Six Degrees: Not Entirely Convincing

After we beat Minnesota 5-1, my question for the world was, Are We Really This Good? That question is still very much unanswered. Minny went and lost their second game 6-1, while the Timbers went and won a game in a less-than-convincing manner. So, are we good? Average? Awesome? I still can’t decide.

1) Let’s make this a good news, bad news sort of column. I’m gonna hit you with a bunch of reasons we should be totally excited about the Timbers, and then bring out the one big problem.

Let’s start with some very encouraging numbers.

  • We’re two games into the season and already have two wins. How’s that compare to previous years?

  • Even better, those two wins came in March. Entering this year, the Timbers had won two March games total; one in 2012, the other in 2016. Now we’ve doubled that.
  • We currently have six points, which is the most March points we’ve gotten since joining MLS. The runners-up? 2012 and 2016, when we got four March points.1
  • Even more noteworthy, we just won a road game in March. You gotta go a lot further back to find the last time that happened.

  • Speaking of road wins, we now have one more road win than we did in all of 2016.
  • And finally, we did it in LA, which is a hard place to get road wins. Unless you’re the Timbers, apparently.

2) Another reason to be excited about this team? That friggin’ goal we scored. Dear God in heaven, it was beautiful.

Sebastian Blanco‘s long cross-field pass right to Diego Chara‘s head was insanely good. A barely-breaking-stride Chara one-timing it right into Diego Valeri‘s path was probably even more impressive.2 Valeri giving up his chance to shoot so he could pass to Chara was selfless. And Chara finishing his length-of-the-field sprint with an easy tap-in was a perfect ending for a perfect goal.

Much like Valeri/Adi/Will Johnson’s 2014 three-person masterpiece of a goal, Sunday’s three-person goal should be up for MLS Goal of the Year. Alas, it probably won’t even be up for Goal of the Week, since people will only see the tap-in at the end. But come on, people. End-to-end in five touches? The ball barely touching the ground? Insanely difficult. And so much more impressive than some stupid bicycle kick.3

3) Okay, we’ve had two degrees and both were good news. Are we on to the bad news yet? Nope. Because we need to talk about the defense. They just pitched a shutout, you know. And they did it with a fullback who’s a senior in high school and a center back who joined the team last Tuesday.

I’m not sure 18-year old Marco Farfan took a bad step the entire game. Was he breathtakingly good? No. Was he breathtakingly competent? Yes. And competence is exactly what you want from your 2nd-stringers, no matter their age.

Roy Miller, meanwhile, flew into town last Tuesday, practiced with the team maybe once or twice, then stepped into Liam Ridgewell‘s starting spot and, just like Farfan, showed breathtaking competence.

Over on the right side, Alvas Powell played through whatever injury he picked up last week, and Lawrence Olum4 continues to look remarkably like a long-term solution at center back.

Behind them, it was an up and down game for keeper Jake Gleeson. On the one hand, Gleeson didn’t punch a ball all day long. He tried punching a ball four or five time, but I don’t remember him hitting anything but air. And possibly Roy Miller’s jaw.

But on the other hand, he had two very nice saves. This one.

And this one at the end.

So all in all, I’d say Sunday’s defensive performance is a reason to feel good about the Timbers. They were supposed to be the team’s weakness, and yet a shutout? On the road? With a back line cobbled together out of scraps? Not too shabby.

4) Okay, we’re almost ready for the one bit of bad news, but first, let’s talk about something called “Points of Emphasis.” This is a thing referees do in pretty much every sport. During the off-season, the refs will get together, have a few drinks, give each other pedicures, and say stuff like, “You know what I’m fuckin’ sick of? Blank, blank, and blank. How about next year we really crack down on that shit? Who’s with me?”

Each year, the points of emphasis are different. In 2017, the MLS referees have four: holding and pushing in the penalty area on set pieces, acts of visual dissent, deliberate delaying of restarts, and persistent infringement. 

On Sunday, I think we saw two of those points in action.

I think the “persistent infringement” yellow should actually be called the “Darlington Nagbe” yellow, since Nags has spent a large portion of the last six years getting persistently infringed upon. And in the 52nd minute Sunday, we saw the first such booking on Nagbe’s behalf. Check out the foul.

Not that big a foul, right? Except it was probably the 18th time Nagbe had been fouled like that. Welcome to the “persistent infringement” foul, Galaxy fans.

