Friday, August 31, 2018

Timbers' Offense Finally Breaks Out Of Slump, Portland Defeats Toronto FC 2 to 0

Sebastian Blanco was very busy against Toronto FC as a catalyst for goals.
After enjoying one of the longest unbeaten streaks in MLS history earlier this season, the Portland Timbers have seen their fortunes take a few hits over the past few weeks. Mired in a 4 match losing streak that saw the offense put up just 2 goals in that time period with their last goal occurring in the loss to D.C. United over 245 minutes in game time ago, the pressure was mounting for the Timbers. Losing to your rivals at home like they did on August 26 to the Seattle Sounders on an own goal was bad enough, but the Timbers' situation was compounded by a compressed week of matches, starting by hosting Toronto FC on August 29 before making their last cross country trip this weekend to play the New England Revolution. The defending Eastern Conference champions for the past 2 seasons have been struggling this year in many area, but they possess enough talent to trip up a team that isn't prepared for the challenge. With both teams playing matches over the weekend as well and the coaches adjusting their game day lineups rather dramatically, the first half showed sluggish play and no goals. The Timbers finally broke their scoreless streak from an unlikely source, and added another late tally to post a 2 to 0 win over Toronto FC, which relieved some of the anxiety felt by the team. While there are still questions abound about the Timbers and their search for the playoffs, there are some answers coming into focus that could strengthen their run.

Timbers Coach Gio Savarese indicated there would be some changes in the Timbers lineup from the group used against the Sounders. He wasn't kidding when the full scope of the choices were revealed although Savarese did stay with the tree formation of 4 defenders, 3 defensive midfielders, 2 attacking midfielders and a lone striker. Jeff Attinella again started in goal for Portland with Steve Clark on the bench as the substitute, but the defensive line got a massive makeover. Instead of Alvas Powell, Julio Cascante, Liam Ridgewell and Zarek Valentin on the backline from right to left respectively, Savarese went with the recently re-acquired Jorge Villafana on the left, Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala as the center backs, and Valentin moved over to the right. While the move regarding Cascante made sense after consecutive starts and a tough performance against Seattle, Powell had been fairly consistently used as well. David Guzman stayed in the lineup for defensive midfielder with Diego Chara and Andy Polo, as Cristhian Paredes was again given the night off with Andres Flores and Lawrence Olum as the available subs. With Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Samuel Armenteros again making the attacking trio, Savarese did add more attacking options from the bench; however, he didn't use Dairon Asprilla, who had been a regular rotational player for several matches. Gio decided to give young Jeremy Ebobisse a chance to appear, while the other attacking option was another 2015 MLS Cup alum in the form of Lucas Melano. Melano was signed back in 2015 by Portland and became a key contributor to the MLS Cup run, but he struggled in 2016 when he was elevated to a starting role. Melano was eventually loaned out, and his play intrigued the Timbers and Savarese enough to bring him back to the Rose City for the time being.

It was great to see Jorge Villafana out there even if the number was different.
Toronto FC Coach Greg Vanney was dealing with his own team's compressed schedule, but few MLS clubs would be sympathetic to their plight as current defending MLS champions. TFC has been scoring goals in bunches per usual behind diminutive striker Sebastian Giovinco, hulking scorer Jozy Altidore, playmakers Jonathan Osorio and Victor Vazquez and steadying influence Michael Bradley. After playing in San Jose then traveling back home to host Montreal, Vanney had to scramble his side much like Savarese, so Portland managed to avoid the top three scorers on the current TFC roster in Giovinco, Osorio and Vazquez when Vanney submitted his game day 18. There was still plenty of danger, however, as TFC started newly acquired strikers Lucas Janson and Jon Bakero up top with Altidore and Marky Delgado listed as midfield wings with Bradley and Liam Fraser holding the middle. Defense has been the problem for TFC as both keepers, Clint Irwin and Alex Bono, have seen their goals against averages creep up as Vanney continues to search for a backline that can provide consistent cover and resistance against the opponents. Timbers fans might remember center back Nick Hagglund from previous battles with the Timbers where he has shown an impressive scoring touch. Vanney's lineup listed TFC in an odd 4 defender, 1 holding mid, 2 attacking wings, an attacking midfielder and 2 strikers, but once the match started, the team freely rotated among various positions throughout the pitch. At least for them, their schedule showed some mercy as TFC would get a break after returning home to play LAFC this weekend after finishing the Timbers match, so the objective for Vanney and his crew was to keep the score close and try to steal some points.

Unfortunately for Timbers fans, the first half this match bore a strong resemblance to the last match in terms of style of play - the Timbers created a plethora of opportunities to attack the goal, which did generate some contested shots that went straight to Irwin, or were blocked by a TFC player. However, many of the chances died by a rushed pass that was either off target or easily intercepted, as it appeared the attacking players were not on the same page at all. Of all the chances, a 35th minute shot by Valeri off a deft pass from Blanco was the most dangerous chance, but it was blocked by TFC defender Justin Morrow. Portland did seem more willing to challenge Irwin from distance as Guzman, Armenteros and Valeri did try longer range efforts, but Irwin was able to catch each attempt rather easily. The biggest looks from the Timbers' offense for the half, though, were moments of exasperation as Armenteros, Polo, Valeri, Blanco or Chara either outran the ball or just didn't anticipate where their teammate would be in making the attacking runs. Toronto FC, meanwhile, had Janson hit the right post with a shot in the 16th minute when Bakero was able to outflank Valentin, but the Timbers were able to clear away the shot eventually.

David Guzman was a key contributor to the big win over Toronto FC.
The biggest issue with the first half play came down to the officiating of center official Fotis Bazakos, and a questionable decision relating to two tackles between Chara and Delgado. The Timbers had a breakaway chance in the 32nd minute when Blanco fed a charging Chara on the break, and Delgado pulled Diego down to the turf to prevent the run thus earning a caution. Minutes later, another breakaway chance happened and Valentin dumped a pass to Chara near the left touchline with Delgado marking, and Marky dragged Chara off the pitch in another remarkably similar tackle. With a litany of protests from the home crowd and various comments from the pitch players, Bazakos not only failed to discipline Delgado with a card, but didn't even speak to the player. Astute observers even pointed out that Bazakos did consult with the VAR officials, but by VAR rules, a call can only be overturned or ruled upon if it's a red card violation. In this case since the call would simply be another caution and could not be reviewed. Upon replay, though, it does appear that Delgado should have been ejected on the spot, regardless of whether the official wanted to make the call or not. The lack of a goal or credible scoring chances was starting to weigh on the home side, and you could tell the gravity of the situation was causing the players to press harder than usual.

Savarese and Vanney chose not to make any changes to their respective sides, but some took to whatever halftime message was spoken more strongly that others. Blanco, in particular, seemed to be more energized in his approach as he was determined to create something; in his prematch routine, Sebastian brought his year old daughter onto the pitch for the anthem celebration because it was her birthday. Eventually leading the team in chances created with 6 in total, Blanco nearly created an own goal against Toronto FC in the 57th minute off a 40 yard run where he blasted a shot on frame that Irwin pushed into the path of Morrow on the right side. Much like Cascante's reaction on Sunday, Morrow tried to clear the ball awkwardly and it spun toward the goal off the clearance, but it moved just outside the right post and out for a corner kick. The Timbers generated consecutive corners, both ending with Blanco shooting from distance on goal, with the first being pushed away by Irwin for the second corner and the latter caught by Irwin at the last second. This sequence was showing that Sebastian was getting locked in and getting close to breaking things open, and in the 62nd minute, Seba and Armenteros executed another one two play where Blanco pulled a shot wide, but it was showing that he was getting closer to breaking the match open for the elusive score.

I'm not exactly sure which arms belong to what player here.
Two minutes later, Valentin was able to push Blanco forward on the right with a solid diagonal pass, and he ran into space past the Toronto FC defense. With just Bradley and Hagglund back to cover and Bradley cheating over to try and stop Blanco, Polo and Chara broke up the left with supporting runs. Blanco went wide for Chara, and while Hagglund was in the area, he couldn't stop Chara from getting to the ball and slotting it past Irwin for the goal. At just 310 minutes scoreless, it wasn't one of the longest droughts for the Timbers' offense but considering the various results and struggles, it certainly felt lengthy enough. Right after the goal, Toronto FC forced a corner off the restart and Hagglund did put a shot on target to ratchet up some anxiety, and for the next few minutes, TFC was doing their best to threaten the defense. Altidore in particular was camping along the backline trying to get free on goal, but when he wasn't offside and drawing the flag, he was being heavily marked by Mabiala or Ridgewell when needed. Toronto FC did test Attinella in the 81th minute when TFC defender Jay Chapman put an angled shot on target from right to left, but Jeff was up to the task in making his only official save of the night. Two minutes later, Irwin put out a goal kick short to Bradley in front of goal, but the TFC midfielder wasn't paying attention to the Timbers and had his back turned away towards goal. This situation allowed Guzman, who was in the area, to anticipate and attack the ball. David made the play to get the ball, and quickly put a shot inside the left post past Irwin to double the lead up to 2 to 0.

The pressure wasn't fully done either, but the Timbers nearly added to their tally courtesy of Melano, who had entered the match in the 81st minute for Armenteros. Taking a ball on the right from Valeri in the 85th minute, Lucas settled the ball and uncorked a shot directed at the left post that Irwin just pushed wide. Valeri had a near miss off the sequence of corners, while Toronto added some nervous moments when Janson hit the post again in the 89th minute off a passing sequence. But the Timbers settled in and were able to run out the match and hold on for the 3 points. For Attinella, it was shutout number 7 on 2018, and he was barely pressured for most of the night. The defense, which had been collectively struggling, adapted well to the return of Villafana with Ridgewell directing the charges, and I'm fully expecting to see a lot of Liam and Larrys down the stretch for Portland. Offensively, Armenteros and Valeri had several good moments, but the man of the match offensively was Blanco, who continually provided danger and creativity for the home side. What was most intriguing to the mix was to see Melano provide some dangerous moments late, and work seamlessly with Valeri and Blanco to be in the right spot. The Timbers have needed a jolt after their unbeaten streak was broken and Fanendo Adi & Vytas were traded away, and the answers to settling down the team could very well come from the re-introduction of two players from their magical cup run. Savarese has said there will be more changes for the weekend against New England, and so we will see what Gio has in store for the Revolution on September 1.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Timbers' Losing Streak Reaches Four As They Can't Overcome Own Goal In Loss to Sounders

