Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Timbers Extend Unbeaten Streak To 13 Despite Late Earthquakes Rally

Another brace for number 99
Samuel Armenteros was simply on a whole different level all night.
It's always an adventure when the San Jose Earthquakes visit the Portland Timbers, and the third meeting in 2018 between the sides continued the theme of unpredictability. While San Jose hasn't won in Portland in the MLS era during league play, the Earthquakes have forced Portland into some difficult situations with an odd bounce, well-timed penalty or taking advantage of a mistake over the years. With the Timbers holding onto a long unbeaten streak in league play that started in April, Portland was hoping to extend their mark another match against a San Jose side that still hasn't figured out what their identity is, and for the first 75 minutes of the match, Portland was in complete control and seemed to be well on their way to the result. The last 15 minutes, however, featured a sputtering Timbers offense once the substitutes began to enter, a defensive gaffe that allowed the Earthquakes to put a goal on the board, and ended with a scrambling Portland team that effectively held on for dear life to secure a 2 to 1 victory. While the victory does indeed extend the unbeaten streak, the Timbers didn't make it very easy on the nerves for anybody - but they did just enough to get the full points.

Timbers Coach Gio Savarese has been talking a lot about his team's flexibility and adaptability being big components of the overall success in 2018, and we've witnessed several different variations of the Timbers over the past weeks. This has also been aided by several different players stepping up to contribute to the lengthy level of success, as it's not been just one person or persons that have added something. It's a testament to the overall depth that Portland is enjoying that players are being pushed for playing time, and they've responded with impressive results, both here and at the Timbers 2 level. However, the margin between success and failure is rather minute, and if that point wasn't very evident, consider this match as testament to that fact. For all of their success over the first 75 minutes in terms of pressure, precision and goals, the Timbers did little wrong, but over a sequence of a quarter hour, the gains were nearly lost in a sea of uncertainty and tentative play showing little margin of error. For as good as the Timbers have been over this now thirteen match unbeaten streak, they can't turn off their focus for a moment's notice otherwise to allow their opponent any ability to gain confidence in themselves, especially since the Western Conference race is so tight that a deserving side or two might be left out of the postseason.

good to see him back on the pitch
Sebastian Blanco was back for the Timbers and the offense was more inspired.
After securing the victory in Flounder Land last weekend for their first MLS victory ever at Century Link Field, Savarese was excited about the news that both David Guzman and Andy Polo had returned from international duty, and Fanendo Adi was also fully available after suffering through a few knocks over the past weeks. Sebastian Blanco was also at full fitness after missing last week, so Savarese had his full compliment of attacking options available for this match. Savarese kept some of his starting options the same, however, as Jeff Attinella once again manned the goal for Portland behind the defensive line of Alvas Powell, Zarek Valentin, Larrys Mabiala and Julio Cascante, the same group that started over the past three matches. Instead of playing the Christmas Tree formation with 3 defensive midfielders, 2 attacking midfielders, and 1 striker, Savarese went for 4 midfielders and 2 strikers with a diamond in the middle with Diego Chara and Lawrence Olum as defensive mids with Blanco and Diego Valeri as the midfielder wingers. Samuel Armenteros would start paired up with Dairon Asprilla as the second striker, but Adi would be waiting on the bench for his turn as needed. Guzman and Polo would be available as a sub along with Adi, while Savarese also selected Vytas, Bill Tuiloma, Andres Flores and Jake Gleeson as available reinforcements. Depending upon the score or situation, Savarese had versatile and adaptable options if he needed to change things up.

Most media folks that don't follow San Jose regularly are still trying to figure out what direction the Earthquakes are following because it appears they are coming apart at the seams. After another dreadful season, San Jose invested in improving their attacking options with Magnus Eriksson, Vako Qazaishvili, Jahmir Hyka and Danny Hoesen to surround longtime scorer Chris Wondolowski to bolster their goal scoring, and it's been an improvement from previous years where they couldn't score at all. Unfortunately, their defense and goalkeeping hasn't enjoyed as much investment although there are several younger names in their academy to help there. Technical Director Chris Leitch and Coach Mikael Stahre have been patient as the young Quakes are trying to find their true sense of self and playing style, but it's come at the expense of wins with the Earthquakes having just 2 wins over Minnesota United so far in 2018. One trait that has never been lacking for the Earthquakes is tenacity, and while they might be struggling collectively, the team still continues to battle each and every week. Stahre played most of his big offensive threats with Wondo and Hoesen being the dual strike threat with Anibal Godoy, Vako, Florian Jungwirth and Eriksson manning the midfield. A big question for the Timbers would be if Chara and Olum could limit the influence of Vako and Godoy, the more creative influences of the midfield foursome.

