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Six Degrees: Auspicious Debuts

Portland 1, Houston 1

MLS: Portland Timbers at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Clearly, the big story from our last game was the debut of an amazing player, one who could potentially be our greatest signing ever. That’s right, we finally got to see Renzo Zambrano! (...checks notes...) Oh, and also some guy named Brian.

1) Let’s start by talking about our defensive midfield. The team faced Houston without Diego Chara, which as we all know by now, means the Timbers can’t possibly win. But can they look good? Yeah, turns out they can. Young d-mids Cristhian Paredes and Renzo Zambrano looked like a couple veterans out there. And while the Timbers weren’t perfect in the game’s opening 33 minutes, they were definitely solid. Chara’s absence wasn’t glaringly obvious.

Then in the 33rd minute, Paredes sat down on the pitch, then laid down, then got tended to, then limped off the field to be replaced by Swiss Army Knife Andres Flores. What happened to Paredes? I’m hearing left leg, possibly his knee, but don’t hold me to that. I have zero inside information. Ever.

What I do know is that the defense got a little shaky after he left. Not insanely shaky, but a little bit. Shaky enough that, seven minutes later, Houston bagged their only goal.

I’ll get to that goal in a second, but first, a few thoughts.

One, I really hope Paredes is okay. He’s been so damn solid this year. I’d hate for him to hit another roadblock like he did last year.

Two, if he is hurt, we may have a decent replacement in Zambrano. He didn’t have a perfect MLS debut, but he definitely didn’t embarrass himself. He didn’t look out of his depth.

And third, it’s fun to think that if Paredes hadn’t gotten hurt, if he and Zambrano had played the full 90 next to each other, we might have beaten Houston, 1-0. And if Paredes comes back from this injury quickly, maybe at some point later this season, these two young fellas are gonna give us our first non-Chara victory in forever. And then maybe keep doing it for the next 5-10 years.

Yes, those opening 33 minutes in Houston gave me hope that, for the first time, we might actually have a succession plan for Diego Chara and our defensive midfield. And that’s a nice feeling.

2) Okay, here’s the Houston goal.

There are two things about this goal that I’m having trouble figuring out. One, did Mauro Manotas chest that ball into goal, or head it in? It’s really hard to tell.

Second thing I can’t figure out: which Timbers defender is to blame? There are two competing arguments, which I’ll present to you in tweet form.

Argument one:

Argument two:

So what do you think? Which Jorge fucked up?

Did Jorge Moreira foolishly leave his man? Or was he stepping up, just like everyone else on the back line? Everyone except Jorge Villafaña? Was all that forward motion a coordinated back line stepping up, or was it just everyone following their man? If everyone’s following their man, Moreira’s at fault for leaving his. If everyone’s stepping up, Villafaña’s at fault for staying behind.

Clearly, I don’t know for certain which it was, but my instinct tells me Moreira’s the one to blame. I think everyone was staying with their man except him. He left his guy, and a couple weird bounces later, the ball was in the back of the net. 1-0, bad guys.

3) Let’s talk about personnel. Lots of surprise faces on the field last Wednesday night.

Despite possibly being to blame on that goal, I thought it was a great comeback game for Jorge Villafaña at left back. I was worried Alberth Elis was going to eat him alive, but Jorge held his own. I’m not sure why he stank so bad earlier in the year, but he looked just fine in Houston. And not only was his defense fine, he got forward much more that Zarek Valentin has been. Don’t be surprised if Villafaña’s starting against Philadelphia.

Speaking of guys making comebacks in Houston, can I get a Jeff Jeff Jeff? Great game from former starter Jeff Attinella. A few really nice saves and a cool head under a lot of Houston pressure. Just like with Villafaña, I have no idea if he started because of rest or injury, but it’s possible he’ll keep the job moving forward.

A third guy getting a surprise start, Julio Cascante at center back. Let’s all hope Larrys Mabiala was resting, rather than injured, but for the most part Cascante looked okay. Not so good that I want him starting, but good enough that I’d trust him in an emergency.

And how about a fourth guy getting a surprise start, right winger Andy Polo. I saw some really nice aggressive attacking moments from Polo in the first half. His best moment was probably on this Sebastian Blanco crossbar-rattler in the 16th minute. Polo starts this sequence on the right flank, makes a big diagonal run, dragging defenders with him, then has a nice give-and-go backheel pass to Blanco.

Alas, Polo’s aggressiveness kind of dried up in the second half, which is normal for him. I don’t hate Polo, I just think we need more of an attacking threat on that right wing.

Fortunately, we may have just the guy. Maybe you’ve heard of him? Guy named Brian Fernandez?

