Saturday, April 28, 2018

Looking Back on Timbers vs NYCFC & Future of Predictions Thread

Blanco does good.
Sebastian Blanco has been the MVP for the Timbers so far in 2018.
For those long time fans of the new blog here, you might realize it's not Wednesday and therefore I missed the usual posting time for looking back on the Portland Timbers big win over New York City FC back on April 22. Anyone paying attention here, I try and follow a somewhat regular schedule for postings schedule permitting: for weekend home matches, Monday night is match recap, Tuesday night is reserved for Jennifer's snarktography, Wednesday is analysis and Friday is preview and predictions. That should give four solid posts full of information, drivel and assorted cat photos for those paying attention, but as we all know, life sometimes put hard hurdles within the schedule. Monday nights are my night for group, so depending on how drained I am after dealing with shadows and other assorted things like that, the Monday post might punt into another day. In this case, Portland got themselves another break in the schedule before they travel southward to San Jose on Cinco De Mayo. Getting a break now is likely a good thing considering what May brings in terms of matches: at San Jose, vs. Seattle, vs. LAFC, at Colorado (physical match on weird surface, fierce rivalry match, unknown quantity, club that plays well at home & Timbers have struggled).

After seven matches sporting a 2 win, 2 draw, 3 loss record, we can safely say that we've seen everything from the Timbers at this point: compelling soccer, whirling about, confounding mistakes, lovely goals, lockdown defense, poor communication - essentially a team that is trying to find themselves under a new coach taking them in a different direction. Gone are the days of working in a "precise" system using a stable formation and approach - Gio Savarese wants a team that will display the ultimate flexibility in approach and tactics to provide the biggest potential challenge to their opponents. As we talked about in the NYCFC recap, we've already seen several approaches to the lineups and the results have been varied, but improving. The Portland side versus NYCFC was not only one of the most composed and tactical I've seen in a while, but they dealt with the various challenges in a professional and precise manner that it was downright fun to watch. Yet, I had to temper my excitement with the realization that this was just one match and that there would be upcoming challenges to deal with - and the formation choice here worked, but there would be updates each and every week.
Timbers defense very well organized
This was as organized of a Timbers defense as I've seen for a while.

Which really plays to some of the strengths and weaknesses I see in this new "flexible" approach. Obviously teams can't play the same eleven each week within a 34 match season with breaks and other competitions, so there will always be some turnover in the available players, so the flexible approach allows building for strengths on who is available. It also adds unpredictability for the opponent, who has to speculate who or what they might face when the Timbers line up to play. Adjustments can be made relatively easy as situations warrant as well, so what's the downside? How about building up consistency within positions and tactics - a constantly moving lineup might require different approaches for players, and that could lead to unforced errors. There is strength in building a consistent approach and honing this to pure precision while forcing the opposition to find ways to attack something known, but that can also be unwiedly at times. If you have committed professionals, a coaching staff that can communicate expectations, and an approach that can keep everyone engaged, flexibility works.

Three Things I Liked About The Timbers

1. Synchronicity In Motion: Playing a system like the team did versus NYCFC that gave them the bulk of possession required a team pledge to stay within their roles and fully commit for the full 90. Without a doubt, we saw the Timbers follow this to the letter of law, even after making their substitutes. Sometimes, a player change can disrupt the flow, but every Timbers player was dialed in and on point.
2. Defensive Communication. While the sync play was very good, it was also very apparent that the backline was very well organized. In talking with my wife, Jennifer, after the match, she observed from her pitchside post that there was lots of yelling between Jeff Attinella, Liam Ridgewell and the rest of the defense. Everyone was pointing out marks or space, and adjusting within the scheme to make sure every threat was covered. NYCFC did have their chances, but they weren't without coverage or duress, and that was a sight to see.
3. Sebastian Blanco. 2017 was the year that every Timbers fan wondered how much more could Diego Valeri do to impress the hometown crowds with his precision play and scoring. For this season, the Maestro continues to do his thing, but he's been joined by the efforts of Blanco, who currently leads the team in goals scored. He's also done it with precise shots, looping headers, efforts off the set piece, against the run of play - Blanco has been locked in and the offense has been better because of it.

Solid effort for the Timbers
Andres Flores performed very well in the start for Portland.
Three Things I Didn't Like About The Timbers (Or Ongoing Questions):

1. Okay, Now What? Portland was that impressive against NYCFC, and it was a sight to see, but it means absolutely nothing if this team goes to San Jose and completely implodes. While I'm not expecting that to occur, I wasn't exactly seeing a Timbers side being run out on the road against a New York Red Bulls side that was talented and young, albeit very raw. The good vibes from this win won't mean much if the Timbers don't show well against the Earthquakes; I'm not calling a must win at all, but I'm saying that after the matches in Chicago and Orlando, Portland needs a shining result on the road.
2. Position Battles Are Looming, So Be Prepared: I saw plenty of tweets lauding the effort of Attinella, and indicating he should start for the rest of 2018. This was followed up by pro-Ridgy tweets, Zarek Valentin likes and so on, but there is still a lot of season left and I expect we will see a regular rotation and even healthy players might sit due to Savarese's formation choices. Being engaged as a team means seeing the eventual long term goals of success in the postseason and another MLS Cup, so it will be important for players to keep that in mind as the calendar moves towards the summer.
3. Schedule Pileup: For those fortunate souls that were able to take in 2 Timbers matches, 2 Thorns matches and 2 Timbers 2 matches between April 14 and April 22. I hope your soccer sensibilities weren't too overwhelmed. That's a lot of fixtures compressed within a timeframe, and it reminded me of the old Thursday night/Saturday night schedules of the Timbers back in the USL days. I had barely recovered from Thursday's adventures to then realize it was time to get back at it on Saturday, but at the same point, it's just great to have the teams back home for a spell.

