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Six Degrees: Figuring Things Out

Portland 2, Toronto 1

MLS: Portland Timbers at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Break up the Timbers! They’re running rampant over MLS! They’re an unstoppable force! They’ll never lose again!

1) Imma break down this past weekend’s game in a little bit, but let’s start by zooming out and having some big picture thoughts.

It can’t be overstated how important and meaningful these two straight wins have been. It has instantly turned a disastrous season-opening road trip into something that’s verging on “good.” We went from one point in six games, and a completely unacceptable 0.17 PPG, to seven points in eight games, and a perfectly reasonable 0.88 PPG.

When I first looked at the schedule for this 12-game season-opening road trip, I saw three games I thought we should win, two games I thought might win, and seven games I didn’t think we had much chance to win. Welp, we took 0.33 PPG in those three “should win” games, we’ve taken 1.2 PPG in the five “not much chance” games we’ve played so far, and now we’re getting ready to play our two “might win” games, against RSL and Vancouver. With our improved form, a win and a draw now seem possible, at which point the team would have 11 points in 10 games. Even if we lose the final two roadies, we’d be at 11 points in 12 games, for a PPG of 0.92, which is pretty much league-average for road PPG.

If you remember, DC United finished last year’s long season-opening road stretch with 0.79 PPG. We’ll probably exceed that, but even if we don’t, these two straight wins have already made our opening road trip acceptable, if not an utter success.

But these two straight wins haven’t just given us six points, they’ve also given us a formation that works and a lineup that seems pretty much set. More importantly, they’ve given us belief. Three weeks ago, I thought we were the worst team in the league. Hell, we were the worst team. But a 2-1 loss to Dallas that should have been a draw, and now two straight wins against two good teams? Now I believe. Now I think we’re going to be fine. Now I’ve got hope for the rest of this year.

As the season continues, remember these last two weeks. This is when everything changed. This is when we figured it out.

2) Okay, let’s zoom in on Saturday’s 2-1 win at Toronto.

I’m having a hard time getting angry about the goal we gave up. I’m not sure our defense broke down, exactly. It felt more like a freak goal where a bunch of odd things happened all at once. Here’s the video. See if you disagree.

What do you think? Shambolic defending or a series of bad bounces?

I think the only person who deserves clear and obvious blame is Bill Tuiloma, who got beat for the original header. Bill definitely should have done better.

But after that? Zarek Valentin’s bodied up tight with Michael Bradley, and isn’t able to give the loose ball a full-powered kick. He manages to get a foot on the ball, but without enough force to clear the area. Andres Flores is bodied up tight with Jonathan Osorio and, while he sees the ball, he’s in such a weird, twisted-up position, he can’t do much about it. And Steve Clark, within about two or three seconds, he reacts to the initial header and then the ball Zarek kicked, but the final ball is just too much.

Am I wrong? Am I going easy on the guys? Tell me who I should be angry with here. Tell me if you think this is bad defending or if it’s one of those weird clusterfuck goals that happens now and then.

3) Obviously, going down 1-0 gave me some concern. It got me wondering if last week’s victory over Columbus was a fluke. If maybe the team wasn’t fixed. If maybe we were going to fall apart the way we have so many times on this road trip. If we were destined to lose 4-0.

All these thought were running through my head... for about two minutes. Because that’s how long it took for Portland to draw even.

Holy hell, that’s a beautiful goal. That’s a goal any striker would be proud to put in their highlight reel, only it didn’t come from a striker, it came from a center back.

That’s the second straight week a Portland center back’s found the back of the net, and I gotta say, I’m feeling good about the Larrys Mabiala/Bill Tuiloma partnership. They seem to work well together on defense, and both are goal-dangerous on set pieces.

Julio Cascante and Claude Dielna had their chances to win a starting job, and neither rose to the occasion. I think it’s probably Mabiala and Tuiloma from here on, and I’m totally okay with that.

4) The first half ended 1-1 and things stayed that way for a good while. I was at my local bar, of course, and as we approached the 70th minute, a few of us started saying things like “You know, I’d be happy with a draw,” and “No shame in a road point against a good team.”

But Jeremy Ebobisse didn’t want no stinkin’ draw. He wanted the full three points.

Beautiful cross from Sebastian Blanco there. As for Jebo, let me just say this: I’m not sure if diving headers are objectively better than normal headers, but they’re definitely cooler. I mean, the dive probably puts a little extra power on the shot, and probably makes it a harder save for the keeper, but who cares about all that soccer stuff? Just look at Jebo! He’s friggin’ superman! The world needs more of this. Gimme all the diving headers you got.

My second favorite part of this gif? Jorge Moreira’s happy little jump for joy afterwards. Just adorable.

