Six Degrees: Pounded

Orlando Photo Craig Mitchelldyer Portland Timbers

What a difference a week makes. Last week, we played our best game of the year. This week, our worst. Last week, you, me, and all of Timbers Nation, were giddy and excited, eager to talk about the game, replay it over and over in our heads. This week, it was a bad dream we’d all like to forget.

1) It’s tempting to blame the referee for this loss1, but that would be wrong. Orlando City deserved to win. They were the better team, and it wasn’t even close. We looked extremely dangerous for the first 10 minutes, but the last 80 belonged to Orlando.

They were more creative on offense, more organized on defense, a half-step quicker to every ball. Watching the game, you’d think Portland was the expansion team and Orlando was the club who’d been together so long. Kaka gets all the headlines, of course, but he wasn’t even their best player. Brek Shea really impressed me. Their striker, Cyle Larin, was great all game. Even the ancient one, Donovan Ricketts, looked good. He made a few saves equal to his 2013 heroics.

But this is a Timbers blog. Shouldn’t I be talking about the Timbers? I would, but nobody looked all that good. Darlington Nagbe was dangerous a couple times, but mostly had a hard time finding room to move. Alvas Powell had a few pretty moves, as usual, but also some ridiculous mistakes. Dairon Asprilla provided his usual dose of instant offense. Gaston Fernandez has some nice aggressive shots on goal. But honestly, I can’t get excited about any of these guys. At best, the Timbers looked okay. At worst, they looked like a team getting beat 2-0 by an expansion side.

2) In their defense, however, it’s hard to play good football when you’re being pounded and pounded and the referee’s doing nothing about it.

Kevin Stott was an absolute travesty. From the opening whistle, Orlando City beat the crap out of us and Stott let them. Aurelien Collin has a long reputation as one of the dirtiest players in the league and, boy, did he add to that on Sunday. His early foul on Fanendo Adi was literally – not figuratively – it was literally a wrestling take down. Almost a full nelson/body slam. Adi was outraged, the crowd was outraged, I’m sure God was outraged, too. Did Stott care? Of course not.

That was my favorite Kevin Stott play. My second favorite was when Powell got the crap knocked out of him, Stott did nothing, so Alvas got all pissed off, fouled the first Orlando player he saw, and got yellow carded. Utterly ridiculous.

Now, all that being said, we can’t complain about Orlando’s PK goal. That was the one time the whole game Stott got it right. As soon as Adam Kwarasey collided with that dude, I knew it was a penalty. And when the first PK was taken, I was watching Diego Chara and Gaston Fernandez the whole time. They weren’t just a little over the line, they were way over the line. Watch them as the ref points to the spot for a second time. They don’t argue. They know. Shame on you, fellas. You’re veterans. You should know better.

3) Now, I know I just got done bitching about how dirty Orlando played, but I do have to give their defense some credit. They were really well organized and amazingly fast at shutting down any penetration we managed. If we got anywhere close to their goal, we needed to shoot it instantly, because half a second later, they were all over us. I’ll even give Collin credit here. He’s a dirty shit, but he recovered like a mad man.

All in all, we had no answers for Orlando’s defense and whenever we can’t find offensive answers – or even ask interesting questions – I think of Diego Valeri sitting in the clubhouse. He’s a guy who can ask questions, solve problems. Were his vision and imagination all we needed? Would he have stopped us running into Orlando’s wall over and over? I feel certain it’s more complicated than just one guy. Or maybe not. Maybe there are certain games where you need an offensive genius, plain and simple. Ours wasn’t available, so we lost.

4) On the defensive side of things, we already discussed Orlando’s second goal, off the PK. Let’s discuss that first goal. Watch this clip and you’ll see Cyle Larin standing in front of goal, completely unmolested, equidistant between Kah and Futty. I mean, Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers. Honestly, guys, what the fuck? You didn’t think he was worth covering? He’s only their striker. I thought centerbacks doing stupid shit was over. I thought those days were in our past. Apparently not.

