Sunday, May 28, 2017

Seattle Sounders 1-0 Portland Timbers: That Little Bit of (Fucking) Quality

The "little red man." (At least you're as creeped out as me.)
Well, I had big plans to watch the condensed version of the Seattle Sounders FC narrow, weird win over the Portland Timbers before posting thoughts on it. Postponed writing about it a day – killed some brain cells, lost some memories in the meantime (plus, another day older; gets more relevant all the damn time) – to give MLSLive time to post the condensed version…which they have still yet to do. And, no, there’s no way in Hell I’m sitting through that whole game all over again.

With that, you’re stuck with my lousy memory, or just taking a pass on reading this. As always, no judgment…

This happens more often than soccer fans like to admit – i.e., games that feel like a lot of things happen, while, at the same time, not a whole lot actually happens. The boxscore for this one proved as revealing as I expected it to: the Timbers topped the Sounders in many of the key categories – attacking stats, most notably (fun little sidebar: Portland ended the day with 19 shots, but they’d fired 15 of those by around the 50th minute; hold that thought) – but one number should jump out, and on two levels: both teams put just three shots on goal. On the first level, sure, Portland out-shot Seattle 19 attempts to 8, but, if you’re wildly flailing shots at goal, what good are Portland’s 11 more attempts toward the plausible vicinity of goal, really?

Second level: that’s what I mean when I suggest that not a lot actually happened yesterday. From Portland’s point of view, they managed to turn in a better performance than they did in recent road games against the San Jose Earthquakes and Montreal Impact (a good thing), but those three paltry shots on goal tell a pretty clear tale: Portland didn’t have much luck penetrating Seattle’s area, the Timbers mostly played around the defense, and not through them and so on. A lot of credit for that goes to Gustav Svensson and Chad Marshall, in central defense, and gadfly Osvaldo Alonso and gadfly-in-waiting Cristian Roldan playing in front of them. Portland’s shots from range weren’t terrible on their own; they’re only bad in the sense that they were the start and end of what Portland could generate for offense.

Seattle doesn’t have much to feel good about either. “Bend-don’t-break” makes for a tolerable defensive strategy, but, in this case, I’d argue it means that everyone else on the Sounders roster owes a beer to the four players named above. The Timbers broke loose time and again (early) Saturday afternoon, leaving the few players hanging back to stall/suffocate Portland’s transition game. Darlington Nagbe led his share of charges and, as I see it, it’s significant that he had to throttle back each time – and it seemed like 20-25 yards from goal each time. Between Seattle’s defense and the runs its attackers made, Nagbe simply had nowhere good to go.

And that brings us to the title to this post, aka, one of soccer’s most meaningless clich├ęs. For, you see, what Portland lacked yesterday was “just that little bit of quality,” aka, the rhetorical equivalent of, “if he could paint better, the quality of his paintings would improve.” That’s the dumbest sort of tautology, in that it’s both true and meaningless. If Portland was a little bit sharper yesterday, sure, they might have won. But they weren’t better. So, now what do we talk about?

Before moving on to specifics on Portland, I want to wrap up the one thing tangible thing that separated the teams on the day – Seattle’s lone, weird goal. It resulted from a succession of headers. There’s not much to say about the first touch, because Marshall will win just about any header off a set-piece that comes close to him; the key there is to make sure he can’t send it toward goal (and did anyone else find it curious that Roy Miller was the one to mark Marshall?). No, the weird thing was Zarek Valentin’s wholly ineffectual, and likely illegal, full-body draping over Roldan. It made sense, tactically, and it didn’t; by that I mean, with his arms hanging over Roldan, why wouldn’t Valentin feel in control of the situation? And yet he wasn’t in control of the situation, clearly. So…

In a pre-game tweet, I noted that bare competence would probably see the Timbers through. As much as Valentin’s failure to corral Roldan feels like…well, a big failure, see above, I guess? In this case, "bare competence" actually meant "bare competence, and without screw-ups." In my mind, the most likely negative outcome from Valentin’s hold would have been a penalty kick, in the event that Valentin prevented Roldan from moving toward a loose ball - and that would have been the screw up the team couldn't afford. In the end, that set of facts/theories makes the Sounders goal read like luck for both teams, bad for Portland, good for Seattle.

