Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Timbers Vs. Rapids History Earns Another Crazy Chapter in 2 All Draw At Providence Park

Thank you!
Seriously, this own goal is a thing of beauty. Thank you, Colorado.
The history between the Colorado Rapids and Portland Timbers has many complicated twists and turns dating back to their first ever meeting as MLS clubs back on March 19, 2011. The Timbers were one of 2 expansion sides that year - Vancouver also joined the league - and plenty of expectations were put forth on the Timbers making the jump from the lower divisions to the top league, but the then defending MLS Cup Champion Rapids put forth a harsh lesson in league dynamics in a rather emphatic win at their home pitch. Since that result, the Timbers and Rapids have seen several twists and turns over the years, from coaching ejections, crazy scoring, season ending blowouts, and the 2019 season opener in Denver where the teams played in a driving snowstorm in record setting cold temperatures. The next chapter of this weird friction unfolded at the end of a busy week for the Timbers with travel, and in the true oddities within these matches, the Timbers and Rapids played to a 2 all draw that again featured an own goal, penalty decision and a player ejection for a defender. The same formula of events took place in the Timbers - Rapids match back in March, so it was really odd to have the same significant things happen again on this night, but while Portland might have felt frustrated by the draw back when, on this night, they might have felt relief after an inexhaustibly emotional week.

Portland had already played a tense affair in New York City back on July 7 in breaking NYCFC's lengthy unbeaten streak in 2019 with a gutty 1 to 0 victory, but the schedule added some anxiety when the U.S. Open Cup bracket put Portland and Los Angeles Football Club within the same bracket to battle on July 10 in the USOC quarterfinals. LAFC dismantled the Timbers in the match following the Timbers - Rapids snowmaggedon fixture, and added insult to injury when they traveled to Portland and beat the Timbers in their 2019 home opener on June 1, but the tension has been brewing with both sides since last year's series of contentious meetings. LAFC ended the Timber's USOC run last year at their place in a strange back to back meeting (the teams met in MLS play days before the USOC match), but Portland earned some revenge in posting a dramatic 1 to 0 win to advance to the semifinals against Minnesota United FC in August 2019. Portland has already been rotating their squad since midweek matches started appearing in their schedule - The Timbers played a midweek match versus the Galaxy weeks ago in USOC play while MLS put Montreal midweek for Portland between home matches with Houston and FC Dallas - so the likelihood of newer names in the starting eleven would very probable.

these 2 battled all night
Kei Kamara vs. Claude Dielna was a huge battle all night.
The Timbers were also struck by some family news when just before the USOC match in Los Angeles, Timbers Coach Gio Savarase left the team before kickoff to travel to Italy to be at the side of his father, who has been battling cancer. Unfortunately, Carlo Savarese's health took a turn midweek, and Gio flew overseas to say his goodbyes with other family members; while Gio was able to be with his father, Carlo lost his battle early Saturday morning before the Timbers' match at age 73. The Portland players decided to wear black arm bands in memory of Carlo, while the Timbers Army brought white roses to be placed on Timber Joey's log in the North End as a tribute to the coach. In an emotional setting after the match, the Timbers Army gave Gio the white roses and chanted his name for several minutes in unison. Savarese was touched by the show of support from his players and the supporters, which made him feel very special and appreciated. Nobody deals well with losing a parent - I know this from personal experience - but having the support of friends and family is absolutely paramount. With the exhaustion of traveling from coast to coast and family news, you could imagine the emotions and psyche of the Timbers to be ragged - but schedules and challenges don't go away just because of adversity.

Savarese has been rotating his squad regularly over the past few weeks, and this match saw some new names among the game day eighteen. Steve Clark has effectively taken over the starting goalkeeper's role, and he again was in goal for the Timbers with Kendall McIntosh listed as the backup due to Jeff Attinella having a shoulder injury. With Larrys Mabiala having played several matches in a row, the center back rotation put Claude Dielna and Julio Cascante as the starters, with Marco Farfan and Jorge Moreira flanking as the fullbacks. With Modou Jadama also injured, the Timbers' bench was thin on defenders with just Zarek Valentin available as a substitute. Savarese rotated the defensive midfield, giving Cristhian Paredes a break and starting Renzo Zambrano and Diego Chara as the defensive duo with Paredes available as a sub. On the wings, it was the familiar duo of Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco, who have been rotated in the past few matches, and they would be joined by Dairon Asprilla as the third wing. Portland could bring Marvin Loria, Tomas Conechny or Andy Polo off the bench if needed, but for this trio of attackers to work, they would need Asprilla to pull his weight alongside Valeri and Blanco. As the lone striker, Jeremy Ebobisse would get the start with Brian Fernandez available if needed, giving Jeremy a chance to play more central that he has in the past weeks. For Savarese, this was a good chance to see what some players could do in unfamiliar combinations, especially with another busy week coming up with 2 matches again in a week.

