Thursday, September 20, 2018

Strange Night At The Park Rights Ship for Timbers in 3 to 2 Win Over the Crew

Andy Polo had a very good night against the Crew
Sometimes, the match doesn't make any sense yet it works out in the end. There were a lot of odd story lines and factoids coming into the match between the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew, but nobody could have fully prepared for the oddities that would occur in this match. Between a delayed start time, a rocky starting 15 minutes, redemption in the first half, a furious start to the second half, a frenetic finish with odd officiating and interesting substitutions, the intrigue was very high for this midweek match. We've seen Portland struggle under conditions and situations like this before, but on this night, the Timbers pulled together and held on for a dramatic 3 to 2 win over the Crew. The result did alleviate some of the concerns put on display after the Houston Dynamo outran the Timbers over the previous weekend by a 4 to 1 score, but Portland now needs to regroup quickly for their last lengthy road trip of the 2018 regular season when they face Minnesota United FC on September 22nd in the Twin Cities. The soccer wasn't pretty at points and was one of the most emotionally draining matches I've witnessed in some time, but this club gutted through it and got an important result at home to restore some confidence.

Timbers Coach Gio Savarese was less than pleased with the Timbers' effort in Houston despite the team taking an early lead off an own goal caused from a shot by Alvas Powell. Portland thought they had tied the match at 2 just before the half, but upon VAR review, the leveling effort from Diego Chara off a Diego Valeri assist was ruled no goal as Valeri was offside. Replays show if this truly was the case, it was off by mere millimeters, but the negated goal doesn't explain the struggles in the second half when Portland failed to generate any consistent offense as Houston employed their counter to tack on 2 more goals to win going away. To that end, Savarese made several updates within the starting eleven against a Crew side that has some of the same qualities as Houston in terms of playing the counter to hopefully stabilize the side. Steve Clark was again in goal for the Timbers with Kendall McIntosh listed as his substitute, while Savarese brought back Liam Ridgewell to pair with Larrys Mabiala as the center back duo with Julio Cascante listed on the bench. Powell, who was one of the few bright spots early in Houston, was also sent to the bench for Jorge Villafana as Zarek Valentin was flanked out right. Lawrence Olum, who had started in the last 2 matches for the Timbers, was given the night off in the midfield and replaced directly with David Guzman alongside Chara and Andy Polo, who started in place of Cristhian Paredes. Even the offensive trio got an adjustment as Samuel Armenteros was selected to start in lieu of Jeremy Ebobisse at striker with Valeri and Sebastian Blanco employed as the attacking midfield. Savarese did have Lucas Melano, Andres Flores and Bill Tuiloma also available as needed, but the real keys here were if the changes to add Guzman, Ridgewell, Polo, Villafana and Armenteros were enough to stabilize the offense.

Sebastian Blanco was everywhere on this night. Literally.
Columbus was dealing with their own match compression after playing at FC Dallas on September 15 then traveling to the Rose City before heading home to host Colorado on September 22, so Crew Coach Gregg Berhalter was dealing with his own squad rotation. Berhalter left several regulars out of the rotation or on bench duty for the Timbers, as Ricardo Clark, Jonathan Mensah, Frederico Higuain and Harrison Afful were left off the game day 18. Leading scorer Gyasi Zardes, a noted Timbers thorn from his days with the Los Angeles Galaxy, was relegated to the bench, leaving Berhalter to use veteran striker Patrick Mullins up top with Eduardo Sosa and Pedro Santos in support. Of the Crew's top scorers, Santos, Milton Valenzuela and Niko Hansen at fourth, fifth and sixth respectively were the leading scorers listed. In the middle of the formation, however, the Crew had solid vets in Will Trapp and Artur patrolling the middle and young goalkeeper Zack Steffen in the net. While the Timbers in the middle of a pileup in the West table, Columbus has settled into fourth place in the east behind Atlanta, the Red Bulls and NYCFC with Philly and Montreal just behind. While getting points here would be huge in keeping them entrenched in the East, the Crew had a bit more flexibility here in their lineup choices while still doing all they could to keep their spot in the table.

