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Six Degrees: The Underdogs Win Again

Portland 3, SKC 2

Portland Timbers v Sporting Kansas City: Western Conference Finals - Leg 2 Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Some games I have a hard time finding six things worth talking about. This game? I could fill Twelve Degrees, there’s so much to say. So let’s quit wasting time and get to it.

1) Obviously the first degree has to be the game’s first half. Holy hell, was it a disaster. The Timbers could hardly have looked worse, SKC could hardly have looked better.

Legit question for all of you: was the problem tactics or effort?

It’s a little hard for me to believe it was effort. You’re telling me a bunch of professional athletes are going to come into a game of this magnitude and just not try? They’re gonna be like, Nah, fuck it, I’m just gonna go half speed today? I have a hard time buying that argument. But maybe I’m wrong (I often am). Convince me.

Another option is that our tactics were shit. I’m buying this argument a bit more. The 2018 Timbers have found their greatest success this year absorbing pressure, then hitting on the counter. Maybe we took it too far Thursday night. Maybe SKC figured out how to beat it. Maybe Atlanta United is going to watch that first half, see how SKC shut us down, and start licking their chops, ready to use the same strategy in MLS Cup.

Or maybe our first half problems weren’t about either effort or tactics. Maybe SKC’s defense is just really damn good. Ike Opara and Matt Besler, they’ve both won MLS Defender of the Year. Graham Zusi’s got a slew of international caps. Seth Sinovic is an MLS veteran who knows the league inside and out, much like Nat Borchers did back in the day. And, ohbytheway, those four guys are backed up by 2017 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Tim Melia. So, yes, this is a good, good defense, and during those first 35-40 minutes, every time our attackers got a little forward momentum, they’d get to the SKC box and hit a brick fucking wall. The SKC defense was just stopping us in our tracks. It was impressive. And awful. And impressively awful.

So what do you think? Was that first half a dumpster fire because of effort, tactics, or a really good SKC defense?

2) Okay, let’s get to some goals. SKC’s opener in the 20th minute was a bit of a mess.

This goal starts with our defense getting pulled way out of position. See who’s covering Johnny Russell way out in the corner? Liam Ridgewell and Sebastian Blanco. Why? Because left back Jorge Villafana was way upfield after a failed attack. So Ridgy’s out of position by necessity, which means Bill Tuiloma and Zarek Valentin have three guys to cover. Bill ends up covering the guy on the near post, but who does Zarek cover? Is it no one? I’m pretty sure he covers no one, and I’m pretty sure this is a bad thing.

But even if Valentin had marked a dude, that still leaves a third SKC attacker. Who should have been helping out? I think we’ve got to blame Diego Chara and Andy Polo. Just like with Valentin, they were covering no one. Polo’s especially guilty. I think that’s his guy who scored. He should have put a body on him.

So, in summation, we can blame that first goal on Valentin, Chara, Polo, or all of the above. Or we could just give SKC credit for getting our defense all stretched out and imbalanced. There’s that, too.

3) As bad as the Timbers looked in the first half, that’s how good they looked coming out of the halftime locker room. It was a total 180. The Timbers were better in every aspect of the game.

So just like with the first half, I have to ask, was the difference tactics or effort? Did Gio switch up the tactics, make some subtle yet brilliant change that opened everything up? Or did he just yell at the boys, “Get your fucking heads out of your asses and play ball?” Was that all that happened? Because the difference between the first and second halves was breathtaking. We were suddenly very much in the game.

But that SKC defense I mentioned earlier? They were still really good. Our attacks were better, but SKC was still snuffing them out, and snuffing them out, and snuffing them out. And I’ll be honest, I began to feel doubt. I was starting to wonder if we could do it, if we could break through that brick wall, or if the game would end 1-0.

I think there are times in soccer when you need someone to do something miraculous. Sometimes all the tactics and all the effort and all the strategy just aren’t enough. Sometimes you need someone to be like, Fuck it, I’m gonna give the people a miracle. That’s what Sebastian Blanco did in the 52nd minute.

I’ve gotta be honest, I think the game may have been decided right then and there. Without that wonderstrike, I’m not sure any of the rest happens. Not our second goal, not our third, none of it. Without Blanco’s golazo, there’s a legit chance the game finishes 1-0. So God bless Sebastian Blanco and God bless Sebastian Blanco’s right foot. And while we’re at it, God bless Diego Valeri for reacting the same way all of us did. Utter amazement at what he’d just seen.

Blanco’s goal didn’t just draw us even, it made everyone believe. And just nine minutes later, the Timbers used that newfound belief to pull ahead. On kind of a weird goal, actually.

The freaky thing about this goal is that I wasn’t sure if I could celebrate. I saw the ball go in the net, but I didn’t really cheer for maybe 30 seconds, because I was waiting to see if they called it back. Was Jeremy Ebobisse offside? Was Diego Valeri? Did Jebo interfere with the goalkeeper? It was weird and chaotic and I didn’t entirely believe the goal would stand. But it did and the Timbers were up 2-1.

Here’s video confirming that Jebo was onside, by the way.

I know we’ve done it a lot these last couple months, but let’s take another moment to appreciate Jebo. He’s good. He’s always moving into dangerous spots, always making himself available, always doing the little things that lead to goals, whether they’re scored by him or by someone else.

Jebo’s earned the chance to be our number one striker next year. If the team brings in a big-money forward this off-season, I’m gonna be pissed.