always smiling under any circumstance
Diego Chara is all smiles, even when he's getting a caution for a soft foul.
The match itself started out very strangely with Center Official Ted Unkel brandishing a card nearly after the opening whistle, when San Jose center back Harold Cummings fouled Asprilla on a break holding his kit on a breakaway. Mabiala has been on a scoring roll lately with goals in his last 2 matches consecutively, and he just missed on a header in the 2nd minute off an early corner kick. But the early scoring threat was Armenteros, who tallied his 5th and 6th goals of 2018 in spectacular fashion. Vako was dribbling the ball on the left heading North and he launched a pass to Wondo at the midfield stripe, but Olum was able to punch the ball away to Armenteros. Samuel dropped the ball back to Valeri, then took off for the left post as Diego drove towards goal until Valeri put a diagonal pass right to Armenteros, who had shook off and turned about his mark and easily tapped the ball past San Jose goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell. Armenteros had 2 other quality chances in the first half in the 19th and 24th minutes and two rushed shots in the 44th and 45th minutes, as he was the focal point of the attack. The 44th minute effort was a spinning bicycle kick that Samuel pushed over the woodwork, but it showed how dialed in number 99 was on the night. Blanco had a good shot off a cross in the 30th minute blocked away, but otherwise, it was the Armenteros show as the Timbers held the one goal lead into the break.

San Jose played relatively passive soccer in the first 45 minutes with just two blocked shots in stoppage time off great defense from Valentin and Mabiala and a Wondo miss in the 29th minute off a give and go for their offense, but Stahre had his team inject more pace and movement after the break. Their task was made more difficult in the 53rd minute when Attinella made an easy save and dropped a pass to Blanco just outside the Timbers box. Sebastian found Valeri midpitch and Diego put an expertly placed pass to Armenteros forward with 2 Earthquake defenders flanking him. Some deft maneuvering and great touches by the Timbers forward later, Armemteros put the ball past Tarbell for his second brace in 2018 and 6th overall goal in MLS play. The next several minutes was a resounding quest to see if the Timbers could get their first hat trick in MLS play for Armenteros, and he came close in the 57th minute after Asprilla had a shot blocked by Tarbell while in the box. Samuel pounced on the rebound, but pushed his effort wide left. San Jose had a point blank shot by substitute Quincy Amarikwa in the 60th minute off a cross from Vako, and Amarikwa did the half bicycle shot off the cross for good measure, but Attinella made the safe and the offside flag was also up to stop the play. Armenteros had another good effort in the 67th minute, and Blanco one-timed a shot off a Powell cross in the 74th minute that didn't miss by much. At this point, it looked like the Timbers were in complete and total control and it was just a matter of what the final margin would be.

Everyone gets a high five after this one
There were lots of smiles afterwards despite the emotionally charged final moments
The complexion changed in the 77th minute when Adi entered for Armenteros, and Blanco was replaced by Flores, and whatever precision was on display for the home side, it seemed to go away once the subs started. San Jose found space in the 82nd minute with a shot from Hyka, who had replaced Eriksson, and Vako pulled another shot wide just second later. Savarese gave Powell the rest of the night off in the 85th minute with Vytas entering as his replacement, but miscommunication between Vytas, Cascante and Mabiala left Jungwirth in open space in the box off an Amarikwa pass, and Florian punched a well placed shot past Attinella in the 87th minute to give San Jose hope. San Jose and Portland then staged an exciting back and forth battle in the dying minutes with Jungwirth and sub Shea Salinas both missing goal by mere inches, while the Timbers were unable to find their target late. The final whistle blew moments later, but a very comfortable and in control match went very much off the rails late, and San Jose was extremely close to either leveling the score or taking the lead. Portland has now gone from an average side with emerging talent to a threat in the Western Conference, and as such, the team will need to work on their mental acumen to avoid such letdowns. Then again, this was a topic that this very site covered in the match preview that lacked cats and predictions, but did ask the question of what will the Timbers do now that they are the hunted.

