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Six Degrees: On To The Championship!

Portland 2, Philadelphia 1

Philadelphia Union v Portland Timbers: Semifinals - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

1) Before I get to the Philadelphia game, let me start with some overarching thoughts about this wonderful ride we’ve been on these last four weeks.

The way we’ve played in this tournament, it’s kinda making me fall in love with the Timbers again. I like the way we’ve been the underdog over and over but continue to win, I like the heart we’ve shown as we continually play on short rest, I like the new guys we’ve signed – Zuparic, Niezgoda, Mora, Yimmi, Bonilla, Duvall – I like the young players coming into their own – Jebo and Eryk – I like the fact that we’ve got real talent we can bring off the bench. And most importantly, I like the soccer we’re playing. As I said in last week’s column, we haven’t always played pretty soccer these last two years. Successful soccer, yes. But pretty? Not always. This tournament, though, some really nice, really attractive things are happening out there, and it’s nice to see, nice to support.

Last week’s Philadelphia game was no exception. Yes, the team sat deep a lot, but when we countered, we countered well. We had multiple runners, multiple targets. In my last column, I complained about the first half against NYCFC when we didn’t counter well, but this week against Philly? Our absorb and counter game was on point. Then when we needed to maintain a little possession, needed to string some passes together in dangerous places, we could do that, too.

The team’s showing the ability to play different styles under different conditions, they’re playing as well as they ever have under Gio Savarese, and it’s making me fall in love with them all over again.

Now, let’s break down the Philadelphia game.

2) In the 13th minute, the Timbers grabbed the first goal when Jeremy Ebobisse headed in a Diego Valeri corner kick.

See how Jebo delays his run a tiny bit? Everyone else starts moving right as the ball’s kicked, but Jebo waits just half a second, figures out where the ball’s heading and where he might be able to find space. The kid’s not a kid anymore. He’s turned into a wily veteran right before our eyes.

Another interesting thing about this goal? The late reaction from Philly goalkeeper Andre Blake. I think Blake was watching Larrys Mabiala, thinking he was going to get his head to it. When Larrys didn’t, Blake was all wrong-footed and couldn’t react to Jebo’s shot. Goals like this happen now and then, where a guy missing the ball throws everyone off and the next thing you know, it’s in the back of the net.

That was Jebo’s fourth goal of the tournament. If he gets a hat trick in the final, he’ll tie for the Golden Boot.

Since this is a weird tournament where the stats don’t entirely count, would a Jebo hat trick count as the Timbers first hattie? I’m not sure it would. After all, Frederic Piquionne scored, like, four or five goals in a US Open game, and that didn’t count. My advice to Jebo would be to get the hattie anyway, then take it up with the Stat Council.

3) Speaking of stats, how many penalties have we given up in this tournament? It feels like one every single game, but I think it’s just five in six games. Clearly, this is still too damn much, especially since so many of them have been soft. Here’s the latest soft penalty, which happened in first half stoppage time.

I dunno, man. I’m pretty biased, but that looks a little divey to me. Fortunately, it didn’t turn into a goal, not because Steve Clark saved the resulting PK, but because Sergio Santos launched it into geosynchronous orbit.

That means the next goal happened in the 70th minute, courtesy of Sebastian Blanco’s head.

I guess that’s courtesy of two heads, actually. First, Dario Zuparic’s head, then Sebastian Blanco’s. Speaking of Zuparic, I’m really starting to like him. Against Philly, he had a few really calm, collected moments on defense. There would be a moment where he could have kicked the ball as hard as possible out of the box, but instead, he’d calmly pick out a pass, starting our next possession. I like that kind of composure. It makes me think he’s going to be a good signing.

4) Blanco’s goal made it 2-0 in the 70th minute. That should have put the game to bed, right? Wrong. Philly came storming back. In fact, I’d say they had more good chances in the last 10 minutes than they did in the entire rest of the game combined.

Here’s what they did in the 85th minute.

Helluva good save by Steve Clark. Helluva bad spill by Steve Clark. Helluva time to be ball-watching by Diego Chara.

Barely 90 seconds later, they almost made it 2-2.

