Monday, August 12, 2019

Timbers Youngsters Propel Portland To Resounding Home Win Over Whitecaps

Very Evil Dead Style Here
The Timbers Army always brings their tifo game when doing displays. 
It's weird to be at this point in the 2019 season and think that the Portland Timbers had only played 6 total home matches within their schedule heading into August, but construction plans and stadium expansion will do that. But the Timbers have also dealt with one of their more trying weeks of the season heading into the most important stretch of fixtures for this year - a 10 match homestand that will even out the impacts from their road heavy early months. After the 12 matches on the road to start the year, the Timbers still had road dates mixed in June and July with the first chances to play at the newly remodeled Providence Park, so it was important for the team to be in good shape within the table before they spend August and most of September here, and to that end, they sat just outside the top 7 to qualify for the postseason. Starting their long home stand was their Cascadian Canadian rivals, the Vancouver Whitecaps, a team that has struggled to find any sort of identity under new coach Marc Dos Santos, but the Caps were able to secure a win against Portland back in May by a 1 to 0 score when longtime Portland nemesis Fredy Montero logged the only goal for the home side. After losing two emotionally draining matches in Minnesota for different purposes - a 1 to 0 loss in league play behind a dubious handball decision in the closing minutes and a 2 to 1 loss in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals that featured another close handball decision - against Minnesota United FC, the Timbers needed a rebound match. Behind the efforts from several youngsters on the roster, the Timbers did just that in posting a resounding 3 to 1 win over the Whitecaps to right the ship and take control in the 2019 Cascadia Cup standings.

The losses in Minnesota featured most of the Timbers' regular starting eleven, and Portland faces a difficult sequence of matches to start the home standing in hosting Vancouver (August 10), Chicago (August 14), Atlanta (August 17) and Seattle (August 21) within 11 days before the schedule mellows for a bit. Not only was the Timbers schedule weighted towards road dates for the first part of the year, but the Timbers remain towards the bottom of the league in terms of fixtures played, so there are plenty of midweek matches for the team in the coming weeks. With forward Brian Fernandez experiencing some thigh tightness suffered in practice on Friday, Timbers Coach Gio Savarese had to make some tough decisions for his lineup. With several players logging huge minutes in the back to back with Minnesota United and the Chicago/Atlanta matches coming next week, Savarese had to make some difficult decisions relating to who to start versus the Whitecaps. With Dos Santos employing the typical physical style that has been a hallmark of the Caps, it would be important to use players that could challenge this approach yet also keep their head and wits about them to not be drawn into physical confrontations. Some decisions for Savarese were pretty easy - Steve Clark once again started in goal as he has for the past 7 league matches and the USOC semifinal - but others came with some added risk.
Leading scorer was unavailable for this match due to injury
Brian Fernandez wasn't available due to a slight thigh injury. He'll be fine.

Bill Tuiloma hadn't appeared for the Timbers first team since suffering an injury in the home opener with LAFC back on June 1, but after a few appearances with Timbers 2 over the past few weeks and successful rehab, he was back in the starting eleven alongside Julio Cascante; the young duo were quite effective in several appearances earlier in the 2019 season. With Jorge Moreira playing so well lately but racking up a ton of recent minutes, he was shuttered to the bench for this match in lieu of Zarek Valentin with Jorge Villafana manning the left side of the defense. The Timbers don't defeat the Los Angeles Galaxy back on July 27 with Cristhian Paredes' brace, but after 156 minutes of soccer in Minnesota, he was given the night off and replaced by Renzo Zambrano alongside Diego Chara, who continues his long iron man streak of playing that was only interrupted by his suspension for accumulation that kept him from playing in the aforementioned Galaxy match. Savarese gave his attacking force some different looks by starting Marvin Loria and Jeremy Ebobisse as the right wing and solitary forward alongside stalwarts Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco, who are both influencin matches positively at their age despite racking up a serious amount of minutes recently. Moreira and Paredes would highlight a strong bench of substitute options along with forwards Tomas Conechy and Dairon Asprilla, defender Larrys Mabiala, midfielder Andres Flores and goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh.

Reeling would be a good description for the Whitecaps over the past few seasons, but it probably doesn't even begin to explain how far this franchise has fallen in terms of being competitive in MLS. After firing their entire coaching staff from last year, the team jettisoned several players in a move to clean house while bringing in Dos Santos, a very successful coach in lower division soccer and an assistant with LAFC during the 2018 season. While many of the issues with the side weren't directly attributable to former coach Carl Robinson, the team hasn't found anything that works in Vancouver with any consistency. The team still has Montero, the long time MLS striker who can score goals and earn fouls by falling down with the best of them, and the team is hopeful that midfielder Hwang Inbeom and defender Ali Adnan are solid building blocks to form a foundation, but striker Joaquin Ardiaz hasn't panned out as a complimentary striker to Montero, the midfield has generally been a mess, and the defense has abandoned goalkeepers Maxime Crepeau and Zac MacMath on most match nights. It's going to take a while for Vancouver to find their way, but Ardaiz and fellow striker Theo Bair are just 19, Hwang is in his early 20's and the Caps have several other young players littered within the roster. I hope the organization gives Dos Santos the time needed to rebuild the roster and give the Caps' supporters hope, but for now, this team is really going as far as Montero and midfielder Yordy Reyna can carry them.

His first half goal was ridiculously impressive
Sebastian Blanco's first half goal was simply astonishing
In a match featuring two Cascadian sides, it was somewhat appropriate that the skies opened up and let a steady drizzle launch on the crowd about 30 minutes before kickoff time, and by the time the anthems were done and the Timbers put forth their "Evil Dead" inspired display in spectacular fashion, the heavens were dumping liquid sunshine all over the pitch. It seemed that both teams had initial trouble adjusting to the conditions, which appeared to slow the ball down on the Timbers' Field Turf Revolution surface. Outside of two early misses for Blanco and Loria, it wasn't until the 20th minute when Villafana uncorked a shot sliding for goal that Crepeau was able to get a hand to, but the deflection fell towards the feet of Valeri with time and space on the right, but Adnan was able to block Diego's shot attempt with his face seconds later to concede a corner kick. Portland continued to dominate the early possession, allowing just a blocked shot to Montero in the 23rd until Blanco decided to take a seemingly innocuous pass from Valeri midpitch, dribble about and uncork a shot from distance that Crepeau couldn't keep out of the goal. While the Caps keeper did get a hand to it, much like he did for a shot Blanco had taken three minutes earlier from roughly the same spot to keep it out, he wasn't able to keep it out of the net as the Timbers took the early lead at 1 to 0.

Adnan suffered a thigh injury minutes later that led to his substitution, but the Caps' offense found some life and hope off a 38th minute corner kick. Montero took the effort from the left corner and pushed it to the far post where Villafana had headed it clear, but Bair shook his mark and tracked down the clearance to then turn and shoot quickly before Zambrano could close him down. Clark and the Timbers' defense had no time to react as the ball trickled inside the left corner of goal and just like that the match was level. The teams traded a few late chances, but the half ended in a cloud of controversy off a deflected clearance in the Caps' box that hit midfielder Andy Rose in the head, and the deflection struck his fist while he was jumping to head the ball. The Timbers were crying for a handball call, even surrounding Center Official Ted Unkel at the break, but Unkel chose not to make the call. In post match comments to the media, Unkel said the action was a natural motion and the arm action was not deliberate enough to warrant the handball decision, but you could understand the frustration of the Timbers' players who had 2 very similar calls go against them in Minnesota in back to back matches. Neither play by Mabiala or Dielna appeared to deliberate, but in both instances, the officials felt the arm action was enough to warrant the penalty.

There is no comparison
Diego Chara has been playing a lot of soccer lately. Very well as always, too.
The Timbers' exasperation appeared to translate into a very focused start to the second half when the teams changed sides as the rain continued to cascade down. Valeri appeared to be dialing in his shot with 3 near misses in the early minutes, but it was Loria who would end up getting the eventual game winner in the 55th minute. Marvin had tested Crepeau in the 44th minute from distance and the Caps goalkeeper made a spectacular late reaction save to push it away, but after Blanco collected a ball in traffic and dropped to to Loria on the right, the youngster dribbled past his mark, uncorked a shot from about 30 yards out and tucked the ball inside the left corner of goal to set off a frenzied celebration in the North End. However, the Caps made it interesting again when Montero put a ball to Reyna off a counter play in the 57th between Cascante and Tuiloma, and while Yordy was able to put the ball over a charging Clark to briefly level the score at 2, the assistant referee's flag went up for offside and the goal was disallowed, thereby muting the celebration of the visiting supporters. Portland spent the next 20 minutes or so circling about as Blanco, Valeri, Lori and Zambrano all had solid chances to add to the score, but Crepeau and the Caps defense was able to keep the deficit at 1 heading into the final minutes.