Portland was hoping this would be enough for the win
Diego Valeri celebrates his penalty conversion with some gusto
Things have changed significantly for the Rapids since the teams last met. Colorado management had invested in several player upgrades during the off season, but the team struggled initially behind Coach Anthony Hudson this year. Hudson joined the club in November 2017 and many expected him to be fired after a less than stellar effort in 2018, but the team decided to give Hudson a chance with some different personnel. However, the Rapids went into May as the only winless side in MLS, and he was relieved of his duties on May 1 to be replaced by former MLS striker and Portland Pilot Conor Casey. Under Casey's tutelage, the Rapids have shown more tempo and spunk to achieve some interesting upsets, but the team has still struggled to find cohesion within their attack. Colorado recently added midfielder Jonathan Lewis and defender Lalas Abubakar in different trades right after Casey took over, and the infusion of talent has made Colorado a more difficult challenge to deal with, but it will be interesting to see long term what Casey's influence can do over this side. Considering the team has 5 wins, 2 draws and 3 losses in the 10 matches since Casey took over the helm, there has definitely been some improvement within the Colorado club over the past few months. However, Portland has been one of the hotter clubs over the past few weeks, so it would be interesting to see the differences in the sides from March.

Portland was presented with the first big challenge of the match in the 10th minute when Kamara tangled with Farfan on a 50/50 ball midpitch and Farfan stayed on the turf after trying to clear the ball. While the contact didn't appear to be significant, it was serious enough that Marco's night was done early as he was replaced by Valentin. The teams traded back and forth chances in the subsequent moments with Kamara putting a turn and shoot effort in the 18th minute right to Clark after some decent buildup, while Ebobisse was the recipient of a superb Blanco cross in the 20th minute, but his shot was saved by Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard. The back and forth battle took a wild turn in the 27th minute off a corner kick conceded from an Abubakar clearance. Valeri put the ball to the spot intended for a teammate, but Rapids defender Tommy Smith jumped ahead of the play to head the ball clear, but inadvertently put the header into his own goal for a 1 to 0 Timbers lead. Honestly, in the years of watching MLS action, this was by far the prettiest own goal I've ever seen live. The celebration was short lived, however, as the Rapids scored off the subsequent kickoff when the defense lost track of Lewis on the left flank off a forward pass, and Lewis was able to bury the shot before any Timbers player could react while the Timbers Army was still celebrating the first goal.

This photo is ridiculously awesome
Contemplative goalkeeper is contemplating.
Portland tried to return the favor in the 30th minute when Blanco challenged Howard off a beautiful drop pass, but Howard made the save to push away the effort and concede a corner kick. Dielna pulled a Valeri corner kick just wide, but it showed the Timbers were still able to press the Colorado defense. However, it was the Rapids that nearly pulled ahead just before stoppage time when Lewis put a ball to Rapids striker Andre Shinyashiki on the right, and he put a shot on frame that Clark pushed away from goal. Shinyashiski collected the rebound and put a cross back to a charging Kamara for a header to the left post, but Clark pushed that away for the back to back save. While Kamara came close off the corner kick with another close shot, the score would end the first half at a 1 all draw with the Rapids scoring both goals. Despite holding a significant advantage in possession time at 67 percent, the Timbers were not showing precision within the final third, especially with Asprilla as he missed on several good opportunities on goal with poor touches or rushed shots. Dairon has been especially frustrating to watch for much of this year, for although he's played well in several matches with Timbers 2, he's been far too inconsistent with his play for the first team.

