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Six Degrees: Huge Result

Portland 4, RSL 1

MLS: Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Was this our best win of the year? I’m still awfully fond of our 3-0 win over NYCFC back in April. But considering Saturday’s 4-1 win over RSL was on the road, at elevation, and absolutely vital to our playoff chances, yeah, this might be our best win. Or at least our most important.

1) After last week’s depressing 0-0 slog against Dallas, I had many complaints about our offense. I complained about our passivity, our lack of chemistry, and our over-reliance on crosses.

Against RSL, all those problems disappeared. Or at least diminished. What I’m trying to decide is how much of the improvement was due solely to our formation. For what seemed the first time in months, the Timbers came out in a 4-2-3-1. Is that why the attack looked so much better? Let’s break it down.

As you know, the clear and obvious difference between a 4-3-2-1 and a 4-2-3-1 is the 3-line. You move an extra guy forward, which in theory, will improve the attack.

On Saturday in Utah, it was Andy Polo who shifted forward. He stopped being a defensive midfielder and instead became a winger. Polo was mostly on the right, while Sebastian Blanco was mostly on the left. Sitting right in-between the two wingers, seeing everything and pulling the strings, was Diego Valeri.

I’ll be honest, this formation just feels right to me. I feel like Valeri should be in the middle, pulling strings. I feel like Polo should be using his speed to attack. And behind them, David Guzman and Diego Chara should be protecting the back line as double-pivoting defenders. All of this feels right to me.

The question, of course, is whether the Timbers can play in this formation while still maintaining their defensive integrity. Will shifting Polo forward cause us to start leaking goals. On Saturday, the answer was mostly no. Moving forward, who knows?

Will Gio stick with the 4-2-3-1? Is he done with the tinkering? As the regular season ends and the playoffs begin, is he ready for some consistency? We can only wait and see. But I, for one, hope the answer is yes.

2) Lining up as our sole forward Saturday was young Jeremy Ebobisse. According to a Richard Farley tweet, this wasn’t because Samuel Armenteros was out of favor, but simply because he’d been sick all week.

Ebobisse has had a hard time seeing the field this year, but when he does play, he produces. Saturday was no exception. Check out his goal in the 33rd minute.

Remember last week I was complaining about all the crosses? Do you think Blanco’s pass here was a cross? Or a sorta cross? To me, it feels subtly different from a cross. Right back Zarek Valentin could have gone down the line and crossed the ball into the box. Or he could have passed it to Blanco, raced to the corner, gotten a return pass, and then crossed the ball. But neither of those things happened. Instead, Blanco received the pass, aggressively dribbled the ball along the edge of the box, then made his pass. Because he’s 5-10 yards closer to goal, it doesn’t quite feel like a cross to me.

Whether it’s a cross or not, let’s take a moment to appreciate Blanco’s options. Three guys in the box? Three?!? All year I’ve been wanting us to flood the box. Have we finally gotten there? Is this going to become a thing? Be still, my beating heart!

3) We’ve got options in the box on our second goal, too. Both Ebobisse and Valeri are hanging out, making themselves available. Polo’s lurking just outside the box, too.

That’s wonderful work and a wonderful finish from Blanco, but he wasn’t done. Three minutes later, he did this.

That’s flippin’ gorgeous. Look at Ebobisse making himself available. Watch him and Valeri work the give-and-go. Look at Valeri’s heavenly pass to Blanco. Look at Blanco’s rocket blast into the side netting.

You know what Blanco would have done last week? He would have run to the corner, received Valeri’s pass, and sent in a cross. Because last week, crosses were all the Timbers knew how to do.

But this week, with a new formation and a new aggressive attitude? We’ve got targets in the box, we’ve got diagonal runs into the box, we’ve got a real, live, functioning offense. And, God, how I’ve missed it. Please let it continue.

4) The game wasn’t all candy canes and daisies, though. We did give up that one goal, and it was friggin’ ugly.

That’s horrible, isn’t it? Look at Jefferson Savarino running into the box, completely unmolested. With that much room, I think you or me could have scored. Well, you, at least.

Who do we blame? I mostly want to blame Andy Polo, but I guess it’s possible Valeri was supposed to follow Savarino. Or maybe center back Larrys Mabiala should have set up in that big empty green expanse, waiting to shut Savarino down?

Nah. I’m blaming Polo. He’s not following Savarino, he’s not moving out to cover the passer, he’s pretty much doing nothing. Get your head in the game, Andy.

Fortunately, RSL had a pretty serious mental lapse, too. Almost comically so.

Honestly, that’s just absurdist theater. I will say this, though. Lucas Melano might be one of the only guys on our team quick enough to get to that ball. Maybe RSL didn’t realize Luca was so fast?

5) Some random thoughts.

  • Bill Tuiloma started at left center back and had a few reckless moments. Also, he came off injured. Does that mean Julio Cascante starts in our next game? Or does Liam Ridgewell come back as the automatic starter down the stretch?
  • Another starter question: who’s our striker, Sammy or Jebo? Sammy has been ice cold for what seems like months. Would he be more dangerous as a super-sub?
  • With two goals and an assist on Saturday, Blanco is now at 9 goals and 10 assists on the year. One more goal and he joins Valeri in the double-double club. I wonder how many MLS teams have had two double-double players? Is it super-rare? Super-common?
  • It was not a great day for head referee Robert Sibiga and VAR Guido Gonzales. The first thing they missed was Kyle Beckerman putting David Guzman into a red-card-worthy headlock.

  • Not enough for you? They both missed this headlock, too, which should have been, at a minimum, a second yellow.

  • And finally, they missed Nic Rimando spiking Valeri’s shin.

  • So, I congratulate you on a job very poorly done, Robert Sibiga and Guido Gonzales. Let’s hope you’re both sent down to USL for a few weeks.

6) It’s the most magical time of the year, folks! The time when, each and every week, we obsess over the Western Conference standings!

The Timbers currently have 51 points and a PPG of 1.59. We won the West last year with 53 points and a PPG of 1.56.

If we win our last two games and finish at 57 and 1.68, could we pass Dallas? It’s possible. Unlikely, but possible. The first tiebreaker is number of wins. The second tiebreaker is goal differential. So, yes, if Dallas gets blown out in their last two, while we obliterate RSL and Vancouver, then we could pass Dallas on goal differential. But having to also pass SKC and LAFC? The whole thing’s pretty unlikely.

But regardless of what the other teams do, could we win our last two? Absolutely. If we play like we did on Saturday in Utah, hell yeah we could win out. And do I need to remind you of the last time we finished the season on a three-game winning streak? It was in 2015, when we, much to everyone’s surprise, got red hot, stayed red hot, and ended up lifting MLS Cup. It could happen again.

So yes, get pumped for that possibility. And yes, get psyched for our last two games. But also... cool your jets a little, because we’ve got a week off.

Yep, no game next weekend. This is a little bit of a bummer since we might lose momentum, but it’s also pretty sweet, since we’ll be healed and rested for our final two.

The first of those games, two weeks from now? It’s a re-match with RSL and there are some oddities surrounding it.

Oddity #1, they’ve got a game just three days prior, on Thursday the 18th. So when they play us on Sunday the 21st, they’ll be a little tired. Woo hoo!

Oddity #2, RSL doesn’t have a game on the season’s final weekend (they’re the only team in the league that doesn’t) so the game with us? It’s their last game of the season. Depending on results, they may come into Providence Park in desperation mode, absolutely needing a win to make the playoffs.

So, will we get their A game? Or will we get their A- game, since they’ll be playing on three days rest? We can only wait and see.

My only real prediction: Kyle Beckerman will put somebody in a headlock.