Sunday, November 19, 2017

"So Now What?" Takes On A Whole Other Meaning

Good bye, Caleb. Wishing you safe travels
I had the posts written in my head after the Portland Timbers were bounced from the playoffs in 2017, and it was just a matter of putting them down to the site. Once the Houston Dynamo officially sent Portland into the offseason, I knew the questions and answers were going to start happening as they always do. There is only 1 team that gets to celebrate at the end of the season when they lift MLS Cup, and everyone else is left to wonder what they could have done differently in order to be that side. For me, there were a lot of questions to ask about the club in general, but nothing that I felt was so earth-shattering to stop the forward momentum of this year. Let's face it - a Western Conference title, an improved offense, a defense with questions but playing well going into the postseason and a Cascadia Cup off a resounding victory at home - there is a lot to be happy about. I believed that right up to getting home from the gym on the night of November 16. I had just set my water bottle down and was going to get cleaned up when Jennifer, my wife, walked into the kitchen and said, "Have you seen the latest WTF moment?" Professing ignorance to the news, she simply said, "Caleb", and I picked up my phone and went straight to Twitter.

I knew at that point whatever I was going to say about the 2017 season would be dramatically different after the news that Caleb Porter left his position as Coach of the Timbers. The text of the announcement included much of the same information we see anytime a coach leaves an organization in any matter - power struggle, change of direction, fired, his own decision, terminated, new job, new chapter. To say that the post hit many as a complete surprise is a huge understatement because this was one of the last possibilities that I would have expected for the Timbers in 2017. After the tenure of John Spencer when the team first joined MLS in 2011 to Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson's brief caretaking role in 2012, we heard that Portland had their guy when Porter was hired away from the University of Akron. In his first season in charge, the Timbers came within 1 game of advancing to MLS Cup in 2013 and subsequently, qualified for 2 other postseason runs with the 2015 MLS Cup being the true highlight. Not only has Porter been a success for the Timbers in this era, but his numbers are outstanding if you look over the 40 plus years of Timbers teams in various eras.
David Guzman was a big addition for 2017. What will 2018 bring?

A coach alone can't win a championship and so it was the power trio of Porter, Wilkinson and Owner Merritt Paulson that worked very hard to find a winning program. I know each man personally and they have confidence and an ego, and they've been successful in turning Portland into a true soccer mecca - Wilkinson's resume includes conference titles during his USL coaching tenure, 2 NWSL Cups, a PDL Championship and countless other accolades. Paulson took a franchise that needed stability and a direction when he bought the club in 2007, and he navigated the various challenges with a lot of assistance to help guide the Timbers into MLS and now be one of the noteworthy franchises in the league. From all of the work, a full academy system has been fortified to bring youth players into the fold, the Portland Thorns have proven that women's professional soccer can work in the right environment with the right influences and the Rose City is a true Soccer City. There have been hiccups along the way, but honestly, what journey doesn't have hurdles and bumps that pop up?

With ego and confidence, I can also judge that the 3 men in this equation are also used to making all the decisions. I imagine there were great moments of pure joy when the formula worked, whereas there were many heated moments when issues cropped up. Any relationship has those hallmarks, but the good situations all find a way to work through those efforts. 2017 certainly put forth a ton of hurdles along the way - injuries from the onset when defender Gbenga Arokoyo ruptured his Achilles within one of the first matches in preseason to lingering issues with several players all year. Defender Liam Ridgewell was expected to be the linchpin of the backline, but he missed nearly two-thirds of the season with various injuries. Striker Fanendo Adi, who was keeping pace with Diego Valeri in the goal scoring race on the team injured his hamstring in August, and never took to the pitch after that despite various promises that he was close to returning. Other players missed time due to various knocks, and the club had built what they thought was a strong enough foundation to overcome those absences. But the Houston season proved to be too much to overcome with 6 starters out and Darren Mattocks leaving minutes in for concussion concerns. Even if the Timbers had somehow beaten the Dynamo, it likely would have been a stretch to get enough weapons together to battle in the subsequent rounds.
Portland seemed like a very tight knit group. 

All of these issues are part of the coaching complexion and are true no matter where someone is. Teams on paper always look promising and full of life, but it's the reality of having to put them on a pitch and see what happens that separates the experts from the others. Coaches put together their plans and hope the side can execute them, and in most cases, the Timbers were able to show up and be competitive. I can recall a few times in the Porter era where the team just failed to show up, but it was very rare as they were very tuned in to the overall message. Even if there were issues in the first half of lackadaisical play, a halftime speech later and it often seemed like we saw a different Portland side in the second half. While I was able to observe many practices and games up close, I often admired the closeness and respect the Timbers had among the players and coaches - the perception of that anyway. The team really seemed to like playing for Porter and the style that he engaged, and the results often worked.

Then I am reminded of the actual toll that coaching takes on people. Even in the offseason with games, there are still meetings and conference calls to discuss player matters, scouting trips, the actual MLS meetings, MLS Super Draft and subsequent other drafts, and preseason starts in mid-January. Portland hoisted their MLS Cup trophy in mid-December of 2015, but immediately had to make player decisions and business moves minutes after securing the trophy. The stress and anxiety must be particularly intense because it never really goes away, as there are always matters that demand attention. In my various chats with Porter, he came across very cordial and friendly, but you could tell there was a tremendous detail and thoughts to his words. I imagine much of his talks were reviewed over and over again before they even hit the airwaves, and while that is great to ensure the words are pure, I can also imagine that's very exhausting.
This view will look dramatically different in just 2 years

In all honestly, I have no idea why Porter decided now was the time to leave and I don't think anyone will ever know the real truth. There are certainly a lot of prevailing theories, and I've offered up my observations from covering the team for over 10 years, but there's also much that I don't get to see. After thousands of practices, flights, team meetings and such, the reason for leaving could be as simple as burnout. It could be several disagreements on the direction of the team going forward, and with 3 very smart but opinionated men at the helm, that could also be real. It could be a power struggle, but this trio of power brokers worked for 5 years to produce some great moments, so I find it hard to believe that it suddenly wasn't going to work in the long run. There could be other reasons, or a combination of the factors above, but as I would expect from Porter, once he made a decision, he was going to stick with it. He decided it was time to move on, and we are all now left wondering what is next.

I've eluded to some of the other questions that I had for the 2018 Timbers - what about Ridgewell's status as a high priced defender in his mid 30's that has struggled to stay healthy, but when he's there, the defense is markedly better. What about the status of Adi, who has been one of the best scorers in Timbers history, but the injury threw him off his game and he's made overtures before about wanting to leave Portland. How about Alvas Powell, a supremely talented defender who still makes tons of unforced errors - he can be very good, but he can also be very awful and after so many years, have we seen the best of him? I even have questions about Darlington Nagbe, who has been with the Timbers since day 1 of MLS. He is one of the most talented ball handlers in soccer today, but is he doing enough to contribute to the overall offense, especially since we can't count on Valeri netting 20 goals every year? Even Valeri, who is now 31, has questions of simply how long can he keep doing what he is doing? Does the team decide on Jeff Attinella as keeper, or do they continue the long experiment of Jake Gleeson? The fact is while all of those questions are valid, nobody can answer them until we know who officially is in charge.

Will we see Liam Ridgewell in 2018 wearing Timbers green?
There are tremendous candidates out there and Portland will have the pick of who they want, and whatever choice is made, that person will have to understand and navigate the relationships with Wilkinson and Paulson because they aren't going anywhere. I don't see having a passionate owner and technical director involved as an issue, but a coach would need to be able to work within this structure. For me, I'm just excited about the prospect of having a Timbers season in 2018, especially with the park expansion now taking place. There were too many years in the USL era where we had no idea if the Timbers would play in a league, much less have players. Those days are long gone, but it's important the stewards of the club to understand the vitality of this team, especially to the fans. Players come and go, but the supporters are here for every match, and continue to support this team for life. Supporters might question decisions, protest directions or complain at certain points, but they also show up each and every week for the match to sing and chant for victory, whether it comes or not. It's crazy environment, but even those coaches that have left still call this a special place, and in that respect, I imagine whomever gets the job realizes the true grandeur of what they are stepping into.

