Thursday, June 8, 2017

After Match Analysis - Looking Back at Timbers vs. Earthquakes

I'm supposed to go that way?
The streak is finally broken and it couldn't have come at a better time. Portland last won back on April 22nd in a very tense match with Vancouver, which was five matches ago. While the Timbers looked better in a road draw with FC Dallas and a home draw with Atlanta, the Timbers absorbed two of their worst losses of the year in that five match stretch. In their first meeting with San Jose down in California, the Earthquakes played a speed based, possession oriented attack that took advantage of Portland's soft defense and it was a 3 to 0 rout that wasn't that close. Against Montreal a few weeks later, the Timbers conceded an early penalty and Diego Chara executed a very stupid action that resulted in his ejection, and Portland was unable to recover in this match despite having several chances to bring it level. Against the Sounders in late May, the Timbers played one of their best defensive matches of the season in frustrating a Sounders offense that had been misfiring a lot, but the Timbers couldn't overcome conceding an early goal off a set piece as their offense couldn't find anything that worked. In many of the other matches, Portland was missing several key personnel, but the Sounders match marked the first time in weeks that the team had their full compliment of attacking players.

Fortunes changed very quickly with the news that Darlington Nagbe had been called up by the U.S. Men's National Team for the first 2 weeks of June for a friendly and 2 World Cup 2018 qualifiers. As the preceding week continued, news has leaked that Darren Mattocks and Jack Barmby were both dealing with minor knocks and would be unavailable for the San Jose match; Barmby's injury news came out on game day, so it was very late breaking. With Jeremy Ebobisse still with the U-20 U.S. Men's National Team for their World Cup qualifying, this left Timbers Coach Caleb Porter with just one attacking option on his bench - forward Victor Arboleda. This also meant that the starting foursome of Sebastian Blanco, Fanendo Adi, Dairon Asprilla and Diego Valeri would likely need to go a full 90 or very close to it unless the match got out of reach or there was an injury. This situation basically describes the good and bad curses of international call ups - it's great when players get experience to play at high levels for their national team, but managing the roster around injuries, call-ups and rotation can be extremely difficult.
Gleeson has been good since his return.

Most of the other subs Porter had on his bench were defensive oriented - Jeff Attinella backing up starting keeper Jake Gleeson, defenders Marco Farfan and Alvas Powell backing up fullbacks Vytas and Zarek Valentin, midfielder Lawrence Olum backing up center backs Roy Miller and Liam Ridgewell, and midfielders Amobi Okugo and Ben Zemanski backing up defensive midfielders Diego Chara and David Guzman. Defensively, the Timbers have been erratic over the past few matches, but against San Jose, they pitched one of their best overall defensive efforts of 2017. San Jose failed to register an official shot in the first 45 minutes - missed, blocked, on target or otherwise - and of the 6 shots they registered in the second half, just 1 was on target - a Tommy Thompson missile in the 67th minute that Gleeson parried away for a corner. While Miller still has moments struggling to play right center back, he's actually done really well with Ridgewell and the duo has put together some of the strongest play all year. Valentin, relegated to the bench for most of 2017, earned a start against Seattle, and has given the backline veteran presence and calm, plus Valentin earned an assist on the first of Valeri's 2 goals on the night. Paired with Vytas, the Timbers full backs have done very well in supporting the offense when needed, but not getting pulled too far out of position to support their defense.

This will be key with more international call ups coming soon: Guzman and Powell were also called up for international matches during the week of June 12, with Guzman playing for Costa Rica starting on June 8 and returning in time for the Timbers' road match on Colorado on June 17. Powell will be available for FC Dallas on June 10, and also join the Timbers in Denver after Jamaica plays a midweek friendly. It gets more interesting in July when the 2017 Gold Cup competition starts with matches between July 7 and 26 at various venues in the US Preliminary rosters submitted by each nation have 5 Timbers potentially gone in July: Guzman and Miller (Costa Rica), Powell and Mattocks (Jamaica) and Nagbe (USA).  Official rosters must be set by June 23, so there is a chance that not all of these players would be gone for the full tourney, but Porter and his staff are likely putting plans in place assuming that all are unavailable. Portland also must deal with upcoming suspensions due to accumulation, as Guzman's 61st minute caution gave him 5 for the year, so he most likely won't be available for Colorado upon his return from international duty. With Chara and Miller also getting cautions versus San Jose, they now have 4 cautions so they must avoid getting a caution in the next 3 matches to invoke the good behavior clause and have 1 removed from the count. Guzman has cautions in 3 of the last 4 matches he played, so he wasn't able to earn a reprieve.

Roy & Ridgy. This could be the beginning of something cool

This series of events is why Porter earns the big bucks in making the determination how the Timbers can navigate through all of these challenges and field the strongest possible game day 18 in each situation. It could very well mean that some players are pushed into unfamiliar territory, or as versus the Earthquakes, Portland plays the starters as long as they can to simply manage the match. Getting through these challenges should also yield important experience for some of the younger players, as I expect to see Farfan, Arboleda, and Barmby intermixed within the roster and available, and I can't wait to see what Ebobisse can add after his stellar work in WC qualifiers. Porter has already indicated that the U.S. Open Cup match on June 13 at Starfire versus the Sounders will be used to rotate a lot of the squad, especially since Portland will have a busy few weeks in the schedule: vs. FC Dallas on June 10, USOC at Seattle for a fourth round match on June 13, then travel to Colorado for a June 17 affair. This is followed up by a midweek date in Minnesota versus an improved MNUFC side on June 21 followed up by another date with the Flopping Flounders at home on June 25 before another road date to Kansas City for a look at Sporting Kansas City. Six matches over 3 weeks is a lot for a club even if there are at full strength, so imagine now trying to add everything else on top of that.

Other random thoughts: So normally, Chris Rifer from Stumptown Footy is the Timbers' official media pool reporter - a role where the team selects someone from the media to ask questions of the center official after the match. With Chris out for the night, the backup reporter role fell to yours truly for the night.. Suffice to say, the late play with Adi and San Jose goalkeeper David Bingham had me slightly concerned, especially with Kevin Stott being the center official. Stott appears to be very no-nonsense, and upon seeing that play unfold, I was convinced Stott got it wrong. However, the two factors that changed my mind after viewing the replay - Bingham got the ball first and blocked it away while Adi was falling down before the contact - and I changed my mind about asking Stott about it. I understand we are all trying to do a job, and officials might not like media asking questions, but it does help everyone understand better how decisions are reached. I might be in the minority with that thinking, however, as some officials might feel otherwise about talking afterwards.
Blanco has been quite the fighter in the past few matches.

My man of the match obviously was Valeri, who simply put the team on his back in scoring his third brace of the year in wild fashion, but he was also a creative force. Other players I would rate highly would be the combination of Miller and Ridgewell (solid and working very hard), Valentin (quiet confidence and competence), Blanco (fiery competitiveness) and Asprilla (the energy guy all night). As much as I liked the work of Guzman and Chara, I was disappointed both earned unnecessary cautions which now could have future impact to the side, especially since we might not see Guzman until Minnesota United on June 21. Gleeson only had to make one huge save on the night, but his effort on Thompson's missile was incredible. As far as Fanendo Adi, I appreciate him working very hard, and hope the luck turns about because the posts were very unkind to the big guy.

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