Saturday, March 4, 2017

Timbers dismantle Loons to start 2017 MLS season

My vantage point for the night (Jennifer Kesgard)
As I was preparing for the 2017 MLS season to open for the Portland Timbers, my thoughts immediately turned back to 2011 - the very first season of the Timbers in MLS. After several years of playing in lower division professional leagues, Portland was graduating to the top flight of American soccer and playing their first competitive match in MLS in March 2011. Their first opponent was the then-defending MLS Cup champions, the Colorado Rapids, in their home opener for the season and the defending champions completely outflanked an eager, but ultimately outflanked Timbers team by a 3 to 1 margin. Portland wasn't defending a cup title, but after some significant upgrades on their roster, the Timbers are among the sides experts are thinking could lift the trophy in December 2017. Their opponent to start their 2017 campaign was Minnesota United FC, making their MLS debut after many years of successful soccer in lower professional divisions until Major League Soccer made them franchise 21 for this year. Following a plan much like the Timbers did in 2011 - and having one of the architects of the early MLS Timbers on staff, Director of Player Personnel Amos Magee (Magee was an assistant with the Timbers from 2009 through 2013), Minnesota United was hoping to show they belonged. Unfortunately for them, the host Timbers unleashed an offensive onslaught with 5 goals from 3 separate players in an impressive 5 to 1 victory under a typical Portland downpour and another sell out crowd.

While the talk had been mostly centered around the additions of Sebastian Blanco and David Guzman to a stacked offense and whether former USL Timber Lawrence Olum would be the answer at center back for now, it was two holdover players that carried the bulk of the offense. Midfielder Diego Valeri netted two goals on the night - a 47th minute header off an assist from Blanco that was his first headed goal in MLS play, and converting a 82nd minute penalty effort - and assisted on the opening goal of the night. The other returnee that continued his very torrid spring - tallying 6 goals in preseason play - was forward Fanendo Adi, who scored a brace in second half stoppage time to continue his reputation as "the Orthadontist". Adi converted goal one after a superb end to end run from Darlington Nagbe, who took a deflected shot and drove it nearly to the 18 yard box around several defenders, but dropped a wonderful pass to Adi as the defense surrounded him. The Minnesota United defense couldn't stop Adi as he tapped in the shot with his right foot, but just 2 minutes later, Adi added the second off a throw when he outmaneuvered three defenders and Minnesota United keeper John Alvbage for a wonderful shot with the left for the brace.

I could hardly keep up on the tweets. (Jennifer Kesgard)
The scoring actually started back in the 14h minute when Blanco ran down a loose ball in the far southwest corner past MUFC defender Francisco Calvo to earn a free kick. While Blanco used some physicality to initially jar the ball away from Calvo, it was the return bumps and dropping Sebastian to the turf that drew Center Official Chris Penso to call the free kick right along the touch line. Valeri triggered the restart to the right post on the south goal, and defender Vytas was able to collect the free kick and head it towards the left post where Olum was lurking. The rangy center back chipped the ball towards goal and it crossed the line past Alvbage before Adi could collect the shot, and it set off a crazy celebration. For Olum, it was his seventh goal in a Timbers shirt - he had tallied 6 goals while playing for the USL Timbers in 2007 and 2008 - but it was a product of good movement and organization on set pieces. Portland certainly had other opportunities to score - Adi was pulled down in the box in the 5th minute to no call, while Valeri had a gift at the penalty spot in the 30th minute when Adi intercepted a ball from the MN defense in the Timbers box, but Alvbage was able to poke the ball away right to Valeri until Alvbage's teammates were able to recover - but it was just a single goal after some impressive ball and people movement.

Minnesota United struggled most of the night to try to find any offense, although midfielder Kevin Molino had a few opportunities from distance that barely troubled Timbers goalkeeper Jake Gleeson. There were glimmers of hope for the Loons with over 700 traveling supporters making the journey to Providence Park to support their side in song. Their efforts were rewarded in the 75th minute when forward Johan Vanegas, playing a lone striker role for the first 69 minutes until MUFC Coach Adrian Heath brought on Christian Ramirez as a second striker for midfielder Rasmus Schuller, found Ramirez at the top of the box between Olum and Timbers center back Liam Ridgewell. Ramirez was able to turn and shoot before Ridgewell could mark him, and the effort struck the net past Gleeson for the Loons' first ever MLS goal. 

In many ways, the goal reminded me a lot of the strike by then Timbers striker Kenny Cooper in the Timbers' MLS debut - it gave a glimmer of happiness for the new team after being dominated for most of the match - but one difference here was that the Ramirez strike pulled MUFC to within a goal at 2 to 1 in the 75th minute. The momentum was short lived for Minnesota United, however, once MUFC defender Vadim Demidov pulled Adi down in the box as the Timbers Army were singing "You Are My Sunshine" and Penso pointed to the spot. Valeri did the rest, Adi added a late flourish and the home fans were able to leave happy with a dominant result. 

Beer helps viewings. Is this how this works? (J.Kesgard)
From my perspective, it was great to see Adi and Valeri continue their offensive prowess after they were huge contributors to the team in 2016. However, the man of the match for me was Guzman, who worked tirelessly to dominate the midfield with great timed tackles and successful distribution. His work allowed midfielder Diego Chara to drift forward more in support, while Alvas Powell and Vytas continued their solid contributions with several successful overlapping runs. The center back duo of Olum and Ridgewell weren't threatened too much, and while there was one mistake on the night, they were calm and organized for most of the match. Another huge component of the success was the work of Blanco and Darlington Nagbe, who pushed the Loons defense wide all night courtesy of flanking runs, and that movement stretched an already out-manned defense even more. Even with all the platitudes for the victory, however, it's just one match of many - and Portland wants to avoid overconfidence after this one. Minnesota United isn't as bad of a team that they showed on this night - I think Schuller, Ramirez, Molino and Vanegas will be able to give teams fits once they figure out how to work better together - but they have the same problem as most expansion sides - not enough depth and limited talent. Portland gets a stiffer test next week when they travel to Los Angeles for their first road match of 2017 to face the Galaxy. It's another match on Fox Sports 1 at 4:00 PM Portland time, and the new look Galaxy will get their first chance to deal with the Timbers and their revamped offense.

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