Conifers and Citrus

Portland Timbers (3-1) Seattle Sounders, Joint Post: What’s Wrong with Them, What’s Right with Us?

Free and untamed. Like that amazing fucking hair.

Normally, I use this space to write up what happened with the Portland Timbers in their last game. For me, though, the more interesting story is happening on the other side of the ball – that is with the Seattle Sounders. As such, I want to talk about Seattle more than Portland. At least a first.

To put that another way, all signs but the detours pointed to a Timbers win over Seattle last Sundday and, shit, if that ain’t what happened.

To put that still another way, I think Timbers fans learned more about their team last Wednesday in that weirdly satisfying draw against the Montreal Impact than they did in Sunday’s win over Seattle. Yeah, yeah, it’s satisfying to beat the nouveau riche strivers from up north, but…well, when you’re pretty sure that’s how it’ll play out even before kick-off? OK, or just strongly suspect…I mean, that offense, and without Clint Dempsey? And with that road record? Just like everyone else, I saw that flurry of crosses and headers from Seattle early in the second half (just about the first thing I saw, actually; missed the entire first half; how was it? And, ah, remind me about your wife’s name?), but, when I switched on the game (during the half) and I saw the 1-0 to the Timbers, something told me it would always be enough…

…and then Diego Valeri hit a cross that became a goal. Chad Marshall scored after that (what? No video available? Dang!), true, but it took how long before Fanendo Adi kicked the spike through their heart? The good lord’s love shines down in one city (the one full of roses) and not the other. The question is why. I got a sentence from a friend, a Sounders fan, that sums up Seattle’s situation nicely:

“My team is a collection of young guys and bitchy veterans.”

That reads like a decent approximation of the truth, right? It gets a little more interesting when the second half of that conjunction runs into the first half – and that takes me to something Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid said during the broadcast to Julie Stewart-Binks, FOX’s sideline reporter. My recollection of the phrasing isn’t perfect, but Schmid spoke of his teams’ need to lean on some younger players and the associated/assumed risks of such a project.

I guess the mystery to me is why Schmid’s laying the string of bad results on the youngsters. Why not place the blame for the scoring/results/all-good-things drought on, say, those bitchy veterans, or even Seattle’s front office? It’s not like the team gathered up Jordan Morris, Cristian Roldan and J. J. Kovar and asked them what they need to succeed. No, they put them out there to bridge some gaps on the Sounders’ roster and, in Morris’ case, to plug a capacious freakin’ hole.

I’m guessing there’s not a fan in MLS who can’t name the Player Who Formerly Occupied that Capacious Freakin’ Hole: yes, Mr. Obafemi “China-Bound” Martins. As has been pointed out in numerous articles, and picked apart in dozens of podcasts, the Martins/Dempsey partnership possessed a slick, speedy inventiveness that put it on another plane. As with Daryl Hall and John Oates, all it took for Seattle to keep making a series of respectable hits was a squad of anonymous, yet competent, studio musicians. When Martins left (call him the “Hall” in this scenario, and for two undisclosed reasons), Dempsey could only soldier on, an Oates sans Hall. It does deeper, though: with Hall moving on, Seattle still had those same studio musicians, a collection of personnel who knew how to play instruments just fine, but who one can’t reasonably look to for the next chart-topping hit. I mean, it’s the difference between Maneater and You Make-a My Dreams Come True! No goddamn contest!

Now, listen to this…(woo!)

It’s not quite that Seattle doesn’t care about youth development: it’s that they care more about results RIGHT NOW and, before push and shove even come into the conversation, they act like it: they don’t spend much time moving players around before they set out to buy new, “better” replacements. In other words, while they gave young guys like Cristian Roldan and J. J. Kovar time, it looks all but certain to run out during the current transfer window, when a pair of impressive, maybe even big, players will/should come into Seattle’s line-up. It’s not like I blame them, either, what with Plan A going where it is.

