Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Adi's Swan Song Leads Timbers To Dramatic Win over Dynamo

Fanendo Adi gets his final log slice as a Portland Timber.
Goodbyes are never easy no matter how many times we encounter them, and most of them aren't even close to the storybook variety that gets portrayed in television or movies. It's rare to leave something on your own terms and do so in a truly memorable way, but it does happen from time to time. I watched one of my sports heroes, quarterback John Elway, leave football on his terms after a Super Bowl win in 1998, and on July 29, 2018, I was witness to something incredibly similar in the Portland Timbers' dramatic 2 to 1 win over the Houston Dynamo. Forward Fanendo Adi, currently sitting in second place on the Timbers' list of all time scorers in goals with 53 in 102 matches played, handed in a transfer request earlier in the week. With forward Samuel Armenteros dealing with a back injury during the week and young forwards Jeremy Ebobisse and Foster Langsdorf playing for Timbers 2 down in Los Angeles earlier in the day, the Timbers turned to Adi to fill their game day roster. Word had broken before the kickoff that Adi was being traded to an undisclosed team, which potentially lessened the chance he would see the pitch against the Dynamo. However, Savarese brought him off the bench in the 75th minute, and in something out of a movie script moment, Adi tallied the winning goal in what is likely his last match wearing a Timbers crest. It couldn't have turned out any better for the home side in what turned out to be a very tense and emotional match, but the result did extend the Timbers' unbeaten streak in MLS league play to 14 consecutive.

Emotions on the club have been heightened after an emotionally draining 2 match series with LAFC down in Southern California 2 weeks ago followed by a home draw with the Montreal Impact, but things compounded three days ago when Adi, who has been supplanted in the starting lineup by the emergence of Armenteros, asked to be traded from the Timbers. Adi had made a similar request years ago, but Portland indicated that Adi was under contract and wasn't going to move, but this time, the Timbers issued a statement to indicate they were exploring options for Adi. With Armenteros scoring goals in rapid succession, Adi's playing time had been limited to a start versus Sporting Kansas City on June 9 and substitute appearances against Los Angeles on June 2 and San Jose on July 7 at home. With Fanendo being a designated player with a large contract and the summer transfer window open, Portland had a chance to upgrade their roster while also finding a solid landing spot for Adi, who has been with the Timbers since joining them midseason in 2014 on loan, and he impressed them enough at the time that they purchased his contract as the team's primary scorer. Adi has been one of the most accomplished scorers in his tenure with Portland, but with the emergence of Armenteros and potential of Ebobisse and Langsdorf, the Timbers have been looking at short term and long term options for their club. The team acquired Cristhian Paredes and Andy Polo as building blocks for the now and future, and most recently, midfielder Tomas Conechny was added to the roster, showing the Timbers' resolve to constantly trying to improve their roster.

With Armenteros out due to injury, it was Dairon Asprilla up top at forward.
Moments after the starting lineups were announced against Houston, the news broke that the Timbers had found a trading partner for Adi but due to various absences, Adi would be available to play against the Dynamo and thus be part of the gameday eighteen. Armenteros strained his back during midweek training and ended up on the injury list as questionable, but the options became thinner with seeing the Timbers 2 starting roster against the Los Angeles Galaxy 2 earlier in the day when Ebobisse and Langsdorf were listed among the game day starters there. Savarese decided to tweak his approach by employing a 3 defender - 5 midfielder - 2 forward attack with Jeff Attinella once again in goal. On the three man back line, he used Lawrence Olum, Larrys Mabiala and Julio Cascante while also starting Zarek Valentin and Alvas Powell as full backs; when on defense, Valentin and Powell would track back to help the backline, but otherwise, they would push forward as outlets and support the midfield on offense. For the middle, it was the trio of Diego Chara, Andy Polo and Sebastian Blanco, with Mr. Chara more anchored in his familiar central pivot point and Polo and Blanco flying outside with Powell and Valentin in support. Up top, the duo of Diego Valeri and Dairon Asprilla would get the start, but Adi would be available as a sub if needed. Savarese could also employ Vytas or Bill Tuiloma as defensive replacements, Cristhian Paredes, David Guzman or Andres Flores as midfield subs or Jake Gleeson as the goalkeeper reinforcement.

Houston, meanwhile, was dealing with their own lineup issues after their own schedule compression. The Dynamo had played one of the legs of the Texas Derby in hosting FC Dallas on July 21, and followed it up with hosting the Philadelphia Union midweek at home. The Union pulled off a huge upset by a 3 to 1 tally as they have started to find their way, but in the process during the match, the Dynamo lost 2 players for the Timbers match due to accumulation penalties, midfielder Darwin Ceren and defender Alejandro Fuenmayor, due to cautions. They nearly lost another midfielder, Tomas Martinez who was another key offseason acquisition, due to a red card in the 59th minute in the Union match for a hard foul, but Houston appealed the ruling and the red card was rescinded by the MLS disciplinary committee. The Timbers got another break when Dynamo Coach Wilmer Cabrera held the team's leading scorer, Mauro Manotas, out of the match to keep him fit, but with Martinez now available, Houston was still very dangerous with Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto, and Andrew Wenger all in the lineup. While Ceren wasn't available, Cabrera still had Oscar Boniek Garcia and former MLS Timber Eric Alexander patrolling the middle. Houston has traditionally been very good at home playing in familiar conditions, but they've been consistently inconsistent playing away from home in their history.

