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Six Degrees: Out With A Whimper

RSL 2, Portland 1

MLS: MLS Cup Playoffs-Round One-Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It was a frustrating end to a frustrating season, and as usual, it left us with more questions than answers.

1) Our questions begin with Gio Savarese and the lineup he put together for Saturday’s game.

The biggest thing of note: no Diego Valeri in the Starting XI. How do we feel about Gio’s decision? Is it sensible, considering Valeri had missed two straight games and might not be 90 minutes fit? Or is it absolutely nuts not to have him in there for a single-elimination playoff game?

There’s a side of me that sympathizes with Gio’s decision regarding Valeri... until I look at the bench. The bench with only two attackers on it.

We ended up using Valeri and Marvin Loria, but then were out of attacking options. There was no Tomas Conechny to call on, no Eryk Williamson. I guess you might be able to argue that Renzo Zambrano and Andres Flores are attacking subs, but it doesn’t really matter, since, down 2-1 late in the game, Gio didn’t use either of them. He used center back Claude Dielna. With, like, 30 seconds left in the game. I don’t think Dielna got within 20 yards of the ball.

Was this bizarre lineup entirely because of injury? Were all our attacking subs hurt? Or did Gio just fuck up? We’ll probably never know, but the whole thing stinks and raises many questions about Gio’s leadership.

2) Next big question: who do we blame for the team woeful first half performance? Do we blame Gio again? I wasn’t in the room for his pre-game speech, but based on how the Timbers played in the first half, it seems likely that Gio told them, “Alright, boys, nothing to play for today, just go out there and have fun. Zero pressure. Just get a light jog in and then we’ll head on home. Sound good? Whose mom brought orange slices?”

Or is blaming Gio too easy? Maybe we should blame the players. After all, these are professionals, playing in a do-or-die playoff game. They can’t get up for that? They need a coach to yell at them before they’ll play like it matters?

Like I said at the start, this game left us with more questions than answers, but one thing I do know is that, considering how high the stakes were, our first half performance was about as bad as I’ve ever seen from the Timbers. There was absolutely no energy, no skill, no sense of a plan, and an utter contempt for completing more than two consecutive passes. Playoff Dairon Asprilla had been replaced by Regular Season Dairon Asprilla, Andy Polo was, sadly, still Andy Polo, and Sebastian Blanco was showing a lot of fight, but it was generally the yelling and shoving sort of fight, rather than the let’s-win-us-a-soccer-game sort of fight.

The only Timber who showed up in the first half was Steve Clark, who was utterly heroic.

When he stands up at the end of that clip, it looks like he’s saying, “What the fuck, guys? Anybody here wanna play some soccer?”

3) The team’s answer, apparently, was “No, not really.”

Clark kept facing shots, kept making saves, and in the 28th minute, RSL finally broke through.

I think my favorite thing about this goal is the reaction of Larrys Mabiala, Bill Tuiloma, and Jorge Villafana. And by “reaction,” of course, I mean “complete lack of reaction.” They give a cursory look over at the AR to see if his flag’s up, but otherwise, they’re like, “Oh. Well. I guess that just happened.”

The Timbers finished the first half down 1-0, and hadn’t registered a single shot. And I don’t mean zero shots on goal. I mean zero shots. Period.

Well, at least the first half gave us this gem.

Can you imagine the Kreilach family, sitting at home, watching the game on TV, and seeing that? I, for one, wholeheartedly applaud. It was truly the highlight of the first 45 minutes.

4) As bad as Gio’s pre-game pep talk was, his speech at halftime must have been a barn burner, because the Timbers came out screaming in the second half. Literally everything was fixed. We were pressing on defense, attacking on offense, and, most importantly, Regular Season Dairon had been replaced by Playoff Dairon, who, two minutes into the second half, did this.

Regular Season Dairon has seven goals in 92 games. Playoff Dairon has four in 14. It’s to the point now where we have to start asking the really important questions.

To be honest, I can’t understand anyone who voted for Messi in this poll. Messi hasn’t scored a single MLS playoff goal, much less four of them. Until he does, he’s a fraud in my book.

5) That made the game 1-1 and, with the Timbers finally playing good quality soccer, it looked like we could actually win this thing.

Here’s a couple times we almost took the lead, courtesy of Sebastian Blanco.

On that second chance, you’ll notice Diego Valeri’s finally on the field, and we need to discuss that.

Valeri came on in the 63rd minute, which is great and all, but guess who he came on for? Andy Polo, who was giving us his usual complete lack of attacking presence? Playoff Dairon, who gave us a goal, so maybe we should have pulled him before he reverted to Regular Season Dairon?

Nope, Valeri came in for neither of those guys. He came in for Jeremy Ebobisse.

At my local bar, the collective response was, basically, “What the fuck? Valeri for Ebobisse?” I got home later to discover that there had been a similar response on Twitter, too. Everyone was amazed by this non-sensical move. Not a single soul was like, “Yep, that makes sense. Pull the striker.”

Is Jebo’s absence the reason we lost? Who can say? But look at this sputtering counter attack and tell me Polo and Asprilla crushed it.

Tell me Jebo would have stopped the ball dead like Asprilla did. Tell me Polo is a better target in the box than Jebo.

Here’s what Gio said postgame.

I never entirely believe what Gio says to the press. I’m not calling him a liar, I’m calling him a guy who says a whole lot of words without saying anything at all. So, this quote about Jebo’s hammy, maybe it’s true, or maybe it’s just words. Maybe it’s Gio covering his ass. Maybe it’s Gio knowing that he fucked up.

6) Whatever the truth, the Timbers never did find a second goal, but in the 87th minute, RSL did.

Worth noting here is the dummy by number 11, Albert Rusnak. Sometimes dummies seem more style than substance, but on this play, the dummy was crucial. It pulled Jorge Villafana out of position, leaving Jefferson Savorino wide open to score the winner.

That made the game 2-1, with a couple minutes left in regulation, then three minutes of stoppage time. Did the Timbers go like hell for those final five minutes? Did they fight to the last second?

Absolutely. Not.

It was stunning how completely deflated the Timbers were after that goal. They did nothing the rest of the way. They jogged around the field for five minutes, then went into the locker room to shower up and start their off season. It was a sad, pathetic, and rather infuriating end to the year.

In truth, it was an ending that raises a lot of questions.

Who deserves more blame for Saturday’s first half, the players or the coach? What about those impotent final five minutes after we went down 2-1? You can’t blame the coach for that, can you? Looking forward, does this team have MLS Cup potential next year? Should we burn it all down? Who gets protected in the expansion draft? Who doesn’t? Who will we say goodbye to? Who will we say hello to? Is Gio a good coach? Is his not?

That’s a whole lot of questions. Do I have answers? Of course not. But here we are, facing a long, boring off-season, so I’ll definitely ponder them in my column each week. If you’ve got more good off-season questions you’d like me to chew on, let me hear them down in comments. And if you’ve got perfect answers to those questions, that would be helpful, too.

We’ll start processing it all next week.