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Timber Cruise: Houston Dynamo 0, Portland Timbers 0

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MLS: Western Conference Semifinal-Portland Timbers at Houston Dynamo John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

“All things considered” is a phrase that evokes deeply disparate reactions in people. Some see it as a safe harbor for real analysis when things aren’t otherwise going well. Others see it as the preface to an excuse.

But it’s hard to argue with the “all things considered” takes coming out of the Portland Timbers’ draw at Houston on Monday evening. Playing most of the second half with a front six of Lawrence Olum, Amobi Okugo; Darren Mattocks, Diego Valeri, Dairon Asprilla; and Jeremy Ebobisse on the Dynamo’s moonscape pitch, the Timbers found a way to come back to Portland on level terms.

In absolute terms, the 0-0 result would be a mild disappointment for the Timbers. But all things considered, it’s a profoundly impressive one that only reinforces this season’s narrative of the Timbers as a team that can take a punch and get back up off the mat.

If only they took a couple fewer punches in the injury department...

Deep Cuts

Sometimes games simply overcome the best-laid tactical plans.

In the first half, Caleb Porter found the sweetspot for the Timbers. They had their share of the ball, but they didn’t expose themselves to get it. They limited Houston’s ability to get out on the counter, but they did so without bunkering.

In particular, the Timbers looked to use the wings as their release point to work around the central areas in which the Dynamo like to press and to keep defensive-midfield cover in transition. The idea was to sacrifice a little bit of transitional dynamism to make sure a turnover in midfield didn’t turn into a Dynamo run out in which they could get numbers behind the Timbers’ d-mids.

That’s not an easy sweetspot to find, but until first-half stoppage time it certainly seemed like the Timbers had found it pretty well. And then Larrys Mabiala went down. And then Diego Chara went down. And then, 15 minutes into the second half, Darlington Nagbe went down.

Just like that the sweetspot was obliterated.

The 6-8 dynamic the Timbers had between Olum and Chara was toast. The balance on the wings between Nagbe’s possession-oriented approach and Asprilla’s directness was gone. And with Chara and Nagbe out, the Timbers’ ability to keep the ball was history.

From there, Monday evening simply became a matter of the Timbers grinding out a result any way they could. No MLS team missing five starters will be able to regularly dominate a game on the road, even against a team on short rest. And that’s especially the case when many of those absences are central to a team’s ability to keep the ball.

So, although in many respects a 0-0 draw isn’t great for the Timbers (it means the Timbers need to win on Sunday to advance), all things considered Monday’s 0-0 is a pretty tremendous one for Caleb Porter’s side.

Spotlight on...

Referee Robert Sibiga and VAR.

When you turn off the recorders and cameras and talk to MLS players, coaches, and executives about referees, a theme quickly emerges: MLS officials referee the situation, not the play. In other words, they call games as though they’re more concerned about being seen as fair than they are about being right.

If a referee gives (or denies) a controversial penalty on one end, they’re more likely to do the same on the other end regardless of the merits. If a team is trailing, the referee is more favorable. If a team is leading, the referee becomes less favorable.

We can argue about whether the perception broadly reflects reality, but it’s unquestionably the perception among many that work in the league. And on Monday evening it did reflect the reality on two important decisions by referee Robert Sibiga and the VAR, Chris Penso.

It started when Sibiga initially gave a penalty to the Dynamo in the 30th minute, but thereafter after almost immediately told protesting Timbers players that he intended to review the play. After that review, he concluded he committed a clear and obvious error in awarding the spot kick.

And for good reason. On replay it appeared Larry Mabiala’s front leg was clean through to the ball, so there wasn’t any infraction there. Mabiala also didn’t bring his trailing leg through Alberth Elis in a scissoring motion that would have created a dangerous play and justified a foul regardless of the cleanliness of the front leg. As Penso and Sibiga ultimately agreed, Mabiala’s tackle (albeit high-risk) wasn’t a foul, and so VAR worked exactly as it should have in this instance — to correct Sibiga’s mistake.

Which makes the next call 10 minutes later all the more — well, lets go with “interesting.”

