Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Paredes & Armenteros Lead Timbers To Dramatic Win Over LAFC

Samuel Armenteros put up quite the celebration after his second half goal.
Every team's schedule is full of trap matches, and you could excuse the Portland Timbers if they looked at their May 19 date with the Los Angeles Football Club as one of these. After an emotionally draining victory over their fierce rivals from the North, the Seattle Sounders FC, on May 13 that wasn't decided until late, Portland didn't get much time to rest on any laurels with LAFC visiting and a national audience on FOX awaiting the early afternoon kick. The Timbers had some issues finding their offensive rhythm until they struck in the second half, but LAFC made it interesting by leveling the match minutes later. It was then when Timbers Coach Gio Savarese brought on Samuel Armenteros for a late push, and Armenteros added his name to a rather unique club when he tallied his first ever MLS goal while the Timbers Army was singing "You Are My Sunshine". The "sunshine goal" was enough to push Portland to an impressive 2 to 1 victory for their fifth win in a row, but as with anything during this current streak, it wasn't easy and it had plenty of challenges.

Rivalry matches always have plenty of emotion and spite to them, and while many of the cast of characters were different from previous iterations, you could tell the Timbers were exhausted after dealing with them for 90 minutes. Expansion sides bring in their own level of difficulties when facing them for the first time, especially in terms of the unknown; expansion clubs bring in a mix of MLS veterans looking to continue their career in a new stop, unproven MLS talent who didn't establish themselves with their former team due to injuries or competition, talent acquired through draft or free agency, and bringing over other skilled players to build around. LAFC have an intriguing mix of speed throughout their roster, combined with long time veterans like Benny Feilhaber, Walker Zimmermann, Jordan Harvey, Laurent Ciman and Steven Beitashour filling key roles. LAFC found former USMNT manager Bob Bradley to coach their side, and Bradley added international coaching experience to his resume after being relieved of USMNT duties back in 2011 before Bradley coached several MLS sides in previous years. Like many expansion clubs (think Portland Timbers in 2011), when they are good, they are very good, and when it's bad, it's really, really bad; LAFC came into the match sitting in second place in the MLS Western Conference with 20 points on 6 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses with some impressive wins and even more entertaining failures. There is plenty to build around in LAFC with Carlos Vela, and the franchise itself has been very strong in getting a new stadium, solid TV and sponsorship deals and cultivating a burgeoning supporters' group.

Diego Chara was very busy all afternoon dealing with challenges.
Bradley made the decision to start fleet footed Diego Rossi with Vela and SKC castoff Latif Blessing to interject some pace in their attack, but at the same token, Bradley picked several extremely physical players - Feilhaber, Ciman, Harvey, Beitashour, Zimmerman - and that led to a very difficult approach for the Timbers to deal with. There was pace all over the place, but in getting used to that, there was plenty of extra curricular activities that occurred all over the pitch, from flying elbows to excessive tackles to hard challenges and plenty of talking. Center Official Drew Fischer decided to let the sides play for the most part, but he did end up issuing 6 cautions on the day once it was all said and done. The biggest issue with Fischer's officiating was the lack of consistency within various calls, and in one case in the first half, Diego Chara received a caution for a foul on Feilhaber while he was being elbowed in the process. Since none of the fouls were considered clear and obvious errors, VAR wasn't consulted in any instance, but in retrospect, I found the match as one of the worst officiated affairs in some time. I can understand the judgement in certain instances where an official might not see something because of the angle or actions taken, but by the same token, Fischer's approach essentially meant that nobody was sure what would be called once the whistle blew.

