Thursday, May 25, 2017

Week 13 Prediction Thread - Timbers v. Sounders FC

I can't wait for whatever tifo appears in this one.
Records don't matter. Form doesn't matter. Nothing else matters during Cascadia Cup week, especially when it's the battle royale between the 2 American Cascadia sides. There have been several huge moments over the years when the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders FC meet up, especially since these teams have been battling since 1975 when the teams were part of the North American Soccer League. Starting that year, the Timbers defeated the Sounders in dramatic fashion at home in the first round of the playoffs, and things have exploded from there. From falling players, dramatic U.S. Open Cup matches in Portland, an epic meltdown at Starfire, a 2013 playoff upset and countless other moments, nothing is normal when these sides meet.

Players come and go, and some have been on both sides of this rivalry as the teams moved from NASL to A-League to USL to now MLS, but the intensity and passion has never wavered. Not only are the two heated rivals getting ready to face each other at Century Link Field on May 27 in the first of their three battles in the regular season, the same 2 clubs will meet in the fourth round of this year's U.S. Open Cup at Starfire when MLS teams enter the tournament on June 13. In compressed fashion once again, the teams will battle 3 times within 30 days - May 27 up North followed by the U.S. Open Cup date, with the Sounders making their only Oregon visit in the regular season on June 25. The two teams will meet 1 more time at Century Link Field in August, but within that 30 day frame in late May and June, Portland will play seven matches over that timeframe with several huge opponents in that stretch - San Jose and FC Dallas at home, Colorado and Minnesota away - in the midst of playing the Sounders.

Nothing about this will be easy, but honestly, nothing that is worth it ever is. As our crack staff of prognosticators looks at this matchup, which will be available nationwide on a broadcast on the FOX network, we only know a few absolutes - Diego Chara is unavailable due to suspension for a red card he received versus Montreal, Portland is reasonably healthy otherwise and their other key weapons are available, and the last 2 MLS Cup Champions will likely put on quite a show with someone completely unexpected stepping up to influence the outcome.

The call of the wild

Rick - Timbers 1, Sounders FC 1

The Timbers have never won at the Clink and have a record of W0 D2 L6 F4 A14. The suspended midfielder Diego Chara will be missed as the Timbers aim to stop leaking goals and getting their attack ticking again. Scorers: Valeri for us. Dempsey for them.

Tortie is looking very emo with the TA scarf

Tortie - Timbers 12, Sounders 9

The ninja cat has predicted track meets for the past few weeks, and she is sticking with her theme with lots of meows and eeps. We were struggling to keep track of the numbers, but it came out with the green guys getting their first win up North. When I asked her if it was about time, she flopped over and started purring. It appears the young tortoise shell is feeling confident about this one.

The queen sits with the MLS Championship scarf.

Spot - scoreless draw

The queen of the scoreless draw once again decided that neither team would get any goals this weekend, thus allowing both sides to earn a point for their troubles. This picture was after 10 minutes of coaxing, but once she figured out the scarf was soft, it was difficult to get it away from her. But getting her to provide some type of score was again an afterthought.

GB is very stuck in with his teams.

GB - Timbers 2, Sounders FC 2

The gray boy was rather animated during his interview about what will happen this weekend, as his tail was thumping throughout the entire process. He was rather emphatic that something physical will happen during the match, but the person would not receive a red card - but he wasn't specific about which team would be the instigator. We know what teams he likes though, but he is calling for the draw.

I still have all the scarves.

Kip - Timbers 2, Sounders FC 1

Do I really need a better reason than we always win 2 to 1? Well, despite the history up North in terms of results and goals allowed and Portland's recent run of bad fortune, I think the team is fired up and going to break the streak finally. Fanendo Adi loves playing these guys, and I'm calling for him to get the brace in this one, but the defense will be unable to hold the clean sheet. However, it will be enough for the Timbers to break their road woes.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

After Match Analysis - Looking Back on Timbers v Impact

There was fight from Sebastian Blanco this past weekend
I love technology, but it doesn't help when you fail to use it correctly. As I continue to complete the transition from just a write to the full time staff here, it's been a struggle at points. Instead of being the guy who just has to respond to the requests, I am actually the person in charge of content. With my wife heading out on a long overdue vacation, I meant to get in front of the prediction emails for the Montreal match. So imagine my surprise when it was the Thursday prior to kick and I found nothing in my sent folder. In hindsight after the result, perhaps it was a match best left forgotten, but there are some points that I want to make about what happened based on my perspective of watching this team - and several previous iterations over the years.

I used to be worried about our side showing fight or phoning in results, but honestly, I have come to be less concerned about that over time. I know they give everything they have and yet sometimes, the results don't come close to matching the expended effort. With the Timbers having their full corp of attackers fully available - Darlington Nagbe was back after being injured versus FC Dallas weeks ago - Portland could indeed put out the foursome of Fanendo Adi, Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Nagbe in front of David Guzman and Diego Chara, and most experts would feel the Timbers should be extremely competitive under the circumstances. At least for the first few minutes, I saw some promise in movement and communication and while the chances weren't being converted, it seemed as though the team was getting back on some track until things came crashing down in a 10 minute sequence.

