Sunday, April 2, 2017

Portland Timbers 1-1 New England Revolution: We Might Be Their Ceiling, But What Are We?

Same thing, only not elated. (Also, my apologies on the sizing, but I committed.)

I won’t beat around the bush. The Portland Timbers' 1-1 draw against the New England Revolution just left me feeling funny. Not ha ha funny, but not bad funny either. Here, “funny” just means weird, as if some solid object in the corner of my eye looks different than it normally does.

Maybe it’s that simple. After the Timbers first three games of the season made it reasonable to dream of a Supporters’ Shield delivered by the pantheon of False Gods of the Holidays (say, The Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Jack Skellington, Uncle Sam, a crying, headless turkey, and…fuck, I dunno, a fire-proof flag?), the last two games underlined the more plausible case – i.e., that none of this will be easy. Because it never is.

It could also be that so much of tonight felt so good. I mean, Portland had this, and the Revolution didn’t do shit, really, till they scored their heartbreaking equalizer – and, guys, Jake Gleeson, that’s all I’m saying. And I was, I mean, I am a big, big fan (but, Jake, srsly, with limits). Sure, New England ratcheted up the pressure throughout the game, but the break-through never really felt like it would come, at least not until it did. But it did, so…

Think of your favorite moment from this game. No, besides Diego Valeri’s Goal-of-the-Year-Burn-the-Ballots-NOW-Assholes volley to give Portland the early, and, for much of the night, plausibly impermeable lead. Review the evening and think about the thing you saw that made the Portland Timbers feel like an elite team, the Seal Team 6 of MLS…I mean insofar as the league allows that kind of thing. Here’s mine: Diego Guzman turning pirouettes inside (I swear) the Timbers’ 6-yard box, on his way to playing the ball crisply out of danger with the insouciance of a tight-rope walker wearing clown shoes. Guys, we have something else special on our hands now, and one of the great game-busting mechanisms in the (not universal; see, tonight) high-press era. More on that later, for I have a continuation and a counter-point to make….

First, guys, we are lucky people to have someone like Valeri playing for the Timbers. I know you saw the goal and knew it to be holy, but, bear with me, stop for a second, and look at Valeri’s hips on that goal (e.g. the contortions he goes into to keep that ball down) and know that Diego Valeri is one miracle away from being eligible for sainthood under (my understanding of) current Vatican rules. Just…pause for a minute to bask in the glory of having a player like that. It’s been the normal of the Portland Timbers' MLS era, but it won’t last. Savor it. Same with Fanendo Adi.

Back to the Revolution – or, to start on the Revolution – their script more or less flipped during the 2016-17 off-season. For the last two years, it’s been all about their attack, that young, strapping arsenal they can throw at opposing defenses; their defense, meanwhile, let them down with highly-randomized chokes, a phenomenon that, to me, translated to their attacking players had to cheat backwards to give aid and comfort to the defense. That may or may not be true (honestly, don’t take that even to a paycheck-loan outlet), but their defense does look better this season, and tonight looked as good as any night I’ve seen it. New England shopped hard on this over the off-season, so, if it paid off, good for them.

Portland dominated the game tonight – hence what I can only dub cognitive dissonance (that whole “feeling funny” sensation) – but they never found that second goal, and that’s the whole story, as in, that’s why New England only had to get one thing right to pick up a point for themselves, and steal two points from Portland. I hate the word “urgency,” mostly because it’s incredibly mushy, but there’s a line between being “snake-bit” and failing to sufficiently commit that somehow feels worth mentioning. At the same time, I get it. New England spent enough time not doing shit that continuing with the patience in the attack on the assumption that they weren’t capable of doing shit felt reasonable, while, for all that, they ultimately did shit, e.g. steal two points from Portland’s back pocket, and, on behalf the team, its fans, and the city, we’d very much like our two points back, fuck you very much. Especially you, Kelyn Rowe (a player I…just really, really like), because you are such a shameless competitor.

To close out New England, they’ve spent the years since going to their last MLS Cup being the team that relied on their free-wheeling attack to win games. That stopped working in 2016, and pretty goddamn hard, so they rebuilt their defense coming into this season, and the early returns look all right. My best guess, at least at this point, is that New England will keep their goals conceded down in 2017, but they’ll struggle to score – especially against sound defensive teams. And, contrary to that one breakdown, I think Portland has enough defensive scheme to carry them fairly far this season. It should get better when reinforcements come. And pending how things work out between Lawrence Olum, Liam Ridgewell, and Roy Miller…

…put it this way, I’m open-minded. Especially on Ridgewell.

