Monday, April 17, 2017

Timbers frustrated and aimless in 1 to 0 loss to Sporting Kansas City

This guy got a lot of attention during Timbers v SKC.
The Portland Timbers have been one of the key stories within the early part of the 2017 MLS season. Their offense has been scoring goals at a healthy clip for their first 6 matches as they still lead MLS in goals scored, and within those matches, they've posted impressive results at home versus Minnesota and Houston as well as winning on the road in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. It hasn't been without struggles with injuries, especially on the defensive end, but so far, it's been impressive. However, leagues and teams quickly adjust to tactics, and the Timbers have found themselves struggling recently at home; against New England on April 2, the Timbers scored early but ultimately had issues with the officiating and physical play and conceded a goal late in a frustrating draw. After exercising some demons at Talen Energy Stadium versus the Union last weekend, Portland returned to host a foe that has advanced high on my list of MLS rivals for the Timbers that aren't Cascadia based, Sporting Kansas City.

Over the years, the two clubs have played some fairly intense and memorable matches - from the epic win for the Timbers back in 2013 that helped catapulted the team's extended unbeaten streak to the crazy playoff match back in 2015 which started the Timbers' epic MLS Cup run and the 2016 win by a 3 to 0 margin that broke a long losing streak to Sporting - and the matches in Kansas have had their own memorable moments. In 2017, Sporting KC hadn't lost on the road despite not scoring a goal in 2 road matches as their defense has held their opponents scoreless; as a matter of fact, SKC had only yielded 2 goals while scoring just 5 goals but it was enough to keep them undefeated in 5 matches. In a battle of immovable defense and ingenious offense, it was the Sporting KC defense that came out on top by holding the Timbers to 4 shots on target and a handful of scoring chances while Sporting took advantage of a defensive gaffe to score a goal of their own. SKC forward Dom Dwyer tallied his second goal with a header off a Jimmy Medranda cross, but it was a collective of defensive miscues prior to that which caused the breakdown. An unfortunate part of soccer is that sometimes a simple breakdown is enough to separate victories from other results; against New England, it turned a win into a draw, and in this match, it turned a reasonably competitive match into a home loss.

Darlington Nagbe nearly struck for the 2nd week in a row.
There were plenty of reasons for the disjointed effort from the home side. Firstly, Sporting KC played their style effectively - fast passing, player movement, initiate contact on defense and exaggerate contact anytime they are defended to earn set piece chances - and they pitched their third consecutive road shutout. Secondly, Center Official Drew Fischer had an uneven effort in managing the match as he called the Timbers for 22 fouls on the evening to just 12 for the visitors; per Timbers stats guru Mike Donovan, this was the third time in 3 seasons where the Timbers had been called for more than 20 fouls in a match and Fischer was the officiant in each of those matches. In other numbers that Mike posted on his Twitter feed, Fischer has been responsible for plenty of foul calls when he's in charge of a Timbers match and Timbers Coach Caleb Porter even indicated that Fischer was "the perfect choice" as the official for Sporting's style of play. In a related topic, the Timbers grew increasingly frustrated as they couldn't seem to get the benefit of any calls from Fischer despite their efforts, and I believe that led them to press even more later in the match.

While the factors alone would have been enough to tilt the scales for Sporting, there was a third component to the Timbers' woes and in my opinion, it was the biggest issue for the home side - a lack of cohesion. Defensively, the Timbers had issues with Sporting's pressure all evening and that led to plenty of rushed passes and mistakes, while the defensive rotation had trouble accounting for the overall SKC speed. On offense, the Timbers had chances to run from box to box, but their offense was unable to find many passes in the final third until late and many attacks were stopped by patience - a lack of any or too much applied. As my wife Jennifer commented to me after the match, she thought it was the Timbers playing on 11 individual islands with little linkage between them, and I have to agree completely. I understand that the physical style of SKC and abhorrent officiating would impact Portland's efforts during the match, but in my opinion, the team could have overcome those challenges better by being on the same page and on this night, nobody really was.

Marco Farfan was good but he still has lots to learn.

The first 45 minutes were a sluggish affair in most aspects, literally and figuratively with only a handful of chances. Portland registered just two shots, rushed misses from forward Fanendo Adi and midfielder David Guzman, while Sporting missed their only quality chance, a 37th minute header from midfielder Ilie Sanchez off a corner kick where his header flew just over the crossbar. While Sporting had more corners and free kicks, the Timbers were able to thwart most efforts as they tried to find any space to work. While Portland turned up the tempo and Darlington Nagbe seemed more engaged to work with space, it was a breakdown that gave the visitors a chance to attack. Off a turnover when defender Alvas Powell tried to play a long ball to the backline instead of allowing it to go out for a goalkick, the ball fell to SKC midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who pushed the ball wide to Medranda as Powell was late to find his mark, and Timbers defender Marco Farfan wasn't able to hold Dwyer off as Timbers goalkeeper Jake Gleeson was in poor spacing - not on his line, but not aggressively attacking the cross.  Powell's lapse and Gleeson's hesitations were enough to concede the lead, and SKC forward Gerso Fernandes nearly added a second goal minutes later, but Gleeson's shin deflected the shot clear.

Gleeson denied Gerso moments later off a deflection from a free kick, but the final 30 minutes belonged to the Timbers in terms of chances. Between shots from Valeri, Powell, Blanco and substitutes Darren Mattocks and Dairon Asprilla, the Timbers threatened the goal plenty, but perhaps the best chance was in the 79th minute courtesy of Nagbe. Camped on the left side, Nagbe took a pass from Valeri and briefly touched the ball to stop the bounce, but then decided to take a one time shot from 35 yards out that spun and dipped toward the right upper corner. Only a deft punch from Sporting Kansas City keeper Tim Melia kept the ball from crossing the line, but Melia got some help in his block from the crossbar as his deflection pushed the ball into the bar to bounce it cleanly away. The goal itself was similar to a wonderful shot that Nagbe buried against Sporting back in 2011 off a similar two touch play, but this one ended up being in Melia's highlights for the huge save. Outside of these chances, the match itself featured a lot of whistles and plenty of arms raised in the air for the home side.
Lawrence Olum faced his former team & did well at times
The Timbers can't rest too much or think about the problems from this one with their Canadian Cascadian rivals visiting on April 22 as the Whitecaps bring their reformed offense (with the addition of former Flounders striker Fredy Montero) to town for an afternoon battle. Portland then travels to FC Dallas and San Jose on consecutive weekends before hosting Atlanta to then visit Montreal and Seattle to finish out May, so the intensity and offenses are picking up for the Timbers quickly. While I'm impressed that the team can continue to battle for many matches, I'm troubled again by their inability to adjust their strategy when the opposition falls into a simple soccer bait and trap strategy of slowing down the tempo with physicality and exaggerating contact. We've seen two instances of it this season work on the Timbers, and I fear there will be lots of doses of this employed until Porter and his charges figure out an effective way to counter the strategy. MLS teams scout strategy a lot, so I would expect Timbers opponents to try this plan until Portland can figure out a way to avoid falling into the trap.

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