Sunday, April 23, 2017

Timbers outplay then outlast Whitecaps for dramatic 2 to 1 home win

Darren Mattocks gets the Timbers second goal of the day.
We haven't seen the Portland Timbers play a full 90 minutes of soccer in the 2017 season, but despite the various issues of injuries and stagnant movement, Portland has been sitting on the top of the Western Conference since week 1. They've managed to break out of the road doldrums, but the Timbers have been less than stellar in their last two home matches, a draw with New England and a loss to Sporting Kansas City - in each instance, the visitors controlled the tempo and intensity of the attack and Portland couldn't find a way to overcome the increased physicality displayed. With Portland missing one of their top scorers in forward Fanendo Adi, so the burden of unclogging the offense would have to fall on other players. In the first half, Portland watched Darlington Nagbe and Darren Mattocks be the catalysts for a pretty impressive display, but when Vancouver find their rhythm late and pulled the scoreline close, it was a resilient and fortunate Timbers side that hung on for a 2 to 1 victory in front of another sellout crowd at Providence Park.

Adi was given the night off due to a one game suspension by the MLS Disciplinary Committee, who issued the verdict due to violent contact against Sporting KC defender Ike Opara in the 26th minute. Considering the contact that went between the sides all match, I was more than surprised that the committee chose to discipline Adi, but I'm not the one in charge either so Timbers Coach Caleb Porter would have to adjust his tactics. Adi, however, wasn't the only change in the starting eleven as Porter elevated Vytas and Liam Ridgewell into the starting backline as both have fully recovered from their lingering injuries, but Porter started Lawrence Olum alongside Ridgewell with Alvas Powell flanked out right instead of Roy Miller, who has been the defensive stalwart for the Timbers so far this year. Jake Gleeson was suffering with a hip flexor injury, so Jeff Attinella would get his first start for Portland in goal with Kendall McIntosh his backup, marking the first time that Kendall has made the gameday 18. Darren Mattocks would be the direct replacement for Adi as the lone forward, but Porter changed up the attack by starting Dairon Asprilla at one of the wings with Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe the other midfielder attackers in front of David Guzman and Diego Chara. Asprilla was replacing Sebastian Blanco, who was suffering with an abdominal injury that limited his minutes, so Porter's bench had a lot of new names alongside Miller. Blanco and McIntosh, as Chance Myers, Jack Barmby, Amobi Okugo, Marco Farfan were sub options if needed.

Vytas and Liam Ridgewell were back for Portland.
Vancouver's offense has been a work in progress for many seasons, but they seem to have found their strike option when they signed former Sounders forward Fredy Montero on loan from the Chinese League. Montero was a prolific yet temperamental player in his 4 seasons in the Emerald City, but he could score goals, something the Caps have struggled with since Camilo left the team after the 2013 season. While David Ousted continues to be a stellar keeper for the Caps, the defensive line has been an issue for Vancouver with Kendall Waston, Jordan Harvey and Tim Parker all having lapses at various times. The Caps lost defender Brek Shea to a long-term injury during Vancouver's run in the 2016-2017 CONCACAF Champions League, so the team has been trying to find long term answers. Vancouver had also made several trades and moves to fortify their midfield, but they kept Cristian Techera and Christian Bolanos on the wings with Matias Laba as a defensive midfielder. Regardless of the changes, Caps Coach Carl Robinson usually stresses defense to his charges, so the Caps employ team defensive strategies designed to control the tempo and frustrate their opponents. Robinson has been using Andrew Jacobson, a longtime MLS veteran, and Tony Tchani, who was acquired from Columbus, in the midfield, so there was some veteran experience flanked out there for the Caps.

Portland had started slow in their previous home efforts, but Valeri put pressure on Ousted in the 2nd minute off a free kick just outside the Vancouver box that forced the Caps keeper to push it away at the last minute. The Timbers would break open the scoring in the 18th minute after consecutive blocked shots for Nagbe and Valeri, but the Valeri shot rebounded out to Guzman, who dropped a pass to Nagbe on the left flank. Nagbe moved quickly towards the right with Waston in tow, but Darlington was able to create enough space to turn and shoot from right into the left corner of goal past Ousted for his second goal of 2017 to put the Timbers up 1 to 0. Valeri had a quality shot blocked in the 25th minute, but the Timbers were able to add a second in the 40th minute off a counter attack. With the Caps taking a free kick just outside the goal, the Timbers defense cleared the restart out to Guzman, who sent Nagbe out on the break to the right. Nagbe found Valeri on the right channel, and Valeri put a cross towards the right post for Mattocks, who easily converted the effort although Ousted made it exceptionally difficult with some sprawling defense. One of the best parts of this play was the fact that Jacobson had destroyed Chara with a tackle right before the break, but Center Official Chris Penso gave the Timbers advantage and allowed the play to continue instead of stopping the break.