The second half saw no moves for either side, but there did appear to be some escalating tensions between the groups. Valeri and Smith were both carded in the first half for hard challenges, but Center Official Kevin Stott had allowed several huge bumps and tackles to go uncautioned or even not called. Colorado was taking an approach of pressing the Timbers and physically challenging their space anywhere on the pitch, and within the first few minutes of the half, there were several hard fouls where Stott waived off the call. The situation boiled over in the 55th minute when the Timbers pushed forward on the left with Moreira linking with Blanco at the top of the box, but before Sebastian could put a shot on frame, Rapids midfielder Diego Rubio elbowed Blanco in the back causing him to tumble to the turf. The play continued without a whistle as the Timbers protested and several boos broke out in the crowd, but things got worse when Lewis made a through pass to Kamara at mid pitch and Cascante executed a slide tackle from behind to take out Kamara and the play. In the follow through, Cascante took out both legs in a scissors tackle, and Stott immediately flashed a red card for an immediate ejection. Admittedly, I didn't think the initial contact on Kamara was that serious until I saw the full replay of the tackle, but that still doesn't excuse the lack of a call on Rubio outside the box. Rubio made no effort to go after the ball, it was a hit from behind yet Stott chose to waive play on.

The young midfielder was very busy
Renzo Zambrano played all over the pitch this night. Literally.
This move necessitated some moves for the Timbers on the defensive line, so Valentin moved back to center back alongside Dielna with Zambrano moving back to replace Valentin, leaving Chara as the lone defensive midfielder in front. Savarese brought on Fernandez for Asprilla minutes later, and Brian put a laser shot on target seconds upon joining the fray. The pressure continued for several runs until Blanco put a cross into the box intended for Ebobisse with Abubakar defending, and the ball struck the Rapids defender in the arm, then flew away to the left. Stott blew the whistle and pointed to the spot to several protests from the Rapids' players, but the play stood up to VAR despite Kamara's attempts to delay the penalty spot. While Fernandez and Ebobisse initially made moves to take the kick, Valeri overruled the duo and took the shot going left with Howard guessing and jumping to the right. The converted penalty gave the Timbers a 2 to 1 lead, and the Timbers spent the next several minutes putting more pressure on goal to see if they could extend the lead. The Rapids defense and Howard, however, did hold up well enough to keep the deficit at one before substitute Rapids midfielder Nicolas Mezquida forced Clark to make a reaction save in the 72nd minute. The shot here seemed to squelch some of the Timbers' momentum at the point, and in the 76th minute, the Rapids took advantage of a defensive error to change the score.

With Zambrano playing more forward in an offside trap but the rest of the defensive line backwards on the right, Rapids midfielder Danny Wilson put a pass from left to right that caught substitute Rapids midfielder Sam Nicholson in stride in space on the right. From many angles, it appeared that Sam might have jumped the line early, but upon review, he was onside with the pass with Zambrano not playing farther back, and before the defensive line could react to the situation, Nicholson was able to put the shot into the left corner of net past Clark to level the score at 2. As in the first half when Portland got the goal, Colorado countered it nearly immediately. The teams traded runs back and forth down the stretch with Fernandez getting two near misses late, while Shinyashiki had a couple of blocked shots from good spots. Neither side could break the deadlock, and while the match ended in a 2 all draw, the Timbers appeared rather fortunate for the result. Considering they traveled from coast to coast to play 2 competitive, emotional matches on the road, and they lost a player to an ejection in the second half, the result might be lucky. However, for me, it appeared that the Rapids played the match very aggressively and physically, and Portland was never able to deal with this intensity. The talent and circumstances provided enough situations for the Timbers to rescue a point before the next tough stretch of matches are coming.

Touching tributes were appreciated by the coach
Timbers Coach Gio Savarese is moved by tributes to his father's passing.
And yes, the schedule doesn't let up as Orlando City visits the Timbers on July 18 before Portland makes their annual visit up North to Flounder Land to play the Seattle Sounders FC on July 21. The Los Angeles Galaxy visits Portland on July 27 to finish the month before the Timbers play an unusual double header with Minnesota United - an MLS match on August 4th followed by the USOC semifinal on August 7 - at Allainz Field in the Twin Cities. This series of events then triggers one of the most unusual sequences in a Timbers schedule ever - 10 consecutive matches at home from August 10 and September 25. Granted, there are still midweek matches in the string and several back to back matches that will provide some emotion - Atlanta and Seattle play here within 5 days of each other - but being at home should help lessen some of the issues with the compression. The Timbers also wouldn't need to travel again officially until going to Sporting Kansas City on September 29 unless they advance to the Open Cup final, where they would travel to play either Orlando City or Atlanta on August 29, depending on who wins their semifinal. The benefits of the loaded schedule are within sight, and the Timbers need to manage this stretch rather carefully. The team has already been rotating the squad regularly, but the team did announce that reinforcements are likely coming during the Summer Transfer window. Portland did make one move in working with forward Lucas Melano to mutually terminate his contract with the side, thus ending his second stint with the club.