4) With the Timbers up 2-1 and holding the away goals tiebreaker, SKC didn’t just need a 2nd goal, they needed a 2nd and a 3rd, so it was push push push for the rest of the game. You can see it in their 2nd goal. Look at all the blue jerseys in the box. Our back line is having to deal with all of them, getting pushed closer and closer to goal, so what area opened up? The top of the box. A quick pass to Gerso Fernandes, a quick shot, and we’re suddenly tied up again.

Who’s to blame here? I kinda want to say David Guzman or Diego Chara. The top of the box and the area just before it, that’s their responsibility. Where were they on this play? Who were they covering?

Okay, so that goal made it 2-2. There’s 9 minutes left in regulation, plus another 9 minutes of stoppage (due to some clowns in the crowd throwing shit onto the field). If SKC scores a goal to pull ahead, they’re going to MLS Cup. If the Timbers can hold them off, we’re going.

I cannot overstate how tense I was for the entire rest of the game. Especially during those 9 minutes of stoppage time. There were times when I was literally curled up into a little ball, down by everybody’s feet at the bar, and I swear I’m not exaggerating. I was losing my fucking mind.

And here’s the thing: I think I kind of liked it. I think I’m kind of glad SKC tied it up. Because if they hadn’t, if the game had been 2-1, I would have been so much calmer. And I don’t know, maybe I’ve got mental problems – fun fact: I totally do – but the tension, the fear, the utter awfulness of those last minutes, they almost made the game better. When Diego Chara got the ball in the 99th minute and started downfield? When everyone in the bar started yelling “Go Go Go?” When Chara put that exquisite outside-of-the-boot perfectly-weighted leading pass to Valeri? When Valeri slipped it past Melia and into the back of the net? That feeling, it’s like nothing in the world. Sex is nothing compared to that. Nothing. When Valeri scored that last goal, the entire bar was losing its fucking mind. I was jumping around, hugging my friends, hugging complete strangers. I’m surprised I didn’t start french kissing someone. It was insane. And if SKC hadn’t tied the game 2-2, we wouldn’t have had that moment. So, yeah, call me crazy – I agree – but the tension of those stoppage time minutes, then the release of Valeri’s goal, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

5) A few random thoughts.

  • The Timbers had three shots on goal. They scored all three.
  • Look at this expected goals chart. Just look at it. It’s fucking insane.

  • Zarek Valentin should have been sent off with a second yellow card in the 70th minute. We dodged a serious bullet. Thank God for playoff leniency, eh?

  • Speaking of Valentin, that’s him, next to Chara, his tongue hanging out. This was a real thing that really happened.

  • How great was Peter Vermes when the SKC fans started throwing shit onto the field? Immediately walked out there, all by himself, and started scolding them. Well done, sir.
  • As always, Mike Donovan’s the man. Or the #StatMan, as it were.

  • Our club does so many things right. For example, did you see the trophy presentation at the end? Everyone was there. Cristhian Paredes. Roy Miller. Foster Langsdorf. Modou Jadama. Our club brought everyone, just so they could be there to celebrate together or mourn together. I don’t think every club does things like this, but ours does and I’m thankful.
  • The Timbers with and without Chara.

  • Some of you out there are artists. Could someone please draw up plans for a Dos Diegos statue? At this point it would be ridiculous to have one without the other. How should it look? The two of them embracing? Arms over shoulders? I’m not an artist. Someone out there, design this statue, then put the picture down in comments or on Twitter or something. And tag me, because I want to see it.

6) Valeri’s coup de graçe in the 99th minute, you know what it reminded me of? Lucas Melano’s coup de graçe against Dallas in 2015. Both goals were about tension and release, tension and release. I tell ya, there’s nothing like it.

Luca’s goal sent us to the 2015 MLS Cup. Valeri’s goal is sending us there again. Will this year’s amazing run end like 2015’s did, with the Timbers raising a trophy?

I’ll say this, Columbus in 2015 wasn’t nearly as scary as Atlanta in 2018. When Atlanta’s firing on all cylinders, they’re goddamn terrifying, and I do not use that word lightly. When Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez get the ball in open space and start sprinting toward goal, it’s the stuff of nightmares. We’ve got our work cut out for us.

When the Timbers lined up against Dallas, then Seattle, and then SKC, I think it’s fair to say that the three best players on the field were always Valeri and Blanco and Chara. Against Atlanta, though? It’s hard to rate them over either Almiron or Martinez, who might be the two best players in MLS. That means that next Saturday, our guys will probably be the 3rd, 4th, and 5th best players on the field. So that’s sobering.

But maybe our Big Three and Atlanta’s Big Two will cancel each other out. Maybe the game will come down to everyone not listed in the above paragraph. The Jeremy Ebobisses. The Julian Gressels. The Liam Ridgewells. The Darlington Nagbes.

We were underdogs to Dallas, we were underdogs to Seattle, and we were underdogs to SKC. Next Saturday, we’ll be underdogs to Atlanta.

Why can’t our boys pull the upset again? Why can’t they break 70,000 Atlanta hearts?

3-2, Timbers. That’s my prediction. Goals by Ebobisse, Blanco, and Tuiloma. Two assists for Valeri. Another MLS Cup for all of us.

See you next Saturday. I’ll be the guy curled up into a little ball down by everyone’s feet.