Six Degrees: Are We Really This Good?

I don’t want to get anyone too excited, but the 2017 Portland Timbers are on pace to score an MLS record 170 goals. Just puttin’ that out there.

1) When you win a game 5-1, the clear and obvious response is Hell yeah! We’re incredible! But when that 5-1 win comes against an expansion team playing its very first game, things get complicated. Questions must be asked. One question in particular: are we really this good or is Minnesota just really, really bad?

Honestly, I think it’s somewhere in the middle. I don’t think we’re quite this good, but I also don’t think Minnesota’s quite this bad. A brand new team? Playing their very first game? On national TV, on the road, in the rain, with the Timbers Army in full throat? In so many ways, Minnesota had the deck stacked against them. And yet, they could’ve done worse. Much worse.

An example? One of Caleb Porter’s goals this year was to dominate possession. Minnesota kept us from doing that. In the preseason, the Timbers were getting 60% possession or more. Friday, we got 46%. So give Minny credit.

Another example? In the 82nd minute, it was a 2-1 game. And Minny had a little momentum. Of course, that’s when the wheels came off for them, giving up 3 goals in 11 minutes, but still, they were in it until then. And maybe they’re not the last team we’ll see wearing down after 80 minutes. Maybe Portland’s style of play this year will have that effect. Time will tell.1

So again, we’re probably not 5-1 good, but conversely, Minnesota’s probably not 5-1 bad. So we can get at least a little excited. Which is nice.

2) With all the offensive firepower this team possesses, raise your hand if you had Lawrence Olum scoring our first goal of the year. Everyone with your hand raised, you’re lying. Shame on you.2

Can I tell you how excited I am about our set pieces this year? Olum’s goal didn’t come off a corner, but it might as well have, as Diego Valeri‘s free kick was just a few feet from the flag.

What I like most about this play is how Valeri kicked it short, skipping it off Vytas Andriuskevicius‘s beautiful blond head and into the box. I love set pieces that involve multiple players like this, because they throw the goalie completely off balance. He thinks the ball will be coming from one direction, only to find, nope, combo shot! Much better than just kicking it into the box and hoping for the best. I don’t think this was a fluke, either, as I saw Vytas doing exactly the same thing at least once or twice later in the game. This is by design and I heartily approve.3

Another thing to mention? After not taking a single corner in the preseason (I think), Sebastian Blanco took all of them against Minnesota. How significant is this? I have no idea. But everything I saw Friday night makes me think our set pieces will be more interesting – and more productive – in 2017.

3) Speaking of Blanco, let’s talk about our three playmakers, Blanco, Valeri, and Darlington Nagbe.

Looking at the stats, it was a hell of a game for the trio. An assist for Nags, an assist for Blanco, two goals and an assist for El Rey.4 That’s a solid, solid game.

That being said, at times I found myself a little frustrated with Blanco and Nagbe and their hesitance to take the ball into the box. With the ball at his feet and a chance to go deeper, Blanco generally sent in hopeful passes. Nagbe, of course, did his typical Nagbe thing of spinning, retreating, and resetting the offense. I feel like a bit of a dick for complaining like this, since, y’know, they each had an assist, but still, I’d love to see them attack a little more. Take the ball into the box, fellas. Good things will happen. I promise.

But an alternate way of looking at this? It’s all according to Caleb Porter’s larger strategy. It’s possible that opposing teams will watch tape of this first game, decide they don’t have to worry about our wingers attacking, at which point Nagbe and Blanco will absolutely shred them with runs into the box.5

As far as Valeri goes, he’s been here since 2013 and I’m not sure I remember a single headed goal. But suddenly this year, if you count the preseason, he already has two. Make of that what you will.

Valeri’s other goal was a penalty kick, which raised this question in my head: is he our PK guy this year? And is that a firm decision by Caleb Porter? I really hope it’s firm. Like, seriously firm. Because I don’t want any conflict between Valeri and our striker, Fanendo Adi. Strikers like scoring goals.[citation needed] When they’re denied chances to do that, conflicts can arise. Remember the PK conflict in Columbus last year? Striker Kei Kamara was traded away within the week. Granted, Higuain was being a bit of a dick that day in denying Kamara his hat trick. Valeri’s not a dick, but my point remains. I don’t want Valeri/Adi conflict and will therefore be paying attention to this issue.

4) Speaking of Fanendo Adi, how friggin’ awesome is he? Seriously, he’s so damn good. If I were a betting man, I’d put money on him bagging 20+ goals this year. It feels like a sure thing.

