Monday, November 26, 2018

Timbers Can't Capitalize On Chances, Play To Scoreless Draw Versus Sporting KC In Playoffs

Diego Chara was simply huge in this match. And he gets to play in leg 2.
4 teams, 3 matches, 2 weeks, 1 MLS Cup. If you had told me that the Portland Timbers would be one of the teams left standing in late November under a new coach back in January 2018 when Gio Savarese was hired, I might not have fully believed you. Granted, it was easy to be optimistic after his initial comments, but a lot has to occur for it to become reality. Whether it's strategy, talent, performance or pure luck that got them here, the Timbers found themselves in their 3rd Western Conference final in their 7 MLS seasons with just 120 minutes of soccer against Sporting Kansas City standing in their way of their second MLS Cup appearance. The teams played to a scoreless draw in Portland during the regular season back in June, while Portland struggled in Kansas City back in August during a frustrating 2 match road trip that saw the Timbers get blown out in D.C. United and Sporting, but neither match had either side feature their strongest teams. Portland has been much improved after that particular road trip, and they were hoping that a rejuvenated and organized offense that found gold versus FC Dallas and Seattle would be enough to break down a staunch Sporting backline. However, a plethora of created chances and shot attempts didn't produce a goal that stood for the Timbers, yet the Portland backline held strong and resourceful as the teams played to a scoreless draw in leg 1 of their 2 match conference finals.

The teams have played each other 15 times since Portland joined MLS back in 2011, and the scoreless draw marks the 4th draw between the sides without having a scored goal, with 3 of those occurring at Providence Park. While Portland didn't get a goal for their troubles despite having advantages in possession time, shot attempts, shots on target and chances created, the Timbers earned a key tiebreaker in not conceding a goal to Sporting in their leg at home. With road goals being the first tiebreaker after regular time within the 2 playoff legs, Portland can advance to MLS Cup by beating Sporting KC on their home pitch or earning a draw with at least 1 goal scored for each side. Sporting will need to tally at least one goal and hold Portland scoreless to earn the trip to MLS Cup, and considering that Sporting won 10 and drew 5 in 17 regular season matches with a plus 17 goal differential, they are a tough out at home. During the postseason, however, Real Salt Lake showed good resourcefulness to tally 2 goals at Children's Mercy Park and push the heavily favored SKC into to scramble until the final moments of their home leg. SKC Coach Peter Vermes would be without one of his key weapons as Diego Rubio earned an accumulation suspension for a second half caution versus RSL, meaning Vermes would have to replace one of his leading scorers for this match.

The Portland defense was very good despite losing Larrys Mabiala to injury
Savarese had some difficult lineup decisions to make despite having nearly 2 and 1/2 weeks since their last competitive match in Seattle. Andy Polo, Andres Flores and Jorge Villafana were playing international matches during the break time, with Villafana appearing for the U.S. Men's National Team back on November 20 against Italy in Belgium for a 15 minute stint. David Guzman was injured in the Seattle series and Samuel Armenteros has been dealing with various ailments for several weeks, so part of the planning would be to see who would even be available. Polo picked up a calf strain in training while Armenteros was still dealing with back spasms, thus making them unavailable for the match, but Flores, Guzman and Villafana were all back and listed in the game day 18. Jeff Attinella again started in goal with the usual backline of Zarek Valentin and Villafana as the left and right fullbacks and Larrys Mabiala and Liam Ridgewell as the center backs. Guzman paired up with Diego Chara as the defensive midfielders in the 4 - 2 - 3  - 1 formation that has worked well for Portland over the past weeks, with Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri and Dairon Asprilla as the trio of attacking midfielders. With Armenteros out, Jeremy Ebobisse again started as the lone striker with Lucas Melano available off the bench. Flores and Melano highlighted the various sub options for Savarese, alongside goalkeeper Steve Clark, defender Alvas Powell, centerback/midfielder Bill Tuiloma, defensive midfielder Lawrence Olum, and midfielder Tomas Conechny.

Vermes kept his approach fairly straight forward with Sporting, just replacing Rubio with Khiry Shelton in the trio of strikers in the 4 defender - 3 midfielder - 3 striker formation. Tim Melia, once an MLS pool goalkeeper that is now regarded as one of the best keepers in the league, again started in goal with his veteran defensive line of Seth Sinovic, Ike Opara, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi. With Ilie Sanchez patrolling the middle as Roger Espinoza and Felipe Gutierrez flanking as the midfield wings, it would be up to Shelton, Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell to generate chances for Sporting. Vermes chose his bench rather conservatively with just little used Gerso Fernandes and Gianluca Busio as the only attacking options and Yohan Croizet, Krisztian Nemeth as the midfielders. Sporting tends to play a conservative approach away from their home park, so it appeared that Vermes would allow his side to absorb more pressure and counter only when presented with a chance. The primary goal in the lineup, however, appeared to get out of Portland without conceding a goal at Providence Park and take their chances in leg 2. Considering the aforementioned home success at their stadium, this could seem like a wise approach, but the playoff version of the Timbers has proven to be very resourceful on the road with wins at FC Dallas and the crazy shootout win in Seattle that advanced them to this point.

