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.

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