Monday, December 10, 2018

Abbreviated Silly Season Begins As Timbers Fall In 2018 MLS Cup To Atlanta United

There is a good chance we'll see more of this guy next year for the Timbers
While paying attention on social media to all the events impacting traveling Timbers Army members, I spent a great deal of time dissecting something I noticed during the MLS Cup 2018 coverage. Yes, the combatants, the host Atlanta United from the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference champions, the Portland Timbers, got some due, but the broadcast on FOX covered everything from a league state of address with Commissioner Don Garber, an extended interview with new USMNT Coach Gregg Berhalter, a former MLS coach with Columbus who had been long rumored as the USSF choice over the longest, worst kept secret in soccer, and an anthem celebration that was, well, it reminded me of something. Seeing the various takes from the national media after the end result, a 2 to 0 win for Atlanta United, calling Atlanta's win "era defining" as Coach Tata Martino was leaving the club after the match for the Mexican National Team job. The atmosphere was pure "spectacle" and breath taking, and it even led one local columnist to take a shot at the Pac-12 for not thinking ambitious enough about their aspirations.

Considering that most columnists still consider MLS to be a lower rung sport not worthy of regular coverage or being truly trend setting, this might very well be a true letter box moment. Having grown up as a pointyball fan of the NFL since I was very young, Saturday night reminded me all too much of that league's championship, the Super Bowl. When I was younger, the game had a bit more pageantry than the regular season because it was the season finale, but over the years, the Super Bowl has become a monstrosity. The game itself pales in direct comparison with the overblown pre-game festivities, dramatic rendition of the anthem, new product commercials, the halftime extravaganza, the end of game coverage, followed up by whatever premiere or show gets lucky enough to follow said game. Millions of people worldwide spend their day eating massive quantities, watching a game that decidedly few really care about, mostly for the outside antics and being able to talk about whatever events transpired with their work colleagues the next day. Many outlets have been asking that the Monday after Super Bowl should be a standing holiday considering how many people watch the game and drink to excess, making the following day huge for absenteeism. When a 7 year old actress/singer came out in Atlanta and belted the anthem - honestly, that's about as good as I can describe it, and I already have issues with the whole anthem process anyway - it hearkened back to the last few Super Bowls I've bothered to watch. Throw in pyrotechnics and loud music, smoke everywhere, a pre-match ritual involving a spike, and the loudest train whistle I've ever heard, and apparently the atmosphere was amplified to ADHD proportions.

The last original USL Timber is now officially gone after becoming a free agent
This was just the few impressions I got from television, but in reading various posts on Twitter, it seemed like everything was designed to make this a true showstopping exhibition. Whether this is how Atlanta matches are regularly or not, it seemed like everything was designed to showcase the city, stadium and fans in the best possible light - and I'd expect some of that anyway. As the match wore on, however, it seemed more and more like the powers that be were determining ways to anoint Atlanta as the next big thing in MLS, and that everybody else should be wary or do their level best to keep up. Call it ambition, call it arrogance, call it whatever - the win by Atlanta should be a wake up call for the rest of MLS that the rules of the league have changed, and those not willing to put in the time and investment to try and match them could be left in the dust and debris. Suffice to say, that has become more of the norm in the world of sports, as teams continue their efforts to maximize every revenue stream available and review each league rule to find any and every competitive advantage available to separate themselves from the pack. Portland itself is going through this exercise as Providence Park is getting a face-lift to add a full double deck of seating on the stadium's east side to add to the park capacity. Stadium revenue is an important component of any side, and maximizing that to augment a massive home stadium experience while denting the long season ticket wait list is a huge win.

The match itself really boiled itself down to a few key moments in time after Timbers Coach Gio Savarese chose his starting eleven: Jeff Attinella in goal; Zarek Valentin, Larrys Mabiala, Liam Ridgewell, and Jorge Villafana on defense; Diego Chara and David Guzman as the defensive midfield; Diego Valeri, Andy Polo and Sebastian Blanco as the attacking midfield; Jeremy Ebobisse as the forward. With Mabiala back, it was the strategy to use the experience of Ridgewell and Mabiala to deal with the speed and tenacity of Atlanta United strikers Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron. We already knew going in that Martino was done at game end, but rumors had been circulating for days previous that Atlanta would likely be selling either Martinez, Almiron or both to bring in more money to secure talent. With Atlanta already making one big move - trading for former Portland playmaker Darlington Nagbe and adding him to a midfield with Julian Gressel and Eric Remedi - United had surged to the East title behind a powerful offense and a defense that limited mistakes. Veteran center back Michael Parkhurst and goalkeeper Brad Guzan rarely get caught in the wrong spot, so it would be up to Portland to find space and time to counter when they could. The team, however, seemed to content to play their strategy of absorbing pressure to frustrate Atlanta and then catch them on the counter when they were being too aggressive.

This guy got a new contract, which is very well deserved
In the 20th minute, Atlanta defender Greg Garza put a cross to the top of the box for Martinez, and Mabiala tapped the ball away as Josef rolled to the turf. The home crowd and many observers felt the contact warranted a penalty, but it appeared that Mabiala not only got to the ball, but didn't really touch Martinez. Nine minutes later, another Garza cross found Almiron in the box, and he executed a spin kick shot towards the left post that Attinella pushed clear for a corner. The tempers were flaring more as the minutes continued until the 39th minute when Parkhurst cleaned out Ebobisse off a clearance, and the ball rebounded back to Martinez, standing at the top of the box without a mark and clear on goal. Mabiala was slow in tracking back, which allowed Martinez to stay inline, and despite the efforts of Ridgewell and Attinella, Martinez put in the easy tap in to give the home side a 1 to 0 lead. Portland, however, had a huge response as Blanco put a cross into the box for Ebobisse, and the youngster put a header on frame that forced a late reaction save from Guzan. The fact that Jeremy did this while being bracketed and fouled was impressive, but Ebobisse did need treatment after landing awkwardly. The match went into the half with Atlanta clinging to the 1 to 0 lead, but the next goal would likely be the key - Portland gets it, it's game on, but if Atlanta could add to their lead, it might be game over.

