We all should have seen it coming as early as the 16th second (yes, second) when David Guzman skipped past a loose slow-roller at the top of the Portland Timbers’ defensive third, with prospects of a lethal counter on the horizon.
Look, it was bound to happen. Off days are inevitable, especially in a league like Major League Soccer, which seems to operate as if it exists in the Harrison Bergeron Universe. If a team comes out flat as the Portland Timbers did last Saturday, it loses, universe notwithstanding. Sure, off days happen, and I can’t see the Timbers coming out that flat any time soon – at least not unless they want to chuck the career (guys, don’t…changing jobs sucks) - but the outlines of something ominous lurks at the back of this one.
With so much to unpack, where to begin? Ah, I know! How about a jinx/prediction:
“With too many of San Jose’s new guys failing to pan out (Danny Hoesens), or not panning out enough (Tommy Thompson, Jahmir Hyka, and Marcos Urena), and Chris Wondolowski shooting blanks even on the rare occasions he can find the ball, the ‘Quakes feel like a one-goal-per-game team right now.”
That was me, by the way. Anyway, pull Tommy Thompson out of that equation and every other player in that sentence played to the direct opposite. Danny Hoesens got dangerous time and again – including when he kicked off the chaos that led to San Jose’s first goal – Jahmir Hyka scored (though, in honesty, he’s been all right), and Chris Wondolowski put some shine on his shooting boots before this one, because he bagged two quick-twitch classics (or just goals) in this game. Hell, even Marcos Urena shot well today – yeah, the same guy who’s limp-dicked his share of tries (not fronting there; for all the things I do competently on the field, absent a good wind-up, I’ve got a weak shot).
That's how one team beats another 3-0. Still, who knew it would be Florian Jungwirth, a defensive midfielder converted to central defender, apparently (if only according to the broadcast booth), who fed Wondo for both of his goals. And that’s where I flip the microscope to Portland’s side.Jungwirth played high a lot on Saturday; in other words, I don’t think he ad-libbed those forays upfield. The highlights might chop this off (hold on…shit, yes; both leave out too much), but, if you watch Jungwirth through both sequences, you’ll see one person sorta volunteer to shut him down, and it’s the same guy both times: David Guzman. Before writing this, I sat through the mini-game again and even that thing is lousy with clips of Guzman jogging – and that applies to high-threat-level situations, e.g. specifically, and what the hell, guy?, San Jose’s second goal (link above).
Part of this feels unfair to single out Guzman; I mean, the man had the flu the last time he dogged it out there. For all that, Portland was positively tumescent up the gut (did I use that word rig…whoops, no; put down the thesaurus, man, and walk away)…Portland was soft up the middle Saturday, it’s simple as that. The midfield drifted from the defense too often, and that’s how the Timbers gave Hoesens his first good video since his salad days (i.e., before he took the field), and how, god willing, they convinced Urena he can shoot again (because anything that makes San Jose watchable will improve at least 20 minutes of my life every week).
At this point, the question of whether Guzman had a good game or not feels sec…no, tertiary to the biggest issue on my mind after this one: any team will fall off a bit when it loses players of Diego Valeri’s and Darlington Nagbe’s stature – this is MLS, after all – but if you’re a guy looking to start every game instead of watching it from the bench, shouldn’t that light a fire under your ass? The question isn’t whether Darren Mattocks or Dairon Asprilla can replace Valeri and Nagbe (ummm…), but why those two players looked as gassed as Guzman and Diego Chara on a day they should have taken as much as a chance as they could. That's where my sub-headline comes on: was the funk / hotboxing that afflicted this team so thorough as to affect everyone, even those most motivated to strive for the shiniest of gold stars? Raising the energy level is the one clear way that players like Mattocks and Asprilla can do to easily stand out, so why was that lacking? Victor Arboleda did a decent job of it, at least…only he came on too late…
I want to pick up on something in the paragraph above – the implication that Mattocks and Asprilla can never one-to-one replace Valeri and Nagbe, regardless of the order. It was fairly early in the game when my brain stalled on a question: did Portland fail yesterday because they tried to play Mattocks and Asprilla the same way they play Valeri/Nagbe? Did Portland suffer from being a “system team” – i.e., one that uses semi-interchangeable players to fulfill each of the eleven same roles? If you want some sense of what I’m getting at, the New York Red Bulls feel like the best example of a "system team" in MLS (Edit: I think Atlanta United FC might fit that descriptor better; just sayin'). I’m grasping at something, so bear with me, but how much time does Portland put into re-thinking how the team plays when injury happens? How much thought goes into what Mattocks does in the attack (runs real fast and jumps real high), or what Asprilla does in the attack (don that magnificent chin, then….um…), and how much does the team look for those runs and those plays, as opposed to what they’re used to doing with Valeri and Nagbe (aka, “pass the ball to him / now, go do things that make sense with that”)? Does it even change? Scary thought...
If a team doesn’t put enough time into making adjustments to get the most of its depth, I’d argue that it probably looks a lot like what happened Saturday – i.e., confusion, bad decisions/guesses on passes, and so on. I tweeted a comment late in yesterday’s game ruing all of Portland’s wayward passing – e.g. “The Timbers School for Wayward Passing” or something like that. The Timbers coughed up the ball yesterday as if it was the object of the sport. And that decided this game: Portland couldn’t keep the ball in the attack, and looked only half-interested in winning it back when they defended. A 3-0 loss feels honest under those circumstances. I think Portland flattered San Jose, for what it’s worth, because they haven’t looked anything like that for most of 2017. San Jose wasn’t great, in other words, but Portland sure made them look that way.
That’s the best-case scenario for this loss – but it was bad. I don’t believe that Portland suddenly became a bad team Saturday night and that’s what counts. Then again, sometimes a loss like that becomes the first crack in a bursting dam. Teams, at least the good ones, become unsound over time. So, let’s hope this is a blip, rather than a pattern.
Just a couple more thoughts to wrap up. Um...
Thoughts To Wrap Up
- Was Vytas Andriuskevicius Portland’s best attacking player yesterday? I wrote it in my notes, so I can only assume I thought that at one time.
- Darren Mattocks had this great move around the 48th minute, one that ended in a soft, shitty shot on or around goal. And, yep…
- Anyone else interested in giving anyone but Asprilla a chance with this team? Me too.
- Just an open question here: how well do you think Liam Ridgewell reads the game, especially when the pace picks up? Today might have been the first time I’ve ever asked myself what I think Ridgewell does well as a defender. The only answer I could come up with was organizing. A smart guy told me he’s good at passing out of the back and I’m still looking into that, but my list literally ended there. The sight of him standing there like some kind of daft statue on San Jose’s second somehow feels damningly consistent of his career as a Timber. I’ve seen that kind of slowness of thought, even indecision, time and time again.