With all the intriguing story lines coming into the match with squad rotation, another piece that would end up being discussed at length was the officiating. Ted Unkel is one of the most senior officials within MLS in terms of game experience, however, Unkel's style of officiating can be best described as a mix between heavy handed calls and complete laissez-faire monitoring. That was probably made extremely apparent in the 7th minute when the Crew were breaking down the middle with a pass for Mullins and the Crew striker caught Guzman with an elbow to the face. With Guzman down, Unkel didn't make any call as the Timbers protested and the Crew pressed when Sosa fed Santos with a pass on the left that was dropped to Valenzuela on the flank. A low cross back to the box nearly caught up to Mullins, but he dummied the ball to keep the Timbers flat footed and Hanson broke in behind to shoot the ball into the goal. Villafana might have helped the ball in with some contact, but with the Timbers extremely frustrated, the Crew had taken the early 1 to 0 lead. Two minutes later, Sosa went down easily on a run to the left that earned Polo a caution, and Guzman was yelling at Unkel for the missed call earlier in the match.

Ted Unkel either called everything or nothing. Was that kind of match.
The situation could have gotten much worse if not for the defense of Clark in the 12th minute when Santos fed Mullins in the left channel and the Timbers defense was caught completely off their marks. Mullins was onside with the back line and tried to pull the ball inside the right post with his shot, but only a finger tip push from Clark kept the ball from hitting the intended target. At this point, Portland was lucky enough to not be down by 2 goals and the team was visibly frustrated at the situation presented to them. The Crew were having their way in the midfield early, and with Unkel's approach to foul calls, Portland would have to come up with a strategy to recover from the early match doldrums or run the risk of being run out of their own building. Blanco indeed registered the first shot on goal in the 14th minute and Polo added a close miss 2 minutes later off a big give and go, but the Timbers would finally break out of the funk courtesy of their defensive midfielder.

In the 18th minute, Chara played a ball to Blanco, who was equally sharing distribution duties with Valeri, and Seba put a diagonal ball out to Polo on the right. The young winger put a cross to the top of the box where Guzman was waiting in space as Crew defenders Gaston Sauro and Hector Jimenez were slow to pick him up. David put an expertly placed header inside the left post off the cross, and the sense of relief felt by the Timbers and the crowd seemed to energize everybody. Guzman was still upset about the earlier play, and he earned a caution off a hard foul in the 34th minute that appeared to be somewhat retaliatory, but you also got the sense that the Timbers were ready to fight. They had to deal with immediate threats from consecutive free kicks by the Crew with Santos going at goal near the box, and Clark made an especially tricky save in the 26th minute off the best effort. Valenzuela, Santos and Artur also challenged the Timbers defense within the next few minutes, but the Timbers would end up taking the lead in the 37th minute off one of the best individual plays I've seen from a Timbers player in some time.

It was impressive
Andy Polo celebrates his goal. One of the best individual efforts I've seen.
In the 37th minute, Polo started in the North End by heading a ball away from Hanson and Jimenez lurking in the Timbers box, but he then picked up the ball and made a box to box sprint that left Jimenez in the dust with Blanco and Valeri running in support. Polo put the ball in the middle past Valeri for Blanco, and Seba put the cross back to Polo on the right for a headed shot on frame with Steffen fully charging off his line. The shot hit Valenzuela and started to head away from goal but stayed in play as Polo kept his run going to then jump up and poke the ball towards goal with his left foot. Valenzuela could do nothing and while Trapp did get to the ball to punch it skyward with his boot, it had passed the goal line to score Polo's first ever MLS goal for the Timbers' first team. While Polo was ahead of the shot when it hit Valenzuela, the offside flag would not be applied because the ball struck a Crew player first and so Polo could attack the ball without fear of being flagged. The celebration was epic as the young winger was surrounded by his teammates, and within 30 minutes, Polo had racked up an unusual hat trick of a goal, an assist and a caution card. The half ended minutes later without anything else happening, but admittedly, the home side was still buzzing about Polo's huge individual effort.

