Sunday, June 17, 2018

Timbers Advance in U.S. Open Cup Play Over Galaxy Courtesy of Sebastian Blanco

2018 Timbers MVP
Sebastian Blanco has been the MVP of 2018 for the Timbers in my opinion.
Friday nights are odd at Providence Park, especially considering many soccer fans had spent most of their day watching action from the 2018 World Cup in Russia. With Major League Soccer on their annual summer break, the Portland Timbers were looking forward to a break in play from their last league match (a draw versus Sporting Kansas City on June 9) and a road date in Atlanta to play former Timber Darlington Nagbe and his new side, Atlanta United, on June 24. However, the club would get an opportunity to keep sharp during the off time courtesy of the 2018 U.S. Open Cup tournament. After knocking off San Jose in their opening match on June 6 at home (MLS teams joined the single elimination tournament in Round 4 of the winner take all competition to crown the best soccer club in the U.S.), Portland would play their Round 5 match in the friendly confines of Providence Park against a team they've grown familiar with in 2018, the Los Angeles Galaxy. After losing to the Galaxy to start the 2018 MLS season back in March on the road and playing to an uninspired draw just 13 days earlier in Portland where Timbers Coach Gio Savarese lamented wasted chances, the Timbers finally got some revenge behind an inspired defensive effort, timely saves from goalkeeper Jeff Attinella and a wonder strike from Sebastian Blanco in the 30th minute to secure a 1 to 0 victory. Portland now awaits the winner of the Sacramento Republic - Los Angeles Football Club match midweek to know who they will play and where, since the Republic - LAFC winner will host them on July 18th in the USOC Quarterfinals.

When talking U.S.t Open Cup history and the Portland Timbers, those words combined can invoke several different, stark memories - from heart wrenching losses to a certain team up North, a volcanic meltdown by the same team in one of the most dramatic results at Starfire Sports Complex, some baffling losses and solid victories. In playing a single elimination tournament where a winner must be crowned each round without replays, odd breaks and emotional moments are par for the course in this tournament. Portland has also had a history of playing early round matches away from the Rose City, so being able to play their first two matches in front of their home fans is truly special. With the stadium expansion project already impacting the home side of fixtures, Timbers fans appreciated the extra chance to see their favorites play outside of MLS play - with over 14,000 fans filling the west, north and south decks of the park. With all the energy from the crowd, it would be up to Savarese to figure out a master plan to break down the Galaxy - something that he wasn't able to do in their June 2 meeting at home and only late in the March 4 opener due to handy work in the second half from Blanco and Diego Valeri.

empty Eastside deck
Stadium construction meant another match with no Eastside crowd.
Savarese decided to roll the dice, considering that Valeri had played in every MLS league fixture so far in 2018 and a rough 2 match road trip looming after the schedule break, and Gio let the Maestro sit this one out. Offensively, Savarese made the choice to play a more traditional 4 defender, 4 midfielder and 2 forward attack - which hadn't been done in league play yet, but was used in the pre-season to some success. Samuel Armenteros was a huge thorn against the Galaxy 13 days ago, and for this match, he would get the start alongside Fanendo Adi as the strike duo. Blanco, who has been a big catalyst for the Timbers all year, would be pushed out wide as an attacking midfielder alongside Andres Flores, Diego Chara and Lawrence Olum. In this formation, it would be up to Chara and Olum to patrol the middle and frustrate the Galaxy while funneling the ball out wide to their wings. With Attinella entrenched in goal, Savarese would use Zarek Valentin, Vytas, Larrys Mabiala and Bill Tuiloma as the defensive line. The last time the Galaxy saw Tuiloma, he was playing the right back position, but this time, he would tasked with supporting Mabiala and marking the box for attackers. With USOC rules restricting the game day 18 to just 5 foreign players allowed (green card holders are considered national), Savarese had a youthful bench of goalkeeper Jake Gleeson, defenders Modou Jadama and Alvas Powell, midfielders Eryk Williamson, Dairon Asprilla and Cristhian Paredes and forward Jeremy Ebobisse.

Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid used a very similar lineup to the one used for June 2, but much like Savarese, the 5 foreign player limit hampered some decision making. The team's big signing for 2018, forward Zlatan Ibrahimović, was in Russia doing promotional duties for World Cup 2018, but Schmid used goalkeeper David Bingham and the same defensive foursome - Ashley Cole, Michael Ciani, Jorgen Skjelvik and Dave Romney. It was Skjelvik's penalty against Flores in the 54th minute that gave Portland their only goal in the June 2 draw, but he's been otherwise stellar in solidifying a defensive line that was simply miserable in 2017. Servando Carrasco and Perry Kitchen would again be the defensive midfielders for the Galaxy, with attacking midfielders Bradford Jamieson, Chris Pontius and Emmanuel Boateng flanking out in the attack. Ola Kamara, the Galaxy's other big signing for 2018, was out on international duty for the June 2 meeting, but for this night, he was the sole striker. In their opening round USOC win, the Galaxy relied upon great play from Jamieson and forward Ariel Lassiter to advance, and Lassiter would be available as a sub in this one. In their last meeting, the battle between Chara and Kitchen led to several fouls and contentious moments, and the caution Diego received in the first half triggered a one match suspension for accumulation.

Timbers Army TIFO
Timbers Army tifo with a theme for 2018. Yes, I hope summer never ends.
In a rare change of sorts, I was able to produce a match recap for the official USOC site,, to cover the main events of the night. I've been a big fan of the site's work over the years, so for me to be able to contribute to it in some small fashion is a true honor. To add some thoughts to that post, it was a very active Armenteros that kept the Galaxy busy early with a near miss in the 11th minute. Chara and Tuiloma both challenged Bingham in the following 2 minutes, but the player of the first half was Blanco with 5 shots in the first 45 minutes. While 2 of them were blocked, it was Blanco's 30th minute tally that ended up being the game winner. Valentin was playing wide right and put a cross into Adi towards the right edge of the box, and Fanendo put a back heel right into Blanco's path on the right. Sebastian moved over to the left quickly on the dribble, but once he had space, he punched a shot back left that the Galaxy defense and Bingham couldn't stop, and the Timbers had the early lead. The Galaxy mustered just 2 shots on target for the half, with a Kamara miss in the 39th minute and a header from Skjelvik off a stoppage time corner kick that Mabiala headed clear of goal with Attinella pulled away by the defense. Statistically speaking, the sides played fairly even in terms of chances and possession, but the Timbers were more purposeful with their shots and challenging Bingham.

The second half had plenty of back and forth action, but honestly just two huge chances between the two sides. Armenteros struck the woodwork in the 55th minute off a cross from Valentin with a great one time shot, and he had 2 other near misses for his 90 minutes of work. The Galaxy had a shot from Pontius pulled wide of the right post in the 73rd minute, but their best effort of the night was a missile from Lassiter in the 89th minute. Carrasco dropped a pass in traffic to Lassiter just outside the box, and he put a laser on target, but Attinella leapt at the last second to push the shot over the bar to keep the Timbers on top. While the Galaxy had the overall advantages in possession and passing accuracy on the night, the Timbers were able to generate more quality shots and put more pressure on the Galaxy backline. This became even more apparent in the 75th minute when Asprilla replaced Adi and the Timbers went into more of a 4 - 2 - 3 - 1 formation with Chara and Olum staying home, Asprilla, Blanco and Flores shifting out wide for the attack, and Armenteros working as the lone striker. Showing versatility and adaptability in the attack was good to see from the Timbers, and showing some different wrinkles from the Christmas Tree formation where the Timbers have seen success should keep opponents from banking on what Portland will do from match to match.

Solidified the goal work for the 2018 Portland Timbers
I picked Blanco as MOTM, but Jeff Attinella was a very close second.
It was also great to see Adi and Armenteros play so well off each other; Adi's hold up play and passing was a key component for the offense, while Armenteros' energy and power really opened up space against the Galaxy backline. As well as Blanco did with the creativity in the offense and having Chara back to anchor the midfield, it bodes nicely to see the Timbers be able to attack the goal with Valeri sitting and Andy Polo off in the World Cup for weeks. Complacency is a big problem in MLS, so watching Savarese change up the focus with different players and formation and still having success on the pitch is huge for Portland as they turn their focus towards the next few weeks after the international break: June 24 in Atlanta, June 30 in Seattle, July 7 versus San Jose, July 15 at LAFC, July 18 USOC match at either LAFC or Sacramento, followed by 4 consecutive home matches against Montreal, Houston, Philadelphia and Vancouver. It's going to be very busy for sure, but from what I've seen from the Timbers and Savarese, they seem more than up for the challenges presented to them.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Timbers Fight Back To Draw With Galaxy, Extend Unbeaten Streak