David Guzman was available and nearly had a goal on the afternoon.
Perhaps it was an omen of the night between the participants from the famous 2015 Double Post match in the knockout round of the playoffs would again have the post figure into the game time result. After Blanco pulled a shot wide of the North End goal in the 4th minute that was rushed, the right post took away a goal in the 6th minute when Valentin stole a ball on the right flank and put a cross to the spot. The ball glanced off Sinovic and caromed just outside the box on a bounce to Villafana, who had pressed forward. Jorge unleashed a low lining shot with his left foot that sped towards the right post, struck the inside of it and then caromed off to the left into space to be cleared. Portland did generate several other shots and chances, with the best of them a stoppage time header by Ridgewell that Melia saved within traffic, but the Timbers were really unable to threaten the SKC defense that much. Sporting, meanwhile, had just one shot by Bester in the 9th minute which was off target, as the Timbers defense remained diligent, resourceful and in sync. The challenge became stronger in the 18th minute when Mabiala was injured trying to clear a bouncing ball away from Salloi. After making the clearance and Shelton made some contact with Mabiala, Larrys crumpled to the turf and had to be stretchered off moments later. In stepped Tuiloma, who made several key blocks to passes and shots during this first half performance.

SKC was able to get more space in the second half, and had several close calls to get a welcome road goal. Russell chipped a shot way out of play in the 47th minute off a drop pas from Gutierrez, but that wouldn't be his only close call. Russell pulled a long shot from the right flank way left in the 79th minute off a good run from Salloi, but Russell had a door step chance in the 86th minute off a deflected cross from Salloi that Shelton first received and shot, but it was deflected back into Russell's path and he pushed it wide left as the offside flag went up to stop the run. Salloi had a late opportunity to attack the goal off a drop pass, but his shot was blocked by Ridgewell out of harm's way. After a first half that saw them execute just one shot, SKC rebounded with 8 shots with a missile from Sinovic being the only shot considered on target. SKC's movement was giving them chances to attack, but the resourceful Timbers defense countered their attack with good marking and effective communication. There were some very tense moments where it looked like SKC might get a goal, but Attinella and his defense were able to celebrate their second shutout of the playoffs in front of an enthusiastic home crowd.
The East Side deck is starting to take shape but won't be ready until May 2019

Portland's offense would continue to create chances on goal, but the notable chances came in the 82nd minute courtesy of a Tuiloma header off a Valeri free kick that forced Melia to make a late reaction save, and a Blanco shot at the 90th minute that Melia caught easily without trouble. The Timbers thought they had taken the lead in the 70th minute when Sinovic took down Asprilla with a hard tackle that Center Official Robert Sibiga warned the SKC player about, but there was no extra discipline. Valeri put the free kick from the right flank to the left post where Ridgewell headed it off the left post and Melia bumped it right to a waiting Guzman, who headed it past the sprawling keeper to put his team on top. However, VAR reviewed the sequence and the replay showed that both Ridgy and Guzman were offside on the restart by a good margin, and Sibiga ended up waving off the goal. The Timbers' offense would end up with more possession, more shots on target, more crosses and good passing percentage, but Portland could not solve Melia and the SKC defense. Valeri himself ended up creating 6 of the team's 11 chances on goal for the night, but the teams ended up exactly as they started in terms of goals.

The stakes of the leg 2 match on Thursday, November 29 are fairly straight forward - Portland can advance with an outright victory or a draw involving at least 1 goal for each side. Another scoreless draw invokes the dreaded extra time with penalties if neither team scores in the extra 30 minutes, while Sporting needs to get at least 1 goal and not concede anything to advance. This situation does give Portland a slight advantage with road goals being weighted as the first tiebreaker in regular time, but considering the stout SKC defense, Portland will need to come up with some different tweaks to advance to their second ever MLS Cup match. They will also need to keep organized and focused on defense, especially if Mabiala can't go on Thursday; reports indicate his injury was a serious ankle sprain instead of something more severe. Portland also avoided any disciplinary suspensions in leg 2 with Guzman receiving the only caution of the match, so all players should be available health permitting. Sporting will have Rubio back available, and considering he is their third leading scorer in the regular season, this is an important weapon to have in your lineup. However, Sporting's defense has shown cracks at points at home late in the season, and the Timbers have been a very good road playoff side this year.