The other “point of emphasis” we saw on Sunday? “Visual dissent.” It happened to Jelle Van Damme in the 31st minute

Did Chara dive? Maybe, maybe not. But it doesn’t really matter. Van Damme wasn’t booked for the foul, he was booked for freaking out about it afterward. Welcome to the “visual dissent” foul, Galaxy fans.

And that yellow proved significant, because three minutes later, Van Damme went and did this to David Guzman.

Now, a lot of LA fans are screaming, “He didn’t even touch Guzman!” Well, maybe so, but the second yellow wasn’t for a trip, it was for an attempt to trip. Rules of the game do not require actual contact. The play was stopped because Van Damme attempted to trip Guzman. And let’s be honest, LA fans, if Gooz hadn’t jumped to avoid Van Damme’s leg, it would have been an actual trip and a 2nd yellow. In other words, LA fans, quit bitching about the yellow cards and start bitching about Van Damme being a dumbass.5

5) And so now we officially enter the bad news part of this column.

Yes, we’re 2-0-0. Yes, we got a road win. Yes, yes, yes to all the positive things I listed above. But those positive things are countered by two unassailable facts:

  • The team we stomped last week – Minnesota – is now 0-2-0 with a -9 goal differential.
  • The team we played this week – LA – was down a man for 60 minutes and we couldn’t put them away. Hell, we couldn’t even get 50% possession.

Those 60 minutes playing a man up were absolutely maddening, weren’t they? And waaaaaaaaaay too familiar. How many times have we seen Caleb Porter teams do this? They get a one-goal lead and then let the other team hang around, hang around, hang around, and the next thing you know, they’re giving up a lucky goal and losing two points. It almost happened again Sunday, only worse, since this time we had both a one-goal lead and a man advantage.

I’m not going to go into the psychology of this6 but the failure to stomp a 10-man Galaxy team into the ground is absolutely the top reason I’m not ready to call the Timbers a great team. It must be put off for another week. At least another week. Hell, I may never call them great. We may finish the season 34-0-0 and I’ll still be like, “Yeah, but we’re just sneaking by these teams, amiright? And we still haven’t won a game with our fourth-stringers, have we? And Adi only has 43 goals.  He should totally have 44.  And be honest, we haven’t been the same since Valeri ascended into heaven after that one goal he scored against Dallas. Remember that shit? God that was freaky.”

6) But on to next week.

Houston’s coming to town, and just like us, they’re 2-0-0. And just like us, I’m not not convinced they’re a great team. Or even a good team.

Did you know they won their last game 3-1 despite being outshot 14-to-7? And only getting 39% possession? And this is after winning their first game with 35% possession? Crazy, right? They might be winning with smoke and mirrors.

Of course, we might be winning with smoke and mirrors, too. This may be a battle between paper tigers. Or the two best teams in the league. I have no idea.

At this point, the only thing I feel certain about is this: Sunday’s game in LA is a game we would have lost last year. On the road? Injured starters? High school replacements? Gooz leaving with a busted shoulder? An offense unable to put in a second goal? The 2016 Timbers lose this game. At best they draw it.

But the 2017 Timbers won it and that’s a very good sign. Does it mean we’re a great team? No. But a better team than last year? Yes. That is something I’m willing to say.

And at the end of the year, when we’re 34-0-0 and beginning work on the Cathedral of Saint Diego of the Holy Ascension, maybe I’ll be ready to call us great.

  1. But let’s not mention how those two years worked out. By the way, did you know you don’t have to click on these footnotes to read them? Just float your cursor over the footnote and it will magically appear. We’re not sure how the magic works, but it must be some kind of blood sacrifice. It’s the only thing that makes sense. 

  2. The rules of soccer should be changed so Chara can get a secondary assist on his own goal. I feel very strongly about this. 

  3. It’s the second week of the season and I’m already getting angry about Blanco/Valeri/Chara not winning Goal of the Year. 

  4. a.k.a., the Kenyan MessiTM 

  5. and seriously, folks, look at those gifs again. In both plays, Van Damme misses the ball by about three feet. Rookie mistakes. 

  6. I have complete faith in my readers to discuss it in the comments. I would actually bet money on this. 

8 Comments Six Degrees: Not Entirely Convincing

  1. Timber Dave

    Can one ever be certain how good an MLS team is? Okay, maybe Dallas last year…. they looked stinking good to me. But other than that, all the good MLS teams I can think of have looked good, yes, but definitely beatable fairly often. Even if this Timbers team really is good by MLS standards, we’re going to have to suffer a whole season of ups and downs. Hopefully more of the former than the latter.