With all of the distractions going on after the emotional match versus the Flounders, Savarese chose not to mess with success in using the same starting eleven that faced Seattle: Jeff Attinella in goal, Zarek Valentin, Liam Ridgewell, Larrys Mabiala and Alvas Powell on defense, Cristhian Paredes, Diego Chara and Andy Polo as the defensive midfielders, Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco as the attacking midfielders and Fanendo Adi as the lone striker. The approach would bring Polo and Paredes back to aid the defense when countered against, but otherwise, Polo would push forward to aid Valeri and Blanco to support Adi on offense. The approach has yielded some of the best offensive soccer for Portland this year, but there have been struggles at points when teams try and alter the pace with extreme physicality or packing the defensive line - Seattle played 10 men behind the ball at all points in an attempt to stall and frustrate the Timbers. Savarese couldn't have been very happy when 6 minutes into the match, Ridgewell was taken down on a hard tackle and had to leave because of injury, thus allowing Julio Cascante to make his home and MLS debut for the Timbers. Cascante didn't miss a beat, however, and his inclusion was seamless within the defensive approach for Portland.

Welcome to Portland, Julio Cascante
The first 45 minutes did provide some interesting observations outside of the Ridgewell/Cascante switch, as Adi got the best early chance for Portland off a through ball with the LAFC defense caught flat footed. Adi's shot struck the post, however, and Powell couldn't do anything with the rebound, but Adi, Cascante, Mabiala and Valeri all had quality shot attempts in the following minutes. Blanco, meanwhile, was pulled down hard by LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye by the shirt in the 20th minute and was down for several minutes, while Beitashour was carded seconds later off a corner kick elbowing Adi in the head. The back and forth movement and crashing continued for the rest of the first half with Chara getting booked just before first half stoppage against Feilhaber, yet Fischer had spent several times talking with Benny about his various bumps and challenges. While the match being scoreless wasn't a huge surprise, it was slightly frustrating for the home side considering the advantages in shots and quality chances. The only downside that could possibly be argued with is time of possession as LAFC had a decidedly huge advantage there (60 percent to 40 percent), but one of Savarese's key tenets this year is that possession isn't really necessary in order to be dangerous and attack minded. Another surprising fact for me is that Paredes continued to start the second half, as the young midfielder was leveled in first half stoppage and spent several minutes on the turf. When he arose, he walked gingerly to the side pitch without Fischer making any call about the contact.

Tensions were still flowing as the second half started but the Timbers were able to jump out ahead in the 51st minute. Cascante had played a ball forward for Blanco, who was dropped for a hard tackle outside the box about 20 yards from goal, giving Valeri the green light to put in on frame. While LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller made the initial free kick save, he spilled the ball to the right where Paredes was waiting clear of defenders. The midfielder tapped it easily into goal to put the home side up to start the celebration. The happy thoughts were short lived when Kaye leveled Chara at midpitch after the restart, and Valentin received a caution for defending his teammate and getting in Kaye's face about the foul. While Kaye also got booked, the intensity was escalating the contact for both groups. The volleying continued as the substitutes started taking the pitch, and LAFC was able to take advantage of a slight lapse when Vela was played into space on the right in the 74th minute as the Timbers were trying to find marks. Vela has a history of making quality distance goals, and this one was no exception as he timed and placed it perfectly to slide past Attinella into the left corner of goal to level the score. Savarese made his last two moves to bring on Armenteros for Adi and Andres Flores for Polo to change up the attack, and the updates did pay off eventually in the 81st minute.

Man Of The Match For Me. Well done, Cristhian
The Timbers Army talk greatly about the history of the "Sunshine Goal" which started during the USL era when a Timbers player would score while the Army was singing their signature song, "You Are My Sunshine" in honor and inspired by Timber Jim, the team's former lumberman and now ambassador of love. I have borne witness to the 3 previous goals that were scored like this - my favorite might be the 2010 Ryan Pore effort that secured a win in the Timbers' last USL era match - but this goal might rival it. Paredes played a spectacular outlet after LAFC had countered to relieve Portland's pressure on 2 consecutive corners to Armenteros, and the striker launched a crazy shot into the left corner of goal to beat Miller. He celebrated this tally by running off the pitch and up the stars to the main Timbers Army capo stand to celebrate with the fans, hugging several of them in the process. It was a wonderful, emotional moment that has been recounted in several videos online, but Fischer spoiled the moment in carding Armenteros for excessive celebration. Both sides continued to press for more, and Flores had a completely open net to shoot at in stoppage time to add an extra goal, but he scuffed the shot as Paredes took another shot at the final whistle. Bradley was complaining vociferously after the match was over, and Savarese was trying to calm him down afterwards.