Here, Houston goalkeeper Tyler Deric comes through Mattocks without getting any apparent touch on the ball. That’s routinely called a foul, and even a cursory look at a replay gives the pretty convincing impression that this should have been a penalty for the Timbers. In fact, at the time Mattocks got his touch to the ball, Deric wasn’t even all that close to making a play.

After briefly putting his hand to ear to listen to the VAR, however, Sibiga waved for the Timbers to take the corner kick. Whether Penso did not recommend review or Sibiga stiff-armed his video assistant, it certainly appears that the referee crew let equality be the enemy of correctness in this situation. Unless Penso in his brief review saw some angle that wasn’t publicly available that revealed something very different -- a prospect that seems pretty farfetched in light of the above screencap — it just looks like Sibiga didn’t give the Timbers a penalty on one end because he didn’t give one to the Dynamo on the other end, regardless of the merits of those respective calls.

Stat of the Game

5 — The number of clean sheets that the Timbers registered in their last 10 games. That is compared to three shutouts in the first 25 games of the 2017 season.

The Timbers defensive awakening in the late-summer and fall has been the story of Caleb Porter’s team surging to win the West, and it was on full display. Despite having to absorb for most of the second half, there really wasn’t all that much for goalkeeper Jeff Attinella to do. Back in June, the defensive performance the Timbers put in on Monday would have been inconceivable. But in light of their defensive prowess over the course of the last three months, it seemed almost par-for-the-course.

The second half, then, provides some comfort that perhaps the Timbers can keep this defensive form going forward, even if Larrys Mabiala (questionable) and Diego Chara (out) aren’t in the lineup. Even after Porter was forced to go to duct tape to keep the ship afloat, the Timbers weren’t taking on water.

As to the centerback tandem, in particular, the Ridgewell-Miller partnership was the best the Timbers rolled out all season before Larrys Mabiala signed on. In a five-game stretch from May 14th to June 10th, the Timbers conceded six goals, but four of which were in one miserable visit to Montreal that saw the Timbers play down a man for most of the game as Diego Chara was sent off early. In fact, two of the Timbers’ three shutouts from their first 25 games came from that stretch (the other was the second game of the season at 10-man LA Galaxy).

Larrys Mabiala has unquestionably been an important addition for the Timbers, and it’s clear losing him would be far from the Timbers’ preference. But Roy Miller has been an important contributor for the Timbers this season, as well, and despite both Miller and Ridgewell being more comfortable on the left side, they seem to have a pretty effective partnership in central defense.

Man of the Match Poll

Vote!

Poll

Who was your First-Leg Man of the Match Against Houston?

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    Jeff Attinella
    (71 votes)
  • 62%
    Alvas Powell
    (231 votes)
  • 8%
    Liam Ridgewell
    (31 votes)
  • 2%
    Diego Valeri
    (8 votes)
  • 8%
    Vytas
    (31 votes)
372 votes total Vote Now

Finishing Bullets

  • The poor condition of the field on Monday was one of the biggest stories coming out of the game, as Caleb Porter somewhat nonchalantly called it the worst field he’s seen in his five years in MLS. As poor as it looked on television, by all means it appears to have been worse in person. Just look at this photo from Craig Mitchelldyer:
  • Sometimes mother nature intervenes and suboptimal field conditions simply can’t be avoided. But this wasn’t caused by the hurricane-induced flooding in Houston over the summer. Rather, the field conditions on Monday were the proximate result of this:
  • That’s eight games in 25 days for the BBVA Compass Stadium, three of which had nothing to do with the Dynamo, the stadium’s primary tenant. It’s understandable that BBVA Compass Stadium is host to events other than the Dynamo -- that’s the case for virtually every MLS stadium. But MLS can’t allow for games to be played on a surface like that which the Dynamo provided on Monday, and stadium schedules have to be set accordingly. It’s not safe -- although we can’t be certain, there is a possibility that the field played a role in all three Timbers injuries — and it leads to bad soccer.
  • Given the economic incentives in place to pack stadiums with revenue-producing events, it’s on MLS to make sure there isn’t an incentive to provide a field that is as clearly inadequate as the surface was in Houston both on Monday and last week against Sporting Kansas City. In other words, MLS needs to hand down a hefty fine to the Dynamo for the condition of their surface over the last week.