I've been extremely vocal for years that officiating in MLS needs to improve, and most regular viewers wouldn't disagree with that assessment - as some of the officiating performances over the years have alternated between inept to pure dumpster fire. One of my many asks about it is consistency - especially since I know that mistakes will occur because you have humans involved with making split second decisions based on analyzing a snippet of data with thousand of eyes and potential critics watching their every move. Training, communication and working matches to build experience and chemistry will work to build a quality resume, but ultimately it comes down to what the people with the whistles and flags are able to see and discern. What I found most troubling about what happened between the 10th and 20th minutes of the Timbers' match versus the Impact was that the Timbers did actions that forced the officials to become involved to make a decision. Disciplined teams avoid this trap as best they can, and while both situations might seem very minor, they influenced the match greatly. Smart teams avoid actions that involve an official from having to make a complex decision quickly, especially since in those moments, the choice can either go in your team's favor or go terribly wrong.
Tortie is ready for this weekend's match - lots of goals

When Sebastian Blanco came to defend Impact midfielder Blerim Dzemaili in the Timbers box, Blanco got his hand up near the neck and head, and it was there when Dzmemaili fell to the ground. Did the Impact player fall down easily - honestly I've seen lawn chairs hold up better in a brisk wind that what happened here. Did Blanco contact the player significantly - the replay seems to show extremely light contact if anything. However, the combination of actions forced Center Official Jair Marrufo to make a decision, and he chose to award Montreal with a penalty that was easily converted. Six minutes later, Diego Chara was involved in an altercation with Impact midfielder Ignacio Piatti and his hand got in the face of Piatti; Piatti crumpled to the turf and Marrufo ejected Chara to put the Timbers at 10 men. The fact the play was away from the ball was of little concern as the assistant official witnessed the entire altercation, and suddenly the Timbers task got a little more grand. Did Piatti go to ground easily? Of course he did, but at that point, the better question would be what was Chara thinking by putting his hand in the face of the Impact player? It was a rather idiotic decision that not only cost the Timbers a key player for the rest of the match, but Chara won't be available for this weekend's Cascadia Cup clash at the Clunk.

I will give the team credit for hanging in there, especially when Valeri scored before the break to push the scoreline up to 2 to 1, giving the visitors some much needed momentum. Piatti tallied his second on a broken defensive play to give Montreal a 2 goal lead, and while Valeri and Adi both had chances to bring it closer, the Impact sealed the deal later with the Timbers stretched trying to overcome the deficit. Portland never seemed completely overwhelmed, but there were bouts of questionable decisions in addition to players making impatient decisions in an attempt to get back in the match. It's never a good sign when teammates are grousing at each other about missed passes or rushed shots, which again goes back to being disciplined. It was going to be an extremely difficult task for the Timbers to come fully back versus the Impact, but adding insult to injury with impatience wasn't going to help the cause. I'm not even upset that Marrufo didn't give the Timbers aid later in the match when Impact defender Laurent Ciman took a ball off his elbow in the box, and there was no call for a penalty. I'm not exactly sure what Ciman was supposed to do about the passed ball to react, but in terms of handballs, it seemed like incidental contact. What concerned me more was the repeated actions of Ciman, Marco Donadel and Kyle Fisher to initiate contact repeatedly on various Timbers to impede progress or slow down the tempo, and many of the actions weren't called consistently. I get that Adi is a larger player and he uses his body a lot to create space, but it also appeared that Montreal decided draping on him while fouling other players was an effective defensive strategy.

Just remember this & travel safe this weekend if heading North

For me, the tactics of the match changed dramatically when the team had to go to 10 men, and while the movement seemed better, the approach allowed the Impact to settle in the middle and absorb the pressure. When the Timbers' offense is flowing more freely and using the wings to relieve pressure, they are a difficult matchup, but in this affair - and honestly, it was a theme versus Atlanta and San Jose - the central attacking wasn't creating the expected results. Until Portland can effectively use the wings to stretch the defense, the offense will have trouble breaking down opponents. Granted, injuries to Nagbe and Valeri combined with uneven efforts from Darren Mattocks and Dairon Asprilla haven't helped, but the offense has been troubled with limited contributions from Vytas and Alvas Powell when they've pressed forward. While Powell did get the assist on Valeri's goal, his crossing and passing has been terribly suspect for weeks now, and having regular contributions from the fullbacks on offense is needed. I understand that injuries happen and the opponents' quality has been improved since the early schedule, but if the Timbers are doing what they are capable of, they should be able to hang with any team in MLS with relative ease.

