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.

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