For myself personally, I hope next year brings a new excitement and engagement. Honestly, it's been more difficult that I realized to be in charge of the site and also responsible for the content. My drafts folder still has dozens of posts that I started that never saw the light of day for whatever reason, but much of it is simply having the time and energy to devote to it. I want to keep doing a predictions thread, but I expect it will take a very different direction. I love to post, but it's tough to write such long posts when the feeling is right. I'd like to break them up into more manageable pieces and post more often, which will also help the 4 to 5 loyal readers I have. LOL. I felt that I was in a good place after leaving my previous outlet and striking out on my own, but I also had to face the realities of that - and having a full offseason to brainstorm and plan is a good thing. Maybe Caleb is onto something with this batteries recharging thing, but there will be plenty of Timbers posts coming. I'd also like to do more writing about other topics, as some of those posts have ended up being my most popular entries. As long as I still have folks visit, I will keep writing - and I will be ready come January 2018 when we get to jump on the Timbers roller coaster once again.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Timbers can't overcome circumstances as 2017 season closes in loss to Dynamo

Dairon Asprilla was a one man wrecking crew versus Houston
It's one of the cruel realities of the playoffs in any sport that a single loss in many cases ends a team's season. While I had great hopes for the Portland Timbers and their continued quest to add another MLS Cup to their trophy case after securing the first spot in the Western Conference, I had to face the reality in driving to Providence Park for their leg 2 match with the Houston Dynamo that their season could very much end in a matter of 2 hours. It's an absolute bittersweet fact to try and absorb while remaining in belief beyond reason mode, especially considering how entirely resourceful and scrappy the team has been all year. Despite several huge injuries, a disjointed schedule with plenty of breaks, players being called away for international duty, and some outright struggling at times, Portland achieved quite a bit in 2017 - their first Cascadia Cup since 2012, a Western Conference title as top seed, and an MVP candidacy for their all-world playmaker, Diego Valeri. After the sides played to a scoreless draw in leg 1 in Houston on October 30, the Timbers could still feel some confidence going into leg 2 coming home despite the issues that cropped up in the first match. Unfortunately, they couldn't outlast several other complications that arose before and during leg 2 - the biggest being Houston scoring late in the first half to then add an insurance goal late in play - and their season was ended by the Dynamo in an emotionally draining 2 to 1 loss.

Due to the compressed state of fixtures, leg 1 took place at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston on what apparently passes for grass and neither team could put anything past either goalkeeper as the sides played to a scoreless draw. The result gave some advantages to the Dynamo in not conceding any away goals, which is vital as away goals is the first tiebreaker in 2 leg series if the teams ended up drawn on goals after 120 minutes. Portland took away other costs from the match, however, as Diego Chara, Larrys Mabiala and Darlington Nagbe all had to leave the match due to injury - and this was after the Timbers were already down David Guzman (hamstring injury), Sebastian Blanco (second degree burns) and Fanendo Adi (still injured). While there was hope that Mabiala and Nagbe might be available for leg 2, Chara sustained a broken bone in his foot that required surgery, so Timbers Coach Caleb Porter knew he would be a man down at least. As I sat down in the park to get ready to cover the match, more injury news was being circulated as Roy Miller and Ben Zemanski were also injured and not available. Miller ruptured an Achilles during training on November 4, the same injury that felled Gbenga Arokoyo to start 2017, while Zemanski strained a meniscus that may require a procedure. As if healthy bodies were at a premium to begin with, Porter was having to dig very deep to field a strong side.

I feel bad for Roy Miller & how his season ended.
The news for Porter was improved somewhat when it was revealed that Guzman and Nagbe would indeed be available for leg 2, but Guzman's fitness and sharpness weren't at premium. With Jeff Attinella in goal, Porter put Lawrence Olum at centerback alongside Liam Ridgewell with Vytas and Alvas Powell flanking to each side. Amobi Okugo, who hadn't appeared for the Timbers since June 25 against Seattle, would get the call pairing with Guzman as defensive midfielders. Nagbe would team up with Valeri and Dairon Asprilla as the attacking midfielders with Darren Mattocks up top as striker. Considering the laundry list of injuries, the lineup certainly had a mix of talent, experience and resourcefulness - but if the Timbers needed to add something from the bench, that would be pushing things a bit. Blanco was listed among the subs for limited duty, but otherwise, the bench consisted of part-time starters (goalkeeper Jake Gleeson, defender Zarek Valentin), key subs for a change of pace (forward Jeremy Ebobisse) and talented youngsters with unknown return potential (midfielder Jack Barmby, defender Marco Farfan, midfielder Bill Tuiloma). Obviously having Blanco available in any capacity was a huge win, but if the Timbers needed to change the pace or make a move, there would be serious questions about any of the choices.

Porter was faced with that very query 11 minutes into the match when Mattocks and Dynamo midfielder Juan Cabezas collided going for a ball in the air, and Darren took the worst of the unintentional contact. While Cabezas was able to continue after getting a quick examination, Portland decided not to risk Mattocks' health based on their concussion protocol review and they were forced to sub on Ebobisse immediately. While the move seemed initially to spring some life into the Timbers' attack, Houston spent most of the first half packing the backline while shadowing Valeri and bracketing Nagbe. Dynamo Coach Wilmer Cabrera's plan seemed to be tailored to force anybody else on the Timbers to attack Houston while trying to minimize the influence of Portland's two best playmakers. While Asprilla and Valeri had great chances between the 23rd and 27th minute on goal - Asprilla's header was caught by Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis at the very last second, it wasn't until Asprilla started threatening the goal after the 30th minute when it appeared the Timbers were gaining their footing. In the 39th minute, Valeri pushed a ball out wide to Vytas on the left, and the cross came back to Asprilla in the box as Dynamo defender Dylan Remick temporarily lost his footing. The gap was just enough for Dairon to punch the ball past Willis to put the home side up 1 to 0, and it appeared the home side could breathe for a minute.

Diego Valeri was Mr. Everything for the Timbers in 2017. How does he follow that?
The good feelings were rather short lived as Houston put the Timbers under pressure right after the subsequent kickoff as Attinella left his line in the 40th to smother a loose ball. The Dynamo then put consecutive corner kicks together, and on the second one, Dynamo defender Jalil Anibaba took the corner from Tomas Martinez and dropped the ball to an open Remick on the right flank. Remick took a quick left footed shot that it appeared Attinella had measured, but the ball trailed off further to the left and got past the Timbers keeper to equalize the score at 1. The collective gasp in the crowd was foretelling, but they were nearly brought out of their seats in first half stoppage when Okugo took a bicycle kick off a corner and he nearly converted the shot as it spun wide left. The whistle blew moments later, but the situation was very evident - based on the away goals tiebreaker for 2 leg playoff series, Portland was going to need to score again to advance since the Dynamo had their away goal. It was apparent the Timbers didn't want to use Blanco unless absolutely necessary, but their hand was forced by the circumstances. Unbeknownst to the media onsite, Blanco received a lidocaine injection at halftime to numb his foot after he suffered second degree burns before leg 1 in a kitchen accident. While making this move would push Portland forward, it would also open them up to counters if they weren't careful, so this was a key tactical point within the match.

Blanco entered in the 55th minute for Okugo, which pushed Nagbe to more of a central role after Valeri and Guzman nearly missed on other efforts, but upon his inclusion, the Timbers would get just 3 official shots down the stretch. The most dangerous chances for Portland were in the 59th minute when Vytas and Asprilla put forth a great run and the Timbers defender nearly found Ebobisse at the spot, but Willis was able to get to the ball first. The other chance was off a long pass to Ebobisse in the 88th minute where he had tangled with Dynamo defender Phillipe Senderos just outside the box. Ebobisse went down hard and was called for the foul, but replays showed that Senderos not only pulled down the Timbers defender, but he was the last defender which could have made for a DOGSO review. Center Official Ismail Elfath instead tagged the Timbers striker with the foul, but by this point, Houston had already added a second when substitute Mauro Manotas caught the defense napping and put a distance shot into goal in front of the Timbers Amry in the 79th minute. After 8 minutes of stoppage and several other runs and moves, the final whistle blew and the Timbers were bounced from the postseason.