Melano joined the team under great fanfare in 2015 under one of the bigger contracts the team had ever granted to a player, and Melano's goal in the MLS Western Conference Finals was a huge piece in that overall championship run. In 2016 being one of the key cogs of the team, Melano struggled to produce, netting just 3 goals in 31 appearances and the team sent him on loan for the 2017 season back to Argentina. He returned to the team in August 2018 to rejoin the side, but in 15 appearances since then, he tallied just 1 goal in 15 appearances. As much as Melano showed glimpses of talent and skill at times, he never produced with enough regularity to meet the expectations from his contract. Timbers General Manager/President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson has indicated there are moves forthcoming for the Timbers, but that the core of players - Blanco, Valeri, Fernandez, Chara, Mabiala and others - is fairly well set, and it's a matter of mixing in some of the promising youth - Loria, Conechny, Zambrano, Farfan and Paredes - with this group while adding some other pieces to enhance the group. It will be interesting to see what the Timbers eventually focus upon - I am sensing another addition to the center back rotation and some wing/scoring depth are likely targets - but I'm not expecting anything announced for a few weeks. As much as it makes sense to add talent, it's important to find the right persons to augment the efforts on and off the pitch.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Timbers Earn First MLS Home Win For 2019 In Dominating Dynamo 4 to 0

Timber Joey, you should look out behind you
I have no idea what is going on here, but it's ridiculously awesome.
Timbers supporters have been waiting for a night like this at Providence Park in MLS play. LAFC spoiled the party in the Timbers' home opener back on June 1 and they held on for a victory despite a furious Timbers rally, literally and figuratively. While Portland was able to exorcise some of the demons at home in a demonstrative 4 to 0 win against the Los Angeles Galaxy in their USOC 4th round match on June 19, the team made it a priority to rebuild the home fortress atmosphere in league play now that the Providence Park rebuild was complete. This goal would be challenged by a compression of fixtures coming up, but much like the various challenges of 2019 to the Timbers, they've employed a strategy of next player up and right now, it's working. With Brian Fernandez's scoring and relentless play leading the way - Fernandez has scored in every Timbers match he's appeared in since joining the team last month - and some meaningful contributions from 2 of their younger players, Portland showed MLS a lot in posting a dominant 4 to 0 decision over the Houston Dynamo. As much as the leaders of the team and some younger charges inspired the result, this was a complete effort contributed to by every player wearing the Timbers crest.

Much has been made of the Timbers' 12 match road trip to start the 2019 MLS season, necessitated by the construction project to remake Providence Park by adding a newly configured east side in addition to several other dramatic changes in terms of travel miles and road matches. However, the Timbers went into this match having played the least number of fixtures in MLS play at 13, and with the compressed schedule for this year shortening weeks off the calendar, there is catch up in dates coming starting with next week's road trip to Montreal followed by the June 30 date hosting FC Dallas. The Timbers' opponent was also tied for last in matches played at 13, but the Dynamo were also dealing with several key player losses due to international competition. Portland was without Andres Flores and Andy Polo for international call ups and Sebastian Blanco for accumulation suspension, but Houston was missing four of their main attacking players for international play in Darwin Ceren, Romell Quioto, Alberth Elis and Maynor Figueroa. Houston was also making the first stop of a brutal 3 match road swing from Portland to San Jose midweek to New England with their main scorers likely not available for any of the matches, so as much as they could relate to Portland's challenges, they weren't going to be overly sympathetic about their situation.

This is a very arty photo.
While Nat Borchers watches, everyone points in a direction.
With Blanco out, Timbers Coach Gio Savarese had to make some decisions about his lineup in this match. Steve Clark has effectively taken over the number one goalkeeper position for now, and he again made his fifth start of the 2019 between the posts. Although Claude Dielna was very good in the USOC match at center back, Savarese chose Julio Cascante to start alongside stalwart defender Larrys Mabiala with the two Jorges as the respective fullbacks - Moreira at right back, Villafana on the left. Savarese also held back Cristhian Paredes, such a vital piece of the USOC win, and gave Renzo Zambrano his second start of the year alongside Diego Chara in the defensive midfield. The replacement for Blanco ended up being Marvin Loria, making his MLS debut alongside Jeremy Ebobisse and Diego Valeri as the attacking midfield. Fernandez again would be the sole striker up top, and considering his production since joining the team on May 6 - he has 4 goals in 3 MLS matches and 3 goals in his 2 USOC appearances - Savarese has to feel comfortable running him out again obviously. Portland would have some intriguing options on the bench with Dielna, Marco Farfan and Modou Jadama for defense, Jeff Attinella for goal, Eryk Williamson for the midfield, and Lucas Melano and Tomas Conechny, a big part of the USOC win earlier in the week, at forward. With the Impact and FC Dallas in the next week, Savarese picked a mix of youth and experience while leaving several good options available for Wednesday.