This makes it four goals on the year for young Jebo, including two game-winners in two weeks. He’s on pace for 17 goals this year.

Also adding to his stat line was Diego Valeri, who got the assist on Tuiloma’s goal and the hockey assist on Jebo’s. El Maestro is currently leading the league with six assists and is on pace for 25.5 assists, which is just absurd, considering we’re all in agreement that he’s looking a little slow these days. But fine, whatever, if Diego makes up for his slow legs by crushing teams on the set pieces, I will very happily take that. Set piece assists count the same as open-play assists.

5) Up 2-1, it will surprise none of you to learn that I was an emotional wreck for the remainder of the game. Yes, a few minutes earlier I’d decided that leaving with a draw would be okay, but that was when the game was 1-1. As soon as we went up 2-1, a draw suddenly became the worst result ever.

But we hung tough, never bunkered, continued our good play on both offense and defense, and in the 90th minute, Diego Chara had a chance to put the game to bed.

As Ralphie said in A Christmas Story, fffffffffffuddddddgggggge!

It was a tragic miss, but shouldn’t take away from Chara’s otherwise excellent game. I was a little worried about my favorite Timber earlier this year, but it seems like his play’s improved of late. Is this entirely due to Cristhian Paredes replacing David Guzman? Is Paredes that much of an upgrade? Or is it more complicated? Are there multiple factors?

Whatever the answer, I like the two of them pairing up in the middle of the pitch.

There are actually a lot of pairings I’m happy with these days. This 4-4-2 is working great, partly because the pairings all make a lot of sense. As I said before, Mabiala and Tuilioma seem like a good CB pairing. Chara and Paredes as DMs make sense, too.

Up top, I like Jebo as a target forward and Valeri as a withdrawn striker, occasionally drifting back into the number 10 role. Valentin and Blanco seem like a good left side, while Moreira and Flores seem like a good right side.

Flores’s spot is the only one that seems somewhat in doubt right now. I really like the way he’s been working with Moreira – check out Richard Farley’s excellent piece on the subject – but maybe Gio likes Andy Polo more. He’s back at full health, you know. And even though I won’t count my Brian Fernandez eggs until they hatch, all signs indicate that he’s coming, and that he’d be a perfect right winger in our 4-4-2.

There’s a touch of intrigue at the goalkeeper position, though only a touch. Steve Clark started Saturday instead of Jeff Attinella, but I’m not convinced it means anything. Jamie Goldberg tweeted this, and she’s usually right when it comes to personnel issues.

If I was a betting man, I’d put money on Jeff Jeff Jeff starting this weekend at RSL.

6) Let’s bang out some random thoughts.

  • You may have heard that potential signing Brian Fernandez spit at a fan after getting red carded in his last Liga MX game. Let’s start by acknowledging that the red card was absurd and involved the head ref and the fourth official fucking up a substitution. As far as the spitting goes, in these situations, I’m almost always going to side with the player. Fans think they have the right to be complete assholes. They say and do things that would get them punched in the face out in the real world. But at sporting events, they do these awful things and say these awful things and, 99% of the time, the player just takes it. But 1% of the time, a player gets caught at the wrong moment and snaps. Ron Artest going into the stands after getting hit with a cup of beer? That was over the line. But Russell Westbrook yelling at that asshole fan a few weeks back? I’m with Russ on that one. And Brian Fernandez spitting at someone who’s yelling shit about his mom? I can forgive this. I’m sure Fernandez has had a whole lot of abuse hurled at him over his career. 99% of the time, he’s taken it. Would your record be so good? I’m not sure mine would. I’m willing to give Fernandez a pass on this. Let ye who is without sin cast the first stone.
  • San Jose is 2-1-2 in their last five. That’s a PPG of 1.6, which is better than the 1.59 that got us into the playoffs last year. I’m starting to wonder if our horrifying 3-0 loss to them wasn’t quite as horrifying as I’d originally thought. Maybe we were just unlucky to play them right as they were figuring things out. Sort of like Columbus and Toronto were unlucky to play us right as we were figuring things out.
  • Counterargument to the above: we really did look like shit that day. Especially on defense.
  • Blanco and Moreira both took some knocks on Saturday. They okay?
  • Speaking of Moreira, it took awhile, but I’m all in on him now. Dude’s got a motor.
  • Speaking of Blanco, he’s got four assists, which puts him on pace for 17. I don’t actually think he and Valeri can keep up this ridiculous pace, but it’s fun to imagine.
  • Actually, how’s this for a fun prediction? Both of them get goals this weekend, and both also get assists. Valeri assists Blanco’s goal, Blanco assists Valeri’s goal, and we end with a 2-2 draw. Take it to the bank.
  • And finally, this tweet. It’s happening, folks. It’s happening.