I didn't want to be writing my end-of-year recap today. I knew I'd have to write one eventually, but was hoping to hold off a few more weeks. But here we are, so let's wipe away the tears and get to it.
1) Since the game ended Sunday, there's been a lot of talk about Portland's injuries, both in this game and over the course of the season. That's an incredibly important storyline and I will get to it, but I'm going to start by saying that, when all is said and done, Sunday's loss wasn't about injuries. It was about Houston being the better team for 90+ minutes. They didn't luck into their victory, they earned it. They came to Portland with a game plan, they executed it, and they won.
Their defense gummed up the final third. Their offense took advantage of their chances. Was it beautiful soccer? No. Was it cynical and annoying? Yes. Was it as cynical and annoying as what Sporting KC does every single game? God, no. SKC makes me want to commit murder. Houston just made me frustrated.
But I doubt they care. They had a plan, they executed it, and Portland didn't have an answer. In the end, that's the sad truth of Sunday's game.
2) But should we talk about the injuries anyway? Yeah, sure, just because it's so mind-blowingly depressing.
Going into last week's first leg, we were missing a first-choice striker (Fanendo Adi), a first-choice winger (Sebastian Blanco), and a first-choice defensive midfielder (David Guzman). Over the course of that game, we proceeded to lose our other first-choice winger (Darlington Nagbe), our other first-choice defensive midfielder (Diego Chara), and a first-choice center back (Larrys Mabiala).
That right there is enough, right? If I were to stop there, any rational person would say, Yep, that's insane. Except I'm not going to stop there.
At Saturday's practice, on the last drill of the day, we lost Mabiala's replacement, Roy Miller, to a torn Achilles. Then, 11 minutes into Sunday's game, we lost Adi's replacement, Darren Mattocks, to what looked like a concussion.
For those of you keeping score at home, that's eight guys down. Eight. In the make-or-break game of 2017, we were playing a 3rd choice forward, a 2nd or 3rd choice winger, a 4th or 5th choice defensive midfielder, and a 4th or 5th choice center back.
Did Houston outplay us Sunday? Yes. Were they the better team? Yes. But were the Timbers playing with an arm and a leg tied behind their back? Absolutely.
Does this suck? Yes. Can we do anything about it? No. At least, not during the game. During the game, all the team can do is try their hardest, which is what they did.
But can we do something about it after the game? During the offseason? Yes. And we'll talk about that in a bit.
3) But first, let's talk about Diego Valeri. We needed a big game from our best player and we didn't get it. Why? A million reasons.
Mostly because Houston's defense was good. They did a masterful job of gumming up the final third, particularly the area in front of the box where Valeri likes to do damage. This meant very few attacking runs into the box, replaced instead by what felt like a billion crosses, only one of which was turned into a goal.
Could Valeri have broken down that defense if he'd had all his usual helpers? I think so. Yeah, sure, David Guzman played, but coming off injuries, maybe he wasn't 100%. And of course, Diego Chara didn't play at all. Think a healthy Guzman and Chara would help Valeri more than an injured Guzman and Amobi Okugo? Yeah, me, too.
Same story on the wings. Darlington Nagbe played, but just as with Guzman, maybe wasn't 100%. His usual wing partner Sebastian Blanco came on late, only played 35 minutes, and due to an injured foot was a shell of his usual self. He didn't take a single shot and mostly just shuttled the ball around. We've already got Nags to do that.
And up front, Darren Mattocks was knocked out of the game after 11 minutes (and, from appearances, may have been literally knocked out). I've got a high opinion of young Jeremy Ebobisse, and look forward to watching him grow, but in a game that big, against a defense playing that well, he wasn’t the striker we needed.
So, yeah, Diego Valeri had a bad game. But given all of the above, it's hard to blame him.
4) With all the injuries, I've heard some people saying Portland has terrible depth. I couldn't disagree more. All the injuries prove Portland has incredible depth.
You do realize we've been playing backups this entire year, right? At almost every position? And in the face of all those injuries, what did we do? We stayed above the red line all year. We won the Western Conference. We won the Cascadia Cup. We produced, in all likelihood, the league MVP.
Most teams facing this many injuries would have folded. The Timbers didn't fold until Sunday. That's an incredible accomplishment and proves we've got amazing depth. The players can be proud. The coaches can be proud.
You know who can't be proud? The medical staff.
In my preseason column, back when I was at Slide Rule Pass, I wrote that if we had as many injuries in 2017 as we did in 2016, we should fire the entire medical staff.
Welp, guess what happened? We had just as many injuries. An insane amount of injuries.