In Vancouver, Ridgy and Treebeard gave us the “No, go ahead, you take it” play. Now, it’s the “No reason to cover that guy, he’s just a striker” play. That’s two for the season, boys. No more.

(In their defense, it was an awfully strange goal. The pass came in blisteringly fast, hit Larin dead in the chest, and ricocheted into goal. I honestly don’t know how much credit we can give Larin. He may have been an innocent bystander to the whole thing.)

5) Is it just me, or did the Timbers show a real lack of desperation out there? In the second half, we were down a goal – and then two goals – and we still seemed to be going upfield slowly and casually. Yes, we were getting pounded, and yes, their defense was locked up tight, but still, to my eyes, there was a real lack of fire. I already mentioned how Diego Valeri might have helped. Now I’ll mention how often I found myself wishing Will Johnson was out there. He’d have lit a fire. He’d have stuck his foot up a couple guy’s asses, telling them to attack.

Or maybe it wasn’t a lack of fire. Maybe it was just Orlando’s hack ’em strategy paying off. Maybe the team was so tired of getting bashed, so tired of not getting a single call, they took their foot of the pedal a little. Adi and Nagbe in particular looked slow and limpy by the end. I was impressed by Gata’s fire. He was putting the ball on goal. Asprilla, too. But on the whole, we didn’t have nearly as much fight in us as we should have. Unacceptable. Will Johnson, get well soon.

6) Looking forward, there are a ton of questions to ask.

Do we stick with the 4-4-2? It was great against Dallas, shit against Orlando.

Does Jack Jewsbury start? He took over for George Fochive at halftime Sunday. Is Caleb Porter done with young George?

Does Asprilla start? He’s a fantastic shot of offense off the bench. Would he be just as electric for a full 90? And does his status depend on our formation? Maybe he only starts in a 4-2-3-1.

What to do about striker? I like Adi, I like Maxi Urruti, and Fernandez really brought a fire off the bench. Again, our starting strikers may depend on formation. And maybe health, as Adi took quite a beating Sunday2.

Five of our next six games are on the road, starting in Yankee Stadium next Sunday against NYCFC3. After that, it’s away to Seattle, home to Vancouver, then three straight away in Montreal, Houston, and Toronto. If the team pulls its collective head out of its collective ass, maybe we’ll be okay, but if they don’t, if we continue to play like we did Sunday, these next five games could put us in a hole so deep, we’ll never get out. And that’s not me panicking. That’s me being incredible realistic.

  1. more on him later 

  2. I feel like I write these words a lot 

  3. I still think they could have fit more letters into their name 

8 Comments Six Degrees: Pounded

  1. fdchief218

    What frustrates me is that the bottom line is that we’re not a “great” team even by MLS standards – which is to say that we’re not LA, or Seattle, or RSL, or SKC. We can be “good” sometimes and “mid-table” much of the time but we don’t have the cash and we don’t have the sort of big-league management that Sigi has to the north or Arena to the south of us. We’re just…well, sorta meh.

    We have a couple of terrific players (Valeri and Chara) who’d be terrific players anywhere. We have a bunch of role-players, many of whom would be bench-quality for a bigger club. And we have some guys who probably couldn’t make it into the 18 for some of the better sides.

    So to win like we did in 2013 we have to have a bunch of guys having career years AND a coach who’s on top of his game, too. When one or two of our guys are off, or the team as a whole is a little flat, or the coach just hasn’t quite figured it out things get dicey. When the team faceplants and the coach is out of ideas – as happened Sunday – we get the living crap pasted out of us.

    Porter’s gift, to me anyway, is that he’s managed to keep things close even in years like 2014 and so far this season, when the team is either not-quite-good-enough as a group or missing one or two key players. He’s learning the league and his craft, and I’m hopeful that he’s the student of the game he’s said to be and continues to grow in his job.

    But…every so often the guys show us why they’re not playing for Barca or Arsenal or even LA, and that even the bes coach in the world can’t fix that.

    I’m Rose City ’til I die. But sometimes…sometimes I wish we had the organization that Arena has in LA so we could have all these expensive and/or gifted players and swagger around bullying other teams and I could laugh at their fans sad faces like the one I have on right now.