The second half saw no changes to either side, but the Timbers kept up the pressure and added to their lead before most fans had settled back into their seats. Valeri led a break in the 48th minute up the middle and fed a streaking Chara on the left side with a pass, but his shot was blocked by Sauro over to the right where Armenteros ran down the loose ball. The striker took a simple move, shot the ball and it banked off Crew defender Lalas Abubakar past Steffen to push the lead to 3 to 1. Unlike the Villafana/Hanson situation where it appeared that Hanson got the shot and it hit off Villafana in the action, this one was originally given to Armenteros but later changed to an own goal as Abubakar's action pushed the ball into the net. The Timbers spent the next 10 minutes or so circling about with a myriad of shots and chances, but they couldn't add anything to their tally before the Crew executed the soccer equivalent of a hockey line change - Berhalter used all 3 of his subs at the same time in the 61st minute when he brought on Josh Williams, Conor Maloney and Luis Argudo for Santos, Valenzuela and Artur. With this move, Berhalter left his big offensive guns on the bench with Meram and Zardes getting the night off, but would it be the right move?

Everyone put your hands up. Everyone!
Meanwhile, the tempers were still simmering at Unkel, who by this point had carded Sauro for a slide tackle right after the 2nd half whistle on Armenteros when he had already leveled Valeri and Blanco previously with worse actions, and Trapp had a hard foul in the 49th minute and argued the call, but Unkel wasn't having any of it. The Timbers, who had been initially frustrated by the calls, seemed to be adjusting better now that the scrutiny of the officiating had turned on the visitors. But outside of a pulled shot from Mullins in the 65th minute and a rushed effort from Hansen in the 77th minute, it looked like the Crew might have run out of ideas until they put a late rush on goal in stoppage time. One of the more curious moves in the match was the fact that Savarese chose to leave the starters on the pitch until Ebobisse replaced Armenteros in the 84th minute and Valeri was subbed by Melano right as the stoppage time started. The Crew were pressing a lot to see if they could make things interesting, but the Timbers defense had been reasonably solid in denying the chances until the late stages.

After Mullins pulled a shot wide of the left post and Williams pulled a shot over the bar right afterwards on the next run. the Crew added a goal in the very late stages past the allocated 2 minutes of stoppage time. Sosa played a ball out wide right for Maloney who whipped a cross to the left post where Hansen had found space and no mark, and he confidently put the header past Clark as the Timbers Army were celebrating the win by Tetrising. The final whistle blew right after the restart, but it was some very nervy late moments as the Crew pulled out an extra goal to make things interesting. The biggest questions now surround the trip to Minnesota this weekend with really most of the key offensive threats for the Timbers having played big minutes in Houston and versus Columbus. Does Ebobisse get the start against the Loons since Armenteros played most of the match? Does Savarese avoid the rotation on defense and play Ridgewell and Villafana again for long minutes after the midweek match or does he go back to Cascante and Powell instead? Usually a big win like this adds some confidence for the victors, but with the Timbers staring at a wickedly hard schedule down the stretch, player health and fitness will be paramount. This point is huge considering that after Minnesota, the Timbers play 4 matches against teams in the playoff chase around them (host FC Dallas on 9/29 currently in 2nd place; RSL in Utah on 10/7 currently in 5th place behind Portland, RSL in Portland on 10/21, Vancouver in Canada on 10/28 with the Caps currently in 7th place 4 points below the line).

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Timbers Upend Rapids Behind Fresh Lineup Choices

Sebastian Blanco was very good versus the Rapids. Player of the week good.
The Colorado Rapids and Portland Timbers have always played some very strange matches against each other over the years. From their initial meeting in 2011 to start the Timbers' inaugural season to a Jack Jewsbury laser at the end of a match to Alan Gordon repeating the feat for the Rapids with a goal at the death, the matches always carry a lot of intrigue to them despite the team's roster state or records at the time they are meeting. September 8, 2018 will add another set of footnotes to this weirdness between the Timbers and Rapids as Portland extended its current unbeaten streak to three with a 2 to 0 victory in front of another sellout crowd. Behind the result, however, is the first start for the 2018 season for one of Portland's young strikers, 2 goals waived off by the offside flag, a Video Replay review that overturned a penalty decision, officiating that left both sides frustrated and confused and a veteran goalkeeper making his first start for the Timbers in front of the home side.

