Friday, July 28, 2017

Prediction Thread Week 21 - Portland Timbers v. Houston Dynamo

I will always remember the Houston match from this year.
It's funny how a signature win can change the complexion and attitude of a team much less their fan base, but the victory in Vancouver has certainly altered some perceptions about the Portland Timbers and their fortunes for the remainder of the 2017 season. Not only did the Timbers break their winless streak, but the fans got an extended look at forward Jeremy Ebobisse. Granted, the young striker has been playing some for Timbers 2 as well as work with the USMNT U-20 side playing in the U-20 World Cup in Korea, but this was his first extended play for the First team. The youngster put on quite a show scoring a goal and tallying an assist on Sebastian Blanco's second half goal, and his performance gave him honorable mention for MLS Team of the Week for Week 20/21. With all the attention from this performance, how does the rookie follow that one up? Perhaps the bigger question is when might we see him again in the lineup now that Fanendo Adi is back from suspension.

It is these and many questions that the Timbers will need to answer now that the Gold Cup is finally done (the USMNT with Darlington Nagbe and former Timber Jorge Villafana defeated a surprise Jamaica side by a 2 to 1 tally) and Portland will finally see some of their stars return for league play. Nagbe, Darren Mattocks and Alvas Powell all played in the July 26 finale, so the likelihood of seeing any of them for extended time versus the Dynamo is minimal, but defensive midfielder David Guzman rejoined the Timbers after Costa Rica was eliminated by the Americans on July 22. Considering Diego Chara's health after recovering from an injury only to have a groin strain versus the Whitecaps, it's beneficial that Guzman is back and ready to go in the middle. Larrys Mabiala has been solid in his first two matches as a Timber after his contract was cleared during the Summer Transfer window, so we are likely to see more of him and Roy Miller at the center back role until Liam Ridgewell is able to return. At this point, Ridgewell, Amobi Okugo, Chance Myers and Gbenga Arokoyo are the only players officially out for Houston due to significant injuries, but Chara, Vytas and Jack Barmby are dealing with various knocks that could affect their availability.

The last time these teams met was back on March 18 when the Timbers stormed back with 3 second half goals to post an impressive 4 to 2 victory at Providence Park. The unbalanced schedule only has these teams meeting 2 times in 2017, and the history at BBVA Compass Stadium hasn't been too kind to the team from the Rose City. In 5 matches in Houston, the Dynamo have never lost to the Timbers, but Portland has managed to draw twice there; in 2017, the Dynamo have yet to lose at home in their 10 home matches, posting an 8 win, 2 draw record going into this match. With temperatures expected to be near 100 degrees around match time and a Timbers side trying to build upon an impressive road win, do the Timbers have any chance in this one? Our fearless group of prognosticators give their thoughts about what might happen:

Green and almost gold heron

Rick: Timbers 1, Dynamo 2

Portland head to Houston having taken only 2 points from their previous 5 visits and meet a team unbeaten at home this season (W8 D 2 L0) in temperatures that will be in the high 90s.

Gold Cup and suspended players will be available although Nagbe, Mattocks and Powell took part in the Jamaica-USA Gold Cup Final, won by the United States on Wednesday evening. Given players' availability it's doubtful that Caleb Porter will stick with the team that won in Vancouver last Sunday: one of their best performances of the season.

Hi, I'm another cat that lives with Kip & Jen

Moya: Houston will win

Our black girl cat wanted to join the predictive collective, and was very happy to have her photo taken. However, when asked about the winner of the match - specifically the Timbers - she looked away, meowed really loudly and ran away to her cat bed. We couldn't get a score out of her, but maybe she knows something we don't.

All the bags in the house are mine. Until Spot finds them.

Lucy: Timbers 2, Dynamo 2

Lucy was rather excited about the predictions, and was very enthusiastic about the match thinking both sides will get goals. But with 2 excited meows for Houston and Portland, she is thinking the teams will share points instead of one side getting a victory. Even upon being asked several times, she remained steadfast in her prediction and who are we to argue?

I like the Timbers, but not this weekend versus Houston

Spot: Timbers 0, Dynamo 4

The queen of the snarfy looks was at it again with some angry and distant looks on her face during the interview. She did perk up a bit when talking about Houston, and Spot was quick to say there would be goals for the home side. But for the visitors, it's a big fat goose egg for this match.

