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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment