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.

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