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Six Degrees: Another Step Forward

Portland 3, NYCFC 0

MLS: New York City FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The baby steps narrative continues. First the Timbers sucked, then they gave us a good half, then a good 75 minutes, then an unconvincing win, and finally, on Sunday, a genuinely convincing win.

1) NYCFC were the top team in the league. The Timbers were not. At all. So all week long, I was mentally and emotionally preparing myself, not just to lose, but to get blown the hell out. 4-0, 5-0, something like that.

But then Sunday arrived and, right from the opening kick, it was clear the Timbers had a chance. Look at what Sebastian Blanco did in the first five minutes

On the first one, I love how Blanco jumps into that passing lane. In the end, he got off a good shot, but I can’t help but wonder if a soft, leading ball to Diego Valeri on the right would have been the better move.

On the second one, I love how the team swings it to the right, pulls the entire defense over there, then surprise starter Andres Flores spots Blanco sneaking toward the far post. Hard to believe Seba didn’t sink that.

But if Blanco couldn’t score the easy chances, maybe he just needed more of a challenge, eh? What’s the degree of difficulty on a soft header lofted slowly over the keeper and just barely dropping into the far side of goal? Think that’s the sort of challenge Seba’s looking for?

A little over ten minutes later, Fanendo Adi got his second goal of the year, and just like with his first goal, he got it by being on his toes in a right-time, right-place situation.

I started that gif way back at the beginning just to show you Sebastian Blanco once again disrupting the NYCFC passing game. When the season started, we were expecting Gio Savarese to give us a non-stop high-pressure defense. We haven’t gotten that, not entirely, but as you can see, there are still high-pressure elements popping up and we’re turning them into dangerous chances. (Also, how great is Adi’s face at the end? His goal celebrations are my favorite on the team. Every time, there’s a howl of pure excitement, pure joy, and then he brings the whole team in for a hug. I love them.)

2) So there we were at halftime, leading the best team in the league 2-0. Surely we’d find a way to fuck it up, right? Surely we’d come out on the back foot, park the bus in front of goal, and give up three or four goals, right?

Well, sorta yes, sorta no.

To my eyes, the Timbers did seem a little less aggressive in the second half. It seemed like the midfielders weren’t jumping into those passing lanes quite as aggressively, and maybe that’s why we weren’t getting as many good chances on goal.

But on the other hand, the boys were still shutting NYC down pretty impressively. And, if there weren’t as many chances, at least we took advantage of one of them.

First up, congratulations Larrys Mabiala on opening your Timbers account!

Secondly, wow, that’s some horrendous set piece defense. I think I could’ve opened my Timbers account if I were facing that kind of defense.

That put the Timbers up 3-0 in the 66th minute and I was almost willing to believe. Was a three goal lead enough? Could we possibly screw this up?

As it turns out, no. The team did an admirable job putting this one to bed. Gio even made some substitutions I approved of. When Andy Polo came in for Valeri in the 78th, and then didn’t sit back, but instead used those young, fast legs to harrass the NYC back line, I was almost giddy with pleasure. Samuel Armeteros did the same thing when he came in for Adi, but I’m less happy about that, since it happened far too late, in the 85th minute. Move both those substitutions up 10 minutes and I’m pleased as punch. As it is, I still think Gio’s waiting a bit too long. Especially on a hot day.

3) Alright, let’s talk about Liam Ridgewell.

As I sat in section 102 before the game Sunday, watching the team warm up, I was having two major thoughts.

First thought: Why did I sit up here in the 100s? This friggin’ sun’s gonna roast me. The 200s are in shade. Why didn’t I sit back there? I’m an idiot.

Second thought: Is that Liam Ridgewell I see out there? The Liam Ridgewell? It is, isn’t it? And, um... why is he acting so weird?

Did you see Ridgy before the match? The rest of the team was doing all their usual warmup stuff, but Ridgy was completely alone. No drills, no 5v2, no keep-away, no bantering with teamates. Instead, he was just warming up alone, skipping back and forth at the top of the 18 yard box. It was completely bizarre. So bizarre, in fact, that I wasn’t sure if he was actually playing. Maybe they’d told him to suit up and make an appearance on the field, just to put the fans at ease. I started looking for other center backs. There was Larrys Mabiala. There was Julio Cascante. Where was Bill Tuiloma? Was he out there? What was going on? Why was Ridgy acting so weird? Was he playing or not?