It was the only goal of the match & a very unfortunate error for Julio Cascante
It was more fun watching the Portland Timbers run circles about the best in Major League Soccer, and for 15 matches in 2018, the Timbers were in a class all by themselves due to their lengthy unbeaten streak. Good things do come to an end as just 2 weeks ago, the Vancouver Whitecaps put an end to the run with a dramatic 2 to 1 win in Portland where the Caps pushed Portland about with a physical strategy and superior organization. My wife, Jennifer, said after that result, she thought there might be an extended string of defeats until the Timbers could figure it out again; I had hoped against anything that the effort against Vancouver was more of a one off that the new standard as the team embarked on a long road trip to Washington D.C. and Kanas City. Unfortunately, the Timbers woes followed them on consecutive losses to D.C. United by a 4 to 1 tally and to Sporting Kansas City by a 3 to 0 result, but hope sprung eternal that Portland might get it figured out against one of their most heated rivals. With the Seattle Sounders FC visiting and enjoying a long unbeaten streak of their own of 9 unbeaten with 6 consecutive wins, the Timbers were hoping home cooking and a revived approach would be the elixir to cure their ails. While the defense was much improved after conceding 7 goals in two matches, the offense couldn't find anything to get past Sounders FC goalkeeper Stefan Frei. In the end, the only goal of the night was an odd deflection off Timbers center back Julio Cascante that slid past a startled Attinella, and that was enough for the Sounders FC to achieve a 1 to 0 victory in Portland in front of another sellout crowd.

The result not only extended the Sounders' unbeaten run, but it vaulted them to fifth place in the West and into the playoffs. For the Timbers, it was their third home loss of 2018 and second consecutive defeat at Providence Park, which pushed them below the drop line into seventh place. After a considerable flurry of points following the tough start to 2018, Timbers Coach Gio Savarese and his team could do little wrong in vaulting into the discussion of championship contenders for MLS Cup 2018. However, the fourth consecutive defeat has opened up serious questions about the side, especially considering that while Portland posted several impressive offensive statistics against the Sounders such as total shots (22 vs 6), open play crosses (25 to 11) and possession time (55 percent to 45 percent), they failed to generate a single goal much less a dangerous shot that Frei had to deal with. Since Samuel Armenteros' goal versus D.C. United in the first half, the Timbers have conceded 8 goals since then leading to the three losses, but in this match, the defense wasn't the issue despite conceding the own goal. As much as the Timbers' playmakers of Diego Valeri, Armenteros, Sebastian Blanco, Andy Polo and Diego Chara could put crosses and diagonal passes in dangerous spaces for their teammates, the ball movement failed to generate any threats to the Seattle defense that they couldn't handle. For the Timbers, this crisis couldn't come at a worse time considering the team hosts Toronto FC midweek on August 29 before making a cross country venture to Boston on September 1st to play the New England Revolution.

Sebastian Blanco & Ozzie Alonso battled a lot on this afternoon.
Savarese unveiled a 3 defender, 5 midfielder, 2 forward hybrid formation that produced a good half of soccer against Houston and had mostly good moments in the Timbers' last win against Philadelphia back on August 4, but the plan failed to produce much pressure against the Whitecaps until a furious second half rally that the Caps outlasted. Changing up the plan again in D.C. and SKC failed to produce any dividends, and Gio decided to go back to the drawing board against the Sounders in resurrecting the team's most successful formation - the tree, also known as 4 defenders, 3 defensive midfielders, 2 attacking midfielders and a lone striker. This grouping was used during the Timbers' unbeaten streak, and it seemed to produce the best balance between stout, viable, organized defense and free flowing, creative offense. Due to player availability, Savarese again had to tweak the overall choices in the starting 11 and overall game day roster, which has perhaps led to some of the uncertain play that has plagued the team in the past few weeks.

With Jake Gleeson out after tibia surgery and Kendall McIntosh off with Timbers 2, Portland again turned to Jeff Attinella as the starting goalkeeper with newly signed Steve Clark listed as his backup. With Larrys Mabiala having played every available minute in 2018 until he was pulled in the loss to SKC, Savarese again changed up the backline giving Liam Ridgewell the start alongside Julio Cascante with Alvas Powell and Zarek Valentin flanking them on the right and left side respectively. Ridgewell hadn't appeared for the Timbers since leaving the May 2 home match versus LAFC with an injury, and there have been plenty of rumors circling about his status with the team long term and current fate with playing time. In the defensive midfield trio. Savarese started stalwart Diego Chara alongside Lawrence Olum and Andy Polo, with Olum more tasked with staying home in the middle and allowing Polo and Chara to circle about and attack. With Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco set as the attacking mids and Samuel Armenteros as the lone striker, Savarese had his best trio of creative players set up for the attack. Savarese had several options off the bench with Bill Tuiloma, Andres Flores, David Guzman, Cristhian Paredes, Marco Farfan and Dairon Asprilla to augment the side, but there were question of where would goals come from the subs if needed with just Asprilla being a true attacking option.