Portland now travels to Los Angeles for an odd doubleheader with LAFC at Banc of California Stadium - a league match on July 15th after the World Cup final followed on July 18th with a U.S. Open Cup semi-final match - before they enjoy an extended homestand of four matches against Montreal, Houston, Philadelphia and Vancouver before an August midweek trip to D.C. United on August 15 and Sporting Kansas City on August 18th. After a compressed home stand with Seattle and Toronto visiting Providence Park to finish August, the schedule equals out somewhat when September officially hits. Portland still sits tied in fourth in the standings, but at just under 2 points per match with several home matches forthcoming, Portland is sitting fairly well at this point of the year with reinforcements coming soon. But they can't get too overconfident or lose their focus because something could happen to change their fate, and if anything shows how possible that was, it was this match with the Earthquakes.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Now The Real Work Begins

All the soccers
The cats have been enjoying World Cup 2018 & will return to predictions soon.
You could imagine how much the Portland Timbers have flown under the MLS radar if you look at discussions outside the Rose City about the best in MLS. The expectation of the team appeared to be greatly diminished after replacing their coach and trading away one of their keystone players while keeping together a core of players that flamed out of the 2017 MLS playoffs unexpectedly. All that Timbers Coach Gio Savarese has done in his first season is deal with injuries and personality issues within the locker room, install a new tactical approach and the team has currently ripped off a 12 match unbeaten streak since April. As many writers have pointed out, it's easy to point to the parallels the last time the Timbers replaced their coach in 2013, and the team flew all the way to the Conference Championships. But I think that doesn't give full credit to Savarese and his coaches for the job they've done so far. And how important now continuing that approach will be now that people are noticing the transformation when expectations will be increased.

Savarese has always approached matches in the aspect that "every match is a final", a phrase he used in his introductory press conference which has carried over through several iterations over the season. It's a terribly cliched phrase in whatever format it might appear, but it is a simple and straight forward message - deal with the here and now - if it's boiled down to the basics. Over a tremendously long season, there are too many variables surrounding playoff qualification, playing form, injuries, other competitions, trades, lineup adjustments that it can be difficult to keep up for anybody. By preaching this mantra to his team, Savarese has kept the focus reasonable for the things the Timbers can control - their health, well being and form. I give him a tremendous amount of credit for taking something very simple and applying it so well, but then again in our parallel example world, our former fearless leader essentially said the same thing in keeping issues balanced. What separates Savarese from the pack here is that while he's preached the simple message of keeping in the here and now, he's done it by putting forth a dizzying array of adjustments and tinkering that has paid dividends.

hard working player for the Timbers
Diego Chara has been his usual self, but he's had help in anchoring the midfield.
In the previous system, it was essentially designed to be a true plug and play approach with the positions effectively locked into their roles; players would be adjusted in and out based on various factors, but the basic approach would be the same. It worked for a while very well, but the rigidity of the attack bogged down at points simply over the course of adjustments - either by the Timbers or by the opposition. Differing nuances were added over the years, but effectively the attack was set up to maximize the Timbers by setting up a process to capitalize on possession. I can't put much fault into a system that produced an MLS Cup title and 3 playoff appearances in 5 seasons, but with a core of players nearing 30 years old and several long term questions about tactics being unearthed during the offseason, there was tons of scrutiny put towards Savarese in the early part of the 2018 season.

To put it mildly, the team spent a lot of time twirling forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom or success or whatever metric fits here. Yes, it's a Simpson reference that I have run into the ground a lot on my Twitter account and some thought I misquoted it recently talking about my club side, Old Growth FC. But I'm not talking about Kodos giving a campaign speech as Bill Clinton, but the early season of the Timbers was effectively all over the place. Even during the Timbers' home opener and victory over Minnesota United, there was plenty of uncertainty within the approach that was somewhat subsided when Portland took a unique approach against NYCFC - yielding possession and playing for the counter. What we have seen since is the Savarese approach of constantly adjusting and maneuvering the lineup to fit the tactics the team want to execute in the here and now. There has been a healthy rotation of players within several positions, especially on defense, and Portland hasn't missed a beat since they left Orlando. 