For the first match between sides without much history, there was certainly a lot of venom displayed. To their credit, Portland played smart and measured football and took advantage of situations where they could.  Even with the extremely physical play, the Timbers kept their heads and avoided being drawn into extra discipline or escalating actions, yet they also stepped up to aid their teammates when needed. Defensively, the team was very strong and organized, especially with the changeover due to Ridgewell's injury and Attinella is playing with such confidence and poise right now. If there is a bigger trap game in their future, however, it might be this weekend - as the Timbers travel to Colorado to play the Rapids on May 26. The Rapids are again struggling to find their purpose, but Portland traditionally struggles playing there for whatever reason, but at this point. there shouldn't be too many reasons why Portland can't extend the streak to 6. We'll see if they are able to pull this off, but right now, I wouldn't count against them.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Predictions Thread - Portland Timbers vs. Los Angeles Football Club

GB is not very interested in saying anything about LAFC
It was another tough week in predictions land as none of the cats were very interested in providing thoughts about the Portland Timbers playing Los Angeles Football Club, or LAFC as they are more commonly known. Tortie, normally a chatterbox of information, was noticeably silent while her partner, GB, just started into space without saying a word. So essentially, there are no predictions for this upcoming match.

I can't say I'm overly surprised especially since LAFC is a brand new expansion side joining MLS this year. At this point, we know that Portland's opponent sits second in the Western Conference and their offensive output has put them in the top 5 teams in MLS in goals scored. Much like most expansion sides within MLS, when they are very good, they are very good - they beat RSL, Vancouver and Montreal on the road; when they are awful, they are very, very bad - they were holding their own versus their cross town team, the Los Angeles Galaxy, until collapsing late, and Atlanta blew them out by 5 goals. So at this point, there is anybody's guess as to what side will show up tomorrow to play the Timbers. In remembering the 2011 version of the Timbers, it was a very similar pattern - the first MLS version of the Timbers could go from awesome to horrible from match to match, sometimes within the same match.

What we can tell you is that it will be a midafternoon on national TV with FOX handling the broadcasting chores, and there will be plenty of people there to sing & chant for victory. I was actually expecting a little bit of an emotional hangover after the win versus Seattle last week, but training this week appears to have kept the team on edge for this one. Portland has won 4 in a row and is currently pitching 3 shutouts in a row, but to enter the conversation for great teams in MLS, this is a match where they could make an impression or implode spectacularly. We saw implosion in New York against the Red Bulls, I'm thinking tomorrow is more of making a big impression. We shall see, and perhaps that will be enough to get the cats interested for next time.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Blanco Leads Timbers To Dramatic 1 to 0 Win Over Seattle Sounders FC

Timbers goalkeeper
Jeff Attinella gets ready for a shot on goal.
Rivalry matches often defy convention because they don't require stakes or consequences for the participants. Current records, streaks, form, injury status - none of that matters when a club faces their most fierce and despised opponent, and it's because of that where the derby matches take on a complexion of their own. For the Portland Timbers, they had played some of their best soccer in 2018 to date leading up to hosting their arch rival from Washington, the Seattle Sounders FC. In an odd twist, the teams would be meeting on May 13, 2018 for the 100th time throughout various leagues and competitions and there was plenty of fanfare associated with the rivalry hitting the century mark. However, because of the unbalance schedule for MLS in 2018 when Los Angeles Football Club joined, this match would have no bearing on the 2018 Cascadia Cup race. While the opposing supporters were certainly giving it their best, the combatants in the match struggled to find anything that would work consistently until the home side finally broke free with a late goal from Sebastian Blanco. This led to a wild, intense finish but Blanco's 85th minute tally would end up being the only goal of the day as the Timbers secured a 1 to 0 win for their 3rd consecutive shut out win. Portland had last accomplished the 3 shutout wins in a row back in 2007, so it had been a while; but it's very apparent the defense has started to find their confidence through this stretch.