4) Timbers Nation has been geeked up over Fernandez for weeks now. We saw all that money being thrown at him, we saw videos of him running roughshod over Liga MX, we saw pictures of him arriving at the airport, we saw videos of him meeting the team, touring the facilities, going to his first practice. The only thing we hadn’t seen was Fernandez on the field, playing real minutes in green and gold.

On Wednesday night, in the 65th minute, it finally happened. My neighborhood bar couldn’t have been more excited. When Fernandez warmed up, we cheered. When he pulled on his game jersey, we cheered. When he came on, when the ball got near him, when he got his first touch, when he took his first shot, every single time the whole bar was up on its toes, just electrified.

Then, in the 77th minute, 12 minutes into his first shift, he did this.

I’ve watched a lot of big games and seen a lot of big goals, and I’d put the reaction to this one up there with any of them. Not the goal. The reaction. At my bar, we were jumping around, screaming, high fiving each other, just losing our minds. It was like we’d just scored in MLS Cup, not some random Wednesday night game in Houston.

As with many great moments, it was about tension and release. We were tense with expectations. Was Fernandez any good? Was he worth all that money? Was he just another Lucas Melano, only here to disappoint? Could we trust this guy? Could we believe?

All that tension, then release. We had all those expectations, then Fernandez 100% delivered.

5) So, that was a great start to his time here, but it was only a start. There’s no guarantee he can keep this up. There are many things we don’t know yet.

For example, does he play defense? I’m not sure we’ve seen that yet. We’ve seen him play as a late game sub when the Timbers were behind. I’m interested to see how he plays when the game’s tied or we’re ahead. Will he apply pressure? Will he harass center backs? Will he track back to help our defenders? I don’t think his short shift in Houston answered any of those questions.

One thing we did see him do was pass. Look at this play from the 85th minute.

Tomas Conechny’s original pass takes Fernandez out of a good shooting position, so what does he do? He doesn’t panic, he doesn’t force anything. Instead, he picks his head up, surveys the field, draws a few defenders toward him, and sends a perfect pass back to Conechny, right in the middle of the box. Not bad at all.

(Another fun thing to watch in that clip is the movement of Diego Valeri. He makes himself available to Fernandez, then when the pass doesn’t come to him, he sneaks forward and puts himself in a perfect position for a pass from Conechny. If young Tomas slips a ball through the defenders, Valeri’s one-on-one with the keeper. Nice movement from El Maestro.)

So, we’ve seen Brian Fernandez come on as a sub, we’ve seen him shoot, we’ve seen him pass. Maybe this weekend in Philly, we’ll see him start, see him defend, and – hopefully – see him protect a Timbers lead.

6) Unfortunately, the Timbers might be hard pressed to get a lead, because Philly’s really, really good. They’re tops in the East, they have the league’s second best goal differential, and they’re 7-1-3 in their last 11 games.

But you know who else is good? Houston. They’re 2nd in the West by PPG, have the league’s third best goal differential, and we just went to their house and stole a point. If we could do that to Houston on short rest, I think we could do it to Philly on long rest.

Plus, we’ll presumably have Chara back, Mabiala back, and Fernandez starting on the right wing.

That’s assuming he starts at right wing. As I’ve said before, I don’t want him at forward. We don’t really need an offensive upgrade at forward, but we definitely need one at right wing. Additionally, I think he and Jeremy Ebobisse might be good for each other. Jebo can be the holdup guy, laying balls into the path of an onrushing Fernandez. Or an onrushing Diego Valeri. Or Sebastian Blanco. Or whoever. The point is, I want Jebo in there.

Now, what the formation will be, we can only guess. I can imagine a 4-4-2 with Jebo and Valeri as forwards, Blanco and Fernandez as wingers. Perhaps letting Fernandez and Valeri switch back and forth from winger to forward.

Also interesting would be a 4-3-3 with Valeri, Jebo, and Fernandez straight across the top, though I’m not sure how the midfield would look. Blanco as a 10, Chara as a 6, and Paredes/Zambrano as an 8, perhaps.

Another possibility, but one I don’t want to see because it requires pulling Jebo: a 4-3-3 with Blanco, Fernandez, and Valeri on the front line and Chara, Paredes/Zambrano, and someone else in the middle. I hate benching Jebo, but if we had to, this would be an intriguing setup. (And what if that “someone else in the middle” was Eryk Williamson? That might make up for benching Jebo in #PlayTheKids world.)

But in the end, Gio’s the one who will have to make those decisions. You and I, all we can do is get excited thinking about our new weapon, Brian Fernandez, and all hope that his amazing debut wasn’t a fluke, that he really is as good as he looked last Wednesday in Houston.