Evaluations:

GK Jeff Attinella (90 minutes): 8. Made the saves when needed. commanded his line when he needed to, and came away with the team's first clean sheet of 2018.
D Zarek Valentin (90 minutes): 6. Played stout when needed with Powell playing more forward for most of the match, but held up reasonably well for the full 90.
D Larrys Mabiala (90 minutes): 7. No glaring mistakes and earned his first MLS goal off a lovely header off a corner.
D Liam Ridgewell (90 minutes): 7. Maligned defender steps up huge and put in one of the best shifts I've seen, including a stone cold block on David Villa late. 
D Alvas Powell (90 minutes): 5. Did his job well and helped the offense when needed, but was able to support the defense late in dropping back.
M Andres Flores (89 minutes, replaced by Dairon Asprilla in stoppage time): 7. Utility player extraordinaire gets the start and shows he can play a strong, smart wing outside and earns an assist for the match.
Alvas Powell defends against NYCFC forward Jo Inge Berget
M Dairon Asprilla (1 minute, brought on for Flores): 5. Good work to help run down the clock for the Timbers to post the impressive win.
M Diego Chara (90 minutes): 7. Smart, composed play all afternoon - just what the Timbers needed.
M Cristhian Paredes (90 minutes): 6. Okay, there were glaring errors at points, but the teenager is really showing well so early in his career.
M Diego Valeri (78 minutes, replaced by Andy Polo at the 78th minute): 6. His service on the Mabiala header was outstanding, and I thought it was exactly we expect to see from Valeri.
M Andy Polo (12 minutes, brought on for Valeri): 5. Helping run down a match is a hugely important task for young players, and I thought Polo was very composed yet provided some good danger to keep NYCFC honest.
M Sebastian Blanco (90 minutes): 8. I am still trying to figure out how he jumped that high on his first half header. Seriously, the man has some hops.
F Fanendo Adi (85 minutes, replaced by Samuel Armenteros): 6. Right place at the right time to get goal number 2, but he helped keep NYCFC defense honest all match.
F Samuel Armenteros (5 minute, replacing Adi at the 85th minute): 5. Earned a good look or two late, and held a ball in the corner to run down some clock - always good late match strategy.
Coaching Staff: 9. I didn't think the starting lineup would do what they did to NYCFC, but I was dead wrong. Outstanding result, and well deserved kudos to Gio and his staff.
Overall Timbers Score: 9. It's still impressive days later.

Predictions are back next week with San Jose! Each week, 2 analysts from our group of soccer experts will face off against me and 2 of our cats to predict the events for the upcoming matches. If you would like to be part of our crew of analysts, please email pdxtimbersblog@gmail.com; I will include you on the email list for predictions. To keep things very simple, I'm asking each analyst for only 3 to 4 sentences (about 100 words) and a photo for inclusion. We will track the results at the end of the year to see who knows more about soccer: me, the analysts or our cats. Team Tortie is already predicting a plethora of goals for 2018.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Facing Best Team in East, Portland Timbers Use Improbable Strategy For Impressive Win

Diego Valeri defends Maximiliano Moralez. Valeri was very active all day.
Possession with purpose – we’ve heard this term for several years as the mantra to the Portland Timbers’ offense under former Coach Caleb Porter, and it’s blossomed into various capacities and publications within the soccer world.  After the tactical deficiencies that were exposed under the team’s first coach in the MLS era and lightly addressed when Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson stepped in as caretaker before Porter’s arrival, it’s been trumpeted for years that possessing the ball was the key to winning soccer matches in MLS. For 5 seasons, this belief permeated throughout Timbers fans who feverishly devoured statistics about soccer who bought into the strategy, and the results were certainly impressive – 3 playoff appearances, 1 MLS Cup.  With Porter off to his next challenge and Giovanni Savarese now the man in charge, there’s been a very different set of tactics employed with the personnel available, as we’ve seen an attempted high press, a complete whirling about, the Christmas Tree – and while we haven’t seen the Timbers completely dominate yet, there have been glimpses of impressive soccer.  Until April 22 at Providence Park, where the Timbers put up one of their most extraordinary efforts against New York City FC, the team dominating the Eastern Conference for MLS. NYCFC hadn’t lost in 6 matches nor had even been held scoreless in 2018, putting up 2 goals in each match, yet the Portland Timbers used several substitutions, a different formation and a raucous environment at home to post an imposing 3 to 0 victory.

