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Six Degrees: Best In the West

Portland Timbers 2, Vancouver Whitecaps 1

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

12 months ago, the season's final week included the Timbers getting knocked out of the Champions League, getting knocked out of the MLS playoffs, and losing a seemingly un-losable Cascadia Cup.

This year, the season's final week included a Western Conference championship, a Cascadia Cup, a potential MVP, and, oh yeah, a Thorns championship.

What a difference a year makes.

1) I've always thought of Vancouver center back Kendall Waston as a wildly overrated player. To my eyes, he was just a goon whose greatest skill was avoiding penalties and red cards. And I don't think I'll every forget this play from last year.

But on Sunday? I've gotta be honest, for the first time ever, Waston genuinely impressed me. He was all over the field, he shut down a lot of attacks, he didn't goon it up too much, and he was an absolute terror on set pieces.

It was Larrys Mabiala's job to cover Waston on those set pieces, and the big Frenchman did a damn good job. An almost perfect job, really. But with set pieces, almost perfect ain't good enough.

First off, why is Mabiala on the ball side of Waston? I'm no professional center back, but my instinct tells me it's smarter to get between your man and the goal. Am I wrong here? Correct me if I am.

And secondly, does Mabiala run into Vytas Andriuskevicius here? Why, exactly? Waston doesn't run into anyone. Why does Mabiala?

This was just one mistake in an otherwise excellent game for Mabiala, but in soccer, one mistake is often all it takes.

2) Down 1-0 in the 30th minute? That could have been the end for Portland. If the team had gotten frustrated, if they'd let their shoulders sag, if they'd let Vancouver park the bus in front of goal, the game might have quickly turned unwinnable.

But none of those things happened. Instead, the Timbers pinned their ears back and attacked, and just three minutes later, the game was 1-1.

That spot Darlington Nagbe's shooting from? Top corner of the box? To me, that always feels like Nagbe's golazo spot. Anytime he shoots from there, I always rise up a little, thinking, Oh, hell, he's gonna do it, isn't he? He's gonna hit one of his wonder strikes. I get excited every time.

And this one was close, too. Nagbe popped it really good, put a little bend on it, and I honestly think if the keeper hadn't laid out like he did, that ball was going into the top corner.

As it was, all the keeper could do was knock it away, and who was there waiting to clean up the mess? Liam Ridgewell. And it’s a hell of a goal, too. Super-quick reaction and an impressive re-direction into goal. 9 times out of 10, that ball's going out for a goal kick. Ridgy did damn well with it.

3) That made the game 1-1, but the Timbers didn't need a draw, they needed a win. So they kept their ears pinned back and they kept attacking. Three minutes into the second half, they finally got their due reward, a go-ahead goal from Darren Mattocks.

Chris Rifer broke this goal down really well in his Timber Cruise so I won't do it again here, but let's at least look at the gif a few times so we can geek out on it together.

One, how friggin' great is Nagbe driving straight into the heart of the defense? Two, how friggin' great is Sebastian Blanco's dribbling through what looks like about 27 defenders? Three, how friggin' great is his pass to Vytas? Four, how friggin' open is Vytas? And five, how friggin' great is it that Mattocks actually finished this play like a real, live finisher? Coffee's for closers, Darren. Have some coffee!

And lastly, I think it was smart last week to not make any Unconscious Guy On The Field jokes (credit my editor's better judgment on that one) but this week, I think it would be absolute malpractice if we didn't at least acknowledge the sniper who took out not one, but two Whitecaps defenders on this goal.

Snipers talk all the time about “one shot, one kill.” This is one of those rare occasions when we see “one shot, two kills.” Just a breathtaking shot, Mr. Sniper, wherever you are.

