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.

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