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Six Degrees: Not Clear, Not Obvious

Minnesota 1, Portland 0

MLS: Portland Timbers at Minnesota United FC Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Soccer’s a complex sport, with a thousand different moments that can decide a game. No game is ever truly decided by one bad call. But, I’ll tell you what, it sure does feel like it sometimes.

1) Rather than begin at the beginning, let’s begin at the end. Specifically, 2nd half stoppage time, when referee Chris Penso used VAR to give Minnesota the penalty kick that won them the game.

I’ll start by saying the obvious: Larrys Mabiala shouldn’t have had his arms up in the air like that. Flailing around like he did is just asking for trouble. Mabiala’s a veteran, and should have known better.

But that being said, I don’t think the ball hit his arm. I think it hit the underside of his shoulder. Or maybe his side. And you know who agreed with me? Chris Penso, whose in-the-moment decision was to wave it off.

Now, as you know, for VAR to overturn a referee’s original decision, it has to be a clear and obvious error. With that in mind – with “clear and obvious” in your mind – watch this replay.

Was there anything clear and obvious about that replay? Can you look at that and say with 100% certainty, without a shadow of a doubt, that the ball hit Larrys’s arm? I don’t think you can. I really don’t.

The replay doesn’t clearly and obviously disprove a handball, either. If the original call had been handball, the replay wouldn’t have overturned it. The original in-the-moment decision would have stood. I wouldn’t have liked it – nobody likes giving up a penalty in 2nd half stoppage time – but since the video’s inconclusive, I’d have accepted the call and blamed Larrys for having have his arms flailing around like that.

But that’s not what happened. Penso’s original call was that nothing happened. That was the original call and in order to overturn it, you need clear and obvious proof that an error was made. Nothing in that replay is clear and obvious. Nothing. The original call should have stood. And you know who sorta, kinda, halfway agrees with me? Minnesota coach Adrian Heath.

VAR penalties should never be “dubious.” Original calls can be dubious, but VAR calls? When you’ve got all that time to look at the replay, over and over? They should never be dubious. They should be clear and obvious. This one wasn’t, and it cost us a point on the road.

2) Okay, now that we got all that bullshit out of the way, let’s talk about the rest of the game. The game that should have ended 0-0.

Was it an ugly, slogging 0-0? I’m not sure it was. Yes, the heat made everyone a little slower than usual, but there were still plenty of chances for both sides. Both teams had 15 shots. Five of ours were on target, while four of theirs were (three if you don’t count the PK).

Here are some of our best chances.

Not bad, eh? But did you notice that all of those chances were in the first half? That’s because in the second half, Minnesota did what most teams seem to do against us. They sat a little deeper, kept us from hitting them in transition, and shut us right the hell down. In fact, we didn’t really have any decent 2nd half chances until after the 70th minute.

3) What changed in the 70th minute? Jeremy Ebobisse subbed in for Marvin Loria, and suddenly, our offense worked again.

That play doesn’t happen with Marvin Loria. Marvin’s great and all, but he’s not a guy who can go into the box, draw defenders to him, receive a pass while holding off a center back, and lay the ball off to an onrushing teammate. You know who else can’t do it? Brian Fernandez.

Right now, the only guy on the team who seems able to do it is Jeremy Ebobisse. Which is why I think it may be time for Gio to do what I was calling for when BFF first joined the team. Remember? I was saying, “Play Jebo as a striker, and have Fernandez as a goal-dangerous winger.” I said it quite a few times, actually.

Gio went the other route, though, making BFF the striker and Jebo the winger. Since Fernandez was scoring non-stop goals in that formation, I pretty much shut up. But now that Fernandez’s goals have dried up a little (he’s scored in just one of his last seven appearances), I think it might be time to start saying it again. Gio should consider putting Jebo back at striker. He’s a much bigger body than Fernandez and has proven himself both willing and able to lay nice little passes at the feet of onrushing Argentines.

And I’ll remind you of another thing I wrote back in June: while playing in France, Chile, and Mexico, Fernandez scored a fuck ton of goals at winger. I think Gio needs to put him out there again. It might be just what he needs to get back to his goal-scoring ways.

4) Okay, let’s move on from Sunday’s game and talk about this coming Wednesday’s game, which is on the same field against the same opponent, only this time, it’s not a league game, it’s the semi-finals of the US Open Cup.

Will the team look different? I doubt it. We played our first-choice lineup Sunday, and I think we’ll do it again Wednesday. That wouldn’t be unprecedented. Just a couple weeks ago, we played Orlando and Seattle three days apart, and played first-choice lineups both times. The Orlando game was a disappointing result, but the Timbers rallied for a victory a few days later. Perhaps things will play out similarly this week. Perhaps our first-choice guys will still have plenty in the tank, just like they did against Seattle. Perhaps the King of Thunder will shrug off a weak performance by scoring multiple goals, just like he did against Seattle. Perhaps we’ll even get a bench-clearing post-game brawl, just like we did against Seattle.

