In three seasons as coach of the Portland Timbers, Caleb Porter has overseen slow start after slow start after slow start. Three straight years without a win in March. Not a single stinkin’ win. It’s to the point where fans have started thinking, If we start well, if we can win even one single game in March, the rest of the league better watch out.
Memo to the rest of the league: watch out.
1) Welcome back, everyone! It feels like we were just here, doesn’t it? I guess that’s what happens when you make it to the final game of the year. You have a very, very short off-season. Is that a good thing? Maybe. It means you don’t get rusty. (I’m talking mostly about the players here, but maybe fans and sportswriters as well.) It also means you don’t have time to recover from injuries. (Again, more applicable to the players, but perhaps a few fans as well. I’m looking at you, Steve. Still hungover from the celebration? Hydrate, man. Hydrate.)
What’s happened in these few short weeks since we won the championship? Well, we lost four of our best players. Lockdown left back Jorge Villafana was sold for a fortune to a team in Mexico, where he’s making more money while, by all accounts, dominating just as much as he did here. Supersub Maxi Urruti’s contract was set to jump out of our price range, so he’s now in Dallas, where I hope he absolutely crushes it, except when he plays us. Original Timber Rodney Freaking Wallace wanted to freaking stay but also wanted a freaking raise, so he went from freaking Portland to freaking Portugal, while continuing to be freaking awesome. And lastly, former captain and heart of the team Will Johnson lost his starting spot here so we traded him to Toronto, where – at this exact moment – he’s eating poutine, drinking Labatt’s, and going apeshit bonkers on some poor referee.
Who came in? Nobody huge. A backup striker, a mystery winger, an injured left back. The good news? We didn’t really need too much incoming talent. We’re that solid. We did just win the league, after all.
Can we do it again? Way to early to tell. I will say that we got off to a helluva nice start. Perhaps this is the year we start strong? The year we don’t have to dig ourselves out of a hole? I look forward to it. But as Coach Porter will tell you, we can only play ’em one game at a time. So let’s look at game one. An MLS Cup rematch with the Columbus Crew and, would you look at that? Another 2-1 victory.
2) How friggin’ sweet was Diego Valeri‘s goal? At first, it was a little hard to tell what happened, and, truth be told, that’s probably what Columbus goalkeeper Steve Clark was thinking, too. What’s happening?
There’s a lot going on here. First, the ball was a beauty. Hard, low, heading for the far post. Clark could’ve saved it, except – whoa, what’s Liam Ridgewell gonna do? Is he gonna get a touch? Redirect it? Where’s it going? Who’s touching it? What do I do?!?
If you’re Steve Clark, the answer is, you wait, you wait, and then when Ridgy pulls back at the very last second, you watch the ball go straight into goal. I almost feel sorry for the dude. Almost, but not quite. 1-0, good guys.
I’ve got a really good feeling about Valeri this year. He’s starting the year healthy, he was the best player on the pitch Sunday, and I honestly think he’s going to put up huge numbers. Easily 10 goals, 10 assists. I’m tempted to say 15-15, but I don’t want to anger the soccer gods.1
3) Fanendo Adi‘s goal was a lovely bit of hustle on his part, seeing a loose ball and racing to it. But rather than talk about him and the fact that he’s on pace to score 34 goals this year, I want to talk about the guy who took the initial shot on goal, the shot fired so hard and fast that the keeper just couldn’t contain it, Dairon Asprilla.
What a game for Aprilla. We expected him on the right side, but he lined up on the left and pretty much owned that half of the field. And please remember, in Harrison Afful and Ethan Finlay, Columbus has one of the best right sides in MLS. Sunday, though? Not so much.
Just as in the MLS Cup, Finlay was mostly a non-factor. In December, he was silent because Jorge Villafana’s a complete and total boss. On Sunday, he was silent because new arrival Jermaine Taylor was one-dimensional. All defense, all the time. That’s great on defense, but it would mean the Timbers had no attack on the left side, right? Wrong. Asprilla was a one man blitzkrieg. Afful might as well have not even been out there. Asprilla was going past him, around him, and through him all game long. His six shots were tied with Valeri’s for team-high, and his pseudo-assist on Adi’s goal was vintage Asprilla. Hit it at goal as hard as you can and good things will happen.2
Is Asprilla perfect? No. His finishing needs work, he’s a little inefficient, and his defense is a work in progress. But I can forgive all that because he brings so much to the table. I was sorry to see Rodney Freaking Wallace go3 but it seems Asprilla’s going to a pretty good replacement. And in time, perhaps even an improvement. We’ll see.