The Caps turned up the pressure with Reyna and Montero both forcing saves from Clark and deflections from the Timbers defense late, but the Timbers were able to achieve some final breathing room in the 90th minute off a deflection that fell to Valeri midpitch. Diego timed his pass to the left well for substitute Tomas Conecchny, who had replaced Blanco in the 87th minute, and Tomas put a superbly weighted pass in the path of Ebobisse, who had beaten the Caps defenders with just Crepeau back to defend. Jeremy took a well timed shot over Crepeau that hit the left corner to extend the lead to 3 to 1, and it was celebration time in the North End. After the final whistle, the Timbers could finally revel in the accomplishments of the night: righting the ship after two emotionally draining losses, notching their 10th win of the 2019 season, and taking control of the 2019 Cascadia Cup standings. Portland now leads the table with 6 points on 2 wins and a loss in 3 matches played, while Vancouver finishes with 4 points in 4 matches with a win, a draw and 2 losses. The final Cascadia Cup match is August 21 at Providence Park with the Sounders being the current cup holders. Seattle must win the match in order to retain the cup at 7 points (Seattle is at 4 points with a win, draw and loss), while a draw or Timbers win means the Cup stays in Portland for the 2020 season. But the Timbers have 2 important fixtures before then to help them rekindle their home dominance.

He is still the creative force that moves this team
Diego Valeri is getting older, but he's still the engine of this team.
In my opinion, the players of the match were Loria, Zambrano and Tuiloma. Bill had been very solid all year in the backline before the injury back in June, and his presence really inspired a solid defensive effort, while Zambrano was effortless in patrolling and helping control the midfield alongside Chara. Loria's energy and pace, was a huge lift to an offense that has struggled with creativity at points outside of Fernandez's relentlessness, and it was great to see Loria stretch the Caps defense at will. With Valeri and Blanco likely earning some time off in the rotation, Loria has certainly staked his claim for more playing time. While this match certainly turned on the effort of the veterans with Blanco getting a goal and Valeri getting 2 assists, it was really the energy of the younger players that I felt really carried the result for Portland.

It was also great to feel the energy of the Providence Park crowd, as the grounds seemed to be very wired and full of passion. While a rivalry match will certainly do that, I felt much of the spirit of the park was buoyed by the various supporter displays against fascism that appeared all over the park. It's hard to ignore the nearly constant back and forth discussion that has been going on since the league banned supporters groups from displaying the Iron Front logo on the grounds, and this has led to a series of escalating events. While many Timbers Army members entered with home made signs and shirts in support of lifting the ban, several social media reports indicated that others were turned away. In yesterday's Atlanta - NYCFC match, several supporters were ejected and now face 1 year bans from matches for displaying messages to end gun violence. Much of this is in direct frustration at the new MLS Fan Conduct standards, which bar political messages at the matches and was the impetus of the Iron Front ban. For many fans and myself included, the Iron Front logo isn't political - it's a message that this group will not discriminate against anybody except for one key reason - hate of another group based on their religion, gender, sexual orientation, race or other factor. Targeting that while also displaying messages about welcoming Soccer For All is very disingenuous, especially when this issue hits home for many.

I'll admit that I spent many years being in the category of keeping sports and politics away from each other, especially as advocacy and disagreements have fractured the country in various pockets. There are things bigger than that, and I've come to realize that sports gives a huge platform for important messages of inclusion and support for everybody, and banning the Iron Front logo goes against those foundational concepts. I hope the league will revisit the Fan Code of Conduct to provide a way to promote anti-discrimination and inclusion for everyone while removing references to political language as a reason for stadium sanctions. As a society, it's obvious that there are groups that may never fully agree on certain beliefs, but we all must agree to the sanctity of life and supporting everyone by destroying bigotry, racism, misogamy, fascism and any other beliefs fueled by hate of others. There should never be a safe place for hate, but there should always be safe places for inclusion. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Timbers Vs. Rapids History Earns Another Crazy Chapter in 2 All Draw At Providence Park

Thank you!
Seriously, this own goal is a thing of beauty. Thank you, Colorado.
The history between the Colorado Rapids and Portland Timbers has many complicated twists and turns dating back to their first ever meeting as MLS clubs back on March 19, 2011. The Timbers were one of 2 expansion sides that year - Vancouver also joined the league - and plenty of expectations were put forth on the Timbers making the jump from the lower divisions to the top league, but the then defending MLS Cup Champion Rapids put forth a harsh lesson in league dynamics in a rather emphatic win at their home pitch. Since that result, the Timbers and Rapids have seen several twists and turns over the years, from coaching ejections, crazy scoring, season ending blowouts, and the 2019 season opener in Denver where the teams played in a driving snowstorm in record setting cold temperatures. The next chapter of this weird friction unfolded at the end of a busy week for the Timbers with travel, and in the true oddities within these matches, the Timbers and Rapids played to a 2 all draw that again featured an own goal, penalty decision and a player ejection for a defender. The same formula of events took place in the Timbers - Rapids match back in March, so it was really odd to have the same significant things happen again on this night, but while Portland might have felt frustrated by the draw back when, on this night, they might have felt relief after an inexhaustibly emotional week.

Portland had already played a tense affair in New York City back on July 7 in breaking NYCFC's lengthy unbeaten streak in 2019 with a gutty 1 to 0 victory, but the schedule added some anxiety when the U.S. Open Cup bracket put Portland and Los Angeles Football Club within the same bracket to battle on July 10 in the USOC quarterfinals. LAFC dismantled the Timbers in the match following the Timbers - Rapids snowmaggedon fixture, and added insult to injury when they traveled to Portland and beat the Timbers in their 2019 home opener on June 1, but the tension has been brewing with both sides since last year's series of contentious meetings. LAFC ended the Timber's USOC run last year at their place in a strange back to back meeting (the teams met in MLS play days before the USOC match), but Portland earned some revenge in posting a dramatic 1 to 0 win to advance to the semifinals against Minnesota United FC in August 2019. Portland has already been rotating their squad since midweek matches started appearing in their schedule - The Timbers played a midweek match versus the Galaxy weeks ago in USOC play while MLS put Montreal midweek for Portland between home matches with Houston and FC Dallas - so the likelihood of newer names in the starting eleven would very probable.

these 2 battled all night
Kei Kamara vs. Claude Dielna was a huge battle all night.
The Timbers were also struck by some family news when just before the USOC match in Los Angeles, Timbers Coach Gio Savarase left the team before kickoff to travel to Italy to be at the side of his father, who has been battling cancer. Unfortunately, Carlo Savarese's health took a turn midweek, and Gio flew overseas to say his goodbyes with other family members; while Gio was able to be with his father, Carlo lost his battle early Saturday morning before the Timbers' match at age 73. The Portland players decided to wear black arm bands in memory of Carlo, while the Timbers Army brought white roses to be placed on Timber Joey's log in the North End as a tribute to the coach. In an emotional setting after the match, the Timbers Army gave Gio the white roses and chanted his name for several minutes in unison. Savarese was touched by the show of support from his players and the supporters, which made him feel very special and appreciated. Nobody deals well with losing a parent - I know this from personal experience - but having the support of friends and family is absolutely paramount. With the exhaustion of traveling from coast to coast and family news, you could imagine the emotions and psyche of the Timbers to be ragged - but schedules and challenges don't go away just because of adversity.

Savarese has been rotating his squad regularly over the past few weeks, and this match saw some new names among the game day eighteen. Steve Clark has effectively taken over the starting goalkeeper's role, and he again was in goal for the Timbers with Kendall McIntosh listed as the backup due to Jeff Attinella having a shoulder injury. With Larrys Mabiala having played several matches in a row, the center back rotation put Claude Dielna and Julio Cascante as the starters, with Marco Farfan and Jorge Moreira flanking as the fullbacks. With Modou Jadama also injured, the Timbers' bench was thin on defenders with just Zarek Valentin available as a substitute. Savarese rotated the defensive midfield, giving Cristhian Paredes a break and starting Renzo Zambrano and Diego Chara as the defensive duo with Paredes available as a sub. On the wings, it was the familiar duo of Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco, who have been rotated in the past few matches, and they would be joined by Dairon Asprilla as the third wing. Portland could bring Marvin Loria, Tomas Conechny or Andy Polo off the bench if needed, but for this trio of attackers to work, they would need Asprilla to pull his weight alongside Valeri and Blanco. As the lone striker, Jeremy Ebobisse would get the start with Brian Fernandez available if needed, giving Jeremy a chance to play more central that he has in the past weeks. For Savarese, this was a good chance to see what some players could do in unfamiliar combinations, especially with another busy week coming up with 2 matches again in a week.