GB often supervises Kip when he's working from home

GB: Timbers 3, Dynamo 3

The grey boy has been itching for a chance to regain his mojo with predicting, but he started out his interview incredibly sleepy. Once he perked up, however, it was a non stop amount of noise about goals. However, much like Lucy, he meowed the same number of times for Portland as he did Houston, so another cat is calling for a draw.

Tortie and a scarf. What a perfect combination.

Tortie: Timbers 9, Dynamo 6

With all the conservative predictions going against their usual pattern, leave it to the little girl to stick with her plan of picking lots and lots of goals. More eeps and oops for the visitors as always, so the tortoise shelled ninja is expecting both goalkeepers to be facing a lot of shots. But the road side is going to score more per her, thus keeping fans of #TeamTortie happy for this week.

Kip finds cats everywhere.

Kip: Timbers 2, Dynamo 1

After the gut check win over Vancouver, I am beginning to think there is nothing this Timbers team can't do. And then I'm reminded that the Dynamo haven't lost at home all year in 2017 and they haven't lost to the Timbers in Texas since Portland joined MLS. Despite some predicted awful conditions at game time, I am thinking the new reinforcements will very much aid the Timbers and they finally break the streak in Texas.

Mark's back with his little canine friend

Mark: Timbers 2, Dynamo 1

Picking games in the MLS is difficult however generally the home team wins half the time. So there is a pattern. A draw 25 percent of the time and the road team wins the other 25 percent. This is how 538 lists the odds: Portland 24%, Houston 51%, Draw 25 %.

That being said, predicting the Timbers there is rhyme, reason, pattern or algorithm for that, so I will do my prediction in rhyme. I did a ton of analysis; however, we are talking the Portland Timbers. I am not showing my work, but I will share this work:

Here deep in Texas an oil city
With plenty of nasty humidity
There they sit pretty in third
To many that may seem absurd
Timbers won’t take any pity.

I know it defies convention
To giving a win on the road a mention
You thought that was back filler
The unheralded Roy Miller
Certainly has our attenion

Rock solid Dynamo at home
Score early and set the tone
Valarie equals before half
Blanco with one on his behalf
We are now in third place alone

See you all next week with more predictions and cool pictures of cats.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

After Match Analysis - Basking in Post Match Glory After Win vs. Caps

Marco Farfan & Roy Miller have been very good in 2017
I had a feeling the Portland Timbers match versus the Vancouver Whitecaps would end up going in one of two directions post RSL result - the Caps would eventually overwhelm the Timbers much like the season ending result to finish the 2016 season, or the Timbers would survive the onslaught and secure an impressive, albeit somewhat improbable result. It's not that I don't have believe in this team, but I know like many fans, there was plenty of shock in how well composed the club was down the stretch as several players made huge contributions late. From the various clearances to Jake Gleeson's point blank deflection of a missile courtesy of Brek Shea, the Timbers did just about everything to come away with a victory. Against all the odds and pressure, the Timbers pulled off one of their most impressive results that I can think of in the MLS era of the team.

So now everything is back to normal and we've found the leadership and attitude that has been lacking and we can all go about our business like nothing happened? Well, not quite, because while it was certainly a gut-check victory, there are certainly signs of concern. Midfielder Diego Chara, making his first appearance after missing several matches with a leg injury, appeared to be having a groin problem that started when he took a hard foul in the first half. Showing gutty resolve, Chara stayed in the match to finish as the Timbers adjusted to have fellow defensive midfielder Ben Zemanski be more mobile in his attack while Chara confined himself to a somewhat centralized area. He did run some later in the match on a couple of breakaways, but obviously, it would be terrible to have a setback after just recovering. Midfielder Dairon Asprilla rolled his ankle on a run late in the second half, forcing Timbers Coach Caleb Porter to sub on T2 defender Harold Hanson into the match. Hanson had only been signed as emergency bench support for the Timbers to fill their game day roster, but he soon found himself helping run out the clock. It appeared there were other knocks and bruises, which are typical of a rivalry match, among the team, but Porter will have a full week of training to evaluate who's ready for the Houston Dynamo on July 29 in Texas.

