Tuesday, May 16, 2017

On the Portland Timbers' Revealing(?) Draw Against Atlanta and (Barely Touching) MLS Week "11"

Goddammit, the 80s....
Yeah, yeah. I’m way behind on this stuff, but, look, someone died, I had to help plan my first funeral, and that shit’s time consuming. As such, the only MLS game I could watch this weekend was Portland Timbers v. Atlanta United FC. So, this week, it’s all and only about what happened when Atlanta came to Portland, Oregon. I’ll comment very, very generally on the week’s results, because I feel like I’ve got something there too. At any rate…hold on, wait.

Also, I’m doing this from memory; I don’t have time for even the condensed game at this point. I had this really compelling conversation about the service industry going on during the second half, and the damn game was how many days ago? Feels like a fucking lifetime…by which I mean, more than a little vagueness ahead. But that game did stir some thoughts…

Think I’ll start with this: the first few games of the year pumped my expectations for Portland’s season pretty high (the LA win, though, first road win since Rome fell? C'mon, you loved it). Stupid high? Maybe. (And are we there yet?) Felt good, the idea that Portland made just the right moves, solved the key problem(s) (honestly, I thought they’d solved only one problem, but, also, all of that problem with David Guzman), but some part of me thinks the Timbers have settled into what this season will actually look like. Think the Facts of Life theme song. And if you don’t know what that is, skip looking it up, that’s just your garden variety sit-com; not that’s there’s anything wrong with loving it, just have some goddamn perspective on what you love. And google the damn theme song.

Hold on. Just did it. Here you go. Back to the game…

Yeah, a 1-1 draw at home against an expansion team doesn’t feel great, but shit happens. I still walked away feeling all right about the result and performance – and all that’s based on a series of, on one hand this, and on the other hand that. First, I don’t think Portland ever quite got a hold of the midfield, not like they did early in the season – and, personally, I put that down to Darlington Nagbe’s absence (now that I’ve stopped whining about what he does, or fails to do, I just notice that things look suboptimal when he’s gone). On the flipside, the first time I saw Atlanta get to what they’re best at – e.g., running in the open field – happened around the 38th minute (what? yes, I know I said vague; took a couple notes). It’s not that Atlanta can’t break down a compact defense; it’s more that they’re actually, and only, scary when they get out and run.

Just checked the box score for the first time, and Christ, those possession numbers; even if I’ve stopped giving any kind of sincere shit about possession as a raw number, a tilt 2/3 in favor of a visiting team should clench a couple sphincters. The real eye-popping stat, though, comes with the Timbers’ passing accuracy – 65%. I don’t see a number like that much, but the reality of it hid in plain sight on Game Day. Atlanta’s a famously high-pressing team – god knows I’ve complained about it (hate, hate, hate super-active presses; just ugly) – but it felt like Portland’s passing woes easily owed as much to just plain sloppiness…AND, YES, I’M TOTALLY LOOKING YOUR WAY, DAIRON ASPRILLA, DON’T HIDE BEHIND LIAM RIDGEWELL.

I hate to pin a fairly global problem on one player, and I want Asprilla to succeed as much as the next guy, if not more, but, Jesus, the kid’s just choked up out there. He’s playing nervous, basically, whether it’s caroming wildly all over the field for the first 15 minutes, or repeatedly losing sight of the ball, or getting it caught in his spokes (or legs, just legs, Jeff; they have a name). Both he and Alvas Powell looked erratic out there; even if Powell calmed down (I thought he did, but that food service chat…just good conversation), Portland won’t win too many games with the right side absent.

That’s sort of it for the general stuff. I mean, I like that Ridgewell scored – and I wouldn’t put his mistake on Atlanta’s goal as something that needed a goal to see redemption, not least because dropping off the ball is Ridgewell, it’s what he does. (And...hold on! How the hell is there no yelling, never mind simple discussion, after that goal? Is Ridgewell somehow sacrosanct? And why isn't he saying something as the (alleged) defensive star and/or captain...he was captain, right? I mean, don't make me dig for this shit. Am I late to the "does Ridgewell really lead" party? I mean, I'm big on talkers, clearly...moving on) Uh, what else? Atlanta has got to be the whiniest damn team in MLS. I also have questions about what starting Leandro Gonzalez Pirez does to their ceiling. I know I’ve been both wrong and premature about centerbacks in the past (most recently LA’s Jelle Van Damme), but he’s just too sloppy for me, grabby, fouling, distractable. Guess that’s one thing to watch with Atlanta.

OK, I’ll close this out with a couple further quick notes on Portland. After that, I’ll round up with some brief comments on Week...shit, what Week was it? Week “11.” And, with tomorrow’s games, I’ll be able to drop the scare quotes. OK, last two on Portland coming up.