Yeesh! Thank goodness the call on the field was offside, because if they’d called it onside, I’m not sure VAR would have overturned it. There is nothing about that replay that I’d call “clear and obvious,” so goal or no-goal, the original call would have stood.

But if there are any Philly fans reading this who think they got robbed, take a look at what happened in stoppage time.

You’re telling me that’s not worth a second look by the VAR? I have no idea anymore what a handball is and I’m not sure anyone else does, either, but if that ain’t a team benefiting from the ball hitting a guy’s hand, I don’t know what is.

So anyway, one close call went in our favor and one went in Philly’s favor. I think we’re a little more aggrieved, but whatever, we’ll call it a wash.

5) Some random thoughts.

  • After five straight games with an assist, Sebastian Blanco didn’t register one versus Philly. Fuckin’ slacker. Do you think it’s time to trade him? Think we could get anything for his washed-up ass?
  • I put together a video compilation I’m calling “Jaroslaw Niezgoda Doing Cool Shit.” Enjoy.

  • That last one may not qualify as “Cool Shit.” It might be closer to, “No Offense, Jarek, But Maybe Next Time, Shoot That Yourself Instead Of Passing.” Or even, “Actually, If You’d Just Hit That a Tiny Bit Harder, Andy Polo Would Have Walked It Into Goal, So What The Fuck Do I Know.”
  • Here’s a fun little interview with Eryk Williamson. I’m so happy he’s coming into his own. He seems like a good dude. I’d like to be cheering him for the next ten years or so.

  • I normally don’t put pictures of myself on the internet, but a friend filmed my reaction to the Blanco goal and, what can I say? I’m excitable.

  • This past week, MLS put out a schedule of upcoming games. That’s right, they’re going to play games after this tournament’s over. I’m not sure what to think about this. I was suspicious of the MLS is Back Tournament, but that worked out pretty well. The big, very big, extremely big difference here is that these new games aren’t being played in a bubble. So, yeah, I have concerns. Maybe I’ll talk about those in next week’s column.

6) So, anyway, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Timbers have a game Tuesday night. Just a little something we like to call the Championship Game. No big deal.

We’ll be going up against Orlando City, who have been pretty much shit for the entirety of their MLS existence, but now, after just a few months with new coach Oscar Pareja, look like one of the very best teams in the league. Their making the final is no accident, either. They’ve looked great. Just like us, they’ve played balanced, disciplined soccer. Just like us, they’re a hard team to beat.

Can we do it? Sure. In our last four games, we’ve played three of the best teams in the league (Philly, NYCFC, and LAFC) and we’ve beaten them all (yes, the LAFC draw felt like a win). The fourth team we faced, Cincinnati, gave us perhaps our toughest test, since they rolled out our personal kryptonite, a deep, deep bunker, but somehow we beat that, too.

My point is, whatever puzzle Orlando throws at us, I like our chances of solving it. We’re playing just that well.

But Orlando’s playing pretty damn well, too. They’ve beaten some good teams, too. So whatever puzzle we throw at them, they might find a way to solve it, too.

My hopes heading into Tuesday’s game? I hope Yimmi Chara’s healthy enough to start. I hope Valeri and Niezgoda begin the game on the bench (yes, I’m coming around on the whole super-sub idea). I hope Chris Duvall starts at right back, not because I rate him significantly higher than Pablo Bonilla, but because he’s a little older and a little more experienced, so maybe a championship game won’t give him stage fright. I hope we score the first goal. I hope we don’t give up another damn penalty. I hope Jebo gets his hat trick and his share of the Golden Boot. I hope Dairon Asprilla’s sitting in a wheelchair on the sideline, a blanket over him, keeping him warm, then at a critical moment in the second half, he throws off the blanket to reveal that he’s been wearing his uniform the whole time, Gio puts him into the game, Orlando completely falls apart from the shock of it all, Dairon scores the game-winning goal, and is carried off the field by his adoring teammates.

But most of all, I hope that the Timbers we’ve seen over this month-long tournament are the real Timbers, the permanent Timbers, the Timbers we’ll see from now on. Because I absolutely love this new version of the team. This is the kind of soccer I want to watch. This is the kind of team I want to root for.