Sunday, April 16, 2017

Portland Timbers 0-1 Sporting Kansas City: Say, That's Not Right (But It Is)

First, some context: my wife and I had gone on a date prior to the game, and that put me about two sheets to the wind at kickoff. I made it through the game, and then some, but I think I wrapped myself in Sheet 4 or 5 somewhere in there and, in every sense except actually being asleep, called it a night. With that in mind, I’m going to approach this from an impressionist angle.

A feeling sums up the Portland Timbers’ 0-1 loss at home to Sporting Kansas City: a sense of vague yet persistent frustration. Every time a Portland player faced an obstacle, he did it knowing that another obstacle stood beyond that one, and so on to what felt like infinity for some damn reason (or maybe Sheet 3, but I digress). By game’s end, most Timbers players looked not so much tired, as weary*. Enervation in game form: that’s what Saturday’s loss felt like. Running, but never moving, Sisyphus putting his shoulder to the rock again, etc.

Something told me that Portland would never score. I can’t even peg the time this occurred to me – did that come to me before or after KC scored their goal? – but I think I’d experience the former as resignation and the latter as despair, and how far are those two things, really? No team in MLS has had much luck breaking down KC this season, but the Timbers seemed likelier than most teams to do it. Instead, we got a double-layered shit sandwich: a loss at home against a Western Conference rival and an indication that KC’s has both the system and the intent to put their opponents in a submission hold for the length of the 2017 season. They’ll choke off games, basically, and that’s boring, but effective. And boring.

I just sat through the condensed game to fan the fires of memory a little, and here’s where I pick up that asterisk. * Portland’s best chances came late, so my memory failed me a little on that detail (but is that timing issue relevant? you be the judge), but I still maintain there’s a reason my chief mental impression of the night featured Diego Valeri seeming to just scream at referee, Drew Fisher. From the looks of it, it just came out as “WWWAAAAAAHHHHHH!!” It’s like Valeri performance-arted The Scream live, on-field, only instead of wailing about the horror of existence, his felt more like "do you believe this fucking guy?" as a madman's bellow. At least that’s how I remembered it…

I did take some notes, so I figure I should share some of them. “Opara matters.” That’s probably that broad statement I’ve been meaning to make, that Ike Opara has helped Sporting KC, maybe more than widely appreciated. “Fenny Beilhaber: when Ross Smith had a stroke on air.” I think Smith misspoke at some point, so I immediately thought “stroke, ha! HA!” I guess? “POR kept attacking where SKC is strong.” Oh, that one I’ll try to expand on later…

Oh, here’s one I’m happy I took down, because it’s something I wouldn’t get through the condensed game. “Nagbe was quite good.” That was the last note I wrote during the game, and I think it was accurate. Tell me if I’m wrong (here or on twitter), but I thought Valeri, and Sebastian Blanco had off-nights; as I tweeted (by now) a couple hours ago, I think David Guzman did too. Things get fuzzy here, and that has nothing to do with what may or may not have passed through my body, and everything to do with trends/narratives. On the one hand, you have Portland’s league-best attack; they’re still two goals ahead of their nearest rival (e.g., Atlanta United FC, the attack neutrals seem to drool over), even after laying an egg on Saturday. On the other hand, you’ve got Sporting KC’s league-best defensive record. One short-term phenomenon carried through this weekend – Sporting’s defense – while the other, Portland’s attacking prowess, did not. The answer to a question lingers in the space between them – e.g., does Portland still have a league-elite attack, only one not good enough to thwart KC’s defensive tactics/strategy? If that’s the case, again, holy shit(!), will Sporting be tough and boring this season(!).

Before tucking into Timbers’ talking points, I want to give Sporting Kansas City, a team I’m always happy to crap on, their due. First, they scored a great goal - great, smart work on the ball by Roger Espinoza, good movement off it by Fenny Beilhaber (sorry, habit now; then again, how was he so alone in that seam?) and Jimmy Medranda; the latter, in particular, undid Portland’s defense, and that only left Dom Dwyer to beat Marco Farfan to the ball. It happened very quickly, like the best goals do. And, so long as KC can defend the way they do – e.g., every inch of the line they draw across the turf every game – they have a winning formula for the season. Feilhaber played quality service/passing all game long, even though he’s one game back from injury, Dwyer’s movement is hell to track, and Gerso Fernandes showed some attacking quality against Colorado a week ago (then again, so did Real Salt Lake this weekend): it won’t take much for them to find success, especially if they can keep their goals against at its current 0.33 (two goals in six games, right?)