Portland was hoping this would be enough for the win
Diego Valeri celebrates his penalty conversion with some gusto
Things have changed significantly for the Rapids since the teams last met. Colorado management had invested in several player upgrades during the off season, but the team struggled initially behind Coach Anthony Hudson this year. Hudson joined the club in November 2017 and many expected him to be fired after a less than stellar effort in 2018, but the team decided to give Hudson a chance with some different personnel. However, the Rapids went into May as the only winless side in MLS, and he was relieved of his duties on May 1 to be replaced by former MLS striker and Portland Pilot Conor Casey. Under Casey's tutelage, the Rapids have shown more tempo and spunk to achieve some interesting upsets, but the team has still struggled to find cohesion within their attack. Colorado recently added midfielder Jonathan Lewis and defender Lalas Abubakar in different trades right after Casey took over, and the infusion of talent has made Colorado a more difficult challenge to deal with, but it will be interesting to see long term what Casey's influence can do over this side. Considering the team has 5 wins, 2 draws and 3 losses in the 10 matches since Casey took over the helm, there has definitely been some improvement within the Colorado club over the past few months. However, Portland has been one of the hotter clubs over the past few weeks, so it would be interesting to see the differences in the sides from March.

Portland was presented with the first big challenge of the match in the 10th minute when Kamara tangled with Farfan on a 50/50 ball midpitch and Farfan stayed on the turf after trying to clear the ball. While the contact didn't appear to be significant, it was serious enough that Marco's night was done early as he was replaced by Valentin. The teams traded back and forth chances in the subsequent moments with Kamara putting a turn and shoot effort in the 18th minute right to Clark after some decent buildup, while Ebobisse was the recipient of a superb Blanco cross in the 20th minute, but his shot was saved by Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard. The back and forth battle took a wild turn in the 27th minute off a corner kick conceded from an Abubakar clearance. Valeri put the ball to the spot intended for a teammate, but Rapids defender Tommy Smith jumped ahead of the play to head the ball clear, but inadvertently put the header into his own goal for a 1 to 0 Timbers lead. Honestly, in the years of watching MLS action, this was by far the prettiest own goal I've ever seen live. The celebration was short lived, however, as the Rapids scored off the subsequent kickoff when the defense lost track of Lewis on the left flank off a forward pass, and Lewis was able to bury the shot before any Timbers player could react while the Timbers Army was still celebrating the first goal.

This photo is ridiculously awesome
Contemplative goalkeeper is contemplating.
Portland tried to return the favor in the 30th minute when Blanco challenged Howard off a beautiful drop pass, but Howard made the save to push away the effort and concede a corner kick. Dielna pulled a Valeri corner kick just wide, but it showed the Timbers were still able to press the Colorado defense. However, it was the Rapids that nearly pulled ahead just before stoppage time when Lewis put a ball to Rapids striker Andre Shinyashiki on the right, and he put a shot on frame that Clark pushed away from goal. Shinyashiski collected the rebound and put a cross back to a charging Kamara for a header to the left post, but Clark pushed that away for the back to back save. While Kamara came close off the corner kick with another close shot, the score would end the first half at a 1 all draw with the Rapids scoring both goals. Despite holding a significant advantage in possession time at 67 percent, the Timbers were not showing precision within the final third, especially with Asprilla as he missed on several good opportunities on goal with poor touches or rushed shots. Dairon has been especially frustrating to watch for much of this year, for although he's played well in several matches with Timbers 2, he's been far too inconsistent with his play for the first team.

The second half saw no moves for either side, but there did appear to be some escalating tensions between the groups. Valeri and Smith were both carded in the first half for hard challenges, but Center Official Kevin Stott had allowed several huge bumps and tackles to go uncautioned or even not called. Colorado was taking an approach of pressing the Timbers and physically challenging their space anywhere on the pitch, and within the first few minutes of the half, there were several hard fouls where Stott waived off the call. The situation boiled over in the 55th minute when the Timbers pushed forward on the left with Moreira linking with Blanco at the top of the box, but before Sebastian could put a shot on frame, Rapids midfielder Diego Rubio elbowed Blanco in the back causing him to tumble to the turf. The play continued without a whistle as the Timbers protested and several boos broke out in the crowd, but things got worse when Lewis made a through pass to Kamara at mid pitch and Cascante executed a slide tackle from behind to take out Kamara and the play. In the follow through, Cascante took out both legs in a scissors tackle, and Stott immediately flashed a red card for an immediate ejection. Admittedly, I didn't think the initial contact on Kamara was that serious until I saw the full replay of the tackle, but that still doesn't excuse the lack of a call on Rubio outside the box. Rubio made no effort to go after the ball, it was a hit from behind yet Stott chose to waive play on.

The young midfielder was very busy
Renzo Zambrano played all over the pitch this night. Literally.
This move necessitated some moves for the Timbers on the defensive line, so Valentin moved back to center back alongside Dielna with Zambrano moving back to replace Valentin, leaving Chara as the lone defensive midfielder in front. Savarese brought on Fernandez for Asprilla minutes later, and Brian put a laser shot on target seconds upon joining the fray. The pressure continued for several runs until Blanco put a cross into the box intended for Ebobisse with Abubakar defending, and the ball struck the Rapids defender in the arm, then flew away to the left. Stott blew the whistle and pointed to the spot to several protests from the Rapids' players, but the play stood up to VAR despite Kamara's attempts to delay the penalty spot. While Fernandez and Ebobisse initially made moves to take the kick, Valeri overruled the duo and took the shot going left with Howard guessing and jumping to the right. The converted penalty gave the Timbers a 2 to 1 lead, and the Timbers spent the next several minutes putting more pressure on goal to see if they could extend the lead. The Rapids defense and Howard, however, did hold up well enough to keep the deficit at one before substitute Rapids midfielder Nicolas Mezquida forced Clark to make a reaction save in the 72nd minute. The shot here seemed to squelch some of the Timbers' momentum at the point, and in the 76th minute, the Rapids took advantage of a defensive error to change the score.

With Zambrano playing more forward in an offside trap but the rest of the defensive line backwards on the right, Rapids midfielder Danny Wilson put a pass from left to right that caught substitute Rapids midfielder Sam Nicholson in stride in space on the right. From many angles, it appeared that Sam might have jumped the line early, but upon review, he was onside with the pass with Zambrano not playing farther back, and before the defensive line could react to the situation, Nicholson was able to put the shot into the left corner of net past Clark to level the score at 2. As in the first half when Portland got the goal, Colorado countered it nearly immediately. The teams traded runs back and forth down the stretch with Fernandez getting two near misses late, while Shinyashiki had a couple of blocked shots from good spots. Neither side could break the deadlock, and while the match ended in a 2 all draw, the Timbers appeared rather fortunate for the result. Considering they traveled from coast to coast to play 2 competitive, emotional matches on the road, and they lost a player to an ejection in the second half, the result might be lucky. However, for me, it appeared that the Rapids played the match very aggressively and physically, and Portland was never able to deal with this intensity. The talent and circumstances provided enough situations for the Timbers to rescue a point before the next tough stretch of matches are coming.

Touching tributes were appreciated by the coach
Timbers Coach Gio Savarese is moved by tributes to his father's passing.
And yes, the schedule doesn't let up as Orlando City visits the Timbers on July 18 before Portland makes their annual visit up North to Flounder Land to play the Seattle Sounders FC on July 21. The Los Angeles Galaxy visits Portland on July 27 to finish the month before the Timbers play an unusual double header with Minnesota United - an MLS match on August 4th followed by the USOC semifinal on August 7 - at Allainz Field in the Twin Cities. This series of events then triggers one of the most unusual sequences in a Timbers schedule ever - 10 consecutive matches at home from August 10 and September 25. Granted, there are still midweek matches in the string and several back to back matches that will provide some emotion - Atlanta and Seattle play here within 5 days of each other - but being at home should help lessen some of the issues with the compression. The Timbers also wouldn't need to travel again officially until going to Sporting Kansas City on September 29 unless they advance to the Open Cup final, where they would travel to play either Orlando City or Atlanta on August 29, depending on who wins their semifinal. The benefits of the loaded schedule are within sight, and the Timbers need to manage this stretch rather carefully. The team has already been rotating the squad regularly, but the team did announce that reinforcements are likely coming during the Summer Transfer window. Portland did make one move in working with forward Lucas Melano to mutually terminate his contract with the side, thus ending his second stint with the club.