Alvas Powell & DaMarcus Beasley battled all night, but Powell held up well.
Fans barely had time to settle in to their seats before the home side went up early. The first few minutes saw both teams struggling to find the final pass, but in the 7th minute, Powell had put a cross heading towards the South Deck on the right intended for a charging Asprilla on the spot. The ball ended up being too high for Asprilla and no Dynamo defender or Houston goalkeeper Joe Willis could collect the pass before Blanco ran to the ball on the left flank of the box. Sebastian briefly settled the ball before slamming it into the upper right corner of goal, and just like that, the Timbers were off and running. However, the Dynamo found room to work, and in the 12th minute, Elis caught Cascante mishandling the ball in the Timbers end and stole it away from the centerback with the Timbers defense slight in numbers. Elis ran up the right flank to draw the defenders, and then dropped a pass to a wide open Quioto on the right post for an easy tap in goal, and suddenly whatever momentum the Timbers earned from their first goal was effectively neutralized. The rest of the half saw the two sides execute the back and forth strategy like a chess match, although the Timbers had the best chances in the 20th and 22nd minutes courtesy of Asprilla. Dairon took a Blanco chip pass off a Powell cross into space on the right in the 20th minute, forcing Willis into a quick reaction one hand save on the shot, and 2 minutes later, Asprilla put a bicycle kick shot off a deflection of a Valeri cross right at Willis, and the rebound caromed to Olum, who was forward on a set piece. The Timbers center back was able to get his head to the ball, but the shot was right to Willis for an easy catch.

Houston was playing a very physical style of play, and Center Official Nima Saghafi was very busy in calling fouls with 20 infractions total between the two teams, charging 13 fouls to the visitors. Saghafi also issued 5 cautions in the first 45, giving Powell and Blanco cards for fouls while Asprilla earned a card for dissent. Houston was only cautioned twice for infractions on defender Jared Watts for a foul and Elis for dissent, but the whistles and constant fouls were playing havoc on the match tempo. Savarese didn't make any adjustments to his team at the break, especially considering Portland had the more consistent chances on frame, but with Houston still hanging about on the scoreboard, it was important for the Timbers to come out firing in the second half to earn a goal. To his credit, Cabrera didn't have much firepower off the bench scoring wise, but the Dynamo appeared to be satisfied with drawing the points at the break. Houston tried to sneak in a goal as the second half started when Elis received the kickoff, slipped by the defense and challenged Attinella with a low angle shot that the Timbers keepers pushed away from the goal.

Sebastian Blanco tallied his 6th goal of 2018 off an Alvas Powell cross. 
Unfortunately for Houston, Elis' effort would be their only official shot on goal in the final 45 minutes as the Timbers turned up the pressure on Willis. Valeri and Blanco combined on a lovely give and go in the 53rd minute off a throw from Powell, but Willis was able to break off his line to stop the threat. Blanco and Valeri had several blocked shot over the next 15 minutes until Mabiala headed the second of 2 consecutive corner kicks on frame, but Willis was able to catch the ball. It was at this point where Savarese made his first substitution, and ironically enough, it would be Adi getting the call to replace Asprilla in the 75th minute. Fanendo received a massive cheer during the lineup announcements before the match started, but the reaction was huge when he entered as now most everyone in the stadium knew about Adi's trade. Five minutes later, as if it had been scripted, the Timbers got their second goal in dramatic fashion. Blanco drove down the left flank off a pass from Valentin after Blanco gave the Timbers defender a pass at the top of the box. With Dynamo defender Leonardo giving chase to Blanco to the touch line, Blanco held the ball in play as the defender slid out of play, and he put a cross to the right intended for Valeri.

Diego bumped the ball to the middle where Polo tried to take a shot, but it was scuffed into the middle where Adi was standing without a mark, and he quickly chipped it past Willis to tally his 54th career goal in MLS play, and his 3rd goal for 2018. The celebration went over to the corner near the Timbers Army, and every Timbers player went to Adi to help him celebrate the goal. It was revealed after the match that the Timbers' players knew a trade involving Adi was imminent, and so everyone, including Savarese, were indicating that Adi would score in his final Providence Park appearance as a Timber. While Polo just missed a few minutes later on a shot, the time finally wound down and the Timbers could embrace the victory. The result extended their unbeaten streak to 14 matches, but that accomplishment paled in comparison to giving Adi a proper sendoff. Fanendo received his final log slab after the kickoff, and then he proceeded to head to the capo stand to celebrate and hug several Timbers fans after the result. It was a touching and emotional farewell for a player who was a key component of the 2015 MLS Cup side, and has been one of the more accomplished scorers in MLS over the past few years. It was days later when the team finally revealed Adi's destination, as Fanendo was traded to FC Cincinnati, who is joining MLS in 2019, for general allocation money, and targeted allocation money for 2018 and 2019. Portland will also receive a share of funds should Adi be traded outside MLS before the end of the 2020 season, while the move frees up a roster spot and Designated Player slot. Rumors persist that if Portland wants to keep Armenteros, they will likely need to use the designated player rule to do it, so this move opens up that possibility.

The midfield was much more composed with this guy about.
For my credit, Fanendo Adi was not only one of the best scorers I've seen over the past few years, but he has also been extremely cordial and giving of his time to the media. I also appreciate his perspective during various interviews, because he produced several thought provoking and meaningful quotes. I appreciate everything that he has done for the Timbers in his five seasons here, and I wish him the best in his new chapter helping FC Cincinnati in their inaugural season next year. However, I don't want to wish him too much luck when he eventually faces the Timbers. As much as it was sad that this would be the last time Adi would be running about on the Providence Park pitch in Timbers colors, I viewed the post game more as a celebration of all that Fanendo has accomplished in his time here. Portland now turns their attention to the aforementioned Union, who visit the Park on August 4 in the third of the Timbers' four match home stand. Portland also remains undefeated at Providence Park with 6 wins and 3 draws in 9 matches played, which is 1 of 4 unbeaten sides currently in league play (NYCFC, FC Dallas and LAFC being the other three teams).

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Timbers Extend MLS Unbeaten Streak Verus Impact, But It Wasn't Easy. Or Pretty

team warmups
The Portland Timbers warm up before their match with Montreal
There's a famous song within the Timbers Army that uses the following line of "Vancouver, S**ttle, Montreal" as one of the refrains, but if you talk to many fans, they weren't aware of the Timbers' long history in playing the Montreal Impact in soccer. The two franchises played 15 times in league play when they were both in the old A-League/USL First Division between 2001 and 2010 before Portland joined MLS in 2011. Montreal joined MLS a year later to allow the old rivals to battle once again, but due to the unbalanced scheduling, the teams have only played one per season. As a matter of fact, the MLS Impact was making their third visit to the renovated Providence Park. Going through a crazy offseason that saw management relieve their former coach of his job and bring on new coach Remi Garde, the Impact are trying to adopt a similar playing style to the tactics that the Timbers have adopted under Coach Gio Savarese - pressing the ball on defense, ball and player movement, stout defense, attack on the counter, allow possession by the opponent but clog the passing lanes. For the first forty five minutes of the match on July 21, there was one team demonstrating these tactics in picture perfect form - the visitors. The Timbers woke up after the halftime break and spent the second half scrambling to find the offense, and while they were able to score a goal to earn a 2 all draw to extend their unbeaten streak, this was easily one of the most disjointed efforts we've seen from the Timbers in some time.