Who were we playing again? I didn't see any bule out there.
Houston had their own player issues going into the match as DaMarcus Beasley and Leonardo, two of their key defenders, were both unavailable due to injury, but they also lost starting goalkeeper Tyler Deric to suspension after leg 1 when Deric was arrested on domestic abuse charges midweek. Cabrera brought on Remick and shifted Machado inside, while putting Willis in goal; Willis actually had comparable numbers to Deric during the regular season, but Deric had effectively taken the job in July and held it until now. However, the player issues for Houston paled in comparison to the absences for the Timbers in terms of options. While Portland held up gamely and fought through the various challenges, the team could never truly find their rhythm on the afternoon with all the differing parts. Asprilla was very active and driving the Houston defense crazy with various channel runs, but Ebobisse was struggling to find space among the stout Dynamo defenders. With Blanco at half capacity at best, Guzman still not 100 percent and Valeri and Nagbe drawing massive attention wherever they went, it was a choppy, uneven effort for most of the match.

Many will throw criticisms at Elfath and his officiating crew, who effectively let the sides play and didn't throw out any cards until later in the match. By that point, the various infringement tactics for the Dynamo were in full swing, and fans saw the full version of Dynamo strikers Alex, Alberth Elis and Erick Torres. While extremely dynamic and talented players, they are also in the true mold of persistently annoying players - exaggerating contact at any point, talking to the officials nearly non stop, and generally annoying defenders wherever they go. Upon recollection, I can't fault Elfath in terms of individual calls outside of the Ebobisse/Senderos decision, I was very upset that he chose not to control the antics more. Willis was also at the edge of time wasting in terms of goal kicks and restarts, but Elfath chose again to ignore the pattern until he finally carded Dynamo substitute Oscar Garcia late in second half stoppage for not taking a throw after several seconds after the whistle blew. I get it, dramatics and tactics take a premium during the playoffs, but for me, many of the actions we saw would have warranted discussions or cautions in the regular season, yet they were ignored due to the stage. But I'm not here to blame the officials, because really it's not their fault that the Timbers lost this match.

Get well, Diego. We need you to return healthy and strong.
Even with the litany of absences, the Timbers put together 59 percent possession, 12 total shots and 4 shots on target. At points, the team was able to move from box to box well, but once they got to the final third, they lacked the creativeness and ingenuity to break down the Dynamo defense. Houston certainly did their part with some great swarming defense, but I could count on numerous occasions where a Timbers player passed instead of taking an open shot, or continued their run to see if they could find a better option only to lose the ball. Once Houston got their away goal, they were able to play back and absorb pressure and defend, only countering when they really had an open chance to run. It was a very tactical sound plan executed to perfection, and I honestly wouldn't look past Houston in the next few rounds of the playoffs because they certainly aren't an easy out. After the result, MLS has the Dynamo battling the Seattle Sounders, the defending MLS Cup Champions, out West while Toronto FC, the most prolific offense in MLS this season, battling the plucky Columbus Crew in the East. Since the ownership issues with Columbus came out just before the playoffs, all the Crew have done is bounce out Atlanta United in the knockout round on penalties before outlasting New York City FC in their 2 leg series.

There were some other strange parts about the match - a street preacher with a megaphone was yelling about before the kickoff, the weather had a threat of snow for several days before the match date, and the Timbers Army were chanting "F**k Seattle" before the match to antagonize the Dynamo - but the end theme here was that the Timbers weren't able to fight enough to get pasat every challenge. Houston, to their credit, executed their plan to perfection and they were able to prolong their season. Portland now gets to ask the question - what now? There are certainly huge pieces and talent here in the Rose City and this group put together a run to win the Western Conference regular season championship and their first Cascadia Cup title since 2012. The team also put forth a 60 goal season behind an MVP effort from the Maestro, but he wasn't completely alone in contributing to the attack. In the next entry, I want to take a look at the various questions and put forth my thoughts on where they might go, but to say the season been memorable is a huge understatement. The Timbers never make being a fan easy, but the end results are usually worth the hassle - and I cannot wait to see what this group can do in 2018.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Sometimes Worlds Collide. Or Why The Blog Has Been Quiet Lately.

I would have enjoyed watching Darlington play in the World Cup. Seriously.
There are points where my world seems very large if you believe the power of social media. People can track events worldwide from the comfort of their enabled device in seconds, allowing data to then inform or bombard them at any given notice. Sometimes however, there are subsequent times when we realize that as huge as the planet might actually be, it's actually incredibly small and more connected than we might realize. Maybe the dentist's chair wasn't the place to have this revelation, but what else was I going to do for 2 hours while a professional was busy rotating my teeth. Or putting extra clear coat on them. I can't seem to remember what was all done, but that could be from the liquid diet I've been on since the procedure. But I digress...

After the big win over D.C. United that was preceded by a huge win for the Thorns to win another shiny object, I was rather excited about soccer in Portland and in general. While I had lost track of time and space in the preceding days to do predictions and my cats decided to clam up from predictions, I thought it would be an easy makeup for the final week of the MLS season to put out thoughts just before the huge Cascadia Clash between the Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps to finish the 2017 MLS Regular Season. Rivalry matches usually don't need additional stakes for the competing sides, but in this case, the result had serious ramifications for both sides. A Portland victory would not only advance the Timbers to the top spot in the Western Conference for playoff seeding, but it would bring the Cascadia Cup back to the Rose City for the first time since 2012. If Vancouver was able to prevail or earn a draw, they would not only keep the top space but depending on the results at CLUNK between the Flounders and Colorado Rapids, the Cascadia Cup could end up going to Canada or to the Emerald City. For many Timbers fans with long memories, they might remember 2016 and the final weekend of the season when Portland ventured to B.C. Place needing a win to secure a playoff berth and the Cascadia Cup, but the wheels literally fell off in a most dramatic way. Not only did the Timbers fail to make the postseason to defend their MLS Cup title from the preceding year, but the Whitecaps blitzed the Timbers so badly that the Cascadia Cup stayed in Canada despite Portland having the various tiebreaking advantages.
Diego Valeri has been huge in 2017 for Portland, but he's not alone.

The result left a bad taste with everyone associated with the Timbers and the organization promised changes in personnel. What we saw in 2017 was a dramatically different attack still keyed by Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi, but better supporting pieces in Dairon Asprilla and Sebastian Blanco. David Guzman gave the midfield some extra organization and bite, and the defense would have to do just enough to keep the side competitive. Injuries to various defenders presented various challenges to that philosophy, but once Liam Ridgewell finally returned to health and Jeff Attinella effective took over the starting keeper's job, the defense has actually been very good during September and October. Based on current standings going into the postseason among playoff sides from the East and West, only San Jose has conceded more goals in the regular season than the Timbers but Portland has scored more goals than anybody in the West and they are fourth overall in goal scored within MLS at 60 goals. It basically outlines a theme for the Timbers in 2017 - when they have been good, they've been very good and when they've been bad, they've been rather awful.

2017 was littered with several dismantlings on the road, but Portland actually improved their road record to 4 wins, 4 draws and 9 losses overall. The difference in this was huge considering that Portland earned just 6 road points in 2016, but in 2017, they earned 16. The Timbers ended up with near identical records at home between 2016 (12 wins and 2 draws in 17 matches for 38 points) and 2017 (11 wins and 4 draws in 17 matches for 37 points), but the improved results away from Providence Park were enough to push them into the postseason. Granted, there were several other factors that helped Portland secure the top spot in the West, but finding better success on the road would be near the first entry on the list. In a league where parity often reigns supreme - just 3 sides were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs going into the final 2 weeks of the season - the margin between success and failure can be incredibly slim. Many experts give the Timbers a better than average chance of doing well in the playoffs, especially since the Timbers have a guaranteed home match in any playoff series in the West up to MLS Cup. While the East seems to stacked up for Toronto to fulfill their destiny or implode spectacularly after a dominant season, the West is a relative crap shoot depending on the day.