Chris Penso said this wasn't a foul. He's wrong about that.
The Timbers should have had another goal in the 24th minute when Asprilla was first to a back pass off a Ridgewell diagonal pass that the Vancouver defense allowed to roll towards Ousted instead of recovering it, but overall, the Timbers' movement and tempo was creating chances despite being bunched up at points by the Caps. Vancouver was trying to find attempts to challenge Attinella, but outside of a Techera shot that went right to him in the 24th minute and a Tchani blocked shot in the 40th, it was a lot of misses for the visitors. Some of the issues was impatience from the Caps to let plays develop, but another big influence was the inclusion of Ridgewell, who was paramount in keeping the Timbers defense all on the same page. While Vytas was able to get forward with some regularity to help the offense, Vytas did have some difficult touches and passes which I attributed to rust from his long injury layoff.  However, Vytas did have a couple of great recoveries and created turnovers showcasing his veteran experience and superb positioning on the various Caps attackers.

The Timbers had to feel confident after the solid first half, but they had to feel frustrated in the 50th minute when Asprilla put a cross into Mattocks while he was running in the Whitecaps box. Waston elbowed him to the turf from behind by extending his arm, but Penso waived off calling anything as various Timbers players protested the lack of a call. The frustration boiled over 10 minutes later when Bolanos and Powell were jostling on the left portion of the Timbers box, and Bolanos earned a penalty from Powell off a light bump and some creative falling down. Penso wasted no time pointing to the spot to the protests of the Timbers and the home crowd, and in a bit of poetic justice, it was the former Sounder that stepped up to take the penalty. Attinella was impressive by guessing left and blocking the Montero penalty, but the deflection bounced right back to Montero before a Timbers defender could mark him, and Montero chipped it into goal to bring the score to 2 to 1. Over the next 5 minutes, there were several fouls on Valeri and Chara that only generated lectures from Penso to the Caps players, but it was apparent that Vancouver decided their path to leveling the score was to target the Timbers' Diegos.

Diego Valeri had lots of company and was fouled. A lot.
Portland had chances to extend their lead when Valeri was taken down by Waston just outside the box in the 66th minute, but Nagbe's free kick struck the wall and the rebound to Valeri was pushed wide. Mattocks had a few chances inside the box, but his inability to find the handle on the ball or quickly shoot allowed Vancouver to recover and deflect away any attempts from their former teammate. The Caps kept pressuring with various attacks, and Portland's attack took a hit when Valeri had to exit the match in the 80th minute due to injury. Reports indicate that Valeri felt a hip twinge and didn't want to risk aggravating it anymore, so we are not expecting him to miss any matches at this point. The Caps did get a near miss from Bolanos in the 83rd minute and a free kick chance for Montero in second half stoppage as Bolanos again fell down with Powell defending, but the Timbers were able to withstand the late pressure from the visitors to hang on for the victory. The result put the Timbers on top of the Cascadia Cup standings with 3 points in 1 game played and a plus 1 goal differential, and sets up an interesting matchup next weekend in MLS play. It's the first place Portland Timbers versus second place FC Dallas in Texas on April 29; FC Dallas is undefeated at home in 3 matches while the Timbers boast the best road record in the West with 2 wins and a loss in 3 matches away.

Overall, I was pleased with Nagbe's contributions to the offense as I feel he has started to take his game to the next level, and Guzman was solid in patrolling the middle. As I mentioned, Ridgewell helped solidify the defensive line in terms of organization, and his diagonal passes did provide some useful outlets to spring out the offense. With Blanco's availability limited, I was hoping to see the Timbers try and use Asprilla and Nagbe out wide to try and stretch the pitch, but Asprilla wasn't able to get out wide enough to make a difference and Nagbe spent more time patrolling the middle and finding room to work there. While I am sad to see Gleeson unavailable for the match, I was actually very impressed with how well Attinella played on the afternoon, as he showed a great composure and presence that was appreciated. My original thoughts were that this match would be a wide open battle, but in the end, it gravitated to what Cascadia Cup matches between these sides usually end up as - physical, chippy, back and forth affairs with limited scoring chances and plenty of feisty play. Honestly, would you want Cascadia Cup matches any other way?

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