Six Degrees: Perfect Record

Photo Peter G. Aiken, USA TODAY Sports

So far this season, three teams in MLS have perfect records. Dallas (3 games, 3 wins), Chicago (3 games, 3 losses), and Portland (3 games, 3 draws).

At least we ain’t Chicago, right?

1) The season-opening 0-0 draw against RSL was actually an enjoyable game. Saturday’s 0-0 draw in Kansas City? Ugly. No fun at all.

We can lay some of the blame on the referee, who let the teams bang a little too much in the first half. By the time he tried to crack down on things, a hockey game had broken out.

But the game’s ugliness wasn’t all due to that. Sporting KC made it a slogfest. They were all over our guys, not giving them an inch of space to work in. Darlington Nagbe, who’d been so transcendent in our first two matches, was held in check for most of the game.

Plus, the Timbers have been using a direct style of play this year, hanging back on defense and kicking the ball deep, hoping our attackers can do something with it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but regardless, it’s not a very attractive style of play. We may be stuck with it, though, until Will Johnson and Diego Valeri come back from injury.

2) Since Caleb Porter arrived as coach in 2013, the Portland Timber have never won a game in the month of March. I swear that’s true.

In 2013, we had 4 games in March. 3 draws and a loss. That’s 3 points.

In 2014, we had another 4 games. 2 draws, 2 losses. That 2 points.

In 2015? So far we’ve had 3 games, 3 draws, 3 points. If we draw next week in Vancouver, we’ll have 4 points on the month. Still no wins, but it would be our most successful March of the Caleb Porter era.

I’m really not sure how I feel about this. I mean, we’re not losing, right?

And it’s not like we’ve played a bunch of chumps, either. RSL, Los Angeles, Sporting KC. Against teams like that, with the injuries we’ve had, we could have done a whole lot worse than three draws.

What I’m saying is, we definitely don’t suck.

But I still remember last year, when we started the season with an 8-game winless streak. Throughout that period, I’d come here and ask all of you, “Should I start panicking? Have we reached the panic stage yet?”

Each time, the answer was, “Dear Lord, C.I., it’s a 34-game season. Relax!”

And we know what happened. We finished the season as one of the league’s best teams, but could never outrun those opening 8 games, missing the playoffs by a single stupid point.

I’m not panicking yet, I swear. But a draw next week? A loss next week? Maybe then I’ll start to panic.

3) Okay, let’s talk about the game.

How do we feel about our defense? Three games, two shutouts. That ain’t bad. And there were quite a few beautiful plays from our back four.

But still, didn’t we sometimes feel a little lucky? How many times did SKC almost get a goal? I can think of three headers that went just wide. I can think of another couple corner kicks that zipped right across the face of goal, nobody touching them at all. Not a single one of those counts as a shot on goal, not a single one required a save from our keeper. And yet… Dangerous. Very dangerous. Slide all of those balls a foot left or right and the Timbers are down 5-0.

I feel awful saying this because, honestly, they pitched a shutout. What more do I want, right?

I guess I just want to feel like the defense has everything completely under control. Like it’s not luck, it’s skill. I want to feel the way I felt during the opener against RSL. I want that feeling again. Complete dominance. Complete invulnerability.

4) As long as I’m nitpicking the defense, how do you guys feel about Adam Kwarasey? Because I can’t decide.

To be sure, I love certain things about him. I love his calm demeanor. I love his feet. I love the way he comes out of goal and looks like a soccer player, not a bear on roller skates. (Sorry, Donovan. You know I love you.)

But do Kwarasey’s hands maybe seem a little hard? A little “spill-y?”

For example, take that save in the 39th minute, where he was on the ground, lost his handle on the ball, but managed to keep it near his feet and kick it to a teammate. That could have gone horribly wrong in so many ways. If an SKC player had gotten a foot on that and put it in, we’d be out for Kwarasey’s blood right now.

The truth is, it’s hard to really judge his hands so far, since he’s had to make so few saves. Let’s hope it stays that way. Let’s hope he’s last in the league in saves made. Let’s hope we never have to learn how soft his hands are because all he has to do back there is hang out and chew gum.

5) But enough about the defense. They’re the least of our problems. The number one issue right now, and the one I don’t any answers for, is our offense. Sporting KC put our boys in their pocket and didn’t let them out the whole game.

And maybe that’s the story in its entirely. “Good Defense Makes Us Look Bad For One Game.” Maybe that’s it.

Or maybe there’s more.

Maybe we’re missing two of our key attackers to injury. Maybe not having El Maestro in the middle had made us attack a little differently, a little less attractively. Maybe we’ve got that new guy Asprilla out on the right and while he looks fast and aggressive and intriguing, he also hasn’t produced too many chances. And maybe the bench only has two attacking subs because everyone else is hurt.

Lots of problems, not a lot of solutions.

Here’s a question: what’s up with Maxi Urruti and Gaston Fernandez? They’ve done nothing off the bench this year. Nothing. Is it time to maybe think about starting Maxi? Maybe start him and Adi? We could put Asprilla on the bench and play a 4-4-2.