I understand that statement might be hard to read, but I realize the reality that Portland likely won't have huge moves during the summer transfer window either, so the roster is not as fluid as in past seasons. We know a reserve center back is coming to help with the Liam Ridgewell/Roy Miller pairing, which should allow Lawrence Olum to return to playing defensive midfield more regularly, especially with Guzman on international duty for much of June. Portland is currently using 26 of their 30 available roster spots as Gbenga Arokoyo is on injured reserve, and Portland could add 2 players to their senior roster plus 2 more to the reserve list. With just 1 international spot available, the questions are always - is there anything realistically available that is better than what is already on the roster? I'm sure there are fantasy scenarios where Portland ends up with a legendary talent, but honestly, I don't think there will be huge moves this summer. It will really fall upon Timbers Coach Caleb Porter and his coaches to maximize what is currently on the roster, and while there is skill about, the club is in a funk right now with several huge fixtures - at Seattle on May 27, followed by home versus San Jose on June 2 and FC Dallas on June 10 - looming. Despite the issues recently, the Timbers still sit at the middle of the Western Conference table with 22 matches left this year - which is plenty of time to get it sorted out. Wouldn't it be awesome to have the calibration start this weekend in hostile territory? And for those inquiring minds, predictions are back for this weekend, so cue the cats!!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

After Match Analysis - Looking Back at Timbers v Atlanta United

Turf + contact + head = ouch. Very ouch.
There still hasn't been anything officially said about it, but even days later, I'm still bothered by the incident with Yamil Asad in the first half of the Timbers - Atlanta United match. In the 11th minute, Timbers defender Alvas Powell was trying to clear a ball from midpitch and struck it with good force while Asad was trying to close him down. Asad took the full brunt of the ball and fell down like a felled tree and lay motionless for several seconds while medical staff came out to to assist. The replay appeared to show Asad lose consciousness for a brief moment, but after a quick review, Asad was able to rejoin the match after a few minutes. Per, the Timbers' team doctor was assisting Atlanta's medical staff, and Dr. Jonathan Greenleaf was so upset at what transpired that he continued a heated discussion with the fourth official for several minutes. Center Official Alan Kelly even stopped play to ascertain what happened, but that didn't stop Asad from playing the full 90 minutes.

In Kelly's comments after the match, he indicated that they allowed Asad to rejoin once the fourth official confirmed he had been medically cleared by Atlanta. However, the Timbers' team doctor seemed to be very upset at their conclusion. There were also several reports that indicated that Asad insisted he was fine and determined to continue playing, and as we've seen in sports many times before, sometimes players are not the best judges for their safety - putting toughing it out in 1 match over looking at long term health. For those that know, I was struck a few weeks ago during practice for Old Growth FC by a shoulder, and the contact put me down on the turf with my head bouncing off of it. While not completely similar, I was happy that I had a coach and several medical trained personnel look at the situation and my injuries and made it clear there was no way I could continue. Granted, I had a large gash on my forehead which likely precluded my further precipitation anyway, which Asad didn't have, but I also never lost consciousness. I did discover how distasteful turf pellets can be, as they are not part of a balanced diet, nor should they ever be.
Please, Diego, can we see more of this?
The facts about the incident are still not completely clear - either Atlanta did a very quick assessment and cleared him without doing a full in-depth battery of tests, which drew the concern of Portland's medical staff, Atlanta did complete the full protocol and Portland's staff felt something was missed, or Asad insisted on continuing and Atlanta did enough checking to ensure that was possible and cleared it. The simple fact that there is so much confusion about what happened and there wasn't agreement to the result is troubling to a league that has put player safety among its big priorities. Suffice to say, if there is league rules and procedures about how a concussion test should be administered, I would expect the medical personnel to have the time and freedom to do a full analysis and make a decision with the player's long term benefit in mind. I don't think any coach in MLS is going to intentionally push a player to rejoin a match against a medical decision, but a team doctor should be able to pull a player they feel could hurt themselves more by continuing to play. The fact that this is even being questioned is concerning, especially in light of another on the field collision where 2 players for FC Dallas knocked heads and were allowed to continue. Protocols demand consistency, and while I get that this program is still being sorted out, the league also made improved officiating a priority in 2017 as well. Come to think of it, that was mentioned in 2016...and 2015....and so on....and so on.

I'm really glad to see Diego Valeri's comments about wanting the Timbers to dictate more tempo and control more possession, especially after the disturbing possession numbers posted versus Atlanta United. We have heard the mantra of the Timbers in the Caleb Porter era as possession with purpose, although the team has certainly adjusted their attack in various matches and stretches depending upon personnel availability and opponent, but I don't think 30 percent possession is even close to the ideal in any situation. I get it, it's a number and soccer has one of those completely annoying qualities where numbers often don't match the reality of a result. However, this is the second consecutive match where I thought the Timbers' passive approach cost them dearly. I can understand some concern with Atlanta, since they have as much speed and attacking options as the Timbers so being slightly more conservative and playing further back makes sense, but San Jose isn't even in the same conversation with attacking as either Portland or Atlanta. The Earthquakes played a very unlike them match a few weeks ago where they used attacking and movement to break down the Timbers, as many experts remarked. Portland played into that, however, with very passive play, and I understand the club didn't have Valeri or Darlington Nagbe available. Honestly, I want this team to play Timbers style soccer regardless of who is on the pitch, and that is very difficult if the team lacks a coordinator or playmaker, but Porter has said this roster has options. With players leaving for international duty, potential injury or just rotation in general, it's imperative they figure this out soon.

