Sunday, June 4, 2017

Strange night ultimately yields Timbers win 2 to 0 over Earthquakes

Timbers celebrate Valeri's 50th minute goal. Happy!
Back in my very early days growing up in Idaho, I spent much of my allowance on comic books. While my personal favorites were the Flash, the Fantastic Four and the Justice League, I did read a few issues of Superman and was very familiar with his various enemies, especially when they did crossover issues in Central City. The big reason this popped into my head was related to a text message that I got from my wife, Jennifer, at the halftime break in the match between the Portland Timbers and San Jose Earthquakes. Her exact messages started with "This is one strange match" followed up with "It's like opposites day in bizarre world in nearly every aspect", and I was in agreement with those thoughts - the match was something right out of Bizarro World. After a first half that saw the Earthquakes fail to register a shot - their first official shot was recorded in the 54th minute, Portland wasn't able to capitalize on the situation until Diego Valeri took over. The Maestro tallied his third brace of 2017 to lead the Timbers to a dramatic 2 to 0 victory over San Jose, who had opportunities to try and steal points later until Valeri's second goal put it out of reach in second half stoppage.

Portland was missing Darlington Nagbe, who had been called up to the United States Men's National Team for 3 matches during the week of June 4 (1 friendly and 2 2018 World Cup Qualifiers), so Timbers Coach Caleb Porter was forced to adjust his lineup once again. Porter was pleased with the defensive effort in the Timbers' 1 to 0 loss in Seattle last weekend, so he kept the defensive line the same - Jake Gleeson in goal, with Zarek Valentin, Roy Miller, Liam Ridgewell and Vytas as the backline. With David Guzman and Diego Chara, back from his suspension for his red card in the loss to Montreal, back as the defensive midfielders, Porter started Dairon Asprilla in Nagbe's spot with Valeri and Sebastian Blanco as the attacking midfielders supporting forward Fanendo Adi. With Nagbe gone, Jack Barmby and Darren Mattocks dealing with minor knocks and Jeremy Ebobisse on duty with the USMNT U-20 side for World Cup Qualifying, Porter had just Victor Arboleda available as an attacking sub. Defensively, Porter could bring out Amobi Okugo, Ben Zemanski or Lawrence Olum as defensive midfielders, Alvas Powell or Marco Farfan as full backs or Jeff Attinella if Gleeson was injured at some point.
Zarek Valentin surveys the pitch for a target

After a dreadful 2016 campaign that saw San Jose sink to the bottom of the Western Conference standings, the Earthquakes had to rethink their entire roster approach. While San Jose kept mercurial scorer Chris Wondolowski, hulking defender Victor Bernardez, versatile Cordell Cato and holdover Anibal Godoy, they added several key pieces in defenders Nick Lima and Florian Jungwirth, midfielders Jahmir Hyka and Marco Urena, forward Danny Hoesen while trading for midfielder Darwin Ceren. Physicality is always a hallmark of any team coached by Dominic Kinnear, but San Jose has added international experience and tremendous pace along the flanks in an attempt to jumpstart their offense. The new approach worked when the teams met in California on May 6 and the Earthquakes scored twice in the first half to post an impressive 3 to 0 victory that marked Arboleda's official MLS debut in the second half. The Timbers were struggling mightily in the month of May, but Porter was hopeful his team had found their rhythm and energy in front of another Providence Park sellout crowd.