Turns out, yes, Ridgy was playing. He was starting, in fact. And over the course of 90 minutes, he played a damn near perfect game. He was calm, he was organized, he distributed well, he looked good when he went forward for corner kicks. All in all, he looked like the best center back on the Timbers roster. Which is exactly what we want from him.

Does this mean the Great Ridgy Panic of 2018 is over? I have no idea. Not a single idea.

You may have seen this post-game interview already, but if you haven’t, watch it now. The Oregonian’s always-excellent Jamie Goldberg asked some very direct questions and Ridgewell gave some very direct answers. Most interesting to me was that he thinks he started not because he’d earned it in practice, but simply because Tuiloma got hurt.

So what do you think all this means going forward? If Tuiloma’s healthy in two weeks, does he start at San Jose? Or does Ridgy’s exceptional performance Sunday force Gio to put him at the top of the depth chart?

4) But rest easy, Timber fans. If the Great Ridgy Panic of 2018 really is over, we’ve got ourselves another juicy scandal primed and ready to take its place. May I introduce you to the Great Gooz Panic, also of 2018. (Forgive us, historians, it’s been a very panicky year.)

Did you see David Guzman on the field post-game? He was looking quite dapper in a plaid shirt, his mouthful of braces shining magestically in the sun. Does this mean he’s fully healthy? Is he here until the World Cup? And most importantly, is he going to send Cristhian Paredes to the bench and reclaim his starting spot next to Diego Chara?

I think this would be a mistake. So does Chris Rifer, who broke it down in this week’s Timber Cruise.

But if Gio agrees with us and makes Paredes our full-time #8, what will this mean to Gooz? Will it disrupt the locker room? I have no idea. Will it cause a 24/7 comment section meltdown? Without a doubt. Will it mean Gooz is playing somewhere else next year? Quite possibly.

Or maybe Paredes and Guzman aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe Gio plays them both, one on either side of Chara. But if so, that means no Andy Polo and no Andres Flores. Gooz may have a similar skill set as Flores, but he doesn’t have Polo’s legs. Hell, no one does.

But if we know one thing, it’s that Gio Savarese’s not afraid to change lineups, formations, and strategies on a weekly basis. I think there may be only three names we can write in ink on the lineup card week after week: Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, and Sebastian Blanco. I’m tempted to add Larrys Mabiala and Alvas Powell to that list, but can’t quite do it. And I kinda want to add Fanendo Adi, since he, Valeri, and Blanco work so damn well together, but again, I can’t quite do it. Gio’s just too unpredictable.

And strange as it may, I kinda like it. Change is good, right? Let’s keep the opposition guessing. Hell, let’s keep our own players guessing.

5) Some random points.

  • You know what a soccer team needs on a hot, sunny day? Black uniforms. I have always said this.
  • A few weeks ago I wrote about FOAG (Fear of Alan Gordon). This week, I got to experience FODV. Every time David Villa touched the ball in the attacking third, my entire body clenched up. It was awful.
  • Did you see Mabiala’s kids after the game? They’re friggin’ adorable. There’s the big one with the amazing head of hair and the little one just barely toddling around the pitch. With Darlington Nagbe’s kids now residing in Atlanta, Mabiala’s pair may be our new champions of cuteness. They’re in the running, at least.
  • Speaking of former Timbers: Rodney Freaking Wallace!!!!!!
  • I’m still missing Caleb Porter’s postgame pressers. It’s absolutely Gio’s right to speak in generalities and cliches, but it’s also my right to pine for Caleb breaking down tactics while half-scowling at whoever dared ask him the question.
  • Last week, I brought the world’s attention to a very serious issue: Providence Park’s breathtaking lack of tater tots. Less than a week later, the head of concessions tweeted this. You’re welcome.

6) For the first time this year, we won a game convincingly. Better still, we did it against the best team in the league. This is not something to take lightly.

Is this it, then? Is the ship righted? Is this big win the first of many, the beginning of a long, inexorable climb into first place?

You’ll be shocked to learn that I have no idea.

It’s very possible this weekend’s victory will remain our best win of the year, and we’ll look back on it with a certain sadness, wondering why we couldn’t replicate its magic.

Or maybe this won’t be our best win. Maybe there will be a slew of better wins.

But if it’s that second option and there are a bunch of better wins, I think we’ll still look back on this Sunday’s win as the game where we finally figured it out. Where we finally showed we’re a quality team, and belong among the league’s elite.

We’ve got a week off, then head down to play San Jose, a team not nearly as good as NYCFC. How we perform against them will tell us a lot about this team, about how far we’ve come or how far we still have to go.