Dairon - I love you, but wow, Sunday wasn't good for you.

Evaluations - Everyone wearing Timbers green would get a 5 on the afternoon, considering that they have good efforts at points in the attack but had a few mistakes to even things out. I will call out a few players who deserve differing scores.

Alvas Powell - 3. Seriously, I have no idea what he was doing out there at times. Passes to nobody in particular, late support on certain runs, he just seemed to be playing a different game. He did have several good clearances to stop threats, but there was so much more he could have done, but didn't.
Roy Miller - 7. He's played exceptionally well this season in the rotation, and his size and presence were a big asset against Atlanta. Based on this effort, I can see this team using a Ridgewell - Miller center back duo and not feel like it's a problem.
Diego Valeri - 3. Little to no influence on the match. I get that he's trying to work back to fitness and timing and Atlanta made it a priority to defend him, but I was hoping to see more from the Maestro.
Sebastian Blanco - 6. Always has some bite to his play, and I thought he actually mixed it up with Atlanta quite a lot and it was appreciated. You can either take the physical approach or the speed approach to counter speed, and Blanco used both effectively.
Fanendo Adi - 4. I thought he needed to be more patient on several runs to allow them to open up, but he insisted upon trying to draw the foul with physical contact. Honestly, Alan Kelly is an official that doesn't call contact consistently, and Adi was often whistled. He's a huge player and I don't think gets the benefit of certain calls, but at the same point, you have to be effective in your influence and Adi wasn't effective enough in my opinion.
Dairon Asprilla - 2. If he only had a consistent first touch, the Timbers likely could have spent far more time attacking. I lost track at how many times he dribbled the ball away or overran a pass. I know he is skillful, but this match really didn't display it at all. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Two best offenses in MLS play to ultimately frustrating draw

Sebastian Blanco attacked all day versus Atlanta, but had no help.
I know that sports mirrors the real world, but in terms of absolute strangeness. the match between the Portland Timbers and Atlanta United will go down as one of the most bizarre matches in MLS this season. In the first ever meeting between the sides - with Atlanta joining the league this year - that touted the two best offenses within the league in terms of goals scored, the game ended up being anything but an offensive display for the majority of the time. While both teams scored a goal apiece that ended up being the only tallies for the day in a 1 all draw, this match will more be remembered for an extremely odd sequence that put the league's concussion protocol into question, very questionable officiating, a strange hand ball sequence in the Timbers box, a shot that nearly won it for the home side in stoppage, odd television coverage and some truly awful passing. While many will ultimately say the result was likely fair for both sides, what was frustrating for most of this match was the fact that the Timbers ultimately played a passive match and it cost them points.

Portland came into the match sitting in 3rd in the Western Conference standing, but reeling from one of their worst defeats of the season down in San Jose last weekend by a 3 to 0 thrashing. To be fair, Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe, the team's two best playmakers, were not available for the Earthquakes match, so it was with some relief that Timbers Coach Caleb Porter indicated that Valeri had been in training and would likely be available for Atlanta. Sure enough, the Maestro was included in the starting 11 in his usual attacking midfield role with Sebastian Blanco and Dairon Asprilla supporting him on the wings. With Fanendo Adi up top and David Guzman and Diego Chara fulfilling their usual roles as target forward and central holding midfielders, the defense saw some rotation within its quintet of performers. Jake Gleeson had cleared all protocols and was given the start in goal with Kendall McIntosh set as his backup with Jeff Attinella unavailable for the match. After Lawrence Olum had started the last 10 matches in a row, Porter gave him the day off and put Roy Miller at center back alongside Liam Ridgewell with Alvas Powell and Vytas flanking as the fullbacks. Porter could reach out to his bench for defensive subs in Lawrence Olum, Zarek Valentin or Marco Farfan, or help the offense if needed with Jack Barmby, Darren Mattocks or Victor Arboleda.
It's not a rorschach test if you were curious.

Atlanta's offense has been the talk of MLS this year, mostly for being a club just built in the offseason. Their management invested in several younger but extremely talented players in Yamil Asad, Josef Martinez, Hector Villabla, Julian Gressel, Carlos Carmona and Miguel Almiron, but they surrounded the core with several MLS veterans like Tyrone Mears, Jeff Larentowicz, Michael Parkhurst and recently acquired Mark Bloom. Atlanta United Coach Gerardo Martino loves to play an attacking, interchangable style much like what we see from the Timbers and Porter, so it would be interesting to see how both sides would choose to attack each other. Portland was getting a slight break with Martinez unavailable due to injury, but the foursome of Asad - Villabla - Almiron - Gressel is one of the strongest scoring groups the Timbers defense will see all year. Atlanta can even bring experienced scorer Kenwyne Jones off the bench if they needed a spark later on, but as with the Timbers, Atlanta's fortunes rest with whether their backline led by Parkhurst and goalkeeping with Alec Kann will be enough to stop other sides.

