Once they settled into the first half against the Colorado Rapids, the Portland Timbers played some of the most polished soccer of the season, good let-the-ball-do-the-work passing, great, alert first touches on the ball – especially from Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe, who both wrong-footed a succession of defenders in midfield; on the right Dairon Asprilla and Zarek Valentin managed possession with smart, almost casual interplay that suggested comfort and a shared confidence in the project. When the whole thing fired just right, Colorado wasn’t even chasing the ball; they could only reorient their lines of defense to the next threat.
Even better, the day dropped hints that Portland had finally figured out how to get attacking impetus out of Sebastian Blanco, who made dangerous runs into curiously open seams at least a couple times before and after burying the goal that gave the Portland Timbers the early lead. The rest of the half continued like that and, somewhere in there, it occurred to me that yesterday felt like Blanco’s birthday, the day when everything he touched would come out all right and that we would walk off the field the hero, with his teammates buying his rounds and reminiscing of his moment(s) with a twinkle in their eye that said, “yes, we will always remember this day.”
By the time the second half started, I had this middle-aged electrician from Michigan marveling at the madness of the Trump presidency on one side; maybe ten minutes later, this guy from Ethiopia sat on my other side, and I just could not stop asking questions about and country, and just tripping over the idea that I was talking to a random guy from the other side of the world in a random Hillsboro, Oregon bar. The game would take care of itself, Sebastian Blanco would get his birthday beers, maybe even birthday sex…
…it later occurred to me that I have no fucking clue when Blanco’s birthday is. The whole thing was based on a fantasy. (The guy from Ethiopia was real, though, and fascinating. He was happy to talk to someone who didn’t think Ethiopia was in Europe. He told me people have asked if he was from somewhere near Italy. “I mean, look at me,” he said. “Do I look like I’m from Italy?”) As it happens, the more relevant bit of foreshadowing came when a super-loose Roy Miller back pass gifted Dominique Badji two consecutive shots on goal, either of which he really should have buried.
Badji would later bury a more difficult shot (one that gives a fine example of what I mean about the Rapids’ Kevin Doyle; useful player), and…let’s see, around then, this would have been the electrician musing about how he’s the precise profile of a Trump supporter (white, older, in the trades, from the Midwest etc.); we both looked up, cursed the goal and bemoaned Portland coughing up the two points, but, who knows, Fanendo Adi had just passed on a gift, and the Rapids had lost track of Blanco, again, so who knows, maybe Portland would still get all three points. And, remember, this was before the Ethiopian guy had even showed up…
The point of all of this, everything noted above really, touches on the general concept of switching off. I switched off – clearly – but, y’know, the Timbers did too, which is how they ultimately went down 2-1 to the Rapids…and I’m an amateur, they’re professionals, etc. So, who’s more wrong? Right?
OK, back to it, in all seriousness, I’m enjoying my late habit of previewing the Timbers’ opponent each week. There’s something useful in noting that, say, just because Doyle doesn’t always score for the Rapids, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t do anything for them; or, even better, that “Marlon Hairston gives good spot service.” With the Rapids, maybe with any team, that exercise follows the same logic – e.g., these are the people who will have to do good things for the Rapids to win – but it addresses the question from a place of doubt, specifically, the assumption that they haven't been doing those things, so why assume they will start on the day in question?
The answer, of course, is that sometimes they do. Hairston stepped up, Badji stepped up, Doyle stepped up (he even did distinctly “good forward” things out there). Finally, Alan Gordon, a player I failed to mention at all, did that grating thing (and fun; c’mon, it’s fun) he has done since his Goonies days with the San Jose Earthquakes – e.g., scoring late goals and losing his shit (yeah, a victory dance on the Timbers’ circle of sick beds, but that’s as happy and heart-felt a celebration as you’re going to see this season).
The question that’s really in play here, is this: what could Portland have done differently yesterday? And “be less tired in the second half” doesn’t answer the question; that’s like saying, “they should have played better.” I owned up to my distraction by way of admitting I might have missed some significant detail, some systemic defect in Portland that allowed the Rapids to turn the tables in the second half. Is there anything to fix, basically, that isn’t already being fixed – for instance, if the only thing Lawrence Olum did anything wrong in defending Gordon for the winner, it was getting beat; he didn’t lose track of him, fail to body up, or any other basic sin. He just got beat. Because Gordon’s a big, strong S.O.B That requires a personnel fix (e.g., Portland bringing in a bigger, stronger S.O.B. to handle guys like Gordon), and the Timbers have one coming. (And is he a big, strong S.O.B., this new guy? Anyone know? Also, you would not believe how carefully I had to phrase the search to find that article; not exactly "buzz-worthy," this signing; still, hopeful.)
What about the first goal? The first three times I watched who did what in managing Badji’s run, I couldn’t decide between Zarek Valentin and Olum (tough day at the office, kid), but, after letting the tape run again, I came to agree with Colorado’s broadcast team, who observed that Jake Gleeson had no good reason to come off his line. And, watching the goal again, I see the truth in that…but what’s the corrective to that beyond, “Look, Jake. Kid. Don’t do that again.” And hoping he doesn’t do it again. Or replacing him with fresh, shiny Attinella.
It’s been a weird season for me, as both fan and amateur critic. As confessed on twitter, I find myself optimistic about the Timbers, and operate on some level of belief that this group of players could cobble together a run that, even if it doesn’t win a title (I mean any of them), has potential to give fans a decent pile of happy moments. Last night’s game didn’t shake that belief, so much as draw out a clearer realization about how I’m relating to the team. Here’s that:
At the start of the season, it was possible to see the Portland Timbers as contenders. It’s possible to keep believing it when they play a half as strong as their first one last night. Every good-to-great moment they have reinforces the not unreasonable idea that, at their best, Portland has a good team – yes, even with this particular rag-tag collection personnel. But they can fuck up, too. They have fucked up. The team is taking steps to improve (or a step, anyway), but this whole thing looks a lot like it’ll operate like a light switch for the rest of the season: it’ll be either on or off. That’s pretty much it. And that’s nothing to plan one’s Sunday around, if you get me.