Or maybe we keep Asprilla on, but take Jewsbury off? Then it’s kind of a 4-1-3-2 with Chara staying back. That sounds a little crazy, but who knows? It might be worth trying.

And what about that bench and its lack of attacking options? Valeri’s down, Johnson’s down, Nanchoff’s down. Do we sign someone new? Do we grab someone off T2, someone like Schillo Tshuma? Stevie Evans? Or do we just keep focusing on defense? Lean on them until our injured guys start coming back in the next month or two?

Personally, I think we’ll do that last thing. Keep leaning on our defense. Wait for people to heal.

How do I feel about this? I have no idea. How do you feel about it?

6) Next week. Vancouver. First Cascadia Cup match of the year. Our house in the middle of BC. It may be a road game, but trust me, Vancouver’s extremely beatable.

Don’t be fooled by their two wins in three games. They were unimpressive wins against two of the league’s weaker teams. One was against Chicago, the only team in the league with three losses in three games. The other win required a last-second miracle against Orlando City, a team whose only goals this year are an own goal and a deflected free kick.

Vancouver’s loss? Getting blown out at home by Toronto.

So keep all that in mind as you admire their shiny six points.

The Timbers, on the other hand, only have three points, but have gotten them against three of the most consistently good franchises in the league. RSL, we outplayed. LA and SKC, we went toe-to-toe with.

Our defense keeps pitching shutouts. Our offense? Well, we won’t talk about them. We’ll just head into next weekend’s match feeling confident. A win breaks Caleb Porter’s March jinx. A draw gives us four points in four games against four conference rivals.

A loss? Well, maybe then I start to panic. Maybe.

2 Comments Six Degrees: Perfect Record

  1. Roy Gathercoal

    CI, UD Man. Great framing of an uneventful, low-context, low-information point in the season.

    When you talk about the 8-game stretch without a win early in the season last year, don’t forget the teams with 8-game loss streaks during the season. Like New England. Also consider Columbus, Houston, Montreal and Philadelphia, who had un-winning streaks of 7-9 games. Ours was bad, but no one would even think about it if we had held onto that 2-0 halftime lead at Toronto. Or even *only* given up two second-half goals.

    Although with Diego Valeri injured on the last day of the regular season, it would have been a challenge to go far in the post season. All right, a miracle. Still, it could have happened. My point is, the opening eight-games without a win hardly was the main factor in our failure to reach the play-offs last year. We tended, it seemed, to drop a number of games we should have packed away nicely and neatly. Instead, we tried to “manage the game” by bunkering half-way, and playing keep-away. Problem was, our opponents kept playing soccer. . .

    We are in a great place, showing real grit both at home and on the road. Continuing that trend will be important. The wins will come as long as we are creating chances. It would be foolish to try to change a bunch of things because we are in a 3-game draw streak. Patience was not bad advice last year, and it is the only intelligible advice this year.

    Having said that, I would not be at all surprised to see a great winger in the model of a Zakuani at his career peak show up mid-season. I have to believe they have been looking, but have been much more cautious about picking not just the guys with the big records and big headlines, but the guys who will fit here in Portland. (cue bagpipes) I would expect to see a player in his mid-to-late 20s with significant experience winning games, but without a cult following. Someone who will fit comfortably among Ridgewell, Borchers, Chara, Nagbe, Wallace and Adi, among others. Maybe someone similar to Nagbe in ability, but with a slightly dialed-up leadership quotient.

    Planning personnel is a dirty business because you have to be always sort of planning for all the worst things to happen. I imagine they have a plan for if we lose Nagbe and Wallace, an emergency buy, if you will. Or if we lose Ridgewell and Borchers both in a month, like happened in 2014. Part of this planning process, however, is not to be panicked too quickly. Every team has a few games to lose in the season–no one goes undefeated in the beautiful game.

    So the real art comes in a mixture of preparation and planning. I believe they looked hard at the team over the break and decided they could bring in another big player by buying down Adi’s salary with allocation money. They decided to wait until the first month of the season to assess how the team was gelling without Valeri and Johnson. If we lose someone else, or if the wheels start to come off, then it will be time for the big announcement which, in true Merritt Paulson fashion, will catch everyone by surprise. It will be someone they have been following for a couple of years.

    If we do manage to hold things together until Valeri and Johnson return and suffer no new injuries, then expect to see the new person come in mid-season, like Adi and Ridgewell last year. In that case, it will be someone to provide a definite upgrade, and thus further depth, to whatever part of the attacking half needs the attention.

    So no, it is not worth the adrenaline to spill it this early. And to the degree we trust Wilkinson and Porter and Paulson to continue their string of winning hires, we don’t have to anticipate worrying at all.

    This would be a very different matter if we had lost two or three, but we haven’t. We have put in solid performances, looking more mature than most of the league. It is a good place to be, to know that Valeri and Johnson are coming in the mail. And that Christmas is coming when we really need it, but no later than August!

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