Garde has at his disposal one of the most intriguing individual players in MLS, forward Ignacio Piatti, who at 33 years of age is still quite an accomplished scorer and distribution of the ball. Piatti leads the team with 10 goals scored and 8 assists, but Garde and the Impact have overhauled their midfield by adding Alejandro Silva, Jeisson Vargas, Saphir Taider and most recently, Shamit Shome. Defensively, the club added some pace with Rudy Camacho and Jukka Raitala and bulk with Rod Fanni to supplement holdover defender Daniel Lovitz, and added goalkeeper Clemente Diop to push incumbent Evan Bush. The mix had given them unpredictable results: when the Impact have been good, they've been very good in hovering in the middle of the Eastern Conference, but when they've been awful, they've been dreadful. Garde chose to start Piatti up top in a 4 - 3 - 3 attack alongside Matteo Mancosu and Silva with Samuel Piette, Taider and Shome manning the midfield. With Bush in goal behind a defensive line of Fanni, Camacho, Lovitz and Raitala, the intent for the Impact was to play counter possession and break down the Timbers using diagonal passes in the middle or stretch the defense along the touchlines with deep runs or passes. The real keys for success would fall upon the defense to help Bush, who much like his team can be very good in goal or sufficiently awful.

good at soccer
Diego Valeri added to his team lead in goals scored with his 7th tally of 2018.
Savarese was dealing with some serious lineup issues of his own, as he didn't have the services of Diego Chara due to an accumulation suspension after Chara was cautioned in the scoreless draw versus LAFC back on July 15. While Diego did play in the midweek U.S. Open Cup match also against LAFC on their grounds, Savarese would enlist Lawrence Olum to be the middle link in the midfield between Cristhian Paredes and Andres Flores. While Fanendo Adi continues to train with the team, he's been conspicuously absent from the game day rosters, and Savarese again used Samuel Armenteros as the lone striker with Andy Polo or Jeremy Ebobisse as the available striker subs. Outside of these situations, the rest of the lineup to start was consistently familiar: Jeff Attinella in goal, Zarek Valentin, Larrys Mabiala, Julio Cascante and Alvas Powell on defense, and Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri as the attacking midfield. This group has been very solid for many weeks, but the past two matches - the win over San Jose that was closer than anyone expected and the draw in LAFC - have been a bit more roller coaster. Winning is never easy and sometimes the margin is razor thin, but the Timbers have shown good resourcefulness at points as well to put forth their extended unbeaten streak.

The match versus the Impact started the Timbers' longest homestand streak in their MLS history with 4 consecutive home matches to end July and start August, but it was the visitors that started out with the better runs as Shome and Taider had good early chances for Montreal as the Impact pressed the Timbers from the onset. With Olum getting the start, the Timbers were trying to find their rhythm, but it wasn't until the 22nd minute that the Timbers threatened the goal as Blanco spun a shot past the far right post off a drop pass. For Portland, they played more passively with space and as such, Montreal was able to exploit open channels as the Timbers also seemed unsure of where to direct their offense to threaten the Impact goal. The situation got worse when Silva tapped a pass to Taider just outside the Timbers box in the 23rd minute, and the Impact midfielder was able to slot it past Attinella to put the visitors on top 1 to 0. Silva had collided with Valentin on the right flank and fell to the turf, but it was Silva that was able to recover faster and push the ball to an awaiting Taider as the Timbers' defense was slow to react.

out of suspension but back soon
Yes, we missed this guy against the Impact. A lot. 
Silva and Piatti had several near misses between the 28th minute that could have added to the lead, while Portland came very close to scoring in the 26th minute when an Armenteros cross found Valeri in the box, but the Maestro's header was over the bar. Portland restored some order in the 38th minute when Powell put a speculative cross over to Paredes, who put a missile right at Bush. The Impact keeper made the initial save, but he spilled the ball into the path of Armemteros, who put a one time shot past him to level the score at 1. The celebration seemed to uplift the home crowd and provide a sense of relief, but it was very short lived as Piatti and Mancosu put Montreal back on top seconds later. Piatti put a pass to the left corner for Mancosu that looked offside, but Mancosu was even with the last defender as the Timbers defense again was slow to react and recover. Mancosu slotted the ball past Attinella with his left foot and suddenly it was 2 to 1 Impact. The goal seemed to wake up the Timbers as Valentin and Cascante both had good shots near first half stoppage time, but for the Timbers, they now faced a deficit going into halftime. Portland had already overcome the one goal deficit, but could they do it a second time, considering that the team seemed very disjointed and passive.