Cristhian Paredes is doing some very limber things here. Pivoting for the win.
Atop the Western Conference of MLS going into the weekend action of June 2 and 3, two familiar teams sat atop the standings in Sporting Kansas City and FC Dallas - two perennial sides that have enjoyed recent success. Lurking just behind them is the surprise upstart club Los Angeles Football Club, followed by the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps. With new personnel and a change in philosophy under Coach Giovanni Savarese, many insiders have been surprised how quickly the Timbers have adapted to a versatile, evolving style of play. It wasn't easy in the early months, but after losing in Orlando City to start April, the Timbers hadn't lost in six consecutive matches. Match number 7 provided some familiar challenges with the Los Angeles Galaxy visiting on June 2 in a midafternoon tilt at Providence Park. The two sides already faced each other back on March 4 in Los Angeles to start the 2018 MLS season, and while the Timbers lost 2 to 1, there were encouraging signs in a second half battle after they fell behind by 2 quick goals. In their second and final regular season meeting for 2018, both teams were dealing with thin lineup options - Portland had an extensive injury list with 2 players out on World Cup duty, while the Galaxy played midweek in FC Dallas. While the Galaxy struck first, it was the Timbers who rallied in the second half to earn a penalty, and the two goals would end up being the extent of the scoring as the sides played to a contentious yet equitable 1 all draw in front of another sellout crowd.

Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid has faced the Timbers several times over the seasons, and can usually craft a reasonable plan of attack for his charges. After their dreadful 2017 season, Schmid was tasked with sharpening an offense that lacked true scoring punch while keeping some of the defensive toughness that had been already in place. They struggled early to find an identity, but their complexion changed greatly with the early season acquisition of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to pair with striker Ola Kamara to give the offense balance. Zlatan has been everything advertised, but Schmid didn't have Kamara or both dos Santos brothers available as all 3 players were with their international teams for World Cup 2018. This forced Schmid to play slightly more conservatively with his lineup, putting lightning fast Emmanuel Boateng up top as a lone striker with 3 attacking mids: MLS veteran Chris Pontius, finally healthy Sebastian Lleget, and Romain Alessandrini. Former San Jose backstop David Bingham has taken over in goal for the Galaxy behind a rotating group of defenders, but Ashley Cole has provided some veteran experience while former MLS SuperDraft pick Perry Kitchen has returned to the league from overseas to give the Galaxy midfield some bite.

Diego Chara was all over the pitch all day. 
Savarese was dealing with his own lineup questions coming into this match with Andy Polo (Peru) and David Guzman (Costa Rica) both unavailable after joining their sides for World Cup 2018. The injury list, however, made selecting a gameday 18 even more difficult especially with Timbers 2 playing later that day in Texas: Vytas, Jeremy Ebobisse, Jack Barmby, Alvas Powell were questionable while Roy Miller, Liam Ridgewell and Jake Gleeson were officially out. With Jeff Attinella making his sixth consecutive start in goal, he had to adjust to a slightly different defensive line with Zarek Valentin and Bill Tuiloma as the left and right backs with Julio Cascante and Larrys Mabiala the center backs. Since Polo was unavailable, Savarese promoted Andres Flores into the starting eleven with Cristhian Paredes and Diego Chara as the three defensive midfielders, thus putting the onus on Flores to replicate the success that Polo shows with moving forward on the attack. With Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco back as the attacking midfielders, the only question left for Savarese was who would be the striker - incumbent Fanendo Adi or the suddenly on fire Samuel Armenteros with 3 goals in 2 matches. The answer was Armenteros, but Adi would be available on the bench alongside fellow striker Foster Langsdorf, midfielders Eryk Williamson and Lawrence Olum, goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh, and defenders Marco Farfan and Modou Jadama. With the relative inexperience on the bench, it was important for the Timbers to avoid falling behind and chase the match.

Under a very warm sun with Center Official Alan Kelly in charge, the Timbers got the first chance of the match just 4 minutes in when Valeri threaded a pass to Flores in between 3 Galaxy players, and it was Flores who got their first in space. Bingham came up big to stop the threat, but it was a huge early chance to take the lead. Boateng and Pontius would combine in the 11th minute as Emmanuel drove down the right side and put a cross in the middle to Pontius, who deflected the shot off the right post and out for a goal kick. The same two individuals would meet up again in the 20th minute off another pass to Pontius in space, but in this case, Mabiala and Tuiloma were slow to react and Pontius was able to spin a shot just inside the right post past Attinella for an early 1 to 0 lead. Portland has 2 awesome chances to level right afterwards - Blanco and Chara in the 22nd minute with Sebastian feeding Diego for the shot that Bingham parried away, and Tuiloma, Chara and Valeri in the 28th minute when Bill sent Chara forward with a lovely through ball. Chara dropped the ball back via a cross and Valeri put a great header on target, but Bingham was there for the save. Both sides traded back and forth chances with several blocked shots and near misses, but a battle royal was brewing between Kitchen and Chara in the midfield as both "destroyers" were creating mayhem throughout the pitch with hard fouls and well timed tackles.