This one decided my lap was the place to watch the Timbers - Caps match.
That is why the result of the finale was so important, and while I couldn't be there in person, I was able to watch the festivities at home with my wife and cats. It was important for the Timbers to actually fulfill some of the promise and take advantage of their situation. While the Whitecaps were playing reasonably solid soccer for the weeks coming up to the season finale, there were enough cracks and questions down the stretch to give Portland a chance to overtake them in the final week. With Portland nearly fully healthy on their roster - Fanendo Adi has been training, but he hasn't appeared for the club in several weeks since injuring his hamstring in a win over the Los Angeles Galaxy back in August - it was effectively time to either put up or shut up. While many of the players from the 2017 club don't remember the match in question to end 2016, the coaches and fans can hearken back to that October day and recall what happened. As I had mentioned before, rivalries already have built in stakes simply by being a true derby affair - teams know when they are playing true rivals - but this one took the stakes to a whole other level.

Timbers Coach Caleb Porter decided to go along with the same group that dismantled D.C. United to start - Attinella in goal; Vytas, Ridgewell, Larrys Mabiala and Alvas Powell on the backline; Guzman and Diego Chara as defensive midfielders; Valeri, Blanco and Darlington Nagbe as attacking midfielders, Darren Mattocks as the lone striker - and rolled the dice they could pull off the result. While the group started out reasonably well tempo wise with great passing, it was the Caps who took the early lead when defensive stalwart and emotional timebomb Kendall Waston outflanked Mabiala on a set piece in the box, and Waston curled a header into the corner of goal in the 29th minute. I know this moment because my wife was upset at one of the cats hovering about while she was eating and I was in full "Timbers mode" tweeting the match and not paying attention. While my mother in law came to rescue the day, I did get a casual reminder of being too focused at the task at hand and my black cat, Moya, decided that she wanted my attention and curled up on my lap for attention. It was near that moment when the Timbers equalized when Ridgewell tapped a deflected Nagbe shot past Caps goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic in the 32nd minute and the score went level. My laptop had been acting up anyway, so it was evident at this point based upon the universe that I needed to watch the match with cat in tow.
Alvas Powell has been a revelation late in 2017. Hope it continues.

The goal was huge in the sense that it disrupted what the Caps wanted to do - frustrate the Timbers with pressure, take advantage of a counter or set piece to secure a lead, then ramp up the pressure. Ridgy's goal didn't allow the Caps to fall onto that plan, and when Blanco missed two point blank chances between the 41st minute and stoppage time, it appeared that Vancouver might get away lucky. That didn't last when Mattocks slammed a Vytas pass that he received off a deft feed from Blanco, and with Marinovic in no man's land, the Timbers finally had their lead and the Caps were forced to press more. Attinella made some huge saves down the stretch, the defense rallied with huge tackles and blocks, and the offense did provide some pressure to keep Vancouver honest, but otherwise, the Timbers were able to hold off the rush and secure a valiant 2 to 1 win. The result gave them the 2017 Cascadia Cup on their home pitch while also securing the top spot in the Western Conference playoffs and home pitch advantage within their bracket up through MLS Cup. Normally, the Timbers would also be qualified for the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League tournament, but due to a restructuring of the event, the only way to qualify for this version is to win an MLS Cup or U.S. Open Cup trophy in 2017 or 2018 (the 2018 field is already set and due to start play next year under a different format from what has been used in previous years and what will be adopted for 2019). Mostly, the new format eliminates the group qualifying stage matches and goes straight into a 16 team, single elimination tournament with home and away legs in each round.

Portland can now turn their attention to learning their opponent in the conference semifinals, which will either be the Houston Dynamo or Sporting Kansas City who play on October 26 in Houston. Vancouver recovered from the defeat to the Timbers to thrash San Jose in the play-in round and they will get a date with the Seattle Sounders in the semis. As noted on Twitter, this is the 6th consecutive season where a Cascadia team will be in the Western Conference finals (either SEA or PDX have advanced) since 2012. The Timbers will play leg 1 in Houston on October 30 if the Dynamo win OR in Kansas City on October 31 if Sporting advances, but we know that Portland hosts leg 2 at Providence Park on November 5th. The winners of each series will resume play on November 21 for the conference finals in a 2 match series to hopefully advance to MLS Cup on December 9. While Portland indeed won the West, they would only host MLS Cup here if they advanced all the way and the New York Red Bulls won the East based on points. Considering what the Red Bulls did to the Chicago Fire in their first match - and many thought the Fire would be a team to reckon with in the postseason - it could indeed happen. I don't expect the Timbers to overlook anybody, much less be over confident about any situation; it's more about playing well in the here and now and dealing with the challenges immediately at hand. Obviously, however, their chances of doing well are there.

Different paths bring us all here to support our team. The journey is important.

If you have made it to this part, you are probably wondering why the dentists fits into this rambling mess. Suffice to say, I've not taken very good care of my teeth over the years despite brushing with regularity, and it's been a source of embarrassment. Thankfully, my wife has been going to a wonderful dentist in Gresham that happily accepted me as a patient despite my various challenges of cracked and misaligned teeth. After putting on various caps and bridges, the last piece of the puzzle was gum surgery to help repair some gums that had severely recessed. Upon referral, I ended up at Eastside Periodontics where my doctor is a massive soccer fan and former player. We bonded over stories of recreational soccer and the Timbers in my first appointment, and after the recent events in the game, I was prepared for quite the discussion before my procedure on October 18. Between the United States men's team flaming out of World Cup qualifying days earlier to the news of a move for the Columbus Crew to Texas, there was plenty of soccer news flying about to talk through. And I managed to get in my thoughts before my mouth was full of dental tools, gauze, sutures, and a small water jet.

My doctor was very upset at the arrogance of the USMNT and wondered how they couldn't just secure a draw, which was all that they needed in Trinidad to make the WC 2018 field in Russia. They took qualifying for granted, and I'm prone to agree. While the Americans certainly have a domestic league that is improving and bringing in talent to compete on the world stage and considerable other advantages, we should never look at World Cup qualifying as a guarantee even being in the CONCACAF region. Weird things often happen, and in the case of the USMNT, results earlier in qualifying put them in a near must win situation. After firing Jurgen Klinsmann in 2016 after questionable results, the U.S. Soccer Federation brought Bruce Arena back to the fold with the goal of qualifying. The team put up good results on some cases, but a loss to Costa Rica at home in September 2017 put them in dire straights. While a win versus Panama in Orlando put them on the cusp of qualifying, it required them to get at least a draw in Trinidad to automatically qualify or risk being bounced out due to other results. Sure enough, the results didn't go their way and now the USMNT will be watching the World Cup on TV like most of the rest of us. Under intense scrutiny, Arena resigned as coach but the rest of the USSF structure remains intact for now. This could change when the USSF elections happen in 2018 where Sunil Gulati is expected to face several challengers who want to shake things up.
My teeth were terrible, but they are getting better. I might smile more now.

Columbus is an MLS original franchise from the inaugural MLS season in 1996, owned originally by Lamar Hunt, a longtime NFL owner and original MLS investor. The team was owned by the Hunts until 2014 when Anthony Precourt bought the team and promised to keep them in Ohio. The Crew were the first MLS franchise with a soccer specific stadium that had become home to several USMNT matches and business appeared to be good until the announcement on October 17 that unless a new stadium was built, his team would be moving to Austin, Texas. Over the days following, it was learned that Precourt's deal had an opt-out clause allowing the move despite promising to keep the Crew in Ohio for 20 years, and that several discussions had already occurred between the team and various groups in both locations. Fans felt betrayed by the actions, and while the Crew are still talking to officials in Columbus, there's been plenty of vitriol thrown about by plenty. Plenty of outlets have published various articles about deposits for season tickets for 2018 not being refunded to now being refunded to sponsorship issues to increasing revenue streams, but essentially it boils down to the owner wants a better stadium and he's willing to pursue leverage from another city to get it.