To put all the above into something more concise, I’d guess that neither team felt all that excited about yesterday’s game. Seattle’s key attacking players – Jordan Morris and Clint Dempsey – had only one moment of clear danger between them (and, nice work, Vytas!), but were otherwise anonymous; they got a fluke-filled goal and their defense held strong, but they still got broadly outplayed by their biggest rivals and at home. For Portland, sure, the recent trends are horrible (playing under .500 ball, going 0-3-2 in the last five), and the specter of being shit on the road again walks the Earth, but there are a couple bright spots.

First, the team played well, and over most parts of the field. The attack sputtered any time it got too close Seattle’s goal – i.e., instead of looking for a pass to undo Seattle’s defense, Portland’s attackers seemed to always respond to some little red man on their shoulder who shouted “SHOOT!!!” every time they got within 25 yards of goal – but the team did a good job of getting the ball into places…OK, from which the attack could start to become dangerous. It won’t win them games on its own, but being solid over 75-80% of the field is a good place to start to turn things around. And Portland needs to turn things around, without question.

Second, injury and suspension forced Caleb Porter to shuffle around pieces to find his best possible starting XI and, for what it’s worth, his plan came off reasonably. By the time the line-ups posted, I’d forgotten Diego Chara’s suspension, so between seeing Lawrence Olum’s name where I typically expect to see Chara’s, and seeing Valentin start over Alvas Powell made, I went into this game a little anxious. Valentin’s slip on the goal aside, he had a good game – real good, given my expectations for how Joevin Jones would match up against him. Valentin even survived the worst possible scenario – e.g. 1-v-1 against Jones – with aplomb, and more than once.

Given the rumblings I’ve heard about Powell’s play this season, I’m starting to wonder if we won’t see Valentin play himself into the starter’s role at right back.

Olum, however, makes the bigger case for Portland’s depth. He put in a solid, poised performance on the left side of Portland’s defensive midfield, snuffing out plenty of attacks, keeping his passes simple to start Portland’s attack back onto the front foot. It was stand-out stuff, if only because I had Olum under my personal microscope. He even looked more comfortable passing from a midfield position (or I could be projecting; as a player, I choked up something fierce when I had to pass out of the defense). The point here isn’t to kick off some campaign to start Olum over any of the current guys, but to acknowledge that, when push came to shove, Portland has players from outside the regular starting eleven, who they can field and still see the team put in a largely positive, if doomed/negative performance.

I saw enough in the team Portland fielded Saturday to think they could win with it with enough reps; probably not enough for an MLS Cup run, but for a plausible run to the playoffs. Oh, and I didn’t even comment on Dairon Asprilla, who played as well yesterday as he has in a Timbers uniform. It wasn’t enough, obviously, but neither were Fanendo Adi, Nagbe, Diego Valeri, and Sebastian Blanco. Everything about Saturday’s performance was good, but not good enough. The question is when the team breaks through that ceiling. Or if they break through that ceiling. Again, it’s that little bit of quality that’s missing…and what does that even mean, but “do better”? It’s like we think they don’t want that, which is crazy…

Portland has problems, without question. Any team that’s on a losing streak has problems. Still, there’s a reasonable squad in there, one that, for me, feels like it’s punching below its weight. If there’s a big take-away from this loss, it’s this: Portland played the better game, but ran into a defense that – two games aside – has been very solid this season. Hell, they were solid through the playoffs and up to winning MLS Cup. There will be weaker defenses ahead for sure, but also better, and more confident offenses. The answer as to how Portland’s season pans out depends on how they respond to both.

And, with that, we’re on untraversed ground. The season just got a whole lot more interesting. And a little more depressing at a minimum.

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