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Six Degrees: Even Year Magic

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Portland 3, RSL 0

Diego Chara scores against RSL, 21 October 2018
Craig Mitchelldyer, Portland Timbers

My friend Adam’s been to two Timbers games now. The first was against Seattle, a 1-0 loss, so not only had he never seen a Timbers victory, he hadn’t even experienced a Timbers goal, the green and gold smoke afterward, the “All We Really Want Is Goals” chant, the victory-clinching Tetris chant, and log slices being lifted after the game.

This Sunday against RSL, he finally got to see it all.


1) In my last column, right after our surprising 4-1 road victory against RSL, I talked about how, after months of experimenting with formations, Gio Savarese had finally gone back to the 4-2-3-1, and how great it looked.

Well, on Sunday, RSL came here to face us at Providence Park, and once again Gio set the team up in a 4-2-3-1. And, once again, it looked great.

Diego Chara and David Guzman in the center of the pitch, working the double-pivot? Yes, please.

Diego Valeri, also in the center of the pitch, working as a true creator? Yes, please.

Andy Polo able to use his speed and be aggressive as a winger, not a d-mid? Yes, please.

And Jeremy Ebobisse up top, being a big strong target forward? Yes, please.

For all of these reasons and more, the 4-2-3-1 just feels right. It feels like the formation the Timbers should be playing. Two straight big wins adds further weight to this opinion. Will Gio experiment with formations next week, and then again in the playoffs? I, for one, hope not. This isn’t the time of year for experimentation. Let’s have the boys get used to the 4-2-31. Get comfortable in it. Become a well-oiled machine in it. If they do that, who knows how far it will take us?

2) Sunday’s first half was a fairly even affair. Portland and RSL had roughly equal possession, and it never felt like one team was significantly better than the other. Maybe the Timbers were on the front foot a bit more than RSL, and maybe our chances were a little more dangerous than theirs, but not enough to call one team or the other “significantly” better.

But, of course, in the end, soccer’s not about word choices or semantics, it’s about putting the ball in the back of the net. RSL wasn’t able to do it, but in the 15th minute, the Timbers were, with Larrys Mabiala getting on the end of a Diego Valeri free kick.

That’s Mabiala’s fifth goal of the year, and the first he’s scored with a part of his body that is not his head. According to #StatMan Mike Donovan, five goals makes Larrys the top-scoring defender in the league this year. Even more impressive, the MLS single-season record for goals scored by a center back? Six. So let’s try and get the big Frenchman a goal next week, eh?

3) Down 1-0, RSL came out of their halftime locker room flying. No joke, the first 20 minutes of the second half were one-way traffic. RSL just pinned their ears back and attacked, attacked, attacked.

How’d the Timbers do? They survived. Barely. The back four did just enough, while goalkeeper Steve Clark came up big multiple times. Let’s look at his biggest save, from the 52nd minute.

How friggin’ great a save is that? Also, how friggin’ awesome is his reaction afterward? Punching the air, giving everyone high fives, shouting “let’s go” over and over? I’ve said numerous times in this space that I’d prefer Kendall McIntosh over Clark, but that being said, Clark seems like a really nice guy, a good teammate, and if he has to be our starter the rest of the way, at least he’s a guy who’ll be easy to root for.

And, of course, if he keeps playing like he did on Sunday afternoon, the team will be in very good hands.

4) Remember a few months ago when the Timbers were in the middle of their 15-game unbeaten streak but I refused to be completely happy about it? I had to be Debbie Downer? I was all like, “Yeah, they’re winning and all, but they’re just barely winning. Do they know how to win big? Do they know how to put teams to the sword?”

Turns out, they do.

For the first 20 minutes of the second half, RSL huffed and they puffed and they tried to blow our house down, but never could. When they’d finally worn themselves out and had nothing left in the tank, the Timbers did what needed to be done. They put RSL to the sword.

There’s two things I want to point out on this goal. The first thing is obvious. Look at Diego Chara sprinting down the center of the field. It looks like someone sped up the film, doesn’t it? Except that can’t be the case, since no one else is moving at hyper speed. It’s just Chara, running past everyone like he’s got jets comin’ out of his ass. I can’t get over it. The dude’s an absolute wonder.

Second thing to watch: Jeremy Ebobisse. He receives the pass from Mabiala while getting slammed into by RSL defender Marcelo Silva. Does Jebo care? Not a bit. He barely notices. He just chests the ball down, spots Sebastian Blanco sprinting up the wing, and lays out a perfectly weighted pass. Just beautiful.

I’ve decided that when it comes to playing style, Jebo is the natural successor to Fanendo Adi. Samuel Armenteros, he’s a different kind of striker. But Adi and Jebo? They’re both target forwards, able to set themselves up in a dangerous area, fight off defenders, collect the pass, then send the ball on to the next guy. One difference I see is that Adi would often hold the ball for a moment or two, then pass. Jebo almost never holds the ball. Every ball that comes to him, he’s one-touching it to someone else. This is fun to watch and seems like an unadulterated good thing, but I must admit, there’s times I want him to hold the ball for a second and maybe get creative. Maybe try some crazy Armenteros shit. I want to see if he’s got that in his toolbox.

But if he doesn’t have that in his toolbox, no worries. He’s still got 3 goals and 5 assists in 756 career minutes. Extrapolate that out to a full season of 2500 minutes and you’re looking at 10 goals and 16 assists. I’d take that from my starting forward. Wouldn’t you?

Oh, wait, I almost forgot, we’re not done putting RSL to the sword. In the 87th minute, Lucas Melano and Sebastian Blanco finished them off.

Beautiful pass from Melano, beautiful finish by Blanco. And that’s Seba’s 10th goal, putting him in some very select company.