San Jose failed to register an official shot of any kind in the first 45 minutes of soccer, and the only category they had an advantage in over that time frame was fouls conceded, but their attack was dramatically altered in the 37th minute when Ceren earned a caution for a touch foul on Blanco at the center circle. Unfortunately for the Earthquakes, Ceren has been booked seconds earlier for a foul on Guzman when he struck the defensive midfielder from behind, and Center Official Kevin Stott wasted no time in showing the card. While the foul on Blanco might have seemed light in comparison, Stott had issued a stern warning after Ceren's foul on Guzman, so the fact he dropped Blanco seconds later likely factored into the decision. While the Timbers had the bulk of the possession and shot attempts, the most notable shots were a 6th minute effort from Asprilla that challenged Bingham, a 13th minute effort from Guzman blocked out for a corner kick and a shot in first half stoppage by Adi that struck the woodwork and spun away despite his efforts to collect the rebound. Portland had several misses and blocked shots for their trouble, but much like their previous efforts, the shots were either sprayed wide of frame or were blocked by a defender. Despite the advantages in the stats and playing against 10 men, Portland had to be concerned about another scoreless half of soccer.
Chara + Guzman = good for the Timbers

With neither side making changes at the break, the Timbers put additional pressure on frame and Asprilla came within inches of putting the Timbers on top in the 48th minute off a Guzman cross. Two minutes later, Valentin was on the run on the right and crossed for Valeri near the center circle, and he chested the ball down near Adi but the Timbers' forward left the ball for a charging Valeri, who snuck a shot past Bingham that struck the right post and banked into goal for a 1 to 0 lead. Wondolowski logged San Jose's first official shot minutes later, while Valeri had two other chances in the 56th and 63rd that just missed. Portland had a golden chance in the 61st minute on a 2 on 0 break with Bingham playing off his line and a pass found Asprilla clear on goal, but the Timbers midfielder got the ball tangled in his feet and Bingham was able to recover. San Jose brought on Tommy Thompson for Hyka, and his energy was causing some havoc for the Timbers as he just missed in the 67th minute off a created turnover when Guzman was dispossessed. Blanco and Guzman had a few more efforts on goal, but San Jose nearly caught Gleeson napping when substitute Simon Dawkins shot from distance in the 80th minute but it was just too high from goal.

Portland continued to press for an insurance goal, and found themselves looking at potential controversy just before second half stoppage when Adi was played onside with nobody defending but Bingham with space to attack. However, Adi's touch betrayed him slightly and Bingham was able to get a glove to the ball before bumping Adi to the turf in the box, and Stott chose not to call the San Jose goalkeeper for a foul or penalty. In real time, it looked like a clear call for Portland, but upon replay, Bingham did touch the ball and was going to cover it when he got in Adi's path, and it appeared the striker went down fairly easy on contact. Adi nearly made amends in the last seconds of stoppage time when he took a pass from Blanco on the left with space, and he turned to shoot on goal. The ball traveled past Bingham and struck the right post, but unlike Valeri's effort which turned into goal, Adi's shot deflected back into play right into the path of Valeri. Number 8 was able to redirect the ball into an empty goal to increase the lead up to 2 to 0. The match was done moments later, and the Timbers could exhale after posting a well earned victory, but it wasn't easy and it wasn't done in typical fashion for either side. 

Asprilla had several good moments for the Timbers.

In retrospect, I found Asprilla's effort to be very promising despite his clunk on an easy breakaway, for he was the most energetic and viable offensive option early in the match for the Timbers. The work of Chara and Guzman was very good at controlling the midfield, but both players received cautions for unnecessary fouls - and Guzman's caution ended up being his fifth for 2017 so he must serve a one match suspension for accumulation. Chara, meanwhile, got his fourth of the year along with Miller, so both players are now 1 caution away for incurring the same penalty unless they can play 3 matches without earning another caution. The defense was reasonably solid, and I do like the added dimension that Valentin has brought in moving forward. Obviously, the man of the match was Valeri, who not only tallied the brace for his efforts, but was easily the most influential offensive weapon all night. San Jose will not only have to deal with not having Ceren for a match due to his red card, but with other infringement penalties from Jungwirth, Urena, Godoy and Wondolowski for arguing with the officials and other actions, there might be further disciplinary action coming their way. Portland can't rest on anything, as they will be entertaining FC Dallas at Providence Park on June 10 before entering U.S. Open Cup play on June 13 at Starfire Soccer Complex when they meet the Seattle Sounders FC in fourth round action.

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