You could easily understand the compression of fixtures in a unique situation where the Timbers played LAFC back to back to for different purposes, which meant extending their stay in Southern California through July 18, and getting back to Portland sometime the following day. Not being able to practice in your own facilities does weigh on a club, but the LAFC U.S. Open Cup match ended up adding a lot of emotional intrigue. While the Timbers did eventually withdraw their protest of the match, the team had file a grievance upon learning that LAFC might have used too many international players; the USSF was slated to review the situation on July 21 until Portland withdrew upon learning that there was some discrepancy in Mark-Anthony Kaye's status. While the team accepted the results, the fact of disputing it for a rules violation had to add some emotions to a tensely played match where there were several skirmishes. This was compounded upon when LAFC forward Adama Diomande reported after the match that he was referred to using a racial slur. While the team continues to investigate this situation, there could be some impact over the final moments of the match when Diomande and several Timbers had to be separated for various altercations during the match. That doesn't completely excuse the flat play, however, but it was nice to see the Timbers come out for the second half 2 minutes early as a team and rally about Valeri and Blanco to get last second messages and other encouragement.
cornerstone of the defense

It was a much different Timbers side that put Montreal under more duress by pressing players and passing lanes, and the Impact could only muster 3 officials shots for the second half, all 3 by Silva. Otherwise, it was Portland on the front foot with a cascade of possession and chances on goal with 12 total shots and 8 on target. Valeri had a point blank effort in the 53rd minute off a give and go with Blanco that left the Montreal defense flat footed, but Bush was able to catch that effort plus deflect a Cascante header minutes later. Bush wasn't able to keep everything out of goal, and in the 64th minute, he spilled another ball that the Timbers were able to use to level the score. Off a cross from Blanco from the left flank, Bush made the initial deflection but he blocked the ball straight up in the air, and Valeri moved in for the rebound. While Bush and Valeri briefly bumped into each other, Valeri was able to outmuscle the keeper and tap the ball into goal for his seventh goal of 2018. Montreal protested the goal based on Bush being fouled by Valeri prior to the goal, but VAR review determined there was no reason to overturn the goal and it stood. Garde protested this decision, and center official Fotis Bazakos ejected the Montreal coach for his conduct. Portland generated several other chances to see if they could take the full points, with the best being a 77th minute shot from Powell that forced a diving save from Bush, but the Timbers couldn't add to their total and the match ended up deadlocked. Savarese even brought on Andy Polo and Dairon Asprilla for Paredes and Blanco to see if more space could be created, but the speedy players weren't able to influence the outcome.

It should be noted that Bazakos and his crew had a rather uneven match in terms of officiating. Bazakos allowed several early fouls that affected the rhythm of the Timbers' offense or he called advantage, yet the players hesitated slightly expecting a call. Montreal was upset with the officiating as several players yelled at Bazakos about grabbing and shirt pulling, but the crew issued just one caution on the night plus Garde's ejection. It did appear that Bazakos allowed contact in several instances but otherwise called the match tight at points; he did get the right call in the 69th minute when Fanni executed a sliding tackle on Armenteros in the box to take the ball away, and the replay determined Fanni got the ball first and Armenteros stumbled over the top of him. While the sides could point to frustrating officiating at times, Savarese pointed the disconnect strictly at his players, saying they were too passive and out of sorts in the first half, but he was proud of how they rallied to overcome a deficit twice to earn a point for the draw. Portland now turns its attention to another Western Conference foe when the Houston Dynamo visit Providence Park. The Timbers and Dynamo met in the 2018 preseason, but the Dynamo are starting to find their form with an improved offense around Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis. The match, originally scheduled for 6 pm on July 28, has been moved to an 8 pm kick due to severe heat in the Portland area, but I still expect some fireworks between two very good offensive sides. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

After Relatively Quiet U.S. Open Cup Run This Year, Timbers Experience Annual Rollercoaster Ride

Diego Chara has been fabulous all year for the Timbers
Experiencing the 2015 MLS Cup run for the Portland Timbers is something that I will never truly forget, mostly because it made up for several years of futility and coming achingly close yet crashing at the most inopportune moment. The experience for me following the Timbers during their various U.S. Open Cup runs has been diametrically different - I stood in the middle of section 107 dumbfounded as Hollywood United celebrated in our home park. I cursed the ground that ever brought bile green kits here, and I watched in agony pitchside in 2010 when the hated Flounders defeated us again here. This was even more despicable considering what happened in 2009 when our side gave them everything, but just couldn't figure out how to will together another goal.  I've made enough trips to Starfire to curse the grounds of that very stadium, and can now utter the words Cal FC and not go into convulsions. It's the ultimate love hate relationship.

I absolutely love the concept of the U.S. Open Cup, the annual tournament that crowns the best amateur or professional soccer club for that calendar year in a single elimination competition. The winner gets a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League and bragging rights as the best club for that year, but it also brings together teams that wouldn't normally play each other otherwise. I got a kick out of seeing the Kitsap Pumas, Sonoma County Sol or Wilmington Hammerheads visit Portland because it was something very different. I had resigned myself begrudgingly that the USOC draw would always eventually bring Seattle and Portland together because it often did, and the matches added so much more to this spirited rivalry. Major League Soccer has been decidedly dominant since joining the tournament in 1996, as they have won every year except for 1999, when the Rochester Raging Rhinos (complete with clip art logo) shocked the tourney by winning it all.

Sebastian Blanco has also been solid for the Timbers offense as well
Suffice to say, the competition has always had some dramatics to it that often are lost with the matches taking place midweek as teams are playing in their regular leagues. The USOC also has specific rules that are slightly different than league competitions - teams can only use 5 international players on their game day rosters for USOC matches - although they eliminated the bidding process for hosting matches that prohibitively favored certain franchises and went to blind draws and coin flips in 2011 to add some parity to hosting. The Timbers have put forth more emphasis on fielding stronger rosters for the competition recently, but have admittedly prioritized this behind other priorities in the season, such as league matches, in years past. In managing fitness and health, I can imagine it's difficult to throw in a competitive fixture right in between regular league matches, but in many ways, that is the beauty and the curse of the competition.

In current seasons since 2015, MLS teams have been drawn into the competition in round 4 after lower division professional and high level amateur sides have played in opening qualifying rounds, and the Timbers have usually found themselves facing another MLS team. For 2018, Portland drew San Jose in their opening match, and after winning, they advanced to host the Los Angeles Galaxy. When they claimed victory, the next round produced a really odd situation for the Timbers - playing the Los Angeles Football Club on July 18. Ironically enough, the Timbers were already slated to play a league match there on July 15, and since LAFC won the draw to host, Portland would travel to California and extend their stay to cover both matches. In a weird quirk from previous years, USSF allowed league matches to count as Open Cup qualifiers or competition if the same 2 teams were playing a league match and got drawn together in one of the rounds (see the Timbers 2004 season for an example of this oddity).

