The biggest story from this game is all the injuries. I'll get to those, I promise, but let's start with actual soccer stuff. Save the walking wounded for later.
1) Here's a quick degree on the Timbers defense. They deserve serious credit. On the road, against a Houston team that blows teams out at home, the defense pitched a shutout. In fact, they now have four clean sheets in their last seven games.
The Larrys Mabiala/Liam Ridgewell partnership is clearly working. Jeff Attinella in goal is clearly working. And Alvas Powell and Vytas Andriuskevicius getting off the bench and back into the starting lineup is clearly working.
The defensive midfielders in front of them? Well, erm... maybe we'll save that for the injuries discussion.
2) Here's a quick degree on the Timbers offense. They didn't do much Monday night. There was a lot of possession in the first 60 minutes, much of it in the attacking half, but very rarely was that possession turned into good chances. We officially had two shots on goal. Darlington Nagbe's breakaway in the first half? Not a shot on goal. Diego Valeri's hard shot from outside the box? Not a shot on goal.
The only shots on goal were a nice one from Jeremy Ebobisse about 60 seconds after he entered the game, and a completely anonymous one from Vytas, that, to be honest, I barely remember. The point being, the offense had lots of the ball and didn't do much with it.
And it feels a little weird to be praising the defense and scolding the offense, doesn't it? We led the Western Conference in goals, after all. Now, suddenly, our attackers look decidedly pedestrian.
Of course, the offense got even more pedestrian in the final 30 minutes, when... well, erm... maybe that's another one we'll save for the injuries discussion.
3) Should we have that discussion now? No, let's have the penalties discussion. Or, I guess I should call it the non-penalties discussion.
Before looking at the replays, I was ready to call these two plays pretty much identical. I was prepared to say, “Yes, Mabiala cleans out Alberth Elis, but look, he gets the ball first. Judgment call for the ref.”
Then I was prepared to say, “Same for Tyler Deric. Yes, he cleans out Darren Mattocks but look, he gets the ball first. Another judgment call.”
The problem? Deric didn't get the ball first. In fact, I'm not sure he got the ball at all.
In the moment, at game speed, this is a very tough call, just like the Mabiala play. I can totally understand the ref getting both of them wrong in the moment. What I don't understand is why he would check the replay on the first penalty, but not the other.
He had his chance, too. I distinctly remember him putting his finger to his ear after the Mattocks play, listening to the Video Assistant Referee talking in his earpiece. What was that conversation like?
VAR (talking through the headset): Hey, you might want to look at this. I'm not sure the keeper got the ball.
Field ref (finger in his ear): I don't know, man. I just overturned one in favor of Portland. If I do that again, I think the fans will riot.
VAR: Seriously? This stadium is a ghost town. There's, like, 30 Houston fans here. 35, tops. That's not much of a riot.
Field ref: Still... 35 fans. What if they charge the field? I'm not sure I can fight 'em off.
VAR: Use the shaving cream. That stuff's radioactive, you know.
Field ref: Radioactive?
VAR: Yeah, it's made out of plutonium. You didn't know that?
Field ref: I've been using that to shave with.
VAR: Seriously? How long?
Field ref: All season.
Field ref: I'm gonna die, aren't I?
VAR: Umm, well, you know... hard to say.
Field ref: Oh dear God.
VAR: Now, don't panic, man. They've made real advances treating radiation poisoning.
Field ref: I need to call my family. Let's get to halftime as quick as we can. [turns back to the players] No penalty! Play on!
My four takeaways?
One, they need to stop making that stuff out of plutonium.
Two, the Timbers got a little screwed here, but I've seen worse screw-jobs. Even if he'd gone to the VAR screen, there's no guarantee he calls that a PK. Judgment call, camera angle, etc.
Three, MLS should start giving an annual trophy for the player who draws the most penalties, and they should call it the Darren Mattocks Award.
Four, Houston can't fill their stadium. Dallas can't fill their stadium. You know what MLS really doesn't need? Another team in Texas. #SaveTheCrew
4) Okay, I think we're finally ready for the big discussion. Injuries.
Holy, holy hell, did this team's health go downhill in a hurry. Just, like, a week ago we were all saying, Man, oh man, we're finally getting healthy, right as the playoffs are starting. Yeah, sure, Adi's still hurt, but other than that? First-choice, baby! People better fear the suddenly-healthy Timbers!
One week later, and I think we're down six or seven dudes. Is it that many? Let's do a count.
- Fanendo Adi – still out, possibly done for the year.
- David Guzman – missed Monday's game with a strained knee or something.
- Sebastian Blanco – missed Monday's game because he poured boiling water on his foot, because, you know, why not? Soccer players don't really need their feet.