Same as it ever was. The Timbers Army does it again. 
It was very bittersweet for me personally to wrap up my 10th home season officially covering the team, knowing that this match would be the last soccer played at Providence Park for the 2018 MLS season. With the new Tanner Creek deck taking shape on the east side of the stadium, construction plans would go into overdrive after the match to get the expansion ready for the early part of the 2019 MLS season. The team has already indicated that the home opener for next year will again be delayed with no pre-season tournament, so it's likely April or early May before we get to see the team in familiar surroundings. However, I know there is still plenty to be decided in this year, and I'll be watching the events unfold on television just like everybody else. Portland might not be getting the big press or the love from the analysts in terms of their chances to advance, but I like this club's chances against anybody in a one match situation. They've certainly shown enough resiliency and moxy in this year's playoffs to reinforce the great #believebeyondreason slogan that littered social media back during the famous 2015 MLS Cup run.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Of Course It Had to End Like This: Timbers Survive Leg 2 Match Versus Sounders To Advance

David Guzman couldn't go for Portland due to injury, but Andres Flores filled in.
It's been a week since the Portland Timbers match versus the Seattle Sounders FC in the second leg of their conference semi-final, and I'm still shocked at how it finished, much less wrapping my head around the result. Considering the opponent, their fiercest U.S. rival to the north, pondering the purely insane events that have transpired between the Timbers and Sounders FC over the 40 plus years of meeting each other, and calculating the stakes of the match, it had to take various twists and turns before Dairon Asprilla's final kick of the match. It couldn't have ended any other way, starting with the Timbers having a 1 goal advantage from their leg 1 win at home on November 4. This situation meant that the Sounders FC would have to score at least 1 goal in leg 2 to win the series, as Seattle's lone tally in leg 1 gave them the advantage by getting a road goal (if the 2 matches ended up drawn, road goals would break the tie or send the teams to extra time). After a scoreless first half, the Sounders took the lead off a rebound in the box, but Asprilla found Sebastian Blanco in the 78th minute and Seba didn't disappoint to bring the score even. Seattle rushed the box in stoppage time to earn the draw, forcing extra time. In the extra session, Asprilla gave the visitors the lead but Seattle earned a penalty off a poor deflection and Nicolas Lodiero converted the effort to draw the match at 4. With no other goals but close chances, the extra time ended tied forcing penalties. In a scenario reminiscent of the 2015 Double Post match at Providence Park between the Timbers and Sporting Kansas City, the Timbers calmly and collectively made their kicks (albeit for one) while the Sounders FC had 2 kicks miss the mark. This was enough for the Timbers to advance to the MLS Western Conference Finals starting on November 25, where they will play Sporting Kansas City in a 2 leg series. Portland hosts the first match in the Rose City on the 25th to then travel to Kansas City for the second match on November 29th

Portland - Seattle matches have a contentious feel to them regardless of the situation or stakes, as we've witnessed in the 5 preceding meetings (1 preseason match, 3 regular season matches, 1 playoff match) between the rivals, but there was more tension heaped on the second leg due to certain circumstances. The match itself had to be moved up 3 days from the original kick date of November 11 due to a facilities conflict with the Sounders FC home pitch (The Seahawks had a home game on November 4 while an international car show was scheduled from November 9 - 11 on site), so it was slated for Thursday, November 8 which compressed the legs for both teams. While Seattle had to feel good about being within a goal and having the road goals advantage, they lost 2 key players in Chad Marshall and Cristian Roldan due to injuries in leg 1, and neither would be available for the return trip. Portland's offense had moments of pure brilliance in leg 1, but they had to feel slightly nervous getting just 2 goals at home despite having several great chances to add to their lead. Portland also had an injury issue of their own, as midfielder David Guzman was unavailable for leg 2 after knocking heads with Seattle's Gustav Svensson on a 1st half corner kick. Guzman left the match in the second half after feeling dizzy, but apparently his hamstrings had been giving him concern; David has been one of the consistent players down the stretch for the Timbers. Timbers Coach Gio Savarese had some decisions to make about replacing Guzman, but in true form, Gio made other adjustments to his side to see if they could secure the series win.

Lucas Melano was a late sub for Portland, and he was superlative
Savarese made 3 different adjustments to his starting eleven from leg 1. Jeff Attinella again started in goal with Steve Clark as his backup, but the defensive line got several adjustments. Larrys Mabiala, unavailable for leg 1 due to suspension, was back in the starting eleven alongside Liam Ridgewell with Jorge Villafana manning the left back spot. Instead of Zarek Valentin at right back, Savarese gave Alvas Powell the start with Valentin and leg 1 starter Bill Tuiloma on the bench. With Guzman out, Savarese gave Andres Flores the start in the midfield with Andy Polo and Diego Chara, with Blanco and Diego Valeri as the attacking mids and Jeremy Ebobisse as the lone striker. Savarese had Lawrence Olum, Lucas Melano, and Julio Cascante available as needed depending on the situation, but for the Timbers, the moves would likely be determined on the situation happening on the pitch at the time. Seattle kept things relatively straightforward as well, using most of the same players from their leg 1 starters, but replacing Roldan with Harrison Shipp and Roman Torres filling in for Marshall. Striker Raul Ruidiaz has been difficult for most defenses to deal with since he joined Seattle midseason in 2018, and so the Sounders had to feel confident in their chances offensively with Raul attacking and a rabid partisan crowd cheering them on. Despite it being a midweek match and no organized bus caravan transporting folks up north, there was a large traveling contingent of Timbers Army that made the trip to support their side and provide vocal, energetic support of their charges.