Thanks, Dad, for all of your stellar play so far in 2018
Enjoying a 12 match unbeaten streak going into the July 15 match, Portland and LAFC played to a scoreless draw as both sides played an extremely tactical affair. That's a very fancy term for putting together a conservative, defensive approach that will allow offense only if the opportunity presents itself - you might know it as "parking the bus". Many on social media referred to the match as boring, but I found the action to be very calculating and precise - the Timbers defense really worked well together to clog the lanes and frustrate the LAFC attack. When they shook loose, Jeff Attinella was able to make the play to keep the score at zero, as he's been playing some of his best soccer recently. Timbers Coach Gio Savarese has been instrumental in rotating players to keep up form and fitness, but recently, it's been the spine of Attinella, Larrys Mabiala, and Diego Chara that have really held together the middle. Defender Zarek Valentin has been outstanding as well, and Mabiala has been aided by Julio Cascante, Bill Tuiloma, Lawrence Olum and Liam Ridgewell, but really, the improved defense has been paramount in the Timbers' progression from average club with intriguing parts to a potential championship contender. The odd back to back also gave some opportunities to scout a bit, but Portland had already seen LAFC earlier when the sides played in Portland back in May for win 5 of their streak.

When it was said and done, the streak ended in a feisty 3 to 2 loss in which the Timbers had plenty of opportunities, but LAFC took advantage of some early mistakes then held off the late rally. In a crazy back and forth affair, fans could pull apart many different story lines to try and dissect this loss - the playmaking of Carlos Vela, who was far more influential in this match than he was in match 1, some slow reactions by the Timbers defense, or bringing on bigger weapons too late. But talking about that would distract for the three massive story lines that emerged at the end of this match: did LAFC field an illegal lineup, and since this is up for dispute, the Timbers filed a formal protest after the match to have the situation investigated? Did a Timbers player use a slur against a member of LAFC? Is the Timbers Sunshine Flag offensive? One of these issues by themselves would be big enough to consume words and time, but the fact that all three emerged from this match sent Timbers twitter into massive overdrive. I will do my best to boil them down, but obviously spending time on the #RCTID hashtag will give any reader hours of entertainment or ample opportunity to smash your forehead into the laptop screen.
LAFC might have had issues with their lineup; but this group has talent

Was LAFC's lineup illegal? The rule in question is from section 203 of the official U.S. Open Cup rules: A team may list up to 18 players on its game day roster. Professional teams may have no more than 5 foreign players listed. Amateur teams are not restricted as to the number of foreign players they may list. Foreign players shall be those players who are not protected individuals as defined in 8 U.S.C. § 1324b (e.g. U.S. Citizens, lawful permanent residents, asylees and refugees). MLS rules allow a VISA or green card for a player to count them as domestic against the 8 international slots (which could be more or less if the team has traded them away or acquired them), but USOC rules are clear. In this case, LAFC's starting lineup listed 7 players that are considered international: Vela (MEX) Laurent Ciman (BEL), Marco Urena (CRC), Diego Rossi (URU), Adama Diomande (NOR), Marc-Anthony Kaye (CAN) and Dejan Jakovic (CAN). While Jakovic has a green card, Kaye doesn't and as such, would technically count as international. Until the U.S Soccer Federation indicated that Kaye could count as domestic per LAFC, and their roster indicated this as such.  Portland didn't appear to be aware of this, but the protest delayed the announcement of the next round fixtures for the USOC as the disciplinary committee meets on July 21 to discuss the matter.

Savarese indicated in comments on July 20 that the team accepts the results of the match and has moved on, but filed the protest to ensure proper enforcement of the rules. Section 306 of the USOC rules states: A protest related to an Open Cup match must be filed in writing with the Open Cup Commissioner and delivered via hand-delivery, courier, certified mail, facsimile or electronic mail not later than 4:00 p.m. CT the day after the match. A cashier’s check or money order for $500 made payable to “USSF” must be received by the second business day after the match. The Commissioner shall immediately refer the protest to the Adjudication and Discipline Panel for decision. At this point, nobody is sure what decision will be reached, but it does appear there was some confusion about player status, but this has happened in the history of the U.S. Open Cup. Action at this point could involve disqualifying LAFC from the proceedings, fining the side, or some other discipline. Regardless, it's a very big action to take here.

One of the big questions of this transfer window is does Fanendo Adi stay?
I can understand Portland's side after initially wondering about why they were protesting yet seemed to state they accepted the results. Filing a protest is really the only way to have the issue fully resolved for the USOC and USSF, and so this is important. Portland is not asking for the result to be abandoned either, so the consensus among soccer experts is that LAFC will either be fined yet allowed to advance or the match will be completely replayed with valid rosters. Neither situation is totally ideal for the clubs, but considering the severity of the situation, I am thinking the replay is the most fair. Portland does have an extended home stand for the next few weeks without weekday matches, but the question would be when LAFC could fit it in without throwing chaos into the next round considering USOC semifinals were slated for August 7. So for now, Philadelphia plays Chicago on August 8 while Houston awaits this mess to know who they will end up playing. For those interested, you can track more on this at the very excellent website, thecup.us, who even let this guy write for them earlier this year.

Did a Timbers player use a racial slur? After the match, Diomande put on his Instagram account that he was referred to using a slur while on the pitch during the USOC match. The account didn't indicate if it was a player or fan that used the term, but on the story posted by ESPN, Diomande scrapped with several Timbers players over the second half of the match, including exchanging words with several players after a hard foul on Vela in the 90th minute followed by harsh words when Cascante fouled him in stoppage time. Portland issued a statement that they are investigating the issue and condone the use of the word, and MLS will actually be looking into the issue further. I know several of the players in my dealings here and can speak to their tremendous character, so I'm shocked by the events myself. I do also know that when emotions boil over, there can be tendencies to not be as filtered in word choice, but that doesn't excuse the use of this word in any context. I believe Diomande's statement, and my hope is that the situation can be resolved in a mindful manner. I don't want to believe that something like this could happen and a player wearing a Timbers crest could do this, but in the current world order, we are constantly barraged with unspeakable comments on a daily basis. It doesn't excuse the actions, though, and I just want the party or parties held accountable.
The days of yore, including the original Sunshine Flag

Is the Sunshine Flag offensive? Ever since being created in 2004, one of the traditions of the Timbers Army is to unfurl the Sunshine Flag after a goal in celebration. The brainchild of the early Timbers Army based off a sunburst design that came from headbands, the flag debuted in July 2004 and has been a staple of the TA for many years. During the LAFC match, several comments appeared in social media about the flag's design being similar to other logos used by extremist groups, and as such, it might be offensive to other cultures. On July 18, there were several long discussion threads about the design, the inspiration, and its message on social media discussing several key points. As someone who joined the Timbers Army about the time the flag was created, I don't recall any questions about the design or concerns - the group liked the sunburst design and wanted a big flag, so the inspiration came from there. Through the work of several Timbers Army members, the Big A$$ Flag was created and has flown in various version for several seasons.