- Larrys Mabiala – left Monday's game in first half stoppage time with a hip bruise or something.
- Diego Chara – left Monday's game also in first half stoppage time with something that looks much worse than a hip bruise or boiling water. They actually had to carry him off the field on a stretcher. All across Portland, hearts broke and children cried.
- Darlington Nagbe – left Monday's game in the 59th minute with a tight hamstring. Not as emotionally devastating as seeing Chara on a stretcher, but still, three subs used on injuries? And 30 minutes still left to play? I can sympathize with any Timbers fans showing signs of PTSD today.
Three dudes lost in one game. Three.
I could list various possible explanations right now. Some of them might even be funny. But I think I'll just skip straight to the one we're all thinking about; that goddamn cow pasture of a field.
Now, I know what some might say. Both teams had to play on that crap. Neither had an advantage. Yeah, sure I agree with that. That's probably why it was an ugly-ass 0-0 game with just four total shots on goal.
But here's my response: Neither team should have needed to play on a field like that. MLS is supposed to be a major league, right? Hell, it’s right there in the name. Major leagues don't play on minor league fields. Apparently, Houston was letting college football teams play on its field this week. You think the Dodgers are letting college teams play on their field this week? No, of course not. But in our league, in the playoffs, in front of a national TV audience, teams were playing on what looked like a World War One battlefield. Just pathetic.
Professionalism aside, game quality aside, the truth of the matter is that crappy fields injure players. People trip over divots. They get their cleats caught in the muck and wreck their joints. Did Mabiala, Chara, and Nagbe get injured by the field? I can't say yes, but I certainly can't say no. Check out this play from the first half.
The tweeter makes a joke that it's a “tactical roll,” which I'll admit is kind of funny, but the truth is, Chara didn't do that, the shitty turf did. And, sure, that's not the play that sent him off on a stretcher, but if I had video of that injury would I see something similar? Would I see Chara going down because of the turf? It's very possible.
What should be done? I don't know. Fine the shit out of Houston? Tell them they can't use their field for other activities? Tell them that if their field looks this bad they have to rent out a different field somewhere nearby, one that's not so wrecked? Make them play both games on the road?
Actually, that last idea has some appeal. They could play both games at Providence Park, but for one game, Timbers fans aren't allowed to attend. Just Dynamo fans. I would totally watch that game on TV. And, let's face it, the Dynamo would probably have just as many fans in attendance as they did Monday night at home. The only difference is the empty seats would be green instead of orange.
And, oh yeah, they’d be playing on a professional soccer field, not a cow pasture.
5) Wow, that was a really long degree. Let's get through these last two a little quicker.
Who the hell's starting Sunday? You? Me? Gavin Wilkinson?
My predictions: Guzman and Blanco are back. Chara and Adi are not. Nagbe and Mabiala? Ehhhh... maybe?
Mabiala's got a bruise of some kind, right? That could be no big deal, that could be a huge deal, so I'm just gonna call him 75% likely to be back.
Nagbe's got a tight hammy? As I recall, that's what Fanendo Adi went down with, like, two or three months ago. So can we expect the same with Nagbe? I sure hope not. I'm calling him 50% likely to be back.
If they're not back, it's Roy Miller at center back and Dairon Asprilla on the right wing.
Oh, and as far as defensive midfield goes, get used to Lawrence Olum, because I think he's taking us the rest of the way home.
Long, heavy sigh...
Remember a week ago, when the team was finally healthy? That was pretty sweet, wasn't it? Good times, good times.
6) Now, on to the strategery.
Was 0-0 a good result? I can see this in a few different ways.
First way of looking at it: hell yeah, it's good! We got a road draw! Woohoo! Now let's come home and win it!
Second way of looking at it: no, it's actually not that good. Because road goals are the tiebreaker and we came out of Houston with zero. If Sunday's game ends in a 1-1 tie, Houston will have one road goal and we'll have none. Houston advances, our season's over.
Third way of looking at it: Houston sucks on the road. They were 12-1-4 at home this year and 1-9-7 on the road. We escaped their place with a draw. We'll trounce them at home.
Fourth way of looking at it: yeah, but that's with a healthy squad. We're the walking wounded. We'll be playing with backups at multiple positions.
Fifth and final way of looking at it: yeah, but we're used to that. We've been playing with backups all year. Roy Miller? He's battle-tested. Lawrence Olum? Battle-tested. Darren Mattocks? Dairon Asprilla? Jeff Attinella? They're all battle-tested. If there's one team in the league that knows how to win with backups, it's the Portland Timbers.
I like our chances.
7) What's this? A seventh degree? Yes, and we only roll these out for special occasions.
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