Consider the historic accomplishment of what has transpired in front of a sellout crowd and a nationwide audience on FOX Sports 1 in looking at the statistics of the match: Portland had just 25% total possession for the match with 20% at the half, 249 total passes with roughly 72 percent accuracy in comparison with NYCFC completing 760 passes at a 91 percent clip.  No team in the MLS Opta era, which started in 2010, had ever had a possession number so low and not only won the match but shut the other team out until the Timbers pulled it off in calculating fashion.  But as pointed out on the Timbers site by soccer analyst extraordinaire Richard Farley, Savarese has been preaching a desire to be flexible in their game approach and not just employ a single strategy or formation.  Strategies, personnel, situations could change from match to match depending upon the opponent, and being flexible and fluid would keep the other side guessing. It’s an interesting strategy if a team has the talent, tenacity and total smarts to pull it off each and every week given the length of the typical MLS season, but for one moment in time against a stacked opponent, lightning struck and the Timbers posted a massive result.

NYCFC visiting brought a familiar face back to Portland in Rodney Wallace
With the skies clearing under a wonderful spring sun with the slightest of breeze in the air for a midafternoon match, Savarese pulled a different approach to try and slow down NYCFC in setting his starting eleven.  After dealing with injuries all season, Jeff Attinella was given his first start of 2018 in lieu of incumbent Jake Gleeson, and Attinella was working with a familiar defensive line. Liam Ridgewell, demonized after a lackluster performance in New York versus the Red Bulls and pushed to the bench for Bill Tuiloma, was promoted back to the starting eleven alongside Larrys Mabiala with Alvas Powell and Zarek Valentin manning the fullbacks.  This quintet of defenders had actually appeared several times in 2018 and responded well in most occasions, but with Ridgewell out of the doghouse and Attinella making the first start, you could question the selections a bit. Savarese further altered the approach with putting out 4 midfielders – Andres Flores and Sebastian Blanco on the wings and Cristhian Paredes as defending midfielders – with Diego Valeri as the lone attacking midfielder and Fanendo Adi as the lone striker.  The approach appeared to be bunkering at first, but in watching the tactics unfurl, the lineup was designed to absorb pressure and tempo and exploit counter attacking chances whenever possible with the wings or fullbacks pouring forward.  This system would only work if the Timbers could work as a foursome on the defense and midfield lines through synchronicity and communication.  If Portland didn’t take advantage on breakdowns, it could be a very long and tiring match – and there have been plenty of soccer matches where clubs have done that very thing.  But stretching the opposition, if done right and consistently, can produce results.  Considering the fact the Timbers were nearly even with NYCFC in each shot category and chances, the approach produced exactly what it should have.

Savarese believed in his charges, however, and said so during his post match comments. Flores, who has played for Savarese on other sides, has played a wide attacking role before and he paired up with Blanco to provide support to the offense and defense all afternoon. For Chara, he's the pinnacle of defensive midfielders for his ability to create turnovers and distribute the ball, and on several occasions, Chara was right to the spot to deflect the ball or a player away from the goal. I imagine that NYCFC forward David Villa will be having nightmares of Chara chasing him about and knocking him down all the time. Paredes, just 19 years of age, showed maturity beyond his years in making several key passes and creating turnovers at the right time, but he did also show youth with several turnovers and errant passes. The defensive quartet of Valentin, Mabiala, Ridgewell and Powell needed to communicate with each other and stay incredibly organized for the entire match, and as my wife Jennifer put it from her pitch side view, there was constant yelling between the defenders to point out assignments and communicate coverage. The only more vocal player was Attinella, who commanded his line all afternoon to help the Timbers post their first clean sheet of 2018 in his first start. Offensively, the attacking of Valeri and Adi was disruptive for most of the afternoon for the NYC defense, but the duo had plenty of help as Flores, Blanco, Powell and Valentin poured forward as much as they could on the counter. Suffice to say, this was one of the most impressive synchronous efforts I've seen from the Timbers side in my 11 seasons of covering the team.

Fanendo Adi celebrates his 38th minute goal in great fashion.
Despite the statistical anomalies of the afternoon, the Timbers' offense ended up yielding an impressive collective of goals. Blanco missed 2 golden chances in the first 5 minutes from close range, while Valeri just missed in the 16th minute off a redirected shot. Blanco got some revenge in the 26th minute when Flores took a throw in from Powell on the right portion of the pitch and crossed it to the left for the Timbers winger. Blanco, small in stature, outleapt his mark and put a looping header over NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson just inside the far right post for a goal. For Blanco, it was his fourth goal of 2018 as he has been one of the team's most valuable attackers and an early candidate for most valuable player. 12 minutes later, the Timbers broke out on a turnover caused by Blanco, and Sebastian fed the ball to a charging Chara. Chara sent Valeri out wide right with a diagonal pass, and the shot came flying into goal that Johnson was initially able to stop, but he deflected the ball right at an awaiting Adi on the left for a very easy tap in for goal 2. Adi timed his run well to avoid the offside flag, and the flag nearly figured into goal number 3 in the second half off a corner kick. Valeri took the restart after NYCFC conceded a corner off a poor clearance, and Valeri spotted Mabiala lurking on the right post for a well placed header past Johnson. Center Official Kevin Stott and VAR had a look at this goal to confirm validity as there were 2 situations that could have wiped it off the books - Flores appeared to be offside with the defensive line in front of goal and was in the eye line of Johnson. However, VAR confirmed that NYCFC defender Ronald Matarrita kept Flores onside as he was defending Valeri on the wing, while Flores ducked out of the way after the shot to get out of Johnson's sight line.