4) Some random notes:

  • In the last two games, I've seen Zarek Valentin taking it decidedly easy during pre-game warm-ups. Is he a little banged up, too? If so, why is he even dressing?
  • Godalmightydamn, I love Blanco. Did you see him out there jawing with Jordan Harvey? Those two were going at it non-stop the whole game. Does Harvey speak Spanish, or has Blanco's English gotten to the point where he can talk 90 minutes of trash in multiple languages?
  • Also worth noting, Blanco's the first MLS Timber not named Diego Valeri to have an 8 goal/8 assist year.
  • You know who else crushed it this year? Portland fullbacks. Last year, Vytas and Alvas Powell combined for a grand total of one assist. This year, they combined for seven. Throw in three assists for Valentin and one for Roy Miller (I don't actually know if these assists came while they were playing fullback), and the Timbers got as many as 11 assists from the fullback position. I'd call that a drastic improvement.

5) And as long as we're talking about people who had hella good years, General Manager Gavin Wilkinson was absolutely on fire in 2017. Look at who he brought in: Sebastian Blanco, David Guzman, Larrys Mabiala, Jeff Attinella, Jeremy Ebobisse, Roy Miller, Lawrence Olum. That's seven swings and seven hits. The only newcomer we could even remotely call a miss is Chance Myers, but his problem was injury, not poor play. Can't blame GW for that.

But Gavin's job isn't done. He'll have to make some big decisions soon, especially regarding Messrs. Liam Ridgewell and Fanendo Adi.

I'm extremely torn about Ridgy at the moment. For months now, I've been thinking this would be his last year in the Green and Gold. After all, what's the point of having a player who's always hurt? Especially an expensive player.

But, damnation has he been good recently. The back line looks so much better with him out there, and his performance Sunday was pretty much flawless. So now I don't know what to wish for regarding Ridgy's future.

As far as Adi goes, there are injuries to consider there, too. We thought he was a durable guy, but now a small hammy pull has turned into two months out of the lineup.

If Adi doesn't make it back for this playoff run, is that the end of the world? A month ago, I would have said yes. Now, I'm not so sure. I think the team's finally gotten used to Darren Mattocks at striker. I think we can ride him through the playoffs if we need to. And that, of course, will affect whether the team brings Adi back next year.

I'm glad I'm not the one who has to make these decisions.

6) Next up, the playoffs! Or the 2017 Taco Bell MLS Cup Playoffs Brought to You By Goodyear Tires, as I think it's officially called.

Winning the West means the Timbers get to avoid the mid-week knockout round, which is nice. We'll play the winner of the Houston/Sporting KC game and that series will begin on... wait, gimme a second... this is complicated... erm, the 29th? Or maybe the 31st? The schedule's a bit of a mess, to be honest, and Seattle sharing a field with the Seahawks is making it even more of a mess, so the truth of the matter is, I'm not entirely sure when our next game is, I just know it will be against either Houston or SKC. Or maybe even San Jose. Though probably not. (I give up. Go check out Rifer’s piece. He’s figured the whole mess out).

Personally, I think I'd like to play Houston. One, I think they're beatable and, two, every time I watch SKC play, I have to take a three-hour bath just to get the stink off. If there's a club that plays uglier, more cynical soccer than SKC, I haven't seen them.

Whoever we play, it will be a home and away series, which I actually find kind of entertaining. The away-goals tiebreaker makes for a lot of fun conversations as we try to decide if a 0-0 home draw is actually better than a 2-1 home win.

But if you hate the home and away thing, you may not have to put up with it for much longer. Word on the street is that this might be its last year.

But we'll worry about that later. For now, let's embrace the home-and-away fun.

Will the Timbers make an unlikely run to the championship? Yeah, sure, it's a little hard to imagine, but a run to the Western Conference title was a little hard to imagine, too, and look what happened there. If a Timbers squad that, for much of the season, was held together with duct tape and baling wire can win the Western Conference, win the Cascadia Cup, and produce a likely MVP; who's to say we can't surprise ourselves again by winning the MLS Cup?

Strap yourselves in, folks. These next few weeks are going to be quite a ride.