I’d like to start by thanking Ned Grabavoy for at last embracing his 30s and axing even shoulder-length locks. You days of experimenting up there are over, kid, or should be.
By contrast, between injury and demographic realities (see: aging players in key positions all over), the Portland Timbers’ 2016 continues to feel like a never-ending series of experiments for head coach Caleb Porter. Yeah, yeah, departures from the 2015 (MLS-Cup-winning) team played a role in this, but let’s put that particular talking point in the past where it belongs and shift the conversation to talk of here, now, and the rest of the season. In other words, let this be the last time mention Rodney Wallace or Jorge Villafana; they’re gone, 2015 is over, etc.
So, the Timbers lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy (far too) early yesterday. The loss came at home – no es bueno – but two factors defined the game: first, Portland coughed up a pair of goals, both atrocious in terms of timing and circumstance; second, the Timbers struggled to break down LA’s stout defense, which, if memory serves (and it has to; can’t check the standings; have four games to watch yet) boasts the second best goals-against numbers in MLS. Watch LA live and you can see this, but a stray pre-game comment by Taylor Twellman backed it up nicely – e.g. the one about LA having given up only two goals in their previous seven games, which, after yesterday, now stands at 3 goals in 8 games. Doing some math…bear with me…that’s 0.375 goals conceded per game. And when you consider their opposition over that time, not bad…still, more on this later and elsewhere. Because now back to Portland.
The larger point is that, based on the above, it’s absolutely vital that any team who wants to beat LA doesn’t put themselves in a position where they have to play a goal behind. Or, gods forbid, two goals. Which, hey, Portland did! And how!
I don’t dissect goals scored against Portland all that often, but the first goal was…cause for concern. A couple opportunities came before the play’s final, defining sequence – one likes to see defense look more proactive – but the real shit-show came when the ball went wide to Giovanni dos Santos, where he’s isolated against Zarek Valentin (again, no es Bueno). If you look at the highlights, it’s the combination of ball-watching and bad positioning that should pop an exclamation point over Timbers’ fans collective heads. That little moment in time starts with a slim 5-v-4 in Portland’s favor inside the 18; worse, there’s an effective 3-v-3 on the final defensive line. When Powell is slow to do…anything (e.g., either step forward to cover Robbie Keane himself or yell to Nat Borchers, “Yo, Robbie Keane! Right behind you!”), the play is already over, the Timbers already fucked. That wasn’t all on Powell either: no one communicated, the midfielders in the area weren’t looking around, either. Just…again, not good.
The second goal wasn’t great either (Jelle Van Damme dropped a couple of those bombs; of which, did not know he could do that), but the most important thing there was the way it deepened the hole for Portland. Even two goals down, though, the Timbers still had 77 minutes (or thereabouts) to catch up.
They didn’t, obviously, but they did come close. Zarek Valentin scored his first goal for the Timbers (was it his first in MLS, too? Again, can’t look) to bring the score to 2-1 (and yay for him!). Darlington Nagbe had a great chance to equalize late in the game – should have done it too, goddamn it – but he didn’t, they didn’t, and, based on how I think things will sift out this weekend (nothing more complicated than Sporting Kanas City probably beating the Seattle Sounders as I type), Portland will probably wind up back on the wrong side of the velvety red rope that separates winners from losers in MLS, a place where they’ve spent far too much time this 2016. On the plus side, I think Real Salt Lake’s softening, Vancouver has just as many defensive issues as Portland, Seattle might not be a concern, nor is the Houston Dynamo, the San Jose Earthquakes are as consistent as Sybil or Tara, etc. In other words, your enemy’s failures can become your successes, which…not a great formula for long-term personal success, but, hey, both life and sports are easier when you let ‘em be easier, just sayin’, etc.
What I’m also “just sayin’” is that the same thing that made Portland successful last season is the “bone” in the backbone to both LA’s and the Colorado Rapids’ success this season – e.g. good, sound defense. If you’re looking for a reason why the Timbers jump from one side of the red line to the other, uh, stop, because it’s the goddamn defense. Maybe MLS has always been this way, and I’ve missed it (and maybe, that’s why the cliché that “defense wins championships” is older than MLS), but the idea snapped into focus this year like never before. Until Portland can get a good goal differential (+4 or better), it’s hard to see this team going deep. This is why that first goal terrified me so: it was bad defending, pure and simple. In a year when your conference has two teams under 20 goals-against at Week 20? That’s a road-block to success.
One quick word on the attack: it wasn’t that terrible. Even Lucas Melano had more moments than I remembered (in the stress-addled moments of the game). Alvas Powell put in a couple good balls, Diego Chara put in at least one, Melano had a couple good passes and some better runs (i.e. where his talents lie). Again, LA almost always had a body at least near the right place, but always at the right time. The Galaxy has defenders to handle Adi; he was reduced to a couple narrow-angle turn-arounds on the night, plus a brave (painful) run into Brian Rowe, but was otherwise kept quiet. As a whole, LA did a really good job of, 1) keeping Portland far away from goal and, 2) having bodies in their way pretty much all the damn time. Every shot Diego Valeri attempted seemed to have to dodge traffic last seen in that epic back-up in China.