In July, head trainer Nik Wald resigned. Now that the season's over, the rest of the medical staff should do the same. If they don't resign, fire them. From the head doctor to the assistant trainer to the massage therapist, fire them all. Start looking for replacements this week.
Is this a drastic response? Yes. Would it mean some really nice people would be out of work? Yes. Would doing it guarantee that 2018 will have a nice, reasonable amount of injuries? No. But is it worth a try? I think so.
What's the expression? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Give me an unending deluge of injuries three straight seasons, shame on the whole damn organization.
Drastic times call for drastic measures. Fire the medical staff. Hire a new one. See what happens.
5) In addition to an entire medical staff, who else should the team be hiring this offseason? Good question.
We've actually got a pretty solid team, with proven depth at every position. Bring this entire roster back next year, take away a few injuries, and there's every reason to believe we could compete for the title again.
But that being said, there are a few positions to consider.
At striker, what to do with Fanendo Adi? He's shown interest in moving to a bigger club overseas, but coming off such a long injury, would any of those overseas teams still want him? I question that. I think he'll be back. In fact, I predict Adi, Mattocks, and Ebobisse will all be back next year, though I'd kind of like Ebobisse to rise up a level to second choice.
At center back, what to do with Liam Ridgewell? When he plays, the defense is much better. The problem is, he plays less and less every year. He played 32 games in 2015, 22 games last year, and 15 games this year. If we could count on him for 32 games in 2018, hell yeah, we should bring him back. But can we count on that? I'm not sure. I predict he's gone.
At fullback, Alvas Powell and Vytas Andriuskevicius found themselves in and out of the lineup all year; sometimes due to injury, sometimes due to performance. Does the team want to move on from them? To what? Young homegrown Marco Farfan or to an experienced new addition? I have no predictions here.
At defensive midfielder, Guzman and Chara were a tremendous pairing all year, and I'd be ecstatic to let them continue doing that. However, Chara's going to turn 32 next season and he'll be recovering from a broken foot. Does the team want to bring in some insurance? A young guy to groom for the future, perhaps? Or does that young guy already exist in our academy?
In goal, who do you like, Jeff Attinella, Jake Gleeson, or Unknown Goalkeeper Who's Somewhere Out There In The World Right Now? Don't be surprised to see some movement on this front.
6) And that brings us to degree number six. The final degree of 2017. My last chance to put words to this season, to put words to this team.
The 2017 Portland Timbers are a team we can be proud of. Sure, they didn't win it all, but damn, it wasn't for lack of trying. All the injuries I talked about above, and they still accomplished what they did? They can hold their heads up high, every last one of them. (Okay, not the medical staff, but everyone else.)
Coaching staff? You can hold your heads high. Faced with constant injuries, you kept adjusting your lineups, then changing your tactics to match the new personnel. We fans can bitch about a few things here and there, but on the whole, you guys did an amazing job under very difficult circumstances.
General manager? Scouts? You can hold your heads high, too. You nailed almost all your off-season pickups. Blanco and Guzman? Miller and Olum? Ebobisse and Attinella? That's a hell of an off-season. And then mid-season, to pick up Larrys Mabiala? Damn fine work by all of you.
All you players? You can definitely hold your heads high. That includes the stars, of course, players like Valeri and Adi, Nagbe and Chara. But perhaps more important this year were the guys way down at the end of the bench. Depth pieces like Zarek Valentin and Lawrence Olum, guys who probably thought they wouldn't start a game all year, but ended up starting numerous games at numerous different positions. All of you, top to bottom, well done.
And then there are the fans. You and me. I think we can hold our heads up high, too. We cheered the blowout wins, we cheered the blowout losses. We bitched when bitching was required, we praised when praise was due. We saw favorite players go down, then cheered like hell for their replacements, even if we weren't sure how to pronounce their names. We cried with joy watching the team beat Vancouver to win the Cascadia Cup, we cried with pain watching the team end its year with Sunday's loss.
On the whole, 2017 was a hell of a ride. Will 2018 be as good? Well, it is an even-numbered year, so that's a bad sign, but who knows? Maybe we'll finally break that onerous streak.
But even if we don't, even if it's a crappy year, we'll be back to celebrate it. The coaches will scheme, the fans will cheer, and the players will fight. Beer will flow, flags will wave, and songs will be sung. I, for one, can't wait.
See you next year, everybody.
7) One last degree to remind you that I've got a new novel out. It's called 11v11, it's about high school girls soccer, and so far, it's getting good reviews. Best of all, you can read pretty much the entire first half of it for free at Inkitt. So what do you say? Go give it a test drive for free? Maybe you'll like it. If not, you're not out a single penny.