NYCFC had their chances on the day as former MLS Timber and now NYCFC forward Rodney Wallace missed a header in the 7th minute by just yards. Villa had a quality miss in minute 40 when they were already down by 2 goals, but the group unleashed a torrent in the second half as Wallace, Villa, Jo Inge Berger, Maxi Moralez and Jesus Medina all had chances on goal from the break through minute 63. However, in each instance, the shot was either deflected away, the threat cleared or Attinella made an easy catch within traffic. Berger and Villa were charging on frame in the 58th minute on one particular play that Attinella stopped by being the first to the ball to scoop it up, and then upend Berger with a well placed tackle. In the 89th minute, Ridgewell blocked a point blank Villa shot on a 1 on 1 attack, and the Timbers defense was able to recover and successfully clear away the threat. Considering the fact that NYCFC had scored at least 2 goals in each of their 7 matches with at least 10 or more shots and they were held scoreless is impressive, and the effort was enough that Savarese and Mabiala both earned MLS team of the week honors for coach and player. In as much as both Gio and Larrys deserved their honors, however, every person indicated how much this result was because of the entire team.

This was an entire team effort with every Timbers player contributing to the win.
Of the comments made by Savarese after the match, that was what struck me the most - he believed in his team and had faith that any of his players could step into whatever role was needed and succeed. After seeing his team gel over the past few weeks yet struggle to get their first win over Minnesota United last week, Savarese changed up the formula to bring in his veteran goalkeeper, a disgraced defender looking for redemption, a young star in the making, a utility player that is showing his worth, and a scoring trio that has started off 2018 well and getting better. The fact is, however, we could see an entirely different scenario in 2 weeks when Portland travels to San Jose to play the Earthquakes for Cinco De Mayo. Savarese is not married to any specific style, format or player mix, and Timbers fans should expect surprises each time we see that starting eleven appear.  He wants the team to show versatility and unpredictability, while causing defenses to have to consider every available option to defend - and if he can pull this off each and every week, it will be exciting and fun to watch. Considering it's a long season and sometimes players thrive in more defined roles, we might start to see some more structure within the attack, but for now, it's one wild ride - and for this afternoon, the strategy produced one of the most impressive and entertaining results of the entire MLS season.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wednesday Analysis - Looking Back on Timbers - Minnesota United

Timbers, Portland Timbers, defender
Bill Tuiloma has been exceptional since joining the starting lineup
Now that the season has started, I'm going to take on more of what I like doing after Portland Timbers matches - analysis. But I tend to take a very non-traditional look at matches as well, and am more focused upon the "eye test". I attempted to do this last season, but I didn't like the approach so I'm going back to the drawing board. Starting each week after a Timbers match - and yes, I'm going to start doing this for road matches where I'm able to watch - I want to go over the things I liked, the things I didn't and a 1 sentence evaluation for everyone that appeared in the Timbers match. The evaluations that I've done for my previous outlet got very complex over the years, and I believe I can make it easier. The scores will still run from 1 to 10 with 5 being the benchmark of doing the job credibly, with marks up or down depending on the overall performance.

From my standpoint just watching the Timbers 3 to 2 victory over Minnesota United, there was plenty to like as the team got their first win of 2018 in dramatic fashion. The things I didn't like, however, turned a match that appeared to be a runaway at several points into a nail-biting affair. Minnesota is a much improved group from the one that the Timbers blew out to start the 2017 MLS campaign, but I am openly worried if they would have had a healthy Kevin Molino available, the results could have been decidedly different. MNUFC Coach Adrian Heath didn't appear to have a strategy to deal with the Timbers' "Christmas Tree" formation - 4 defenders, 3 defensive midfielders, 2 attacking midfielders and 1 forward - but his adjustments at the break appeared to throw off Portland as they weren't able to get forward and attack nearly as much as they did in the first 45 minutes. I can't imagine Timbers Coach Gio Savarese sticking with the 4-3-2-1 once David Guzman is back and healthy, as that would mean sitting one of the Timbers young attackers to adjust. A defensive midfield of Guzman, Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes would be incredibly stout, but that then means leaving Andy Polo, Dairon Asprilla or Victor Arboleda (when he's with the first team) on the bench if the attacking trio remains Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and either Fanendo Adi or Samuel Armenteros.

Timbers defense, backline
Zarek Valentin was forced to play back more with Powell moving forward
Heath effectively replaced defender Marc Burch, a traditional backline defender, with Carter Manley at halftime. Burch can get forward, and showed on a few occasions he can be an effective crosser of the ball. But Manley is more dynamic in his ability to get forward, and he can cover ground in the middle, so making this update effectively forced the Timbers to leave their backline more at home. Alvas Powell was pouring forward at will for the first 45 minutes, and his 1 goal and 1 assist performance was not only one of his best efforts of his career, but he earned the Allcatel MLS Player of the Week Award for Week 7. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a member of the North American Soccer Reporters, the group that votes on this honor each week, and Powell was among the players I was considering to put my vote for. However, when Manley came on, the move forced Powell to stay more at home with the backline - and the offense and defense both suffered. Powell isn't a traditional stand up defender and there were plenty of situations where Powell wasn't in sync with the rest of the backline. It's really up to your goalkeeper or backline leader to organize the defense, and honestly, I didn't see any of the group step into that leadership role. Had Minnesota been a bit more efficient with their attack considering the scattered defense late, we might have seen a different result.