1) The Timbers Still Don’t Have a Winger. And that’s…meh.
I’m good with Sebastian Blanco in a way that I, at most, could only fake with Lucas Melano. He scrappy and he plays with reasonably clear intent (Melano’s biggest failing). For all his upside, I don’t see him ever giving the Timbers width. And, again, that’s fine, because it doesn’t mean that he can't play out wide; it just means he’s not a guy who thrives out there, getting in good crosses and all that. Do the Timbers need width? Eh, I’d only say it’d be handy, even if as some means of switching up the attack in-game; no one needs anything until something clearly isn't working. And, to tick off some boxes, Vytas Andriuskecivius can do that, but Dairon Asprilla can’t (not clear he does much well right now), Nagbe’s disinclined to, I don’t think Powell has the crossing/attacking chops, and I’m not sure he ever will. Nick…FUCK, Jack Barmby is what he is (Jack Barmby, not Nick), and not playing enough besides.

I’m also starting to wonder if Blanco isn’t too much like Diego Valeri – and not in the way it counts most (e.g. being awesome on, like, 85% of days). Look, it’s not impossible. As I keep noting (and I hope I’m refining more than I’m repeating; poll coming), Blanco looks like he wants to combine, so maybe Portland should focus on using overloads to break down opposition defense. They can do that from wide, or try to get it up the middle. Just…sayin’. This is a work in progress…and before anyone gets sanguine about Blanco, a team can spend a player’s whole goddamn time at the club trying to figure him out. And that’s how it ends sometimes…

2) I’m Not So Sure About Portland’s Depth
It’s only this article that compels me to mention it. And Dairon Asprilla. And the team without Nagbe out there. Number 3, huh? Deep teams weather these things better, that’s all I’m saying.

OK. All done. Oh, and Asprilla…hate to say it, but the team has to ship the kid, right? He just looks uncomfortable. I’m sure someone more knowledgeable can tell you why we can’t. Uh, who’s next? Montreal Impact. Mmmm…could be worse. At any rate, yes, Portland is stalling a bit, but I think getting Nagbe back in the side will stop the slide (the Timbers went 1-2-2 in their last five games). I think they’ll win more when he gets back, but I’m no longer expecting things to look like the start of the season. And, bookended!

Now, to close with some highly abstracted notes on MLS Week “11.”

On a general level, it looks like things are shaping up to where the Western Conference will be the conference that eats itself this season. I mean that in the sense of the big, sloppy hog-pile (dog-pile?) of barely-identifiable shit that the East has been for the past few. I know people generally view the West as the better conference, and I agree with that on a conference-to-conference level (till proven otherwise), but the West just feels likely to end in a pair of messes – one at the top of the conference, and one around the red line. And I mean, MESSES.

The only other broad point I want to make is this: MLS isn’t as “random” as some of the content on its own site, and elsewhere, make it out to be. Again, #peakMLS is kinda lazy in my mind. By that I mean, it isn’t some factor of “random.” Take the three outliers results of the weekend, which, for me, were: Colorado Rapids dropping a 3-0 on the San Jose Earthquakes…in pretty much any setting; the Philadelphia Union yanking DC United’s pants to their collective ankles four times in front of their home crowd; and, say, that’s how Seattle wound up below Mighty Minnesota United FC, by letting the Chicago Fire feel, like, a lot better about themselves (a 4-1 win over the defending MLS Cup champs will do that). Something reasonably obvious explains all three results.

DC, a team that’s flatly sputtering (3-5-2), fell to a Philly team that has threatened here and there to pull it together; they just happened meet one another on the right day for Philly. Portland gave San Jose fans the only recent reason to believe they’re any good and, Colorado, like Philly, was always going to have a good game at some point; with San Jose’s attack generally flabby, all Colorado had to do was score a goal, and the rest is the first good news Rapids fans have watched in a while. And, no, it doesn’t mean Colorado is good, or even better than San Jose; they’re both pretty pitiable so far, but I’d still worry more about San Jose till further notice. Finally, Seattle is just struggling and, as for Chicago, they feel like a team that will go up and down a lot this season. While I can’t say for sure what happened (what am I saying? that applies even when I watch a stupid amount of games, but bear with me), Chicago very likely took the field with buttcheeks blazing from the urgings and admonishments from Vejlko Paunovic, not least the ones about Chicago’s late string of bad results (0-2-1 in their last three).

What I’m trying to argue is that a result should only surprise you when a team that has been very bad goes out and beats and/or whoops a team that has been very good. That’s as true in MLS as in any other league. Even when Minnesota takes Toronto FC perilously close to the goddamn wire. But, again, that wasn’t so weird: Minnesota is clearly improving. Again, this is a league of mid-table teams; any team that’s consistently good (Toronto), or bad (Real Salt Lake), those are your outliers.

OK, all for tonight. Regular service will probably resume next weekend. And on all fronts.

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