I’d argue that it could go deeper still. Consider Erik “Freebird” Friberg. He’s by no means a great player – never has been either – and yet he’s been in Seattle’s starting line-up for over half their games this season, most of them recently. And there’s no visible sign that he’s helping, because Seattle was bad before he picked up regular starts and they’re still bad after…not that I’d expect a player like Friberg to definitively change any team’s fate.

Assuming their new arrivals arrive, Seattle should be fun to follow for the rest of season (even hate-follow, in the event those fancy new players flop by either form or injury). It’ll be interesting to see whether Dempsey feels enough from those new players that he’ll stop trying to be Hall and Oates in one person (which is not possible, for either the Sounders or the band). But the deeper point is, that, until those new players show up and start producing, Seattle won’t rely on their youngsters; they’ll rely on Friberg and Andrea Ivanschitz and an aging (yet still decently effective?) Osvaldo Alonso.When faced with a visible B-team – as happened last Wednesday against Dallas – those players are more than up to it. Even those youngsters grow more promising given the right circumstances. The real question was, and always has been, what happens against MLS-level MLS competition? The game against Portland went some way to answering that…something about huffing and puffing. All the above is why I can’t put much stock in what Portland did against Seattle on Sunday. Wherever you fall on the “young guys” and “bitchy veterans” debate, the underlying issue with Seattle remains the same: they’re unbalanced. They rack up the set-pieces both because they’re applying pressure and because they’re sloppy.

That’s why I’m more intrigued by what the Timbers did against the Impact – i.e., they won (morally) because, yes, Fanendo Adi’s goal should have counted, the Wandrille Lefevre fella flopped, etc. Even with the blown calls and falling beards, the Montreal game felt like more of a contest, a measure against a model that isn’t broken, or in some form of transition, and that’s generally a more illuminating measure about where one’s team stands in its particular comic book universe. As a contest, that game was pretty even – e.g. Portland had their way on set-pieces during the first half (including and up to the Timbers opening goal), while the Impact found ways to run straight up Portland’s gut time and again…then again, if there’s a good clear knock on Portland, doesn’t it have to be the way they give up so many (goddamn) chances?

So, what’s the news from both games, what can Timbers fans take away? A few things:

1) Finishing Touches for Melano.
Wait…is that…no, I don’t. Look, I don’t do puns, I just couldn’t figure out a way to incorporate wood finishing/varnish/stain/clearly don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, Regardless, Lucas Melano has finally started to play as if he believes he can make a difference, he just needs a little…polish. Look, I’m sorry. Anyway, tempted as I am to spy signs of improvements between the two performances – e.g. instances of brain freeze versus Montreal thaw into two nifty assists against the Sounders – I can’t carry that one over the doorstep. Here’s the reason: I can’t exactly go on about how unfinished Seattle is above, nor can I chip in additional thoughts about how a back-four that’s 3/4 “old” (Chad Marshall*, Zac Scott, and Tyrone Mears*) suits Melano’s skill-set just about as well as anything, without implying that, yeah, I think Seattle’s just not a good team. More than anything else, it’s the way Montreal forced Melano into the difficult decisions – and it’s here where the thought/action mechanism didn’t always click through – that makes me think that, if you wanna know where Portland is in the full, rich confusing context of MLS, look to the Montreal game. I’m not shitting on either of Melano’s assists against Seattle; I’m just flagging their relative degree of difficulty. For all that, Melano looks like he’s getting it more and more each week. His run up Seattle’s gut probably won the goddamn game, and that’s not a run he would have made even earlier this season. So, yeah, more, please!

* Both Marshall and Mears look fine. It feels like Marshall will only fail to be a threat on set-pieces in retirement and Mears…is it possible he’s Seattle’s best player outside of Dempsey right now?