I haven't made a habit of going back to read my work at the previous site, but I admit that being there live, it was difficult to capture all of the competing emotions going on that Double Post night. Even watching a documentary film put together by MLS, while certainly impressively and thoughfully done, couldn't completely capture everything that I felt on that chilly evening back in October 2015. It's hard not to see complete parallels between the two matches despite the differing locations and participants - a first half of teams trying to figure out a master plan, a second half where a team takes an advantage only to see it countered rather quickly, and then a crazy extra time frame that led to penalties. I wouldn't say that Savarese's approach in the first 45 minutes was conservative, but it was in so much that both teams were still trying to build the chemistry and tempo needed to find a break, and with the stakes of the match essentially being a single goal, getting the first tally would be paramount. Yet when Ruidiaz knocked in a shot when Attinella had trouble handling a rebounding ball in the 68th minute, I still felt there were plenty of goals in the match. Sure enough, Asprilla replaces Polo in the 72nd minute and within 4 minutes, Dairon made a play for the ages in settling a cross from Villafana on the right side. His deft footwork settled the ball for Blanco, and Seba did the rest to level the score at 1 and put the Timbers within 12 minutes and stoppage time of advancing.

Ozzie Alonso did his usual best to disrupt the Timbers all evening.
Yet somehow I knew there would be more twists and turns to occur, and second half stoppage provided several fireworks. After Melano joined the match for Ebobisse just before stoppage, he made an impressive run off a counter with Valeri in control of the ball, and when the space opened up, all Lucas had to do was put it into the net to seal the Sounders' fate. But Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei made a spectacularly acrobatic save to stop the effort, and with the Timbers strung forward, Seattle was able to counter back and put the onus on the Timbers defense. The pressure eventually yielded when Ruidiaz got his second goal in the 3rd minute of stoppage, and suddenly, the event that didn't seem likely to happen - extra time - would indeed happen as the teams traded 2 to 1 scores in each venue. Yet Mabiala nearly made that point moot off a late corner kick where the center back put a header on target that Frei just saved in time. And because the match would now be extended, the lifeline of the away goal tiebreaker that Portland had held up until Ruidiaz's second was gone - the match would have to be determined by who scored more goals in the 30 minutes of extra time.

Extra time couldn't have started off better for Portland, as Valeri dribbled up the right flank and put a cross to the left post area where Asprilla was waiting. With little cover from the Sounders defense and Frei drifted off towards the left post, Dairon put a header into the right corner that put Portland up 4 to 3 as Asprilla executed a crazy back flip celebration followed by being mobbed by his teammates. Yet the emotions were tested again in the 97th minute off a cross into the Timbers box that struck Blanco's forearm in the melee, and Center Official Jair Marrufo pointed to the spot for a penalty. Yes, it was a very harsh call on Blanco, who appeared to be doing everything possible to avoid handling the ball, but the bouncing and location were enough to award the home side the penalty. When Sounders midfielder Nicolas Lodiero slotted it in past Attinella to even the score at 4 to 4, I had to wonder if there would be any other goals in the final 20 plus minutes of soccer. Both teams had some chances to attack the goal, but when the final whistle blew, it would be a series of penalties that would decided the series winner. Several of the Timbers weren't sure of this development as they were celebrating the result, thinking the 2 away goals would be enough to advance them - not realizing that MLS doesn't observe the away goal rule in extra time.

Diego Chara played all 120 minutes against the Sounders without a caution.
Penalties can be a cruel way to determine a winner, especially considering how random the results can be when professional soccer players take a shot without any defenders about except the goalkeeper. The exercise becomes one of inspiring enough confidence to take a shot that will challenge the keeper, yet also outguess the opposition in terms of direction and location to give the ball the best chance to score. After Melano and Ruidiaz traded made penalties, Valeri scored his to the left side, putting the onus on Sounders forward Will Bruin. Bruin chose to go left, but his shot went too far left and bounced off the post and out of play. When Blanco converted his, it was up to Sounders midfielder Ozzie Alonso to keep the score close, but his penalty went right and Attinella guessed that direction and pushed it wide right. Ridgewell had a chance to end the festivities at this point, but he chose to go left and Frei charged in that direction to deflect it wide. Sounders midfielder Handwalla Bwana still needed to make his kick to give Seattle a fighting chance, and when he converted it to put the score at 3 to 2, it fell upon Asprilla. Hit the kick, the Timbers advance, miss and the Sounders have a final chance to see if they can tie it up in the initial 5 penalties (best score after 5 wins, otherwise it's sudden death shootout). While Dairon did go in the middle and Frei got an arm to it, it wasn't enough resistance to stop the shot and the Timbers could celebrate victory on rival soil.

