Saturday, June 10, 2017

Portland Timbers 2-0 FC Dallas: On Good Problems to Have

Die, motherfucker!
Let’s face it: attrition loomed large tonight, as one Portland Timber after another threatened to limp off the field. Only two did in the end…the team’s starting centerbacks. No big whoop…

So, yeah, both Liam Ridgewell and Roy Miller left the game, to be replaced by a Tetris-esque shifting of players/positions, and Timbers fans endured scares here and there throughout the game – whether it was Fanendo “Brace, Y’all!” Adi hurting (was it?) both ankles or Diego Valeri lying on the ground for two minutes that felt like five games’ worth of no one knowing how to make the Timbers’ attack work – but Portland hung (hanged? nah, think I got the verb right) on for the 2-0 win against visiting FC Dallas, aka, the team most likely to (what? win the league? be broadly awesome? prove the reality of The Youth Movement?). And, while that win was mostly encouraging, caveats attach to this thing like remoras that suck blood and eat happy thoughts…

…still, good win. This was my best-case scenario, so, hell yeah, I’m happy. It’s just that…I know stuff that lets me (makes me?) look at this game, and Portland’s last, with the coldest, deadest eyes since zombies.

First, the bad news: this is not The Best Possible Version of FC Dallas. I’d actually argue that, for a team without Walker Zimmerman, Matt Hedges (who is…just holy shit good), and Kellyn Acosta, Dallas played above their available level. God knows they made Portland labor to score – even as both goals resulted from the kind of fuck-ups that drive coaches to drink and/or early retirement. All in all, Dallas defended well enough tonight, but, when Adi stumbles just so, and after the kind of lucky bounce that only happens when a team presses allows Sebastian Blanco to feed him the simplest of passes, and when the other goal comes off another complete collapse, you credit the team that scored first, and ask what exactly went wrong for the other team very shortly thereafter.

Whatever happened tonight, something more salient actually came into play tonight. If there was a consensus “best team” heading into Major League Soccer’s regular season this year, it was FC Dallas. While that may yet prove the case – say what you want about his injuries, but Mauro Diaz makes Dallas next-level lethal when he is, and remains, healthy – Dallas has been pretty damn flaccid in the attack so far this season. Or, in more clarifying terms, unless Diaz could pull some magic out of his ass, this game all but ended after the Timbers scored their first. My biggest worry for tonight was Maximiliano Urruti running wild between the defense and the defensive midfield, but that didn’t happen. Roland Lamah positively destroyed Real Salt Lake, but that only showed how bad RSL was last week. Michael Barrios found space here and there, but that’s the story of Dallas’ season: these players haven’t been enough. Dallas came heart-stoppingly close to scoring, but noting that overlooks a key talking point: that was the best chance they had all night…

…and that means Portland had a good night. And they did.

If there’s a “yes, but” walk-away from tonight’s win – and from Portland’s “good run” over the last two – it’s that: yes, the wins are great, but both can be explained by a fairly simple set of factors that have nothing to do with whether the Timbers have been good or bad. And I say that knowing that, 100%-hell-yes, wins build confidence….and that’s where this tune gets happy.

Dallas had their absences coming into the game, but Portland had theirs during the game. When a team closes out a game with a win, and after losing both starting CBs, that team has had a good night by definition. And that’s what I’ll close out this post on: the comforting notion that Portland’s depth might have quietly panned out, if broadly, without most people (OK, me) acknowledging as much. Or, possibly, that Dallas could very well be 2017’s paper tiger.

Because I’m feeling good tonight, I’ll start by noting some positive trends. First, Lawrence Olum might not be the best player in MLS, but he totally delivers as a defensive player in midfield; that’s a great card to have in one’s back pocket. Diego Guzman is better without question, but I am happily sold on Olum as a useful depth piece – and in multiple positions. Amobi Okugo and Ben Zemanski both did all right for the varying amounts of time they strode the field tonight – and that’s a good thing - but, again, the Dallas team that took the field tonight is neither Dallas’ best team, nor one of MLS’s elite attacking units – at least not based on recent history. My only point here is to take what happened, especially the positives for the Timbers on the defensive side, with a big grain of salt.

Anyone looking to get jazzed about Portland’s depth right now should focus on Dairon Asprilla. No, this wasn’t Dallas’ best central defensive set up, but that’s not where Asprilla plays. And yet, Asprilla looked good tonight – and good enough this season – to put in play the question of who fits where on the starting chart. Even if he’s just making a stronger case for himself as a “super-sub” that’s great news for both the Timbers, and Asprilla…and that’s where things get really fun…

I don’t read/listen to soccer stuff like I used to, but Zarek Valentin looks (somewhat abruptly) very comfortable as a starter at right back for Portland. And I have an anecdote for this, so bear with me…

When I saw Alvas Powell on the sideline, and with Miller hobbled and Ridgewell already gone, I asked the 3-4 people I watched the game with to ask what it would mean to insert Powell into the game. Our original thought was that Powell would come on at right back, and that Valentin would shift up into central midfield as a defender/passing hub, something that feels reasonably within his wheelhouse. That didn’t happen, obviously: Okugo came on, and Olum dropped back, and Portland held together better than “fine” for the rest of the game, and that’s great. There’s also an argument in that – i.e., that Portland has parts to move around back there during what was, honestly, a legitimate emergency (again, two centerbacks going down in the same game) – and that that argument can end well.

And that’s my take-away from this game. Sure, Dallas didn’t bring their A-game/team to tonight’s game in Portland, but that’s still the (alleged) best of the Western Conference in its current, Diaz-lite configuration, sputtering mightily against a 100% make-shift back-line/overall defensive situation for Portland. And the Timbers still won.

That’s actually where I want to close this: the Timbers didn’t just win, they won comfortably. The question of who was missing what sort of falls down at that point, because the reality is, one team missed players coming in, while the other lost players in-game. In other words, in a game crawling with adversity, one team scored two goals and another didn’t. Not least because they haven’t scored a ton of goals all season…noted…

This win feels as good as any, even under the accumulation of circumstances. Depth matters in MLS. And, so far, Portland’s depth has at least half-carried them to second place in the Western Conference. If that’s not a good omen, I don’t know what is.

Forza Portland!

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