    1. nobody

      I hate to say it, but we probably can’t get the players that LA and NY can get. Portland has made a couple of attempts at getting high profile players, and the league has put the kibosh on them (Deuce, Altidore, Mix) for varying reasons. There’s a class of really good player who comes to the US because they want to be a global brand (think Beckham or maybe Christiano Ronaldo in the future), those players aren’t going to come to Portland because it doesn’t increase their exposure. When it comes down to it the stars want to move to big markets, and Portland is not a big market. We’ve got to go looking for the next Valeri because the big BIG stars just won’t end up here.

      1. John Lawes

        I know. That’s what’s so frustrating. And if I had more faith in our scouting and player evaluation I’d have more confidence that Gavin could play moneyball and bring more Valeri-quality players here. But having seen ol’ Gav for years I don’t have confidence in his skills to that degree. It’s not that he’s an utter fool…but he’s just not THAT shrewd. And so, here we are…

        1. Roy GathercoalRoy Gathercoal

          I don’t share your pessimism, John. I look at Portland’s recruiting over the last three years and I see several success, or potential success, stories. Adi certainly has the potential to be a world class striker, especially if he will start playing the opponent and not the officials. If you don’t get the calls you deserve, keep playing or ask to come off the pitch. Don’t continue to harp at an official who is either (or both) an idiot or deaf.

          Asprilla has shown a lot of promise already.

          Powell was a great find.

          We spotted Villafana’s potential when other teams passed on him. And got him in a trade for AJB, who has not seemed to be able to adjust to any other team, either.

          Still early for Kwarasey, but his credentials in the World Cup mean he is worthy of a look. And I would argue that Ridgewell and Borchers, once they get their shit together, are a pair of Centerbacks that would start on any MLS team. I am hoping that their early miscues are evidence of their premature trust in one another, a trust that will surely pay dividends once the communication catches up.

          There have clearly been some errors, but in general I have been pleased by the Timbers’ scouting performance. I might be naive here, however. This would be a grand opportunity to educate me if I am blatantly wrong. I would welcome that.

      2. Roy GathercoalRoy Gathercoal

        Good points, of course. I have a slightly different take on the situation. This post is long, even for me. But it contains some important and complex points. In short, we are all right.

        There are several MLS facts that I have had a difficult time reconciling:

        1. Teams who spend a shit pile of money are not significantly and consistently better than teams who do not. They might have an edge in some games, but LA, Seattle, Toronto and New York are not ten times better than the next tier.

        2. New York, LA and Toronto are big market cities, so it is no surprise that MLS wants to pave their way. Miami will probably join the list, especially with Beckham as a player. This is probably why Beckham is so stuck on Miami. Chicago ought to be among the biggies, but it is possible for team ownership to be so screwed up they can negate the positives of a big potential market. This attention is not mysterious: Big market showings in important demographics translate directly into bigger media contracts.

        3. Seattle is an unusual beast. For some reason MLS ensures that Seattle always gets what they want, the tenderest, juiciest, most talented bits. Obstacles that stop other clubs dead melt away once Seattle is involved. Rules change. Seattle, however, is not a big media market team.

        4. Certain small market teams, Portland included, have outperformed some of the bigger market teams. We sell more tickets, have a greater media share and much much better penetration in the key markets. Chivas is a cognac, isn’t it?

        5. There are a whole lot of prime demographic folks sitting out there like low-hanging fruit. They pack stadia for International matches and watch EPL and Bundesliga games in droves but do not associate with a MLS team. Habit is part of the reason, mismanagement of previous soccer leagues in the US another, and some of the general tendencies of these demographics contribute to the situation. In fact, International matches held in cities with strong MLS teams don’t sell better than matches held in cities without a MLS team.

        6. In New York or LA you will see more European and South American team official merchandise on the street than MLS merchandise. MLS is getting creamed in its own backyard by the big boys. And so far, they haven’t even been trying. I suspect one of the reasons Man City is so interested in owning a chunk of a NYC club is to sell Man City merchandise. Same colors, after all. No coincidence.

