After taking in the (condensed) Hell of the Portland Timbers’ midweek loss to Minnesota United FC, and then enduring the auto-erotic asphyxiation gone wrong that Portland coughing up a late 2-2 draw to the Seattle Sounders, a moment that made a mockery of a truly wonderful tifo, I have several things to say/note, or that make me wanna go fetal…
First, see the title.
Second, I want to bury this idea about “bad defending,” because I view that as a too-broad argument for a more specific phenomenon. Generally speaking, the Timbers don’t defend badly as a unit, so much as they keep making horrific, this-will-make-your-mother-hate-you mistakes in defense, and, because they follow from bad decisions in the precise/specific/defining moment, those kinds of fuck ups are harder to remedy. There, I’m talking about Jeff Attinella coming off his line on Minnesota’s third goal and taking out not one, but two defenders, or the way not one single player in Portland’s defense tracked Clint “Fucking” Dempsey wandering into the space that opened up when all three of Portland’s last-line defenders dropped off on Seattle’s equalizer…the line was immaculate, then, if distinctly Maginot in nature and quality. Basically, the problems seem based less on structure than bad decisions by individual players.
I’m not saying Portland’s defense doesn’t blow the fundamentals from time to time – see the pocket that Christian Ramirez settles in to score Minnesota’s second goal (yes, keeping a good line is fundamental) – but everyone’s in some reasonable approximation of where they should be for Minnesota’s first (Okugo just got a bad touch, and the resulting own-goal; then again, where’s the reaction to that overload?). The same goes for Joevin Jones’ opening goal on Sunday: Portland’s defenders were in decent position – and I’m not saying that a couple player didn’t react like corpses (looking at you, Alvas Powell, Lawrence Olum) – but, honestly, Jake Gleeson’s rebound went straight back into the natural progession of Jones' run, who didn’t so much follow up as found the ball rolling lazily into his stride, and that’s just the gods tickling the odds in one direction or the other. As suits their fancy, the whimsical bastards…
Bottom Line: set aside the details and Timbers fans get the same outcome: every Timbers game now amounts to an exercise in anxiously turning the crank on a Jack-in-the-Box and waiting for that fucker to pop and scare the shit out of you/ruin your day.
If there’s a scary thing about this season, I’m not sure there’s anything of import to say after that; unless/until the Timbers can unfuck their individual heads defensively – and, again, this whole idea rests on the theory that the problem is mental, and not structural – the Timbers can lose any game, at any time, and for a truly compelling variety of reasons. It’s like spinning a wheel to determine which of the Seven Deadly Sins will end you.
There are, however, bright patches, so I want to touch on those first.
He keeps looking better, by my lights, even if he’s not the winger the team “needs.” He’s good on both sides of the ball – even if not to designated player standards, but it’s not my pocketbook, etc. – and I’m seeing signs that he’s learning how to play with his teammates better and better each week (he started this sequence with a perfectly-weighted, one-touch pass forward (also, notice he actually followed up on the play)). (Also, for the record, the red card he picked up feels like bullshit. That looked more like shoving off than, “I want to hurt you and your children’s children.”) I still think the team is finding his best role, but…patience…
Did not know the kid could head the ball like that, but with that goddamn magnificent jaw as a super-structure, I really should have guessed. I loved Asprilla’s movement on the shot he pinged of Stefan Frei's crossbar, and the goal was pretty solid too, even if unmolested (hey…our defenders aren’t the only ones who slip). Asprilla’s nothing like a complete player (srsly, his greatest talent might be getting the ball tangled up under/around his feet), but he’s a good worker. Maybe the answer for him comes with asking him to simplify his game – and having him drift inside after coming down the wing, because, against two teams now, he looked good in the air…just something to file away...
I’m getting to where I worry about the Timbers relying on penalty kicks – and not that that’s conscious. By that I mean, Portland picked up two penalties in as many games (plus an own-goal), and those require a couple factors to come together just so (e.g., a plausible PK scenario, plus a ref not schooled in the “pain and fouls will make them strong” mentality), and, between penalty kicks and an own-goal, that’s three-quarters of Portland's output. Run of play means a lot, basically, and Portland’s whole balance between shots versus shots on goal paints a picture.
In a season where the defense worked out, this doesn’t matter a ton…so, yeah, finish that sentence and you get an idea of the wee mountain this team still has to climb to become their best selves.
Some final points, and then I’m going to sleep or something. (No, not really.)
Amobi Okugo and That Makeshift Backline
Raise your hand if you think Liam Ridgewell’s absence really mattered. If Ridgewell never made mistakes, I think I’d care a lot more, but he makes mistakes just like the rest of his back-ups/rivals/contenders. In order to make a firm judgment, I’d have to undertake a complete, thorough review of the goals Portland has allowed this year (good sample size, too; 28 goals, only three teams have allowed more goals), so I have to treat this problem as global. For all that, and against the first couple paragraphs, Okugo, more than Olum, does not often look any part a central defender. In his defense, there’s a mentality that comes with being a central defender – the whole “you shall not pass!” thing – that doesn’t come naturally to a midfielder, because that kind of player is used to playing with a safety net, e.g. central fucking defenders. If you watch Okugo, he’s making plays, but most of them are based on reading of the game, and not that maniacal desire to win the ball that makes good defenders (and defensive midfielders) great.
To be clear, yeah, I do accept (finally) that Okugo is a liability in central defense. He looks to have a tendency to play zonally, but that’s natural for a defensive midfielder. It’s also not doing the Timbers any favors in the last line of defense. Then again, who is?
A Quibble with Tactics
I’ve seen some twitter traffic about Caleb Porter “losing” the team, and that coughing up late goals grows from that. I have no firm opinion on that, but I do have a firm opinion on the team’s tactical choices at the end of the Seattle draw/loss (look, call it what you wanna, but that’s a loss in my book). When you’re playing in high heat, with a man advantage and a one-goal lead, there’s simply no need to keep pressing the ball forward in search of that safety goal – but that’s precisely what Portland did. Seattle looked beat and disoriented as late as the 84th, but Portland kept pressing forward. I get it on one level – the Timbers’ strength is the attack – but when your defense is fragile as a Fabrege egg, the smartest game involves either possession play, or putting bodies behind the ball. Doing neither, in that context, amounts to coaching malpractice…Caleb.
And…all done. I was on vacation. Regular schedule (such as it is) to resume shortly…