One last note here: Sporting has also dialed back the aggressiveness of their pressure. The strangulation has become more subtle, or at least it looked that way against Portland. Instead of lunging in, KC’s defensive stance relies on cornering the ball, a theory of get close enough to where the player has to beat you, or find the nearest pass, but, that scenario within the context of denying all available easy passes. That’s what I was getting at with the obstacle after obstacle after obstacle framing up above. Bluntly, KC looks as prepared to campaign as any team in MLS right now. They have good parts all over – the midfield pairing of Espinoza and Ilie Sanchez stands out, because it swallows up a lot of the field, and that’s a good segue to that earlier comment about Portland.

When I noted that Portland attacked too often where KC is strong, I meant that Portland kept trying to penetrate KC through the middle third. I tweeted a theory about this last Thursday:

“And I believe that Valeri and Blanco both like operating in spaces where #SportingKC is weakest – just outside the center #PORvSKC (6/11)”
Sure, sometimes people see what they expect because they expect it, but I still think this held up. Valeri and Blanco both played too centrally, something I’d argue they can get away with against some unknown number of teams, but not against KC; they’re just too strong up the gut. I don’t think Portland thrives on crosses – aerial ones, especially – but I think Portland somehow failed to find a place to attack KC where they could hurt them. My operating theory was that those existed in the space between the center and the flanks, maybe something they could exploit with overloads and combinations, but it never happened, and I’m still not sure how much I should credit Sporting KC for that, and how much I should fault Portland…

…till further notice, though, the one clear take-away I have from this game is that KC’s defense is real. Terrifying real from the standpoint of seeing them drag that awful shit into the playoffs.

All right, enough of all this. I have some quick notes on Portland, and then I’ll call it a night.

1) He’s Not a Winger, But I Still Lov…LIKE Him
Again, Blanco is not a winger, and he should not be viewed as such. While Blanco can play wide, he seems most excited about coming inside to combine. He’ll fail or succeed, he’ll make Portland better or he won’t – time will tell, but he’s a definitely a combative little shit and I do like that about him. No regrets so far; only questions about what this dawning revelation reveals, assuming it blooms into full day break. Portland needs width, regardless, even not every game. I mean, at least as an Vytas enough?

2) Is Roy Miller an Answer?
OK, yes, he tooted out one of his signature brain-farts around the 60th minute when he let up on a ball and Gerso picked it up off his feet. Based on everything else he does out there, and how he does it, I’ve still moved to a place where I’d rather see Miller paired with whatever new centerback Portland brings in…whenever they bring him in, in replacement of Liam Ridgewell. Who, if I’m being honest, I’ve never liked. And, sure, if Miller and [FOREIGN PLAYER X] don’t pan out and it’s Miller who does the sucking, I’ll extend a plaintive, yet momentarily sincere, hand to Ridgewell (all meanwhile I’m whispering to the scouting staff, “PSSTT! Guys! Keep looking!”). Put it this way: I’ve seen Lawrence Olum, Ridgewell, Miller and even Rennico Clarke. Miller strikes me as the best pick of that bunch – but that’s without seeing any new player’s specific approach and skill-set…then again, would you shop with Ridgewell in mind?

3) Content
As noted way up above, the vague fuzzies of my memory still tell me that Nagbe looked like Portland’s best attacking player last night, broadly defined, and he definitely put the Timbers’ best shot on goal (thereby gifting SKC’s Tim Melia with a solid Goal of the Year candidate, because, holy shit; and…you’re welcome, Tim! Love, Nags!). The larger point is that, I like where Nagbe is this year. To put that another way, the curse of wanting him to be a different player no longer binds me. Nagbe has looked more eager to shoot this season – and, yes, his goal against Philly turned that game – and that’s all salty, savory gravy, but I know Nagbe’s role in this team, and I have embraced Nagbe’s role in this team.

Hello, my name is Jeff. (Hello, Jeff! What would you like to share this week?)

To wrap up all the above, I wish Portland could have won this game – and with flying colors – but I don’t know that there’s a universe near, never mind adjacent, where that happens. Till the next one…

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