Monday, August 7, 2017

Timbers finally get first choice lineup, dismantle Galaxy 3 to 1 at home

Liam Ridgewell was back, but so was another familiar face on the other side.
The Portland Timbers have been waiting for this moment all season - well, since the home opener against Minnesota where the Timbers hung up 5 goals and looked like they were on their way to destroying the rest of Major League Soccer. After a torrid start to the year, the Timbers have been brought back to reality due to injuries, player rotation, call-ups and adding new pieces, but Timbers Coach Caleb Porter has been saying things would be different once all the weapons were back and ready to go. Portland welcomed back defender Liam Ridgewell from injury, and he was one of 3 Timbers players to tally goals in a distinctive 3 to 1 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy. There are plenty of storylines from this match - the Portland return of Sigi Schmid, the longtime Seattle Sounders FC coach that was recently hired by the Galaxy, a revised kickoff time due to excessive heat in the Portland area, Drew Fischer being at the controls of the match as center official, and Diego Valeri's continued displays of brilliance. The main story from this match, however, was the introduction of Video Review for the first time, and the use of a video assistant referee did have a huge influence over the end result.

Schmid was hired by the Galaxy after they relieved Curt Onalfo from his coaching duties on July 27 after the Galaxy were in a tailspin with 5 losses and a draw in the their last 6 matches. Two of the losses were significant: a 6 to 2 loss to Real Salt Lake at home and a 4 to 3 loss to New England, and that was enough for the Galaxy to make a change. Playing against his old side in his debut, the Galaxy offense was ineffective and disorganized but their defense was enough to hold on for points, but they lost defender Jelle Van Damme to an ejection late, so he wasn't available for Portland. Schmid has been trying to figure out what assets he has on the roster, and the Galaxy added Jonathan dos Santos during the Summer transfer window, but Schmid didn't bring his biggest weapon, midfielder Romain Alessandrini with 8 goals and 8 assists in 2017, to Providence Park. Schmid instead turned to Giovani dos Santos, former MLS Timber Jack McInerney, Emmanuel Boateng, Joao Pedro and Gyasi Zardes to try and break down the Timbers defense. While the Galaxy have been a very strong team on the road, it's been their defense that has been troublesome in certain weeks, so it would be up to center backs Dave Romney and Daniel Steres to remain focused and work together.

This song never gets old no matter how many times I hear it.
Timbers Coach Caleb Porter has been jumbling his defensive line over the past few weeks, but he was happy to welcome back Ridgewell, the defensive leader and defacto team captain, from his extended layoff due to various leg injuries. This switch up pushed Roy Miller out to left back with Ridgewell and newly signed Larrys Mabiala as the center backs, supported by Alvas Powell at right back, who was returning from international duty. While Vytas and Zarek Valentin have been good in their stead, both were relegated to the bench for Miller, playing out of his usual role. Otherwise, Portland was playing their first choices at other roles: Jake Gleeson in goal, David Guzman and Diego Chara as the defensive midfielders, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco as the attacking midfielders and Fanendo Adi as the lone striker. With this group starting, Porter could bring on some strong reinforcements with Darren Mattocks, Dairon Asprilla or Ben Zemanski on offense, or Vytas, Valentin, Jeff Attinella and Lawrence Olum for defensive. While moving Miller out wide seems strange, he has actually played left back in his previous career stops albeit his strongest position is center back. Even with that move, the Timbers were essentially playing their top choice in nearly every other position since the opener,

Fischer has been at the controls for 12 matches during his MLS officiating career, but he's also been responsible for three matches in which he called 20 or more fouls on the Timbers in the past 3 seasons, including a debacle of an effort when Sporting Kansas City visited Providence Park back in April 2017 and held on for a 1 to 0 win with Fischer calling 22 fouls on the Timbers. But Portland and their fans had another officiating situation to adjust to with the introduction of video replay. Fischer was joined by his 2 assistants and the fourth official on the pitch, but longtime MLS veteran Dave Gantar was in a special video booth within the stadium to help review any calls during the match that needed scrutiny. MLS put out rules to each media member about the new video review, indicating that any decision will only be overturned if the video indicates "a clear and obvious error" in one of four match changing incidents: goals, penalty kicks, straight red cards and mistaken identity. Essentially, the video rule would only apply if awarding or not awarding a goal, penalty or red card was a clear and obvious error caught by the VAR, who would then notify the center official of a reviewable situation. The center official can still decide to conduct a video review or take the information provided by replay and correct the error, and any reversals will be communicated to the fans in stadium and during the broadcast.

Roy Miller was good but he lost Emmanuel Boateng in this race.
Portland thought they had taken the lead in the 4th minute off an Adi header from a Valeri cross past Galaxy goalkeeper Brian Rowe, but Adi was just a step offside to disallow the goal. Off the restart, Blanco forced Galaxy defender Ashley Cole into a rushed clearance near his goal to concede the Timbers a corner kick, and Portland jumped out quickly ahead. Wtih Guzman taking the restart, his corner went past the left post and a charging Nagbe to an unmarked Ridgewell, and the Timbers center back calmly headed it home to put the home side up 1 to 0. The lead was short lived, however, as Pedro took advantage of a misplay by Valeri in the 6th minute to feed a diagonal ball to Boateng in space as Miller was off his line and was trying to catch up. Boateng easily tapped in a shot past Gleeson with his left foot from a tight angle to level the match at 1. The Galaxy thought they had taken the lead in the 11th minute off a Zardes goal amidst a massive scrum in the box post LAG corner kick, but Providence Park saw its first use of VAR when Gantar contacted Fischer to have him take a second look at the goal. While initial reports indicated Zardes might have been offside, the call that actually waived off the goal was Zardes handling the ball after a Jones chip pass when the ball was pinging about. After a few moments of review, Fischer waived off the goal and carded Zardes for the handball to return the score to 1 all.