    It’s not like Barcelona or Real Madrid vs. the rest of La Liga (though Barça’s weekend result shows they are beatable by bottom-of-the-table teams too).

    1. C.I. DeMannC.I. DeMann

      Can you IMAGINE what the PSG fan base has been like for the last week? The streets are probably ankle-deep in angst and hyperbole.

  2. Timber Dave

    Here’s a stat I missed:
    “The Timbers held the lead for 82 minutes, marking the largest length the club has ever held a lead in an away MLS match.”

    That may be more important than winning a road game, or winning in March, or winning at LA, or even starting off 2-0. We’ve gotten plenty of leads on the road, but so so many of those leads have evaporated. Getting a win while holding on to a lead for 82 minutes shows some grit — even if it did come with a red card for LA and did need a terrific Gleeson save at the finish. That grit may mean more to our long-term success than all those other facts.

  3. John Lawes

    I’ve played 11-on-10 and it can be frustrating as hell. You think “Dammit, we have an extra guy out there! Why doesn’t it look it???” I thought Chris Rifer at Stumptown did a good job breaking down the why. Basically, Porter kept the fullbacks at home so everything pretty much went through the center, and LA had five guys pretty much parked there. No width, no penetration, no goals.

    Still…I agree; a “great” team, hell, even a “good” team, figures out how to crack that and nicks a couple more, at least. So far I like what I’m seeing…but there’s also a sort a nagging “the wheels could come off at some point” feeling about this club right now. I think Houston might help tell us a little more re: how good we are.

    As far as fouls and dives and cards…I wasn’t real happy to see my man Diego turn into Arjen Robben, The Human Stuka, right before my eyes. I completely understand why Van Damme was pissed. I loves me some HeadChara, but that was a stone cold dive, and if he gets slapped by the DisCo this week I will take it as such.

    The Guzman tackle? THAT I’m more willing to buy as a card-able foul. Miss the ball, recklessly hard, intended purely to break up the play…and how much of Guz’s flop was a flop and how much was actually trying to avoid Van Damme’s crazed hokey-pokey stab is hard to say…

    Hey. Three points on the road are three points. On the road. I’ll take ’em. But now let’s get stuck into Houston and tear ’em a new one. THAT will make me Very Happy.

  4. Roy Gathercoal

    What did the Timbers ever do to deserve the prose of CI DeMann? Must have involved blood sacrifice or something–at least a chicken under the full moon in a heavy mist.

    (1) I am perplexed. In years when we are playing decent ball but the wins don’t come, wins are all that seems to matter to Timbers followers. Yet when we get as many wins as is possible at this point in the season, and one is on the road in LA, the room fills with sagely shaking heads muttering “yeah, but we could have lost that game, and some other team beat that other team by one goal more than we did. . . (in conditions making it something other than soccer).

    I am not that enthused about two wins, because of the level of play especially in the LA game. But come on, folks, make up your minds! Is it “the win is the only stat that matters” or “we care about the quality of play, with less emphasis on the win/loss result?”

    There are so many nearly random factors that can decide a game in soccer–especially in MLS–that I cannot buy into camp 2. As long as games are decided by an official’s call or a less-than-hair’s width result of a spinning ball’s trajectory, the final score means less to me than the quality of play. But this is not the way in which I am the weirdest.

    (2) The goal was magnificent. I have to marvel at Chara’s headed assist (with you, CI) on the run. It is obvious he meant to do this, and he not only got it in the right place, but with the right velocity and weighting. Meanwhile, and probably even more importantly, the TEAM was playing with one mind, so that we could end up in a break with 2 on 1 in a completely open field. The distribution from Blanco was probably the most skilled part–he put that ball right onto Chara’s moving head–and that isn’t such a big target. j

    It is the teamwork, even in the second week of the season, that impresses me the most about this team. They are in mid-season form, in terms of coordination and *awareness* of what is going on in the rest of the field. We have 32 games in which to develop this further, before the play-offs even begin!

    (3) It is interesting how little people seem to actually listen to what the coaches say about tactics and strategy. Leads me to believe they could disclose their entire game plan a week early with no real risk of anyone benefiting from the information.

    Porter has said repeatedly that one of the biggest problems accounting for road losses last year was depth, especially in defense. He also has said several times that he was confident the team had solved the depth problems this year. Much of this is due to TAM and GAM, and the judicious use of both. A lot could be eased with a substantial raise in the salary cap. But that is another issue.

    Last year, our first defensive back-up arguably was Jermaine Taylor. Minnesota is experiencing why that was a problem for us last year. This year, we have the first real fruits of our academy in the person of Marco Farfan (the great) while also enjoying (as back-up) the likes of Roy Miller and Lawrence Olum. The quality of our defense has progressed so much that our anticipated starters of the last two years are now solidly backup players. That is a huge shift.

    It is exactly because of this change in focus that we could lose three defenders in one practice (whatever they did Tuesday, I hope they never repeat) and still manage a shutout, on the road, in LA, the very same weekend. This is what depth looks like. It wins games that otherwise would have been lost causes. Depth is the new DP in MLS, at least until the salary cap moves significantly.

    (4) For the record, I believe it is the Seattle fans who are yelling the loudest about Van Damme’s cards. Perhaps because most LAG fans don’t deign to converse with us lowly types living in the far backwaters of the far North.

    At any rate, at the very least it seems that Diego Chara was anticipating the opportunity to fall, once the bull-in-a-china-shop Van Damme blundered into his space, way behind the ball. Bad Diego.


    It has also seemed to me that MLS officials have been guilty of buying into player reputations, and allowing those pre-suppositions to factor into their foul decisions. Diego Chara has the reputation of being a fouler, and so he is charged with fouls (and yellow cards) in situations that are routinely overlooked when involving other players. I believe Diego has watched with interest Darlington Nagbe, and how some of the very same moves/situations that have resulted in yellows for Diego, have been waved off for Nagbe. And how some fouls called on Nagbe have been ignored when committed on Chara.

    So, this theatrical situation is largely of the official’s making. If diving did not result in more favorable calls, then players would not do it. If CONCACEF refs were consistent and careful about what actually constitutes a foul, CONCACEF tournaments would not be known for dirty play and diving, and MLS teams (as well as those from many other nations, Costa Rica not included) would not tend to lose if they failed to play these games.

    So, MLS, wake up and clean up your act. I am not nearly so concerned about what officially will constitute a foul, or a “point of emphasis” as I am about the large number of situational deviations exercised by any particular official, and the apparent lack of ameliorating effect that a careful selection of ARs seem to have on the main guy. Like in NFL and NBA, these guys really need to learn how to work as a team, rather than as feudal lords reigning over sub-domains.

    While we are at it, let’s just take a moment to recognize that this year’s “points of emphases” are a bona fide acknowledgement that MLS officials in previous years have screwed things up by routinely failing to call what were, and still are, legitimate fouls of certain types and in certain situations.

    And less there be any doubt, Van Damme clearly deserved the second yellow. To fail to card him for that foul would have been tantamount to declaring open season on anyone whom in the vicinity of a defender sees open field ahead. The net result would have been Guzman coming out with a shoulder injury suffered in the fall, while Van Damme continued to play. Not the message you want to send to defenders who have absolutely no chance of making a play on the ball.

    Guzman fell because he was trying to avoid the much bigger Van Damme, and as a result, twisted his ankle quite unnaturally which itself resulted in his awkward fall which injured his shoulder. He grasped his shoulder right away on the ground–not his ankle–and then came out without additional contact a few minutes later.

    (5) Your money is safe, CI.

    I am not so sure the fault lies entirely with Porter, however. He has made it a point of commenting post-game several times now about his disappointment that the team has not scored the additional goal rather than going into a faux-tortoise-shell frame of mind. The flavor that has been emerging in the MLS is that increasingly coaches have limited influence on what goes on in the game between the whistles. Otherwise, there would be no need for the lengthy directions delivered to those on their way into the game as subs.

    Perhaps, there is within the players/culture of the Timbers a risk-aversive streak that pushes them towards the extreme defense whenever they poke their noses out front in an away game. (I believe the crowds at home, lead by the Army, have managed to dissuade them of this tendency at Providence).

    Perhaps this is why their most defensive stance came right after the go-ahead goal, moderating somewhat as the game continued on. Perhaps this moderation was at least partially in response to Caleb Porter screaming his lungs out “move forward! Score another goal!” during the play.

    Perhaps this is why their most extreme defensive stances come after the surprise, against-the-run-of-play goals, instead of in strict response to an actual tactical change in the game.