Just over a month ago, Portland lost in Orlando City when the home side scored 3 goals in the final 10 minutes to steal a victory, but since that dramatic result, the Timbers have won 4 in a row starting with a gut check win against Minnesota United to start their home slate of matches. Timbers Coach Gio Savarese has made some dramatic changes in the lineup since that win by bringing in goalkeeper Jeff Attinella and defender Liam Ridgewell for the match against New York, and mixing up the attacking philosophy. The tactics since this changeover have resulted in 3 wins by shutout with 5 total goals highlighted by an improving defense and an opportunistic offense. Attinella and Ridgewell would again get the call to start against Seattle in defense alongside compatriots Larrys Mabiala, Alvas Powell and Zarek Valentin. Savarese would change up the attack by going with the Christmas Tree formation of 3 central midfielders, 2 attacking midfielders and a lone striker. To that end, it was Diego Chara, Cristhian Paredes and Andy Polo playing defense mids, Blanco and Diego Valeri slotted as attacking mids and Fanendo Adi as the forward. In this approach, it would be imperative to see Polo, Valentin and Powell get forward as much as possible to help the offense, but they would need to drop back quickly if a counter attack arose. Considering this approach worked so well versus NYCFC, it seemed like a good move to bring it back for another run against an extremely depleted Sounders side.
Zarek Valentin leaps to head the ball in first half action

Seattle had drawn against Columbus at home on May 6 in a scoreless snooze fest before playing their first MLS midweek match in Toronto FC against the defending champions. They shocked many experts by beating TFC 2 to 1 before heading back to the Pacific Northwest to play their rivals to the South. Sounders FC Coach Brian Schmetzer would have to dig deep on his bench to find a lineup with six key players - Will Bruin, Waylon Francis, Nicolas Lodiero, Jordan Morris, Roman Torres and Victor Rodriguez - unavailable, and his tasks got worse when it was discovered that Osvaldo Alonzo would not be ready to play either. Seattle still had Stefan Frei in goal, who has been solid at times, Chad Marshall, the steady and insightful defender, and Cristian Roldan, who has quietly become a solid playmaking force. The mercurial one, Clint Dempsey, was also healthy and available, and the Sounders have brought in Roldan's brother, Alex, who has provided some good depth as well. Schmetzer did employ what attacking options he had available in his starting line up with Dempsey, the Roldans and forward Jordy Delem, but the approach would be to leave midfielders Gunnar Svensson and Mangus Eikrem at home in the middle. When attacking, defenders Kelvin Leerdam and Nouhou Tolo would move forward as much as possible, but in defense, they would drop back and bunker in front of Frei. It was very much a "park the bus" approach, but considering Seattle had played midweek already,  you could understand a more conservative approach.

And despite being the 100th such meeting of the sides, there were really no stakes to play for outside of pride. MLS has been following an unbalanced schedule for several years and 2018 was no exception, but in this year, the unbalanced impacted the Cascadia Cup. While the Timbers and Sounders would play each other 3 times in the regular season, the Sounders and Timbers only play the Vancouver Whitecaps 2 times in 2018 - thus throwing off the balance. The Cascadia Cup Council made up of representatives of the varied supporters groups (Timbers Army, Southsiders, Emerald City Supporters/Gorilla FC to name a few) decided to only count the last 2 Timbers-Sounders meetings, so this result would not affect the status of the Cup. For the current holders of said cup, the Timbers Army, this meant having to wait for June 30th when the Timbers travel north to start officially defending their honor. But as previously mentioned, rivalries don't depend so much on stakes and that was apparent in arriving to the match 2 hours ahead of kick to find both supporters groups already stuck in song and getting ready for the later events.