talented midfielder
Cristhian Paredes has been a welcome revelation for the Timbers. 
Maybe this seems like over simplifying what Savarese has done, and several media outlets have given rave reviews of Savarese and his approach giving the Timbers flexibility yet discipline. For a side playing the "Christmas Tree" approach of 4 defenders, 3 defensive mids, 2 attacking mids and a lone striker that usually means a passive, defensive approach, the Timbers have been anything but passive. Within this formation, the Timbers have seamlessly adjusted to playing 3 in the back, sending one of the defensive mids forward with regularity, having the fullbacks pinch up, everyone drop back on defense, and do so with synchronicity in coverage. It has been helped by the emergence of Jeff Attinella in goal, as he's been playing as well as I've seen him in his MLS career, while also seeing a cadre of center backs filter through and not miss a beat. As with any system being played, it's important to have a spine and backbone that works - and for the Timbers that has been the play of the center backs, defensive midfield and keeper. What Savarese has also unleashed in this unbeaten streak, however, is a true multi-faceted approach - between attacking options, precision on set pieces, and the ability to create chances. If there is one area where the Timbers can get a little bogged down, it is in the creativity in open play - as they still tend to rely too much on Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri to be those creative forces.

In 15 matches, the team has tallied 24 goals between 9 different players - 10 at home, 4 conceded, 14 away from home with 17 conceded, giving them a plus 3 goal differential - which shows consistency. What is also showing well is that while Valeri leads the team with 6 goals, Blanco is right behind with 5 and Larry Mabiala and Samuel Armenteros are next with 4. The fact that Mabiala has become a scoring threat on the set pieces has added another dimension to the Timbers that teams need to account for, but Portland gets some good news relating to schedule. Over the next 10 matches, the team plays at home for 7 of them to balance out their fixtures and close up the gap in matches played. Portland travels to Los Angeles for a double header with LAFC, playing a MLS match on July 15 followed by their quarterfinal U.S. Open Cup match also there on July 18, and then makes a brutal 2 match trip in August to D.C. United midweek on August 15 followed by a date versus Sporting Kansas City on August 18. There are challenges within the 7 home matches: San Jose, followed by Montreal, Houston, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Seattle and Toronto FC, but being in familiar surroundings should tip the scales for the home side a bit regardless of who is visiting Providence Park. 
Currently the hottest scorer on the Timbers right now
Larrys Mabiala has been great in defense & is tied for 3rd in goals scored for 2018.

It certainly looks promising, but at the same point, if the wheels start to fall off or struggle, the unbeaten streak will all be forgotten. While streaks are completely awesome and impressive, the true measure of teams are still championships, and Savarese is now seeing several players return to the team from international duty (David Guzman, Andy Polo) and from nagging injuries. Portland has dealt with the challenges so far in 2018, but in many ways, the simple approach of focusing on the current could help avoid distraction. San Jose, this weekend's opponent, has been steadily improving with an improved offense, but a nightmarish defense has put the Earthquakes in the Western Conference basement. In previous years, the Timbers have shown a tendency to play down to certain teams, but by all accounts, Portland should be able to press this side at will. They showed remarkable adaptability to deal with one of the most difficult road trips back to back - Atlanta United and their pressing attack and massive crowds, followed by the rivalry match in Seattle versus the always testy Sounders FC side. Portland took 4 points from the trip, which is an accomplishment considering they hadn't won in Seattle during the MLS era and Atlanta was on a roll coming into that match. As much as the results were good, Savarese must keep the side from regressing. He also needs to adjust for playing time to keep his team focused, healthy and happy - especially with reinforcements potentially coming soon. He's earned the benefit of the doubt from me right now because the challenges are going to present themselves soon, but in showing a fluidity and flexibility to manage the team, I have belief Portland will be able to account for just about anything thrown at them.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Timbers Advance in U.S. Open Cup Play Over Galaxy Courtesy of Sebastian Blanco