The offensive outbursts in the game happened within the first 5 minutes of the second half. Atlanta took the kick immediately and drove it to Larentowicz, who fed Gressel just outside the box in space with no Timber closing. The Atlanta midfielder easily turned and shot it past Gleeson before most folks had even returned to their seats after the break, but Portland equalized four minutes later off a free kick when Chara was leveled to the turf by Carmona. Guzman took over the set piece duties from a recovering Valeri, and expertly found Ridgewell clear of marks and free, and he expertly headed the ball off the turf under Kann to level things at the 50th minute. There was an expert Gleeson block in the 44th minute off a shot that was created by exceptional interplay from Asad and Almiron, while Kann turned away an Adi effort in the 72nd minute that led to follow up shots from Blanco and him that were also blocked. Perhaps the best shot of the match was taken by Guzman after a corner in second half stoppage when his restart was deflected by the wall and headed by Adi right to Guzman. He onetimed the shot right on frame and Kann wasn't able to stop it, but the left post felt otherwise and bumped the effort away and back into play before Atlanta could clear away the effort.  In a match of great offenses, however, this was the extent of the flourishes.

The Maestro was back but not 100 percent. Soon!!!
For me, however, the more newsworthy thing about the match was that for a matchup of the two best offenses, it was surprisingly sluggish for both sides. While Atlanta dominated possession - by a 70 to 30 percent margin for the match - they tallied just 1 shot on goal in the 1st half and just 2 shots on target in the 2nd. Portland conceded possession and passing attempts in a desire to play defensively and create chances where they could, and they certainly had the advantage in shots and dangerous chances. The Timbers kept Almiron under control for most of the match, while Asad and Villabla didn't threaten too much, but it ended up being Gressel that was the difference maker for Atlanta. Blanco was the Timbers' main offensive threat as Adi either rushed shots, fell down trying to initiate contact, or had shots blocked although he certainly got bumped enough to earn more calls. While Valeri was present, you could tell his timing and fitness were not up to standards and Atlanta neutralized him on the few times that he was able to get free. Perhaps the worst part of the Timbers' offense was the work of Asprilla and Powell on the right; Asprilla was responsible for more misplays off the first touch than I've seen in quite a while on quality link passes, while Powell continued his disturbing trend of passing to everybody but the guys wearing the same color kit.

The strangeness bled over to a few other areas, as the match was broadcast on ESPN on the same day as their all day Jeter-fest as the New York Yankees were retiring his number. There are few franchises I despise more than those guys, but even during the match, it was a constant torrent of news about things that would be broadcast later during that ceremony that kept getting distracting. The broadcast also missed a developing news story in the 11th minute when Powell tried to clear a ball away and struck Asad squarely in the head. On the replay, it appeared that Asad lost consciousness as he crumpled to the turf and center official Alan Kelly immediately called for treatment as he laid on the turf. What was odd was moments later, Asad approached the fourth official to re-enter the match and he was allowed to re-enter. The story appears to be that Atlanta doctors indicated he should be replaced to allow them to do more testing, but Asad refused to leave the match and decided to play anyway. Suffice to say, there will be plenty of questions about the protocols after this incident because it did appear that Asad was out for several moments due to the impact of Powell's inadvertent kick and likely should have been substituted. Kelly and his crew got into more hot water in the 36th minute when Carmona took down Blanco with a scissors tackle at midpitch. Kelly gave Carmona a caution, which seemed awfully light although there was plenty of other contact between Adi and Atlanta defender Leandro Pirez nearby. Kelly can be either hit or miss as a center official, and on this day, his calls seemed to be misses for both sides as he let plenty go by the wayside.
Lawrence Olum got the match off, but he could be very busy soon.

There were plenty of other oddities on the afternoon - Adi flailing and appearing to contact a ball with his hand in the box, multiple Atlanta players falling down at the slightest contact and Pirez talking to Kelly at great lengths on many occasions - but in the end, the teams finished how they started with sharing the points. While I can understand the logic that it's an Eastern Conference opponent and there is no ground lost in the draw in the playoff chase, I was hoping to see a Timbers team regain some confidence after thoroughly being outplayed the last weekend by what I deem an inferior Earthquakes side. Portland will be just fine when they have perfectly healthy versions of Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri, but with international callups, injuries and regular rotation, I'm not convinced this team has figured out how to play quality offensive soccer if one or more of them are missing. Porter did say that Nagbe is very close to returning and he would likely be ready for the next stretch of road matches - in Montreal on May 20 and in Seattle on May 27 - but Guzman and Nagbe will be gone for parts of June for international duty, so they need to figure this out and fast. Porter indicated that Olum would was signed as depth for the defensive midfield, so that could mean with Guzman out, we could see a Chara - Olum pairing in front of a Miller - Ridgewell center back duo.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Week 11 Prediction Thread - Timbers v. Atlanta United

Hopefully the home cooking will help the Timbers!
Yeesh. While I knew the Portland Timbers' defensive issues were the source of some concern for many, let's just say that the panic went into four alarm fire territory after this result. This isn't to say that I think the talent available along the backline isn't terrible and the defense overall had some moments where they were solid, the issue was that between individual errors and an improved San Jose attack, the Timbers were ran out of the stadium. The team now turns their attention to another new challenge as the other MLS Expansion side for 2017 visits Providence Park for their first ever visit to Providence Park. Atlanta United certainly started out the 2017 like gangbusters with huge wins in week 2 and 3 versus their expansion brethren, Minnesota United FC, and the Chicago Fire before the team got strategic reinforcements that have paid dividends.  