Timbers Coach Gio Savarese has been preaching the need for squad rotation this time of year, and in that vein, he's used dramatically different lineups in the 2 to 0 win over Toronto FC midweek in Portland followed up by a cross country trip to New England to face the Revolution, a match that ended in a 1 all draw. Goalkeeper Jeff Attinella left the Revolution match with a leg injury to be replaced by Steve Clark, and with Attinella now out for at least 2 weeks, Savarese gave the start to the veteran Clark with young Kendall McIntosh on the bench as the backup. Savarese rotated back to use the same foursome in defense that worked so well in the TFC match - Zarek Valentin and Jorge Villafana as the right and left fullbacks with Liam Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala as the center backs - to support Clark in his first start in Portland with Julio Cascante and Bill Tuiloma available as the subs. With Diego Chara and Diego Valeri getting the night off in New England, the duo were back and fresh to help fortify the middle of the Timbers' tree notable formation: 4 defenders, 3 defensive midfielders, 2 attacking midfielders and a lone striker. Chara would be flanking Lawrence Olum, the lone Timbers goal scorer in New England on the right with Andy Polo out left. Valeri would be paired with Sebastian Blanco as the attacking midfielders in support of Jeremy Ebobisse, who was selected to start as the lone forward. Savarese chose not to play Dairon Asprilla at all, as he was excluded from the game day 18, but the other true forward, Samuel Armenteros, would be available as a substitute if needed. Savarese could also bring on Andres Flores, Tomas Conechny or Lucas Melano if he wanted to bring on some differing options, but suffice to say, Gio was doing his best to change the pace.
Diego Chara was back after sitting out the last match. He was everywhere.

Colorado has been trying to find their identity as a team for several seasons, as they haven't been able to sustain the momentum that was created during their dramatic cup run in 2010 before the Timbers joined MLS. New Coach Anthony Hudson has tried to employ a more disciplined, defensive style of play, but it hasn't produced the results that the Rapids faithful have been expecting. The team also traded away their leading scorer, Dominique Badji, to FC Dallas for exceptional playmaker Kellen Acosta, but Acosta wasn't available for this match due to international duty. With promising midfielder Bismark Boateng and young striker Niki Jackson also unavailable for disciplinary reasons after both being ejected in the Rapids last match, Hudson was trying to keep things straight forward and simple. In front of veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard, Hudson employed Edgar Castillo, currently the Rapids leader in points at 3 goals and 5 assists, Danny Wilson, Kortne Ford and Tommy Smith along the backline. Using 3 midfielders and 3 forwards, Hudson used Jack Price, Johan Blomberg and holdover Shkelzen Gashi in the middle with veteran strikers Jack McBean, Giles Barnes and Dillon Serna up top. Considering McBean has shown promise for years but never delivered consistently, while Serna and Barnes have shown glimpses of flash in their careers in MLS, this wasn't exactly a group that you could ignore. However, the disparity in overall talent was very apparent, so if the Timbers did everything they should on the night, it should result in a Timbers win. But like many matches this year, it was easier said than done.

The two goals themselves were the result of relentless play by Blanco, who lead the team in chances created with 7. Ebobisse started the play by collecting a long pass at midpitch and deftly dropping it back to Chara in the 45th minute, and Diego spotted a charging Blanco on the right side. Blanco easily out maneuvered Castillo in space on the dribble, and before Howard or the rest of the Rapids defense could recover, Ebobisse beat everyone forward and tapped the Blanco cross into goal for his first MLS goal of the season. It was a wild celebration for Ebobisse for reasons we'll cover in a moment, but on his first start of 2018, it was a huge result to add to Jeremy's impressive stat line of 3 goals and 2 assists in just 17 MLS matches played. The Timbers doubled the lead in the 65th minute when Blanco outran 4 Rapids defenders on the left charging toward the North End goal, and before anyone could do anything, Blanco crossed the ball to a waiting Valeri near the spot for the easy header and a 2 goal lead. For Valeri, this pushed him into double digits for goals and assists for the 4th straight MLS season, putting him in very elite company historically. Yet by all accounts, it could be said that Blanco shot the ball off Valeri's face considering the expert placement with 4 defenders and Howard all trying to stop the run down the flank.

