|There is a good chance we'll see more of this guy next year for the Timbers|
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|
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|
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.
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.|
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.