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Six Degrees: A Game of Firsts

Portland 2, LAFC 1

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

There were a whole lot of firsts in Saturday’s 2-1 victory over LAFC. Let’s go through them one-by-one.

1) The game’s first first? Our first real look at Julio Cascante. It wasn’t the first appearance in a Timbers uniform for the 24-year old Costa Rican, but those three minutes of mop-up action in Chicago? Hard to learn much from that. But 84 minutes off the bench at home? Yeah, that definitely counts.

This is a mixed bag, of course, because, yes, I wanted to see Cascante play, but not if it mean an injury to Liam Ridgewell. Did you see the injury? I was looking right at it from up in section 203. He was running for a ball, all by himself, then just about came to screeching halt as he reached for his thigh. I instantly knew he was done for the day.

Pulled quad? Pull hip flexor? Whatever it was, I just hope he’s not done for the year. That may sound a bit fatalistic, but let’s be honest, Ridgwell’s got a history of nagging injuries and the Timbers have a history of players being out much longer than expected. I’m especially thinking of Adi last year. That was a muscle pull, too, and it just refused to heal.

Considering those possibilities, I can’t help but feel a little pessimistic regarding Ridgy. And if I allow myself to get really pessimistic, I wonder if this is the last time we’ll see him in a Starting XI for the Timbers.

Fortunately, we’ve got Cascante, who did a damn nice job after being thrown into the fire. I can’t think of a single obvious mistake the guy made. Nothing huge, at least. He looked like he belonged.

And I think it’s worth noting that – along with Bill Tuiloma – this is the second backup center back who’s stepped into the starting lineup and looked completely comfortable. Who gets the credit? The players who did the work? The coaches who trained ‘em up? The GM who signed them? The answer is probably: all of the above. I just know that it’s really reassuring to see this kind of depth on our back line.

A few questions for next week: who do you think starts, Tuiloma or Cascante? How will they deal with their first MLS game at Colorado altitude? Who on the back line’s going to replace Ridgy’s leadership? Who’s going to have that big voice constantly talking to the defense?

2) Our next first? A first goal for Cristhian Paredes.

A few things to note here. One, watch Andy Polo in the wall. Diego Valeri aims directly for him, and Polo ducks out of the way, creating a nice little hole. Two, watch how many players are crashing the box. I count one from LAFC and four Timbers: Sebastian Blanco, Fanendo Adi, Diego Chara, and Paredes, who ends up being the one to jump on the spilled ball and put it into goal.

Our two lessons from all this: one, sending your free kick directly into the wall works sometimes, and, two, flooding the box for potential loose balls is a Very Good ThingTM.

Another Very Good ThingTM? Cristhian Paredes. The guy just continues to play beyond his years, and is, without a doubt, the Timbers best new addition of 2018.

A couple questions: one, what’s the state of his knee? He banged it really good just before halftime. I actually thought he was done for day, but apparently 20-year-old knees are made of stronger stuff than yours and mine.

Second question: what do you think’s gonna happen with David Guzman? He was in the 18 on Saturday but didn’t play. Do you think he gets some playing time between now and the World Cup? Does he get a start? If he does, who sits?

3) Our next first? The first goal Jeff Attinella’s allowed in 2018.

Hard to fault him on that. It was a golazo, plain and simple. Apparently, Carlos Vela has a habit of hitting those. The only complaint I could see someone making involves Polo and Zarek Valentin playing him a little tighter, but honestly, that seems silly. Polo and Valentin were close. Vela just hit a perfect strike. There’s not much anyone’s doing about that.

Attinella’s still our starter, by the way. And statistically, he’s the best keeper in MLS. Check out his goals against average and his winning percentage. He can’t keep up this pace of course, but still, let’s appreciate it while it’s happening.

Something I was particularly aware of Saturday: how often Attinella grabbed a ball and then immediately looked upfield for a fast break opportunity. And he wasn’t just looking. Any time he saw a target, he was firing that ball upfield, often with very good accuracy.

Gio Savarese’s strategies have been changing this entire season as he figures out both his team and the league as a whole. It would seem that we are currently a “sit deep and counter like a sonofabitch” team. I don’t think this was Gio’s plan when he got to Portland, but it’s his plan now.

And it’s hard to argue with the results. Turns out Valeri, Blanco, and Adi can be a hell of a fast breaking unit when the coach needs them to be.

4) Our next first? Samuel Armenteros’s first goal.

That’s a friggin’ rocket, isn’t it? Just ripped the side-netting.

Clearly, this is fuel for the #AdiOut crowd. And though I’m a huge Adi fan, I’m not for one second going to deny that Amerteros is good. I only have two concerns. One, don’t call Adi a bum. He’s a great player and a great dude. Two, if we’re gonna play both of them over the course of the game, what’s the better choice: Adi starting, then Armenteros subbing in, or vice versa? In other words, thunder, then lightning? Or lightning, then thunder?

I sorta like thunder first. Adi’s big, he wears down opponents (man, he and Zimmerman were fighting on Saturday! It was like a cage match sometimes) and he works really well with Valeri and Blanco.

But maybe you want lightning first. Let’s hear your argument in the comments. I’ll just say that if your argument includes “Adi’s a bum” you’re immediately going down one letter grade.

I will say this for Armenteros: if you want to win over a fanbase, do stuff like this:

5) Our next first? Portland’s first five-game win streak in MLS.

And the winning streak isn’t even our most impressive streak. Our most impressive streak? This.

Back in April, when we were 0-3-2 and getting ready to play our first home game, I remember thinking, You know, this isn’t hopeless. If we win all four of these upcoming home games, we’ll be at 1.4 PPG. That ain’t bad.

I didn’t dare think we’d win all four home games and our road game at San Jose, but that’s exactly what we did, and now we’re at 1.7 PPG and tied for 3rd in the Western Conference.

Now, dare I suggest we’ll win six in a row? Dare I?

Well, we are playing the worst team in the league, Colorado. So, you know... it’s possible. NYCFC just beat them 4-0. And since we beat NYCFC 3-0, math tells us that we’ll beat Colorado 7-0.

After them, we get the Galaxy at home, and despite all those expensive big-name players, the Galaxy sorta kinda mostly suck this year.

So, jeez... could we win seven straight? Mmmmmmmmmmmmaybe.

6) Which brings us to our final first. For the first time all year, we can legitimately call the Timbers a good team.

When we won our first game, against Minnesota? No. We couldn’t call ourselves good. The win was at home, it was against a crap team, and we made it closer than it needed to be.

When we beat NYCFC? Hmm... maybe. We could definitely call it a good win. But it was only our second win. Maybe it was a fluke. Pump the brakes.

When we beat San Jose? Well, we finally had a road win, so that was nice, but just like with Minnesota, it was against a crap team.

Same the next week, when we beat Seattle. Four wins in a row is no joke. But three of those wins were against crap. We were almost able to call ourselves a good team, but not quite. Not yet.

This week, though? This week we can do it. We’ve won five in a row. We’ve had three shutouts. We’ve beaten two of the best teams in the league, NYCFC and LAFC, and we’ve beaten them convincingly. More importantly, we pass the eye test. We look like a good team. The defense is sound, the offense is opportunistic, the new coach has figured out the players, and the players have figured out the new coach.

It took ten games to get here, but we can finally say it. The 2018 Timbers are a legitimately good team.