Fans have clamored for Jeremy Ebobisse to start. They got their wish.
Both goals came right after frustrating moments within the match. The Timbers already had 2 goals waived off by the offside flag in the first half, leading to much frustration with Center Official Drew Fischer and his crew. In the 12th minute, Ebobisse thought he had the elusive goal off a free kick from Valeri about 30 yards from goal, but the offside flag negated the goal and VAR review did not indicate it was a clear and obvious error, either. However, several pictures of the replay show Jeremy was in step with Gashi as the ball was struck, but Ebobisse's speed put him very much out in front. In real time, I thought Jeremy was in step and onside but I'm not one of the people with the flags along the touchlines either. That same situation negated a Valeri goal in the 29th minute off a quick pass from Blanco where Diego had timed his run and was clear of the line at the time of the pass, but the flag stopped the play. Admittedly in real time, I thought Valeri was offside by several steps, but upon the review, it does appear that Valeri was really close to keeping the play inline and it was likely a good goal. Perhaps the most defining moment of the match, however, was in the 61st minute when McBean thought he had earned a penalty kick for the Rapids with Portland holding the 1 to 0 lead. Off a cross into the box, McBean and Ridgewell had collided going for a pass and McBean kept his feet as the ball came rushing towards Clark. The Timbers keeper punched out and slammed into McBean going for the ball, and Fischer immediately called for the penalty despite the protests of the home side. After several moments, Fischer made the VAR signal that he would review the play, and upon review, it was apparently that McBean had fouled Ridgewell prior to the Clark contact, which was definitely foul worthy. With McBean's foul occuring first though, the sequence was negated and as such, Fischer waived off the penalty call.

Fischer did allow the teams to play, and it produced a very physical, choppy game at points with both sides trying to make quick restarts and rushed plays to catch their opponents napping. Fischer, however, called only 20 fouls on the night despite a lot of hand checking and kit pulling with just Blomberg earning a caution for pulling down Chara on a break before the Timbers' first goal. I had actually thought there were more calls on the night, but if Fischer had blown his whistle at every bit of contact that was witnessed, the match likely would have ended 6 versus 6. Armenteros entered the book upon replacing Ebobisse in the 75th minute when he interfered with a Howard goal kick, but otherwise, Fischer was content to let the teams bump into each other. To their credit, Portland took a very deliberate approach on offense and passed the ball around during several long stretches from side to side, back and forth. This even included several back passes to Clark, who is still famously known to Timbers fans for his inability to clear out a ball for Columbus when the Timbers and the Crew played in the MLS Cup back in 2015, and Valeri scored the ball just 27 second into the match. It was nervy at points and slow moving, but by the end of the match, the Timbers were confidently knocking the ball around and keeping the Rapids guessing about where to go.

Yes, I like it.
I will admit, the white shirt/green short look is starting to grow on me.
Colorado did have 2 notable chances on goal outside of the waived off penalty, but they couldn't capitalize on either play due to the stellar goalkeeping of Clark. In the 61st minute, Barnes teed up a shot from 40 yards out off a passing sequence, and Clark pushed the dipping knuckle ball shot over the crossbar for a corner, and substitute Enzo Martinez put a challenge on frame in 2nd half stoppage off a pass from Price, and Clark was able to push the shot clear of the left post and out for a late corner kick. Blanco had several chances to add his name to the scorer's sheet with several blocked or missed shots, but in the end, Seba ended up with the brace in assists as the main catalyst for the Timbers' offense. His work was so good that the North American Soccer Reporters, the group of media folks that cover the league (full disclosure - I am a member of this group), voted Blanco their player of the week for Week 28 league play. To Portland's credit, their defense also held up well against a scrappy Rapids side as Villafana, Polo, Ridgewell, Mabiala, Valentin and Chara didn't let anyone wearing Rapids yellow get too comfortable with the ball near the Timbers' goal.

Portland now returns to the road to start their final compressed week of fixtures, starting by playing the Houston Dynamo in Texas on September 15th. Portland then returns home midweek to play the Columbus Crew on September 19th before then jetting to Minnesota to play MNUFC there on September 22nd. This represents the last difficult road patch for the Timbers this season as they return home to play FC Dallas on September 29th. The Timbers then finish the 2018 regular season with a back to back with Real Salt Lake over 2 weeks (in Utah on October 6, RSL here on October 21) before finishing the regular season in Vancouver on October 28. Portland currently sits tied with RSL at 44 points, but playing one less match right now than Real Salt Lake. With FC Dallas (49 points in 27 matches played), Sporting Kansas City (48 points in 27 matches), LAFC (46 points in 27 matches played), Portland can certainly move up the table depending on the results. However, they also need to keep winning with Seattle (41 points in 26 matches played), Vancouver (40 points in 2 matches played and currently in seventh place) and the Los Angeles Galaxy (38 points in 28 matches played) lurking.