The Timbers are getting reinforcements at the right time.
We know Fanendo Adi and Victor Arboleda will be back and available after serving their suspension for their respective red cards received versus RSL. David Guzman will be back from international duty with Costa Rica during the Gold Cup tournament. There is an outside chance that Vytas and Marco Farfan will be back from their injuries, while the Gold Cup finale on July 26 between Jamaica and the United States will mean that Darren Mattocks, Alvas Powell and Darlington Nagbe will also return to Portland (although I don't expect any of these 3 to play in Houston). With the emergence of Jeremy Ebobisse, Arboleda and Farfan, the Timbers are finally seeing some of their younger talent emerge as viable late match options or worthy of a spot start within the roster rotation; I have Jack Barmby already on that list and all he's done recently is tally a goal and show very well late versus Vancouver. The reinforcements are coming, and with Larrys Mabiala fully on board and Portland potentially adding defensive midfielder Bill Tuiloma (a Kiwi that has been playing in the Reserve systems for French side Olympique de Marsaille) to a contract, the team is trying to round itself out before the Summer Transfer window closes.

Portland now has played 22 of their scheduled 34 matches in 2017 - 6 home matches and 6 away affairs, including a 3 match brutal stretch that sends the Timbers to Seattle, New York City FC and Real Salt Lake consecutively - so the time for setting and sorting has really begun if the Timbers want to remain in postseason consideration. Much of that comes with integrating new and returning players into their respective roles to find the best possible attack, but some of that also comes in players learning how to play together again. Portland will have plenty of practice time to address this and a somewhat favorable schedule in one respect - 10 of the final 12 matches are either Saturday and Sunday with just a Friday match (the reschedule of the New York Red Bulls match from August 20 to August 18) and a Wednesday match with Colorado at home on August 23. The Red Bulls - Rapids - Flounders stretch is the most compacted of matches in the remaining run, considering Portland has nearly 2 weeks before their September 9 date at Yankee Stadium. Portland is also tops in matches played in 2017 so far with 22 along with RSL, as the remainder of the West clubs have between 19 and 21 matches played so far. 

I'm looking forward to seeing what these 2 can do down the stretch.

It's at this point where I need to find my towel. Porter said so much in several press conferences about helping the Timbers keep their highs low and their lows high, indicating that consistency and attitude are extremely important to help keep the expectations realistic. As someone who is very adept at creating drama rather quickly due to stress, unnecessary distractions or random rabbling, it's this point that I need to remember always. It's not nearly the fun sound bite or rallying cry like we've seen many clubs undertake during a postseason run, but it's that balance that will definitely help this group. Recognizing and utilizing reinforcements is going to be really key for Porter during the next few weeks to maximize the available points, but at the same point, it's important to remained focused. Ebobisse was very impressive versus Vancouver in his debut, but I think it's dangerous to anoint him as the next great MLS scorer after 78 minutes of soccer despite his talent. He showed great pace and strength during his runs, and I was surprised at his passing ability, but I'm not ready to demote Adi just yet. I do see the potential of an Adi/Ebobisse platoon where we use the strength and size of Adi and then change up tactics with the speed and pace of Ebobisse - very similar to the plan that Porter used when Adi and Maxi Urruti were together. Marco Farfan could be the answer for the Timbers' defense long term, but I'd like to see him get regular time before we anoint him the next coming.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

After RSL, Where Do The Portland Timbers Go For Answers (Part 2)

Happier times before the wheels came crashing down.
Post match discussions with my wife, who not only has a wonderfully successful career as a celebrated sports photographer but is a very knowledgeable sports fan in her own right, can get rather entertaining. While I appreciate the vantage point supplied to cover home Timbers matches up in press row with working outlets, reams of stats and information supplied, and conversation subjects abound, Jennifer gets a unique vantage point to shoot and observe the action up close right along the touchline. We often spend our walks from the stadium back to the car talking about the match highlights or frustrations, and the exercise does usually provide further evidence for some of my observations. It can also trigger me to go back and review match notes, my Twitter feed, video highlights or the match itself to see if I missed something within a split second while I'm trying to think of something clever to tweet about in my match commentary. Obviously, the result against Real Salt Lake led to the conversation being more animated than usual, but there was a large disconnect between our perspectives.

