Okay, folks, it was another two-game week, but we’re gonna do something a little different this time. Instead of discussing the two games chronologically, I’m gonna do the second game first. I’m gonna talk about this weekend’s loss to Dallas, then go back in time a little to talk about last Wednesday’s game against Club America. I think it’ll work better this way. Trust me? Okay, let’s do it.
1) The big question going into Saturday’s game against FC Dallas was How much will Gio rotate the lineup? Will he play our B-team, so the A-teamers can rest for leg two against Club America? Or will he go for the win in Dallas, rest be damned?
Not only did Gio play the B-team, he went deep into the B-team.
Here’s PTFC’s starting XI at FCD by depth chart position:— Chris Rifer (@ChrisRifer) May 3, 2021
LB 1, CB 2, CB 4, RB 2
CM 4, CM 5
Wing 4, ACM 3 (???), Wing 5
ST 2 (3?)
Yeah, you’re not going to win that game.
Gio even gave a couple guys their very first MLS start. Welcome to the big leagues, center back Zac McGraw and goalkeeper Hunter Sulte! How’d your first start go, by the way? Did you manage to keep Dallas off the scoreboard for... I don’t know... two minutes?
Yikes. The pass went through McGraw’s legs, and the shot went past Sulte’s outstretched arm. What a glorious way to start a career.
Things would get better, though. Our B-teamers kept Dallas from scoring their second goal for... (checks notes) ... 11 and a half minutes. Progress!
The star of this play is d-mid Renzo Zambrano’s desperate, flailing foot coming up just short of the ball. It’s worth noting that Zambrano’s not actually a B-teamer. He’s a C-teamer, behind the resting Diego Chara and the injured Cristhian Paredes. I’m not sure who’s behind Zambrano. You, probably. Ready to play? The way things are going, the team may need you soon, so maybe start warming up, okay?
That goal made it 2-0. The Timbers made it to halftime without giving up another goal, right? Well, almost. They were literally seconds away from the ref blowing his whistle for halftime.
The star of this goal isn’t one of the B-teamers, it’s actually first-team striker Felipe Mora, who does some world-class, Best XI-quality ball-watching. Check him out in front of goal, just enjoying the show as the man he was marking zips forward and pokes the loose ball home. I know you’re not a defender, Felipe, but Jeez Louise. You gotta put forth a least a little effort.
2) Things got better in the second half for two reasons. One, could they get any worse? And two, Gio put in some of his A-teamers. Diego Valeri, Eryk Williamson, Dairon Asprilla, and Josecarlos Van Rankin all entered the game at the start of the second half and immediately started putting Dallas on their heels.
In the 62nd minute, Valeri and Williamson combined for this beauty.
That’s reminiscent of the give-and-go those two put together last year against Seattle, isn’t it? I love the aggressiveness from them. You can almost see the moment where they both turn it up a notch. Eryk turns his jog into a sprint, Valeri sees him doing it, follows suit, and the next thing you know, Dallas is doomed. I’m not going to say this goal gave me hope for the Timbers to come back and win this particular game, but it definitely gave me hope for the rest of the season. Yeah, the B-team kinda blew their chance to impress, but boy, oh boy, does our A-team have some talent.
Alas, the score didn’t stay 3-1. Dallas had one more in them, a gorgeous counter-attacking goal.
That’s the sort of thing that happens when you’re pushing forward, desperate for a goal. The other team gets a loose ball, starts sprinting downfield, and two long, beautiful passes later, it’s 4-1. The Timbers have scored beauties like this. Kinda sucks to be on the other end of it.
3) Some random thoughts.
- It’s never fun to watch your team lose 4-1, but this time, it’s perfectly understandable. We’ve got a huge CCL game coming on Wednesday, so Gio rested his starters. It was the right decision, in my mind. We’ve got plenty of time in the MLS season to make up those points, but we’ve only got this one chance to beat Club America. Gio was right to play his subs.