Kim Kee-Hee and Chad Marshall have been a very good center back pair.
The Sounders have spent most of 2018 seriously adrift due to various injuries and personnel issues, but just as the calendar switches to the later months of summer before back to school, the Sounders have started to find their form with an improved defense and some intriguing additions to their side. Coach Brian Schmetzer had been under fire earlier this year for the troubles, but since the team has reeled off their own unbeaten streak, the pressure has suddenly lifted away in all the fuss. Frei has arguably been one of the best goalkeepers in MLS all year, but center backs Chad Marshall and Kim Kee-Hee have formed a solid partnership along the backline and newly signed fullback Brad Smith has provided depth for them in a troubled area. With supreme annoyance Ozzie Alonso holding down the middle, Seattle uses a varied attack with Nicolas Lodiero, Harry Shipp, Will Bruin, Cristian Roldan, Will Bruin and recently added Raul Ruidiaz to generate offense due to the loss of Jordan Morris for injury. When the plan works, the Sounders can play attractive, albeit annoying soccer with Alonso and Gustav Svensson wreaking havoc in the middle, especially knowing the defense will remain organized and the offense will provide chances while relieving pressure on the counter.

The Timbers generated a huge advantage in the first half with 14 registered shots and several crosses and passes that created space, but upon reviewing the list of efforts, the only one that registered of any significance was a Cascante header in the 9th minute off a corner kick from Valeri. Several shots were blocked - 7 of the 14 were fully blocked - but on several chances, the pass or effort was either rushed, just off target or intercepted. The Timbers were repeatedly trying to spring Valeri, Blanco or Armenteros up the middle, but Seattle had the middle packed full of bodies. While Polo and Powell provided some interesting width options that did work, the Sounders allowed the use of space and marked up their defense for the crosses, and they were usually able to deflect the shot away. While Seattle didn't generate anything dangerous against the Timbers defense, the tenor of their press did result in one issue for Portland in the 22nd minute when Chara received a caution for a retaliatory foul on Shipp. Chara was the target of several early bumps and jostles, and in this play, Center Official Chris Penso caught Chara coming in late from behind with a slide tackle. Neither side could find the elusive first goal, which I give credit to two very organized defenses for providing good resistance. However, for me, the Timbers' problems were also being compounded by some impatience in the passing and movement on offense trying to be too precise instead of taking the first good chance to shoot or attack the goal.

Samuel Armenteros battles Cristian Roldan for the ball
Both teams chose to stay with their starters into the second half, and Portland again ramped up the pressure as Valeri chose to challenge Frei with a distance shot from the right flank that Frei was late to react to. Instead of catching it, Frei spilled the ball into play, but Seattle was able to clear it and concede a corner kick that was eventually cleared. The back and forth battling continued until the Timbers had perhaps their best run of sequence in the 70th minute off consecutive corner kicks. Under sustained duress. Cascante, Ridgewell and Valentin all had good looks at the goal off the pass, but it was Armenteros with the best of them all with a header off a Valentin cross that just flew over the cross bar. Valentin pulled off one of the best shake and bake moves to leave a Sounders defender flat footed, but Armenteros' header was just off the target. Roldan had challenged Attinella with a shot in the 47th minute off a shot in traffic after a Polo turnover, but the Sounders nearly broke the scoring open when Shipp pulled a shot wide left off a bang bang sequence that left the Sounders midfielder in space in the box with no marking. As the match wore on, it began to appear that perhaps one goal was going to be enough to separate the teams, especially with both defenses providing such stellar cover.

That moment came in the 76th minute with Roldan holding the ball on the right with Polo, Olum and Valentin all nearby with Kee-Hee making a run along the touchline without a mark. The pass was made into space with Ridgewell now the only defender nearby and Liam chose to stay in the box and not attack the player, thus giving Kee-Hee the space he needed to run into the box. Kee-Hee tried to make a cross to the left post where Ruidiaz was waiting, but the ball instead struck Cascante in the plant foot as Julio made an awkward attempt to clear the ball. Instead of a clearance, the ball trickled just inside the left post as an own goal setting off a wild celebration for the visitors and reducing Cascante to near tears at the error. Cascante was called upon in the ensuing sequence to make a few more tough clearances and tackles, but with the Timbers needing a goal, Savarese brought on Flores and Asprilla for Polo and Blanco. The updates produced a couple of blocked shots and a late miss from Powell, while Ruidiaz nearly added another goal for the visitors off a late cross with a bicycle kick. But all the rushed shots and passes proved to be in vain as the final whistle blew and the Sounders could celebrate the victory gained on rival soil.

