Bad luck? Sure, there was definitely some of that.
Bad play? By and large no, but the Portland Timbers let themselves down in key moments on Saturday at CenturyLink Field and, accordingly, walk away with nothing yet again.
The five-game stretch that the Timbers just completed was among the hardest they’ll face this season. And dropping some points over the course of the last month was inevitable. But to come away with two points is nothing short of a disaster that has erased the Timbers’ strong early-spring work.
There’s no getting around it: The Timbers were the more dangerous team in the first half. Before halftime, Portland repeatedly worked chances that led to a bit of a shooting gallery in front of Stefan Frei’s goal.
It was only thanks to a handful of instances of sloppy finishing and some heroic last-gasp defending by the Sounders that the Timbers stayed off the board. But make no mistake, in the first half on Saturday the Timbers were creating loads of chances both inside and outside the Sounders’ box.
The Timbers did so largely by playing down the Sounders’ flanks, especially down the right flank where Darlington Nagbe and Vytas were prolific.
On the opposite wing, Sebastian Blanco repeatedly found space on the switch and at times overloaded centrally to create numerical advantages to help Vytas and Nagbe. And when the Timbers forced the Sounders’ defense to rotate and ultimately to collapse, David Guzman was there to fill the empty spots.
As a result, although the Timbers worked through transition on the wings, they still maintained a genuine playmaking threat up the gut on the edge of the final third when the Sounders overcommitted to the ball outside.
But all too often the final ball wasn’t there, and, when it was, the finish wasn’t. So, despite their good work in getting into promising spots in the first half, the Timbers failed to capitalize.
And then Guzman came off at halftime and the chances dried up. After squeezing off 15 shots in the first half, the Timbers had four in the second, all of which were from outside the box and — perhaps even more troublingly — came before the 60th (okay, 61st) minute. As the Sounders dropped deeper and deeper, the Timbers increasingly struggled to break down Seattle’s wall.
And a big part of that was Guzman going off at halftime.
After repeatedly providing a second level to the Timbers’ attack and adding another runner in and around the box in the first half, Guzman’s absence after halftime was conspicuous. Compare Guzman’s distribution and shot chart from the first half with that of Lawrence Olum and Amobi Okugo in the second.
In light of the fact that the Timbers were a goal down, that’s essentially the opposite of the effect that you’d like to see from defensive midfielders as the game goes along. As Seattle tucked numbers in and the Timbers needed to find a goal, you’d expect the defensive midfielders to push on, not to retreat.
But that’s simply the difference in personnel. Paired with Olum, Guzman — a player who can be either a six or an eight — was an effective eight in the first half. But both Okugo and Olum are true sixes, meaning neither will naturally be terribly effective in joining the attack.
The only action the Timbers created centrally in the second half, then, was when either Fanendo Adi or Diego Valeri checked back to receive the ball with their back to goal. And without that extra attacker and the Sounders packing their own third, the Timbers were stymied in the second half.
Diego Valeri, and again, it’s not pretty.
Diego Valeri today: 1 shot, 1 chance created.— Chris Rifer (@ChrisRifer) May 27, 2017
That’s … bad. #RCTID
The Timbers simply can’t live like that. Working as a 10 in the Timbers’ 4-2-3-1, Valeri needs to be both a playmaking and a goalscoring threat. Playing with two wingers who like to work in the channels, Valeri is naturally going to have a lot of freedom to work off of them to find the playmaking pulse.
On Saturday he didn’t, and although Guzman, Nagbe, and Blanco did a respectable job of covering for Valeri’s absence in that respect in the first half, they aren’t Diego Valeri. As the Timbers’ chances-create chart shows, there was hay to be made centrally in the first half. Valeri just didn’t make any.
Although he was arguably the Timbers’ best player last weekend in the team’s stinker in Montreal, Valeri put in downright poor performances both on Saturday in Seattle and against Atlanta United two weeks ago.
The talk is all about Fanendo Adi being in a slump; and he is.
But he’s not the only DP who isn’t producing for the Timbers right now.
Stat of the Game
Four — The number of goals the Timbers have conceded from corner kicks this year. Set-piece goals happen and, as Caleb Porter said after the game, there really isn’t a magic formula to set-piece defending. To a certain degree it simply comes down to players making plays.
But whether it’s Chad Marshall outracing Roy Miller to the near side of the box, Kyle Fisher out-leaping Alvas Powell, Richie Marquez beating Lawrence Olum, or Ola Kamara sneaking onto the ball behind Olum, all too often the Timbers are getting beat to the first ball and, thus failing to make the play that needs to be made.
Man of the Match Voting
Who was your Man of the Match against Seattle?
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- This is a handball.
Not going to lie. I don't know what a handball is anymore. pic.twitter.com/YE0vA1SpNy— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) May 27, 2017
- After the game referee Mark Geiger explained the no-call as follows:
- That explanation is, of course, deeply unsatisfying. Law of the Game 12 provides: “Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm,” and states the referee is to consider “the movement of the hand towards the ball” and “the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball).” Providing initial support for Geiger’s interpretation, the Rule expressly states “the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an infringement.” But here’s the thing: There was nothing unexpected about Nagbe’s shot and there was no other reason for Marshall’s arm to be in the air. It is clear he was raising his arm in order to make himself bigger. Thus, he clearly deliberately acted to make contact with the ball with his arm.
- The reaction of many (including Porter after the game) was that video replay is the solution for calls like this. But in light of Geiger’s answer, that may not be correct. It’s not that Geiger didn’t see the play (he was well-positioned to do so), it’s that he didn’t think it was an intentional handball. Seeing a replay wouldn’t (shouldn’t?) have affected that. The point here is this: VAR is a solution when a referee is unable to sufficiently see the play to reach a judgment, but it isn’t a reliable remedy when a referee sees the play and simply reaches an incorrect judgment. The only solution to that is better referees and better training.
- After the game Caleb Porter said (somewhat equivocally) that Guzman was forced out at halftime with a suspected concussion. Porter wasn’t clear about when Guzman may have suffered the injury other than to state he took two elbows to the head. The potential that Guzman was concussed, however, raises questions about whether the Timbers sufficiently assessed Guzman on the field before permitting him to complete the first half. To be clear: We don’t (yet) know the answer to those questions. It’s possible Guzman doesn’t have a concussion. Even if so, it’s also possible he didn’t go to ground when he suffered the blow that caused the injury and, thus, the Timbers medical staff may not have been aware he had a head injury. But in light of the importance of properly assessing and acting on head injuries on the field, the questions are certainly worth asking.