Atlanta United has been brought back to earth a bit in consecutive losses by a 3 to 1 score, home versus D.C. United followed up by a loss at Yankee Stadium to New York City FC. ATL has been one of the better offenses, currently tied with 19 goals scored with Houston sitting just 1 goal behind the Timbers, but it's been their defense that has been up in the air - as is the case with many expansion sides. Josef Martinez has been one of the more prolific scorers, netting 5 goals in 3 matches, but he's been injured and didn't travel with Atlanta this weekend. However, ATL has Hector Villabla, Yamil Asad and Miguel Almiron, three very creative midfield attackers to rely on for scoring. Michael Parkhurst, a longtime MLS veteran, has been the organizing force behind their defense, but Greg Garza, a very capable and stout fullback who has played in every match so far, also didn't travel due to injury. Suffice to say, Atlanta does have attacking options and decent defenders, but they will be hard pressed to overcome some of their missing options.

Portland played San Jose without the services of Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri, and the end result was an offense that struggled with linkage all evening. While Timber Coach Caleb Porter had some compliments for the effort, he also realizes this team needs to improve their consistency especially when their top 2 playmakers aren't available. Word is that Valeri is most likely available after being injured against Vancouver, so that development will indeed aid the overall attack that struggled to find their creativity and positioning against an Earthquakes side. With all this going on, how does our crack prognostication staff feel about this weekend's match? Well, let's all find out, shall we?

I am Groot! No, wait, I am Tortie!

Tortie - Timbers 11, Atlanta United 7.

I can assure you that Tortie knows the difference between football and soccer, especially since she has watched many matches at home. When asked about this weekend's date, she meowed and flopped quite a bit in excitement for the game. The meows lined up more for the home side for this week, but apparently it's a crappy week to be a goalkeeper in her eyes.

This view will get very different after 2019 or 2020.

Kip - Timbers 3, Atlanta United 2.

It's obvious that both sides can score the ball based on what we've seen in 2017, although both offense haven't been what they were in the start of the year. With Diego Valeri scheduled to be back and a Timbers side really frustrated by what happened in San Jose, I expect them to come out fired up and ready to go. I think the Timbers' defense will be better, but they will give up a goal or two to make things interesting, which might be a theme for 2017. I expect Valeri to get on the score sheet while Sebastian Blanco adds to his score tally.

What channel is the game on again? I can't go to the park.

GB - Timbers 3, Atlanta United 3.

We asked our gray boy about this match not around dinner time, and he was relatively chatty about it. Much like his girlfriend Tortie, GB predicted plenty of goals but he expects the defenses to provide some resistance on the evening. He was very specific with 3 meows for both sides in terms of goals, and when asked if that was correct, I got a confirming "OOT". Who am I to argue with such a confident submission?

Duck, duck, duck, duck, duck, duck, duck, duck...

Rick - Timbers 2, Atlanta United 1.

After a promising start, where they grabbed eight points from their first five games, Arlanta have only won one of their last four, losing the other three, and lie 7th in the Eastern Conference. Josef Martinez (5 goals in his last 3 games) and H├ęctor Villalba (4 goals, 2 assists) look to be the main threat to the Timbers defence. Trinidad and Tobago captain Kenwyne Jones has been used sparingly and to little effect in the last five games, after netting by twice in the first four games. Good news for the Timbers is that Diego Valeri is likely to be back although Darlington Nagbe is still questionable. Scorer: Adi with a brace.

I am queen of all I can see!

Spot - Timbers 0, Atlanta United 2.

Spot wasn't very impressed with the Timbers, and she kept walking away when she was asked about goals or a score for the home side. She did meow twice when asked about Atlanta, so apparently the cat who likes scoreless draws decided that for this week, there would be a score. Just not one the home side might like very much.

Friday, May 5, 2017

After Match Analysis - Looking back at Timbers v FC Dallas

This guy had a breakout game versus FC Dallas.
Even thought I called for the result that ended up happening, I was a bit disappointed in the end result for the Timbers in their last match versus FC Dallas. After watching several Timbers side absolutely struggle in Texas under various circumstances and situations, Portland was actually ahead twice in the match. First, they scored their first goal by Fanendo Adi in the 30th minute off a wonderful feed from David Guzman when Adi was left open in front of goal. Seriously, it was a glaring error, but FC Dallas responded in the 61st minute when former Timbers striker Maxi Urruti didn't give up on a run and scored against his former side (I did appreciate the excited but rather muted celebration). 10 minutes later, Sebastian Blanco put his name on the score sheets off a pass from Alvas Powell and the new Timber didn't miss. You could see the emotion on everybody's faces after taking the lead, but Portland conceded it just 9 minutes later when Tesho Akindele tapped in an easy cross from Hernan Grana that saw Nagbe struggle to mark Grana and Powell fall down next to Akindele.