Melano joined the team under great fanfare in 2015 under one of the bigger contracts the team had ever granted to a player, and Melano's goal in the MLS Western Conference Finals was a huge piece in that overall championship run. In 2016 being one of the key cogs of the team, Melano struggled to produce, netting just 3 goals in 31 appearances and the team sent him on loan for the 2017 season back to Argentina. He returned to the team in August 2018 to rejoin the side, but in 15 appearances since then, he tallied just 1 goal in 15 appearances. As much as Melano showed glimpses of talent and skill at times, he never produced with enough regularity to meet the expectations from his contract. Timbers General Manager/President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson has indicated there are moves forthcoming for the Timbers, but that the core of players - Blanco, Valeri, Fernandez, Chara, Mabiala and others - is fairly well set, and it's a matter of mixing in some of the promising youth - Loria, Conechny, Zambrano, Farfan and Paredes - with this group while adding some other pieces to enhance the group. It will be interesting to see what the Timbers eventually focus upon - I am sensing another addition to the center back rotation and some wing/scoring depth are likely targets - but I'm not expecting anything announced for a few weeks. As much as it makes sense to add talent, it's important to find the right persons to augment the efforts on and off the pitch.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Timbers Earn First MLS Home Win For 2019 In Dominating Dynamo 4 to 0

Timber Joey, you should look out behind you
I have no idea what is going on here, but it's ridiculously awesome.
Timbers supporters have been waiting for a night like this at Providence Park in MLS play. LAFC spoiled the party in the Timbers' home opener back on June 1 and they held on for a victory despite a furious Timbers rally, literally and figuratively. While Portland was able to exorcise some of the demons at home in a demonstrative 4 to 0 win against the Los Angeles Galaxy in their USOC 4th round match on June 19, the team made it a priority to rebuild the home fortress atmosphere in league play now that the Providence Park rebuild was complete. This goal would be challenged by a compression of fixtures coming up, but much like the various challenges of 2019 to the Timbers, they've employed a strategy of next player up and right now, it's working. With Brian Fernandez's scoring and relentless play leading the way - Fernandez has scored in every Timbers match he's appeared in since joining the team last month - and some meaningful contributions from 2 of their younger players, Portland showed MLS a lot in posting a dominant 4 to 0 decision over the Houston Dynamo. As much as the leaders of the team and some younger charges inspired the result, this was a complete effort contributed to by every player wearing the Timbers crest.

Much has been made of the Timbers' 12 match road trip to start the 2019 MLS season, necessitated by the construction project to remake Providence Park by adding a newly configured east side in addition to several other dramatic changes in terms of travel miles and road matches. However, the Timbers went into this match having played the least number of fixtures in MLS play at 13, and with the compressed schedule for this year shortening weeks off the calendar, there is catch up in dates coming starting with next week's road trip to Montreal followed by the June 30 date hosting FC Dallas. The Timbers' opponent was also tied for last in matches played at 13, but the Dynamo were also dealing with several key player losses due to international competition. Portland was without Andres Flores and Andy Polo for international call ups and Sebastian Blanco for accumulation suspension, but Houston was missing four of their main attacking players for international play in Darwin Ceren, Romell Quioto, Alberth Elis and Maynor Figueroa. Houston was also making the first stop of a brutal 3 match road swing from Portland to San Jose midweek to New England with their main scorers likely not available for any of the matches, so as much as they could relate to Portland's challenges, they weren't going to be overly sympathetic about their situation.

This is a very arty photo.
While Nat Borchers watches, everyone points in a direction.
With Blanco out, Timbers Coach Gio Savarese had to make some decisions about his lineup in this match. Steve Clark has effectively taken over the number one goalkeeper position for now, and he again made his fifth start of the 2019 between the posts. Although Claude Dielna was very good in the USOC match at center back, Savarese chose Julio Cascante to start alongside stalwart defender Larrys Mabiala with the two Jorges as the respective fullbacks - Moreira at right back, Villafana on the left. Savarese also held back Cristhian Paredes, such a vital piece of the USOC win, and gave Renzo Zambrano his second start of the year alongside Diego Chara in the defensive midfield. The replacement for Blanco ended up being Marvin Loria, making his MLS debut alongside Jeremy Ebobisse and Diego Valeri as the attacking midfield. Fernandez again would be the sole striker up top, and considering his production since joining the team on May 6 - he has 4 goals in 3 MLS matches and 3 goals in his 2 USOC appearances - Savarese has to feel comfortable running him out again obviously. Portland would have some intriguing options on the bench with Dielna, Marco Farfan and Modou Jadama for defense, Jeff Attinella for goal, Eryk Williamson for the midfield, and Lucas Melano and Tomas Conechny, a big part of the USOC win earlier in the week, at forward. With the Impact and FC Dallas in the next week, Savarese picked a mix of youth and experience while leaving several good options available for Wednesday.

Wilmer Cabrera, coach of the Dynamo, wasn't going to use any excuses in choosing his charges, although he did curiously choose not to start Mauro Manotas within the eleven. Manotas has made a career scoring against Portland, scoring 7 goals in 7 appearances, but Houston decided to go youthful within their starting group around veterans Marlon Hairston and Boniek Garcia. The team's second leading scorer, midfielder Memo Rodriguez with 5 goals and 2 assists in 12 matches played, was also not listed within the game day eighteen likely due to squad rotation. Houston has been traditionally strong at home with 6 wins and 3 draws in 9 matches in 2019, but on the road, it's a completely different story. The Timbers have a 5 win - 1 draw - 1 loss record in matchups with the Dynamo, but within the framework of the match, it would be interesting to see if the Timbers' young charges could provide enough influence in the match to help their team to victory. Much like the last match, the two sides struggled early to find a tempo and a rhythm: Fernandez just missed in the 12th minute with a low driving left footed shot that Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis pushed away at the last second, while Moreira pulled a shot wide right with some help from Willis in the 18th minute after a strange back and forth sequence where Cascante, playing forward, held the ball in traffic and found an open Moreira. The 38th minute saw the visitors nearly take the lead off a turnover that Hairston collected, and after dribbling for moments, took a shot from the left flank that struck Mabiala then the right post before caroming away for a clearance to Villafana.

Honestly, it's great to see smiles on the pitch
Marvin Loria looks like he's having fun out there. And I like seeing that.
Off that deflection, the Timbers were able to finally tally their first goal. Villafana found Valeri at midpitch for the outlet and Diego held it for moments until finding Moreira shooting forward. Valeri put a though ball to the left that Jorge settled and he put a header into the path of an unmarked Loria, and the youngster slammed a shot home past Willis into the right corner of the net for a 1 to 0 lead. It was a wonderful sequence from back and forth wide involving the experience and youth of the Timbers, and the combination was simply fun to watch. Portland would generate 10 total shots in the first half with 55 percent possession, although the biggest issue of the half was the escalating tension between the sides. Center Official Alan Kelly carded Cascante in the 12th minute for a hard foul, and gave Dynamo forward Tomas Martinez a card for a temper tantrum in the 16th minute, but Chara and Dynamo forward Ronaldo Pena were both carded between the 30th and 35th minute in an escalating battle where Chara and B.Garcia were being targeted by each side with some hard contact during play. There were several fouls that Kelly chose to waive off for advantage, but Pena's foul on Chara brought both sides into the center circle to argue for their case. AT the rate things were going, it appeared neither side would keep their sides at eleven, especially when within moments of the second half starting, Dynamo midfielder Matias Vera was booked for dropping Zambrano with a hard challenge. Even the mild-mannered Valeri got cautioned in the 53rd minute when he bumped B.Garcia from behind slightly, and Kelly brandished the cards to do his best to stop the escalating situation.

After Fernandez missed on a turn and shoot play in the 56th minute, Portland would extend their lead via the penalty spot in the 61st minute. Chara was dribbling on the left flank and dropped to Valeri at the top of the box, and he put a pass to the right for Loria with Dynamo defender DaMarcus Beasley nearby. As Loria arrived to the ball in the box, Beasley executed a slide tackle and took Loria out, and Kelly wasted no time pointing to the spot. The penalty stood up to VAR review and a Dynamo protest, but the kick itself was delayed by several Dynamo arguments with Kelly, and a strange sequence where Kelly kept telling Willis to hold to his goal line, then walking over to hold him there for several moments while Houston players were jumping across the 18 yard line. Order was restored enough for Valeri to take the penalty going left while Willis went right, and the goal started a crazy celebration in the North End. The celebration hadn't settled down enough before the Timbers added their third goal, courtesy of Fernandez in the 63rd minute. With Houston pressed forward, the Timbers cleared the ball courtesy of Zambrano to Valeri on the right, and Diego punched a cross to the left corner for Fernandez, who was on step with the last 2 Dynamo defenders. Brian ran down the ball and put in a great touch to settle it with his left food, and he was able to punch it in the right corner of the goal before any Houston defender could mark him. Much like the 3 goals in 10 minute sequence against the Galaxy, it was a matter of moments where the match went from up for grabs to completely in control for the Timbers.

It's great to see substitutes give this much effort late in matches
If you're not jumping, you're not Timbers. Even the players get that.
Portland would add a fourth goal in the 75th minute after Chara and Loria were denying in the 70th minute off a rapid fire shooting sequence. Valeri put the ball into Jeremy on the left flank, and Ebobisse decided to challenge Willis from distance on the left, and he put a shot inside the right post at a very acute angle where Willis and the defense couldn't get to it. While Houston did create some pressure at points in the second half, especially when substitute Juan Cabezas came on, they never really threatened the Timbers goal as Clark was forced into just one official save and a couple of crosses claimed over the match. Unlike the Galaxy match where the Timbers made several late defensive errors to give the Galaxy some chances, the Timbers didn't relent and kept the Dynamo attack bottled up. Houston wasn't able to commit numbers forward either as the Timbers were able to provide an effective counter attack all night with Fernandez as the focal point, and the Dynamo paid dearly for each mistake putting players too far forward. Even when the Timbers went to the bench to bring on Conechny and Williamson late for Loria and Fernandez, the pressure was kept up all match. Portland could have added more to the tally but ended up passing it about to run down the clock late.