- That being said, damn, boys, you really didn’t show well. Sulte and McGraw, sure, they probably had first-game jitters, but Pablo Bonilla? What happened to the guy who was crushing it just a couple games ago? And welcome back, Andy Polo, but I expect better, man. You’ve generally done well as a d-mid, but not this time.
- Flip side of the above? Maybe this is how B-teamers get better. Maybe throwing your backups out there and letting them take their lumps is exactly the right move. Maybe getting their ass-kicked like this is the best thing that could’ve happened to Sulte and McGraw. I dunno. Gimme your thoughts down below.
- You know who didn’t get any rest? Dario Zuparic. He’s got two yellows in CCL competition and won’t be able to play in Wednesday’s game against Club America, which is why Gio played him the full 90 in Dallas. Larrys Mabiala and Bill Tuiloma will be our center back pairing in Mexico City.
- A familiar face who came into the game in the 75th minute? Jeremy Ebobisse! Great to have you back, Jebo! I hope your health issues are gone and you quickly resume being the uber-reliable Ironman we’ve come to know and love.
- Last thing worth mentioning from the Dallas game was this bit of comedic gold.
- Dead God in heaven, I howled with laughter over this. Just cracked right the hell up. For some reason, sports fights crack me up. Maybe not hockey fights, since those involve actual punches and stuff, but other sports? Their fights don’t have any real violence, just a bunch of jawing, maybe some pushing here and there. I find them utterly delightful. To me, the best part of this clip isn’t Gio’s complete and total non-flinch, it’s Eryk Williamson weaving through the scrum so he could sneak up behind Hollingshead, get right up next to his ear, and start talking a rash of shit. Oh, lord, what I would have given for Eryk to have been miked up there. Was he yelling? I like to imagine him whispering, but in a really menacing way. What kind of shit was he saying? What’s Eryk like in a sports fight? I want to know.
4) Okay, now we go back in time, from Saturday to last Wednesday. We turn from the B-team to the A-team, from MLS to CONCACAF Champions League, from a match in Dallas that didn’t feel all that important, to a match against Mexican powerhouse Club America that kinda felt like our most important game in years.
I’m not joking, folks, I was so friggin’ pumped for this game. All day leading up to it, I was excited and nervous and kind of scared, even. I tried explaining it to some of my non-soccer-fan friends and the best comparison I could come up with was if the LA Lakers went to Paris and played whatever team’s currently leading the French basketball league. Yeah, the French are pretty good at basketball and their league’s definitely decent, but still... these are the friggin’ Lakers. They’re not just an NBA basketball team, they’re kinda the NBA basketball team. Do you think the French team would be jacked up for the game? Think their fans would be? That’s kind of what this game against Club America was like. Like the Lakers were coming to town.
So, yeah, I was a little pumped.
The high emotions only got higher when I got to Providence Park and saw all the Club America fans. Seriously, there were yellow jerseys everywhere. There were, like, five different guys out in front of the stadium selling America gear. Jerseys, t-shirts, flags, luchador masks. Friggin’ luchador masks! (I seriously considered buying one.)
The madness only continued inside the park. Yellow shirts were everywhere. The visitor’s section was packed. And you can just forget about social distancing, because those America fans were cheek-to-jowl, singing and dancing and waving flags. I’m not gonna lie, it was pretty awesome.
So there we were, getting ready to play the Lakers, getting ready to see if our French basketball team could hang with the big boys.
5) The verdict? Yeah, we kinda could. We could hang. We had better moments and worse moments, but on the whole, we never looked completely outclassed, not to my eyes, at least.
The first half was definitely our weaker half. We did a lot of nice things on defense and in the midfield, but absolutely nothing in the final third. It was almost comical how completely the America back line shut us down when we got to the 18-yard box. I was like a brick wall. I had some America fans near me and I was like, “Dude, your fullbacks are amazing.” Then later, I was like, “Your center backs are pretty damn good, too.” All in all, in that first half, I didn’t see our attack as being bad, I saw America’s defense are being really, really good.