But he kept us waiting on Friday, didn’t he? He bagged both his goals in stoppage time, and both were things of beauty. Watch his ball control on the first goal.

Did you enjoy watching him put that keeper through the spin cycle? Good, because the smoke hadn’t even cleared when he did it to another poor bastard.

Honestly, the dude’s 6’4” and built like a draft horse, but his feet are soft as a ballerina’s. I like how he shows his versatility by finishing the two goals in two different ways: a soft, precise side-foot placement on the first, a hard left-footed blast on the second. Dude’s amazing. Wherever he’s playing next year, he’s gonna need help carrying his paycheck to the bank.

5) Okay, so the Timbers offense is awesome, that much is clear. How’s the defense?

Erm… okay? Maybe? Hard to tell, really. Again, they were working against an expansion team in their very first game, on the road, in the rain, blah blah blah, so it’s hard to make a truly definitive statement. That being said, I don’t think they were too bad.

The one goal we conceded? Yes, that was bad.

I don’t know who deserves the lion’s share of blame on this one, but I’m giving it to Liam Ridgewell. At least Olum makes an attempt on the ball, you know? Ridgy’s just standing there with his hand in the air. You’re a center back, Ridgy, not a referee. Put your fuckin’ hand down and play defense.

Other than that one awful play, though, I thought the defense was okay. Ridgy was generally solid, Olum generally looked like a guy who belonged on the pitch, and the defensive midfielders generally provided help in front of the box.

Speaking of the defensive midfielders, I’m beginning to think of the Diego Chara/David Guzman combo as something of a third center back. Especially Guzman. With him hanging out at the top of the box, blowing up anyone who comes near, Olum and Ridgy can drift just a tiny bit wider, knowing the middle’s covered.

This quasi-three center back formation6 has another benefit; it allows the full backs to race forward and play offense. Which they did Friday night. And very well, thank you.

Last year, Vytas and Alvas Powell had a combined total of one assist. Friday night, they matched that total. And, of course, they had three assists in the preseason. In other words, this is real. Our full backs are going to be serious offensive threats this year. And David Guzman sitting deep and blowing dudes up is a large part of the reason why.

And, of course, not only do the full backs get to move forward and attack, Diego Chara does, too. Check out this great article by Ben Baer, which includes Chara’s heat map from Friday compared to a heat map from last year.

So, in summation, the defense ain’t perfect, but it ain’t awful, either. We’ll revisit this topic next week after we play LA, who know a thing or two about making defenses look stupid.

6) So, let’s close by returning to our opening question: are we really this good?

Between the four preseason games and Friday’s opening match, we’ve had five opportunities to say, “Wow, the team looks awfully good, but let’s not get too excited because blah blah blah.” Those blah blah blahs are important, of course. Preseason is preseason. Expansion teams are expansion teams. We can’t ignore that.

But on the other hand, five straight times looking great is still five straight times looking great. At what point are we allowed to say, “Okay, I’m calling it, this shit is real?” When can we say that? Because I really want to say it. Bad. If we win next week in LA, can I say it? Can we call it real?

I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. For now, let’s just admit that this is pretty awesome and we really hope it’s real. Because if it is real, this is gonna be a hell of a fun year. We’re gonna win a lot of games, we’re gonna score a lot of goals, and at the end of the year, we’re gonna be holding some silverware. Maybe a Cup. Maybe a Shield. Maybe both.

But again, let’s see how things go next week in LA.

  1. Insert stupid time joke here. Did you know that you don’t have to click on these footnotes to see my stupid jokes? Just hover your cursor over the number and my stupid joke will magically appear. It’s easy and fun and, above all, stupid. Much like me. 

  2. He’s on pace for 34 goals this year, by the way. My plan is to call him the Kenyan Messi until this insane hot streak ends. If it ever does. Which I doubt. Underestimate the Kenyan Messi at your peril. 

  3. which I’m sure will thrill Caleb Porter. He’s so desperate for my approval. It’s embarrassing. 

  4. should this be Valeri’s new nickname? I think I like it more than El Maestro, which I’ve heard attached to a few other players. Also, somebody made a big, giant flag. Which I wish I had a photo of. 

  5. and on the sideline Caleb Porter will rub his hands together and twirl his mustache like the evil genius he is. 

  6. I’m finding myself very annoyed with that hyphen. Quasi-three? Wha? Fuck you, punctuation. Don’t be so difficult.