Six Degrees: On the Verge

The Timbers are on the verge of being a really good team. They’re also on the verge of being a really bad team. I have no idea which team will win out in the end.

1) After a wonderful March and April, the Timbers have spent the last two months establishing themselves as the league’s greatest enigma. During our most recent 12 game stretch, the team’s gone 2-5-5 and managed to look wonderful, horrible, and somewhere in between, often within the same game. They’ve been toying with our emotions, giving us a couple bad losses, followed by a couple 2-0 wins, followed by losses to two of the worst teams in the league, followed by three straight draws to some of the best teams in the league. They’ve given us games with no fight whatsoever, followed by games where they’ve busted their asses for 90 straight minutes. Trying to figure them out is a fool’s errand.

This past week is a good example. On Saturday, the team played Sporting Kansas City – the best team in the West – on the road, with a paper-thin roster, and somehow pulled out a draw. It was a weird, vaguely frustrating draw, but still, road draws against good teams? We’ll take ’em.

Four days later, the Timbers got to play Chicago – the best team in the East – this time at home, but with an even thinner lineup. What happened? The Timbers dominated for pretty much the entire game, led in all the important stats, and yet somehow managed only a 2-2 draw.

So who the hell are we?

The answer, as always: I have no idea. This team is a complete mystery. I will say this, though: the Timbers are on the verge of being something. They’re either on the verge of being a really good team or a really bad team. A team with great chemistry who crushes it for 90 minutes, or a team that gets a lead, takes its foot off the gas, and pisses away points. A team that goes toe to toe with teams at the top of the table, or a team that loses to doormats Minnesota, Colorado, and very possibly, in a couple weeks, Real Salt Lake.

So, which Timbers team do you think will win out in the end? The team that drops points and sinks further and further down the table? Or the team that regains its early-season form and begins a slow, inexorable climb toward the top?

Both these destinies seem equally likely.

2) The Timbers came out strong Wednesday night, dominating in most regards, but soccer being the cruel sport it is, Chicago was the one to open the scoring. And it was a fairly cruel goal.

I’m pretty sure Jake Gleeson was setting himself up for Nikolic to touch that ball. When Nikolic didn’t, Jake was caught wrong-footed and the ball went dribbling into goal, a bit uncertain how it got there, I’m sure.

I think we have to blame Jake, at least a little. But to be fair, he’s not the first keeper to get fooled by an attacker not touching a ball. I distinctly remember Liam Ridgewell fooling the Columbus keeper last year with just such a play.

Does a better keeper stop this shot? I’m not so sure. If we can agree on one thing, it’s that Jake Gleeson’s a helluva shot-stopper, with lightning-quick reflexes. If he can’t stop this, I’m not sure there’s many who do.

Though maybe you disagree. Do you think the Timbers need a better keeper? Convince me.

3) So there we were, dominating the game, yet down 1-0. Up in Section 203, I had my head in my hands, wondering why I followed such an awful sport and if heartbreak was all the Timbers would ever give me.

But to their credit, the boys kept pushing, kept Chicago on their heels, and in the 22nd minute, this happened.

In our last game, Diego Valeri sent a PK down the middle, straight into the keeper’s waiting arms. So what did Fanendo Adi do with this PK? Sent it down the middle, straight into the back of the net.

I’m starting to think PKs are nothing but random chance and the best you can do is just put it on frame, knowing that once every ten times, it’ll get saved.

4) Chicago’s second goal bugged me a little more than their first. The first was just a weird, oddball, freak goal. The second felt like blown coverage.

Who’s to blame for leaving Brandon Vincent so completely wide open? A variety of people, I think, but mostly Zarek Valentin. Look how he follows that runner into the box, leaving, not one, but two guys open on the right side. Ben Zemanski and Lawrence Olum are too slow picking those dudes up, and Chicago makes us pay.

There’s an alternate take here, of course. Maybe Valentin wouldn’t have followed that run so closely if he thought Olum was ready to do it himself. As usual, defense is a complicated, multi-player dance, and if anyone steps awry, the whole thing falls apart.

Speaking of defense, Larrys Mabiala will be eligible to play in our next game. Will he? Is he already practicing with the squad, getting to know the players and developing chemistry? I surely hope so. Just as we expected at the start of the year, defense is this team’s weakest link. I hope Larrys can help us fix that.

5) Down 2-1 in the 62nd minute, there was really no telling which Timbers team we’d see. The team on the verge of being great, or the team of the verge of tumbling down the table.

It turned out to be the former. The boys put the pedal to the floor, continued their dominating play, and in the 70th minute, scored one of their prettiest goals of the year. This is a long gif, but is worth a full look.

I count eight passes, covering 80 yards, spread between six different players, and culminating with a very nice Valentin/Asprilla/Valeri/Blanco combo. And how about Valeri making that defender think he was going left, then coming back to Sebastian Blanco on his right? Just a lovely team goal, start to finish, and the kind of goal that makes one wonder why we can’t do that more often.

Speaking of Diego Valeri, he’s now on pace for 16 goals and 11 assists. That ain’t bad.

