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Six Degrees: A Hot, Sweaty, Slog of a Week

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Portland 2, Houston 2 — Portland 0, Minnesota 1

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

1) In last week’s column, I wrote about how good I thought the team looked playing with three center backs late in the SKC game and how I’d enjoy seeing more of it. This proves, once again, that I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.

On Wednesday in Houston, the Timbers opened the game with three center backs and absolutely stunk. For the game’s opening 40 minutes, the team couldn’t defend, they couldn’t attack, and they couldn’t mark players on set pieces. They were just a mess. I’m not ready to call it our worst half of the year, since I remember that 4-1 debacle down in Dallas, but it was pretty bad.

Here’s Houston’s first goal. Please enjoy the incompetence.

We’ve seen this before and know the script. Set piece, guys open in the box, Timbers slow to react, goal scored, defenders looking confused, rinse and repeat.

And then this happened on a set piece in the 28th.

The fuck? Jeremy Ebobisse and Dario Zuparic are right there. Is that wide-open guy invisible? What about the other wide-open guy? Also invisible? Then why can I see them? Please explain the physics of this.

And we’re not done. Here’s Houston’s second goal.

I feel I should remind you that the Timbers were playing with three center backs, and yet it felt like zero. Tons of green space in the box, tons of room for Houston attackers to get on the ball, tons of time to line up shots and score goals.

I liked our three center back set-up against SKC. I hated it against Houston. It didn’t help the defense, it didn’t help the attack, it was an utter failure.

2) It was an utter failure for about 40 minutes, that is. Because the weirdest thing happened at the very end of the first half, and for the entirety of the second half. The Timbers suddenly looked really good. Now, yes, some of that improvement might be down to Diego Valeri and Larrys Mabiala coming into the game at the start of the second half, but neither of them were around for the end of the first half, and that’s when the Timbers started looking legitimately good.

Here’s when it started.

Damn, that’s beautiful. Would’ve been an absolute golazo, had it gone in. Regardless, it seemed to light a fire under our asses, because for the last five minutes of the first half, plus the five minutes of stoppage time, the Timbers were suddenly the best team on the field.

It continued in the second half. Valeri was out there pulling strings and looking dangerous, but he actually wasn’t involved with our first goal. That was a classic Timbers counterattack involving Dairon Asprilla and the formerly incompetent but now strangely good Claudio Bravo.

That’s just clinical, isn’t it? Devastatingly clinical. I love Dairon slipping past that Houston defender, then the defender grabbing his jersey, futilely trying to stop him from sprinting away. I love how the soccer match instantly turns into a track meet with Dairon, Bravo, Valeri, and Renzo Zambrano hauling ass down the field, the Houston defenders desperately scrambling back. I love Dairon’s lay off to Claudio, I love Claudio’s perfect pass back to him, and I love, love, love Dairon’s delicate little chip over the keeper. Honestly, I didn’t know Dairon could do anything delicately. He’s been here since 2015 and I’m not sure we’ve ever seen Dairon be delicate. He’s always been a wind up and knock the piss out of the ball kind of guy. But here? A delicate little chip. Amazing.

That made it 2-1 and all the momentum was in Portland’s favor. Just as we were clearly and obviously the worse team in the first 40 minutes, we were clearly and obviously the better team for the rest of the match. Our defense was better, our attack was better, we were knocking at Houston’s door and an equalizer seemed inevitable.

Alas, it took awhile to get there. All the way into stoppage time, actually. But maybe that long delay made the final result even better, because, man oh man, did this goal feel great.

And it wasn’t just me who felt great, look at Jebo’s face. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such relief from someone upon scoring. It’s like the weight of the world was lifted from his shoulders. Strikers need confidence and Jebo’s been severely lacking in it this year. Let’s hope finally getting his first goal will be a spark that sends him on a goal-scoring tear. Let’s hope he makes up for lost time and starts terrorizing MLS goalkeepers like we know he can.

3) Some random thoughts.

  • This game ended happily, but we shouldn’t forget how it started. The Timbers were shit at Dallas, they were shit at Philadelphia, and, for 40 minutes at least, they were shit at Houston. This has to stop. Good teams are consistent. If we want to call ourselves a good team, we can’t every now and then completely shit the bed.
  • As I predicted, Sebastian Blanco entered the game in the 70th minute. As I did not predict, he was removed in the 88th. Let’s hope this is no big deal. Let’s hope he didn’t tweak his recently-repaired knee.
  • I’m not ready to call Blake Bodily good, but I am ready to call him competent. He doesn’t play much, but when he does, he doesn’t look overwhelmed. He looks like he belongs.
  • I’m still not sure we can say the same for Zac McGraw. He’s been on the field for some of our defense’s worst stretches this season. I hope I’m wrong about him. I want him to be good.
  • Aljaz Ivacic started in goal! Our fifth starting keeper of the year! We did it, everyone! We did it!