        7. Skill level and individual accomplishment do not correlate highly with merchandising brand power. Some players are clearly past their prime yet consistently outsell current world leaders. If a player is Brasiliano, he doesn’t even have to be all that accomplished. Whoever is crowned by the international press as the next Pele’ will outsell everyone except for those previously proclaimed Pele’s.

        8. Some players make far more money for themselves and their clubs by merchandise than they ever will, or have, by playing football.

        It seems to me that we all might be conflating two separate things, and that separating them might help us come up with a better analysis of the situation and point to a way forward for Portland.

        A player who can sell 20,000 season tickets and who will bring in $50 million in merchandising in a big market may well be worth $50 million to a MLS club in New York or LA or Toronto. A player who can sell 20,000 season tickets is worth nothing extra in Portland, where there is already a 10,000 person waiting list for season tickets. There just isn’t much value in being able to sell seats that don’t exist.

        Likewise, the ability to sell $50 million in merchandising if he were in New York may be worth only $6 million if he is in Portland. The people and the right demographics just aren’t here in those numbers.

        So a player like Dempsey may not perform on the field as well as a relatively unknown player, such as Diego Valeri. Still in Seattle, with 65,000 seats to fill and no waiting lists, his status and national media establishment might well sell 20,000 season tickets (in a good year), yielding several million in extra income to the club.

        Keep in mind that it costs marginally more to provide a Soccer game for 65,000 spectators than for 10,000 spectators. The per seat costs tend to be fixed and relatively low, especially the larger the attendance.

        And that is a lot of $9 beer.

        And a big chunk of this money goes to MLS directly, through various Byzantine fees and transfers among the clubs.

        And MLS IS the owners. The owners ARE the members of the corporation, and are the ones who profit when MLS makes money. It is all hidden, of course, but it is possible that some owners make more money from their ownership in MLS than they do from the ownership of their team.

        So when it comes to making decisions, MLS will likely make decisions that generate the largest income for MLS owners rather than decisions that stand up to any fairness or equality test among the clubs. Even the owners of the smallest most wretched clubs profit when NYCFC sells out Yankee Stadium, or Orlando City sells out the Citrus Bowl. They are unlikely to cast their votes against Commissioner Garber while he is the one controlling how much money they make.

        With deep penetration into the merchandising market in Portland and a sold-out foreseeable future, even Merritt Paulson sees that his future earnings will come increasingly from success in New York City and Los Angeles. He cares about the Timbers and will not act to harm them, but he has tremendous incentive to go along with whatever the MLS wants, even though it might not be just for his local club.

        So enter a Dempsey or Kaka’ or Bradley or Diskerud. These players all are established brands with deep potential reach or have immense possibility for building their brand to that level. As far as MLS is concerned, the only acceptable answer is to ensure these players end up in Toronto, NY or LA. Everyone makes more money that way.

        What happens to parity, and does it matter?

        Parity will need to be achieved in different ways. One way is through the development of high quality players with no real brand potential–home grown players. When MLS controls their contracts, it can ensure that enough of these players make it to small market teams to keep the playing field relatively level. For remember, the price of a player may not be correlated to his playing ability or worth to a current team. Pele’ still sells jerseys.

        The highest skilled players are typically better players than home grown players. So this will not in itself create parity.

        Yet there is a third group of players which might fill the bill. International players from less developed countries who have little potential for significant branding but who may be able to compete among the world’s top players. After all, Germany, Spain, and England do not finish 1-2-3 in each World Cup. Often teams such as Columbia, Uruguay, Switzerland and occasionally, Greece, are able to defeat the teams with the biggest payrolls. There is not a great correlation between playing ability and brand value.

        Thus Portland can be competitive in the long run by finding players such as Valeri, Chara, and perhaps Adi. The scouting network in developing soccer areas is critical. I have been overall pleased with the recruiting efforts of the Timbers. Merritt Paulson appears to be willing to spend large amounts for unbranded players–up to $5 million without his explicit approval according to his interview. That is enough to buy the contracts of most of the skilled players in the world, as long as we don’t try to bid head-to-head against Bayern Munich or Manchester City.