4) Based on Sunday’s game, what can we tell about the 2016 Portland Timbers? Do we know who they are? Who they’ll be?
Probably not. And that’s mostly because the Timbers are so damn changeable.
Let’s look at both sides of the ball.
Offensively, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from three years of Caleb Porter, it’s that the Timbers are flexible. Sunday, they ceded possession, absorbed pressure, and hit on the counter. Next week versus San Jose? It might be the exact opposite. The thing is, after three years, I’m used to it. Game to game, even half to half, these guys are not afraid to switch up what they’re doing. I fully expect something different next week. I trust the players to handle it well.
Defensively? Same thing. In years past, we’ve high-pressured the crap out of other teams. Sunday? Not so much. We occasionally gave a little high pressure, then pull backed. Will that continue? Maybe. Maybe not. As with our offense, expect flexibility. Expect change from game to game.
Something that will affect both offense and defense? The eventual good health of new arrival and sadly injured left back Chris Klute. I can’t wait to see what he brings. All that stuff about Jermaine Taylor hanging back, Asprilla working alone? All that could change if Klute comes in and kicks ass. Will there be some adjustment pains when he finally sees the field? No doubt. Will he kick as much ass as Villafana? Hard to imagine. Still, I can’t wait to find out.
What sort of team will we be this year? We’ll probably be five or six different teams, depending on who we’re playing, what players are healthy, etc etc. Strangely, this gives me comfort.
5) Some player quick takes.
Lucas Melano. Check out that Adi goal again. It all started with Melano’s perfectly placed cross-field, inside-out pass to Asprilla. Truly sublime.
Darlington Nagbe. As always, he’s a possession machine. And I was really excited by his shot off the crossbar in the 63rd minute. Loved his aggressiveness going into the box, loved that he took the shot. If he does that once a game, he’ll have a big year.
Diego Chara. Oh, no big deal, just MLS Team of the Week.
Liam Ridgewell. Last year, Nat Borchers led the league in blocks. Sunday, it seemed like Ridgy was the one always stepping into the breach. Nice match, Captain. Welcome back.
Federico Higuain. I’ve always liked Higuain, partially because he loves to chip the keeper, partially because he looks 67 years old, and partially because he can do stuff like this. I know he’s the enemy, but he deserves a GIF.
6) So, yeah, yeah, we won a game in March and that’s pretty damn awesome. But life can’t all be candy canes and daisies, can it? There must be a few things I’m worried about, right?
Well, yeah, of course. For example, what about that bench? Our starting XI is pretty damn good, but if someone gets hurt, what then?
I’d say we’ve got decent subs in the middle. Ben Zemanski, Jack Jewsbury, and Ned Grabavoy, I trust them. Our back line’s probably okay, too, with Taylor Peay, Jermaine Taylor, and Liam Ridgewell all able to play multiple positions. That’s comforting.
But up front? More of a worry. If Adi goes down, we’ll bring in Jack McInerney, who’s had some genuine success in this league. But if Asprilla or Melano go down? That could be a real problem. Do we put Nagbe out wide? The rookie, Neco Brett? The new mystery winger from England, who’s not even in the country and whose name I can’t even remember?
You see my point? If there’s one thing to worry about this year – and clearly, as fans, we need something to worry about – it’s depth. Our first stringers can win the league. But if we have to go deeper than that, cross your fingers.
And we will have to go deeper. It’s a long season. 33 more games, plus the US Open, plus the Champions League, and then hopefully the playoffs. We’ll see players lost to injury, we’ll see players benched for poor play. We’ll see the Timbers look like FC Barcelona, then turn around and look like Chivas USA. And without a doubt, at some point this year, you’ll hear me abandon all hope. I do it pretty much every year. It’s kinda my thing. I think it was August last year when I abandoned all hope, and look how that turned out.
So whatta ya say? Ready to abandon all hope with me? Ready to ride this roller coaster another year? See where it takes us? I sure as hell am. Let’s do this.