MLS has been notoriously stringent in franchise allotment. Only 3 franchises haven been contracted - Miami and Tampa back in 2001 when the league was struggling and Chivas USA in 2014 due to ownership issues. The league has used expansion to fuel growth from when Chicago and Miami joined in 1998, with several additions since 2005 when Real Salt Lake started the new wave of expansion. With Miami finally sorting out its stadium issues for now and LAFC joining the fray next year, the league will finally sit at 24 teams. Commissioner Don Garber has indicated he wanted to announce 4 more teams later this year to push the league to 28 total by the year 2020. 12 cities had applied for those teams and the vetting process has begun in earnest, but Austin was not among the 12 noted applications. MLS has had just 1 team move: San Jose moved to Houston for the 2006 season when their ownership couldn't find a suitable stadium, but the Earthquakes were resurrected in 2008 when a new group came forward to secure a team and find a long term stadium deal eventually. Otherwise, the league has been relatively stable and growing using a very strict financial model - some might call it very restrictive, others frugal, but it's been working in most markets.

I hate to think of this stadium not being good enough. Ever.
The calls to keep the Crew in Ohio have come from far and wide, and the main complaints have been centered around one basic but significant question - if it could happen in Columbus, could it happen elsewhere? Many Timbers fans - and league wide fans as well - firmly believe in the sanctity of the city-club bond, and few things would break that situation until you factor in the business angle. The study of business metrics has become a part of MLS and at the end of the day, soccer and sports franchises are businesses and they must succeed at most levels to stay open. Today, it is the Crew, but tomorrow could it be the Rapids? or Real Salt Lake? Or even the Timbers in their venerable stadium and rabid support? The fact that not had the team been exploring this for months without many knowing what was going on and the league knew about it and supported the endeavor is troubling, because it essentially means that any franchise could end up in this situation at any point. Nobody can truly say never say never, and that strikes at the core of the relationship between club and supporters. As someone who followed Portland through the dark days of the USL era between 2001 and 2010, there were several years where we were concerned about having a team or a league; until Merritt Paulson bought the club in 2007, the Timbers were actually owned by the Pacific Coast Baseball League on 2 separate occasions. The Timbers nearly didn't have a 2010 USL season due to league instability before jumping to MLS, and the USL First Division routinely had franchise problems each season before the league finally folded.

I get it - businessmen need to make money to survive and the Timbers have certainly flourished after their jump to MLS. Some can be attributed to the exceptional MLS to PDX deal to renovate Providence Park, and a lot has been due to improving the soccer infrastructure since joining MLS by adding academy sides, Timbers 2 and investing in the Portland Thorns. Portland is a huge soccer market, and the fans have fully bought in to fill the park regularly to the point that Providence Park will get another expansion over the next 2 years to add another 4,000 to 5,000 seats on the stadium's east side. It's a testament to patience as well and believing in people, too, but there has been some luck and good fortune. The combined organization can now point to 2 NWSL Cups and 1 MLS Cup secured since 2011, and several other accolades over the years thrown in as well. But a huge component of what also worked with the Timbers was the relationship between the team and supporters. The Timbers Army was paramount during the MLS to PDX process to rally for various causes and canvas their communities, and the relationship has now grown as the 107ist Independent Supporters Trust has taken on the organization side of the TA. Portland Timbers soccer works because of the organization, but there is also a significant contribution from the community as a whole that contributed. Without that, who knows where we might be at this point?

Prediction thread will be back for playoffs. This guy is excited.
The relationship has had several ups and downs, but what interaction doesn't? It's the true investment of team - town - supporters that surrounds and binds them completely. While Precourt might think he's doing the best for his club, his actions have effectively alienated many supporters to the point where they might not support the Crew in 2018. The USSF has a plan that they think will bring the men's team back to success for future World Cups, but right now, there are many fans who aren't convinced it will work. Personal belief can be truly powerful, especially to have the true confidence that you know what you are doing, but when it crosses the bounds to arrogance and closing off channels, the chances of success can dwindle significantly. I thought I was handling my tooth health well, but I had to admit my fear and belief that it was okay to finally see the dentist and now things are better once you build that relationship. While my mouth is still going through transition, it's much better than if I had continued to ignore the problem. My hope is that American soccer can look at the various cases going on now and realize that inclusion and communication is a better tactic in the long run, but in the world of business, you never can be too sure or overconfident. I also promise to write more often so I don't have to go off on long discussion like this either. :)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Portland Timbers put on show in dismantling D.C. United 4 to 0

Diego Valeri tries to cross the ball, but he has some company
If there was a microcosm of the Portland Timbers 2017 season in full display, it would be present in their 4 to 0 thrashing of D.C. United in their 33rd match of the year. It had everything that we've witnessed over and over again this season: Diego Valeri being himself as an MVP candidate, contributions from unheralded players, glaring mistakes, sluggish play with questionable passing, back breaking counter attacks, acrobatic saves, mystery defending followed by competent defending, and a cavalcade of whirling emotions along the way. The scoreline underscored the dominance of the home side this afternoon, but consider that the Timbers slept walked through a first half that displayed rushed shots, inexplicable passes and an uneven tempo that allowed D.C. United, the last place team in the Eastern Conference, to hang around and gain confidence through the first 45 minutes. The second half was a completely different situation as D.C. was ran about the pitch, and on the few occasions where they threatened, Timbers goalkeeper Jeff Attinella and his defense was more than up to the task.

With the win, Portland advances to the magic 50 point mark that usually signifies a postseason berth, and due to the other weekend results, the Timbers qualified for the postseason and guaranteed themselves a top 4 finish in the West - which means that Portland will have at least 1 playoff match in the friendly confines of Providence Park this year. What that match represents, however, is entirely based upon the result of their final match of 2017, a date with the Vancouver Whitecaps, in Portland. A win versus the Caps not only gives them the 2017 Cascadia Cup, but they would leapfrog Vancouver (currently in first) to take over the top spot in the West, regardless of any other results. A draw or loss would mean other playoff situations that could involve playing in the Knockout Round: seed 3 hosts seed 6 and seed 4 hosts seed 5 in a one match affair, while seed 1 and 2 await their opponent in a 2 leg conference semi-final. With Portland guaranteed to be no lower than 4, this means they would be either waiting for the Knockout Round results or hosting one of the 2 matches, but to a man, the Timbers aren't resting on their laurels one bit. They would love nothing more to take the top seed in the West, which mandates that any conference championship would have to be partially decided in the Rose City.
Sebastian Blanco added a brace on the evening. His play was superb.

Team accolades aside, the Timbers also set several individual marks within the match. Valeri continued his magical 2017 with his 21st goal of the season off converting a 1st half penalty in stoppage time, but his record setting season took on a new complexion with 2 assists in the second half. Now sitting at 21 goals and 11 assists, Valeri becomes only the second player in MLS history with at least 20 goals and 10 assists in a single season. Sebastian Blanco continued his renaissance with the Timbers with a second half brace off goals in the 60th and 85th minutes, further cementing his reputation as a viable and creative option for the Timbers offense. The unexpected goal source of the evening was defender Alvas Powell, who slammed in a left footed shot off a drop pass from Valeri and dribbling move in the 50th minute. Powell was a surprise inclusion in the starting eleven in place of Zarek Valentin, who has been starting in defense since the debacle in Toronto back in August. Powell was a constant source of offense as he made several overlapping runs that kept the DC defense on their toes, but in typical Powell fashion, there were several situations where Alvas either made an incorrect pass or forgot to track his mark.