Portland ramped up the tempo to start the second half and seemed very re-energized after the break, but it was United that caught the first break when Mabiala was called for a foul on Martinez on a back pass. While Larrys got to the ball and cleared it initially, Center Official Alan Kelly judged Mabiala had gone through Martinez, even thought it appeared on replay that Josef was already going to ground. Almiron's restart found the head of Martinez, who punched it wide right for defender Franco Escobar, and his tap in past Attinella extended the lead to 2 to 0. While Portland did have some chances late after adding Lucas Melano, Alvas Powell and Dairon Asprilla on, Atlanta was able to ride out the match to secure their first ever MLS Cup. Atlanta's strategy of bracketing Valeri and Blanco to force somebody else to beat them seemed to work, as Valeri was held relatively in check most of the night, while Blanco was able to unleash a few quality shots and the cross to Ebobisse. In this round of the playoffs, Portland's supporting cast had been able to provide a spark or play to help their team secure a result, but on this night, the magic finally wore out and the Timbers didn't have an answer. Savarese was very happy at his team's effort, saying they couldn't have given much more, although he felt the officiating cost Portland dearly with the foul on Mabiala that gave Atlanta their free kick chance for goal number two.
This guy is now officially a Portland Timber and not just on an extended loan.

It certainly seemed very somber after the match and the following day when the team returned to Portland, knowing that the 2018 was done and it was another side that was hoisting MLS Cup. The business of the 2019 MLS season had already begun as rumors and news of various trades had already been filling social media. Portland had to make some key decisions about their squad - it seems Attinella is the number 1 goalkeeper, but who backs him up? Does the defense need an upgrade? What does Portland do to augment their midfield to support and eventually replace Chara and Valeri? Does this team need more creativity and firepower, now that it appears that Samuel Armenteros is not part of their long term plans? How do you find experience to fill needs while not squashing the developing youth that will man this club in a few years? Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson might have his critics from years of being a coach during darker times or making unusual personnel decisions over the years, but in his tenure at the helm of the Timbers, Thorns and Timbers 2, we've seen 3 championships, several playoff berths and other accolades. It's not a perfect record, but Wilkinson seems to have found a formula that works with Savarese's tactics and it produced a feisty, resourceful Portland team that was fun to watch most nights. Although MLS Cup wasn't their best overall effort, it was a joy to watch this group fight and claw to the Western Conference title. 

 On the eve of the next MLS Expansion Draft to populate FC Cincinnati's first MLS roster for next year, the Timbers announced their 2019 roster status before offseason moves can begin. After forward Fanendo Adi was traded to FC Cincinnati, there were reports that the teams have a handshake agreement that nobody from the Timbers will be picked during the 5 selections made on December 11. Portland also released the current contract status for their entire team:

Under 2019 Contract: goalkeeper Jeff Attinella; defenders Julio Cascante, Marco Farfan, Larrys Mabiala, Alvas Powell, Liam Ridgewell, and Jorge Villafana; midfielders Diego Chara, Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, Dairon Asprilla, David Guzman and Erik Williamson; and forward Lucas Melano. 
Loan Extended: midfielder Cristhian Paredes (Club America)
Loan Converted to Contract: midfielder Andy Polo. Polo completed the necessary contract thresholds for his contract to revert to the Timbers, and he is now officially a Timbers signee.
Re-Signed Contract: defender Zarek Valentin, who got a new deal to stay in Portland.
Contract Options Extended: goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh, defenders Modou Jadama and Bill Tuiloma, and forwards Jeremy Ebobisse and Foster Langsdorf.
Contracts Not Extended or Out of Contract, But In Negotiations To Return: goalkeeper Steve Clark, midfielder Andres Flores, forward Tomas Conechny.
Contracts Not Extended: midfielders Victor Arboleda and Lawrence Olum.
Out of Contract: defender Roy Miller, midfielder Jack Barmby, goalkeeper Jake Gleeson.

This guy is also back for another season. For now. 
Williamson will be recalled from his loan in Portugal in time for the 2019 pre-season, while Paredes' loan is being extended. Of note that Miller and Gleeson are officially MLS free agents due to length of service in the league, and can negotiate with any team regarding a contract. Portland did also add some youth when former Timbers 2 players Marvin Loria and Renzo Zambrano signed first team deals today, adding some depth and speed to the midfield. While I'm sad to see these players go - Gleeson is the last holdover from the Timbers USL era to still be with the Timbers, leaving only Diego Chara as the lone MLS Timber from their inaugural 2011 season - I do feel that these moves add some youth in key areas, and give Savarese a chance to rotate in experience to build a strong foundation. Considering what he was able to accomplish in inheriting this club from last year, I'm thinking whatever he has planned should work out just fine for 2019. 

As far as what Atlanta has done with their team and atmosphere, I'm happy the area has embraced their team and that it's doing well for attendance, which is great for the league as a whole. It has made me appreciate how differently we do things here in Portland, not only relating to game day displays, but just as an organization. Not every team can follow the same approach, and so it's important to find what works for the fans that visit your matches. I can't see the pyrotechnics, very loud music and messages on the jumbotron working at Providence Park, but the team works very hard with the Timbers Army to create a game day experience that works. Whether you call it organic or authentic, what we do here is uniquely Portland - and I wouldn't change anything about it. 

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