And that’s why getting the defense matters so much. To start with the things I like: first, Alvas Powell. Sure, he got beat on LA’s second goal, but I yelled “Y’Alvas!” a lot yesterday (which, for the record, is a contraction that translates as “(Hell) Yeah, Alvas!”). He lost one key battle against LA’s Emanuel Boateng – OK, yes, and slept-walked on that opening goal – but he outplayed and out-smarted Boateng the rest of the game. I’m at peace with our right back, basically. Another player I’m at peace with, and this one’s probably counter-intuitive: Jermaine Taylor. No, he’s not the best at any given position across the back line, but he can play everywhere and competently. Skeptics can sniff at that, but when a team needs cover, as Portland does right now, that’s a big, warm security blanket that I’m certainly not willing to give up. For me, the problems start there. And they’re sort of tricky and/or inter-locking.
Being a fan of Borchers, no, I wasn’t happy to see him go down. All the same, I was quietly thrilled to see Amoebi Okugo take the field. Okugo made a couple mistakes – the miscue with Jake Gleeson on what should have been a routine play, plus a bad back pass – but he looked entirely serviceable otherwise, the odds are he’ll get better with more time-in, and given his back-story (has played midfield, decent defender; never unemployed for long, etc.), I’d sort of like to see more of Okugo. Here’s why:
The Borchers/Liam Ridgewell tandem doesn’t have much time left. I will feel genuine sorrow when Borchers retires – hell, I might even squeeze a few tears if his career ended after being stretchered off this past Sunday – but having two slower players hold down central defense can’t last long. Generally, unless/until the Timbers have a perfectly balanced pairing of central defenders in their mid- to late-20s, transition is permanent – i.e., I’ll always want to see the next solution. With Borchers reaching a certain age, especially, the team needs to start thinking about solutions for the next 3-4 years now. Taylor is a solid stop-gap, but he’s not one we’re likely to lean on to a second MLS Cup, so I’m eager to see if Okugo can grow into that role…
…or another one. Maybe he can grow into a second defensive midfielder. Count me among the people who think Chara has slipped a little – even if I can’t quite put my finger on why – but, though it’s sacrilege to say it on such a Zips-heavy roster, I don’t think Ben Zemanski’s better than a back-up. In other words, I’d lump him in with Taylor, only without Taylor’s rather impressive versatility to further recommend his employment (I’m pretty well sold on Taylor as a useful piece, obviously). If Okugo can partner well with Chara – and I’m not really bothered over the particulars of how he does it, so long as it works – I’d be happy to see him out there next to Chara. And that brings me to the next point…and there’s a quote for that:
“Nagbe is the 1st player in the Opta era (2011-) w/ an assist, 60+ pass attempts and just 1 unsuccessful pass in a single game.”
A guy who tweets as @TheMikeDonovan put that up today. While I don’t doubt its accuracy, I still look at it and think, “meh.” Yes, Nagbe had a lovely assist this week, he looped a great pass over the top to Valeri on the far side of goal, etc. And yet, I don’t think Nagbe fits anywhere else on the pitch better than he fits in a deeper central role. On the primary, defining level, it suits his reflexive habit of supporting the attack rather than pushing it; this drives me NUTS – Nagbe could be so fucking next-level in the attack – but his mind-set is the difference between pulling off D-Day and evacuating Dunkirk, so why not accept it and adjust around it? So, yes, I want him back there and see no reason to dally. It wouldn’t take a huge shake-up, either: I think a version of the 4-2-3-1 Portland trotted out against LA is the Timbers’ best line-up according to their personnel. With that in mind, all I’d do is…well, when the time is right and everyone’s healed and whole, is put Nagbe in the center of the three and have Melano and Valeri on either side, switching often as they like, tucking in, stretching out, etc. Behind them would be Chara and Zemanski – at least for now, because the team simply can’t forgo any form of defensive stability – in front of whatever combination among Taylor, Borchers, Okugo, and Ridgewell has the good fortune to be healthy. As noted above, I’d like to see some a little more pace in the central combination and, yeah, why not? Let’s start that shift sooner rather than later, especially now that damned, dirty fate has (again) forced the issue. Longer-term, though, I’d love to see Okugo next to Chara. Basically, Nagbe’s the supporting anchor for the attack, while Melano and Valeri just attack.
For all the doubts Timbers fans had last season, they could always look to the defense to argue that something was going right. The loss to LA, on top of the body of the season just passed, makes me think that the Timbers need to nothing more than get the defense figured out. And, hell, yes, I’m flexible. If the new left back gets in there and works out (this guy) try Valentin central. But it needs to get sorted. If it doesn’t, making the playoffs won’t matter all that much.