Under the circumstances, it's an extremely fair result as a media observer - both sides played reasonably well without key personnel and the match had several changes in ebb and flow that kept everyone guessing until the final minutes. Soccer can be a cruel sport in terms of results, for as we often see, results often don't mirror effort or production at all; a team can win simply by putting one shot into goal and hanging on forever. This match wasn't that way, as both FC Dallas and Portland could point to their teams and feel very good about the overall efforts, especially since both teams left Texas with a much needed point. Casual observers of MLS I would expect were entertained by the long stretches of back and forth play, as MLS advertised this match as the big one of the weekend in featuring the top 2 sides in the Western Conference. If you didn't have a horse in the race and were just watching the soccer for sporting purposes, I don't expect this would have turned many noses up in protest. Even the officiating, which has been a very sore subject for players and fans all season so far, was very competent and there were no glaring errors or mess-ups that I can recall. So my honest question at the end of all of this is if this was such a fair result, why doesn't it feel better?

Having Liam Ridgewell back has helped the team a bit.
I think it's the fan part of me that is frustrated because this was a completely winnable match. If Portland had just played better in a few instances, they could have secured a full 3 points and gained some confidence going into a tough stretch of matches in May - at San Jose, home versus Atlanta, followed by road matches in Montreal and Seattle. June brings San Jose and FC Dallas to Portland, but then it's followed up by road games in Colorado and Minnesota followed up by Seattle at home. I am not saying that one loss or one victory defines a team by any means, but teams that routinely give away points usually regret that later on in the season. Portland has already had a match like that versus New England at home, and I put this one in that category - a completely winnable match that didn't fall their way despite gaining points anyway.

The revamped offense has certainly done their part by adding Blanco and David Guzman to a formidable attack with Darlington Nagbe, Fanendo Adi, Diego Valeri, Dairon Asprilla, Darren Mattocks and Jack Barmby. Portland currently leads MLS in goals scored with 20 goals in 9 matches and only Atlanta and Houston remotely close to that number; Portland is also second in number of wins with 5 victories as only Orlando City ahead of them. The Timbers have had 10 different players add goals on the year as well, so it hasn't just been the attacking players that have been contributing, either. At just under 2 goals per match on average so far, I am not worried that the Timbers can't keep up this pace as they've only been shutout once this year by a club that has been the best defensively in the league, Sporting Kansas City. SKC frustrated the Timbers with a tempo influencing, extremely physical and choppy tempo that really kept Portland from doing much of anything consistently, yet even in that match, the Timbers had chances to at least gain a point. Portland really hasn't been blown out in any match, although most people would also feel that the Timbers haven't played a full 90 minutes of impressive soccer either. The opener with Minnesota United FC might represent the best start to finish approach for the team, but they've had good runs in their matches with Houston, Vancouver and Philadelphia. Portland also exhumed a ghost after going winless on the road in 2016, and the team has already earned more road points - 7 with 2 wins and a draw in 4 matches - than in their 17 dates away from the Rose City last year.

Marco Farfan has a great future on defense for the Timbers.

With all that, the questions have always been centered around the defense. Portland revamped their backline in giving Gbenga Arokoyo a chance to earn the job, but an injury in preseason ended his season before it started. Portland also added Chance Myers, Roy Miller and Lawrence Olum to incumbents Zarek Valentin, Vytas, Liam Ridgewell and Alvas Powell and promoted Marco Farfan from Timbers 2.  Vytas and Ridgewell have been battling injuries, but are both back and healthy, which gave Farfan a chance to play and showcase his skills, while Olum and Miller did very well in several matches as the starting center back duo. With Jeff Attinella added as a goalkeeping option with Jake Gleeson, the Timbers certainly have talent collectively on the defensive side, especially with Gleeson dealing with a hip flexor injury for the past few weeks. Portland's defense is in the middle of the pack in terms of goals allowed and has 1 shutout in their 9 matches, but against FC Dallas, the two goals were essentially conceded by defensive errors - nobody closing down Maxi Urruti on a turnover and he drove towards goal without much marking although his goal was impressive, and Nagbe not closing down FCD defender Hernan Grana on a cross and Powell falling down trying to mark FCD midfielder Tesho Akindele, allowing the FCD player to tap a shot past Attinella for the leveling goal.

