Saturday, August 19, 2017

Timbers slog through to pull out 2 to 0 victory over Red Bulls

One of the best displays I've seen all season from the Timbers Army
Soccer is often called the beautiful game, but sometimes, even the best laid plans fall apart upon execution. The Portland Timbers, coming off another road performance that started out serviceable but eventually fell apart dramatically in Toronto, were hoping to rebound at home against the New York Red Bulls. The visitors were dealing with fixture compression and travel, defeating Orlando City on August 13 in Florida followed up by a trip to Cincinnati for the U.S. Open Cup semifinals versus FC Cincinnati on August 15, a reschedule due to weather issues with FC Cincinnati's previous USOC match. The match ended up going into extra time with the Red Bulls advancing, but MLS also moved the Red Bulls - Timbers match from August 20 in the evening to August 18, which squeezed available Red Bull players even more. Red Bulls Coach Jesse Marsch had to rotate his squad significantly with one leading scorer out for injury and the other for fitness, but Portland wasn't going to sympathize with their cause too much with their ongoing defensive struggles. As both sides slogged through a first half filled with countless errors, ineffective passes and disorganization, the Timbers finally broke through with a goal, then held on under furious pressure to add an insurance tally for a 2 to 0 victory. The effort and passion were certainly there, but the effectiveness and organization were off for both sides all night - but the Timbers were able to do enough to post the victory before they deal with a tough few weeks of travel.

Timbers Coach Caleb Porter was dealing with player availability as he has most of 2017 with 4 players unavailable due to injury: Liam Ridgewell with a quad injury after he just returned to play upon rehab, Fanendo Adi with a hamstring strain suffered in the win over the Galaxy, Jake Gleeson with a hamstring strain suffered in the loss to Toronto, and Marco Farfan with a lingering ankle issue. Porter was very upset about how certain players performed in Toronto, so the defense got a slight overhaul in front of goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, who took over for Gleeson. Larrys Mabiala and Lawrence Olum would cover the center back roles with Roy Miller and Zarek Valentin flanking the left and right, and Porter could bring of Vytas or Alvas Powell as subs if needed. Diego Chara and David Guzman once again handled the defensive midfield duties behind the midfield trio of Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Blanco, but Porter could employ Ben Zemanski, Victor Arboleda or Dairon Asprilla if a change was needed. With Adi out, Porter gave youngster Jeremy Ebobisse the start with Darren Mattocks available to sub; Mattocks got the start versus Toronto FC and struggled with Ebobisse tallying an assist on Valeri's late goal. With Kendall McIntosh backing up Attinella, Porter was hoping for continued strong play from Valeri, who has really been carrying Portland over the last few weeks.
Larrys Mabiala and Gonzalo Veron converge. This happened a lot all night.

New York went in a slightly different direction with their starters, as Marsch had to deal with injury and fitness as well. Mike Grella, a key contributor in previous seasons, had season ending surgery recently, and Daniel Royer, a second year midfielder from Austria who has helped with the scoring load, just suffered a knee injury and is out indefinitely. Marsch can always rely upon several standards with forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, once again leading the team in goal scored, midfielder Sacha Kljestan, a creative midfielder that has blossomed in New York, and goalkeeper Luis Robles, who has been an effective goalkeeper for them for several seasons. Marsch unveiled a rather strange initial formation employing a 3 defender, 4 midfielder and 3 forward formation. Wright-Phillips and Kljestan ended up on the bench to start, as Marsch used Kemar Lawrence, Aurelien Collin and former MLS Timber Sal Zizzo on defense, Connor Lade, Felipe, Fidel Escobar and Derrick Etienne as the diamond midfield. Up top, the trio of Gonzalo Veron, Vincent Bezecourt and newly signed Dilly Duka would try and threaten the Timbers goal, but in the back of everyone's minds, they were just placeholders for the Red Bulls' bigger guns. For Portland, it would be imperative to get out to a good start to hopefully keep Kljestan and Wright-Phillips on the bench and attack New York as much as possible.

The tactic didn't exactly work out so well in the first 45 minutes as both teams supremely struggled to find any sort of rhythm. Veron and Escobar both had early chances on goal that were missed or blocked within the first 9 minutes of play, but otherwise, the Red Bulls couldn't find anything to put on frame against the Timbers. Nagbe struck the crossbar in the 39th on a great sequence that saw Chara hold the ball on the right to find Valeri in the corner, and while Nagbe uncorked a great shot, it struck the woodwork and spun away instead of finding the net. Chara, Nagbe and Blanco all had decent attempts on target - Blanco's 13th minute shot didn't miss by much - but nothing really threatened Robles as the Timbers tried to find something that worked. While Blanco was having success in finding space wherever he decided to set up camp, and several Timbers were getting Ebobisse the ball in good spots, there were also plenty of passes that ended up going nowhere. Whether it was anticipating the positioning or trying to create pockets to attack, passes were either flying in the wrong direction, being intercepted or just going over the touchline. Portland did get a final chance in stoppage when Portland was awarded a free kick just outside the box, but Guzman's restart went to the right post but nobody was home to put a shot on frame.

The Maestro added a goal and assist to his account. He's really good.