falling down
After a slow start, the physicality picked up greatly in this match.
For all the intensity, however, the teams really started out very slow and cautious during the first half. For the Sounders, they had 2 near misses from Tolo and their best chance of the first 45 was a drop pass from A. Roldan to the feet of a charging Dempsey at the top of the box in the 44th minute with space to work. Number 2 pulled his shot way wide of the right post attacking the South Deck, but that was essentially the most credible threat. For the Timbers, Valeri, Blanco and Adi had good chances - Adi was just offside in the 15th minute by half a step clear on goal, and his 32nd minute shot off a cross was pulled clear - and Polo was creating lots of space for himself, but the most notable events involved tackles. In the 34th minute, Delem slammed into Valeri's leg from behind on a late tackle to earn the game's first caution, but Center Official Robert Sibiga left the call at yellow despite the force of the tackle and coming from behind. The intensity of the match picked up from there as Blanco was nearly booked in the 36th minute for a hard foul on A. Roldan and Ridgewell earned a booking for a cynical foul on a breakaway in the 44th minute that was considerably forceful and could have earned a harsher penalty. Sibiga didn't interact with VAR in any of these instances, but it was very apparent the teams were starting to find their chippy side.

Seattle's conservative strategy continued after the break as the visitors logged just 2 shots in the second half with nothing official after the 63rd minute. Tolo's shot in the 48th minute forced Attinella to make a quality catch in traffic, but outside of that, the offense in the second half belonged to Portland. Valeri and Adi worked a lovely one-two drop pass near the box that put Diego free on goal in the 59th minute, but Svensson was able to deflect the shot away at the very last moment with Frei out of position. Polo and Valentin worked to create space in the 68th minute with Polo putting a curling shot towards Frei that forced a save from the Sounders keeper, but with the minutes ticking away, it appeared that the Sounders might steal a point as the Timbers couldn't find a goal. Mabiala missed a header in the 84th minute off a corner kick that looked like the last real chance of the day until substitute Samuel Armenteros created the game winning goal. Armenteros entered for Adi in the 79th minute and tried to earn a penalty in the 80th minute when Chara put a pass to Samuel to the top of the box with Marshall nearby. The Seattle centerback and Armenteros collided accidentally going for the ball in the box, and while there were calls for a penalty, Sibiga waived them off.

Sebastian Blanco
This is comical. Yet very scary at the same time.
Armenteros and Blanco found their space in the 86th minute when Samuel captured the ball in traffic near the top of the box with 3 defenders and Blanco nearby. In a wonderful execution, Armenteros dropped a pass to Blanco in time and onside with the defenders slow to react, and by the time Sebastian found the ball, he was alone on goal with just Frei to stop him. A deft spinning shot to the left post was created by Blanco, and Frei was helpless to watch the ball spin just inside the post for the goal. The match then went into overdrive with the Sounders throwing players forward, and with an injury to defender Kim Kee-Hee in the second half, the Timbers had to navigate through 6 minutes of called stoppage time and a VAR review of a foul on Blanco when he took out Delem with a deft shoulder to shoulder bump. Sibiga didn't discipline Blanco any more than the yellow, but with stoppage time hitting nearly 10 minutes before it was finally done, the Timbers could breath a sigh of relief to post the victory. The post match celebration saw Blanco put on a mask of Chucky, the character from the Child's Play series of movies, to receive his log slice, but we also learned that this was Blanco's nickname from his playing days in Argentina.