Three Things I Liked About The Timbers:

1. First Half Alvas Powell: When Powell is aggressive yet able to provide support to the defense, good things tend to happen. The offense depends upon fullbacks getting forward to provide crosses and an outlet, and of the backs on the roster, Powell fills this role the best right now.
2. Diego Chara: Nearly 90 percent passing accuracy, 5 tackles, 2 fouls won and a chance created, Chara has returned from his injury and resumed his form of solid defensive midfielder. He creates chances, annoy the opposition, creates turnovers and disrupts the other side better than most other players. Having him back has really given the team a big boost.
3. Sebastian Blanco: It's great to see Diego Valeri start to find his scoring form and creativity, but for me, the MVP for early 2018 Timbers is Blanco and we saw vintage Blanco. He led the team in chances created and his versatility is a huge asset - he can attack from all sides and parts of the pitch with either foot. He's also become the emotional leader of the team, and I believe the team feeds off his ferocity.

Gleeson, Timbers, goalkeeper
Jake has good qualities, but he struggled late in this match
Three Things I Didn't Like About The Timbers:

1. Second Half Powell: We saw the good version of Alvas but then we saw a second half where he was forced to defend more and work within the defense. There was too much tentative play in marking for my liking, but that's the rub with Alvas - you get the good along with the bad, sometimes even within the same match.
2. Jake Gleeson's Command Of the Goalbox: Gleeson is one of the most athletic keepers out there, plus he is very good at quick reactions. However, force him to make a decision and it's a crapshoot what might happen. What concerned me in this match was that after conceding goal 1 to Darwin Quintero, Gleeson got very tentative about doing anything and it led to a wild stretch run. The Timbers need a confident and vocal keeper, and I'm wondering if Gleeson really is that guy in the long run. 
3. Leadership Of The Team: I'm convinced Savarese is the right coach for the Timbers, but leadership within the team remains a question. I know that Valeri is the creative leader and Blanco is the emotional leader, but when things get tough on the pitch, who on the side is the leader to rally around? I'd like to think it's Valeri, but the last 25 minutes, I wanted somebody to step in and help ease the frayed edges collectively and it didn't happen. Someone needs to emerge as the rallying point for this group and soon. 

Evaluations:

GK Jake Gleeson (90 minutes): 3. Made saves when necessary, but the timid Gleeson late really struggled to help his side and did just enough to secure victory.
D Zarek Valentin (90 minutes): 5. With Powell forward much of the match, Zarek was flanked back to aid the center backs and did a reasonable job in thwarting various runs.
D Larrys Mabiala (90 minutes): 5. Did reasonably well with distribution and covered marks well, but did have some unforced errors as well. 
D Bill Tuiloma (90 minutes): 6. While responsible for the own goal for Minnesota, I thought Bill was the most stout and organized defender along the backline. 
D Alvas Powell (90 minutes): 4. Up and down Alvas on full display; when he was good, he was very good, but when he was bad, he struggled.
D Marco Farfan (1 minute, brought on for Blanco in 89th minute): 5. Late substitute to reinforce the backline.
M Andy Polo (75 minutes, replaced by Andres Flores at 75th minute): 7. His speed was a huge component of the successful first half for the Timbers, but he was neutralized heavily in the second half.
Portland Timbers, Timbers, midfielder
Chara gonna Chara. And he's very good at it. 
M Andres Flores (15 minutes, brought on for Polo in 75th minute): 5. The Timbers utility player came on late and did a little bit of everything late.
M Diego Chara (90 minutes): 8. Major disruptive force for the Timbers as always.
M Cristhian Paredes (90 minutes): 6. The more I see of Parades, the more impressed I am considering he's just 19 years old and starting his career in MLS.
M Diego Valeri (89 minutes, replaced by Samuel Armenteros in stoppage): 7. His goal in the first half was simply sublime, and I hope to see more of that from the Maestro.
M Sebastian Blanco (89 minutes, replaced by Marco Farfan in 89th minute): 7. Most consistently dangerous player for Portland all evening.
F Fanendo Adi (90 minutes): 6. Nearly tallied a brace for his efforts, but it was the most dangerous we've seen Adi in some time.
F Samuel Armenteros (1 minute, replacing Valeri in stoppage): 5. Late substitute brought on to run down the clock.
Coaching Staff: 5. Impressive to get their first win, but I didn't like second half adjustments to counter Manley's insertion as the Timbers offense lacked precision.
Overall Timbers Score: 6. It wasn't pretty if you look at the full 90, but the first half was impressive enough to move this past the midline mark. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Starting awesomely but finishing scattered, Timbers hold on for 3 to 2 win over Loons

Providence Park, Timbers, Portland Timbers, MLS, Major Leage Soccer
Alvas Powell scored his first goal of 2018 with a wildly effective run
April 14 will always remain a red letter date in the MLS history of the Portland Timbers. It's hard to fathom just seven years ago on this date, the Timbers played their first ever MLS match at home and under a wild rainstorm, Portland won its first ever match in league play over the Chicago Fire in thrilling but nail biting fashion. Because of stadium renovations at JELD-WEN Field to turn the former multi-purpose stadium into a soccer/football venue, the Timbers spent most of February and March away from the Rose City until their epic home debut. With the Timbers expanding their stadium to include a full east side fa├žade over the next two years, the 2018 MLS home opener for the Timbers was again delayed until the 6th match of the year on the same date as their inaugural MLS home match . Facing similar weather to that night with many other similar events taking place, the Timbers hosted Minnesota FC, the team that helped them open Providence Park for the 2017 MLS season. While the Loons struggled mightily last year, the spunky visitors held up against a Timbers side still trying to find their way under new coach Gio Savarese. While the Timbers sent the fans home happy with a thrilling 3 to 2 victory under a cold drizzle, there were also a ton of questions that still need to be addressed before this team can progress to the elite of the MLS West.