Bill Tuiloma showed his leaping prowess making the start at right back.
The first half statistics showed very even numbers between Portland and Los Angeles in terms of game possession, shots, passes, passing percentage and duels won, but the Galaxy appeared to be more dangerous with their opportunities. The ball to Pontius for the goal was well timed by Boateng, but it was slow reaction from Mabiala and no reinforcement from Tuiloma that allowed the shot, although Pontius was helped with a deft touch to stop the ball in a place where only he could turn to recover it. Armemteros, Blanco and Valeri were getting space to run at points, but the Galaxy defense bunkered down with each pending attack, which gave shooting lanes for Valentin, Blanco and Valeri to push forward distance shots. Getting the goal only aided the Galaxy attack to bunker, and their plan was augmented by Bingham, who was totally engaged and making huge stops in traffic. There were some concerns the Galaxy keeper injured himself in warmups as he left the pitch after a hard fall, but the effects of the crash didn't appear to alter his play one bit. While Savarese could make some adjustments to the Timbers to aid the attack, the fact was that outside of Adi, most of the subs were either defensive minded or very inexperienced players (or both). If this one was going to turn around, it would be because of the players already on the pitch.

The Timbers appeared very determined when the second half began with Paredes, Cascante and Tuiloma all missing key shots in the first 5 minutes - Tuiloma's header off a Valeri free kick had some pace to it but it was right at Bingham for the easy catch. The tempo was picking up as the Galaxy started to push their pace, but in the 54th minute, Flores pulled off a nifty box to box run off a deft pass from Blanco that put Flores just inside the Galaxy box to the left. Galaxy defender Jergen Skjelvik came in to defend with fellow back Dave Romney in the area to try and stop Flores, but Skjelvik got his elbow up in trying to stop Flores with a shoulder to shoulder tackle, and Andres took a hard tumble in the box. Kelly wasted no time in pointing to the spot based upon the contact, and while the Galaxy put up some slight argument, they didn't protest much as Valeri stepped up to take the penalty. With a hearty smash into the left corner of goal past Bingham, the score was now level at 1, The Galaxy turned up the intensity for the next few minutes to see if they could regain the lead, but of the shots attempted, Kitchen's miss in the 71st and another Pontius close call in the 73rd caused some nervous moments for the Timbers defense.

The Portland offense created chances but the team wasn't always in sync
The final 15 minutes would see both teams try to break the deadlock, and Schmid brought Zlatan on in the 72nd minute replacing Boateng, while Savarese countered with a move to bring Adi on for Valeri to provide a two forward attack. However, the only credible attempts on frame in the final moments of the match were two headers by Tuiloma, the second one in the 83rd forcing Bingham to make a late reaction save to push the ball out for a corner kick. Savarese brought on Marco Farfan for Armenteros, and this led to one of the best moments of late stoppage time when Zlatan received a pass at midpitch and the young defender executed a wonderful tackle and deflection to strip him of the ball cleanly. For their credit, the Timbers felt that they created several quality chances despite having a true winger in the lineup with Polo gone, but the final execution left something to be desired. While I would agree with that assessment, I also felt that the defense played far too passively until the goal by Pontius and I was hoping for more cohesion; this could be due to the change in personnel, but the Timbers second half defense was much improved.

For the Timbers, there were some individual highlights as Valeri, Blanco, Paredes and Mabiala continue their streaks in appearing in every 2018 Timbers MLS match, with Diego, Sebastian and Larrys starting every match (and Mabiala playing every league minute so far). Chara also became the all time franchise leader in games played for all Timbers eras with 215 appearances, but he will not get a chance to extend that streak in MLS play. Chara was whistled for 6 fouls by Kelly, and in the 62nd minute, Chara tackled Kitchen with enough force that Kelly gave the diminutive destroyer a caution for the foul. Unfortunately, this would be Chara's fifth caution of 2018, thus triggering the automatic one game suspension in league play - so Chara will not be available for this weekend's battle with Sporting Kansas City on June 9 at Providence Park. However, Chara could add to his total in the midweek U.S. Open Cup match when the Timbers host San Jose on June 6 at 7:30 PM, also at Providence Park, when MLS teams join the tournament in Round 4 in a single elimination tournament to crown the best U.S. based soccer team in professional and high amateur soccer. The winner of the June 6 match will play the winner of the other USOC match in this quadrant - the Seattle Sounders FC hosting the Sacramento Republic. The draw for hosting duties for Round 5 takes place on June 7 with those matches slated for June 19 or 20, which is mere days ahead of the Timbers resuming MLS league play with a 2 game road trip to Atlanta United FC (June 24) and Seattle (June 30).