I'm attached to it obviously because passing it over the section was one of my very first Timbers Army memories. I could even withstand the stench of musk, stale beer and mold as it passed over. The flag was held with care and repaired several times, washed whenever the smell was too terrible, and held out to dry whenever the rains got to be too much. It's a wonderful symbol of celebration - but one that honestly I hadn't considered offensive before. I have read through many of the thoughtful comments posted, and if the design is too similar to other logos that are deemed offensive, I think it's a valid discussion to see if there is a better representation that could be used. I'm all for tradition as it brings comfort in the consistency, but as I'm learning over the years, comfort is no excuse for intolerance. We all need to be sensitive to our words and actions, and while I still have plenty of moments of slip ups, I'm trying to learn to be more aware of my comments and the intent behind them. If changing the flag can be a further catalyst for this growth, then I am in full support of this endeavor.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Timbers Extend Unbeaten Streak To 13 Despite Late Earthquakes Rally

Another brace for number 99
Samuel Armenteros was simply on a whole different level all night.
It's always an adventure when the San Jose Earthquakes visit the Portland Timbers, and the third meeting in 2018 between the sides continued the theme of unpredictability. While San Jose hasn't won in Portland in the MLS era during league play, the Earthquakes have forced Portland into some difficult situations with an odd bounce, well-timed penalty or taking advantage of a mistake over the years. With the Timbers holding onto a long unbeaten streak in league play that started in April, Portland was hoping to extend their mark another match against a San Jose side that still hasn't figured out what their identity is, and for the first 75 minutes of the match, Portland was in complete control and seemed to be well on their way to the result. The last 15 minutes, however, featured a sputtering Timbers offense once the substitutes began to enter, a defensive gaffe that allowed the Earthquakes to put a goal on the board, and ended with a scrambling Portland team that effectively held on for dear life to secure a 2 to 1 victory. While the victory does indeed extend the unbeaten streak, the Timbers didn't make it very easy on the nerves for anybody - but they did just enough to get the full points.

Timbers Coach Gio Savarese has been talking a lot about his team's flexibility and adaptability being big components of the overall success in 2018, and we've witnessed several different variations of the Timbers over the past weeks. This has also been aided by several different players stepping up to contribute to the lengthy level of success, as it's not been just one person or persons that have added something. It's a testament to the overall depth that Portland is enjoying that players are being pushed for playing time, and they've responded with impressive results, both here and at the Timbers 2 level. However, the margin between success and failure is rather minute, and if that point wasn't very evident, consider this match as testament to that fact. For all of their success over the first 75 minutes in terms of pressure, precision and goals, the Timbers did little wrong, but over a sequence of a quarter hour, the gains were nearly lost in a sea of uncertainty and tentative play showing little margin of error. For as good as the Timbers have been over this now thirteen match unbeaten streak, they can't turn off their focus for a moment's notice otherwise to allow their opponent any ability to gain confidence in themselves, especially since the Western Conference race is so tight that a deserving side or two might be left out of the postseason.

good to see him back on the pitch
Sebastian Blanco was back for the Timbers and the offense was more inspired.
After securing the victory in Flounder Land last weekend for their first MLS victory ever at Century Link Field, Savarese was excited about the news that both David Guzman and Andy Polo had returned from international duty, and Fanendo Adi was also fully available after suffering through a few knocks over the past weeks. Sebastian Blanco was also at full fitness after missing last week, so Savarese had his full compliment of attacking options available for this match. Savarese kept some of his starting options the same, however, as Jeff Attinella once again manned the goal for Portland behind the defensive line of Alvas Powell, Zarek Valentin, Larrys Mabiala and Julio Cascante, the same group that started over the past three matches. Instead of playing the Christmas Tree formation with 3 defensive midfielders, 2 attacking midfielders, and 1 striker, Savarese went for 4 midfielders and 2 strikers with a diamond in the middle with Diego Chara and Lawrence Olum as defensive mids with Blanco and Diego Valeri as the midfielder wingers. Samuel Armenteros would start paired up with Dairon Asprilla as the second striker, but Adi would be waiting on the bench for his turn as needed. Guzman and Polo would be available as a sub along with Adi, while Savarese also selected Vytas, Bill Tuiloma, Andres Flores and Jake Gleeson as available reinforcements. Depending upon the score or situation, Savarese had versatile and adaptable options if he needed to change things up.