I try to be critical when I'm in soccer mode because that is part of the necessary analysis, which can prove to be difficult when you know the players and coaches directly. At times, the absurdity of me trying to critique professional athletes on what they do from moment to moment seems as productive as having one of them come in and do an evaluation of me while I work in my normal IT job. It's taken a while for me to transition into the full analyst role and gain necessary insight and aptitude to see individual and team successes and failures and be able to describe it in a meaningful manner. I wasn't fully immersed in the world of soccer growing up, so you could say much like my career with Old Growth FC, everything I've done is purely self taught. It involves watching a tremendous amount of sports, reading different outlets for their opinions, having conversations with other people to learn their perspectives, and then having the confidence and writing skill to put it down and back it up. While we both reached the conclusion that the Timbers had a terrible night, I was struggling with the fact that this wasn't just a one night situation.
Dairon Asprilla has been a difference maker this year

It is at these junctures that the two facets of my soccer personality - the fan and the analyst - wage war to try and find answers that make sense to explain the malady. It starts with pouring over numbers, previous posts and notes to satisfy the data side - March and April were very good for the 2017 Timbers, May was exceedingly average, while June and July have watched things come unraveled, especially on the defensive side. Much of the problem can be tracked to absences from certain key personnel for whatever reason, but in my opinion, the two biggest losses in that equation have been Diego Chara and Liam Ridgewell. Chara's ability to create turnovers and distribute quickly in transition have been sorely missed, but adding David Guzman gave Chara more leeway to move about and cover more ground. With Guzman splitting time between the Timbers and Costa Rica, the loss of Chara after his injury during the draw with the Sounders FC back on June 25 has been more evident. Since then, Timbers Coach Caleb Porter employed Ben Zemanski and Darlington Nagbe in the draws with Sporting KC and Chicago in the central midfield, but with Nagbe called up to the USMNT for the Gold Cup knockout round, Porter went with Lawrence Olum and Zemanski versus RSL. Olum was originally signed as a back up defensive midfielder to help with depth there, but with Ridgewell's continuing injury issues, he's spent more time at center back than anywhere.

It's easy to look at the above information and combine it with the other player losses for RSL - Vytas, Amobi Okugo and Marco Farfan to injury alongside Ridgy and Chara, plus Nagbe, Guzman, Darren Mattocks and Alvas Powell to the Gold Cup - and excuse the result due to the personnel. This doesn't explain two other factors, however, which is where the fan part chimes in - this team was supposedly set up to deal with these situations with extended depth, and every MLS team has to deal with these realities during the league's lengthy schedule. MLS training camp starts in mid January, and due to the league's postseason, the champion isn't often crowned until mid December. I do have some issues with the league in how they run things, and if I was ever put in charge of things, I would get rid of the playoffs all together. It's not that I dislike playoffs - they make sense in the NFL with an unbalanced schedule, while MLB has a relatively truncated month or so of playoff baseball - but it makes less sense in soccer. 2016 emphasizes that point in one respect - while the Sounders hoisted MLS Cup as champions, arguably the best team last season was FC Dallas. All FCD did was win the Open Cup outright, the MLS Supporters' Shield for most points in the regular season, and advance to the Conference semifinals. Their only glitch was a big loss to the Sounders in leg 1 of their 2 match series, and FCD nearly overcame that. But in the minds of many MLS fans, it would be the bule and green that were the best club in 2016, despite the fact that they struggled for much of the year until adding Nicolas Lodiero in the summer transfer window.

