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Six Degrees: The March Goes On

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Portland 3, NYCFC 1

New York City v Portland Timbers: Quarterfinals - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

1) I’ve seen a few people describing the Timbers as bad for the first 20 minutes of Saturday night’s game with NYCFC. I’m gonna disagree. We were bad for far longer than 20 minutes. I’m gonna go ahead and say we were shit for pretty much the entire first half.

What particular kind of shit, you ask? The same kind of shit we were in the season’s first two games, way back in March. The same kind of shit we were for great stretches of 2019. Saturday night’s first half was a depressing, discouraging, infuriating return to the Timbers at their worst.

I wasn’t too upset that we were playing defensively. I didn’t mind that our defense packed it in deep. Absorb pressure and counterattack is a very viable strategy. The problem is, in Saturday’s first half, we were only doing the first part. We were only absorbing pressure. When it came time to counterattack, we just... didn’t. We’d send a couple guys forward. There would be one guy on the wing sending a hopeful, hopeless ball into the box, where it would be met by four defenders and one lone Timber. That’s not a counterattack, that’s pointless, hopeless soccer, and like I said at the start, it reminded me of those two games back in March. Very discouraging.

NYCFC’s attack wasn’t a whole lot better, but they did grab a goal, thanks to a soft penalty on Larrys Mabiala in the 26th minute.

The worst penalty call I’ve ever seen? No. A little soft? Yes. Regardless, NYCFC sank the resultant PK, going up 1-0, then it was back to the Timbers playing crappy, hopeless soccer.

2) Until the 43rd minute, that is, when suddenly, out of nowhere, the ineffectual Timbers we suffered through back in March disappeared, and the exciting, dangerous Timbers we’ve been watching in this tournament suddenly reappeared.

The funny thing about this? During the buildup, I was complaining to my friend Chris about how bad we looked, about how it was like 2019 all over again. I was in the middle of saying that exact sentence when I had to pause, because we suddenly looked much, much better.

Watch the gif again. Jorge Villafana’s near the sideline and I’m expecting him to stay there and settle for a hopeful cross. But no. Instead, Sebastian Blanco’s pass leads Jorge into the box, where he looks up to see not one, not two, but three targets in the box. He sends the ball in to Yimmi Chara, there’s a lucky bounce off a defender, it falls to Blanco, then he’s putting an absolutely clinical strike into the side netting. We had gone from our shitty former offense to our exciting current offense in just a matter of seconds.

Okay, those are all my thoughts, written down right after the game. But then the next morning, I woke up and saw this video from Matt Doyle, an actual soccer expert. I’m always a bit surprised and pleased when I come to the same conclusions as the objectively smart people out there. (Though, Doyle additionally points out the great work done by Eryk Williamson, which I missed.)

3) During that Blanco goal, we’d fixed the attack temporarily. In the halftime locker room, we fixed it more permanently, and the boys came out for the second half looking great. The indecisiveness, the hesitancy, the lack of aggression, all of that was gone. I’m sure some of this improvement was due to Gio’s halftime strategizing, but some credit might also go to personnel changes. Diego Valeri came in for Marvin Loria for the 2nd half whistle, and seven minutes later, Jaroslaw Niezgoda replaced an injured Yimmi Chara.

What happens when you put two great attackers on the field? They do stuff like this.

In these last three games, Niezgoda has two goals and an assist. Meanwhile, Jeremy Ebobisse’s hit a little bit of cold spell. After scoring in each of our three group games, he’s had nothing these last two. In fact, he had two big misses Saturday night, one in each half.

I said it last week and I’ll say it again, Jebo’s my guy... but damn, has Jarek been crushing it lately. And you know something I like? Timbers who are crushing it. So if it’s Jarek over Jebo in our next game, I guess I’ll have to swallow my Jebo pride and accept it. Maybe he can be a supersub the way Niezgoda has been.

4) But you know the last person I’d expect to be a supersub? The person who makes my eyes roll every time he’s put into the game? The person who I’d never, ever, ever, EVER expect to put the game away with a 25-yard heat-seeking thermonuclear missile? Andy Freaking Polo.

What in the name of Dairon Asprilla is going on here? I swear, that video’s not doctored. Andy Polo really did that. Like, 60 seconds after coming onto the field. In fact, right before he hit let loose that artillery barrage, I’m pretty sure I was once again complaining to my friend Chris, this time about how Polo didn’t have an attacking bone in his body. And then he uncorked that absolute ripper, sending my jaw straight to the floor. Well done, Andy. I look forward to your next one a couple years from now.

5) Some random thoughts.

  • That’s five straight games with an assist for Sebastian Blanco. Surely this is a new Timbers record, right? Have we heard from #StatMan Mike Donovan on this? (LATE ADDITION: Yep, it’s a record!)
  • We got a Timbers debut Saturday night, if only for a minute or two at the end. Welcome to the big leagues, Timbers Academy product and Tigard High School graduate Blake Bodily!
  • I’m incredibly torn on the idea of Diego Valeri, Supersub. Yeah, his legs could do with some rest, and yeah, the attack really improved when he came in at the start of the second half, these are both good things. But what if his absence is part of the reason we sucked in the first half? Do we want our first half attack to suck like that every game? I’m torn. Let me know what you think down in comments.
  • Here’s a small thing that I really like. Maybe you do, too. I like those occasional moments during a game when a team’s formation is lined up perfectly on the field. Soccer’s an incredibly free-flowing game, with players all over the field, but every now and then, for just a second or two, everyone’s where they’re supposed to be, they’re lined up perfectly, and you say to your friend, “Look! Look! It’s a 4-4-2!” And then one second later, someone moves and that brief moment of symmetry is gone. Do you like those moments as much as I do?
  • In three years as head coach, Gio Savarese’s taken us to the 2018 MLS Cup, the 2018 and 2019 US Open Cup quarterfinals, and now the 2020 MLS is Back semifinals. He’s a really good tournament coach.
  • Actually, the way we’ve played during this tournament, I’m starting to wonder if Gio’s just a good coach, period. Sorry to say this, but I think the Timbers have played kind of ugly soccer the last two years. But during this tournament, we’re suddenly playing attractive soccer. And we’ve kept it up for four-and-a-half games now. Is this the real Gio? Is this what he’s been working toward? Is this how things will stay when the tournament’s over? If so, count me in. If this is who Gio really is, then yes, he’s just a good coach, period.

6) This Wednesday at five, we take on Philadelphia in the semifinals. I watched them beat SKC in the quarters and they had moments of looking absolutely unstoppable. They were stringing passes together in the 18-yard box the way we have at our very best. Brendan Aaronson looked particularly good. The kid’s only 19 and far from perfect, but every now and then, he looked like a friggin’ warlock out there.

Just like with NYCFC, Philly will have a couple more rest days than us. Hopefully, that won’t help them any more than it helped NYCFC.

Because of the short rest, I won’t be surprised if Diego Valeri starts the game on the bench. Because of that knock he took against NYCFC, Yimmi Chara might be on the bench with him. If so, I could see us lined up with Loria on one wing, Jebo on the other, Blanco in the middle, and Niezgoda up top.

I have no predictions at right back. Chris Duvall and Pablo Bonilla seem pretty even at this point.

Everywhere else on the field, I think we’ll see the same starters as we saw Saturday night. The question is, will they come out slow and listless for a second straight game? NYCFC didn’t punish us too badly, but based on how they looked versus SKC, I think Philadelphia definitely could. They could put us in a hole too deep to climb out of, in which case, Wednesday could be our last game this tournament.

And maybe... possibly... hopefully not... our last game of 2020.