The celebrations about the advancement have continued throughout the subsequent days, and now Portland can recharge and recalibrate their approach with over 2 weeks between playoff legs. Sporting Kansas City did outlast upstart Real Salt Lake in their 2 leg semifinal, but the normally stout SKC defense had serious issues keeping RSL from scoring goals at points, showing a vulnerability that many haven't seen from this group much this year. Both offenses have to feel confident knowing the regular season meetings between the 2 teams didn't feature fully complete teams, and they have the ability to score goals in bunches. The key deciding factor in this series will fall upon the defense, as it will likely be won by whichever group can provide enough hurdles against the other side to stop them from scoring. The winner of this series will advance to play the winner of the Eastern Conference finals between Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls, the top 2 points teams in the 2018 MLS Regular Season. The tasks don't get any easier this time of year, but seeing the passion and belief that I've seen from this Portland team, they are going to be an extremely difficult matchup for any of the remaining sides. Experts are predicting it will be SKC in the West with even odds between the Red Bulls and Atlanta advancing, but a lot can happen between now and that December 8 MLS Cup date.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Timbers Earn Playoff Advantage With Leg 1 Win Over Sounders At Home

Why yes, we are the only club that matters. Why do you ask?
Portland Timbers matches against the Seattle Sounders FC are never easy, nor are they for the casual fan of soccer. Nothing drove this point home more than walking into Providence Park 45 minutes before the scheduled kick in their Leg 1 match of the Western Conference semi-final, and both supporters sections were overflowing with noise and songs. Portland and Seattle were meeting for the 103rd time in their lengthy history, but only for the second time were the sides battling in the MLS postseason. The last time they met in the postseason was 2013, and the Timbers, playing in their first season under then-Coach Caleb Porter, knocked off the veteran laden Sounders by a 5 to 3 aggregate score. Playing in front of another raucous sellout crowd at Providence Park, the Sounders took an early lead playing the first 10 minutes of soccer with solid pace, physical play and precise passing as the Timbers struggled to counter. However, Portland found their footing and played perhaps their best sequence of soccer all year in the remainder of the first half, putting in two goals and effectively silencing the Sounders attack. The score would remain 2 to 1 Portland through a tense second half that saw both sides struggle to capture the same intensity and precision, but the effort was enough for the Timbers to take the early lead in the two match series. Focus now turns to November 8 in Seattle for Leg 2, as the Sounders know they need at least 1 goal to even the series; however, the fact the Sounders have a road goal gives them an advantage should the 2 match series end level on goals. Portland, however, has confidence in having 2 wins against their rival in 2018 including a big win in June at Century Link Field under dramatic circumstances.

In 2018, Seattle again fell into their usual pattern of struggles to start the season, but after losing to the Timbers in Seattle and being 11 points adrift from the playoffs, the Sounders rallied to advance all the way to the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Ironically, it was the loss to the Timbers in June that seemed to galvanize the Sounders into a long unbeaten streak through July, August and September. Portland, meanwhile has been relatively consistent outside of a lengthy unbeaten streak from April to August that helped propel them to success under first year Coach Gio Savarese. It hasn't been all fun and games for either side, though, as there have been injuries and player adjustments that have affected the overall attack for each group. The Sounders reeled off five consecutive wins to finish the 2018 regular season, and Coach Brian Schmetzer has been pleased with the attack of Raul Ruidiaz (joined midseason in June), Nicolas Lodiero, Will Bruin, Cristian Roldan and Victor Rodriguez. It's a credit to Schmetzer and his team to find ways to replace injured scorer Jordan Morris and retired striker Clint Dempsey, and Schmetzer was hoping that his team could continue their hot streak.
I didn't think Jeff Attinella touched Cristian Roldan on this play.

Schmetzer decided to keep things relatively simple for his side, starting Stefan Frei in goal with Nouhou Tolo, Kim Kee-Hee, Chad Marshall and Kelvin Leerdam in defense. With Ozzie Alonso and Gustav Svensson manning the defensive midfield, Seattle would rely upon the attacking trio of Roldan, Rodriguez and Lodiero as the midfielders with Ruidiaz as the lone striker. Portland has found success recently by returning to the 4 defender, 2 defensive midfielder, 3 attacking midfielder, and 1 striker formation and Savarese went with virtually the same lineup as was used in the 2 match series with Real Salt Lake in October. Jeff Attinella would again start in goal, having fully recovered from the shoulder injuries that shelved him late in the season, with Jorge Villafana, Liam Ridgewell, Bill Tuiloma and Zarek Valentin on defense with Larrys Mabiala unavailable after being ejected in the knockout round match against FC Dallas. With Diego Chara and David Guzman handling the defensive midfield duties, it would be up to Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Andy Polo as the attacking midfield and Jeremy Ebobisse as the striker to generate pressure on Frei. The recent battles between Chara and Alonso have been the stuff of legend with 2 of the very best defensive midfielders put on quite a show patrolling the middle, but with Chara on a caution from the FC Dallas match and 2 cautions triggering a suspension, a huge key for the Timbers would be to keep Chara from getting into any disciplinary trouble.

