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.