Six Degrees: True Grit

The Timbers have spent most of the 2017 season convincing us they’re soft, but in Friday night’s win over New York, they proved that, yes, they are capable of closing out a game.

1) Heading into this game, there were a ton of interesting storylines. Both fullbacks from the previous game benched! The striker benched! The goalkeeper injured! Would all this turnover hurt the Timbers or help them?

And there was drama on the other side of the field, too. New York played 120 minutes on Wednesday and nearly lost to a USL side. As a result, they were starting a bunch of back ups, with heavy hitters like Kljestan and Wright-Phillips on the bench. How would all of that affect the game?

Mostly, it turns out, by making the game ugly as hell. With all the second-stringers starting, the Red Bulls cranked up their high pressure and kept our ball handlers from getting any attacking rhythm. This led to long balls over the top, which led to a 62% passing percentage, which led to a lot of fouls, which led to Alan Chapman being incompetent, which led everyone to start wondering if the game would finish in a scrappy, ugly, ultimately disappointing 0-0 draw.

2) Fortunately, when everything’s ugly and all hope is gone, the Timbers still have Diego Valeri.

There are a number of things I like here. One, I like how defenders just bounce off Diego Chara. He’s not made of flesh and bone like you and me. He’s carved from wood. Hard, dense wood.

Second, I like how Darren Mattocks runs to the near post, and that poor, single center back tries to cover both him and Valeri, which means he’s actually covering neither one.

And finally, I like how Valeri’s finish is smooth as butter. In the last four games, Valeri has four goals and two assists. On the season, he has 14 and nine, which puts him on pace for 18 and 12. And that ain’t bad.

3) As every sports fan knows, some of the greatest moments come from tension and release. The last 10-15 minutes of Friday’s game were about as tense as you could ask for.

Any time the Timbers are up 1-0, the entire fanbase is tense, simply because these are the Timbers, and there’s no limit to how they can piss away points. Then, in the 80th minute, Larrys Mabiala raised the tension even more by doing this.

I think we’d have to call this a good red card. A goal-saving red card. Probably a win-saving red card.

Regardless, it put the Timbers down a man, and led to 10-15 minutes of utter terror as our defense – our weakest-link defense – faced attack after attack after attack. There were blocks, saves, missed shots. Up in section 104, we were living and dying over and over.

Then, on the very last play, on the very last kick, as the entire stadium held its collective breath, the defense made one final stop.

Aaaaaaaaaaand… did this. (Volume up for goosebumps.)

I cannot overstate how much I lost my mind when Mattocks scored. I’m not a hugger, but dear Lord, I was hugging everyone around me, tears in my eyes. Was it a golazo? No. But for tension and release, I’m not sure it can be beat. Maybe Lucas Melano walking it into goal in the 2015 playoffs beats it, but not by much. It was hell of a moment. I’m glad I was there for it. So was Merritt Paulson.

4) Goalscorer Darren Mattocks didn’t start, by the way. He was a 59th minute substitute. Getting the start – the second start of his career – was rookie Jeremy Ebobisse.

Young Jeremy didn’t tear it up like he did in his first start – a one goal, one assist showing in Vancouver – and he had a few moments of looking not-ready-for-prime-time, but there was a lot of good stuff, too.

I saw a guy making some very nice cuts behind the New York back line. I saw a guy who was surprisingly fast, easily beating defenders to long passes. I saw a guy with pretty good hops on set pieces. As good as Mattocks? Probably not. Better than Fanendo Adi? Maybe.

Mostly what I saw was a guy who’s on the verge of having starter-quality skills. But the only way he’ll make that leap is by playing serious minutes.

In other words, let’s never start Mattocks again. At this point in his career, we know he’s not an MLS starter. But Ebobisse may be. Caleb Porter needs to spend the rest of this year finding out.

If Adi’s hurt, Ebobisse should start. If Adi’s healthy, Ebobisse should be his sub. Period.

5) We’re 26 games into the season, and I think I’ve finally figured out what Sebastian Blanco is. He’s Diego Chara, only on offense.

They’re both short and quick and scrappy, they run the entire game, and they will Never. Ever. Give. Up.

The only difference I can see between the two is that someday Diego Chara might indirectly start a brawl by fouling someone a little too hard, while Sebastian Blanco might directly start a brawl by going up to the biggest dude on the other team and punching him in the mouth. Other than that, they’re essentially the same person.

I also appreciate the similarities between Blanco and Darlington Nagbe. One, they’re able to switch positions from one side of the field to the other multiple times in a game – which I have to believe is a decent-sized headache for opposing defenses – and two, they’ve both got great handles. Nagbe’s handle is world-class, of course, but Blanco’s ain’t bad, either.

Take that handle, add in some aggressiveness and a refusal to quit, and you get the following plays from Friday’s game. Five straight gifs of Blanco being Blanco. Sit back and enjoy.

6) As I’ve written before, the Timbers have a friendlier remaining schedule that many of our rivals, in that we only have one more two-games-in-a-week stretch this season.

Alas, that week is now.

Wednesday, we’re at home against one of the worst teams in the league, Colorado. Sunday, we’re on the road against one of the hottest teams in the league, Seattle.

We’ll face them without Jake Gleeson. Hell, Jake may be done for the season. Fortunately, Jeff Attinella showed that he’s a pretty good shot-stopper as well.

We’ll face Colorado without Larrys Mabiala, who’ll be serving a one-game suspension for his red card.

We may also be without Fanendo Adi, who has a gimpy hamstring, and Liam Ridgewell, who’s made of glass.

Roy Miller will almost certainly be filling in for Mabiala at CB, which would mean Vytautas Andriuskevicius at left back. Will Vytas get back on Caleb Porter’s good side and earn himself a second start in Seattle?

Zarek Valentin left the game with some sort of injury Friday night. Was it bad enough that we’ll see the increasingly unreliable Alvas Powell at right back? Will he do anything stupid to cost us a goal?

In our last five games, we’re 3-1-1, for a PPG of 2.0. Yes, that one lost was brutal, but it was against one of the best teams in MLS history, and anyway, this is still a hell of a five game run.

Our last nine games are less stellar, at 3-2-4, which is a PPG of 1.44. But if we keep that less-than-stellar pace up for the rest of the season, we’ll finish with 49 points, which is probably good enough for 3rd, 4th, or 5th place in the West.

A mid-week win over Colorado would be a good start.