Powell wasn't the only spinning issue for the Timbers, as the team effectively struggled for the first 40 minutes or so of the match. Considering the team hadn't played competitively since the September 30 loss in San Jose, it might be understandable there might be some early hiccups once the whistle started play. Timbers Coach Caleb Porter had his usual attackers in the starting lineup with Fanendo Adi still injured and unavailable: Darren Mattocks at striker, Valeri, Blanco and Darlington Nagbe as the attacking midfielders with Diego Chara and a newly bronze coiffed David Guzman as the defending midfielders. With Attinella making his eight consecutive start as well, Porter only made 2 adjustments to his backline in starting Powell and Vytas as the fullbacks with Larrys Mabiala and Liam Ridgewell as the centerbacks, thus giving Valentin and Roy Miller a break from starting for the night. With everyone back and relatively healthy, it would be interesting to see if the Timbers could apply immediate pressure against a DCU team that is confounding many soccer experts about the depths of their ineptitude. DCU Coach Ben Olsen has scoring talent in Luciano Acosta, Patrick Mullins, Lloyd Sam and Paul Arriola, midfield talent in Nick Deleon and Ian Harkes, solid defense in Steve Birnbaum and Sean Franklin and goalkeeping talent in Bill Hamid and Steve Clark. But they've not put it together with any consistency all year, and they now set a team record in being shutout in 2017 with 17 after the Timbers' result. You read that right - DCU has played 33 matches in 2017 and scored at least 1 goal in under half of them.

Alvas Powell started in defense, and he was good. For most of the match.
They certainly didn't show a lack of confidence or spunk as they watched the Timbers whirl through the first half buffering along. Mattocks, Guzman and Blanco all had good chances in the first 10 minutes, but it wasn't until Valeri's double shot effort in the 26th and 27th minute that Portland appeared threatening. Mattocks was having trouble finding space or the ball with any regularity, while Valeri, Blanco and Nagbe weren't on the same page with their passes or shots. It didn't help when normally reliable players like Chara and Guzman were making sloppy passes or passes directly to their opponent, but after Arriola and DCU midfielder Zoltan Stieber challenged Attinella around the 40th minute mark, Portland appeared to turn up the intensity. After Mattocks missed in the 44th minute followed up by blocked shots of Powell and Guzman back to back, Portland finally got on the board via penalty in first half stoppage. Mattocks was finally sprung on the right attacking a loose ball from DCU defender Chris Korb that he tried to play back to Clark in goal. Mattocks pounced on the ball in space and Clark took out the Timbers striker in the box as he tried to attack, and Center Official Mark Geiger pointed to the spot without hesitation. Valeri stepped up to face an old friend for the penalty, and he easily converted it to the left to give the Timbers a 1 to 0 lead at the break.

While Portland certainly looked more focused after the break, it was DCU that earned 2 early chances on goal in the 49th minute as Mullins and Acosta both missed from close range - Acosta with a header off an Arriola cross that Attinella punched clear, then he scrambled to block Mullins, who had found the rebound and tried to chip it on frame. DCU would rue the miss because second later, Valeri dropped a pass to a charging Powell on the right flank and after a quick dribble, Powell punched it into the left corner of goal in the 50th minute with a towering left footed shot. The goal seemed to send DCU reeling a bit, and their fortunes took a bigger hit 10 minutes later when Valeri and Blanco combined on a one - two drop pass that Sebastian slammed into the left portion of goal for his 7th goal of 2017. Blanco added one more late off a breakaway in collecting a loose ball midpitch on a turnover caused by substitute Jeremy Ebobisse on a daring one on one run, but DCU was furious play was not stopped as Ebobisse's contact dropped Birnbaum to the turf and he struck his head on the playing surface. DCU did get a final chance when substitute Lloyd Sam challenged Attinella from distance in the 83rd minute, but Jeff parried the ball away with ease.

There was lots of happy Timbers fans on this day. Wins do that.
Porter was actually able to give some players a break as Dairon Asprilla and Lawrence Olum spelled Nagbe and Guzman respectively around the 62nd minute as both Timbers had played internationally over the past few weeks, while the rest of the club avoided injury and suspension issues due to cards with just the status of Adi as the only remaining injury concern. While Mattocks had some of his uneven play with missing passes and rushed shots, his work to earn the penalty helped the team and he contributed 2 quality shots before Ebobisse replaced him in the 75th minute. While Powell had a few gaffes on the night, he contributed a goal and had several good overlapping runs; a big part that aided in that was the fact that his fellow defenders (Mabiala, Ridgewell and Vytas) stayed home and organized and Olum joined them late to provide a stronger backline. Guzman and Chara got rid of some of their rust for some better play in the second half, too, as again it appeared Porter had pulled out his magic halftime speech to inspire his team. At this point in the season, though, the Timbers will need more that just fiery halftime speeches to secure a cup for their troubles. As if they needed any more inspiration, the Portland Thorns were on hand for the match after securing their second NWSL title in dramatic fashion on October 14, and the ladies received the loudest ovations of the night during a halftime ceremony honoring their accomplishment. Can Portland add another star to their profile and pull off a magical NWSL - MLS Cup run this year? If the Timbers played the way they did in this second half, I wouldn't bet against them one bit.

Goals by Half                1          2          F 
D.C. United                   0          0          0
Portland Timbers           1          3          4

Scoring Summary:
POR: Valeri (Penalty kick), 45+3
POR: Powell (Valeri), 50
POR: Blanco (Valeri), 60
POR: Blanco, 86

Misconduct Summary:
DC: Clark (Caution), 45+3
POR: Guzmán (Caution), 58

Lineups & Stats:
Timbers: GK Attinella, D Powell, D Mabiala, D Ridgewell ©, D Vytas, M Guzmán (Olum, 66), M Chara, M Blanco, M Valeri, M Nagbe (Asprilla, 61), F Mattocks (Ebobisse, 75)

Substitutes Not Used: GK Gleeson, D Miller, D Valentin, M Zemanski

TOTAL SHOTS: 17 (Mattocks, Valeri, 4); SHOTS ON GOAL: 8 (Three players tied, 2); FOULS: 6 (Guzmán, 3); OFFSIDES: 4; CORNER KICKS: 5; SAVES: 5

D.C. United: GK Clark, D Korb, D Birnbaum, D Canouse, D Robinson, M Harkes (Sarvas, 67), M Acosta, M Arriola, M Stieber (Sam, 67), M DeLeon, F Mullins (Miranda, 75)

Substitutes Not Used: GK Klenofsky, D Franklin, D Odel-Atsem, F Brown

TOTAL SHOTS: 7 (Arriola, 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 5 (Five players tied, 1); FOULS: 9 (Mullins, 3); OFFSIDES: 1; CORNER KICKS: 3; SAVES: 3

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Prediction Thread Week 31 - Portland Timbers vs. San Jose Earthquakes

It's always a party in Portland. How does anyone get any sleep?
I love staycation week, and it's become a tradition at our house. Many times when I get a week off from my IT job, it involves traveling to far off places and time zones. A few years ago, my wife and I started a tradition of doing a staycation - where we spend the week in town going to places that we might not otherwise because of busy schedules. Having this coincide with my recent transition to a full time gluten free diet, we spent the week testing out various food options - many new to me, but since Jennifer has been a celiac for many years, she's been eating gluten free since there wasn't quite the options there are now. The break has given me a chance to recharge the batteries and gain some appreciation for the good things and events happening in my life. As much as I love writing, I've actually enjoyed the time digging up tree roots and walking around our neighborhood. A lot. Seriously, my pedometer has been on overdrive despite the fact the rains are hitting this weekend.

The Portland Timbers match versus Orlando City fell very early in the weekly events, and honestly, the match was a great relief for me for a few reasons. The team played really well and put on one of their most dominant efforts of the 2017 season, but I was also able to avoid many of my food trappings at the park. I can look back now and see the amount of soda and cookies I powered through while covering the team, and upon careful reflection and calorie tracking, I can realize that I really was making some bad choices with my diet. Realizing now that I have to eliminate all gluten means being forever diligent and not making any mistakes when it comes to eating. I will be interested in seeing how this affects me, but considering that my psoriasis had been getting worse each passing week, it was time to do something. Maybe it's part of finally starting to grow up now that I'm 50 years old, but that doesn't mean getting rid of the fun or goofiness either. The cats were actually pretty excited about this week's predictions, and I still plan on writing more about recent changes in the Timbers' attack that have impressed me as we move towards the playoffs, but for now, it's time to turn the attention to this week's opponent, the San Jose Earthquakes.