All the above gets to that funny feeling I have. It’s something like weightlessness, of operating without gravity being a given. I think tonight showed the New England Revolution’s level against a good defense – which makes it a perfect antidote for what they did to Minnesota (aka, between that and only six teams playing, this is how you get half your team on MLS’s Best XI for a “Week” that is a lie). Going the other way, this felt like plausible, but not definitive, support for the argument that New England upgraded their defense.

The real question is, what did tonight show for Portland? There, I have a couple thoughts, even if they fall short of answers. (Look, for the most part, I don’t do answers. Socrates is my BOY!)

Are We Thin?
When Xavier Kouassi kneed a Charlie horse into Valeri’s hamstring, my thoughts immediately flashed to who Portland had on the bench tonight. Like someone studying his pantry as that long-promised earthquake shakes his house, I thought, “is that enough?” While I’m comfortable here in a couple places on the field (fullback, mostly), the Timbers feel stretched to the limit (if still basically comfortable) at center back, but I can’t really wrap my head around how this team produces if, say, Valeri or Guzman goes down. And if both go down, I’ll be pegging my dreams to something entirely goddamned earthly (e.g. the U.S. Open Cup or the mere, small feat of just making the playoffs).

Look, I know the team can rejigger a number of players, and I respect that Adi and Darlington Nagbe didn’t have their best nights tonight (even if Nagbe looked eager for a while in the first and Adi, like a snapping turtle (I don’t get it either), only needs his moment to steal your finger, fer real), but the Timbers, along with a lot of teams in MLS, have their stars and a steep drop-off sitting in that role on the bench. Portland, bless our stars and garters, has a relatively indestructible back-up for Valeri in Nagbe. No, it’s not like for like, but Nagbe can do things. He just has to feel like he has to in order to do it….is there a drug for that? I mean outside science fiction universes?

Guzman Sauce(?)
I’ve never quite spelled this out till tonight, but, as alluded to above, Guzman plays some saucy shit at the back. It’s high-risk stuff sometimes – I mean, I counted at least four passes that would have spelled “DOOM” in neon, at least if the Revs had picked them off. They didn’t, though, and that was in spite of a spate of near misses and more than a few likely lunges coming seconds too late. Guzman is a hyper-confident passer. That’s what makes the way he drops deep so challenging for opposing teams – especially the ones that press. Throughout this early season, Guzman has shown a capacity to keep possession and make the right pass. Because he’s passing out the back – e.g. into spaces where the opposition can’t reliably compact – he can, first, buy time to find the right pass with his shielding skills, and, second, so long as Portland’s other players can give him good outlets, Guzman will find them. To put that all together, teams that chase Portland deep face a really reliable distribution hub that plays quite deep in Portland’s set up…and who knows how many lines Guzman can break with that first pass. Again, serious shit, people. If Guzman keeps up his current pace, he’ll wind up on some pick-up-of-the-year lists.

My New Obsession
At some point in the game – think it was the second half, fairly early – Valeri found Alvas Powell on the left (or vice versa; not relevant), and in quite a bit of space. The player had time to pick up his head, basically, and scan for options. Nagbe trailed behind the play (as he did a couple times tonight, and often*), but Sebastian Blanco pushed forward…only he did it wrong. New England had numbers – it was at least four to two – and most of them keyed on Adi’s flat, near-post run. Blanco came into the play, but he stayed on the far-side of the defense that had pushed forward to follow Adi. That same defense had also flattened out, leaving a five-yard (minimum) gap in front of the back four. So, here’s the thing:

* Nagbe pulled up his run, but I’m fine with that by now, because that’s what Nagbe does. Blanco, on the other hand, drifted into a space that, 1) took him out of the play, while 2) ignored a huge amount of opportunity just over his right shoulder, I mean, it was right there.

My broad question in all this is whether or not we have seen Blanco’s ceiling. Personally, and on a couple levels, I like the guy. He busts ass out there – I mean, the man wants the ball like a defender in midfield – and he’s had a smattering of moments, but he doesn’t feel like a $4 Point Fucking Whatever Million Dollar player right now.

Before people get hung up on the cost, I want to make one thing clear. I don’t give a disinterested fuck in what Merritt Paulson spends on this team, because, first, not my money (here, there is no second). I am, however, subtly aware of the idea that Portland needs a reliable attacking option, and for a couple reasons – e.g. Adi and Valeri can’t do it all, Nagbe doesn’t want to (and that’s OK), etc. Won’t lie: that botched run shook me. Portland needs other options in the attack.

For all that, I still have faith. I just don’t know what Blanco is. And I think that’s a shared experience.

All for tonight. Sleeping…

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