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Six Degrees: Stalemate

Portland 0, Sporting KC 0

MLS: Sporting KC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

When Sporting KC comes to town, you know it’s going to be a tough, physical, low-scoring game. Saturday’s 0-0 draw seemed almost pre-ordained.

1) When I left the park Saturday night, I wasn’t feeling nearly as disappointed as I had after last week’s 1-1 draw with LA. I think this is for a variety of reasons.

For starters, LA sucks and SKC doesn’t. Drawing a bad team at home is completely unacceptable, especially when it requires a comeback. But drawing the best team in the Western Conference? Much more acceptable, especially when it comes via clean sheet.

Second reason: we did it without Diego Chara. Granted, the result only adds to our winless streak without the Godfather (now at 18 games, I believe), but I can live with it. With our defensive talisman in street clothes, we still shut out the best team in the conference, and that ain’t bad.

Third reason: the team was fighting all the way to the final whistle. There were no weird defensive substitutions at the end, there was no sitting deep, there was no hanging on for a point. The end of the game Saturday night wasn’t perfect, but at least we were fighting to the end. At least we were gunning for the full three points.

Or maybe I’m overthinking all this. Maybe the real reason I’m not as upset is that it wasn’t a thousand degrees. I may not have grown up in Portland, but when it comes to weather, I’m a true Cascadian. Give me cool and cloudy with a chance of rain, and I’m a happy man.

2) I would have enjoyed some Timber goals, though. And rather than blame our attackers for that lack of goals, I think I’ll give most of the credit to SKC’s defense. They knew our main weapon would be the counter and they snuffed it out over and over.

Goalkeeper Jeff Attinella was still picking his head up and sending quick outlet passes up the field. Attacking triumvirate Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, and Fanendo Adi were still getting on the end of those passes and storming forward. In previous games, they’d have found open space. They’d have found lanes they could run into. They’d have found good shooting opportunities.

But on Saturday, they found none of those things. Instead they found an air-tight defense featuring the reigning MLS Defender of the Year and the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. Lanes closed up. Shooting opportunities were mediocre at best.

Here are the night’s two best chances.

When those are the best chances you get, you know you’ve played a really good defense.

3) But, of course, we shut them out, too. Does that mean we’re a really good defense?

I’m not sure I’m ready to give us that label. I’m close. I mean, we do have four clean sheets in our last eight games. That’s undeniably good.

But to my eyes, we were the second-best defense on the field Saturday night. SKC’s opportunities were a hell of a lot better than ours. Here are a few of them spliced together.

So yeah, the shutout’s nice, but I’m not quite ready to call us rock solid. If Diego Chara’s out there? If Liam Ridgewell’s out there? Maybe. But not quite yet.

4) Speaking of Chara and Ridgewell and other absent Timbers, let’s talk about Saturday’s lineup.

Leading into the game, knowing Chara would be absent due to yellow card accumulation, I really wanted Gio to start 21-year-old Eryk Williamson. The kid’s tearing up T2, he looked good when I saw him in person at the US Open Cup game, and I figured this was a great chance to #PlayTheKids.

Instead, Gio decided to #PlayTheExperiencedHands, specifically, 33-year-old Lawrence Olum. How’d the old guy do? Not too badly.

What are your thoughts on this? Are you #PlayTheKids no matter what? Are you #PlayTheKids against crap teams but #PlayTheExperiencedHands against good teams? Or does it depend completely on the #Kids and #ExperiencedHands in question?

Separate lineup issue, I’m concerned by the number of attackers Gio’s been putting on the bench. Last week, his bench had two forwards and a bunch of defensive options. This game, it was one forward, one winger, and the rest defenders. Why not a second winger or an attacking mid? It feels like he’s locking us into at least one defensive substitution a game. I’d like more late-game attacking options.

Final lineup issue, Fanendo Adi started instead of Samuel Armenteros. I’ve written about these two quite a bit in the last few months, but my position is still evolving. My current take? I like the fact that we have no idea which striker Gio’s gonna start. Because if we have no idea, that means the rest of the league has no idea, either. Think how hard that must be for opposing coaches who are trying to game-plan. Do they plan for the big guy or the small guy?

Sorry, MLS coaches, but you’re gonna have to plan for both. And Gio might still throw you for a loop by starting Jeremy Ebobisse or Foster Langsdorf. Why? Why not? To keep you guessing, that’s why. How about Langsdorf at striker, Adi at CDM, and Armenteros in goal? Game plan for that, suckers.

5) A few random thoughts.

  • SKC attacker Johnny Russell was genuinely terrifying. He’s fast, he’s aggressive, and he plays angry. Every time he got on the ball, I was afraid.
  • I think Vytautas Andriuskevicius’s time with the Timbers may soon be over. He was on the bench Saturday, but when starting left back Marco Farfan had to be subbed out, Vytas didn’t replace him. Instead, Gio put T2 regular Modou Jadama at right back and flipped Zarek Valentin over to the left. Very bad sign for everyone’s favorite Lithuanian.
  • Speaking of Zarek Valentin, I have a question: if a player wears a hair ribbon that I can’t see from the stands, does it count? Hayley Raso wears a big red bow, easily visible from a distance. Zarek wore a little green thing half-covered by his hair that I quite literally didn’t know was there until I came home and saw the photos. This isn’t the end of the world, of course. I’m not calling Zarek a con man or a bad guy, I just think he could’ve done better. I’m feeling a tiny bit ripped off. Just a tiny bit.

6) And now the Timbers have a week off.

Well, sort of. They have a week off from MLS play, but on Friday, they’ll be hosting the LA Galaxy in the US Open Cup. I thoroughly enjoyed watching a mostly second-choice side stick it to San Jose last week. It was fun seeing people I knew by name, but who I’d never watched play.

Renzo Zambrano and Marvin Loria in the midfield? The real deal. Ebobisse’s left-footed curler into the side netting? First rate. Langsdorf’s 23 minutes off the bench? Energetic and threatening.

Will Gio field another young XI against LA? For fun’s sake, I kinda hope he does. For victory’s sake, I’m less certain. The Galaxy have looked a little frisky lately, and I’d hate to take them for granted and get knocked out of the tourney at home. So don’t be surprised if the starting XI is a mix of old and young, with some major players on the bench, ready to take over if things go sideways.

A week after that game, the Timbers will get back to league action, traveling across the country to face Supporter’s Shield contenders, Atlanta United, and their exciting new midfielder, Darlington Nagbe.

If you haven’t seen Atlanta in action, buckle up. They may be the most aggressive soccer team I’ve ever seen. It’s genuinely terrifying how quickly and devastatingly they can attack. An they’re not interested in winning 1-0. Or even 5-0. They want to win every game 12-0. And a lot of days, they look capable of doing just that.

The discussion up above about whether the Timbers have a really good defense? We may get our answer in Atlanta.