Everywhere Diego Valeri went, so did a white shirt. Or three. 
Seattle now finds themselves above the playoff line in front of a home date with Sporting Kansas City this weekend, then a long break until their next match in mid September. Portland, meanwhile, gets the re-surging Toronto FC midweek before making the cross country flight to New England to then return home to play Colorado on September 8. Portland then gets another three match week to bring their games played more even with road dates in Houston on September 15 and Minnesota on September 22 surrounding a home match with the Columbus Crew on September 19. It's a difficult stretch of matches for the Timbers, who now find themselves trying to answer more questions after another difficult loss at home. After being nearly invincible over a long stretch where the team was able to address most every challenge with a response, the Timbers now find themselves looking for anything to help them find some confidence.

As much as I'm an advocate for midseason trades and moves, especially under the excitement of bringing in quality talent like Jorge Villafana and Lucas Melano, it's obvious that the team chemistry has been off since Fanendo Adi and Vytas were traded in separate moves. Cohesiveness is such an important part of any team, and losing a contributing element and a very liked role player appears to have caused some static. I also feel that as good as Blanco, Valeri and Armenteros have been on separate occasions this year, they are all pressing under the weight of the losing streak. When the results are coming and everything is synced up, soccer is a very easy sport to play, but when it's off-kilter for any reason, the answers to fix it aren't always easy. I trust that Savarese knows the true health mentally and physically of his charges, and has some good ideas to try and right the ship, but as I've stated, sometimes that's not easy to execute. He's tried a few different ideas that haven't worked, but I do truly believe the Timbers have the talent and heart to fix this. I just hope they can get it sorted out before they lose too much ground in a suddenly tightening Western Conference playoff race.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Timbers Unbeaten Streak Crashes To Halt As Whitecaps Earn Impressive Victory

Another impressive display from the Timbers Army before the match.
The law of averages in the most boring yet straight forward definition is that it's the principle that supposes most future events are likely to balance any past deviation from a presumed average. It's been simplified over the years to sayings like "You can't win them all" or "The more you try something, the better chances there are of success" or some other fancy buzzwords that fit on a placard, but Portland Timbers fans knew this day was coming at some point. The team hadn't lost in MLS play since April 8 in Orlando, ripping off a 10 win, 5 draw sequence since, and if you count the U.S. Open Cup, you can throw in 2 more victories and a defeat yet the record is still very impressive. It hasn't been easy as the Timbers have weathered several challenges on the way, from differing tactics, absences, injuries, officiating, struggles in form, opponents, the conditions, and they have found a way to secure a results in every situation in the streak. In their final match of a lengthy 4 match homestand, however, the Timbers finally ran across a combination that they couldn't overcome as the Vancouver Whitecaps ended the unbeaten run with an impressive 2 to 1 victory over the Timbers at Providence Park.

The myriad of reasons for the defeat have been debated about on social media by Timbers fans - the officiating of Jair Marrufo and his crew, the lineup choices by Timbers Coach Gio Savarese, the tactics of the Caps during the match, a subpar performance from Diego Valeri, a litany of defensive mistakes from a defensive line that has been stellar in the previous months, and recent changes in the team's roster. But for me, the reason for the loss is fairly simple: the Whitecaps came in and dictated the pace and approach from the opening whistle, took advantage of 2 mistakes to get an early lead, then bunkered down to withstand the inevitable Timbers rally. The plan by Whitecaps Coach Carl Robinson worked to a charm, and it's now got a Timbers team that has been pushing all the right buttons to deal with adversity suddenly looking for answers in front of a compressed two weeks of matches. The Timbers travel to D.C. United on August 15, a side that has found some energy by the addition of forward Wayne Rooney, to then follow it up with a visit to Sporting Kansas City on August 18, a traditional tough place to get points. The Timbers then return to host Seattle on August 26 and Toronto on August 29 before going back east to play New England on September 1. Twenty one days, 5 matches, 2 coast to coast trips, 2 midweek matches bracketed by matches on the weekend - if there was a stretch that would be testing the depth of a team, it's this time period. Adding more to the equation is that the Timbers are still sorting out team dynamics with Fanendo Adi now gone to FC Cincinnati, Vytas in D.C., and the additions of Jorge Villafana and Lucas Melano not fully acclimated and available yet.
Kendall Waston wasn't sure he fouled Valeri, but Jair Marrufo was certain.

