looks like it’s developing in due course. So, yeah, so long as all these pieces stay healthy, and maybe even if some don’t (I’m guessing that Vytas Andriuskevicius will always look better than Valentin, but Valentin did just fine last night), Portland has reliable, and expanding ways to hurt an opposing team. Moreover, the way they dispatched both Minnesota and Houston hints that the attack can comfortably shoulder the “elite” label – i.e., good enough to torture weak defenses, but also (and hopefully) strong enough to break down the better ones.

It wasn’t all perfect, of course. Full credit to Houston for their second goal, but the defender in front of Quioto (Miller? Olum?) has to step in at some point, if only to give the two trailing players (Diego Chara and I want to say Valentin) a chance to get ahead of him; a player should only back off for so long, in other words. Feel free to blame Chapman for all the freekicks Portland coughed up around their area, but I think that lets the Timbers midfielders off too lightly for being a little reckless in tough areas; that can become fatal against a better team…

…and I trailed off there because I’m not real clear on Houston’s level this year. They have definitely improved over 2016; hell, Torres has already played more positive minutes for Houston in 2017 than he did in all of 2015 and 2016. And, crap: I got all the way to the end of this thing without mentioning that Adolfo Machado(central defender, #3) looked pretty damn good out there. If they’re going to struggle this season, my guess is that the problem will grow from their midfield – e.g. Rico Clark playing his first season on borrowed legs, maybe not enough craftiness (by that I mean, Lima has speed and power, but he’s lacking for subtlety).

All in all, not knowing what to make of Houston this year argues against reveling about what Portland did last night. But, when a team overcomes adversity (however you scale it – e.g., was it Portland against Houston or Portland versus Houston and Alex Chapman?), it’s always good sign.

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