Sunday, April 23, 2017

Portland Timbers 2-1 Vancouver Whitecaps: A Quick Rummage Through Our Back Pocket

Because not all back pockets are created equal...
Because I’ve basically stopped reading about soccer and can only make it through about 20 minutes of any soccer podcast, I got a little blindsided by yesterday’s starting line-up for the Portland Timbers. And I have the pre-game tweets to prove it. Just thankful I didn’t cough up something like, “Fanendo Adi’s contribution will define this game; nothing else matters” or “The Timbers need Jake Gleeson in goal or the entire goddamn house will come down.”

For fans, the cost/benefit break for these kinds of things doesn’t actually matter (con: you’re more likely to go home unhappy; pro: hey, now you have something to talk about before and after the game), because they’re gonna play the game regardless and, in that sense, the line-up is what it is. What can players and coaches do except play the hand dealt them by The Fates, The Furies, the referees – aka, the delegation from the Cosmos sent to every game.

Even with regular starters like Fanendo Adi out for suspension, and regular starters like Jake Gleeson and Sebastian Blanco missing through injury (the latter, only mostly missing), the Timbers knocked off the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 yesterday at Providence Park. That’s good as a stand-alone fact, obviously, and the Timbers played all right, the depth stepped up smartly enough, etc. The specifics of yesterday matter most in the sense of knowing what the team has in its back pocket (“what does it have in his pocketssss?”), at least when it comes to the subs, but, still, let’s mash all that together for a bit and see what the lump looks like when I’m done. I’ll start with Vancouver, sort of draw an outline of the shape of the challenge.

If you go back and look at those preview tweets, you’ll notice I flubbed pieces of the ‘Caps line-up as well. Their biggest changes came with sitting Alphonso Davies and pulling Christian Bolanos from the center of midfield to play at the midfield left in a 4-1-4-1 (dammit; I hate when the TV splits from the website on formation, but I think the 4-1-4-1 is more accurate). Presumably, Vancouver coach Carl Robinson did that so he could bulk up the midfield by starting Andrew Jacobson and Tony Tchani in front of Matias Laba – i.e., putting all that muscle in the middle, so that the Timbers couldn’t play through it. I won’t pretend to know whether having Davies’ moxie and talents on the field would have pulled back at least a point for Vancouver and, even as both of the breakdowns that lead to Portland goals originated from (essentially) central areas, the ‘Caps midfield gave their opposites a game. For me, the biggest open question comes with what Vancouver lost by having Jacobson play the role that Bolanos has been playing – and I’m flagging Jacobson here instead of Tchani, because when it came to late runs into the area, it was the former who most often made them. The ‘Caps did their best coming inside from the wings and they got a decent share of chances – two or three of them quite good, too. To take the next step, and not to knock the win overly, but if Jacobson knocks in Cristian Techera’s cross (he had a good afternoon) or if Fredy Montero’s chip over Liam Ridgewell finds the side netting, this post would read both differently and a little gloomy.

The ‘Caps played all right, overall, but got undone by one major breakdown and what was, essentially, an unstoppable move/shot/just everything by Portland’s Darlington “I Only Score Goals of the Week” Nagbe (yeah, yeah, I exaggerate, still). Breakdowns always crank up the anxiety for me – or, to hit that from the other side, who did anything wrong really on Nagbe’s shot – so they’re going to want to clear up just how many players had pushed too high too soon to set the plate for Portland's second goal, Jordan Harvey chief among them. Once David Guzman found Nagbe floating wide open in the middle just inside Vancouver’s half, Portland had all but bagged their second goal…sure, that left wrong-footing Kendall Waston, something Darren Mattocks did ably by just running to the side where he didn’t expect him to go, but Harvey’s positioning left Diego “Freakin’” Valeri with a highway-scaled seam from which to operate and that’s like throwing your car keys to a random dude and assuming that transforms him into a valet (no, not my best metaphor, but I’m keeping it). Oh, one last thing: Harvey kept ramming into Valeri like an asshole and that’s not cool.

I broke down both goals – and the second one, in particular – not so much to argue that Portland got lucky than to acknowledge they benefited from a couple bad moments from Vancouver. I just want to cool the jets a little on celebrating the depth. For instance, great goal from Mattocks (and, holy shit, does everyone seem to just love that guy, even former teammates?), but how many times did other Timbers find him in good positions only for the ball to get lost somewhere in and around his feet? (My unofficial count: 3.) Even as I’m not totally sold on Blanco – or at least how the Timbers can best use him or, if I’m honest, what he actually does well beyond playing six inches and twenty pounds bigger than he is – I can’t remember a ton of great moments from Dairon Asprilla (this was nice, tho). It’s not all caveats and question marks (e.g., Jeff Attinella looked reassuringly comfortable out there), and the Timbers would find new ways to play with those particular assets on the field, but it’s still one thing to get something out of all those back-up players for one home game, than to rely on them to produce for, say, the rest of the season.

While we’re on the subject, any word on Diego Valeri? I read something about a tweaky hip flexor, but filling his neon yellow shoes would – or, in a worse case that feels likelier, will – be hard to fill…

On the plus side, most of the regulars did their jobs well, or at least well enough. Only one guy…hmm, do I do this now? Pack all the crappy stuff into one…nah, I’ll hold off. Moving on…for me, Diego Chara rose up to the challenge of carrying all the weight Vancouver dropped into their midfield. His shining moment might have come near the final whistle – here, I’m thinking wrestling Laba off the ball at the top of the 18 and taking it for a run – but that was just the last example of a good outing. Chara took his knocks, too. Both Ridgewell and Lawrence Olum looked all right, and I got a particular kick out of seeing Olum jawing David Guzman’s case after (think it was) Chara got knocked down – again – while carrying the ball to safety. Guzman took the criticism, and it’s good to see a “star player” take that kind of talk from a regular MLS mug. Teams function better with big, but healthy, egos.

No, the only Timber who I really noticed struggling was Powell – and, even then, it was just a brutal two-three minutes. Bolanos got a step on Powell several times, most disastrously when Powell hip-checked him inside the area. That lead to the penalty kick and Vancouver’s only goal (better luck next time, Jeff…), but young Alvas misread a couple bounces and suffered a couple other moments where he looked over-eager and beatable

Some deeper concerns flitter around my peripheral thoughts – and I just realized I’m about to close this out without bullet points, which is rare; just noting it – mostly, minor defensive lapses that didn’t hurt Portland yesterday, but that could hurt them against another team on a different day and with the bounces going just the wrong way. Portland conceded a vaguely unhealthy number of free-kicks all around the penalty area, but even that feels like a lesser problem than the series of half-clearances, where a Timbers player hit the ball either too softly or to somewhere…yeah, let’s just call it stupid, even if where the ball wound up had nothing to do with a player’s intention to put it there. File all the points in this paragraph under things the team can either clear up, or suffer from their failure to do so…

All in all, though, this feels like a good win. Vancouver came in looking to make things suck and they did a pretty good job of it. And Portland overcame it. Without at least one key starter (Adi). And Nagbe probably has a real shot at Goal of the Week. Even if he doesn’t get it (haven’t watched much of the rest yet, but I already know there’s one contender out there), no one can take that beauty away from Timbers fans. And I’ll be damned if Nagbe doesn’t look like he’s out to put up some numbers this season…

All right. That’s it till next week.

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