Savarese has quite a challenge in the coming weeks, but if there has been anyone that has been consistently good at making choices in the lineup, it's been Gio. However, many were questioning the starting eleven for Portland versus Vancouver as the team went away from the 3 defender, 5 midfielder/fullback, 2 forward formation that has produced wins over Houston and Philadelphia. Savarese employed a more traditional 4 defender, 4 midfielder, 2 forward starting group in front of goalkeeper Jeff Attinella although he did keep the defensive line of Alvas Powell, Larrys Mabiala, Julio Cascante and Zarek Valentin in tact. In the midfield, Savarese used Diego Chara and David Guzman as the attacking midfielders with Guzman and Chara as the top and bottom points on a diamond with Sebastian Blanco and Valeri as the attacking mids out wide. Up top, Savarese gave Dairon Asprilla the start at forward alongside Samuel Armenteros, but the Timbers lacked a true target forward available as a substitute with Foster Langsdorf and Jeremy Ebobisse both with Timbers 2 out in Kansas City playing against the Swope Park Rangers. Of the available reinforcements, Savarese had only 2 attack minded replacements available in Andy Polo and Andres Flores, as otherwise, all the other options were defensive minded (Kendall McIntosh for goal, Marco Farfan and Bill Tuiloma for defense, Cristhian Paredes and Lawrence Olum for defensive midfield).

Robinson, to his credit, decided to play a more defensive strategy with the Whitecaps and play a 5 player midfield with Felipe being the central midfielder to control the tempo. With Stefan Marinovic tending to goal and Brett Levis, Aaron Maund, Sean Franklin and Kendall Waston manning the backline, the Whitecaps had Brek Shea, Nicolas Mesquida, Aly Ghazal and Cristian Techera aiding Felipe in holding the middle. Up top, Robinson employed Kei Kamara, a very experienced and feisty forward, but he had several options available to supplant him in Anthony Blondell or Erik Hurtado if needed. Essentially speaking, Robinson's tactics were trying to clog up the middle and frustrate the Timbers midfield in their play making, while hopefully creating counter opportunities to send Shea, Techera, Mezquida or Ghazal forward to help Kamara on the attack. The key matchup would be how Chara and Guzman would partner together to hold up the middle and keep the Timbers from getting bogged down, but Vancouver also chose to keep Waston and Maund near Armenteros anytime he crossed the center line and apply pressure. If the plan worked and Portland couldn't remain composed, it would work like a charm, but if the Timbers were able to break down the defense, it could make for a long night for the Canadians.

Alvas Powell was very good vs. the Union, but against the Caps, he was meh.
The first 10 minutes showcased both sides churning up and down the pitch, but failing to put forth any shots on frame to challenge the keepers. After Kamara and Powell traded misses, the Caps were staked to the early lead courtesy of a Kamara header; Asprilla had fouled Ghazal previously to stop a promising run, and Waston stepped in to take the free kick from mid pitch. Powell and Mabiala were near Kei at the restart, but Attinella had tried to cheat off the line to take up space, and when Mabiala lost track of Kamara, the Caps striker was able to send a looping header into goal for the early lead. Portland turned up some pressure with a string of free kicks and corners in the subsequent minutes, but nothing mounted from the effort despite the efforts of Armenteros and Asprilla. The Timbers thought they had turned the tide in the 40th minute when Waston took out Valeri with a slide tackle in the box and Marrufo pointed to the spot for a penalty, but after a delay and some theatrics from Kamara, Valeri pulled the restart wide left of goal and the score remained at 1 to 0. Further pressure was added just 2 minutes later when Shea and Kamara burned up the right flank on a counter, and Mabiala and Powell lost momentary track of Techera burning up the left side. Shea's cross found the smallest of the three players near the spot with the header, but it happened to be his teammate who put the shot on target, and Attinella could do nothing to stop the effort. Portland suddenly found themselves down by 2 goals, which hadn't happened at home in 2018 up to that point.

Savarese decided to go with some tactical changes at the break, and sent out his team 2 minutes before the halftime break was due to expire, but it wasn't the change that many were anticipating as Armenteros gave way for Polo as Samuel was dealing with some tightness in his back and the team held him out as a precaution. The change nearly yielded an early goal in the 49th minute as Polo challenged Marinovic from distance, but the Caps keeper parried the ball to the right and Asprilla could do nothing more than chip the ball over the crossbar and out of play for a corner kick. Powell broke down the right in the 58th minute and challenged Marinovic from the right with a missile, but the Caps keeper again pushed the ball out for another corner kick to keep the clean sheet. Polo and Powell traded some near misses over the next several minutes, but Portland was finally able to get on the board with another penalty awarded in the 69th minute when Franklin extended his arm in defending Blanco, and he went down in the box under contact and Marrufo awarded the penalty. Despite some more theatrics from Kamara to delay the restart, Valeri did convert this effort going wide left to push the scoreline to 2 to 1. The tally gave the home side some hope for a recovery, but outside of a miss from Valeri and Powell in the closing minutes of regular time and over 7 minutes of stoppage due to several delays in play by the Caps, the score ended up at 2 to 1 with the Caps running over to celebrate in front of several hundred traveling fans from Canada.