Wilmer Cabrera, coach of the Dynamo, wasn't going to use any excuses in choosing his charges, although he did curiously choose not to start Mauro Manotas within the eleven. Manotas has made a career scoring against Portland, scoring 7 goals in 7 appearances, but Houston decided to go youthful within their starting group around veterans Marlon Hairston and Boniek Garcia. The team's second leading scorer, midfielder Memo Rodriguez with 5 goals and 2 assists in 12 matches played, was also not listed within the game day eighteen likely due to squad rotation. Houston has been traditionally strong at home with 6 wins and 3 draws in 9 matches in 2019, but on the road, it's a completely different story. The Timbers have a 5 win - 1 draw - 1 loss record in matchups with the Dynamo, but within the framework of the match, it would be interesting to see if the Timbers' young charges could provide enough influence in the match to help their team to victory. Much like the last match, the two sides struggled early to find a tempo and a rhythm: Fernandez just missed in the 12th minute with a low driving left footed shot that Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis pushed away at the last second, while Moreira pulled a shot wide right with some help from Willis in the 18th minute after a strange back and forth sequence where Cascante, playing forward, held the ball in traffic and found an open Moreira. The 38th minute saw the visitors nearly take the lead off a turnover that Hairston collected, and after dribbling for moments, took a shot from the left flank that struck Mabiala then the right post before caroming away for a clearance to Villafana.

Honestly, it's great to see smiles on the pitch
Marvin Loria looks like he's having fun out there. And I like seeing that.
Off that deflection, the Timbers were able to finally tally their first goal. Villafana found Valeri at midpitch for the outlet and Diego held it for moments until finding Moreira shooting forward. Valeri put a though ball to the left that Jorge settled and he put a header into the path of an unmarked Loria, and the youngster slammed a shot home past Willis into the right corner of the net for a 1 to 0 lead. It was a wonderful sequence from back and forth wide involving the experience and youth of the Timbers, and the combination was simply fun to watch. Portland would generate 10 total shots in the first half with 55 percent possession, although the biggest issue of the half was the escalating tension between the sides. Center Official Alan Kelly carded Cascante in the 12th minute for a hard foul, and gave Dynamo forward Tomas Martinez a card for a temper tantrum in the 16th minute, but Chara and Dynamo forward Ronaldo Pena were both carded between the 30th and 35th minute in an escalating battle where Chara and B.Garcia were being targeted by each side with some hard contact during play. There were several fouls that Kelly chose to waive off for advantage, but Pena's foul on Chara brought both sides into the center circle to argue for their case. AT the rate things were going, it appeared neither side would keep their sides at eleven, especially when within moments of the second half starting, Dynamo midfielder Matias Vera was booked for dropping Zambrano with a hard challenge. Even the mild-mannered Valeri got cautioned in the 53rd minute when he bumped B.Garcia from behind slightly, and Kelly brandished the cards to do his best to stop the escalating situation.

After Fernandez missed on a turn and shoot play in the 56th minute, Portland would extend their lead via the penalty spot in the 61st minute. Chara was dribbling on the left flank and dropped to Valeri at the top of the box, and he put a pass to the right for Loria with Dynamo defender DaMarcus Beasley nearby. As Loria arrived to the ball in the box, Beasley executed a slide tackle and took Loria out, and Kelly wasted no time pointing to the spot. The penalty stood up to VAR review and a Dynamo protest, but the kick itself was delayed by several Dynamo arguments with Kelly, and a strange sequence where Kelly kept telling Willis to hold to his goal line, then walking over to hold him there for several moments while Houston players were jumping across the 18 yard line. Order was restored enough for Valeri to take the penalty going left while Willis went right, and the goal started a crazy celebration in the North End. The celebration hadn't settled down enough before the Timbers added their third goal, courtesy of Fernandez in the 63rd minute. With Houston pressed forward, the Timbers cleared the ball courtesy of Zambrano to Valeri on the right, and Diego punched a cross to the left corner for Fernandez, who was on step with the last 2 Dynamo defenders. Brian ran down the ball and put in a great touch to settle it with his left food, and he was able to punch it in the right corner of the goal before any Houston defender could mark him. Much like the 3 goals in 10 minute sequence against the Galaxy, it was a matter of moments where the match went from up for grabs to completely in control for the Timbers.