At the other end of the field, the Timbers defense was doing pretty well, too. Not quite as dominant –we allowed maybe seven or eight shots in the first half, while America’s defense allowed zero – but still, we were solid. We weren’t in panic mode or anything.
Then, right at the end of the half, left back Claudio Bravo – the guy whose 1v1 defense I’ve been complaining about for the last few weeks – did something stupid in a 1v1 situation.
What the fuck, Claudio? The guy wasn’t even going toward goal! If you’re going to desperately throw your foot in like that, at least save it for a desperate situation. This was in no way desperate. This was just a guy heading out of the box, toward the corner, and you turned it into a penalty. Yeesh.
6) So that made it 1-0, and I spent the entire halftime wondering if we had a chance. I mean, we certainly hadn’t stunk, but man, oh man, America’s defense hadn’t allowed us a single shot. How were we going to come back if we couldn’t even get a shot off?
The answer? Play a hell of a lot faster.
As soon as the whistle blew for the second half, the Timbers were playing like their heads were on fire. Everything was faster. They moved faster, they passed faster, they thought faster. Their speed of play seemed to double, maybe triple.
And it definitely worked. After zero shots in the first half, we had 10 in the second, all while holding America to maybe three or four. And less than five minutes in, Dairon Asprilla nearly tied it up with this beauty.
Of course it was Dairon, right? I mean, if someone’s going to score on a crazy, impossible, why-the-hell-are-you-even-shooting-it-from-there shot, it’s gonna be Dairon. In last week’s column, I wrote about how inexplicably amazing he’s been this year, and someone dropped some brilliance down in comments.
This is perfect and I’m jealous I couldn’t put it into words so well. #LetDaironBeDairon
But despite Dairon’s great attempt, and despite an entire 2nd half of our battering at America’s door, the clock continued ticking toward 90 minutes and the game continued to stay 1-0. At a certain point, I started to lose heart, wondering if maybe Amercia’s defense was just too damn good. If we were destined to come up short.
The officials announced there would be four minutes of stoppage time, and at exactly 94:08, with what would probably have been the game’s very last kick, this happened.
I was way down at the other end of the field, so I didn’t see what happened. I saw the referee whistling and pointing to the spot, but had no idea what had actually occurred. But the truth is, I think even if I’d been sitting in the north end, I still wouldn’t have been able to tell what happened. I mean, look at that mess! Look at the madness! Look at the piles of bodies! Look at some random defender come flying – flying! – across the screen trying to block a shot! Even in replay, watching it in slow-motion, it’s absolute pandemonium.
And yet... the ref got the call 100% right. I’m on the record as stating that no one really knows what a handball is. Not refs, not players, not fans. This time, though? That’s a handball. It was such a handball, in fact, that the dude practically caught it. I’m sure he didn’t mean to, but that’s what he did. The ref somehow saw him do it, pointed at the spot, then Felipe Mora stepped up and sank the PK. Ref blew his whistle, the game was over, thank you and good night.
So what does it all mean? It means that, for one night, at least, the Timbers could totally hang with the biggest team in Liga MX. We may not have beaten them, but we went toe-to-toe with them and absolutely held our own. Sure, we didn’t score a goal from open play, but you know what? Neither did Club America. And yes, we had some issues in the first half, but then we went and owned the second half. We absolutely, 100% hung with them. We can hold our heads high.
Of course, it ain’t over. This is a two-leg, home-and-away series, and we’ll be playing the second leg this Wednesday night. Can we do it again? Can we hang with them in Mexico City, huffing and puffing at 7,000 feet? Can we hang with them when it’s not just a few hundred crazy, screaming, smoke-bomb-igniting fans in yellow, but thousands and thousands?
I have no idea. But I can’t wait to find out.