4) After that hot, muggy night in Houston, the Timbers only had two days rest before playing again, this time back home at Surface Of The Sun Park. The game was originally scheduled for 7:30, then moved back to 8:00, the moved back again to 8:30. Despite the delays, Surface Of The Sun Park was still hot as... well, the surface of the sun.

In some ways, our 1-0 loss to Minnesota felt like a game of 10 minutes. The first five minutes of the first half and the first five minutes of the second. Minnesota ran rampant in those first five minutes and the Timbers ran rampant in the first five minutes of the second half. The difference? Minnesota finished one of their chances. The Timbers didn’t. Such is soccer, such is life.

Things didn’t get much better from there. The Timbers pretty much took the first half off. Minny did all the attacking, the Timbers did all the defending. The main target for my ire regarding this isn’t a player, it’s coach Gio Savarese. I think he told the team to come out, sit super-deep, and no matter what happens, do not attack. That’s certainly what it looked like. Anytime we moved the ball into Minnesota’s half, it was Diego Valeri, Jeremy Ebobisse, and nobody. Two attackers versus the world. It’s a shame Eryk Williamson wasn’t playing. He would have made a difference.

Wait... he was playing? In the first half? Are you sure? I mean, I remember him in the second. He was an attacking sonofabitch in the second. But in the first? Okay, I’ll take your word for it.

5) Here Eryk is, just 30 seconds into the second half, in the middle of our best attack of the night. Actually, I’ll just go ahead and show you the first five minutes. We ran wild. We looked like prime Barcelona.

Notice how much Eryk Williamson we saw there? He sat deep in the first half and we had nothing. He came forward in the second half and we were on fire. Let’s hope Gio noticed as well.

Another guy we saw looking dangerous in those clips? Left back Claudio Bravo. I thought Bravo was pretty weak in the first half and really quite good in the second. Is it any coincidence that the second half is when he came forward to attack? Yet more evidence that maybe Bravo’s not meant to be a fullback, that he’s meant to be a winger. (Please let me know if I’m wrong about this. I’m fully prepared to be wrong.)

Anyway, despite our great second half, the game finished 1-0. The Timbers had 22 shots, but only two on target, and neither of those shots required the Minnesota keeper to stand on his head. I loved the fight I saw from the Timbers in the second half, but the fact remains, if you can’t put shots on target, you can’t win games.

In the end, it’s hard to be certain why we lost this game. Maybe it comes down to one bad defensive play in the opening two minutes. Maybe it comes down to an excessively passive first half strategy. Maybe it comes down to poor finishing. Maybe it comes down to an extremely short-handed team playing their third game of the week in 100 degree weather. Most likely, it’s all of these things. It wasn’t our night. We’ll rest up and try again on Thursday against the new kids down in Austin.

6) Some random thoughts.

  • Ton of handballs out there, amiright? I can recall two or three uncalled handballs in the first half alone, including one by Minny right on the edge of the box that looked really obvious to me. Uncalled, of course.
  • After getting pulled early from Wednesday’s game in Houston, Sebastian Blanco wasn’t on the bench Saturday night. Clearly, he had a setback. Let’s hope it was very, very minor.
  • Having played the full 90 in all three games this past week, Jebo must be exhausted. Alas, we’ll need him to go another 90 against Austin. There’s no rest until Felipe Mora and Yimmi Chara come back from the Copa America.
  • Has center back Bill Tuiloma become our primary free kick taker? How did this happen? Who decides this? It’s always a little weird seeing him take it over Valeri or Ebobisse.
  • The Minnesota keeper didn’t have to make any tough saves, but you know who did? Steve Clark. Multiple times.

  • I friggin’ love how Steve Clark celebrates his saves. I bet he’s fun as hell at a party.
  • As you’ve probably heard by now, in the second half the game was stopped for a good five minutes while the referees investigated a racist comment aimed at Diego Chara. I only know this because of what I’ve read since. At the time, I had absolutely no clue what was going on. Everyone around me in the stands was just looking at each other in confusion, totally baffled. It’s times like this when I wonder if MLS should mic their refs the way the NFL does, so the ref could explain things to the crowd. This would help mostly with VAR decisions, but also in situations like what happened on Saturday. It’s something for the league to consider, at least. Without it, fans in the stadium will continue being confused about what’s actually happening.
  • What are my thoughts on the racist incident itself? I believe Chara. I also believe that no referees saw it or heard it, so there wasn’t much they could do. Could the Timbers have walked off the pitch? Yes. Should they have? That’s entirely up to Diego Chara. If he wanted the team to walk off, they should have, and to be honest, probably would have, which makes me think he didn’t want it. But if they had walked off, nobody in the stands would have known why. We would have continued looking around and asking each other what the hell was going on. It would be the weirdest ending to a game that I can imagine. But still, if it’s what Diego wanted, I would have supported it fully. Whenever I finally learned what it was about, that is.