Of all the matches in 2019, this result was the most complete on both sides of the ball. While the defense had a few moments where they bent under pressure, they didn't break when it counted and the Timbers' ability to press forward kept Houston from mounting a consistent attack. The Timbers offense didn't miss a beat with the rookie Loria, who earned a log slab for his first MLS goal in addition to earning the penalty for Portland's second goal. With Fernandez's ability to stretch defenses and run down balls from anywhere on the pitch, it's opened up channels for the rest of the offense to find space and shoot. While Parades was very good against the Galaxy, Zambrano has shown quality to hold up in the middle alongside Chara, thus giving the Timbers potential viable options on the occasions that Mr. Chara can't play for whatever reason. But perhaps the biggest development with the Timbers is the show of leadership on the pitch during play. I saw Clark talking with defenders at several points to keep the backline calibrated, while Fernandez and Chara were doing their best to direct play with signals or commands. It just seemed like the Timbers were much more cohesive in their approach, and the players were all synced up much better than in previous matches.

Thank you for coming to Portland. You've been simply awesome!
Thank you, Brian, for coming to Portland. You've been simply awesome.
Portland now gets the quick turnaround to travel to Montreal for a June 26th date before returning to play FC Dallas on June 30th to finish this month. The travel doesn't stop as Portland will then travel to New York to play NYCFC on July 7th before heading south to play LAFC in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals on July 10th at Banc of California Stadium. The compression doesn't stop as Portland will host Colorado on July 13th followed by Orlando on July 18th before making a trip to Seattle for Cascadia Cup action on July 21st. The Timbers follow that up with hosting the Galaxy on July 27th before making their final road trip for a while to Minnesota and Allianz Field on August 4th before the schedule starts to pay off with 10 home matches in a row from August 10 to September 25. If they advance in U.S. Open Cup play, the semifinals and championship are both scheduled for August, so there might be some travel then, but otherwise, it's sticking close to home for the Timbers once the calendar hits August. But as Savarese is fond of saying, the team is keeping to one match at a time and right now, their focus is on the Impact midweek.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Timbers Advance In U.S. Open Cup With Resounding Win Over Galaxy

And he's been doing a lot of this lately
Brian Fernandez is as good as advertised, having scored in his 5th match in a row
It seems like every season Portland Timbers supporters have the same debate over various honors for their team - what is more important? Each of the various championships comes with its own level of prestige: the Cascadia Cup gives the holder bragging rights over their fellow supporters from Cascadia, the Supporters' Shield honors regular season excellence for the team that earns the most points, MLS Cup is awarded to the playoff champion, who is generally regarded as the best team in MLS, while the U.S. Open Cup is given to the best American soccer club for the current calendar year over the various divisions. Yet, each title also has their drawbacks: the Cascadia Cup, while a great trophy, isn't put up with the other championships, the Supporters' Shield winner often struggles in the playoffs as it's rare to have them win MLS Cup as well, the MLS Cup winner is often the hottest team in October/November and not necessarily the best team throughout the year, while the U.S. Open Cup is often put down the priority list for most MLS clubs. While I want the Timbers to be competitive in whatever type of match they are playing, it's also unrealistic to expect them to play the same eleven each week between January and November, so rotation has to occur regularly. With a compacted schedule forthcoming, the Timbers did rotate in new pieces in their Round of 16 match hosting the Los Angeles Galaxy and came away with an impressive 4 to 0 victory to advance to the Quarterfinal round for the second consecutive season and the fourth overall in the MLS era.

Despite some various struggles in the tournament overall, the 4 goals scored is the third time in U.S. Cup History where the Timbers have scored at least 4 goals, and they accomplished this with a relatively strong choice of lineups. Timbers Coach Gio Savarese had to weigh the options after the Timbers defeated Seattle on June 12 up in Tacoma in their previous round action, but the Timbers face a 3 match in 8 day run in MLS league play with hosting Houston on June 22, followed up by a trip to Montreal on June 26 to then return to host FC Dallas on June 30. Things don't get any easier for Portland, either if you look into July as the Timbers play NYCFC in New York on July 7, return to Portland to host Colorado on July 13 and Orlando on July 18 before going up North again to play the Flounders on July 21, only to then host the Galaxy on July 27. That's 10 matches in 45 days, and now adding the Quarterfinal match on July 10 down in either San Jose or at LAFC, the compression and travel will test even the biggest depth for a side for an eleventh match. Granted, Portland has already dealt with a 12 match road trip traveling over 30,000 miles to start the 2019 season, so dealing with challenging circumstances has been part for the course for this bunch. Along the way, they have shown resolve, grit and resourcefulness through various matches, and this battle with an extremely young and inexperienced Galaxy side was no exception.

Unavailable for Houston, Seba was very good against LAG
Sebastian Blanco was the playmaker in this match, and he was solid in that role.
In his post match comments. Savarese indicated that several players lobbied to play in the Open Cup match, and perhaps that led into some of the lineup decisions to select the starting eleven. Steve Clark, so amazing in the Open Cup win in Tacoma, was selected to start in goal behind a defensive line of Jorge Moreira, Larrys Mabiala, Claude Dielna and Jorge Villafana. Of the foursome, each has appeared with the Timbers' first team, but Dielna has spent more time with Timbers 2 over the previous weeks after Dielna had awkward appearances for the Timbers back in March and has redeemed himself with good work recently. Savarese stayed with the 4 - 2 - 3 - 1 formation, putting Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes in as the defensive midfielders behind the attacking midfield trio of Sebastian Blanco, Jeremy Ebobisse and Tomas Conechny. Ebobisse has been used mostly as a striker early in the season, but with the acquisition of Brian Fernandez, Portland has employed Jeremy more as a supporting striker working with Fernandez. Fernandez tallied a brace in the last U.S. Open Cup match, so it wasn't a huge surprise to see him included, but with the inclusion of Dielna, Conechny and Clark, Portland was effectively using most of their regulars despite a league match 3 days later. What was interesting for me is to see what Conechny, who the team has raved about after practices, would show in a meaningful match playing alongside several regulars.

The Galaxy took a very different approach with a league match at FC Cincinnati on June 22, so they left most of their regular starters out of the match to have available for the weekend. Of the eleven starters, Galaxy Coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto only used one regular starter, defender Daniel Steres, and a few regular reserves in midfielders Perry Kitchen and Emmanuel Boateng, all making over 14 appearances in league play. The rest of the side was a mix of younger players, veterans that have fallen out of the rotation, and experienced players working back to fitness. Traditionally, Boateng has been a troublesome player for the Timbers to deal with, and if Ethan Zubak, Efrain Alvarez and Juninho could control the midfield for the Galaxy, they might be able to steal a win in Portland from a team that is still trying to get comfortable within their home grounds. For the first 25 minutes of play, this upstart Galaxy group was controlling the tempo and frustrating the Timbers. Part of this could have been Portland trying to find its rhythm with Blanco effectively being the playmaker of the offense, but the Timbers also spent a lot of time making ill advised or rushed passes in an attempt to move forward. For a club using most of their regular starters, it was really strange to see such an experienced side struggle with a younger, scrappier side so much. Los Angeles also seemed to be the early aggressor in terms of contact, and Center Official Victor Rivas appeared to be willing to reward their assertive play.

Has been improving so far this year
With Bill Tuiloma getting the night off, Larrys Mabiala was the leader of the D.
The match hit the 28th minute and the complexion completely changed with the Timbers earning a free kick on the left flank about 35 yards from goal. Conechny took the restart and dipped a cross towards the left post that Fernandez caught up with, and Brian unleashed a header towards the right post. With Galaxy goalkeeper Matt Lampson starting to react to the center in line with the shot, the ball actually struck Kitchen's boot and took a more acute angle towards goal as it spun over the goal line. With Portland taking the early lead off the own goal, the team spent the next 10 minutes peppering Lampson from all over the pitch, and the Galaxy defense was unable to completely deal with the onslaught. In the 34th minute with the Galaxy pressed forward, the Timbers cleared a ball to Blanco with just 2 Galaxy defenders back and Sebastian was able to put a through ball forward for Ebobisse in stride on goal. Jeremy settled the ball and put forth a chip shot over a charging Lampson that was headed for goal. While Galaxy defender Dave Romney was able to clear it temporarily, he didn't complete keep it away from Fernandez, who was lurking about and Brian captured the rebound to smash it home for a 2 to 0 lead. Two minutes later, Blanco decided to test Lampson from the left flank from distance off a drop pass, and the laser shot hit the back of the net with ease to extend the lead to 3 to 0. The Timbers had went from passive play to complete confidence in a matter of 10 minutes, and the Timbers were never really threatened afterwards.

