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Six Degrees: Off To a Bad Start

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Minnesota 3, Portland 1

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

1) If you had only watched the first half of Sunday’s game, you’d think the Timbers were one of the best teams in the league. Over the course of those first 45 minutes, they dominated Minnesota in possession, in shots, in shots on goal, in everything. The only place they didn’t dominate? The scoreboard. Despite all that awesome play, they couldn’t put the ball in the net. Which, to be honest, felt pretty much like what I saw in preseason.

The closest we came was this gorgeous sequence in the 4th minute.

That’s just lovely, isn’t it? It starts way out on the right with fullback Jorge Moreira. He gets it to Yimmi Chara, who taps it to Diego Valeri, who makes the big swing over to Sebastian Blanco on the left, who looks up to see, not one, not two, but three runners in the box. Three Timbers crashing the box? Be still my beating heart! It was Cristhian Paredes on the near post who ended up getting the pass and, damn, did he come close to finishing it. Such a beautiful sequence, but in the end, no goal.

And that’s how things felt the entire first half. Lots of nice play, lots of pretty attacks, lots of clever work in the box, but nothing to show for it.

How worried about this should I be? Should the team’s attackers continue in just this way? If they keep doing all this nice work, will it inevitably turn into goals? Or is there some serious problem that I’m not seeing? Help me out, folks. Tell me how to feel about the Timbers attack.

2) We need to talk about the two penalties. The one that was called and the one that wasn’t.

In the 5th minute, Felipe Mora was in the Minnesota box, ball at his feet, and got absolutely bowled over by Minnesota goalkeeper Tyler Miller. Here’s how it looked.

I mean, come on. The ball’s at Mora’s feet and Miller runs into him. It seems the very definition of clear and obvious, right? And yet both referee Ismail Elfath and the VAR decided it wasn’t.

Now, let’s look at the penalty that was called, in the 54th minute.

If you ask me, this one’s a little less obvious than the first one. On the first, Mora got bowled over. On this one, he was just kicked a little. Not nearly as bad as the first, and yet, this is the one that was called.

I could try and get in Elfath’s head on this, but I’m not sure the point. I’ll just say two things:

One, a penalty to put you up 1-0 in the 5th minute is a hell of a lot more valuable than a penalty to draw you even in the 54th.

And two, I’ve seen Felipe Mora play three games now. He drew a penalty in preseason, drew another in this game, and shoulda drawn a third. Is this gonna be his thing, drawing penalties? The last Timbers striker who was an elite penalty-drawer was Darren Mattocks. Sadly, that was usually Mattocks’s only contribution to the score sheet. Let’s hope Mora can actually put the ball in the net, too.

3) In last week’s column, I talked about how, in the preseason tournament, it seemed like the Timbers had a really good Plan A, but as soon as the opposition figured it out, we didn’t really have a Plan B.

Well, it happened again on Sunday night. We were friggin’ awesome in the first half, so Minnesota talked some things over in the halftime locker room, came out in the second half, stopped our Plan A, and we had nothing to fall back on. Our attack continued pressing forward, but now when Minnesota got the ball, they’d race hell bent for leather toward our goal.

That’s painful to watch. Fullbacks Jorge Villafaña and Jorge Moreira are forward on the attack and unable to catch up to their attackers. Center back Larrys Mabiala’s trying to repossess the ball right at the beginning, so he’s got no chance of getting back on D. The only guy with a chance is center back Dario Župarić, who slows Ethan Finlay a bit, but can’t stop the pass to the wide-open, completely unmarked Robin Lod. Steve Clark nearly saves the day, but ends up spilling the ball to yet another open attacker, Kevin Molino. It was just a perfect counter attack against a defense that had stretched itself far too thin.

Twenty-five minutes later, Minnesota did it again.

Another lightning counter attack where the Timbers could have done better. On this one, our defense wasn’t overrun, they just played it poorly. Villafaña and Župarić could have closed out Finlay a little better, while Mabiala has no idea where his man is.

And then, two minutes later, it was Župarić’s turn to blow things.

Who’s Župarić marking there? Not the goal scorer, Kevin Molino. Župarić just watches Molino go past him into the box, where he one-times the ball into the net. To be fair, Diego Chara also lets Molino run in there unmolested, and if Chara’s doing weak shit like that, these really must be the end times.

4) So, an ugly season-opening loss at home. How will Gio respond in training this week? How will he respond to an offense that looks good but can’t score, and how will he respond to a defense that has – including the last two preseason games – given up 10 goals in its last three games?

My worry is that he’ll go super-conservative. I worry he’ll fix the defense by going back to his 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation, and he’ll fix the offense by sending in a million crosses. Why do I think this? Because I’ve seen it happen in each of the last two seasons. In 2018 and 2019, we played interesting, ambitious soccer in the first few games, got our ass handed to us, then went super-conservative. Will that happen again in 2020? We can only wait and see.

5) Some random thoughts.

  • Things I liked – Moreira in the attack. Yimmi’s dribbling in tight quarters. Paredes crashing the box. Dairon Asprilla and Jeremy Ebobisse bringing energy off the bench. Eryk Williamson being the third sub, even if it was too late to mean much.
  • Things I didn’t like – The teamwork of our back four. Valeri playing the full 90.
  • Things I’m unsure about – Mora and Blanco. Hell, let’s just thrown Yimmi and Valeri into this as well. Yes, they were all very active, but I need to see some results. I need some goals, already.
  • Gotta show this 57th minute save from Steve Clark. Just exceptional.

  • And finally, how about those last 10 minutes with Jebo and Mora in a two-forward set up? I liked it. A lot. Think we might see that earlier? Like, when we’re not down two goals?

6) Next up, expansion side Nashville.

They’ve only played one game, so there’s not too much to say about them. I watched a little of their 2-1 home loss to Atlanta, and they looked decent. They’ve got 2019 MLS Best XI defender Walker Zimmerman locking down their central defense, and 2015 MLS Best XI midfielder Dax McCarty locking down their central midfield, so I don’t think they’re going to ship a lot of goals this year.

They may not score a lot of goals, either. Zimmerman got a set piece goal against Atlanta, but otherwise, they didn’t look all that dangerous.

Of course, last year’s expansion team FC Cincinnati didn’t look very dangerous, either, but the Timbers still managed to lose to them. It could happen again.

Will Gio make a lot of changes? Personally, I hope not. I want him to stay aggressive. I want Larrys and Dario to figure each other out. I want Jorge and Morge to take turns going forward. I want Diego Chara to sit a little deeper so he can help out the D. I want all this interesting work we’re doing in the attack to turn into actual, real-life goals. I want Valeri subbing out in the 60th minute, either for Jebo or Eryk.

But maybe I’m asking for too much. Maybe I should just ask for an ugly, grind-it-out 1-0 win. Sure, it wouldn’t be pretty, but at least it would be a win. It would be a start.