Contemplative Jake is contemplative

For me, being the best team for the entire season is a bigger accomplishment, which is why the Supporters' Shield is a more important honor in my mind because it's over a longer time period. Going back to if I was in charge of soccer, I would change up CONCACAF Champions League berths to Supporters' Shield winner and USOC winner only. The other two berths could be given to winners of division 2 and 3 soccer leagues to provide some incentive there, but for me right now, the current system essentially plays into the mentality of "just make it to the playoffs". I realize that in 2015, that is exactly what happened to the Timbers, being the hottest team at that point and they used a lot of variables to hoist MLS Cup, and the Sounders repeated the recipe last year. But it is a true honor to be champion of a league for what essentially boils down to being really good and lucky at just the right time? In some instances, that is the reality, but does that make it right? Thus this back and forth goes on and on, but it takes on a new direction in talking with my wife, who possesses an innate ability to be critical to a fault. Some people are blessed with that gift, and I'm not one of them - there is always an excuse or circumstance that could explain it away, and I'm always looking for the benefit of the doubt, even if the facts are staring me right in the face.

The reality here is that despite the depth and change in personnel, the Portland Timbers collectively are not a good soccer team. In terms of soccer talent, Portland is blessed with several creative offensive players - Valeri, Nagbe, Blanco and Adi immediately come to mind - solid defensive stoppers - Chara and Guzman - and above average defenders - Vytas and Miller currently fit the bill here. But with all this talent, my basic question is who are the leaders on this side? When the Timbers accomplished their MLS Cup win 2015, there were several leaders that emerged from that group that filled various roles: Borchers, Jorge Villafana and Ridgewell were the focal points of the defense in organization and strength, Chara held together the middle, and Adi, Valeri, Nagbe and former striker Maxi Urruti were the offensive catalysts. You also had Jack Jewsbury, the undisputed club captain and emotional focal point, and Will Johnson, the fiery personality that would scrap with anybody. After winning the title, the organization had to make several difficult choices in the roster, which changed the make-up of the roster, but the Timbers continued to have question marks throughout their season.
The Timbers depth has been tested all year

Portland made marked updates for 2017 designed to fill various roles, but I still have question marks about who the team leaders are. Many on social media have been wanting the team to add a feisty personality to give the team some bite, like Johnson did during his tenure, and I believe there is some merit to either adding this or finding someone in the current group to do that. Even when Johnson was suffering with injury in 2015, I thought Borchers and Jewsbury filled that role albeit differently - more subtle, but still the same "in your face" mentality that sometimes in needed. There is no dispute that Valeri is the team's emotional leader right now as well as being the offensive catalyst, but for me, he needs help in reducing that burden. But you also need a counter balance - when emotions got high versus RSL, there was nobody that was helping reign in the group emotionally and we witnessed 2 Timbers players receive ejections for various plays. There needs to be another player who can bring the group back to a more grounded thought process when needed, and for me, Jewsbury was very good at being a calming influence when needed.

Do I think there are players within this group that could fill these capacities? I've always thought Blanco could be that firebomb because of his demeanor at times, but he's still acclimating to the personalities. I think Miller is starting to find his voice as well for the defense, but this wasn't his original purpose when he was signed, as it really was Ridgewell that was supposed to be the leader. With his collective of injuries, the Timbers have had to improvise and it's been trial and error, but for me, this is a very important juncture for the defense to find that leader and rally around him. When a group has confidence and an emotional leader, good things can obviously happen and maybe in a way, the RSL result could be a catalyst for some much needed change. As much as Portland has lived by the "next man up" philosophy out of necessity, there reaches any point where the constant flow of "chaos" becomes unsustainable. At some point, there needs to be some stability and foundation established.

At least he was smiling after the match. Welcome to PDX, Larrys!

And this needs to come from the players directly. While Porter and his coaches can install attack plans and strategies and the organization can try to find reinforcements, leadership within the team needs to be established by the team and backed up by the coaches when those leaders emerge. I don't want to single out the players in all of this, because it's also been apparent that some game day decisions or indecisions haven't worked well (the substitution pattern has been random all year) and there is questions about the overall roster mix relating to depth, which falls into the technical and scouting side. But sometimes when a side has their backs against the wall, they can rally to do something truly amazing on the pitch. As I'm finishing up this post, I'm watching the Timbers vs Vancouver, and I have never seen such a gutty, gritty, composed effort by a club in quite a while as they hold on for an impressive 2 to 1 victory. Maybe this is a one off, maybe it's the start of something huge, I have no idea, but I got stuck in back in 2004 watching Welton Melo and the Sounders end the Timbers' year in dramatic fashion, and with that result, I became RCTID. There is no other way to be regardless of the situation.