Portland tried their best to extend the lead with Blanco being the main conduit for the shots on goal in the second half, while Ebobisse and Conechny had huge opportunities to add their names to the scoring sheet. Villafana found Ebobisse in the 40th minute off a cross that Jeremy put a strong header on, with only a Lampson fingertip save preventing the goal, while Moreira found Conechny off a break in the 74th minute off the break with a cross, but Tomas' shot was stopped by a Lampson save in traffic. It was Moreira that would add his name to the scorer's log in the 83rd minute when Fernandez put a cross from the left flank towards the right intended for Diego Valeri, who entered the match for Conechny as a substitute. Valeri, however, couldn't find the handle on the cross, but Moreira did and put it past Lampson for goal number 4. The Galaxy weren't able to get much going until very late, when unforced errors by Clark and Dielna gave Los Angeles a chance to tally a goal. However, Zubak skuffed a shot in the 85th minute in front of goal and Clark recovered for the save, while Clark deflected a Zubak shot moments later off Dielna's turnover. Unfortunately, Steve deflected the shot back to Alvarez on the left flank, but Efrain's rebound shot struck the right post and spun away to be cleared away by Dielna. Considering the Timbers defense had played so well for most of the match, it was a rather baffling sequence of events yet Portland remained unscathed and secured the clean sheet.
ridiculously awesome soccer grounds
Hard to believe this was just match number 2 this year here, but it's true.

The victory certainly gives the Timbers confidence going into the stretch of league matches, especially seeing how well Conechny and Paredes played in the midfield, and Tomas' service was actually very respectable. It made sense that Blanco played a full 90 in this match since he is ineligible for the Houston match due to accumulation suspension after getting a yellow card late in the loss to LAFC, but it was odd to see Valeri enter the match so late in a match that was already well in hand. With the youth of Paredes, Fernandez and Ebobisse, I'm expecting that they should be available for at least limited minutes against the Dynamo, but obviously, the plan was to rest Valeri to have him ready for Houston. Whether we see more rotation along the defensive line will be seen, but I was impressed with the cohesion between Mabiala and Dielna, and Moreira has regained some composure after a tough effort versus LAFC. It was even great to see Marco Farfan get some minutes late replacing Villafana for his first Timbers appearance in 2019, as I fully expect that Portland will need to dig deep over the weeks to get through this run unscathed. But none of that really mattered to the supporters or the Timbers players in the moment, as they could all celebrate their first official win at the newly refurbished park.

At least for one night, it showed the importance of the Open Cup to the Timbers, but I also feel that Savarese is playing the hotter hands right now. Fernandez is on a hot scoring streak and in form, and I fully expect the Timbers to ride this out, especially since he's often created goals from simply outworking opponents. Savarese will also need to manage the minutes of key players, especially with Andres Flores and Andy Polo out on international duty. While I think the team does want to win all the trophies it can, the more important goal right now is developing chemistry among the various players on the first team to ensure the club is prepared well for the long home stretch in August and September. MLS Cup still has the prestige of being labeled champions for the year, and the playoff structure MLS clings to hasn't been kind to most Supporters' Shield winners. Priorities may change from match to match, but building a solid foundation is always important, and the Timbers' result here showed that they are moving very well towards that goal. We'll see how well this group recovers in time for the Dynamo this coming weekend.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Timbers Home Opener Ends in Contentious 3 to 2 Loss to LAFC

It's bigger on the inside
My new vantage point from press row. It's going to take some getting used to.
The date of June 1, 2019 had been circled on many calendars for Timbers fans, not just because some certain person keeps asking what date it is on social media. You could certainly feel the anxiousness in the air around Providence Park as the Portland Timbers were preparing to host their home opener in 2019 MLS play with the Los Angeles Football Club - LAFC for short - paying a visit. Considering that Portland had already played 12 matches on the road, traveling over 25,000 miles and spending most of the 2019 calendar year playing away from familiar settings and a partisan crowd, you could sense the tension within the grounds hours before kickoff among the players and supporters. For the most part, the stadium passed the initial test well - the crowd noise was deafening, the stadium viewpoints were impressive, and the sights very memorable - but as with any grand opening, there were challenges as LAFC held on for a dramatic 3 to 2 victory in front of a new capacity crowd of 25,218.

It was hard to avoid the news of the stadium reopening as it was being covered world wide by various outlets, and the end results were very evident with the expanded East deck adding over 4,000 new seats, new jumbotrons on the South and West deck, a new playing surface, updated sound system and other decorative touches throughout the park. The visuals were indeed stunning from being able to see a visible Mount Hood or Mount St. Helen's in the distance from the new deck, and as the evening moved on, the night sky gave the fans quite a sight. The opening wasn't without various technical difficulties, however, as the sound system alternated between nothing and deafening for most of the match, social media reported varying issues with the concessions and the crowded concourses, and for the first time in the MLS era, the Timbers Army did not lead the singing of the anthem before the kick. Days before the opener, the 107ist announced new fan conduct rules that prohibited certain imagery from being displayed during the match in conjunction with MLS parameters that applies to all matches at the park, which led to plenty of supporter discord. Some supporters had to remove messages of support for the Iron Front upon entering the park, yet before the match had started, a group of fans were displaying a Trump 2020 flag in one of the sections of the park before the flag was removed. Tensions were still on alert hours after the match on the topic, and it will be interesting to see what happens over the coming weeks regarding this issue.

our tireless engine cog in action
Diego Chara was his very usual Chara-like self the whole match.
I was part of the stadium opening in 2001 for the Portland Beavers when the stadium ran out of hot dogs in the third inning, so there is precedent for home opener challenges. I don't say that to make light of what happened before the match, although it's not unexpected for new facilities to experience problems on their first run. For my opinion, I appreciate the upgrades but I would ask the stadium to turn down the volume on the public address system, as it was completely distracting when on top volume. I also understand the dynamic with soccer and politics over history, and many just want politics to stay out of sports. I admit I've struggled with that message before as I enjoy sports and would prefer the drama & dramatics be kept off the field of play, but sometimes the messages are beyond just the world of sports and that desire is part of my privilege as a white male in society. I respect the league for doing their best to make the fan experience more inclusive with their Soccer For All campaign, but the issue of censoring specific messages as political is a very slippery slope that doesn't have any easy answers. Soccer is a game that should embrace all parts of society, but there is no place in our society for groups that promote messages of hate or support violence against others, simply because of their race, gender, religion, creed, belief system or some other arbitrary factor. Messages that drive wedges and fuel hate should never be welcomed in any environment. I'm proud that the 107ist is supporting human rights causes, especially during Pride Month, and will support them as they continue to share this important message.

Within the context of opening the refurbished stadium and the traffic challenges brought on by the Starlight Parade happening on the same night in downtown Portland, it would have been easy to overlook the matchup between LAFC and Portland, two clubs that are fast developing a very contentious rivalry. LAFC dismantled the Timbers earlier this year in game 2 of the 12 game road string, and tensions had boiled over in several matches last year during LAFC's inaugural season, but Bob Bradley's crew are setting the pace so far in 2019 with an undefeated home record so far in 8 matches and earning points from 7 of 8 matches away from home. LAFC has a plus 26 goal differential - only Philadelphia has a double digit goal differential so far - which indicates a strong offense, but LAFC is also second to last on goals allowed with 13 conceded, so they have a solid companion defense as well. Carlos Vela makes the team run, but this group has Christian Ramirez, Diego Rossi, Adama Diomande, Latif Blessing and Mark-Anthony Kaye who provide scoring and passing support, so the Timbers were going to have their hands full in all aspects. Brian Fernandez has been a wonderful addition to the Timbers for his offensive expertise, but the key in this match would be how well Diego Chara and Cristian Paredes, the duo selected for defensive midfield duty among the starters, would patrol the middle and hold the tempo.

Paredes tallies the 1st goal of the new Providence Park
Paredes add to MLS Timbers history as 1st goal scorer in updated park
Timbers Coach Gio Savarese decided to roll out the familiar 4 - 2 - 3 - 1 attack with Fernandez as the lone striker with Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Andy Polo as the supporting attacking midfielders. With Paredes and Chara in the middle, Savarese used Jorge Moreira, Larrys Mabiala, Bill Tuiloma and Jorge Villafana as the defensive line in front of goalkeeper Jeff Attinella. Moreira and Villafana have been rather adept at moving forward to support the offense, but they would be tested in this matchup with the three LAFC attackers in Vela, Rossi and Ramirez. After playing in different stadiums with various surfaces, it would be interesting to see how well the Timbers would adapt to the new Cool Turf surface at Providence Park, designed to keep field temperatures down yet still be a fast surface. With Portland having an exceptional record in home openers and the myriad of emotions going on before the home opener, it would be paramount for the team not to make any mistakes and keep their emotions and wits in check throughout the match. Unfortunately for the Timbers, this message really didn't hit home until later in the affair.