The halftime stats showed both sides having difficulty in finding anything that worked, as the number of shots were near equal (Portland at 4, New York at 2), a similar number of fouls and passing accuracy, and possession right at 50 percent for each. For me, it was just odd to see how many quirky bounces were being generated as the teams tried to link together, but most tactics weren't working. The Red Bulls were also down a sub after Collin had to leave the match in 27th minute for injury to be replaced by Sean Davis. Another issue from the first half was the work of center official Allen Chapman, who been the center for 11 matches featuring the Timbers over their MLS appearances. While Chapman hasn't exactly called many fouls on Portland or put out many cards against them, the usual criticism against Chapman has been his penchant for allowing plenty of contact and only making calls when pressed. That pattern was never more evident than early in the match when Chara was injured briefly on contact from Collin on a two footed tackle that Chapman didn't even call. Ebobisse was called for several fouls, including one on Collin that eventually led to his removal of the match, for what seemed like light contact but on other instances, it appeared that Chapman was letting plenty of contact go. Chapman did issue two cautions in the first half, but both were for time wasting and delaying a restart on Escobar and Valentin minutes later, but both sides felt aggrieved at Chapman for several calls that didn't go their way. Despite only calling 14 fouls in the first half, I was shocked that more weren't called by the crew. I will give him credit in some respect that it was called even on both sides, and the fact that both groups were complaining and asking questions certainly didn't tilt the advantage towards one side or another.

The second half began with no other player changes, and Portland earned a corner right off the opening kick courtesy of Ebobisse, but nothing came from the chance. The back and forth misses and turnovers continued for several minutes until Porter made his first move to replace a tiring Ebobisse for Mattocks at the 58th minute. Marsch countered by bringing on defender Aaron Long, a 2014 Timbers SuperDraft pick, in for Duka meaning that the Red Bulls wouldn't be bringing on one of the big weapons on the night. In the 65th minute, Portland would finally strike when Chara attacked a ball on the right corner and got in under control past Lawrence, and he had space to find a teammate for a cross. With Mattocks making a channel run, Chara's pass instead fell to a charging Valeri, and he chipped the ball past Robles just inside the left post to give the Timbers a 1 to 0 lead. Long was upset at not seeing the offside flag catch Chara, but he was in line with the last defender and Robles was off his line slightly and didn't see Valeri's effort until it was already on its way. At this point, Marsch decided to bring on Kljestan, the creative midfielder, and he pulled Etienne, who had fouled Miller twice in the preceding minutes and Chapman had finally cautioned him on the second hard foul. New York's movement and passing were much improved with Kljestan and they were moving forward better, so at this point, it was up to Portland to find a way to manage the end of this match without "parking the bus".
Lots of happy faces at the end of this one.

In the 79th minute, Veron tried to shoot on frame but Mabiala blocked the shot back towards the 18 yard line but the ball hit Guzman and fell to Kljestan in the box. Attinella was able to leave his line with Chara and Mabiala in support, and he was able to block the shot away for a Red Bulls corner. A minute later, Kljestan found Zizzo at midpitch, and the defender punched a high pass forward for Veron with Mabiala chasing, and the Red Bulls forward was able to slide into space. Mabiala tried to block the progression and the two bumped just outside the box with Veron crashing down hard, and Chapman wasted no time in calling the foul. With Mabiala being the last defender, Chapman gave the Timbers center back an ejection for the contact and New York a free kick just outside the box. Reviewing the replay several times, I can concede that Mabiala was a step behind and tried to recover, but the contact appeared incidental at best and Veron sold it by diving really hard. Porter decided to fortify the defense before the free kick, and brought on Vytas for Valetin and Powell for Blanco to add more backline fortification. Minutes later, Felipe restarted the ball with a deft touch to Escobar for a quick shot, but the midfielder pulled it just wide of the left post and out of play. With both sides out of subs and the Timbers at 10 men, it would be the beginning of a very wild finish.

Powell was running after a loose ball and Kljestan shoved the defender into the ad boards, prompting Miller and Attinella to go after Kljestan and Chapman to caution the midfielder. Considering the light contact for Mabiala and the two handed shove by Kljestan, it was another odd officiating decision. Zizzo, Felipe and Veron all got chances on goal in the dying moments of regular time, but New York got their best chance late in stoppage time when Lawrence put a speculative cross in towards a charging Lade at the spot, and the New York midfielder put a header on frame but Attinella was able to palm the ball away while Vytas and Miller were able to provide other cover. It looked like New York might not get any more chances once Portland earned a corner kick due to a Chara deep run on the left, but Portland couldn't hold onto the ball and Chara fouled Kljestan to give New York a free kick. On the same run, Guzman fouled Felipe just outside the box for a final attempt on goal and even Robles moved all the way forward as an attacker. The restart, however, was deflected about and Powell punched it out for a charging Valeri with nobody guarding the New York goal. Valeri dribbled to the right with 2 marks, Chara up the middle and Mattocks on the left, and after a couple of touches, Diego found an open Mattocks at the corner of the box with Robles still off the line. Mattocks calmly slotted the ball into the net for the much needed insurance goal, and the whistle blew right after the restart for a gut wrenching 2 to 0 victory.

I am not sure what is going on here at all.

Portland now turns their attention to a compressed week of their own in hosting Colorado on August 23 before traveling to Seattle to play the Flounders on August 27. Portland then plays their next 2 matches on the road after the Labor Day holiday by traveling to New York to play NYCFC on September 9 and then to Salt Lake on September 16 before returning home to host Orlando City on September 24. The Timbers might get some of their reinforcements back for the 2 long road trips in September, but they face Colorado without the services of Ridgewell or Mabiala available. For me, I found Valeri's leadership valuable in tallying an assist and a goal, now his 51st in his Timbers career, while Blanco was a menace everywhere he went on the pitch. The defense did reasonably well in holding New York scoreless, but they were aided by the fact the Red Bulls struggled to put the shots on target. I do have to give my man of the match to Attinella, who came up huge on many moments with quality saves and a calm demeanor. He commanded his goal line incredibly, and I was really happy to see the veteran earn his first clean sheet at home, and earn the coveted log slab. I am expecting we will see lots of Attinella down the stretch, and if he plays like this, the Timbers will be trouble to deal with in the postseason.

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