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Six Degrees: Timbers Win 1-1

Portland 1, Atlanta 1

MLS: Portland Timbers at Atlanta United FC Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

A home draw against a shitty Galaxy side? That’s a 1-1 loss. An away draw against one of the best teams in the league? That feels a lot more like a win.

1) Before we break down our 1-1 victory, let’s talk about the starting XI. When the team tweeted this lineup card, Timberdom instantly began trying to figure it out.

Why was Zarek Valentin listed where he was? Was it a typo? Had his name and Lawrence Olum’s name been accidentally reversed?

And if not, if the listing order was correct, did that mean Zarek was playing as a midfielder? Or, wait, maybe it was a three man back line, and both Valentin and Alvas Powell were playing as wingbacks in a 3-5-2. Or was it a 3-5-1-1? Or a 5-3-2?

What had Mad Scientist Gio Savarese created in his lab?

Turns out, it was a 5-3-2. Except sometimes more of a 5-3-1-1. Or maybe a 5-4-1. Or who the hell knows. Soccer’s fluid. All I know for certain is that we had three center backs clogging up the box, and it drove Atlanta’s attackers crazy. Their wunderkind striker Josef Martinez makes his bones finding space right in front of goal, and with an extra defender there on Sunday, he was thrown completely off his game.

Just last week I talked about how nice it was not knowing which players would start each week. Clearly, we can’t be sure of the formation, either.

Keep it up, Gio. I’m a believer.

2) So, how did the 5-3-2 play? Well, at the start of the game, it played very, very, very conservatively. All defense, all reaction, all watching Atlanta pass the ball back and forth.

And this may sound like a stat I’m just making up for a laugh, but I’m almost positive it’s true: the first time the Timbers possessed the ball in Atlanta’s half was at the 7:30 mark. Go back and check the film. I’m pretty sure that’s a real thing that actually happened.

I’m not complaining, mind you. I’m legit terrified of Atlanta’s offense, so every minute we kept them at bay felt like a small victory.

And those minutes kept adding up. And Atlanta started getting frustrated. And we started to get comfortable. And we started moving out of our end. And we started to take some shots. And I got more and more hopeful.

3) And then we got the opener.

Can we take a minute to talk about Larrys Mabiala? It feels sometimes like the big Frenchman’s a little underappreciated. We talk about Liam Ridgewell and Julio Cascante and Bill Tuiloma, but we never talk about Larrys.

You know why? Because you don’t talk about people who week after week quietly and competently do their job. Mabiala’s so damn steady we just forget about him.

For example, did you know that he, Diego Valeri, and Sebastian Blanco are the only Timbers to start every game this year? And those other two slackers have been subbed out on occasion. Not Larrys. He’s the only Timber to play every minute of every game. And after his goal on Sunday, he’s now in fourth place on the team’s goalscoring list.

So let’s take a moment to appreciate our top center back. We don’t talk about him very often, and with center backs, that’s a very good thing.

4) Down 1-0, Atlanta continued to attack and our five-man backline continued to frustrate them. But they’re the highest scoring team in the league, and in the 56th minute, they finally got their equalizer.

There’s a whole lot of chaos here, so it’s hard to pick one person to blame. Should we blame Cascante for not putting a body on Julian Gressel? Or was that Diego Chara’s job? I see ball-watching from quite a few people, including a few wearing red shirts.

(I also see a dead guy, lying on the pitch. Wait, that’s not just any dead guy! That’s Darlington Nagbe! Hey, Nags! Get well soon, buddy! #AlwaysATimber)

I suppose we could also blame goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, but I’m not gonna. I’d rather talk about this amazing season he’s having. Check out some stats.

Those are sorted by shutout and Jeff’s in 8th place, only he’s done it in half the minutes of everyone else. Also, if I’d sorted it by winning percentage, he’d be in 2nd. By save percentage, he’d be 1st. Goals against average? Also first.

My point in all this: if Attinella keeps this up the rest of the year, he’ll be in the conversation for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. And since his stepping in the starting lineup coincides nicely with the Timbers climbing up the standings, he should also be in the conversation for 2018 Timbers Player of the Year.

Unless, you know, Diego Valeri goes supernova again.

5) Fourteen games into the season, the Timbers have proven they belong among the league’s elites. We’re not the best, but we’re definitely in the best’s neighborhood.

We’re currently sitting at 1.64 PPG. Only six teams are better than that, and we’ve stood toe-to-toe with five of them. We’ve beaten NYCFC and LAFC. We’ve drawn Atlanta, SKC, and Dallas. The only top-level team to spank us is the New York Red Bulls, and that was back in week two, back when Gio and the Timbers were still figuring each other out.

In fact, that 4-0 loss to the Red Bulls is kinda when we started our long slow climb to where we are now. It was the slap in the face that woke us up. Since that loss? Our PPG is 1.92. And since Jeff Attinella took over in goal? Our PPG’s 2.25.

Our takeaway? The Timbers are good. It’s not an illusion. And, yeah, sure, we are in the midst of three straight draws and that’s kind of a drag, but two of those draws were against SKC and Atlanta, who just happen to be leading their respective conferences. Some draws are better than others.

6) And we’ve got a good shot at getting all three points next Saturday when we travel to that sleepy little fishing village up the coast. Seattle currently sits at 0.86 PPG which is so bad that this past weekend’s 1-1 draw with Chicago actually raised it. And they scored a goal, too! They’ve only scored 11 of those, you know. In 12 games.

But, of course, we all know that any game against Seattle is going to be tough. They’ll probably open the top deck at the Seahawks stadium, so it’ll be a big, big crowd. Not as big as Atlanta, but still. They try.

Because of an unbalanced schedule, this is the first game that will actually count toward the Cascadia Cup. So there’s some extra motivation. For both teams.

And the Sounders are starting to get healthy. Most of their big names (Dempsey, Lodeiro, Alonso, Bruin) played this past weekend.

The Timbers, on the other hand, have some lineup questions. How badly did Sebastian Blanco hurt himself in Atlanta? Enough to miss his first start?

What about Fanendo Adi? What did he hurt in practice last week? Nothing serious, I hope. If so, we’ll be seeing more of young Jeremy Ebobisse (which I’ll admit, is kind of fun in a #PlayTheKids sort of way).

Speaking of kids, what’s up with Liam Ridgewell and the new baby? Will he miss another week on paternal leave? If he’s out, is it back to Larrys and Julio, or do we stick with the three CBs?

Actually, why bother trying to predict next week’s starting XI? My entire first degree was about how Gio Savarese’s a mad scientist, constantly cooking up new lineups, new formations, and new strategies. Why would that change now?

Maybe we should play a game called, “What Crazy Shit Will Gio Do In Our Next Game?” I’ll start.

I predict a 4-3-1-2. Valentin will be at right back and Vytas will get his first start at left. Blanco will play on the 3 line, Valeri will play on the 1 line, and the 2 line will be Samuel Armenteros and... (hold on, I’m gonna flip a coin... heads for Adi, tails for Ebobisse)... and it’s heads!

There you go, folks! A 4-3-1-2 with Armenteros and Adi up top. That’s my entry for “What Crazy Shit Will Gio Do In Our Next Game.” Give me yours down in the comments. Coin-flipping not required.