Friday, June 1, 2018

Blog History, 2017 - The Creation of the Cat Prediction Thread

working hard, work all day, bring money home for nummies
He keeps saying this work stuff is hard, but I can do it 
It's tough being inspired most weeks, and so the blog hasn't been active since the Portland Timbers posted their last dramatic win at home, a 2 to 1 victory over Los Angeles Football Club (you know them as LAFC) behind Samuel Armenteros and his wunderkind goal late in the second half. Portland was able to extend their winning streak to 6 consecutive victories since their loss in Orlando City SC to start April. The OCSC loss was especially frustrating since Portland had a 2 goal lead with just 10 minutes left before a wild rally, but the Timbers have been a much better and different team since then. They've beaten Minnesota and NYCFC at home, followed by San Jose on the road, Seattle and LAFC at home and then turned in a gut-wrenching effort against Colorado last week for another win. Portland was dominant until late, but considering they've won on the road in 2 venues that have traditionally provided trouble, it's quite an accomplishment. Despite the successes, it's been difficult to find time to sit down and write - and it's in that vein that I peek at some old history of this blog in talking about predictions with cats.

Many long time readers will recall predictions as a huge feature in my old blog home where the community blogging team and the regular beat writers would submit weekly thoughts and a predicted score for the week. This started right after I officially joined in 2008, and it became of the most popular posts in terms of traffic and comments. Over the years, our crack staff of soccer experts used various techniques to craft their posts to varying degrees of success, with the intention of driving a thoughtful and fun discussion about the Timbers' upcoming match. Of course, this is also over the Internet, so suffice to say, lots of the comments were pure drivel. I actually spend some time tracking my various predictions and realized that for one magical season - 2014 - I had actually submitted predictions for the Timbers to win every match that year, which would have been a record setting yet supremely impossible task. Sometimes, it was difficult to find something interesting or insightful to say, but it happened each and every week through 2016. Until it suddenly stopped.

Yes, she is a princess and getting information from her can be an adventure.
There are still many lingering issues with what happened there, but when I found myself looking for a blog home and coming up with content ideas, one of the first that popped up was predictions and reuniting the old crew of Rick, Jennifer and myself each week and rekindle some of the old fun. It worked for a while until it was very apparent that as a writer, I was a really terrible editor in trying to solicit content. While the idea was familiar and established, it needed something new and different and it actually happened for the first match in 2017. As I was scrambling to craft my thoughts, my cat GB was hovering about wanting attention and I was ignoring him in trying to write. After walking over the keyboard and trying to take a pencil away from me, I finally asked him what he wanted and he meowed loudly. I asked him if he wanted to participate in the predictions, and it was another loud meow, followed by very loud noises when I asked if Portland would beat Minnesota. The interviews continued with other cats, who appeared excited to participate initially and led to the weekly fun of trying to talk with cats.

I didn't grow up with cats, and the few cats we did have living in Idaho lived outside and came in only periodically. After college and moving to Portland, I lived in pet-free apartments and houses until I met my wife and her cat collective. They all lived indoors, and eventually the little furballs accepted me as one of their pack. We've had some come and go over the years, but our kitty cavalcade is pretty awesome and provide so much joy. And their predictions accurately match their personalities - Tortie is very scattered but happy, Spot demands attention before doing anything, and so on. The Timbers themselves also have a great history with cats considering they have a feral cat colony that lives in the basement of the stadium, and they've been there since the early days of the park. While I get stressed out in trying to find and create good content, I can often find comfort in hanging out with our kitties, even if perhaps they are more interested in a good back scratch or belly run that the complexities of the Los Angeles Galaxy. 

Team Tortie is still very much present, but hasn't been in a predicting mood.
Hence, this week, none of the cats were interested in messing up the streak and providing thoughts about this weekend, and I'm okay with that. I would love to think that the Timbers will continue this streak as well considering the Galaxy played midweek (a loss to FC Dallas in Texas) and the team will be missing several players for international duty and injury. However, the biggest name in soccer - Zlatan - is present and he's done some incredible things since joining the Galaxy on the good and bad side. I really have no idea what might happen, but as with anything, I believe in Gio Savarese and his approach to this year by taking each game as an individual challenge and dealing with it first before doing anything else. This has led to changes in formation and personnel, but in each instance, somebody has stepped up to lead the team to points - and I think it happens again. When I asked Lucy about something unexpected happening tomorrow, she meowed loudly so she might be right, or it could be nearly time for nighttime snacks and bedtime and she's really just hungry. We'll all find out tomorrow afternoon.