Most media folks that don't follow San Jose regularly are still trying to figure out what direction the Earthquakes are following because it appears they are coming apart at the seams. After another dreadful season, San Jose invested in improving their attacking options with Magnus Eriksson, Vako Qazaishvili, Jahmir Hyka and Danny Hoesen to surround longtime scorer Chris Wondolowski to bolster their goal scoring, and it's been an improvement from previous years where they couldn't score at all. Unfortunately, their defense and goalkeeping hasn't enjoyed as much investment although there are several younger names in their academy to help there. Technical Director Chris Leitch and Coach Mikael Stahre have been patient as the young Quakes are trying to find their true sense of self and playing style, but it's come at the expense of wins with the Earthquakes having just 2 wins over Minnesota United so far in 2018. One trait that has never been lacking for the Earthquakes is tenacity, and while they might be struggling collectively, the team still continues to battle each and every week. Stahre played most of his big offensive threats with Wondo and Hoesen being the dual strike threat with Anibal Godoy, Vako, Florian Jungwirth and Eriksson manning the midfield. A big question for the Timbers would be if Chara and Olum could limit the influence of Vako and Godoy, the more creative influences of the midfield foursome.

always smiling under any circumstance
Diego Chara is all smiles, even when he's getting a caution for a soft foul.
The match itself started out very strangely with Center Official Ted Unkel brandishing a card nearly after the opening whistle, when San Jose center back Harold Cummings fouled Asprilla on a break holding his kit on a breakaway. Mabiala has been on a scoring roll lately with goals in his last 2 matches consecutively, and he just missed on a header in the 2nd minute off an early corner kick. But the early scoring threat was Armenteros, who tallied his 5th and 6th goals of 2018 in spectacular fashion. Vako was dribbling the ball on the left heading North and he launched a pass to Wondo at the midfield stripe, but Olum was able to punch the ball away to Armenteros. Samuel dropped the ball back to Valeri, then took off for the left post as Diego drove towards goal until Valeri put a diagonal pass right to Armenteros, who had shook off and turned about his mark and easily tapped the ball past San Jose goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell. Armenteros had 2 other quality chances in the first half in the 19th and 24th minutes and two rushed shots in the 44th and 45th minutes, as he was the focal point of the attack. The 44th minute effort was a spinning bicycle kick that Samuel pushed over the woodwork, but it showed how dialed in number 99 was on the night. Blanco had a good shot off a cross in the 30th minute blocked away, but otherwise, it was the Armenteros show as the Timbers held the one goal lead into the break.

San Jose played relatively passive soccer in the first 45 minutes with just two blocked shots in stoppage time off great defense from Valentin and Mabiala and a Wondo miss in the 29th minute off a give and go for their offense, but Stahre had his team inject more pace and movement after the break. Their task was made more difficult in the 53rd minute when Attinella made an easy save and dropped a pass to Blanco just outside the Timbers box. Sebastian found Valeri midpitch and Diego put an expertly placed pass to Armenteros forward with 2 Earthquake defenders flanking him. Some deft maneuvering and great touches by the Timbers forward later, Armemteros put the ball past Tarbell for his second brace in 2018 and 6th overall goal in MLS play. The next several minutes was a resounding quest to see if the Timbers could get their first hat trick in MLS play for Armenteros, and he came close in the 57th minute after Asprilla had a shot blocked by Tarbell while in the box. Samuel pounced on the rebound, but pushed his effort wide left. San Jose had a point blank shot by substitute Quincy Amarikwa in the 60th minute off a cross from Vako, and Amarikwa did the half bicycle shot off the cross for good measure, but Attinella made the safe and the offside flag was also up to stop the play. Armenteros had another good effort in the 67th minute, and Blanco one-timed a shot off a Powell cross in the 74th minute that didn't miss by much. At this point, it looked like the Timbers were in complete and total control and it was just a matter of what the final margin would be.

Everyone gets a high five after this one
There were lots of smiles afterwards despite the emotionally charged final moments
The complexion changed in the 77th minute when Adi entered for Armenteros, and Blanco was replaced by Flores, and whatever precision was on display for the home side, it seemed to go away once the subs started. San Jose found space in the 82nd minute with a shot from Hyka, who had replaced Eriksson, and Vako pulled another shot wide just second later. Savarese gave Powell the rest of the night off in the 85th minute with Vytas entering as his replacement, but miscommunication between Vytas, Cascante and Mabiala left Jungwirth in open space in the box off an Amarikwa pass, and Florian punched a well placed shot past Attinella in the 87th minute to give San Jose hope. San Jose and Portland then staged an exciting back and forth battle in the dying minutes with Jungwirth and sub Shea Salinas both missing goal by mere inches, while the Timbers were unable to find their target late. The final whistle blew moments later, but a very comfortable and in control match went very much off the rails late, and San Jose was extremely close to either leveling the score or taking the lead. Portland has now gone from an average side with emerging talent to a threat in the Western Conference, and as such, the team will need to work on their mental acumen to avoid such letdowns. Then again, this was a topic that this very site covered in the match preview that lacked cats and predictions, but did ask the question of what will the Timbers do now that they are the hunted.

Portland now travels to Los Angeles for an odd doubleheader with LAFC at Banc of California Stadium - a league match on July 15th after the World Cup final followed on July 18th with a U.S. Open Cup semi-final match - before they enjoy an extended homestand of four matches against Montreal, Houston, Philadelphia and Vancouver before an August midweek trip to D.C. United on August 15 and Sporting Kansas City on August 18th. After a compressed home stand with Seattle and Toronto visiting Providence Park to finish August, the schedule equals out somewhat when September officially hits. Portland still sits tied in fourth in the standings, but at just under 2 points per match with several home matches forthcoming, Portland is sitting fairly well at this point of the year with reinforcements coming soon. But they can't get too overconfident or lose their focus because something could happen to change their fate, and if anything shows how possible that was, it was this match with the Earthquakes.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Now The Real Work Begins

All the soccers
The cats have been enjoying World Cup 2018 & will return to predictions soon.
You could imagine how much the Portland Timbers have flown under the MLS radar if you look at discussions outside the Rose City about the best in MLS. The expectation of the team appeared to be greatly diminished after replacing their coach and trading away one of their keystone players while keeping together a core of players that flamed out of the 2017 MLS playoffs unexpectedly. All that Timbers Coach Gio Savarese has done in his first season is deal with injuries and personality issues within the locker room, install a new tactical approach and the team has currently ripped off a 12 match unbeaten streak since April. As many writers have pointed out, it's easy to point to the parallels the last time the Timbers replaced their coach in 2013, and the team flew all the way to the Conference Championships. But I think that doesn't give full credit to Savarese and his coaches for the job they've done so far. And how important now continuing that approach will be now that people are noticing the transformation when expectations will be increased.

