Sunday, October 6, 2019

Portland Timbers 3-1 San Jose Earthquakes: The Best of All Possible Worlds, Emphasis on Possible

VAR, as I understand it.
The Portland Timbers lunged into the 2019 playoffs with the kind of result they were supposed to have stacked up like Benjamins over the course of, like, 50 home games in the second half of the 2019 season (was it long for you too? serious question). Key players showed up today, the mainstays really, and that defined the game. Larrys Mabiala, the Timbers’ biggest set-piece threat, scored after staying high on a recycled corner (and on a forward’s goal to boot). With the weight of carrying the attack on his shoulders, Sebastian Blanco delivered an energetic, even commanding performance; he polished it off with the free kick that stamped San Jose’s defeat, but I’d argue Blanco had his, and the Timbers’, best moment in the 53rd minute when he, 1) reversed a counter that could have spelled trouble for Portland, even doom; and 2) he capped it off by whipping a dangerous shot on goal.

Those two goals were enough to carry the Portland Timbers to a 3-1 home win, and into a first-round playoff bout, on the road against Real Salt Lake. The venue and opposition could be worse, really, given that Portland has won every single regular season game against RSL, home and away, for the past two seasons (yeah, yeah, it’s just four games, also, 10 gf, 2 ga in Portland’s favor), and I’ll take a longer look at all that during the preview. To get back to the game just played, Dairon “Mr. October” Asprilla, scored the goal that broke San Jose, and that, along with Mabiala’s night/goal and Blanco’s night/goal, is literally what the Portland Timbers need to get anywhere near a memorable season in 2019.

Part of me wants to attribute it all to a mind-state, one summed up in Blanco, who represented the Timbers at their best – i.e., defending, sure, but mostly attacking. That showed up, dramatically, in the boxscore, and mostly in combination. For instance, San dominated possession (nearly 6:4), but their comparatively low number of shots (they’ve posted much better numbers lately) answers the question of how much good all that possession did them. Personally, I recall some shots from San Jose, but nothing scary, certainly nothing sustained (i.e., all the sustaining went in the other direction), and the Timbers played the second half on the front foot – for which, notably, Diego Chara set the tone by single-handed cutting off two Earthquake attacks before they could develop (the man reads minds).

Before wandering aimlessly into Portland for an hour or two, I have some thoughts on San Jose. I didn’t see them find the same kind of openings that I saw them finding in those MLS-in-15 highlight clips…which means, that the Timbers cut that shit out. That's more more about Portland than the ‘Quakes, I guess, but good job, Timbers, regardless. Second, and this is what really decided the game, all it took to scramble San Jose was playing through that first line of pressure; even the goddamn broadcast booth noticed it. Based on what I saw in the highlights of their past four games, they scramble fairly capably when that happens - something that could mean that Portland’s better than your average team any time they can exploit space and momentum. In other words, sure, the ‘Quakes have lost a lot lately, but this loss still looked different, more NYCFC than Philadelphia, and so on…

…which I think could be my way of saying this particular iteration of the San Jose Earthquakes (like this particular iteration of RSL), could just be a soft-touch sparring partner for the Timbers, specifically. It doesn’t matter, really. RSL is just the next game and Portland will win it or lose it (and the balance of reasons doesn’t seem to favor RSL, overly). Now, let’s flip it back to Portland.

I’ll start by saying my (perhaps) over-estimation of San Jose (see twitter; @JeffBull5) could be warping my judgment on…just everything. I was told, forget about the multiple losses, the ‘Quakes have played strong down the stretch, and the video and boxscores supported that. In fewer words, I feel good about this win for Portland and that…concerns me. And yet, regardless of whether I thought the Timbers had it in them to run the second half today, they did it. The game effectively ended when Asprilla knocked in his second bite of the apple; I don’t know when San Jose fired its last real shot, but the Timbers always looked like they could score again, and the ‘Quakes needed two goals/the win in any case, and they never looked good for two goals. In several ways, this goes down as Playoff Win 1 for the 2019 playoffs. Huzzah!

Let’s see, anything else? The refs weren’t good, and VAR is the digital-age equivalent of government paperwork, but do any of you remember that at this point? I don’t, because Portland won this game outright, bad calls (of which, several) be damned. That's the kind of win this team needed, any result without an asterisk, really. The Timbers got into the playoffs the right way – always competitive and, as demonstrated by today’s game, capable of a win. It’s just one of the same foot in front of the other from here and, limitations in form and absences besides, the Timbers could survive the first round. And, after that, with a little self-belief in your sails…

Here are my top five (5) reasons to believe, in no particular order:

1) Mabiala is back and (looks) healthy; his presence and reading of the game makes everyone better;

2) Chara, and also Paredes. They’re sound defensively, but I saw both players helping the attack today – Chara by stretching it vertically on the counter, over and over again; Paredes by providing a late option here and a run to pull defenders there – but they both put in outstanding, even defining games today;

3) Steve Clark, whose confidence rightly remains through the roof;

4) Attacking options/depth: Blanco, Asprilla, and Jeremy Ebobisse carried the attack, and that still leaves Brian Fernandez and Diego Valeri on deck, or even Marvin Loria or Eryk Williamson waiting to step up. The point is Portland posted three goals tonight, and they still have other ways to do it left in the tank; and

5) Dairon Asprilla, The Patron Saint of Barely Justified Deep Runs. (Say what you will, but he’s the equivalent of bringing loaded dice to a craps game.)

I’ve got a couple negatives, for what it’s worth - e.g., one could argue that Portland won today despite absentee performances by Andy Polo (again) and Jeremy Ebobisse, plus a sloppy outing by Bill Tuiloma, or even that Jorge Moreira takes all day plus two touches to pass or cross the ball, and that’s driving me to distraction lately (no, seriously, just watch for it). But, as it went with the refs, do you care? The Timbers made the post-season, and now it really is one game at a time. They're in with a bigger shout than I expected...or that could be misplaced and/or some kind of chemical romance talking....till the next one.

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