Another argument for going all in on Wednesday? Our next game, this coming Saturday, is not only at home, it’s against one of the worst teams in the league, Vancouver. And the game after that, next Wednesday? That’s against Chicago, another one of the worst teams in the league.

So, yeah, if I’m Gio, I play to win. Go like hell to make the US Open Cup final, then play a mixture of first and second choice players against Vancouver and Chicago. Lineup rotation’s worked before, I think it could work again.

And let’s be honest, making the US Open Cup final despite only having one home game? That would be pretty bad ass.

5) But, of course, we might lose on Wednesday, which means we’d be out of the US Open Cup, which means if I’m going to pontificate on the tourney, I’d better do it now. So here we go.

A month or two ago, Taylor Twellman went on a little two-minute rant about the US Open Cup. Here’s the link if you want to watch it.

I agree with pretty much everything Twellman said. I think the US Open Cup organizers mean well, but their good intentions are leading to a few problems.

They’re trying to minimize travel by grouping teams regionally, but that often means teams play the same opponents year after year after year.

They’re also trying to make the home/away decisions completely random, but that randomness leads to two problems. One, it means that cash-strapped lower-division teams might randomly have to spend a bunch of money flying to far off cities to face rich MLS teams, and two, it means that pretty much every year, some team will randomly get nothing but home games (like last year’s champion, Houston), while another team will have to win four of its five games on the road (like this year’s – and seemingly every year’s – Portland Timbers).

So I’m going to fix it. I’m going to take over the US Open Cup for a second and fix these problems.

First fix: from here on, every MLS team’s first game will be at a lower division team. If that requires entering the tourney a round earlier, fine. The big, rich MLS teams should have to travel to Boise or Albuquerque or Fresno or someplace like that. It would be good for that lower-division team, even if they lose. They’ll probably get their biggest crowd and biggest pay day of the year, their fans will get to see some famous players, and if they pull the upset, their fans get to feel like giant-killers. If the MLS teams don’t like it, tough shit. We’re rich. They’re poor. We should fly to them.

And that’s the reasoning for my second fix, too. From here on, the lower seed always hosts, no matter the round. If a USL team makes it to the championship game, they’re hosting. In fact, if they made it there because they knocked off a string of MLS teams by playing nothing but home games, fine. Everyone loves a Cinderella story.

And if both teams are at the same level – USL against USL, or MLS against MLS – you look at which team’s had more home games. That’s the team that’s traveling, no matter the round. If they’ve had the same number of home games, flip a coin. No, wait... rock paper scissors. No, wait... tug of war! Fuck yeah! The teams have to tug of war for home field! This may be my greatest idea ever.

6) Okay, that’s the US Open Cup. The team gets back to league play on Saturday when we host the sad sack Vancouver Whitecaps. It will be the first of 10, count ‘em, 10 straight home games. In fact, in league play, we’ve only got one road game left the entire year.

So far, the team’s won six road games, which is actually pretty impressive. But it made me wonder, are MLS teams who win six road games pretty much guaranteed a playoff spot?

Let’s look at the numbers, and we’ll start in 2012, since that’s when the playoff field expanded from six teams to ten. Since then, only two sorry teams have won six road games and didn’t make the playoffs. And one of them was just last year.

Last year, Vancouver missed the playoffs with six road wins, because they somehow managed only seven home wins, finishing the year with a 1.38 PPG and an eighth place finish. What a sorry team.

But not as sorry as this next sorry team. This next sorry team actually missed the playoffs despite seven road wins! This was way back in 2014, and the team was.... your Portland Timbers! That’s right, we had seven road wins, but an almost impossibly low five home wins, for a total PPG of 1.44, missing the playoffs by one point. Now that’s fuckin’ sorry.

Can this year’s Timbers be the third team on this sorry sorry list? Can we miss the playoffs despite already having six road wins?

Only if we really bottom out the rest of the way.

We currently have a home record of 3-1-2, which is 11 points and a 1.83 PPG. Keeping that pace for our remaining 11 home games – let’s call it 5 wins, 5 draws, and 1 loss – would give us an additional 20 points. We’d finish with 31 home points. Add that to our current 20 road points, then assume we lose our final road game, and we’d finish with 51 points, which is 1.5 PPG.

51 points would probably make the playoffs, but not as a very high seed. Last year, it would’ve made us the sixth and final seed in either conference. Same for 2017. In 2016, however, it would’ve made us the 4th seed for either conference.

This year, an additional seventh team makes the playoffs, so, yes, 51 almost certainly gets us in. But we might be a low seed, perhaps even the lowest. And this is significant, because of another change to this year’s playoffs: it’s now single-elimination. If we end the season as the 5th, 6th, or 7th seed, we may not have a single home playoff game. I’d like one of those, wouldn’t you?

So, how ‘bout it? Let’s aim for something higher than 51 points? Let’s do better than 1.83 PPG in these remaining 11 home games. Let’s absolutely crush them. Let’s finish the year like a runaway train. Let’s make every team fear having to face us in the playoffs.