We now know that Nagbe was struggling with a nagging leg injury, which was the reason why he had to be subbed out. Valeri was not available for the FC Dallas match, but Portland was able to get Adi back after he was suspended for actions in the SKC match. Offensively, this team has been able to promote and plug in options with really just a few matches where the offensive was a collective match long struggle - the SKC match. Defensively, we have seen Farfan play very well for many matches, but he was consistently struggling in the SKC match and Vytas regained his starting role. For me, I don't need the Timbers' defense to be all world, but they simply aren't good enough at this point to overcome mistakes - and while the offense is very good, we have seen matches where they have been frustrated in trying to find goals. I still think this group has the potential to be above average as a unit, and the Timbers continue to state that reinforcements are likely coming later this summer when the Summer Transfer window opens, but hopefully having Ridgewell and Vytas back and rotating in the various pieces will allow this group to gel more and gain some confidence. Honestly, a big win in San Jose this weekend could be a great way to gain some swagger.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Week 10 Prediction Thread - Timbers v. San Jose

After last week's anti-climactic draw with FC Dallas, the Portland Timbers turn their attention to another Western Conference rival for another road match. This week's opponent is the San Jose Earthquakes, a team that the Timbers have had an interesting history with over the years. In 16 regular season meetings since the Timbers joined MLS in 2011, Portland has won 7 of those matchups mostly at home and there have also been 7 draws within the series. San Jose has just 2 wins in that series, both in California at their new home in Avaya Stadium. Ironically, Portland played one of their most troubling road matches in 2016 there when San Jose scored two goals in the first half, and held on for the victory. In the other two matchups in the Rose City, Portland defeated the Earthquakes by respective 3 to 1 and 1 to 0 tallies. Timbers Coach Caleb Porter actually has one of his better career winning percentages in matches against San Jose.

San Jose has gone through a bit of an overhaul but continue to be under the tutelage of Coach Dominic Kinnear. Kinnear was elevated to the top spot in 2004 and led the side until the then-Earthquakes moved to Houston in 2006 and he followed them to Texas, and he remained with the Dynamo until the end of the 2014 season when he resigned. Kinnear wasn't out of work for very long and he returned to familiar haunts when he became the Earthquakes coach before the 2015 season. The Earthquakes have always played a physical style of soccer, even embracing a "thuggish" demeanor in their approach, but Kinnear has steadily added more technical players to the mix. David Bingham has taken over the goalkeeping job on a regular basis, and Chris Wondolowski continues to be one of the main offensive catalysts, but San Jose added several weapons in Florian Jungworth, Jahmir Hyka and Marco Urena. Anibal Godoy continues to be there in the middle along with Simon Dawkins, while their defense still has stoutness with Victor Bernardez and Shaun Francis.

The two teams always play very spirited and passionate battles, and I don't think anybody would expect anything different. What does our panel of soccer experts think might happen in this weekend's match? Read below to find out.

Staring off into space or thinking about the brush

Spot - scoreless draw

The queen of not picking scores once again picked that nobody would score anything on this evening. While she was very preoccupied with licking her arms and she was asked about potential handballs or issues, the princess wouldn't make any number designations despite several efforts. I guess we fall upon the theory - I'm a cute kitty, I don't need to do anything. Well, she did pick a score last week.

I want goals. Lots of lots of goals. Please, Timbers.

Tortie - Timbers 12, Earthquakes 9.

While Spot wasn't interested in picking numbers, Tortie was all excited to think about goals and put up quite a racket during her interview. The eeps and meows went into double digits rather quickly, but the tortoise shelled one gave the Timbers more meows than the other guys again for this week. Perhaps the Timbers can fulfill this one for her this week, but they are leading the league in goals scored, so there is that.

Peace will reign.

Jennifer - Timbers 0, Earthquakes 0.

There isn't a score because there isn't going to be a match. The San Jose Ultras are going to orchestrate the most amazing tifo the world has ever seen, leaving everyone in awe and quiet contemplation. The visual display and accompanying lyrical mastery will set the standard for years to come. Playing a game of soccer will seem trite in comparison after such a life-changing experience. We will all grow as supporters and humans in general.

Oh, hai. I can haz cheesburgr??

GB - Timbers 2, Earthquakes 2.

Apparently, the grey boy really thought about this one a lot, since it took him several days and asks before he finally gave his thoughts. Two head butts for the Timbers, two for the Earthquakes. We know better to question the mastery of the grey one, especially since it wasn't even around meal time when he was interviewed.

All the Timbers gear! All of it!!

Kip - Timbers 2, Earthquakes 0.

I am sure the Timbers are kicking themselves slightly after not getting the full 3 points in Dallas, but they should be able to right the ship this week. They might not have Darlington Nagbe due to injury, but I feel that Diego Valeri will be back and with the rest of the Timbers offense clicking right now, they will have no trouble scoring goals. Stopping them might be an issue, but I think the defense will come together to pitch the shutout.

Hello, everybody!

Rick - Timbers 2, Earthquakes 2.

Seven roads points gives the Timbers the best Western Conference record (2-1-2, 2nd overall) in 2017 as they meet up with San Jose who are unbeaten at Avaya Stadium with a 2-0-2 record. Whether Valeri and Nagbe start could end up as game time decisions with Asprilla and Mattocks, who played well last week, filing in if they are unavailable. I'm going to go with goals from Adi and Vytas.