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. 

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