Portland mistakes effectively created the three goals that LAFC tallied on the night, and their hundred of traveling supporters enjoyed every moment of it bellowing songs as loudly as the Timbers Army for most of the night. Vela tallied his 16th goal of 2019 in probably the easiest fashion of the year in the 6th minute when Attinella passed a goal kick directly to him and Vela slotted the ball past him before he or the defense could recover. Attinella was intending to put the ball in play to Villafana, but the pass went directly to Vela instead as a rather egregious unforced error. Rossi tallied his eighth goal of 2019 in the 34th minute when Vela found LAFC fullback Tristan Blackmon wide right, and Blackmon put a cross into the box intended for Rossi to the spot. Moreira was slow to react to the play and was steps behind Rossi when the ball arrived, and Attinella had no chance to stop the shot into goal. This pattern was pretty much the story for the Timbers in the first 45 minutes, as Portland really was unable to find any cohesion on either side of the ball. Of the shots created, Mabiala's header from a Valeri corner kick in the 8th minute was the only credible effort on target, and Larrys pulled the shot wide right. Defensively, the Timbers left several marks open at key moments, but LAFC were unable to take more advantage more often. The Timbers' midfield tried their best to set up some tempo for the group, but with the litany of unforced errors on passing or slow reaction, the Timbers just looked out of sorts.

He had other issues on the match though
Jeff Attinella made several good saves, but had a few horrible gaffes.
Whatever halftime message Savarese gave his team worked because Portland came out with passion and fire, and Paredes was the beneficiary in scoring the first Timbers goal in the new park right after the break. Portland surrounded the LAFC goal, and Blanco found Fernandez in the box with a cross, but LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller was able to deflect the shot away. However, his rebound fell to the feet of Parades, who tapped it in for goal to pull the Timbers back to a 2 to 1 deficit. The Timbers continued to swarm about, but LAFC extended the lead in the 56th minute when the defense failed to mark Blessing on the right flank. As LAFC swarmed to the left and peppered Attinella with attempted shots, LAFC defender Jordan Harvey put a cross from left to right to an unmarked Blessing in the box, and he calmly tapped the ball into the net for his second goal of 2019. Portland continued to pressure as Valeri, Blanco and Fernandez all had quality chances on target over the following minutes, but the match complexion didn't change until Savarese brought on Jeremy Ebobisse to replace Paredes and give the Timbers two attacking forwards. The Ebobisee - Fernandez combination paid dividends in the 84th minute after Villafana found Jeremy with a cross from left to right, and Ebobisse put a header in the area of Fernandez while in the box. Brian executed an exceptional bicycle kick past Miller to push the score to 3 to 2, but the Timbers were unable to do anything more score wise to gain any points.

After a first half where the team seemed very tentative and unsure of their approach, the Timbers showed more determination and tenacity in the second half as they pressured LAFC from all quadrants, trusting that Mabiala and Tuiloma could handle the LAFC counter. When Tuiloma left in the 58th minute due to a head injury, Julio Cascante came on board and he held up well to the challenges late. To their credit, LAFC used every technique in the book to run down the clock, including several time wasting counters. Vela is an absolute handful, though, and the Timbers' defense really struggled to account for his whereabouts most of the night. While much was made in support of Center Official Robert Sibiga's work on the night in an emotionally charged atmosphere, I felt that Sibiga wasn't as consistent in many of his calls when it came to contact and fouls. As much as the Timbers didn't adjust to the physical, frenetic approach that LAFC brought to the table, LAFC also did an exceptional job of accentuating and exaggerating contact leading to many calls. The tensions between the teams boiled over in stoppage time when Cascante, Fernandez and Diomande, brought on as a late substitute, tangled in front of the LAFC bench and the teams had to be separated. Even Bradley and Savarese had a rather animated post-match discussion for several minutes where some of the assistants had to be separated.

He's spectacular. Seriously.
Brian Fernandez is as good as advertised. His 84th minute goal was awesome.
In all of the context of everything, however, the match itself was a tale of two halves and the Timbers showed they could indeed hang with LAFC, who is easily the quality of MLS right now. I heard many people indicate that Portland needs time to adjust to the home conditions, but I also feel that the team needed to control their emotions slightly better. It appeared that the team was really not communicating with each other on the pitch, and the lack of leadership that plagued the team early in the season arose again. While I appreciate that Valeri, Blanco and Fernandez are doing a good job of leading the offense, I am openly wondering who is the leader of the defense. I would think Mabiala is the logical candidate because of his experience and expertise, but I didn't see anybody really directing or organizing the defensive line with any cohesion. Attinella has been very good for several seasons as well, but the unforced errors in distribution are a troubling trend. Granted, the issues are indeed correctable with more work on the training pitch, but Portland will need to shore them up before matches resume next week. The Timbers open up U.S. Open Cup play on June 12 in Tacoma, WA when they battle the Seattle Sounders in the 4th round of the tournament before league play resumes on June 22nd when the Houston Dynamo visit Providence Park to face the Timbers.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Welcoming Another Chapter To The Old Grounds

The 18th street walk is dramatically different at Providence Park for 2019
Sometimes to find your way in the future, it's important to revisit the important landmarks of your past - especially when they get a dramatic makeover. Since the last post we did here back in March, life has gotten in the way rather significantly. From dealing with my wife's ongoing health issues to finding out about some of my family genetics recently has added some stress. My mother passed away from cancer in 2005 as many long time Timbers Army friends know, and I ended up with a lot of love from the TA on the old Soccer City USA board when I shared the news. Unbeknownst to me, she had been dealing with Hasimoto's Thyroditis for many years, and knowing this would have likely changed some of my choices in food and health. My sister apparently knew about it, but I just found out over Memorial Day weekend. I had switched to a full time gluten free diet recently to combat my bad psoriasis months ago, but had I known about this propensity for auto-immune disorders, I might have started this sooner.

Work stress has been all over the place, but that is nothing new. I'm also able to de-stress from my day by tweeting about my bus adventures (the hashtag #WillMyBusArrive) which we have talked about in this blog. I never thought I would get so many followers by just talking about whether a bus shows up or not, but it's turned out to be quite popular for some reason - even getting some attention from the local transit authority. I get it's a tough job to drive around and deal with the public daily, and I'm not trying to be passive aggressive about something showing up on time. I've advocated for several years that there should be a true notification system for buses when they break down real time, but for now, it's just using an app on my smarty phone to hope it shows up as directed. Between all of this along with general life events, this should be enough to keep someone distracted from things, but here I am trying to write regularly about our local soccer team and keep people informed about what has been happening.

New signage on the 18th street side of Providence Park
That's been rather difficult considering the situation with the Portland Timbers. The team had announced plans last year about expanding their current stadium, Providence Park, to add seating along with other bells and whistles, but the club's run all the way to MLS Cup 2018 put a delay on the plan, considering that there was a mathematical chance the team could have hosted the finale right up through the last weeks of the playoffs. While the situation gave the Timbers a chance at a second MLS Cup, it did also compress available construction time before the 2019 season was to begin. MLS too care of the issue for the Timbers by giving them a severely unbalanced schedule with the team's first 12 matches happening away from home. Portland completed the longest road trip in team history with a 4 win - 2 draw - 6 loss mark with 14 points and a minus 6 goal differential (17 goals for, 23 against). This will go down as the longest road trip in MLS history in terms of matches played, miles traveled, and likely a few other categories, especially considering that the team effectively has been traveling since camp opened in mid-January.

From visiting Costa Rica to Arizona during pre-season play to then visiting 12 MLS cities (Denver, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Los Angeles again, San Jose, Dallas, Columbus, Toronto, Salt Lake, Vancouver, Houston and Philadelphia), the team has only trained locally under limited conditions. The Timbers didn't even return home after some matches, opting to travel between destinations to save wear and tear. This situation likely contributed to early season uneven play, which happened to coincide with our last predictions post back in March. The Timbers looked disinterested against FC Cincinnati and got run out of the building, but to me, this wasn't a case of talent - they simply looked passionless and lost, looking for any type of identity. After the early season struggles, there was tons of debate on social media about everything - play the kids, trade the kids, trade the vets, blow it up and start over, trade the coach, don't trade the coach, don't trade the kids - I am sure there are plenty of categories that I have missed, but suffice to say, nobody was very happy about it. That is when Sebastian Blanco put forth a post on his Instragram what I term "a call to arms". The entry was a rallying call for everyone to unify behind the club, and Portland responded with their best collective effort of 2019 to that point in a 2 to 1 loss to FC Dallas. Yes, the officials absolutely blew several late calls that impacted the result, but it was obvious that the team rallied around Blanco and showed some of the fight that had been lacking.

The new look for the West Side concourse, complete with new color scheme.
Portland then reeled off 3 straight wins in Columbus, Toronto and Salt Lake before losing in Vancouver, although statistically, the Timbers dominated the numbers but couldn't figure out how to get one past the parked bus. By finishing up with a draw in Houston and a win in Philly, the Timbers are actually in a good place considering they were sitting at a single point earned on April 14. 13 points over 6 matches is a difficult pace to sustain, but considering the back loaded home schedule now puts the Timbers in their revamped home and they are a strong home side traditionally, this is a good place to be. Consider that Portland makes just 5 trips in MLS league play for the rest of the 2019 regular season - Montreal, New York, Seattle, Minnesota and Kansas City - with a USOC date in Tacoma in June as well, but none of the travel time is extended over multiple matches. All things considered, Portland could have been in worse shape going into their home opener, but they've done what good teams do - rally. That's the funny thing about sports - teams usually aren't as bad as they are collectively, nor are they as good collectively as you might think because sports can be the ultimate equalizer in the sense that anybody can (and often does) beat anybody on a given night.

