Sunday, March 3, 2019

Colorado Rapids 3-3 Portland Timbers: Of Snow & Fortunate Deflections

Just do your best out there, guys. We fucked ya up goin' in.
The Department of Cross-Platform Corrections will open this post by announcing that, after further review, Axel Sjoberg’s not-quite-goal-saving handball was deliberate. (During the game, I tweeted that I wouldn’t have called it, but watch his hand (over and over); yes, the VAR got it right.) Moving on now, to the Ministry of Justice, given that either of two Portland Timbers players could have nodded home Sjoberg’s naughty deflection, part of me would have just taken the goal and moved on. Back in this timeline, the shock-collar “tickled” Drew Fischer (that’s what they use right?), alerting him to matter of controversy (Sjoberg’s handball), and, after review, the whole thing ended up with red card for the Colorado Rapids and the Timbers wound up with a penalty kick.

Diego Valeri scored it, the game ultimately ended 3-3, and all the above wasn’t even the weirdest thing that happened some miles removed from Denver, Colorado yesterday. If nothing else, it snowed like goddamn crazy, but, to lick the brassiest of brass tacks, had you given 1,000 Timbers fans the top-level scenario for yesterday’s game – e.g., a high-scoring draw in Colorado and with snow falling – and asked them whether or not they’d call it a good result, I put the number of “yes” answers at or around 2/3 of respondents. (Sharper question: would that number go up or down immediately after the game and with all respondents 4+ drinks in?) As with what we shall henceforth call Sjoberg’s Goal (MLS’s/Kant’s answer to Schrodinger’s Cat), would you get different answers from those 1,000 Timbers fans had you watched that game with each of them and then asked them afterwards how they felt? (Focus groups = Group-think. Also, fluoride.)

Cold weather games are almost always memorable, in that they borrow a central principle from hockey – i.e., putting as many obstacles as possible in the way of success (e.g., “here are some skates, here’s a stick; now, go chase piece of frozen rubber around a sheet of fucking ice, I said do it!”; I finally get why hockey players are so fucking angry). Snow counts as the most unnatural, recurring condition for soccer, because it makes all the players run using weird, choppy strides, and guys slip all over the place…but does snow typically cause ‘keepers to cough up that many rebounds? It took reviewing the highlights to fully absorb the reality that half of yesterday’s goals came off rebounds. (So, to you kids watching at home, your coach isn’t full of shit when he tells you to follow up on shots. A lot of it’s bullshit, but that one’s real.)

All in all, though, is there anything real to take away from this game, or was it dog-pile of X-factors and the toddler-esque beginning of any regular season? For all the commentary on snow, both teams played a recognizable and accepted version of soccer out there. Sure people looked a little clumsy from time to time – one of them being Benny Feilhaber’s equalizer – but they moved the ball to where they wanted it to go and, deep as the powder got during the game, it didn’t stop the Rapids from scoring its second, the game’s third equalizer. The snow mattered, but it didn’t really.

To close out Feilhaber, and Colorado generally, they picked up guys like Feilhaber and Kei Kamara to buy them a bigger (short-term) punch and it paid off last night. On his better days, Feilhaber is one of the rare players in MLS who can create a goal on his own; Kamara, meanwhile, has a great physical frame for a striker, something he didn’t use a ton yesterday. He also knows how to make the kinds of runs good forwards do…which makes a nice transition to the Portland Timbers, and what the Hell went wrong out there.

“Wrong” feels too strong – again, due to the top-line concept that a road draw in (or near) Denver, in the snow is a result most fans would take. And yet, from Portland’s perspective, the three goals they allowed plants a bright neon flag into one of the team’s “Areas of Concern,” e.g., the defense. While each goal had a different specific anatomy, the last two shared a certain slop-fest quality. (I’d argue their first required a lucky bounce off a Timbers player’s tackle, something that came before the highlight clip starts.) The Timbers got pinned in both times, to a place where their clearances simply didn’t get far enough away from danger…but that’s only step one: it’s the reaction to the siege that concerned me, specifically, Feilhaber dancing around the top of the 18 on the second goal, and players losing multiple marks on Colorado’s third. Some teams use “bunkering” as a strategy, dropping into a block of “two fours,” etc. The possibility that the Timbers don’t cope well with that scenario isn’t dispositive…just file it away with the Department of Future Problems.