Between rushed or blocked shots and off passes, there was also lots of falling.
The statistics show that the Timbers had several huge advantages in possession time (69 percent) to total shots (26 for PDX to 13 for VAN), and other impressive numbers. However, the Timbers seemed to be hesitant to shoot when the situation presented itself or deferred to other players in a string of passes. Marrufo also allowed several early challenges to the Timbers without calling fouls, rewarding Vancouver for their early and constant pressure; honestly, I thought that the Timbers really didn't react quickly enough to this cascading pressure from the visitors. When Portland found themselves down at the half, they did bring on their main source of speed in Polo and some creativity when Flores replaced Guzman, but Vancouver countered that by playing 2 lines of 5 players in defense to effectively bunker backwards. Yes, the Timbers did earn a penalty to make it close and interesting, but the team finally found a sequence of events that they couldn't overcome and Savarese couldn't find the magic combination to outmaneuver. Granted, there were recent time frames in matches with Houston, Montreal and Philadelphia where the Timbers lacked cohesion in their approach, but they managed to rally and secure the points, but in this instance, they just couldn't find the elixir. In so much as the Timbers struggled, however, the Whitecaps also put forth an gutsy effort and stayed within their plan, and they executed it to perfection.

It's weird to think that a team on a 15 match unbeaten streak has questions to answer, but in many cases, the streak has really papered over some of the holes in the Timbers. Outside of Armenteros, who on the current roster can be a true target forward and create chances when needed, especially since after a good streak of play, Samuel has been bottled up in consecutive matches. The defensive line has been very good for weeks, but for most of this match, the defenders appeared slow to react and indecisive in key moments and the Whitecaps took advantage. Even Valeri, who has arguably been the most consistent offensive threat over the weeks, had a very uncharacteristically off night with several rushed shots and a missed penalty trying to be sneaky. Whether it's the pressure of keeping the streak going, playing at home in front of another sellout crowd, dealing with a rival that wanted to make an impression, or just the odds catching up with them, the Timbers collectively had enough hiccups that they just couldn't outscore. They don't have much time to find answers with a match in three days, but knowing Savarese and his coaches, the tactics and gamesmanship is already underway to deal with D.C. United and start a new unbeaten streak.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

It's Been An Extremely Emotional Week

My little bat kitty
Moya camping out on a cat room shelf during happier times.
Jen and I's pre-match routine has become like clockwork as we have several activities that need to be completed before heading to the stadium. Between finding my laptop charging cord, making sure our credentials are packed to plugging in rechargeable photo batteries, there is a flurry of events that need to be completed. However, our activities before the August 4th match with the Philadelphia Union was very different. While we were paying attention to protest events in downtown Portland very closely to calculate out traffic impacts, our minds were very much elsewhere as they have been for several weeks. The health and well-being of the members of our cat collective is extremely important, and one of our feline members was dealing with a serious ailment. The match itself provided needed distraction for the moment, especially considering the result extended the Timbers' unbeaten streak to 15 matches. Unfortunately days later, we had to make a very difficult decision to say goodbye to Moya, our beloved black kitty, when it became apparent she wouldn't recover.

The issues actually started weeks earlier as people about our neighborhood decided to celebrate the Fourth of July by blowing up small portions of it. While I had heard that cities were going to crack down on illegal firework usage and the legal booths opened up later than usual, that didn't stop folks in the area from setting off several earth shattering kabooms at all hours. Moya was a very sensitive soul to begin with, and she had pica issues - for those not aware of pica, it describes the behavior of eating non-food materials to deal with anxiety - and so we had to keep an eye on her with regularity. When the explosions started, it appeared to impact her appetite no more than in previous years, so as cat owners, we adapted to find other types of food to encourage her to eat. After the passing of the holiday, however, the eating issues continued as other background noises in the area started happening - leaf blowers right after the 7 AM allowed time, construction noises, cars parking in odd locations and making noise at all hours, until at one point, she completely refused to eat anything including the regular late night feeding of Greenies that every cat gets to encourage them to go to bed.
we have all the cats
Hang out at our house, run into a cat. That's usually how it works about here.

We called the veterinarian's office near us for an emergency consultation, and they had an opening available. After a quick exam and blood work, we brought her back to home but she was extremely anxious for the rest of the day. The anxiousness for us took on another level when the vet called with the results saying there were elevated liver enzymes in her system, and the next suggested step was a series of expensive tests. After talking it over with the family, doing extensive research on the Internet and considering our little girl was still incredibly anxious after the vet visit and hiding, we decided to try and deal with the issue at home. We tried many things, including pate', feeding by syringe, liquidy food, and it worked for a while. Until it didn't. We kept trying and monitoring while doing all the fun things she loved doing in the house. Until that didn't work. It was finally time to face the reality that a magic recovery wasn't happening, so we made the decision to say goodbye. I have to give credit to the folks at Oregon Humane Society, who took very good care of us. They asked me a lot of questions, they did a thorough exam, they concurred with the findings and agreed with our decision. At 2:23 pm, I said goodbye to Moya for the last time.