2018 Timbers MVP
Sebastian Blanco has been the MVP of 2018 for the Timbers in my opinion.
Friday nights are odd at Providence Park, especially considering many soccer fans had spent most of their day watching action from the 2018 World Cup in Russia. With Major League Soccer on their annual summer break, the Portland Timbers were looking forward to a break in play from their last league match (a draw versus Sporting Kansas City on June 9) and a road date in Atlanta to play former Timber Darlington Nagbe and his new side, Atlanta United, on June 24. However, the club would get an opportunity to keep sharp during the off time courtesy of the 2018 U.S. Open Cup tournament. After knocking off San Jose in their opening match on June 6 at home (MLS teams joined the single elimination tournament in Round 4 of the winner take all competition to crown the best soccer club in the U.S.), Portland would play their Round 5 match in the friendly confines of Providence Park against a team they've grown familiar with in 2018, the Los Angeles Galaxy. After losing to the Galaxy to start the 2018 MLS season back in March on the road and playing to an uninspired draw just 13 days earlier in Portland where Timbers Coach Gio Savarese lamented wasted chances, the Timbers finally got some revenge behind an inspired defensive effort, timely saves from goalkeeper Jeff Attinella and a wonder strike from Sebastian Blanco in the 30th minute to secure a 1 to 0 victory. Portland now awaits the winner of the Sacramento Republic - Los Angeles Football Club match midweek to know who they will play and where, since the Republic - LAFC winner will host them on July 18th in the USOC Quarterfinals.

When talking U.S.t Open Cup history and the Portland Timbers, those words combined can invoke several different, stark memories - from heart wrenching losses to a certain team up North, a volcanic meltdown by the same team in one of the most dramatic results at Starfire Sports Complex, some baffling losses and solid victories. In playing a single elimination tournament where a winner must be crowned each round without replays, odd breaks and emotional moments are par for the course in this tournament. Portland has also had a history of playing early round matches away from the Rose City, so being able to play their first two matches in front of their home fans is truly special. With the stadium expansion project already impacting the home side of fixtures, Timbers fans appreciated the extra chance to see their favorites play outside of MLS play - with over 14,000 fans filling the west, north and south decks of the park. With all the energy from the crowd, it would be up to Savarese to figure out a master plan to break down the Galaxy - something that he wasn't able to do in their June 2 meeting at home and only late in the March 4 opener due to handy work in the second half from Blanco and Diego Valeri.

empty Eastside deck
Stadium construction meant another match with no Eastside crowd.
Savarese decided to roll the dice, considering that Valeri had played in every MLS league fixture so far in 2018 and a rough 2 match road trip looming after the schedule break, and Gio let the Maestro sit this one out. Offensively, Savarese made the choice to play a more traditional 4 defender, 4 midfielder and 2 forward attack - which hadn't been done in league play yet, but was used in the pre-season to some success. Samuel Armenteros was a huge thorn against the Galaxy 13 days ago, and for this match, he would get the start alongside Fanendo Adi as the strike duo. Blanco, who has been a big catalyst for the Timbers all year, would be pushed out wide as an attacking midfielder alongside Andres Flores, Diego Chara and Lawrence Olum. In this formation, it would be up to Chara and Olum to patrol the middle and frustrate the Galaxy while funneling the ball out wide to their wings. With Attinella entrenched in goal, Savarese would use Zarek Valentin, Vytas, Larrys Mabiala and Bill Tuiloma as the defensive line. The last time the Galaxy saw Tuiloma, he was playing the right back position, but this time, he would tasked with supporting Mabiala and marking the box for attackers. With USOC rules restricting the game day 18 to just 5 foreign players allowed (green card holders are considered national), Savarese had a youthful bench of goalkeeper Jake Gleeson, defenders Modou Jadama and Alvas Powell, midfielders Eryk Williamson, Dairon Asprilla and Cristhian Paredes and forward Jeremy Ebobisse.

Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid used a very similar lineup to the one used for June 2, but much like Savarese, the 5 foreign player limit hampered some decision making. The team's big signing for 2018, forward Zlatan Ibrahimović, was in Russia doing promotional duties for World Cup 2018, but Schmid used goalkeeper David Bingham and the same defensive foursome - Ashley Cole, Michael Ciani, Jorgen Skjelvik and Dave Romney. It was Skjelvik's penalty against Flores in the 54th minute that gave Portland their only goal in the June 2 draw, but he's been otherwise stellar in solidifying a defensive line that was simply miserable in 2017. Servando Carrasco and Perry Kitchen would again be the defensive midfielders for the Galaxy, with attacking midfielders Bradford Jamieson, Chris Pontius and Emmanuel Boateng flanking out in the attack. Ola Kamara, the Galaxy's other big signing for 2018, was out on international duty for the June 2 meeting, but for this night, he was the sole striker. In their opening round USOC win, the Galaxy relied upon great play from Jamieson and forward Ariel Lassiter to advance, and Lassiter would be available as a sub in this one. In their last meeting, the battle between Chara and Kitchen led to several fouls and contentious moments, and the caution Diego received in the first half triggered a one match suspension for accumulation.

Timbers Army TIFO
Timbers Army tifo with a theme for 2018. Yes, I hope summer never ends.
In a rare change of sorts, I was able to produce a match recap for the official USOC site, thecup.us, to cover the main events of the night. I've been a big fan of the site's work over the years, so for me to be able to contribute to it in some small fashion is a true honor. To add some thoughts to that post, it was a very active Armenteros that kept the Galaxy busy early with a near miss in the 11th minute. Chara and Tuiloma both challenged Bingham in the following 2 minutes, but the player of the first half was Blanco with 5 shots in the first 45 minutes. While 2 of them were blocked, it was Blanco's 30th minute tally that ended up being the game winner. Valentin was playing wide right and put a cross into Adi towards the right edge of the box, and Fanendo put a back heel right into Blanco's path on the right. Sebastian moved over to the left quickly on the dribble, but once he had space, he punched a shot back left that the Galaxy defense and Bingham couldn't stop, and the Timbers had the early lead. The Galaxy mustered just 2 shots on target for the half, with a Kamara miss in the 39th minute and a header from Skjelvik off a stoppage time corner kick that Mabiala headed clear of goal with Attinella pulled away by the defense. Statistically speaking, the sides played fairly even in terms of chances and possession, but the Timbers were more purposeful with their shots and challenging Bingham.

The second half had plenty of back and forth action, but honestly just two huge chances between the two sides. Armenteros struck the woodwork in the 55th minute off a cross from Valentin with a great one time shot, and he had 2 other near misses for his 90 minutes of work. The Galaxy had a shot from Pontius pulled wide of the right post in the 73rd minute, but their best effort of the night was a missile from Lassiter in the 89th minute. Carrasco dropped a pass in traffic to Lassiter just outside the box, and he put a laser on target, but Attinella leapt at the last second to push the shot over the bar to keep the Timbers on top. While the Galaxy had the overall advantages in possession and passing accuracy on the night, the Timbers were able to generate more quality shots and put more pressure on the Galaxy backline. This became even more apparent in the 75th minute when Asprilla replaced Adi and the Timbers went into more of a 4 - 2 - 3 - 1 formation with Chara and Olum staying home, Asprilla, Blanco and Flores shifting out wide for the attack, and Armenteros working as the lone striker. Showing versatility and adaptability in the attack was good to see from the Timbers, and showing some different wrinkles from the Christmas Tree formation where the Timbers have seen success should keep opponents from banking on what Portland will do from match to match.

Solidified the goal work for the 2018 Portland Timbers
I picked Blanco as MOTM, but Jeff Attinella was a very close second.
It was also great to see Adi and Armenteros play so well off each other; Adi's hold up play and passing was a key component for the offense, while Armenteros' energy and power really opened up space against the Galaxy backline. As well as Blanco did with the creativity in the offense and having Chara back to anchor the midfield, it bodes nicely to see the Timbers be able to attack the goal with Valeri sitting and Andy Polo off in the World Cup for weeks. Complacency is a big problem in MLS, so watching Savarese change up the focus with different players and formation and still having success on the pitch is huge for Portland as they turn their focus towards the next few weeks after the international break: June 24 in Atlanta, June 30 in Seattle, July 7 versus San Jose, July 15 at LAFC, July 18 USOC match at either LAFC or Sacramento, followed by 4 consecutive home matches against Montreal, Houston, Philadelphia and Vancouver. It's going to be very busy for sure, but from what I've seen from the Timbers and Savarese, they seem more than up for the challenges presented to them.