It's great to see substitutes give this much effort late in matches
If you're not jumping, you're not Timbers. Even the players get that.
Portland would add a fourth goal in the 75th minute after Chara and Loria were denying in the 70th minute off a rapid fire shooting sequence. Valeri put the ball into Jeremy on the left flank, and Ebobisse decided to challenge Willis from distance on the left, and he put a shot inside the right post at a very acute angle where Willis and the defense couldn't get to it. While Houston did create some pressure at points in the second half, especially when substitute Juan Cabezas came on, they never really threatened the Timbers goal as Clark was forced into just one official save and a couple of crosses claimed over the match. Unlike the Galaxy match where the Timbers made several late defensive errors to give the Galaxy some chances, the Timbers didn't relent and kept the Dynamo attack bottled up. Houston wasn't able to commit numbers forward either as the Timbers were able to provide an effective counter attack all night with Fernandez as the focal point, and the Dynamo paid dearly for each mistake putting players too far forward. Even when the Timbers went to the bench to bring on Conechny and Williamson late for Loria and Fernandez, the pressure was kept up all match. Portland could have added more to the tally but ended up passing it about to run down the clock late.

Of all the matches in 2019, this result was the most complete on both sides of the ball. While the defense had a few moments where they bent under pressure, they didn't break when it counted and the Timbers' ability to press forward kept Houston from mounting a consistent attack. The Timbers offense didn't miss a beat with the rookie Loria, who earned a log slab for his first MLS goal in addition to earning the penalty for Portland's second goal. With Fernandez's ability to stretch defenses and run down balls from anywhere on the pitch, it's opened up channels for the rest of the offense to find space and shoot. While Parades was very good against the Galaxy, Zambrano has shown quality to hold up in the middle alongside Chara, thus giving the Timbers potential viable options on the occasions that Mr. Chara can't play for whatever reason. But perhaps the biggest development with the Timbers is the show of leadership on the pitch during play. I saw Clark talking with defenders at several points to keep the backline calibrated, while Fernandez and Chara were doing their best to direct play with signals or commands. It just seemed like the Timbers were much more cohesive in their approach, and the players were all synced up much better than in previous matches.

Thank you for coming to Portland. You've been simply awesome!
Thank you, Brian, for coming to Portland. You've been simply awesome.
Portland now gets the quick turnaround to travel to Montreal for a June 26th date before returning to play FC Dallas on June 30th to finish this month. The travel doesn't stop as Portland will then travel to New York to play NYCFC on July 7th before heading south to play LAFC in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals on July 10th at Banc of California Stadium. The compression doesn't stop as Portland will host Colorado on July 13th followed by Orlando on July 18th before making a trip to Seattle for Cascadia Cup action on July 21st. The Timbers follow that up with hosting the Galaxy on July 27th before making their final road trip for a while to Minnesota and Allianz Field on August 4th before the schedule starts to pay off with 10 home matches in a row from August 10 to September 25. If they advance in U.S. Open Cup play, the semifinals and championship are both scheduled for August, so there might be some travel then, but otherwise, it's sticking close to home for the Timbers once the calendar hits August. But as Savarese is fond of saying, the team is keeping to one match at a time and right now, their focus is on the Impact midweek.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Timbers Advance In U.S. Open Cup With Resounding Win Over Galaxy

And he's been doing a lot of this lately
Brian Fernandez is as good as advertised, having scored in his 5th match in a row
It seems like every season Portland Timbers supporters have the same debate over various honors for their team - what is more important? Each of the various championships comes with its own level of prestige: the Cascadia Cup gives the holder bragging rights over their fellow supporters from Cascadia, the Supporters' Shield honors regular season excellence for the team that earns the most points, MLS Cup is awarded to the playoff champion, who is generally regarded as the best team in MLS, while the U.S. Open Cup is given to the best American soccer club for the current calendar year over the various divisions. Yet, each title also has their drawbacks: the Cascadia Cup, while a great trophy, isn't put up with the other championships, the Supporters' Shield winner often struggles in the playoffs as it's rare to have them win MLS Cup as well, the MLS Cup winner is often the hottest team in October/November and not necessarily the best team throughout the year, while the U.S. Open Cup is often put down the priority list for most MLS clubs. While I want the Timbers to be competitive in whatever type of match they are playing, it's also unrealistic to expect them to play the same eleven each week between January and November, so rotation has to occur regularly. With a compacted schedule forthcoming, the Timbers did rotate in new pieces in their Round of 16 match hosting the Los Angeles Galaxy and came away with an impressive 4 to 0 victory to advance to the Quarterfinal round for the second consecutive season and the fourth overall in the MLS era.

