|A wrong turn was clearly taken.|
[Ed. – Spring forward caught up with me around midnight last night. Or it might have been the large containers of very strong ale. Either way, midnight felt like 3 a.m. I regret the delay.]
Had you turned off the TV (or, you piece of shit, opted to break the Seventh Seal on all things that are holy and left the stadium during) the Portland Timbers' 1-4 loss to Los Angeles FC at the half, where would you have pegged the final score for yesterday’s game? Close observers will recall that the score was 1-2 at the half, and in LAFC’s favor, but, based on what you’d seen to that point, how where would you have thought the game would end? A 2-2 draw? A 3-2 win for Portland? A 2-3 win for LAFC? What about a 1-5 loss for the Timbers?
That dip into a counter-factual comes in as an attempt to retrace the steps between here (call it the end of the first half) and there (the final whistle) to see if we can’t figure out where the wrong turn (in which they missed the bridge and plunged off the cliff and into the river) happened. Overall, the game played out fairly clear game states: LAFC scored the first goal during an opening 20 minutes of beating Portland to every ball and winning ever duel; the Timbers responded over the next 20-25 minutes by doing very close to no wrong, and scoring a goal of their own (at least they won the duel of the headers). LAFC would take over completely in the third and final game state, or, as some would call it, the second half.
I think the only question comes with identifying the precise moment that cracked the Timbers’ will. As much as it hurt in the moment, I’m hereby pulling the nomination for Christian Ramirez’s first-half-capping game winner, and on the advice of my gut (the thinnest of all grounds). With just two candidates left in the running, was it Carlos Vela feeding Adama Diomande for LAFC’s 3rd goal, or was it Diomande feeding Vela for LAFC’s fourth 3-4 minutes later? Or were those awful 3-4 minutes the Timbers pivot straight to Hell? On a higher level, did the Timbers fall apart or did LAFC pull them apart and is LAFC (perhaps) that good this season? In the end, where is the balance between LAFC’s (allegedly) great attack or the Timbers (allegedly) shitty defense?
On Portland’s side of the ledger, the conundrum comes down to this: at times, the Timbers played unstoppable soccer going forward, the kind of switched-on/half-blind riffing that ladders the ball upfield in a way that’s impossible to stop…at least without Jeremy Ebobisse seizing up on the kind of chance that makes a forward a forward (for the record, I really wish that highlight reel came in 2-3 passes earlier). The Timbers played some incredible, seeing-eye stuff yesterday – at times, the attack hummed with ambient beauty – but, Ebobisse’s one goal aside, they could only create danger, but not goals. Still, they put in a respectable shift, one that would do most road teams proud. Their aim wasn’t so good, and giving up four definitely leaves a mark (more below), but they played a better game overall than that score suggests. One simply must wonder what might have been had Ebo put away the gift of a break-away by Sebastian Blanco.
Sadly, the Timbers’ now seven goals against jab pointed questions into them and the ether. On a blunt force level, if the Colorado Rapids put three goals past Portland, why shouldn’t Timbers fans expect a more talented LAFC team to score still more goals? In practical terms, what can an otherwise good and effective Portland team do to viciously eradicate the kind of slips that allowed, say, Mark Anthony Kaye to get in front of David Guzman for LAFC’s first goal? Or to let Timbers’ defenders see Jordan Harvey lurking wide open on their right through the time-space warp of Vela’s gravity? Bottom line, what can the defense do to regain its collective footing?
The (first-world) horrors of all the above aside, nothing about yesterday’s result felt so unjust, so…so, just fucking wrong than LAFC scoring immediately after superstar saves by “Jeff, Jeff,” Jeff Attinella not once, but twice. After doing his proverbial one job ever so well, Attinella deserved better defending all around. Not even Atlas could have borne the weight of those mistakes, and the cosmic unfairness of it all – no, the just plain faulty storytelling – needs rewriting, and badly.
In the end, I’m at least as curious about what’s going on with LAFC as I am with the Timbers. How far does this, and the Week 1 home win against Sporting KC (in LA), carry LAFC? Dominating both sides of the match tonight – i.e., the start and the finish – says something about their capacity and, an odd late chance or two for Portland aside, they owned the second half. Overall, though, what does the rest of MLS have on its hands when it comes to LAFC? Could a healthy Mark-Anthony Kaye and Eduardo Atuesta in defensive midfield have made the space behind Vela, Diego Rossi and Christian Ramirez safe enough for those three, plus Lee Nguyen to cut loose? If so, those hot takes about LAFC being in the run for the 2019 Supporters’ Shield suddenly don’t look so hot. (Hmm…the concept of “hot take” is wreaking havoc with that phrasing).
To close out on Portland, and this game, what’s there to say besides the obvious: the Portland Timbers fucked up and more than once (I’m counting four times; what does everyone else have?). All the good attacking play – nay, the sometimes majestic marauding – got erased by the end and seven goals across two games (for those doing the math at home, that’s a 3.5 goals against average), are the kinds of numbers that force a reckoning. As much as the Timbers tried to upgrade ahead of this season, they…did not do so. I’ve been fairly bullish on the Timbers’ chances in 2019, most of it based on holding on to the mix of personnel that went one step short of all the way in 2018, and I feel wholly justified on the attacking side of the team. After back-to-back defensive collapses, and with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel, it’s definitely time to reconsider the whole buy/sell/hold equation.
LAFC was the better team, or at least the more efficient one. The question is what that means for the Timbers.