Portland won't get that much rest as they continue their home stand on Saturday, May 19 in hosting LAFC before they travel to Colorado to play the Rapids on May 26. Portland then gets another back to back home matches as the Galaxy visit Providence Park on Saturday, June 2 followed by a visit from Sporting Kansas City on June 9. The Timbers then get a break for most of June for World Cup 2018 before they make a tough road trip to Atlanta on June 24 and the Seattle match on June 30th. There is also U.S. Open Cup matches forthcoming, as rumors put the Timbers' opening match for the annual competition sometime in mid June as well. But for now, the supporters and the cats can celebrate a hard fought victory against the invaders from the North.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Prediction Thread - Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders FC 5/13/18

This never gets old
I know what was posted in my last update after the epic win over New York City FC - the prediction thread that used be housed at my old site and brought over here was returning for May 5 for the San Jose match. But a funny thing happened on the way to actually sending out the emails to my crack staff of soccer analysts and cats - nobody responded. Whether it was a lack of respect for the opponent, not wanting to jinx the result or paying attention to so many other things, the prediction thread just never got started. With a busy day at the house, I was only able to pop in and out to watch the highlights of the match and apparently it was a total slog fest. The Timbers were having issues staying upright on the "pitch", but in the end, it was Diego Valeri who won the match off one of the most incredible free kick goals that I've seen. The win is Portland's third in a row since the disheartening loss in Orlando City to end their early season road trip, and has given the season some early life.

And this couldn't come at a better time with the next match on the fixture list - a date with the Seattle Sounders at home on Mother's Day. Rivalry matches always have a ton of spice to them regardless of records or current team form, but this match also represents the 100th meeting between the two side over various leagues. With both teams being founded in the 1970's, there have been several memorable moments between them over the years - my first ever Timbers match was in 2001 when the Portland Timbers were resurrected in the A-League and they hosted the Sounders at the renovated PGE Park. My first road trip in the Timbers Army was the 2004 playoff match in Seattle, I've made the trip up north more times that I can count, and it never really changes in many respects - winning never gets old and losing always is frustrating. But that's the difference between other matches and rivalry matches - the stakes are automatically heightened because of the opponent. I can still remember the 2010 Sounders Community Shield match at Century Link when the Timbers were invited to participate in the new competition, and Portland shocked the hosts by winning the cup in a tense 1 to 0 battle. I've never enjoyed a bus ride home more.

Of course this would be the first match upon the return, and it's taken a bit of time to get back into the form and structure. My original goal was to have a full panel of writers and cats for this, but for this week, it's a skeleton crew of three panelists this week. We'll do our best to add to the collective as the weeks go on:

Kenny the cat
Rick & Kenny: Timber 2, Sounders FC 0.

My readings of (King) Kenny's litter box last suggested that he was leaning towards a 6 to 4 Timbers victory. That was before he found out about the Sounders unexpected 2 to 1 win in Toronto, fielding a weakened team. Upon re-examination, it appears he was suggesting that we'll go with a 4-4-2 formation. The number of toy mice at my feet and a total lack of any interest in a fish supper I prepared indicates a 2 to 0 victory.

All hail the queen of the blanket
Tortie: Timbers 9, Sounders FC 3.

Tortie was the only cat that wanted to chat about the match when I asked, and she eeped 9 times for the home side versus 3 for the visitors. When I asked her why, she said, "eep blergh meow eep purr bloot". I can't argue with that reasoning one bit.

Me in my natural state waiting for a bus. 
Kip: Timbers 3, Sounders FC 1.

Portland is on a roll and I feel it will continue at home. The Sounders have collectively struggled in 2018 on all aspects, but shocked many by beating another struggling team in Toronto FC midweek. This has all the makings of a trap game, but I don't think the Timbers will look past their opponents. I expect them to press early and often to send the home fans home happy.

After the interview, it appears that many of the other cats got more interested so I would expect to see them in the coming weeks. As far as Jennifer's prediction, she said that the Timbers will lose in an incredibly spectacular way, and the player's tears will cool off the pitch as they come face to face with the impacts of the crushing loss.