Despite some various struggles in the tournament overall, the 4 goals scored is the third time in U.S. Cup History where the Timbers have scored at least 4 goals, and they accomplished this with a relatively strong choice of lineups. Timbers Coach Gio Savarese had to weigh the options after the Timbers defeated Seattle on June 12 up in Tacoma in their previous round action, but the Timbers face a 3 match in 8 day run in MLS league play with hosting Houston on June 22, followed up by a trip to Montreal on June 26 to then return to host FC Dallas on June 30. Things don't get any easier for Portland, either if you look into July as the Timbers play NYCFC in New York on July 7, return to Portland to host Colorado on July 13 and Orlando on July 18 before going up North again to play the Flounders on July 21, only to then host the Galaxy on July 27. That's 10 matches in 45 days, and now adding the Quarterfinal match on July 10 down in either San Jose or at LAFC, the compression and travel will test even the biggest depth for a side for an eleventh match. Granted, Portland has already dealt with a 12 match road trip traveling over 30,000 miles to start the 2019 season, so dealing with challenging circumstances has been part for the course for this bunch. Along the way, they have shown resolve, grit and resourcefulness through various matches, and this battle with an extremely young and inexperienced Galaxy side was no exception.

Unavailable for Houston, Seba was very good against LAG
Sebastian Blanco was the playmaker in this match, and he was solid in that role.
In his post match comments. Savarese indicated that several players lobbied to play in the Open Cup match, and perhaps that led into some of the lineup decisions to select the starting eleven. Steve Clark, so amazing in the Open Cup win in Tacoma, was selected to start in goal behind a defensive line of Jorge Moreira, Larrys Mabiala, Claude Dielna and Jorge Villafana. Of the foursome, each has appeared with the Timbers' first team, but Dielna has spent more time with Timbers 2 over the previous weeks after Dielna had awkward appearances for the Timbers back in March and has redeemed himself with good work recently. Savarese stayed with the 4 - 2 - 3 - 1 formation, putting Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes in as the defensive midfielders behind the attacking midfield trio of Sebastian Blanco, Jeremy Ebobisse and Tomas Conechny. Ebobisse has been used mostly as a striker early in the season, but with the acquisition of Brian Fernandez, Portland has employed Jeremy more as a supporting striker working with Fernandez. Fernandez tallied a brace in the last U.S. Open Cup match, so it wasn't a huge surprise to see him included, but with the inclusion of Dielna, Conechny and Clark, Portland was effectively using most of their regulars despite a league match 3 days later. What was interesting for me is to see what Conechny, who the team has raved about after practices, would show in a meaningful match playing alongside several regulars.

The Galaxy took a very different approach with a league match at FC Cincinnati on June 22, so they left most of their regular starters out of the match to have available for the weekend. Of the eleven starters, Galaxy Coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto only used one regular starter, defender Daniel Steres, and a few regular reserves in midfielders Perry Kitchen and Emmanuel Boateng, all making over 14 appearances in league play. The rest of the side was a mix of younger players, veterans that have fallen out of the rotation, and experienced players working back to fitness. Traditionally, Boateng has been a troublesome player for the Timbers to deal with, and if Ethan Zubak, Efrain Alvarez and Juninho could control the midfield for the Galaxy, they might be able to steal a win in Portland from a team that is still trying to get comfortable within their home grounds. For the first 25 minutes of play, this upstart Galaxy group was controlling the tempo and frustrating the Timbers. Part of this could have been Portland trying to find its rhythm with Blanco effectively being the playmaker of the offense, but the Timbers also spent a lot of time making ill advised or rushed passes in an attempt to move forward. For a club using most of their regular starters, it was really strange to see such an experienced side struggle with a younger, scrappier side so much. Los Angeles also seemed to be the early aggressor in terms of contact, and Center Official Victor Rivas appeared to be willing to reward their assertive play.