It was during the trying results combined with everything else that I took a step back and pursued other activities. My wife and I are regulars at our local gym, and I remember having a great leg workout while Portland was dominating Columbus while we got a lot of shopping done during the Toronto match. It's not that I didn't care about the results, but there is a rule about sports superstitions to not mess with a streak, and considering we had other plans during the FC Dallas match and it went better, we kept up the pattern. I was finally able to watch the Houston match live and a replay of Philadelphia, but this helped provide some much needed balance and perspective. Considering that my over 50 team, Old Growth FC Silver, is in some form of stasis with an unknown future, and there isn't exactly a hot transfer market for a bald 52 year old right back/defensive midfielder/attacking midfielder with a totally average shot, middling dribbling skills and an ability to fall down easily at any point, I was really missing soccer and the community surrounding the Timbers. To say that I'm looking forward to this opening is a true understatement; while it brings back soccer, this actually represents my 29th year of going to events on the grounds.

Taken from the Key Bank deck, the new roof changes the stadium skyline.
It all started in April 1990 when I worked in Big Pink, and I heard about the Portland Beavers baseball team from my manager. It was a Wednesday night and not having any pressing plans, I left work and ventured up to northwest Portland to the then-named Civic Stadium. I don't remember much about the game itself except the beer was flat and they played through a couple of drizzle storms, but I was hooked. I watched several games per year through the 90's until those Beavers left for Salt Lake City to eventually be replaced by the Portland Rockies. I was a regular attendee, and watched with excitement when we learned the Beavers were returning for the 2001 PCL season. I even watched several of the Portland Timbers matches that year, but didn't get stuck in fully until joining the Timbers Army in 2004. Civic Stadium underwent various transformations on the east side and center field decks until they were eventually condemned, which disappointed me as they were my favorite places to watch baseball. Our work break room had a flyer posted back in 2001 to call the team if you wanted any ticket packages, and this was my first conversation with Dan Zusman. Dan has been a loyal friend and steward of the teams for many years, and I've spent thousands of dollars on tickets and travel supporting my clubs. The 2011 soccer retrofit brought us a fully functional East deck, but there were always rumors that the club wanted to add more seats somewhere. Considering the footprint didn't allow the stadium to go out, the only option was up - hence, the new stadium design for 2019.

I received an email from the team inviting local media to a tasting of the new food options at the park on the same night that Timbers 2 was hosting the Real Monarchs, so I was excited for the chance to walk about the grounds and reconnect with my media colleagues. Upon arriving at Gate G, I was greeted by Katie from the Timbers press staff with my season credential and a pass for the night to the Key Bank deck. I have to say that I'm truly humbled and honored to continue the tradition of covering the team, and I take this as a great responsibility. Many clubs don't work with independent media at all, so considering the Timbers grant this to me and my wife after years with our previous outlet and now working our own sites is still thrilling. I will be honest that my nerves are still very much on edge each year until I see the credential after our ghosting experience back when, so when it is there officially, the weight of the world just goes away. I am then directed to walk through the concourse all the way to the Key Bank deck, and I get a chance to walk the entire concourse from the southwest corner to the center east side. Although the way, I'm struck by the changes in signage and colors, which make the stadium seem more open, and I'm not just saying that because I've watched way too may home design shows over the years.

A view of the South Deck after the construction has completed
As I entered the area, I watched several Timbers officials with grand smiles on their faces, having a look of pride at the accomplishments of transforming the stadium into the new era. From the new seats and decks to the new turf to the sound system to the LED scoreboards to the roof, there's a lot of visual changes to take in, but I wasn't overwhelmed at all. After watching a few TV stations do cold opens teasing stories about the park and having a bunch of print media be very quiet in the background, the officials at Park Provisions gave a few opening remarks about the menu after Timbers President of Business Mike Golub talked in detail about the overall construction plan and the end results. As much as the updates change the complexion of the old stadium to bring more seats and features, it's really a smaller part of an overall master plan to upgrade every aspect of the three clubs under the team umbrella: the Timbers, the Portland Thorns of the NWSL, and the Timbers' USL affiliate, Timbers 2. Team locker rooms were expanded with new features, the team has doubled their investment in sports science positions to help players stay healthy and fit through the grueling season. The Timbers are also expanding their Beaverton training campus to add more play space with an eventual goal to allow the Thorns to train regularly on campus instead of varying training sites. Academy teams are seeing additional investments, too, as the overall goals were to spread the wealth about as smartly as possible.

The team put their money where their mouth is with the recent acquisition of accomplished striker Brian Fernandez, who joined the team a few weeks ago and already has 3 goals in 2 matches. Timbers Coach Gio Savarese has been very pleased with the composition of the 2019 Timbers, but one of the areas the team has wanted to address is adding a pure impact scorer that could mesh with Blanco and team captain Diego Valeri seamlessly yet not impede the development of young forward Jeremy Ebobisse. While it's very early, Fernandez has shown an ability to create chances out of the most minute chances and put the defense on notice, and you could tell the Dynamo and Union had trouble marking Fernandez. Portland's opponent for their first home match of 2019, Los Angeles Football Club, dominated the tempo in their March meeting in Los Angeles and the Timbers' defense never fully found their footing in losing by a 4 to 1 margin. Ebobisse did tally a goal on the afternoon, but Portland wasn't able to keep the pressure going forward enough to trouble the LAFC defense. However, the addition of Fernandez changes the complexion rather dramatically, as the Timbers now have a player that can attack and score from anywhere on the pitch. While Blanco and Valeri can still command a match during long stretches, Fernandez's inclusion keeps teams from solely concentrating on Timbers' number 8 and 10.

Portland still has a turf field, but the new Cool Turf should lessen field temps
I rather enjoyed the food options I could eat, as there were a few options for my gluten free diet. The tamales and bacon nachos were very tasty and flavorful, but admittedly, I would have enjoyed trying the quesadillas and the burgers if they had gluten free buns and tortillas. I think fans will appreciate the new food options, and I rather enjoyed witnessing the Stumptown Footy crew come up with player pairings for the new food. I can confirm that Zack did indeed nearly knock over the table, while I was able to meet Katelyn and Tyler in person. The view from the Key Bank deck is pretty distinctive, and I can see people enjoy sitting in this section. Once the tasting was completed, I left the area to take an more extended tour of the stadium. Timbers 2 were down 1 to 0 at the half to Real Monarchs, and I wanted to find a good vantage point to take in the second half. It didn't take very long for me to find a familiar spot as I wandered into the North End and found my old home in Row N of Section 107. From the 2005 to 2010 seasons in USL play, this was my home each and every Timbers home match, and as luck would have it, four of my old Row N compatriots were occupying the area and invited me to stay for the second half.

These people were some of my best friends over the years of watching soccer. Steeplechase was one of the first people I met in my first ever Timbers Army meeting back in 2004, while Obi was the best man at my wedding back in 2005 after we had worked together in the corporate world years prior. Firestarter and Savor PDX Green Sailor (sorry about the error, she's changed her name a few times since then) also met in Row N and got married years ago, thus making Row N the producer of 2 Timbers Army themed weddings. Yes, I used their board names or nicknames because there was a time when we all knew each other by our SCUSA board names, and there are still people that call me by my board name, Groundskeeper. It had been a while since I saw each of them, but it was simply amazing to catch up on news, reminisce about our days in the section, and actually watch Timbers soccer up close. Timbers 2 actually staged a very nice rally with 2 second half goals to win by a 2 to 1 one tally, which as many long time TA members might realize, it's a score that we often won by back in the day. I ran into several other friends I have met through the Army and got to chat with them as well, but spending a half of soccer in my old section with some of my row mates was something I didn't expect to happen. And it was a perfect way to end the evening.

The outer concourse concessions all received new looks in the upgrade
Change is inevitable, as it's the nature of life. But something that struck me in talking with Golub after his comments as he said the team was doing their best to try and prepare for the future by embracing and honoring the past. In sports, the focus of a club often drifts between dealing with any current issues, pondering past successes or failures or anticipating the upcoming era, but not all three at the same time. It's important for any institution to look at the past, present and future, and Portland is learning the importance of maintaining this balance. It's difficult to embrace the future of Providence Park without looking at its history, and I can say that just within my years living in Portland, I've seen everything there live from Aussie Rules football, Canadian football, baseball, basketball, concerts and lots of soccer. The grounds is an important part of the fabric of Portland, and I'm honored to have been a very small cog within the Timbers community. If there was ever a way to inspire somebody before a home opener, my experience on May 29 in touring the park was exactly what I needed - and apparently I'm not the only one.