The reversal seemed to take some steam out of both sides as Miller, Blanco, Nagbe and McInerney all had great chances at goal that were missed badly - Miller's shank in the 19th minute was off a deflection and a rushed shot, while McInerney tried to redirect a cross in the box but skied his effort into the South Deck. After the torrid start and subsequent lull, the Timbers started to find their tempo and took the lead in the 33rd minute when Miller fed a ball up the left flank intended for Valeri. Jones made an attempt to try and steal the pass, but he ended up overrunning the ball and Valeri, and Diego's deft touch left Jones on the turf and the Maestro with space. He took a quick touch to settle the ball, and decided to launch a long range effort that tucked into the upper left corner past Rowe to set off a wild celebration in the North End and some happy dances for the Timbers. Portland continued the pressure to earn several huge chances on goal in an attempt to extend their lead, and perhaps the best chance of the half was in the 42nd minute when Blanco played Adi onside and with a quick touch and a miss by Steres, Adi was 1 on 1 with space and only Rowe to stop him when Romney made a recovery run. The two met in the box with Romney executing a slide tackle to get to the ball, but his subsequent action took out Adi in a big heap, but Fischer made no call whatsoever.

Darlington Nagbe gets a double escort everywhere he goes.
In looking at the VAR rules, the question of a penalty or not is actually a reviewable play - some in the press box were debating whether this could be overturned or not - but it comes down to the criteria of a clear and obvious error. If Fischer indicated it was allowable contact and Gantar agreed with the call, video review would not be called upon; but for me, this was about as obvious of a penalty as I've ever seen as Romney absolutely took out Adi's legs with his tackling motion in the box. Tempers flared for several minutes as Fischer made a few other odd calls, but the match went into the break at 2 to 1 Timbers. Los Angeles did their best to challenge after the break, but Jones whiffed on a good chance and Zardes had a shot blocked early, while the Timbers were steadily finding pockets of space to either absorb pressure or find channels to counter. In the 53rd minute, one of those plays came to fruition as the Timbers extended their lead courtesy of Powell. Blanco created a turnover midpitch and found Adi open in space to the right, and Fanendo was fed a great pass to drive towards goal with a head of steam.

While Adi has usually been quick to shoot in these instances, however, the striker drove to the touchline and executed a back heel pass for support. Sure enough, the Timbers right back - who had been beaten badly on the previous attack when he stopped running and put the defense in poor shape - finished his run and slotted the ball into the left corner past Rowe to extend the lead to 2 goals. The tally came at a cost, as Adi tweaked his hamstring slightly and had to be replaced by Darren Mattocks although Adi did appear to be walking normally after the match. Mattocks threatened the Galaxy on several occasions with his overlapping runs and linking with Valeri, Nagbe and Blanco to spread out the attack, but at this juncture, the Timbers were more content to possess and run down the clock. The Galaxy, meanwhile, brought on the other dos Santos to try and stretch the match, but in an odd move, Schimd pulled Boateng for Ariel Lassiter despite Emmanuel being easily the Galaxy's best open field threat all afternoon. Schmid also pushed Romney out wide and Jones back to more of a distributing center back in an attempt to create more attack, and the Galaxy were able to generate plenty of passes and shots, but the Timbers were able to either block or defend all of them away.

With Fanendo Adi injured, Darren Mattock entered. And did very well.
Blanco eventually gave way for Asprilla as a late change of pace, which further caused the Galaxy issues but the Timbers were forced to make their final move due to injury when Ridgewell left in stoppage time to be replaced by Olum. Despite Fischer adding 6 minutes of stoppage in the second half (Gleeson had a minor injury on a catch, but he stayed in after a moment of treatment with just 1 goal), the Timbers ran down the match in expert fashion with just one issue - a late caution given to Guzman for argument when the Timbers were awarded a free kick and the Galaxy were within the 10 yard restricted area for the restart. Fischer indicated after the match that he had counted out 10 yards on the South End of the stadium for the kick, but both Guzman and Valeri repeatedly yelled for the rule to be enforced and Guzman got a caution for his trouble. With each side getting 4 cautions, Portland only has one issue for the Toronto FC match in that Miller's caution in the 79th minute was his eight of 2017, so another 1 match suspension was invoked meaning the Timbers defense will have another rotation. Portland also managed to avoid the trend with Fischer as official in only being called for 15 fouls, but there was a huge discrepancy in the second half with Portland having 10 fouls to just 5 for the Galaxy.

Everyone could breathe easier with the win and I felt that Portland did well to manage the situation and create goals when they needed them. It wasn't a perfect match - the Timbers had too many defensive errors and allowed players into space at points, plus Miller's lack of foot speed will be an issue if he's asked to play left back - but the Timbers rallied around theit teammates to put forth a complete team effort. While Valeri continued to be a good source of goals, the team also had scores from 2 of their defenders while 4 other players tallied assists on those goals. Gleeson, to his credit, made some good saves at times and seemed more in command of his line at points, but he did have a few cringe worth moments that didn't hurt his side either. Portland now finds themselves in a four way tie for second in the West at 34 points with Houston, FC Dallas and Seattle - Portland is listed below the other 3 sides due to goal differential - just 3 points behind Sporting KC, 2 points ahead of San Jose and 3 points above Vancouver. The August 12 match against Toronto FC gives the Timbers a chance to gain points without losing ground in the West, and they have 3 more matches upcoming against the East (both New York sides and Orlando remain on the schedule). Portland also has 10 matches left on the 2017 schedule - 5 home and road left - to either secure a postseason berth or figure out their 2018 strategy.  

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