5) So we’ve clinched a spot in the playoffs, which is pretty awesome. Now, what about next weekend, the regular season’s final weekend, when all the games will be happening at the same time and everyone will be fighting for playoff seeding? What about that?

Let’s start by looking at the current Western Conference standings.

Western Conference standings, 22 October 2018

Whichever teams finish 1st and 2nd will have a week off. Teams 3 through 6 will have a mid-week knockout game. Team 3 will host team 6. Team 4 will host team 5. So, if next week’s games change nothing, if all the teams finish exactly where they are now, we’ll be in 5th place and will be driving up the coast to face Seattle on two days rest.

But maybe next week’s games will change the order. What has to happen for us to jump up to the 3rd or 4th spot, so we can host that mid-week knockout game?

Let’s start with the assumption that we’ll beat Vancouver. If we can’t do that, we’re stuck in 5th place. But if we can, what else needs to happen?

One possibility is Seattle losing at home to San Jose. This seems extremely unlikely. San Jose’s brutally bad and Seattle’s the hottest team in the league. But if it does happen, we’ll have 57 points, Seattle will have 56, and we’ll be hosting them in that mid-week game.

Another possibility is Dallas losing on the road to Colorado. This seems a little more possible. Not probable, but possible. Yes, Colorado sucks, but Dallas hasn’t been all the great lately, the game’s at elevation, and even bad teams win sometimes. If the Timbers win and Dallas loses, we’ll be tied at 57 points. What are the tiebreakers?

The first tiebreaker is wins, where we’ll be tied. The second tiebreaker is goal differential, where we’ll also be tied. But the third tiebreaker is goals scored, which the Timbers currently lead in, 53-51. Now, if Dallas and Colorado play some weird game where Dallas loses 6-5, then maybe we’ll have to go to a fourth tiebreaker, but assuming some normal scorelines, like the Timbers winning 2-1 and Dallas losing 1-2, then the Timbers will win the tiebreakers, pass Dallas in the standings, and will host that mid-week knockout game. Against Dallas, probably.

So what should Gio’s lineup strategy be? Here are some options:

  • We could assume both Seattle and Dallas will win, assume we’ll be traveling for that mid-week knockout game, and rest all our starters in Vancouver.
  • We could assume either Seattle or Dallas will lose, play to win in Vancouver, and try to have that mid-week knockout game at home.
  • Or we could go with an in-between strategy similar to what Chris Rifer suggested on Twitter. Have three starters resting on the bench, then check the scoreboard at halftime to see how Seattle and Dallas are doing. If they’re both winning easily, take out three more starters, and you’ll have six guys fairly rested for the mid-week knockout game. But if either Seattle or Dallas are losing at the half? Throw those three starters into the game, go for broke, and maybe get that mid-week knockout game at home.

I really like this third option, but will Gio? Hell if I know. But whatever he does, I’m looking forward to next weekend. Every team in the league kicking off at the same time is fun. Scoreboard watching is fun. Rooting for other teams to pull an upset is fun.

And if everything falls our way, having that mid-week knockout game at Providence Park? That would be fun, too.

6) This week’s final degree is special. It’s time to announce the Six Degrees Player of the Year.

I’ve been writing this column since 2013 (four years at Slide Rule Pass, two years here at Stumptown Footy) and each year my MVP choice has had a slightly different rationale.

  • 2013 was a team of scrappers, so Will Johnson, the ultimate scrapper, won my award.
  • 2014’s team wasn’t nearly so scrappy, but boy could they score, so my MVP was the year’s best attacker, Diego Valeri.
  • 2015’s team was built on defense, so I gave the award to goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey.
  • 2016 was a year without an obvious personality or player, but Fanendo Adi was his usual excellent self and I thought he might be leaving in the off-season, so I named him my MVP.
  • 2017’s award was pretty easy. Diego Valeri went supernova, had a 20-10 year, and was named MLS MVP. Who am I to argue with that?

And now here we are in 2018 and it’s time to hand out another trophy. Who’s getting it? Well, let’s start by asking some questions.

Did 2018 have an obvious story? I’d say yes, but that story was our new coach, Giovanni Savarese, and I can’t give this award to a coach.

Did 2018 have any players go supernova? Almost. Samuel Armenteros had a stretch of seven goals in nine games. Jeff Attinella had three shutouts in his first three starts. If either of them had kept up those runs, they’d be winning this award. But, alas, neither did.

Did 2018 have any ultra-reliable blue collar heroes? Yes, I’d put both Larrys Mabiala and Zarek Valentin into this category, but I’m not sure either did enough to win my trophy.

Man, we’re really having a hard time finding an obvious choice, aren’t we? Should we just give the award to Diego Valeri, since he’s our best player, year in and year out? Nah, he’s already won two of these. Let’s try someone new.

In the end, it comes down to two players: Sebastian Blanco and Diego Chara. And what a hard choice it is.

Blanco really took a major step forward this year. In addition to joining Valeri in the double-double club, he’s only gotten stronger as the year’s gone on, putting up a ridiculous 4 goals and 5 assists in the last seven games. Plus, he’s the clear and obvious choice for “Timber Most Likely To Start A Bench-Clearing Brawl,” and that’s got to count for something, right?

But in the end, I’m going with Diego Chara. He may not be our best player, but I think we’re all in agreement that he’s our most valuable player. Our most vital player. Our most indispensable player. When Chara doesn’t play, the Timbers don’t win. It’s as simple as that.

Plus, he’s my favorite player and always has been, so it’s kind of weird that he’s never won my MVP.

Decision made, then. In a year when nobody else jumps out as a clear and obvious choice, I’m giving my award to the team’s spine, the team’s talisman, the team’s most vital cog.

Congratulations, Diego Chara. You’re the 2018 Six Degrees Player of the Year.