        It means we will need to develop team chemistry, so that players play above their level as a team. Teams such as Paris St. Germaine never seem to accomplish that–you would reasonably expect them to perform much better than they do, given what they spend on salaries.

        It also means we need to find the players who would rather play in a smaller market with less pressure and in a safer environment for their children. By his account, it is the fact he can safely bring his children to games that is the biggest selling point for Diego Valeri. This is not necessarily something that a New York City or Los Angeles team can promise. There is every reason to believe that Nat Borchers is honest when he compares life in Portland favorably to that of a New York City–at least for him.

        Thus our scouts must find players who will make the alchemical juices flow within the team. They must locate players who are more interested in an amazing cultural and safe place to live, than a huge urban area with heavy night life. This is possible, especially as word spreads and our team matures.

        Players talk, agents enquire, people all over the globe begin to gain access to at least one Timbers game.

        I believe we have a great team right now. There are some weak spots, but our win/loss record is not due to inadequate skill by our players. Otherwise we would be showing up as outplayed, out possessed, out shot, out passed, out dribbled by our opponents. That is not happening. What is happening is that even expert students of the game are scratching their heads trying to come up with an account that makes sense of our record and stats sheets.

        Thing is, when these will-o-the-wisp problems strike a team, a business or any endeavor, they tend to evaporate as quickly as they came. Just as no one really knew why it started, so no one knows why it turned around again. I suspect this is the most likely outcome of Portland’s disconnect in this last game.

        I have heard no one say “they played their hearts out and it wasn’t good enough.”

        We were not beat by superior athletic skill or tactical acumen. We were beat by the same kind of stupid mistakes that have cost us points in other games this season. A striker left unmarked, literally a couple of feet from our open goal. A keeper who fouls an attacker in the box, giving up a near certain goal in a Penalty.

        Really, did Kwarasey believe no one would see him? Did he think it would be OK to grab the attacker’s foot? Or was it a strange optical illusion and there really was no foul? It is clearly not a case of the Orlando player being of a higher cut.

        And in my son’s soccer league, coaches are careful to instruct players to not encroach on a penalty kick. Or anytime. Everyone is lined up and the line is clearly visible, for Heaven’s sake. How do professional athletes not know they are not allowed to cross the line before the shot is taken? Kaka’ did nothing fancy, no fake steps or shuffles. They just jumped. A lot. More than one player.

        These are the moments in which we lost this game. And they are moments that will not be fixed by spending more money on player salaries. It is not the case that a player making $4 million would somehow not encroach when a player making only $300,000 somehow fails to understand the rule!

        So let us be patient, still. Our record is still within the range of the 2013 season, the year of magic. There are many more games to come, and once these game gremlins go away, as they did at the end of the season last year, when we beat nearly everyone, their place or ours, we will not be handicapped with a lack of talent.

        Adi has scored as many goals as has Kaka so far this season, after all. Which makes Adi’s salary a bargain. Just imagine for a moment being Orlando, paying an outrageous amount for Kaka and only getting three goals so far this season!

        1. Timber Dave

          I’m not so sure home grown players will provide any parity. The teams in big cities, after all, generally have bigger home area populations, and if they have any kind of soccer culture in that area, they’ll have correspondingly more good homegrown players.

          Re Kwarasey, it looked to me like he thought he would get the ball, and missed it only because of a last-millisecond touch by the Orlando attacker. He mis-read the situation but only by a tiny amount.

          Also, the Kaka-Adi comparison is disingenuous. They may have the same number of goals, but I don’t think any soccer observer anywhere would claim that Adi has made as much difference to his team as Kaka has to his. Kaka runs that team.

          Lastly, I’m with you in thinking our team can be better — a lot better — than our current record. Except for this last game (and mainly except for the first half of it), we’ve looked good. Not great, but good. Hoping for great when Valeri and Will J return.

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