Hopefully, we see a lot of David Guzman versus the Earthquakes
As of this point, San Jose is on the outside looking into the postseason sitting in eight place out of 11 in the West. The history between the Timbers and Earthquakes over the years has been slightly beneficial to the Timbers with 8 wins over 18 matches, but there have been 7 draws and a few very dramatic wins by San Jose over the years. One of those in particular was earlier this year when the Earthquakes dismantled the Timbers on May 6, 2017 by a 3 to 0 scoreline that wasn't even as close as the final tally indicated. Portland failed to get much right on this night, and while some of the issues centered around injuries and uneven play, San Jose took advantage of several Timber miscues and were never threatened. Portland had the advantage in shots and tactical play, but 21 fouls and other issues were enough to doom the Timbers on this night, but the Timbers enacted some revenge when the teams met again on June 2 at Providence Park. A Diego Valeri brace was the deciding factor, but Valeri's second goal was scored late in stoppage as Fanendo Adi had a rather difficult night in terms of misses and rushed shots.

Since then, Portland has found their footing behind Valeri's torrid scoring numbers - the Maestro is now sitting at 20 goals on the year with a goal in 9 consecutive matches so far - but he's been far from alone in jumpstarting the Timbers attack. Sebastian Blanco, Darren Mattocks, Darlington Nagbe and Jeremy Ebobisse have all made solid contributions to the offense, while David Guzman, Lawrence Olum, Diego Chara, Dairon Asprilla and Jack Barmby have been effective in the middle supporting the offense and defense as needed. With Liam Ridgewell finally back from injury, the defense has also been improved by only conceding 4 goals in their last 6 matches since Toronto FC smacked the Timbers dramatically back in mid-August. An injury to Jake Gleeson has also put Jeff Attinella into goal for the last several matches, and he's responded with solid efforts in goal despite a few hiccups against his old side, Real Salt Lake. Portland will need all of its weapons at full capacity in their last 3 matches, but Portland will have a break after the Earthquakes match as they don't play again until October 15 in hosting D.C. United. The Timbers will host Vancouver on October 22nd, and this match will likely have plenty of stakes involved for the postseason and the Cascadia Cup status. With all this going on, what do our expert predictors think about this week versus the Earthquakes?

Am I supposed to be looking at the camera?

Lucy: Timbers 3, Earthquakes 5

Lucy isn't normally big upon lots of goals in Timbers matches like some of the other cats about, but she was very animated about this match for some reason. Maybe it was the extra ham she got yesterday or extra time with the brush, but she was very chatty during this week's interview. Unfortunately, she picked more goals for the Earthquakes than she did for the Timbers for this week.

Mark and his match day compatriots.
Mark: Timbers 1, Earthquakes 1

Ok so this week we have our fast rising Timbers against a desperate San Jose Earthquake team. The Timbers are actually listed as a slight road favorite and this is a rarity in a parity driven league, The Quakes will be playing on short rest and their result on Wednesday will have much to say about their mindset for Saturday’s match. Well it seems like the Earthquakes wasted little energy while laying an egg at home. San Jose has always been a scattershot opponent for The Timbers and what you immediately expect never ever happens so I step into this prediction with trepidation. San Jose should be a desperate, angry team and they will look to come out with energy and hopefully an early goal. The first 15 minutes to this match will be key. I expect the Timbers to come out with the strategy of holding the Quakes at bay for the opening 15 minutes. I also expect Ridgewell and Larrys to up to the task. This will not be a pretty game and it usually turns ugly when these teams collide. I do not expect The Maestro to continue his string from the run of play. A penalty kick is quite possible however.

Somebody asked me how many points we would amass in the last 4 games and my answer was 7. We already have three. I am going to raise that 7 to 10. I still do not see us winning this match. I am predicting a one-one draw with Blanco slotting one home. I expect the Quakes to score out side the run of play. I will go out on a limb and call PK goal by Wondo. It is what we call a regression back toward the mean. I know that is mean. Sporting KC will beat Vancouver, and Seattle will draw with Philly I picked Vancouver to win the cup at the beginning of the year. However these days I find my self, checking the price of flights to Atlanta in early December.

"Hey! Why are you watching this with your eyes closed?"

Rick: Timbers 2, Earthquakes 2

The Earthquakes (Home record, W6 D5 L2 F23 A18) need to win this match to keep their slender playoff hopes alive. A win for the Timbers (W4 D4 L8 F21 A30 on the road) would strengthen their chances of a top-2 finish and put them in a good position to finish top of the Western Conference with their remaining games being at home to DC United, bottom of the Eastern Conference and Vancouver.

Honors are even so far this season, a 0-3 loss on the Timbers last visit and a 2-0 win at home. Diego Valeri to make it 10 on the trot.

My eyes have been bugging me due to allergies, but I'm feeling better now

Pilot: Timbers 2, Earthquakes 4

It's been a tough week for our tuxedo boy as he's been struggling with an eye infection or allergies. We have had to put eye drops in daily with various cleaning exercises, so there are points of the day where Pilot hides in the house. He's doing a lot better now but he wasn't thinking very good for the Timbers in terms of goals down in San Jose. His emphasis on the 2 goals for Portland was fairly emphatic, but he felt the home side was going to get more goals on the evening.

Hey, I was sleeping on the purple towel. Why did you wake me?

Moya: Timbers 3, Earthquakes 0

The black cat of the collective has been on a big streak picking against the Timbers, so it was interesting to hear her pick for the lads in green this week. Maybe it was going against her brother, Pilot, as she tends to do the opposite of whatever he does. But she was very emphatic with her meows in support of the Timbers, so I am reporting it like I heard it from her. Hopefully for the Timbers Army she's right.

I like the Portland Timbers panda toy. Not sure I like the Timbers this week

Spot: Timbers 0, Earthquakes 3

The queen of the scoreless draw once again is picking for goals this weekend, but she isn't picking any for the visiting side. Spot took a minute before calling for the number of goals for San Jose, but once she got started, it was three straight meows for goals. Sitting silent for the Timbers again this week, Spot was very clear that the Timbers would be sent home without any points this weekend.

I am happy to be picking for the good guys this week.

GB: Timbers 2, Earthquakes 0

GB has earned another nickname this week in Grey Bro, and it's been a rather chatty week for him. During certain instances when we tell him he can't do something, he has learned to imitate the word No. He didn't use that when making his Timbers pick though, as he gave two hearty Meow-ows for Portland yet went silent for the Earthquakes. I know this is a very confident selection since it was done way before meal time, as we've learned not to ask GB about anything around dinner time.

All I want is goals. And dinner.

Tortie: Timbers 19, Earthquakes 11

Tortie is always a great interview about the Portland Timbers, and again the tortoise shelled ninja is predicting a ton of goals on the evening. I mean, no defenses at all as we watch the opposing goalkeepers get shelled. Literally. It would be awesome to see this happen and the Timbers get a full 3 points, but I think both sides have a good enough defense that we shouldn't see this happen. Until it does.