    Ultimately, I stick by my supposition (what a strong noun!) that the real culprit of the away losses last year was motivation. That Porter began his MLS coaching with a heavy flavor of the motivation-heavy style required of college players, then saw the error of his ways in the excesses of Will Johnson, who soured much of the team against his harangues. The pendulum swept too far in the “they are adults, they don’t need motivation from me” direction last year, to the point that the crowds at Providence kept them fired up, but lacking this support away, they showed up to nearly every away game flat.

    Note, for example, Porter’s reflection in the interview about his disdain for “gimmicks” expressed during this year’s pre-season, in particular around the team’s expedition to the bumper cars. In that interview I detect a bit of surprise in his admission that even something as “silly” as bumper cars made a real difference in the on-field chemistry. The Timbers’ front office has tended to do a great job since 2013 or so in signing guys who fit with the team. We have no prima dona players, even in him-who-is-most-susceptible Adi. After all, strikers apparently require huge egos.

    In spite of the mid-season agent theatrics last year, Fanendo is back and apparently happy, and certainly playing as a part of the team in 2017. Perhaps his journey has been to find how he can find the necessary ego boost without poisoning his neighborhood in the locker room. Perhaps this is a journey Porter has been accompanying him on. Perhaps, it might even influence Darlington Nagbe?

    (6) Houston is good this year. At least so far. Their play has been convincing, not at all looking like a fluke.

    Next week will not be an easy game.

    However, Houston has an established history of starting hot then fading dramatically.

    So perhaps the issue will be not “are we good enough to beat Houston?” (we are!) but “will we be the reason Houston fades after their great start this season?”

    1. John Lawes

      “It is the teamwork, even in the second week of the season, that impresses me the most about this team.”

      Going forward, at least. And, yes; the first half against Vancouver in preseason almost shocked me; the Timbers were moving the ball – and moving OFF the ball – in a way I hadn’t seen since 2013. Since then I think the club has actually regressed a bit…but we still look WAY better as a team than we have at any point up to an including the Cup run. It’s great to see.

      Defending…mmmm…maybe not so much. There still seems to be a LOT of scrambling back there and LA saw way more of the goal than I’d have liked them to see. I thought both Farfan and Miller were solid but I still want Vytas back for the more precise attack he brings and his positioning on defense. Ridgy…well, let’s hope Ridgy stays focused.

      Perhaps, there is within the players/culture of the Timbers a risk-aversive streak that pushes them towards the extreme defense whenever they poke their noses out front in an away game. (I believe the crowds at home, lead by the Army, have managed to dissuade them of this tendency at Providence).

      I think that many teams, perhaps even most teams, tend to be more cautious on the road. “Win at home, draw on the road”, remember? And even moreso in LA, where the team was playing without two defensive starters. But I’m not sure that the home crowds help that much. After going up two to Minnesota the team sat back, gave up a goal and almost let the Loons back into the match, and this was with the Army in full voice. And, tho I’ve never heard a MLS player say this I’m not sure that the PP noise has that striking an effect on the visitors. Certainly the NWSL visitors have said on the record that given the typical tiny crowds at their home venues the Riveters do as much to lift their game as the Thorns’…

    2. C.I. DeMannC.I. DeMann

      After reading Chris Rifer’s always-excellent Timber Cruise, I’m starting to think many of our difficulties Sunday were because of Ridgy and Vytas (and then later, Guzman) being out. It only makes sense. Yes, the subs played very competently, but if we’d had Ridgy, Vytas, and Gooz on the field in the second half, I really do think we’d have seen a team much more on the front foot. As it were, the front-footers were mostly just the front four. Even Chara couldn’t go full-out, since he needed to take care of Zemanski.

      Now, if Farfan, Miller, and Zemanski start against Houston, will they come out of their shell a little? Probably, now that they’ve got a game under their collective belts. But in truth, I can’t blame that patched-together back six from sitting a little deep. And without them, the front four couldn’t quite break through.

      These are my current thoughts. But of course, I’m always willing to be talked out of it.

      1. fdchief218

        Sadly, I’ve become less and less of a Z-man booster. He’s not awful, but…damn, Guzman has shown us what a real 6-8 pairing looks like, and now Z-man just isn’t the right stuff anymore.

        Of the three you mention the only one I’d say I think we didn’t miss was, unfortunately for him, Ridgy. Miller was solid. We missed Vytas’ going forward and Guzman both defending and distributing.

        Hopefully Vytas and Guz are good to go this weekend.


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