I've lived in this house since 2006, and we've lost several kitties over the years and it's never easy to process all the emotions that occur when saying goodbye. However, all of the cats so far have been ones who lived here before I moved in, so they already had people. My mother in law got Moya and her brother right after Jen and I came back from our English honeymoon, and she was originally supposed to be for Jen's brother who had always wanted a black cat. That was until Moya chose me and she became my little furry baby. I will never forget the myriad of noises she made, how much she loved the brush, her demands for lap time, and how much she meant in my life. I can still hear her noises about the house, and her brother, Pilot, has been busy searching for her in every room and cat bed. What's funny is that I wander about the house, and I keep hoping that I'll see her laying on her bed, sitting on a shelf, or lying on the floor in a sunbeam. I know it won't happen, but I still can't believe that she's no longer here either, and even the other cats can feel a difference in the energy here. I hope wherever she ends up has an endless supply of brushes, neck scratches, belly runs and treats because she deserves it; there were plenty of days where I needed a pick me up and she often obliged.

Yes, she's everywhere. Or not.
Moya was quite the star of several products. Or it was a reasonable facsimile.
Especially during the halftime of the Timbers match versus the Union. Without Sebastian Blanco, the offense was completely out of sync. Playing the same formation that worked versus Houston - a 3 center back, 2 fullbacks, 3 midfielders and 2 forwards - against a Philly side that had played midweek and had another midweek match in the U.S. Open Cup to look forward to, the Timbers should have been able to dominate, especially when Union Coach Jim Curtin played several reserves. However, the group actually pushed the tempo and pace and Portland was having difficulty adjusting to the resistance, especially since they really didn't have a true replacement for Blanco's creative skill set. They relied upon the positioning of Samuel Armenteros, the fluidity of Diego Valeri, and the speed of Andy Polo and Alvas Powell to break open the Union defense, but only Powell was able to get forward with any regularity in danger. Portland was the beneficiary of 2 penalty kicks awarded by Center Official Alan Kelly; in the 56th minute, Powell was pulled down in the box by Union defender Fabinho on a run to the right, and Valeri converted the penalty straight down the middle when Union goalkeeper Andre Blake went left, and the 84th minute when Valeri was knocked down by Union centerback Auston Trusty in the box. For penalty number 2, Valeri deferred to Dairon Asprilla for the conversion, and while Blake guessed correctly in going left on the attempt, it was shot so hard, Blake couldn't stop it. David Guzman added a third goal off a Valeri free kick in the 87th minute to give the final result, but honestly, the Timbers turned a second half rally into a comfortable win.

The result was somewhat impressive, but considering the emotional layover from the departure of Fanendo Adi, this should have been a more composed Timbers side. It came down again to Gio Savarese's halftime talk and some serious adjustments in intensity, and the Timbers were able to add to their history with another 15 match unbeaten streak. The Timbers pulled off this feat in 2013 during the first year of Caleb Porter's coaching tenure, and it propelled them all the way to the Western Conference finals, but this year's team is not sitting on their laurels one bit. During the summer transfer window, the Timbers made several moves: defender Vytas was sent to D.C. United for allocation funds, Portland sent an international spot to Montreal for current and future allocation funds, and they reacquired 2 players from their 2015 MLS Cup winning side, defender Jorge Villafana and forward Lucas Melano. While Melano's transaction was relatively easy in terms of recalling him from the loan to Estudiantes in Argentina, Villafana's deal required use of the acquired allocation funds plus a separate deal with the Los Angeles Galaxy using other funds to secure the top spot in the MLS Allocation order used to assign U.S. Men's National Team players to domestic clubs when they return to MLS.
Still the best defensive midfielder in MLS.
Diego Chara will have some reinforcements coming for the stretch run.

The moves have dramatically upgraded the offense while adding another overlapping option to the defense, and it makes Savarese's job of doling out playing time more difficult. Coaches love this problem because it pushes players to perform each practice to avoid being left on the bench or not in the game day 18 roster. I love what Zarek Valentin has done this year, and his work made Vytas effectively dispensable, but Villafana's pace and crossing ability suddenly adds more danger to the defense and also gives Savarese depth to push Powell. While Melano is no Adi in terms of scoring, Melano has shown well in working seamlessly on the attack during his loan stretch, and if Gio can get further progression in his skills, he could add another dangerous weapon to the Timbers' arsenal. I do appreciate Portland trying to be aggressive in finding options, and if this works out, it could make them extremely difficult to defend during the playoff run. In adding Tomas Conechny as well, Portland has several different options for the now and the future that are intriguing if everything pans out.

That's the thing about life is that it's constantly full of change and we all have to say several goodbyes along the way. I'm sad to see Vytas leave, as he really got what it was like to play for the Timbers and had some really good seasons in his time here. It's also interesting to see 2 players return to the side who really had memorable seasons in 2015 for Portland - Villafana was a massive reason why the Timbers defense was so solid during the stretch, and Melano had several memorable moments during the playoff run. Villafana was traded away after the 2015 season while Melano was loaned out after a disappointing 2016 season where he never could live up to the massive expectations that came with his talent and contract. Both players now get to return to familiar haunts for the playoffs, and it couldn't come at a better time with a difficult stretch of matches coming after the home match versus Vancouver on August 11. I'm excited about the potential, but it's also okay to reminisce about what was. It helps in dealing with the changes better, especially when saying goodbye to a player you like or a black kitty that has meant so much over the years.