With Ted Unkel at the officiating controls, who has a reputation for being confident but unpredictable in his calls, the Sounders ramped up the pressure from the opening whistle as Lodiero and Alonso took turns executing fouls on Chara within the first few minutes. Ruidiaz was especially feisty and active with close misses in the 5th and 9th minute, while Roldan did his level best to cause trouble when he attacked the goal after the Ruidiaz miss in the 5th minute with Attinella charging to catch the spinning ball. There did appear to be light contact as Roldan went down awkwardly as Attinella tried to corrall the ball, but the shot spun out of play for a Seattle corner. VAR Official Allen Chapman contacted Unkel to have him review the contact using video replay, but even on the review, Unkel judged there was no foul on the play and the corner kick call would stand. Roldan would get some revenge in the 10th minute taking a ball from Rodriguez on the left with Tuiloma giving chase as Valentin was pulled in. Roldan was able to drop a cross into the box for Ruidiaz before Ridgewell could find the mark, and by that point, Raul had chipped the shot into the upper left corner of goal for an early 1 to 0 Sounders lead. With road goals being the first tiebreaker in the two match aggregate series should the teams finish the 2 match series tied in goals, this tally was huge for the visitors. It was a product of a very aggressive, deliberate attack plan and it looked to frustrate Portland as they couldn't find anything constructive to work from.

The Timbers youth showed very well in this match, especially Jeremy Ebobisse.
I'm not sure what flipped the switch for the Timbers, however, but since they are an extremely good club at the counter attack, they can put themselves back on track relatively quickly. In the 17th minute, Ridgewell corralled a 50/50 ball near midpitch and put a short pass over to Chara, who saw Valeri off to his left. The Maestro didn't keep the ball very long after receiving the pass, as Diego put a perfectly weighted ball to Ebobisse, who had made an expert run between Marshall and Kee-Hee in space and the offside flag stayed down as the youngster was first to the ball. Frei left his line to try and cover more space, but Ebobisse's shot was already away and tucked just inside the right post to level the score. On replay, the call was extremely close, but Unkel and his crew didn't make the call although VAR reviews every goal for accuracy and Chapman let the goal stand. After Ridgy missed with a header off a corner in the 23rd minute, Portland would take the lead in the 29th minute when Valeri broke down the middle off a turnover from Alonzo. With Kee-Hee and Marshall doing their best to stop Diego, the ball was deflected to Blanco, running on the left with Leerdam giving chase. Blanco settled it from right to left after a deflection, but created enough space and an angle to chip it past Frei into the same right corner for goal to put the Timbers up 2 to 1. The celebration within the stadium was so huge that the press box was shaking. The Timbers added more pressure with quality misses from Ebobisse in the 32nd, Guzman in the 33rd and 34th and a shot late by Polo in stoppage time, but the pressure kept Seattle slightly on their heels for the remainder of the half.

Another situation that added some hesistancy to the Seattle attack was the injury bug, as Roldan was unable to continue in the match after a few other bumps and was replaced in the 30th minute by Waylon Francis due to a groin injury. Seattle's issues grew bigger in the 40th minute when Marshall injured his knee taking a clearance, and he had to be stretchered off the pitch and replaced by Roman Torres. The Sounders nearly burned through all of their subs in the first half when during the seven minutes of stoppage time. Svensson and Guzman collided heads during a corner kick and both players spent several minutes on the pitch getting treatment. While they were able to return to their feet and finish the half, Guzman complained of dizziness after returning for the second half, and was eventually replaced by Lawrence Olum in the 50th minute. I thought Chara, Valeri and Blanco were the keys to the first half success for the Timbers, but it was Guzman and his 85 percent passing rate, stellar defense and good orgnaization that were the engine that fueled the 40 minutes plus of great soccer. I did wonder after the halftime break if the Timbers would be able to sustain the intensity and tempo they kept up in the first half, and Olum's entry unfortunately slowed down the entire attack. Thankfully for the Timbers, the Sounders were having their own issues on the offensive side.

With Larrys Mabiala unavailable, Bill Tuiloma stepped in and did very well.
Rodriguez got a gift in the 54th minute when an Olum backpass to Attinella with Ruidiaz chasing back went right to Lodiero instead of a Timber, but Victor's shot from the right off a pass was deflected away by Attienella for a corner. Lodiero and Ruidiaz had blocked shots in the 56th and 73rd minutes as the Timbers defense started to stiffen up for the stretch run, while Savarese made the call to replace Ebobisse with Lucas Melano in the final 15 minutes to see if his side could add a third to their scoreline. Valeri certainly gave it a run in the 76th minute from midpitch when Svensson gave him a bit of space, and the shot forced Frei to push it over the goal line for a corner kick. Portland thought they had added the magic third goal when Valeri played a pass to Villafana making a run, but the offside flag came up to stop the play despite Frei blocking Jorge's shot but missing out on Melano's rebound goal that was a thing of beauty. Blanco and Valeri executed a lovely one - two run that put Diego in the box with the ball, but he rushed his shot over the net and out of play. Rodriguez forced a save from Attinella in second half stoppage off a give and go of their own, but Jeff was up to the task to match the catch and keep the scoreline at 2 to 1 Timbers. Moments later, the final whistle blew and the fans could celebrate a hard fought victory.

