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Six Degrees: Felt Like a Win

Portland 2, LAFC 2

Los Angeles FC v Portland Timbers - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Draws where you score a late goal to tie it up kinda feel like wins, don’t they? And when they’re over the best team in the league, a team that won their previous game 6-2? Well, those draws feel even better.

1) In last week’s column, I predicted a Starting XI made entirely of bench players, and when the Timbers kicked off last Thursday against LAFC, Gio’s XI wasn’t too far off. Diego Chara and Sebastian Blanco were holding down the midfield, and Steve Clark was between the posts, but otherwise, it was an entirely new starting lineup from the previous game. One of those new starters was our DP striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda. Last week, I gave Jarek a little shit for missing an easy tap-in. I worried that maybe he wasn’t the finisher we’d been promised.

Seven minutes into the LAFC game, Jarek showed me I was wrong.

Tons of time, tons of space, tons of opportunity to over-think it, but does he? Does he get nervous and flub the easy chance? Nope. He just slots it past the keeper, easy as you like. That’s a cold-blooded finish. That’s a professional finish. That’s a finish that will shut C.I. right the hell up. Welcome to the team, Jarek. Coffee’s for closers. Have some coffee.

(Unfortunately, Jarek, despite the great goal, I’m still contractually obligated to show Marvin Loria smashing you in the face with a soccer ball. Sorry.)

2) The Timbers owned the game’s first 20 minutes or so, but after that, LAFC started to look like what they are: the best team in the league. They possessed, we defended. They took shot after shot, we parried them away. Then, in the 36th minute, they got a screamer of a goal from a guy who’s scored a few in his day, Bradley Wright-Phillips.

What a rocket. Is there anyone we can blame here? I’m not sure there is. Yes, BWP had a lot of room when he received that pass, but then Bill Tuiloma got himself back in position and was covering him pretty well. Could Bill have been tighter? Sure. But I’ll point out that they were a good 25 yards from goal. When you’re in a 1v1 situation that far from goal, I’d call Bill’s positioning pretty good. My instinct it to just call this a golazo. And golazos happen.

But as always, I’m willing to be talked out of this. Think someone’s clearly at fault? Tell me about it down in comments.

3) Just four minutes later, LAFC scored again, and this time, it’s much easier to assign blame.

Jesus, Bill! I defended you on the last goal, but on this one, you are 100% guilty. For crying out loud, man, body that guy up! Put your friggin’ shoulder into his friggin’ chest and Do. Not. Let. Him. Pass.

If Larrys Mabiala is playing, does he let that happen? I dunno. All I know is LAFC just dropped two goals on us in four minutes and now we’re down 2-1.

4) And things didn’t get a lot better after that. LAFC continued dominating possession, continued piling up shots, continued looking like the better team.

Our defense held strong, though. I want to be clear that, outside of those awful four minutes where we gave up two goals, the defense held strong against the most potent attack in MLS. We just weren’t able to tilt the playing field back in our favor. For the most part, it was one-way traffic.

And then Gio started slowly subbing in our first-teamers. At halftime, Yimmi Chara came in. At the 58 minute mark, it was Jeremy Ebobisse. In the 69th minute, it was Diego Valeri and Eryk Williamson. And at that point, we were no longer playing the kids, we were playing our starters.

And did it work? Why, yes, it did. We got off our heels, finally put some pressure on LAFC, and the chances started coming. In the 77th, Jebo sent a redirected shot just wide, in the 81st Dario Zuparic forced a save on a header, and less than a minute later, we finally broke through.

Holy hell, Bill Tuiloma’s given me whiplash in this game. On the BWP goal, he was average at best, on the Kaye goal, he was monumentally awful, and on this goal, he’s like friggin’ Superman out there. He rises up to get his head on the first ball, forcing a defender to clear it off the line, then races over, rises up, and somehow gets his head on the second ball, which he sends toward Jebo, who puts it into the net. Incredible effort from Tuiloma there. Incredible effort, incredible determination, incredible athleticism, incredible way to make up for that boneheaded defending earlier in the game. Well done, Bill! You’re officially off my shit list.

5) Some random thoughts.

  • Jebo has three goals in three games, while Jarek scored seven minutes into his first start. The competition to be our starting striker is going to be interesting.
  • For the first time in this tournament, we saw erstwhile starter Cristhian Paredes. What did you think? I didn’t think he looked all that good. Certainly not like the guy from last year, the guy who had that position locked down for the next 10 years. If you feel differently, please let me know down in the comments. I want to think good thoughts about Paredes.
  • Likewise, how do we feel about Gresham native and starting left back Marco Farfan? I thought he was okay. Pretty solid. But I’ve heard other people on the interwebs raving about him, calling him better than Jorge Villafaña. I’m not ready to make that statement. Are you? Convince me down in comments.

6) My main takeaway from this game is that we can hang with LAFC. They’re the best team in the league and we can totally hang with them. They beat the Galaxy 6-2. They beat Seattle 4-1. But the Timbers? We played them pretty even. Sure, it wasn’t always pretty. The possession numbers were bad, the shot numbers were bad, but that was also the case last year when we beat them 1-0 in the US Open Cup. When you’ve got a team drubbing opponents the way LAFC has been, sometimes you gotta play ugly. Pack it in, be disciplined, let them dominate possession, then grab a goal or two where you can. Yes, I’m aware this was a draw not a win, but I’m kinda feeling like we got the full three points. Which means we finished the group stage undefeated. And if we can keep playing this well, who’s to say we can win this whole damn tournament?

Our next obstacle in that quest is FC Cincinnati.

Cincy’s general game plan lately is to sit super-deep, try and pitch a shutout, and hope one of their attackers can hit a banger. Since they’ve won two straight doing just that, I expect they’ll do it again versus us, so get ready for Bunkersville, USA.

In 2019, we absolutely sucked at breaking down a bunker. This year – or more specifically, this tournament – we’ve been much better. Less crosses, more interplay. Can we do it again versus Cincy? I think we can. I think our new attack can unlock Cincy’s bunker.

If we win that game, we’ll get only three days rest before playing NYCFC, who’ll be nice and rested after five days off. Yes, I agree, that’s bullshit. It also makes me wonder if Gio will play his kids again versus Cincinnati. Maybe start the kids, then bring the first-teamers on late to win it? Or alternately, start the first-teamers, go like hell for an early goal, then throw the kids on? Whatever the strategy, Gio will need to do something to make up for the extra two days rest NYCFC’s getting.

But I guess before we start worrying too much about NYCFC, we should probably take care of business versus Cincinnati. I’m predicting a 2-0 victory, with another goal for Jebo and an account-opening goal for Yimmi.