Getting Gio his first win of his MLS coaching career, however, was a nice reward for the home team who started out like they were going to run the Loons out of the stadium, similar to what happened last year. The Timbers raced to a 2 goal lead in the second half only to watch Minnesota pull one back in the 79th minute before Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi tallied 3 goals late to post an impressive 5 to 1 win. For this edition, the Timbers again raced to the 2 goal lead within the first half an hour, and when Minnesota thought they had pulled to within one, the offside flag negated their goal. Minnesota kept pressing until they scored in the 64th minute to ramp up the pressure. Adi nearly replicated his 2 goal performance with tallies in the 74th and 78th to push the lead to 4 to 1, but the offside flag took away the latter goal. Unlike the 2017 edition, Minnesota received an own goal in the 82nd minute to make things interesting, then pressed a beleaguered Timbers defense with pressure until the final whistle. While the Timbers did hold on and get their first win of 2018 at home, the defensive woes and offensive stagnation late nearly cost Portland for the third straight week. Portland had Chicago and Orlando both beaten in their last 2 matches, but the Timbers ended up conceding late in Chicago for a draw, while a 3 goal onslaught by Orlando in the final 10 minutes last week turned an impressive win into a gut wrenching defeat.

Portland Timbers, Minnesota United FC, Providence Park, MLS, Major League Soccer
After a slow start, Diego Valeri has been locked in with 3 goals in 3 matches
Savarese has wanted the Timbers to employ more pressing and ball movement in his style of play, but after being dismantled by the New York Red Bulls in game 2, he's been forced to make some significant alterations to that plan. Instead of using veteran Liam Ridgewell along the backline, Savarese has employed Bill Tuiloma alongside Larrys Mabiala as the center backs while also using a 4 defender, 3 defensive midfielder, 2 attacking midfielder, 1 forward lineup - also known as the Christmas Tree formation. The tree was back for Minnesota, as Tuiloma and Mabiala lined up with Alvas Powell and Zarek Valentin as the defensive line in front of goalkeeper Jake Gleeson. While Cristhian Paredes, Diego Chara and Andy Polo made up the defensive midfield line, Polo was employed to press more forward as a supporting wing and drop back on defense to help Chara and Paredes. With Adi slotted as the lone striker and Valeri paired up with Sebastian Blanco as the attacking midfield, it appeared that Savarese had the strongest available attack at his disposal. Savarese could bring on Samuel Armenteros, Jack Barmby, Andres Flores if the offense needed help, or use Jeff Attinella, Marco Farfan, Julio Cascante or Lawrence Olum if the defense needed fortifying.

Minnesota has been a rather up and down team early in 2018, but much improved over their initial MLS season last year as Coach Adrian Heath has seen a massive influx of talent across the board. While the attack took a hit when Kevin Molino was lost for the 2018 season due to injury after he had scored 2 goals in 2 matches, the Loons still have several players that can be dangerous in the right spots. Darwin Quintero is regarded as a highly accomplished scorer as the team's first ever Designated Player, while Christian Ramirez, Miguel Ibarra and MLS veteran Ethan Finlay give MNUFC options. Ibson and Rasmus Schuller give the spine some teeth, while another MLS veteran, Matt Lampson, has emerged in goal for the club. Considering MNUFC has wins over Chicago and Orlando City this year, Portland couldn't overlook the challenges their visitors presented one bit. This was a different club from the group that was ransacked to start 2017, and Heath has been able to employ a style that gives them confidence and danger. For Savarese, he could be pleased the Timbers were showing some fight to get draws versus FC Dallas and Chicago with some improved play, but the memory of coughing up 3 goals in 10 minutes versus Orlando was lingering over his group.

Portland Timbers, Providence Park, MLS, Major League Soccer
Fanendo Adi added his name to the 2018 scoring log with a second half goal.
After the Timbers Army continued their tradition of singing the National Anthem, which started on that fateful night in 2011 and has remained for every MLS home opener since, the two teams started the first 20 minutes trading back and forth runs with Adi and MNUFC defender Jerome Thiesson both having quality shots blocked. The battle continued until the 20th minute when Powell took an outlet pass from Mabiala and tried to move on the right side near the half line, and the MNUFC team was happy to oblige. What followed was an end to end run where Powell didn't pass the ball nor get stopped, and after a stepover fake to make the defense pause, he launched a right footed volley that found nothing but net. It brought the stadium to its feet in celebration, and the frenzy continued when after Polo had a shot blocked in the 23rd minute, Powell collected a pass from Paredes to cross into the box. The ball glanced off Ibarra toward goal, and it was Valeri who shook his mark and was first to the ball for a deftly placed shot into goal for a 2 to 0 lead. Ibarra thought he had brought his side back just 2 minutes later off a cross from Thiesson past Gleeson, but after center official Jose Rivero didn't waive off the goal, the VAR review ruled Ibarra was offside and waived off the tally.