Has been improving so far this year
With Bill Tuiloma getting the night off, Larrys Mabiala was the leader of the D.
The match hit the 28th minute and the complexion completely changed with the Timbers earning a free kick on the left flank about 35 yards from goal. Conechny took the restart and dipped a cross towards the left post that Fernandez caught up with, and Brian unleashed a header towards the right post. With Galaxy goalkeeper Matt Lampson starting to react to the center in line with the shot, the ball actually struck Kitchen's boot and took a more acute angle towards goal as it spun over the goal line. With Portland taking the early lead off the own goal, the team spent the next 10 minutes peppering Lampson from all over the pitch, and the Galaxy defense was unable to completely deal with the onslaught. In the 34th minute with the Galaxy pressed forward, the Timbers cleared a ball to Blanco with just 2 Galaxy defenders back and Sebastian was able to put a through ball forward for Ebobisse in stride on goal. Jeremy settled the ball and put forth a chip shot over a charging Lampson that was headed for goal. While Galaxy defender Dave Romney was able to clear it temporarily, he didn't complete keep it away from Fernandez, who was lurking about and Brian captured the rebound to smash it home for a 2 to 0 lead. Two minutes later, Blanco decided to test Lampson from the left flank from distance off a drop pass, and the laser shot hit the back of the net with ease to extend the lead to 3 to 0. The Timbers had went from passive play to complete confidence in a matter of 10 minutes, and the Timbers were never really threatened afterwards.

Portland tried their best to extend the lead with Blanco being the main conduit for the shots on goal in the second half, while Ebobisse and Conechny had huge opportunities to add their names to the scoring sheet. Villafana found Ebobisse in the 40th minute off a cross that Jeremy put a strong header on, with only a Lampson fingertip save preventing the goal, while Moreira found Conechny off a break in the 74th minute off the break with a cross, but Tomas' shot was stopped by a Lampson save in traffic. It was Moreira that would add his name to the scorer's log in the 83rd minute when Fernandez put a cross from the left flank towards the right intended for Diego Valeri, who entered the match for Conechny as a substitute. Valeri, however, couldn't find the handle on the cross, but Moreira did and put it past Lampson for goal number 4. The Galaxy weren't able to get much going until very late, when unforced errors by Clark and Dielna gave Los Angeles a chance to tally a goal. However, Zubak skuffed a shot in the 85th minute in front of goal and Clark recovered for the save, while Clark deflected a Zubak shot moments later off Dielna's turnover. Unfortunately, Steve deflected the shot back to Alvarez on the left flank, but Efrain's rebound shot struck the right post and spun away to be cleared away by Dielna. Considering the Timbers defense had played so well for most of the match, it was a rather baffling sequence of events yet Portland remained unscathed and secured the clean sheet.
ridiculously awesome soccer grounds
Hard to believe this was just match number 2 this year here, but it's true.

The victory certainly gives the Timbers confidence going into the stretch of league matches, especially seeing how well Conechny and Paredes played in the midfield, and Tomas' service was actually very respectable. It made sense that Blanco played a full 90 in this match since he is ineligible for the Houston match due to accumulation suspension after getting a yellow card late in the loss to LAFC, but it was odd to see Valeri enter the match so late in a match that was already well in hand. With the youth of Paredes, Fernandez and Ebobisse, I'm expecting that they should be available for at least limited minutes against the Dynamo, but obviously, the plan was to rest Valeri to have him ready for Houston. Whether we see more rotation along the defensive line will be seen, but I was impressed with the cohesion between Mabiala and Dielna, and Moreira has regained some composure after a tough effort versus LAFC. It was even great to see Marco Farfan get some minutes late replacing Villafana for his first Timbers appearance in 2019, as I fully expect that Portland will need to dig deep over the weeks to get through this run unscathed. But none of that really mattered to the supporters or the Timbers players in the moment, as they could all celebrate their first official win at the newly refurbished park.

At least for one night, it showed the importance of the Open Cup to the Timbers, but I also feel that Savarese is playing the hotter hands right now. Fernandez is on a hot scoring streak and in form, and I fully expect the Timbers to ride this out, especially since he's often created goals from simply outworking opponents. Savarese will also need to manage the minutes of key players, especially with Andres Flores and Andy Polo out on international duty. While I think the team does want to win all the trophies it can, the more important goal right now is developing chemistry among the various players on the first team to ensure the club is prepared well for the long home stretch in August and September. MLS Cup still has the prestige of being labeled champions for the year, and the playoff structure MLS clings to hasn't been kind to most Supporters' Shield winners. Priorities may change from match to match, but building a solid foundation is always important, and the Timbers' result here showed that they are moving very well towards that goal. We'll see how well this group recovers in time for the Dynamo this coming weekend.