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.

No comments:

Post a Comment