The Timbers might be kicking themselves for not getting a third goal on the afternoon, but for stretches of the match, they simply dominated the pace and movement and Seattle couldn't match it. In a relatively baffling bit of news as well, the Timbers weren't cautioned at any point in the match so everyone is available; consider that the Sounders had targeted Chara with some early physical play, and Diego not only kept his composure and played his usual style for the entire match, he wasn't whistled for a foul at all. Portland effectively can advance to the conference finals with a win or draw in Seattle, and there are some scenarios where even a loss could advance them provided the Timbers score at least 1 goal on the road. Seattle has to feel good about the series not being too out of hand with just being down a goal and having a road goal to their credit for the series tiebreaker, but losing Roldan and Marshall to injury are key blows to an offense that needed some creativity at points. Roldan was the most effective winger for Seattle in his short stint, and there are questions if he can't go about who replaces this key playmaker for them. Suffice to say, the series is far from over and while both teams have positives to fall back on, there's enough question marks for each group to discourage a conservative approach to Thursday.

Liam Ridgewell shows frustration after the Sounders got their first goal.
For me, the first goal on Thursday changes the complexion for either side - Portland evens up the road tiebreaker for goals if they score first, forcing Seattle to play more aggresively, while a Seattle first goal gives them a serious advantage and reason to draw the game out. It would be difficult enough for injuries to heal given a week between the legs as originally scheduled, but due to a stadium conflict with a car show, Leg 2 is bumped up by 3 days to November 8 from November 11. The compression squeezes both sides greatly, but considering the key injuries for the Sounders, it will be intersting to see how they lineup. The winner will get an extended break (thank you MLS and your draconian playoff schedule) as they await the winner of Sporting Kansas City (1 seed) vs Real Salt Lake (6 seed) playing leg 2 on November 11. The lowest seed of the winners will host leg 1 on Sunday, November 25 with the return on Thursday, November 29; Real Salt Lake would host either Portland or Seattle if they advanced in leg 1, while Portland or Seattle would host leg 1 if it's Sporting that wins. The fact that it would potentially be 2 and a half weeks between competive soccer matches doesn't help anybody in this situation.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Hey, Everybody, It's a Clip Show Preview