Brighter news showed up on the other side of the game. Sure, Portland’s goals lacked a little for grace and aesthetics, and they might have French-kissed The Blarney Stone (luck…right?), but they piled on the chances; outside his near-save on the penalty, the Rapids’ Tim Howard saved at least three more tricky shots (this was his best, and this was killer, but he has a third in the highlights; and that's on top of stopping Valeri's first PK). Add the three goals actually scored on top of those and I do feel comfortable arguing that Portland out-played Colorado – again, under all the conditions, both meteorological and practical. On the one hand, one could gripe about the fact that Andy Polo scored Portland’s third and final go-ahead off an own goal, but Polo found room for his shot by exploiting a conceptual space on the field (i.e., outside Colorado’s widest defensive player) that he’d used to destabilize the Rapids defense all night. He even showed off a bit, what with a nifty little flick over a lunging player that set Polo loose in all kinds of space behind Colorado’s left.

To continue pushing a theory, I think the team finally sees a way to get Polo to where he ought to be on the field – on the wing, creating width in the attack. That shift involves playing David Guzman “next to” Chara and, to give Guzman credit, I saw him chasing out there yesterday, so maybe this will work. If nothing else, it frees up Polo to be a clear outlet that everyone can kick toward, as Portland has done all preseason and through last night. If Polo can become disruptive or even dangerous from that space this season, it’ll be fun to see what happens when defenses react to that, and what’ll happen when the Timbers respond to that reaction. Ideally, this is the start of something interesting…

After that, not a lot has changed for Portland between last season and this one – and for good or ill. All the key players in the attack still know how to create chances. Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco kept the Rapids’ defense chasing around each of their effective, ever-shifting centers of gravity, but even Jeremy Ebobisse – aka, the top resident in another Area of Concern, aka, forward – dished and combined pretty well yesterday. Basically, when the Timbers needed a goal, they at least have the capacity to create the chances. This bears watching, of course, and I don’t think anyone would wave away another, higher-potential forward*, but so far so good. (*And I have my misgivings; if you don’t allow a player to develop (e.g., Ebobisse), how does he/she develop? That whole thing works like a credit score in a way that probably bears a Master’s thesis.)

It’s on the defensive side where things still feel precarious. I am absolutely not going to blame this draw on Julio Cascante…but I still have to ask…him, really? With this game and this game alone in mind, Cascante didn’t have any failing that announced itself like a flaming bag on your porch; yeah, maybe he could have done better tracking Kamara for Colorado’s first, but he also provided the body that stepped Feilhaber’s first shot on the Rapids’ second goal (even as he coughed up the rebound that lead to the same second goal). Basically, I’m more worried about the way the team collapsed too deep on two occasions than I am about anything specific Cascante did or didn’t do. I do trust him least of all the central defenders on the current roster, but, till further notice, I’ll assume he’s getting the start based on something the coaches are seeing in practice. If/when the mistakes start piling up, that’s when I’ll start baying for blood.

I’m looking forward to next week’s game against Los Angeles FC to help me sort out what the Portland Timbers really look like this season. It’ll take place in better, warmer climes if nothing else. Still, it was interesting to watch the new-very-old-look Colorado show off its updated personnel in key places. If there’s a key question in play at this point, it’s one of how those generally-esteemed players (e.g., Feilhaber and Kamara, with hunger added) stack up against the rest of what Portland’s defense will face in 2019….

…wow, now that I type that, it feels hella ominous.

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