Sunday, July 2, 2017

Sporting Kansas City 1-1 Portland Timbers: Scholastic Meditations

Yo, up there. Got anything?
There’s something subtly ominous about the name, “Children’s Mercy Park.” That didn’t come through in yesterday’s 1-1 draw between Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers. Just…noted…

So, how we feeling, Timbers Nation? I left twitter for the night shortly after the game (right? please, god, no drunk tweets…wait! I wasn’t! Never mind), but people had already started teasing out lines of argument before then: was this a squandered result, another couple of points dropped in a season when Portland’s bag for points seems to have a couple holes (contextual interpretation), or was this a good point to get on the road against one of Major League Soccer’s stronger home teams (call this the “one-game-at-a-time” interpretation)?

Even as I see the value of getting that point – moreover, of having a real (and entirely justified*) opportunity to take at all three points – the contextual interpretation holds up better for me. (*Tim Melia’s chest 100% bumped Fanendo Adi’s trailing leg.) Fun as it is to muck around in the details – in this case, say, whether to file SKC’s equalizer under Alvas Powell losing a mark (if so, why did Jake Gleeson yell up-field (specifically, toward the general area in and around Ben Zemanski)) – the big picture slips out of focus when one spends too much time there.

I’ve phrased this a couple ways so far this season, and addressed different parts of the same idea in different posts – e.g., switches going off, or having faith in the depth – but they all get at the same idea: the 2017 Portland Timbers are impressively consistent, in that the same general things happen just about every game. That doesn’t mean no outliers exist, whether for good or ill, but, arrange those in a random pattern (as done here), and those outliers even out to match the larger trend: a reliable attack (and one starring most of the same characters) pairs with an unreliable defense and the uneven results follow therefrom. Is there some clear, useful “why” to this? First off, um…

Look, I have a handful of dead-horse theories I can keep on flogging (e.g. re-litigating last week’s positively Scholastic distinction between a bad defense (not the case, as I see it) and the Timbers penchant for defensive lapses), but those only kick off the talks about the team’s permanent incapacity to generate momentum. Of all the twitter stuff I stumbled across yesterday, one, in particular, kicked off this line of thought. In a tweet where he talked about expectations, Shotboxer (nice fella) took the bright(er) view of the draw with this…tweet I can’t presently find, but swear to god it existed once (maybe he deleted it?). To paraphrase, then, he said something like this: what should Timbers fans have expected in a road game with Diego Chara and David Guzman (and maybe someone else) absent? I stared to respond to this with the argument that SKC’s absences felt bigger (e.g. missing Matt Belser (weaker defense?) and Dom Dwyer), but I didn’t, because I think that argument runs at the situation from the wrong side. To explain that, enjoy this pile of numbers:

Portland has gone 2-5-3 in their last 10 games – that’s back to May 6 - and, through those games, they scored 12 goals and conceded 17. Six of those were road games, where the results were…not so good (0-5-1, five goals scored, 14 conceded); things look better at home, obviously, with a 2-0-2 record, seven goals scored and three conceded. Here’s where it gets interesting: the Timbers started the Guzman/Chara pairing for six of those 10 games, and they went 1-3-2, and with eight goals scored and 13 conceded across the six games, and losing every road game. As for what that means…well, it’s complicated For instance, Chara got sent off in the 18th minute in the Montreal loss, which makes a case for pulling that out of the sample (not least because it pads the negative numbers). Then again, I’d argue that the losses to Minnesota and San Jose makes an indirect case for keeping it in, because, sure, Chara imploded in one game, but what problems did he and Guzman solve in the other two, when they both played the whole game? Moreover, the best, most comforting win from that run, the home win over FC Dallas, came with Chara out from suspension (Lawrence Olum covered…and did really well).

Nothing in that pile directly questions Chara’s or Guzman’s talent or utility, but instead argues that their being gone or present doesn’t correlate with better results; playing on the road seems to mean more, as it has every recent season…and, sigh. Or maybe the better argument holds that the only players who truly matter for Portland are Adi, Valeri and, in recent weeks, Sebastian Blanco (he was involved, one steps removed, on both of Portland's chances). If nothing else, that little pile of statistics alludes to the sobering possibility that the specific assortment of personnel behind them hasn’t been terribly decisive this season. I’m going to call this the Guzman Revelation because, I, like several people, got pretty geeked up at his first few outings, but now, I have questions. The line between a good player and an actual solution is faint, basically, and it takes a lot of data to make it come to the fore.

The flipside of that makes for a happier argument. The Timbers had two clear and present ways to win the game: holding on to the original lead, or, if Valeri scored the penalty kick, retaking it (or if Olum buries his header immediately after that, or had Adi done anything except carry the ball too long on a 52nd minute breakaway). And, for what it’s worth, I didn’t see anything alarmingly soft in KC’s equalizer, and the boxscore does support the idea that, generally, Portland didn’t give KC a lot of chances. Add to that, and all the above, the fact that they pulled this off with Portland’s eternally-questioned, moderately jumbled personnel, and that they did it on the road, and you get a picture of what Portland can do – even with these players.

So, again, what needs to change with this group? Or, more bluntly, what can change? The team doesn’t have a lot of fresh, meaningful options when it comes to personnel - or at least not ones the teams appears willing to use. Unless I missed something (becoming increasingly likely), Portland has exactly one change on the table for the rest of this season – e.g., the arrival of one or more Larrys Mabiala(s). I have no idea what Mabiala will bring to the team. If he transforms the defense, yes, I plan on showing up to his house/apartment carrying nothing but a bottle of the good stuff and wearing nothing but a smile (psst…Larrys, call me), but that’s a big, fat unknown till he suits up and, again, we get data.

After that, I got nuthin’ beyond, “do it again, all y’all, only a little better.” I have little quibbles/possibilities after that – e.g., I don’t know why Caleb Porter pulled Dairon Asprilla when he did, but he’s having a good little run and I don’t think it helped the cause at all; per something ESPN’s Alejandro Moreno said in-broadcast (“[the Timbers] are limited to this side of the field. There is no option on the left, there is no width”), I’m wondering if the team hasn’t quietly let that side of the field to atrophy all season. Seeing as I started 2017 with big hope for the Timbers’ left by way of Vytas Andriuskecivius combining with Darlington Nagbe, that can’t help but feel like a good muscle to develop…even if that’s got pipe-dream thinking pasted all over it. Anyway, yeah, that’s it. Till next game…of which, have you seen Chicago this year?

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