Savarese has always approached matches in the aspect that "every match is a final", a phrase he used in his introductory press conference which has carried over through several iterations over the season. It's a terribly cliched phrase in whatever format it might appear, but it is a simple and straight forward message - deal with the here and now - if it's boiled down to the basics. Over a tremendously long season, there are too many variables surrounding playoff qualification, playing form, injuries, other competitions, trades, lineup adjustments that it can be difficult to keep up for anybody. By preaching this mantra to his team, Savarese has kept the focus reasonable for the things the Timbers can control - their health, well being and form. I give him a tremendous amount of credit for taking something very simple and applying it so well, but then again in our parallel example world, our former fearless leader essentially said the same thing in keeping issues balanced. What separates Savarese from the pack here is that while he's preached the simple message of keeping in the here and now, he's done it by putting forth a dizzying array of adjustments and tinkering that has paid dividends.

hard working player for the Timbers
Diego Chara has been his usual self, but he's had help in anchoring the midfield.
In the previous system, it was essentially designed to be a true plug and play approach with the positions effectively locked into their roles; players would be adjusted in and out based on various factors, but the basic approach would be the same. It worked for a while very well, but the rigidity of the attack bogged down at points simply over the course of adjustments - either by the Timbers or by the opposition. Differing nuances were added over the years, but effectively the attack was set up to maximize the Timbers by setting up a process to capitalize on possession. I can't put much fault into a system that produced an MLS Cup title and 3 playoff appearances in 5 seasons, but with a core of players nearing 30 years old and several long term questions about tactics being unearthed during the offseason, there was tons of scrutiny put towards Savarese in the early part of the 2018 season.

To put it mildly, the team spent a lot of time twirling forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom or success or whatever metric fits here. Yes, it's a Simpson reference that I have run into the ground a lot on my Twitter account and some thought I misquoted it recently talking about my club side, Old Growth FC. But I'm not talking about Kodos giving a campaign speech as Bill Clinton, but the early season of the Timbers was effectively all over the place. Even during the Timbers' home opener and victory over Minnesota United, there was plenty of uncertainty within the approach that was somewhat subsided when Portland took a unique approach against NYCFC - yielding possession and playing for the counter. What we have seen since is the Savarese approach of constantly adjusting and maneuvering the lineup to fit the tactics the team want to execute in the here and now. There has been a healthy rotation of players within several positions, especially on defense, and Portland hasn't missed a beat since they left Orlando. 

talented midfielder
Cristhian Paredes has been a welcome revelation for the Timbers. 
Maybe this seems like over simplifying what Savarese has done, and several media outlets have given rave reviews of Savarese and his approach giving the Timbers flexibility yet discipline. For a side playing the "Christmas Tree" approach of 4 defenders, 3 defensive mids, 2 attacking mids and a lone striker that usually means a passive, defensive approach, the Timbers have been anything but passive. Within this formation, the Timbers have seamlessly adjusted to playing 3 in the back, sending one of the defensive mids forward with regularity, having the fullbacks pinch up, everyone drop back on defense, and do so with synchronicity in coverage. It has been helped by the emergence of Jeff Attinella in goal, as he's been playing as well as I've seen him in his MLS career, while also seeing a cadre of center backs filter through and not miss a beat. As with any system being played, it's important to have a spine and backbone that works - and for the Timbers that has been the play of the center backs, defensive midfield and keeper. What Savarese has also unleashed in this unbeaten streak, however, is a true multi-faceted approach - between attacking options, precision on set pieces, and the ability to create chances. If there is one area where the Timbers can get a little bogged down, it is in the creativity in open play - as they still tend to rely too much on Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri to be those creative forces.

In 15 matches, the team has tallied 24 goals between 9 different players - 10 at home, 4 conceded, 14 away from home with 17 conceded, giving them a plus 3 goal differential - which shows consistency. What is also showing well is that while Valeri leads the team with 6 goals, Blanco is right behind with 5 and Larry Mabiala and Samuel Armenteros are next with 4. The fact that Mabiala has become a scoring threat on the set pieces has added another dimension to the Timbers that teams need to account for, but Portland gets some good news relating to schedule. Over the next 10 matches, the team plays at home for 7 of them to balance out their fixtures and close up the gap in matches played. Portland travels to Los Angeles for a double header with LAFC, playing a MLS match on July 15 followed by their quarterfinal U.S. Open Cup match also there on July 18, and then makes a brutal 2 match trip in August to D.C. United midweek on August 15 followed by a date versus Sporting Kansas City on August 18. There are challenges within the 7 home matches: San Jose, followed by Montreal, Houston, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Seattle and Toronto FC, but being in familiar surroundings should tip the scales for the home side a bit regardless of who is visiting Providence Park. 
Currently the hottest scorer on the Timbers right now
Larrys Mabiala has been great in defense & is tied for 3rd in goals scored for 2018.

It certainly looks promising, but at the same point, if the wheels start to fall off or struggle, the unbeaten streak will all be forgotten. While streaks are completely awesome and impressive, the true measure of teams are still championships, and Savarese is now seeing several players return to the team from international duty (David Guzman, Andy Polo) and from nagging injuries. Portland has dealt with the challenges so far in 2018, but in many ways, the simple approach of focusing on the current could help avoid distraction. San Jose, this weekend's opponent, has been steadily improving with an improved offense, but a nightmarish defense has put the Earthquakes in the Western Conference basement. In previous years, the Timbers have shown a tendency to play down to certain teams, but by all accounts, Portland should be able to press this side at will. They showed remarkable adaptability to deal with one of the most difficult road trips back to back - Atlanta United and their pressing attack and massive crowds, followed by the rivalry match in Seattle versus the always testy Sounders FC side. Portland took 4 points from the trip, which is an accomplishment considering they hadn't won in Seattle during the MLS era and Atlanta was on a roll coming into that match. As much as the results were good, Savarese must keep the side from regressing. He also needs to adjust for playing time to keep his team focused, healthy and happy - especially with reinforcements potentially coming soon. He's earned the benefit of the doubt from me right now because the challenges are going to present themselves soon, but in showing a fluidity and flexibility to manage the team, I have belief Portland will be able to account for just about anything thrown at them.