I am always glad when this guy is eligible for matches with the Flounders
I can't remember the last time I got up early and watched soccer that didn't have teams I was interested in, but today ended up being the day. With my wife and mother-in-law currently at a bazaar selling hand made crafts, it's me and the kitties at home and the television has been squarely on the soccer. It's also been a bit since I posted anything here on the site, and there's been a lot of news and notes about the Timbers. In the style of some of my favorite television shows that want to put out an episode without having a clear theme or idea, I give you a clip show post. Part of this is due to being very busy in the non-soccer world, as my corporate job has been a bit of a roller coaster lately. I'm getting to the age in life I'm paying closer attention to my retirement accounts because I'm getting closer to the age of not working. This realization has really struck me in the day and age we live in with near constant corporate changes, and it's hard to feel secure at times. I've always lived with the theory that as long as I have a name plate on a cube and a place where my stuff lives during the work week, that's a good feeling. Lately, however, that's been severely challenged - but that is due to the times we live in.
  • Hey, Tuesday is election day. It's weird now since I remember a time in Oregon where I actually had to go to polling places and cast a vote in person, but all that changed with Vote By Mail. It's a truly incredible feeling to be able to research issues and candidates, vote at your convenience, drop off the ballot at secure locations statewide, and get notified of your ballot status from creation to receipt. My civics teacher always said your vote is your voice, and I've always remembered that.
  • After the Timbers qualified for the postseason with a huge win over Real Salt Lake in their home regular season finale, I had wondered about what the Timbers would do in their final match on the road in Vancouver, especially since the numbers indicated Portland was nearly locked into the knockout round matches (3 seed hosting 6 seed, 4 hosting 5). Gio Savarese chose the conservative approach with his lineup going you, and the Timbers ended up losing the last match - but it ended up actually working out better than anyone could have expected in the long run. Hindsight can be a bitch, but sometimes sticking with the gut is the right call. 
    It won't be as sunny as it was earlier this year, but there will still be bule.
  • Portland ended up in the knockout round traveling to FC Dallas, a team that has traditionally had struggles late in most seasons. FCD could have avoided the knockout round completely, but they lost to Colorado, one of the worst teams in MLS this season, by conceding 2 late goals which put them in this situation. Many might not remember that just a few years ago, FCD was just moments away from pulling off a domestic competition championship trifecta - winning the Supporters' Shield, U.S. Open Cup and MLS Cup in the same season - until their offense went sideways against the Flounders. It was the year that FCD fans thought they had avoided the swoon, but the team has been searching for consistency since being bounced from the playoffs that year.
  • Have you voted yet? It's really not that difficult. Seriously, I have written these words in the same time it took me to vote while researching some of the candidates. It's a simple investment into making our government work for us.
  • Playing on a Halloween night in the Dallas suburbs, Portland came into the match facing some rather difficult odds - in the previous 20 knockout round matches, only 5 times had the road team came away victorious. It certainly didn't look good early when FCD Brad Ziegler tapped in a goal off a deflection after a set piece, but the officiating caught the fact Ziegler was offside on the pass. Eventually. I know many folks said this was a pretty obvious call, but I'm convinced the assistant was a step behind the line and shaded by Jorge Villafana and Carlos Gruezo on the play, and simply didn't see Ziegler and Dominique Badji way offside. Thankfully, VAR caught the error, but that doesn't excuse why the assistant was behind the play in the first place.
    Timbers, can we have lots of this happen, please?
  • Portland turned in their own set piece magic courtesy of Diego Valeri in the 23rd minute, and I felt the momentum had really shifted from the home side. FC Dallas had to feel frustrated being just minutes from safety from the knockout round to now being behind a goal after one was disallowed. FCD certainly had chances as Michael Barrios spent most of the match running past everyone, but his shooting accuracy wasn't that consistent (as was most of his team).
  • The Timbers then put themselves in a hole when Larrys Mabiala was correctly ejected for pulling Badji down on a breakaway as the last defender when a pass sprung the speedy striker. Mabiala was beaten, and it was absolutely the right call, but Portland not only overcame the situation, but added a second goal when midfielder David Guzman put a pass to striker Jeremy Ebobisse on the counter. The youngster showed great composure to settle the ball with players moving about him, find Valeri coming in support and dropping a well timed pass, and let Diego do the rest. Valeri slammed it into goal, and the Timbers had a 2 goal lead.
  • I'm a little tired of the political ads, but honestly, it is the price of our democracy to allow candidates to put out their messages. I'm not sure how they come up with some of these names of who is responsible for these ads, but thankfully the Oregon Elections Manual is really good at giving background information on the candidates and measures in a measured, balanced way.
  • FC Dallas did make things interesting late after throwing numbers forward, but I thought Portland had played a well composed match even with playing 10 players. FC Dallas really hadn't shown anything until very late, and after absorbing that much pressure for that many minutes, I'm not surprised FCD broke through. But Portland rode out the storm to play another day, which ended up being the theme of the knockout round - 3 of the 4 knockout round matches in the 2018 MLS Playoffs were won by the road side, the lower seeded team. 
    Portland will need everyone to contribute in the playoffs, including these two.
  • Of course, it would be the Flounders. There is a point in every MLS season where the US based Cascadia rivals collide in a meaningful match outside of regular season action, but the soccer gods kept everyone from a Timbers - Sounders match in U.S. Open Cup play when the Sounders were eliminated in Round 3 by the Sacramento Republic. Seattle made the choice in the final weekend to play their strongest side against San Jose at home, and while the Earthquakes made it interesting late, Seattle ended up qualifying for one of the byes and avoiding the knockout round as LAFC and FC Dallas lost their respective matches. But with Real Salt Lake upsetting LAFC in the knockout round, the Western Conference semifinals turned into rivalry week redone as the Timbers would be paired with Seattle as Sporting Kansas City would battle Real Salt Lake in the other side.
  • None of the Western Conference teams really like the other sides, but if there was a pairing to rival Timbers - Sounders, it is SKC and Real Salt Lake. Their last match involved multiple ejections and several player confrontations, and I expect nothing less in this matchup. RSL have to be thanking their lucky stars, considering they didn't have a match in the final weekend of the regular season, and the Los Angeles Galaxy had a chance to knock them out by beating Houston in the final weekend at home. The Galaxy went up early, but the Dynamo charged back late to not only spoil the party for the Galaxy fans, but send RSL into the playoffs. 
    I expect SEA to focus on the Diegos, so Seba could have a huge series. 
  • A meeting with the Flounders always has some contention to it regardless of the date and time, but this playoff battle has several issues with it even before the matches have started. Portland doesn't have Mabiala available due to the ejection in the knockout round, plus Liam Ridgewell and Diego Chara are one caution away from a suspension in the playoffs due to playoff discipline rules (players can only receive 2 cautions between knockout round matches and the MLS Cup if they qualify). Having a solid defensive line is paramount for the Timbers to be successful, but as we all know, Chara's presence is nearly required for Portland to do well at any capacity. I'm fully expecting the Sounders to go right at Chara to see if they can disqualify him with the caution. Another key issue is the date of leg 2, as the Sounders' home pitch isn't available on November 11 due to a car show, so the match is actually being moved up to November 8 on Thursday. So the Timbers get 3 matches in 8 days, including 2 against one of their fiercest rivals. If they overcome this, it will be a huge confidence boost but it will only be due to a total team effort and making smart lineup choices.
  • Seriously, voting is really important. I get that might seem inconvenient, but the politicians should be working for the people and our vote is the voice that gives them direction. I'm not na├»ve enough to discount the corporate forces that influence politics right now, and many of them want the status quo to remain. However, that reality means more of the same that we've seen for the past 2 years since our last presidential election, and I, for one, want no part of that. We need true change, and many of the people on the ballots now are the instruments of that change, and they need our support.
  • I tried to get the cats to do predictions for tomorrow's match with the Flounders, but out of respect for our black cat, Moya, who we lost earlier this year to an unexpected illness, they want to wait until next season for doing their pieces. GB, however, was very excited about the Timbers' chances with a series of headbutts and purrs. He correctly predicted that Portland and Seattle would get the 2:30 PM time slot on November 4, and so I'm inclined to go with his gut on this.