Blanco struck the crossbar in the 30th minute off a solid sequence of passing, but the Timbers weren't able to add anything more to the lead. Gleeson, however, denied Ibarra in the 42nd minute when MNUFC defender Marc Burch put a cross into the box and Ibarra headed it towards the left post. Gleeson was able to push the ball clear for a corner, and the Timbers were able to clear out the remaining threats to keep the lead at 2 to 0. The first half statistics showed the Timbers with advantages in several categories, but Minnesota was enjoying more possession and solid passing accuracy although they weren't getting much done in the final third. While Polo's speed was causing plenty of coverage issues for MNUFC, the Timbers were also leaving Mabiala and Tuiloma to cover the backline and threats as Powell was pouring forward nearly at will to aid the offense. While Valentin stayed behind to help out on the press, there were a few moments of miscommunication amongst the defense that could have been a lot worse.
Portland Timbers, Timbers, MLS, Major League Soccer, Providence Park
Congrats to Gio for the 1st MLS win

Heath replaced Burch with rookie Carter Manley at the break, and the change seemed to have opened up more space for MNUFC. With the rain slightly subsiding, the teams traded possession and runs to start the second half until the 58th minute when Gleeson leaped up to push away a Ramirez chance from close range with a lovely reaction save. MNUFC kept up the pressure and the dam finally broke when Quintero slotted home a shot in the 64th minute off a thrown in when he spun past his mark, and beat Gleeson with a tight angled shot. Quintero and Ramirez had notable chances in the 72nd and 73rd minute until Portland extended their lead. Blanco moved the ball from left to the right post for Valeri, who dropped a pass right to a waiting Paredes. His bouncing shot spun past the MNUFC defense to find Adi's head and he calmly pushed it past a lunging Lampson to restore a 2 goal lead at 3 to 1. Adi thought he had another brace in the 78th minute when he muscled past a defender to slam forth a shot past Lampson, but upon VAR review, it was ruled that Adi was offside on the pass and the goal was waived off, so the score remained 3 to 1 with 12 minutes left.

Savarese had gone to his bench in the 74th to replace Polo with Andres Flores to switch up the Timbers into a more defensive mindset, but the plans started to crumble in the 81st minute when Quintero put a cross into the path of MNUFC substitute Abu Danladi with Gleeson slow to react. Tuiloma was first to the ball, but instead of clearing it away, the ball was bumped past Gleeson into the net for an own goal. The final minutes saw Minnesota threated with various runs about the Timbers defense, and Savarese brought on Marco Farfan for Blanco to further bunker down. It appeared that Quintero's goal had rattled Gleeson a lot, and the pressure that had been building all match toward Mabiala, Valentin, Powell, and Tuiloma was causing a lot of miscommunication and mistakes. Had Minnesota been more purposeful with some of their runs to exploit space better, the results here might have been different - but Portland did just enough to hold off the rally and earn their first 2018 victory. The possession numbers were decidedly in Minnesota's favor in the second half, and when they brought on Manley for Burch, the move was done to try and neutralize Powell's movement forward. In the first half, Alvas was a huge part of the offense, but in the second half, he was forced to stay back more and defend which cut away from the attack.

Portland now had another home match on April 22nd when New York City FC visits with one of the heroes from the 2015 MLS Cup Timbers side, forward Rodney Wallace. For my money, the players of this match really fell upon Blanco, who was very effective at exploiting space, Valeri, who created something out of little with his goal, and Powell, who was the best offensive threat in the first 45 minutes. I liked Adi's work later in the match, as he became more of a threat later in the match once Minnesota was forced to press forward being down by two at the break, but it would have been great to see more of that earlier. With Vytas nearly healthy after suffering a thigh injury, David Guzman rehabbing after injuring a knee on international duty, and Gleeson being a bit jittery in this match, I'm expecting some changes in the starters and game day roster by Savarese, but we will have to wait to see the midweek updates to confirm who is actually available for next Sunday. While it wasn't pretty at points - Gleeson looked lost at points and failed to organize his defense better, and the Timbers were forced to bunker - the resulting win should give them some much needed confidence.

Friday, April 13, 2018

We Finally Get A Home Match for 2018

press box, Providence Park, MLS, Major League Soccer, Portland,
Back for year 10 of coverage. I'm pretty excited
I wasn't able to watch the Portland Timbers match versus Orlando City as I was busy in facilitation training over at Trillium Charter School all weekend. For the past 3 years, I meet each Monday night with a group of men who are trying to deal with their shadows and issues; the training that I completed over the weekend was on effective communication skills to foster accountability and direct communication. If it sounds boring, it's really wasn't - as I learned how verbal communication can be made more effective to help lessen stress and misunderstandings. Few people I know like being held accountable, because we would all like to believe that we can hold ourselves to our own standards. I knew I wouldn't be able to see the Timbers because of this work, but I was able to track the match during breaks to see the score and general events. On the final break of the training, the Timbers were up 2 to 0 and all seemed right with the world, but when I finally got a chance for a update upon the program's conclusion, Portland had coughed up the lead in the final 10 minutes for an inexplicable 3 to 2 loss.

