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Six Degrees: How Bad Is This?

Houston 4, Portland 1

MLS: Portland Timbers at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I said good teams beat the bad teams. We just lost 4-1 to a bad team. Does this mean we’re actually not a good team?

1) Here’s a mildly funny story that will give you a sense of my headspace following Saturday’s 4-1 loss at Houston. I was walking home from the bar, thinking about all the big losses we’ve suffered this season. I was checking them off in my head: the 4-0 loss at NYRB, the 4-1 loss at DC, the 3-0 loss at SKC, and finally, Saturday’s 4-1 loss at Houston. That’s four losses this season by three or more goals.

Walking along, a black cloud over my head, I thought to myself, You know what, say what you will about Caleb Porter, but I don’t remember four blowout losses over his entire tenure, much less over one year. Caleb’s teams always kept it close. They never folded like this year’s team keeps doing.

I was absolutely sure of this thought, and when I got home, I went online to confirm it. Checking the results from previous years, you know what I found? Forget Caleb Porter’s entire tenure, I found four losses by 3+ goals just last year. Even worse, one of them was at home, 4-1 to RSL.

So what does this mean? Well, I guess it mostly means that I should relax a little. Yes, yes, these blowout losses are frustrating, but they’re not unprecedented. Gio’s team isn’t folding under pressure any worse than Caleb’s team did last year. And all last year’s team did was win the Western Conference.

Are things perfect? No. Am I going to complain a bit? Yes. But is it the end of the world? Probably not.

1.5) I’m breaking out the rarely-seen half-degree because I feel obligated to tell you our 3+ goal losses in Caleb’s other years: 2 in 2016, 3 in 2015, 0 in 2014, and 0 in 2013.

That’s right, we didn’t have a big loss during Caleb Porter’s first two years.

I’m suddenly a little concerned again.

Let’s pretend I never mentioned this, okay?

2) Okay, before I get to the bad from Saturday night’s 4-1 loss, let’s cover the good.

Did anything good happen? Absolutely. The game’s first 15-20 minutes were awesome. We dominated the game in almost every way. We even got a 9th minute goal. Well, sorta. It was an own goal, so let’s not congratulate Alvas Powell too much. But since we’d been playing so well, it seemed like a just reward.

There was also something to cheer in the 43rd minute, the always-rare, always-exciting Diego Chara goal. Erm... except it got called back via VAR.

In the moment, I was furious, but the more times I watch this, the more obvious it is that Diego Valeri was offside. If Sebastian Blanco kicks the ball at the start of my gif, it’s onside, but he doesn’t. He waits just a half-second and Valeri drifts forward. Maybe not Valeri’s feet, but definitely his head. And since you’re allowed to play the ball with your head, this makes him offside.

Those two clips? Those are pretty much all the good moments from Saturday. An own goal and a non-goal. Woo hoo. Party on.

Now, on to the bad.

3) That 15-game unbeaten streak we had earlier this year? It was built on a pretty simple strategy: sit deep, absorb pressure, then get out in space on the counterattack.

The thing is, sitting deep and countering only works if your defense is organized and your goalkeeper is kicking ass. During our streak, we had both those things. Saturday night in Houston, we had neither. The defense made mistakes, the goalkeeper made mistakes, and Houston made us pay.

First goal, I think Lawrence Olum is to blame. And maybe also Zarek Valentin. Because look at Julio Cascante trying to cover two guys.

Who’s supposed to be helping Cascante on that play? I think it was mostly Olum, who just sorta turned off for a moment or two.

Now, let’s look at the second goal. First up, it’s a hella nice counter attack by Houston. Let’s just appreciate that for a moment.

Now, who do we blame here? Zarek Valentin, for not being as fast as Alberth Elis? Cut him some slack. 99% of this league’s not as fast as Elis. Instead, I think I’m gonna blame Larrys Mabiala for misjudging Elis’s cross. Mauro Manotas judged it perfectly, Larrys did not, and suddenly it’s 2-1 Houston.

4) On to the 2nd half and on to Houston’s 3rd goal. Who do we blame here?

Do we blame Jorge Villafana? It’s always worth remembering that Alberth Elis is really, really good. He’s dusted a lot of people, and on this play, he dusted Jorge. If any of you were expecting Jorge to come back to the Timbers and be perfect, sorry. He’s still human.

But is he to blame here? Or do we blame Steve Clark for not catching that ball? Or do we collectively blame Mabiala, Cascante, and Olum for leaving Manotas uncovered? I’m leaning toward that last one, with a little more blame for Olum, since he didn’t have any other responsibilities.

And now, Round Four of America’s favorite new game “Who Do We Blame Here?”

Who do we blame here? Mabiala, since that’s clearly his man? Or Clark, who lets it go between his legs? I’m going with Clark.

So there you go. Four goals allowed, and almost everyone shares the blame. When the Timbers were winning, our defense and our goalkeeper weren’t making nearly so many mistakes. If we don’t fix our current problems, we’ll see more big losses just like this.

5) Okay, let’s talk about personnel. Specifically, our Starting XI and our substitutions.

Jeremy Ebobisse started his second straight game, which was a surprise. He wasn’t bad, really. But he wasn’t great, either. Did he earn himself another start? Maybe that depends on Samuel Armenteros.

Speaking of Armenteros, what the fuck? Is he hurt? Did he break some team rule? Did he mouth off to Gio in practice? Or has his cold spell reached the point where Gio just doesn’t rate him anymore?

When we made our first substitution, in the 56th minute, we were down 2-1, so an offensive sub seemed smart. Instead, it was Jorge for Zarek. I was a bit surprised, but tried talking myself into it being quasi-offensive, since Jorge might bring a little more to the table offensively. Turns out, no. He didn’t really do anything more than Zarek was doing. Not to my eyes, at least.

Our second sub, in the 63rd, when we were still down 2-1? Just like with the first substitution, maybe you could talk yourself into Andy Polo for Cristhian Paredes as being quasi-offensive, but again, Polo never actually brought more offense than Paredes had been bringing. So, two subs while trailing, neither of which were especially attack-minded.

And our final sub, in the 83rd, when we were down 4-1, that just felt like a joke. Like a capitulation. David Guzman for Lawrence Olum? Were you even trying to win, Gio? Or had you thrown in the towel?

The final whistle blew with Armenteros and Lucas Melano gathering dust on the bench.

Who starts moving forward? I have no idea. Who gets subbed in? I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea what Gio’s doing with his lineups. I’m not sure he does, either.

6) The good news? Our next game is at home. The bad news? It’s on four days rest. The even worse news? It’s against Columbus, an objectively good team. Since an objectively bad team just beat us 4-1 on the road, should we believe we can beat an objectively good team at home?

And then on Saturday, with just three days rest, we face Minnesota on the road. Again, they’re an objectively bad team, which I guess means they’ll beat us 4-1.

If things go wrong this week, we could be looking at three straight losses, at which point qualifying for the playoffs becomes a real challenge.

I see no reason for Clark to start again. On Saturday, he gave up four and would’ve given up a fifth without Cascante’s goal line clearance. Would Kendall McIntosh have fared any worse? Maybe, maybe not, but either way, at least we’d be playing our kids. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Steve Clark is not our future, but Kendall McIntosh might be. The only way to find out is to play him. What’s the worst that could happen, a 4-1 loss? We’re already there.

And in the interest of balance, I’m going to close with a graph that LumberjackPDX puts out every week.

As you can see, despite our recent form, despite our maddening inconsistency, despite everything that’s happened, we’re still on pace for our best year ever.

I guess maybe I should walk myself off this ledge.