2) Speaking of Speed In Central Defense
Uh, help. As noted everywhere I’ve discussed it (uh, pretty much where only one person can see it), I can’t blame Nat Borchers for lunging on Ignacio Piatti’s long touch; it took a series of fortunate events besides for that ball to land where Piatti needed it, and it sat up for Nat just so. Look, I know Piatti’s a freak, one the most gifted players in MLS, but also a guy who seems happy to be where he is (y’know, like Sebastian Giovinco used to?). The unavoidable truth about this season is how much the defense declined since 2015. There’s no way that’s down to just the loss of Jorge Villafana, either. It’s likelier, really, that the Portland has lost some combination of speed or control around the central defense – e.g. in central defense or on either side of the channels between the centerbacks and the fullbacks. The Timbers are currently at 6.5 goals above the Western Conference average of 24.5 goals allowed. When I try to picture the goals the team has conceded, a lot of those feature centerbacks being stranded or uncomfortably far from goal. I typed that without consulting earlier research, so take that with as many grains of salt as you like. Still, my working theory (till someone disabuses it; and, fyi, abuse welcome), is that Portland’s problems grow from a lack of cohesion, first, and slow, aging defenders second.

3) Jermaine Taylor started as left back.

Is it me, or does that says a lot about the options? (No, seriously, is it me?)

4) It’s Hard to Pick an MVP Right Now.
And that’s a good problem to have. Nothing satisfied me over the past couple games like watching Adi absolutely boss every defender that so much as looked at him. There was one epic tussle against Chad Marshall, who’s no squish, mind you, that I can’t forget because it showed just how evenly Adi matches up against even the biggest defenders in MLS. Diego Valeri, though, the guy makes the team tick in a way that Adi simply can’t. To take it a step further, when the two of them together, it is legitimately something – and something intoxicatingly close to lethal. I bring in Darlington Nagbe here more as a goad to him than to argue that he belongs here. Still, Nagbe had one profoundly encouraging moment against Seattle around the 73rd minute, where he played out of the back that started with a tea party with Ben Zemanski and ended with a pass sliced to perfection to land on the toe of…shit, killing the poetry here. Taylor? That late in the game? The point is, Valeri and Adi do it more often; Nagbe should be able to. It’s also nice to see Melano sticking his nose in on the conversation: all these are good signs.

5) Farewell, Dear Adam. Take My Kerchief, Scented with the Musk of Fromunda
As we all know by now, Adam Kwarasey left the team today. I won’t pretend this is an emotional moment for me, because…yes, this is monstrous, but, Kwarasey never really did take for me. He grew into that role, without question and his passing out of the back did help; his shot-stopping got better as well, but he never looked entirely comfortable on crosses. In other words, he was a good goalkeeper. And that’s nice. If Jake Gleeson wasn’t, I’d be losing my mind, but Gleeson’s fine, better here, worse there. The one thing I can’t take from him is magical in every sense of the word: the fact that he won the post-season play-in game against Sporting Kansas City by burying his own penalty kick immediately before pulling off the harder feat of stopping his opposite’s penalty kick (cazzo de fero!) – and that’s totally badass and it deserves a multiple-of-seven-gun salute. When I say “every level,” I mean, the goddamn duel/exchange never should have happened, because how the hell do penalty kicks go on that long? Also, he had nothing to do with the double-post thing: that’s all Saad Abdul-Salaam missing and physics. Kwarasey was here for the good times, though, and I’m happy that I’ll remember him fondly, if in context…

…Jesus, can’t I just enjoy something? (Answer: rarely.)

All in all, I don’t think there’s a lot to say about the Timbers right now. They’re slowly building to some level of either competence, proficiency or excellence: the answer to that either/or will define their season. Well, obviously. At this point, I’m neither explicitly optimistic nor pessimistic: I’m mostly just sitting here waiting to see what comes next. I just wish it wouldn’t come so goddamn fast because I get bitchy on treadmills. Per recent tweets…

As for Seattle, they have some great players – again, Mears and Marshall look swell; I think Alonso has a role, but he’s being asked to go too far beyond it; Morris looks better than he has any reason, too, and Dempsey still has plenty left in the tank; Scott, meanwhile, seems like he’ll somehow be able to play until someone tells him to stop; hell, Roldan has looked good this year, so what’s with the bitching? – but I do get the feeling that, in the near-term, they’ll keep remodeling when they should really focus on rebuilding.

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