I was flabbergasted at how quickly this situation had unraveled, but wanted to reserve comments about the result until I got home to talk with my wife, Jennifer. Within seconds of arriving at home, she asked me if I had heard about the Timbers, and after indicating I'd heard the score, I asked her what happened. "Well, it was a total collapse in the final minutes and Toledo.." was all that I needed to hear to reach some type of judgement, but she had further explained about an odd pattern of substitutes, MLS officiating being MLS, and some unfortunate events in the final 10 minutes to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I was able to read more about the result from other outlets, watch replays of certain events and generally piece together the theme - Portland was amazing for about 70 minutes with solid defense and attacking soccer, but when we changed up the personnel, the moves were more to manage the match instead of more pressing. Portland gave up a goal, and with the officiating greatly influencing Orlando's second goal (VAR reviews the situation with Blanco early, but yet, Dwyer's dive after contact with Powell warrants nothing?) the momentum was clearly with the home side. Portland played to hang on, and they weren't able to do that thus putting tons of questions about for their home opener on April 14 versus Minnesota United FC.

Sebastian Blanco, MLS, Portland Timbers, Timbers, Providence Park
The early season MVP for Portland in 2018 so far. 
Portland finished their opening five match road streak with just 2 points and a 0 win, 2 draw, 3 loss record. Only the drubbing in New York at the hands of the Red Bulls did Portland appear over matched or disinterested in playing, but otherwise, the 2018 team has been competitive in most aspects. While the offense has started to find some rhythm with Diego Valeri now being more influential, the main focal point of the attack has fallen squarely on Sebastian Blanco, who has been outstanding to start the year. Defensively, Bill Tuiloma has taken over one of the starting center back jobs after Liam Ridgewell was benched after the loss to the Red Bulls, and he and Larrys Mabiala have been generally solid and organized. Jake Gleeson hasn't made as many glaring mistakes as we have seen from him in previous years, but the defense overall has been trying to find its form and left Gleeson to fend for himself a lot. With Diego Chara now fully back and acclimating and David Guzman in and out for international duty, the midfield engine has experienced some misfiring. We have seen some glimpses from the new talent - Andy Polo, Cristhian Paredes, Samuel Armenteros - but this still feels like a team trying to figure out its identity.

Even with the Timbers returning much of the core from 2017's Western Conference winning side, there have been enough major changes to the side that could explain this early disconnect. Portland is still adjusting to the Gio Savarese era and he has everyone playing different tactics from the previous era - possession is important, but the team is actually designed to work without the ball just as much. Even the defense and goalkeeping have been put into the mix as ball distributors with a design to move the ball as much as possible, and that's difficult to capture and understand not seeing it up close. I think another big issue for the Timbers right now is trying to find leadership within the players, especially with Ridgewell sidelined for a poor effort against New York and several nagging injuries. There's been mention of other team transgressions that have led to fines and other discipline, and it's entirely normal to players to test the boundaries against a new coach; but the leadership vacuum has also reared its ugly head in results with the Fire and Orlando City. Both matches were easily winnable except for late collapses that turned both from 2 wins to a loss and draw. I love Valeri and his efforts on the pitch, but leadership also comes from holding others accountable on the pitch and being a little fiery. I think Blanco has quickly become an emotional leader for the team, and it's great to have leadership come from various sources, but the defense truly needs someone to rally around. You would hope the answers would have been figured out during pre-season, but sometimes, they jump into the regular season.

Timbers, Portland Timbers, MLS, Major League Soccer, team huddle, Providence Park
Bring your rain gear, people, there will be a monsoon. 
Portland gets no rest in returning to home to face Minnesota United, the same opponent who helped them start the 2017 MLS season at home. MNUFC was expected to be a huge dumpster fire, but after some struggles to start 2017, the team actually rebounded to post some impressive results (including a win over the Timbers in MN) and their 2017 season was decent in comparison to other MLS expansion sides. The team has made some exciting changes to add some firepower, but they lost their most dynamic player, Kevin Molino, to season ending injury just 2 matches into 2018. Ethan Finlay gives them veteran presence while Miguel Ibarra, Ibson and Christian Ramirez have been getting more familiar with the attack in midfield. Much like the Timbers, their defense is still trying to find themselves but Matt Lampson appears to have become the choice in goal. It might be easy to overlook MNUFC because of their offensive problems, but consider they have beaten the Fire and Orlando City by 2 to 1 scores for their 2 victories, and you can see that there is some source of concern here. Portland can't just assume the home pitch magic and talent will be enough to dispatch Minnesota, even with the date in question having significance in MLS Timbers history.

Yet the recipes for a similar outcome to what happened in 2011 seem very similar to this group - a team that had spent several weeks away from Portland under a new coach, searching for identity and leadership, and they return home to a rabid home side under the threat of driving rain for the match. The result on that night in 2011 turned out very good for the home team as the emotions and excitement were enough to push the young side to a win, and I'm actually predicting a similar outcome with a 3 to 1 scoreline. The Timbers have waited and wanted this for some time, and I think the home pitch will bring forth some of that vaunted magic one more time. Over the next few weeks, more of the traditional predictions crew will be back to provide thoughts, but in accounting for time, the cats have wanted time to see more matches before giving their thoughts. It's been a long time coming for us to see the home team in Portland, and despite the challenges and conditions, I think it will be a load of fun. I hope I'm right.