Kip: Timbers 2, Earthquakes 1

We always win 2 to 1, right? It seemed like this happened a lot back in the day, and I think it's another score like that for Portland. The defense still has some moments of struggle, but behind Diego Valeri and the offense, I think they will have just enough to secure the full 3 points and solidify their hold on second place while keeping pressure on the Whitecaps. At this time, points are at a premium and I think the Timbers get the full load.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Timbers dismantle Orlando City in compelling fashion in 3 to 0 rout

Derrick Tellez was part of the game day festivities in the player procession
I've been a sports fan long enough to know that every season has ups and downs, and Major League Soccer is no different. Starting their season in January with matches beginning in February leading up to a March to October regular season and nearly 6 weeks of playoffs before a champion is crowned, each team has to deal with the inevitable highs and lows of a campaign. Between injuries, fitness issues, international competitions, friendlies and a league schedule, MLS seasons have become more of a journey or quest than anything else. We've witnessed many of these twists and turns through the hot March run through a May swoon, a short June rebound to July struggles and a late August rebirth as MLS teams point to September to know this is the time to find their best form and solidify post season plans. Portland completed a reasonably successful 3 match road trip with a win (NYCFC) and draw (Seattle) trying to solidify their claim to the top 2 spots in the West in facing Orlando City, a team that has seen more downs than ups in 2017. From start to finish, the Timbers put on a virtual offensive clinic behind their hottest player, Diego Valeri, who has again set several historical marks in a 3 to 0 victory that wasn't as close as the score indicated. However, this was far from a one man show as the Timbers collectively rallied around Valeri and put forth their most complete and dominant result since March.

The list of collective marks set in this match could fill any listing - Valeri's 2 goals not only continued his MLS record consecutive streak of matches with a goal at 9, but Valeri now sits at 20 goals scored in 2017, which make him the current leader in goals scored in MLS for 2017 and the MLS midfielder who has scored the most goals in a single season. Valeri's 20 goals are also the most scored by any Timbers player in any era as well, and with 3 matches left in 2017, he could obviously add more to his account. Portland also currently leads the Western Conference in goals scored with 53, putting them in 3rd overall in MLS tied with Chicago and trailing only Atlanta United and Toronto FC, and their 18 consecutive matches with a goal scored is the current longest streak in the league. While the litany of offensive records is impressive, the shutout also represents the team's sixth clean sheet in 2017 as the defense starts to find its rhythm in front of goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, who has been one of the players that has contributed to the current good form. Portland now sits in second place 1 point behind Vancouver with just 3 matches left to play: a road date with San Jose on September 30 and home dates with D.C. United (October 15) and the Whitecaps (October 22). With striker Fanendo Adi now back full time in training and defender Marco Farfan also nearing a return, Portland is now nearing full health at a time when they need all available player options at peak form and solidify their hold on one of the top 2 spots. The only downside to the remaining schedule is that most of the teams around the Timbers have 4 or 5 matches left to play, but their fixture dates are compressed in comparison against other teams with plenty to play for as well.
Darren Mattocks and Jonathan Spector met up a lot in this match.
Porter had to make some adjustments in his starting eleven from the loss versus Real Salt Lake as David Guzman continues to deal with a tight quadriceps muscle. With Attinella making his sixth consecutive start in goal even with Jake Gleeson healthy, Porter kept his defensive line the same: Zarek Valentin and Roy Miller at the right and left backs with Larrys Mabiala and Liam Ridgewell at center backs. Darlington Nagbe played his second consecutive start at central midfielder, but instead of replacing Diego Chara like he did versus RSL, he was paired with Chara to replace Guzman. With Nagbe playing centrally, Porter played the same foursome up top with Dairon Asprilla and Sebastian Blanco joining Valeri as the attacking midfielders and Darren Mattocks as the lone striker. Adi wasn't included in the available substitutes, as Porter decided to use goalkeeper Gleeson, defenders Vytas and Alvas Powell, midfielders Ben Zemanski, Lawrence Olum and Jack Barmby and forward Jeremy Ebobisse as his reinforcements. Portland's offense has been among the most prolific in MLS for 2017, but Porter has always felt the defense would be much improved once Mabiala was better acclimated and Ridgewell was back and healthy.

For Orlando City, it's been a very up and down 2017 as OCSC Coach Jason Kreis has tried to figure out a consistent attack plan all season. Already possessing solid attackers in Kaka, Cyle Larin, Carlos Rivas and Giles Barnes, OCSC shocked most MLS experts when they traded for another striker with Sporting Kansas City in getting Dom Dwyer while also acquiring playmaking midfielder Dillon Powers to supplement the midfield. With former MLS Timber Will Johnson on suspension until further notice, Orlando City has been capable of being dangerous at points offensively. Defensively, the team has conceded 47 goals as they've yet to find a consistent backline outside of Jonathan Spector and Scott Sutter. That has left former MLS Timbers goalkeeper Joe Bendik facing a plethora of shots, but considering Bendik was on the 2012 Timbers that had several troubles along the backline, it's unfortunately familiar. Many insiders aren't sure if Kreis will remain in charge or how long Kaka will remain in Orlando City, but the fact is with the parts they had and they were still eligible for the postseason going in, the Timbers couldn't look past OCSC at all.

Darlington Hagbe filled in for David Guzman. Very well.
The match itself started with both teams trading early back and forth runs with Mattocks, Barnes and OCSC midfielder Yoshimar Yotun all having chances on goal, but it was the 13th minute when the Timbers took the lead. Mattocks got loose on the left side of the pitch via a through ball and Spector slid in behind him to drop him inside the box. Center Official Baldomero Toledo initially waived off the play and let Bendik grab it for a goal kick, but once play was stopped as Mattocks was writing about in pain, Toledo made the Video Assistant Replay signal to indicate he'd been contacted about the play. Upon review, Toledo pointed to the spot and cautioned Spector for the foul, and Valeri calmly slammed the ball into the left portion of the net via penalty shot to put the Timbers up 1 to 0. In the 28th minute, Chara sprung Asprilla on the right side down the flanks and the OCSC defense couldn't recover in time to stop the run. Dairon was able to cross it into the box with Bendik trying to find his line, but Mattocks beat everyone to the ball to poke it home for a 2 to 0 lead. Valeri was able to add his second goal in the 60th minute after Mattocks shot a Blanco back heel pass right to Bendik, but the OCSC keeper was unable to hold onto the ball and it fell to Valeri on the right side. Diego calmly slid it into goal for his 20th, and the Timbers were never seriously threatened.

The scoreline could have been worse if not for Bendik's work in making several outstanding saves in traffic. Blanco, Mattocks and Valeri all had other chances that could have added to their tallies, too, but Bendik was able to keep the scoreline relatively close in some respects. OCSC was not able to muster much threats despite getting chances for Larin and Dwyer at points, but Attinella was able to hold the line well - making a stone cold leg save on Dwyer in the 86th minute when the game was out of reach. Much of the defensive credit should also go to Ridgewell, Mabiala, Valentin and Miller, who deflected several shots and passes to keep the clean sheet, while Nagbe, Blanco, Asprilla and Chara came back to provide tons of support when needed. Asprilla, Blanco, Chara and Nagbe also created several turnovers by directly stealing the ball or intercepting passes at key points, but what was more impressive was the accuracy and frequency of Timbers passes. For several long sequences, Portland was able to pass from right to left, forward and backwards for several passes and then wait for a break to attack. It was artistry in motion at points, and this effort couldn't have come at a better time. Portland was aided somewhat when Spector was ejected in the 47th minute for his second caution while Orlando City lost another player, OCSC substitute defender Victor Giro, to a straight red card in the 84th minute for a violent foul on Miller.

Diego Valeri has lots of records now, but I think he wants another cup.
Perhaps the biggest energy of the night belonged to Derrick Tellez, the youngster who was signed by the Timbers to a one game contract as part of his Make-A-Wish program. Tellez trained with the team on September 22nd and was part of their team photo, but Tellez was also a big part of the game festivities. From participating in warmups and the team speech before the match to walking with the players and observing the coin flip, the youngster was included in every game day activity with the team. He even got his own thin log slice at the end of the match presented by Timber Joey, and he held up his slab along with Attinella, Valeri and Mattocks. Derrick was even featured in the press notes and game program to complete the day, while the Timbers Army made several banners in his honor to show love and support to the Timbers' newest signee. While the win was certainly impressive, it was also great to see the team and the fans rally around Derrick and his family to show them a one of a kind game day experience. This was such a big match experience that I wanted to write more about this later this week to talk more about the team and this impressive effort.