And speaking of Sebastian Blanco, congratulations on your first log slice, sir. Let’s hope there are many, many more. Now go give your wife a kiss.

6) Some random thoughts to finish us off.

  • That Fanendo Adi game-winner that was waved off? It was a good call.

  • Could somebody make a gif of all the times the Timbers shot the ball directing at the keeper? We had nine shots on target and I’m pretty sure the goalie didn’t have to move on five or six of them. It was maddening.
  • Victor Arboleda‘s like a shot of nitrous oxide. Win, lose, or draw, he should be subbed into every game, just so we get five minutes of watching him go hell bent for leather toward goal.
  • Despite his possible culpability on Chicago’s 2nd goal, it feels like Zarek Valentin’s currently our best right back. Do any of you think it’s still Alvas Powell?
  • Speaking of lineup issues, with Blanco doing so well on the left and Dairon Asprilla doing so well on the right, what do we do with Darlington Nagbe when Diego Chara and David Guzman are both available? Send Dairon to the bench and put Nags on the right?
  • And finally, speaking of heads, Asprilla gets his head on a lot of balls… and does absolutely nothing with them. It’s to the point I almost want him not to head the ball. Let someone else head it. Someone who can put it on target. Am I alone here?

20 Comments Six Degrees: On the Verge

  1. Paul Atkinson

    Every time I watch the footage of Adi’s second goal I can’t help noticing the moment when the defender stops cold, plants both feet, squats down a little, then jumps up in the air. It’s impossible for me to guess how hard Adi pushed him, because his leap masks it entirely.

    It was a call that could have gone either way, to me. If Adi hadn’t been whistled, that would have been a good call too.

    1. C.I. DeMannC.I. DeMann

      I saw the push from the stands, so when the ball went in and everyone around me was going crazy and beer was flying all over the place, I was looking at the ref, wondering what he was going to do. He paused a moment, then pointed over toward the AR, almost as if looking for a 2nd opinion. I didn’t see what the AR did, but the ref immediately waved the goal off and I had to tell everyone around me to quit celebrating. The whole thing took 5 seconds at most. Such a bummer, but at least I never got my hopes up that we’d just won it.

      1. Roy Gathercoal

        Adi is sitting on the most fouls committed in MLS this season, 42–followed by Blanco at 41 and Guzman at 40. It is amazingly interesting that three Timbers players sweep the top three in this category. (Guzman has only played 15 games so far, to 19 by both Adi and Blanco).

        Either the officials are systematically unbalanced games, the soccer gods are messing with coincidence again, or this team keeps finding itself reacting to situations instead of anticipating them. You cannot win games by giving away possession and/or free kicks. It really doesn’t matter how amazing your defense might be if you immediately follow that clearance or block with a foul that hands the ball back.

        Also interesting to me: The next Timbers player is Diego Chara at 16th. Then Asprilla at 39th place. 1,2,3,16,39. Something smells. Also notice that the top two foulers in the whole league are Portland attacking players!

        We have discussed Adi’s situation. I suspect there is quite a bit of a petulant “well then, see what happens. . . ” attitude from Adi, in reaction to a big change in what was and was not called a foul by him and by his opponents after the 2015 run.

        Perhaps officials decided “this guy shouldn’t be this good, so obviously he is doing something we are missing, so let’s call fouls just in case.”

        Perhaps they decided that MLS would be better off without big aggressive forwards, and so Adi (1st) and Altidore (12th) and Larin (19th) and others are being kept on an abnormally short leash. Adi seems to be responding with consistent whining, which leads to another possibility–

        Perhaps the officials are reacting to Adi’s early and constant complaining and frequent theatrical ground-sittings by being sure they don’t reward this kind of behavior and so they don’t call fouls they would call if Adi had just played against the opponents and not against the referee.

        Perhaps there is something in the style of play coached by Porter that brings out this form of aggressive behavior on the field. After all, former Timber Rodney Wallace is 11th on the list–and apart from Dom Dwyer (no surprise, a different situation) he is the first player considered a forward after Adi and Blanco.

        It also seems to me that Adi spends a great deal of time lounging in an off-sides position, often because he walks slowly back after getting up off the ground after he believes he has been fouled. So instead of starting the run too soon, many of Adi’s off-sides calls are because he was a step too late in getting back on sides.

        I really (obviously) don’t know. But I do know that this is not the only case this year in which we would have won the game if it had not been for an Adi foul. And even if “he did it first!” pushing a defender in the back with both hands when you have beat him in the air anyway is dumb. Perhaps even another specie in the genus “Derps.”

  2. Roy Gathercoal

    I really enjoy watching games in which the notion I might care more about the game than the players never crosses my mind. They played like it matters.

    As if they started work at 8 am and didn’t take an hour for the second cup of coffee, didn’t take the two-martini lunch, and didn’t quit an hour early. Refreshing.

    I do hope it is because one or more senior guys stepped into leadership roles in the locker room. Because that is the only way such a spurt can be sustained. Culture, baby.

    And they need to find a way to tap into that “hunger” when they are not playing at Providence Park.

    I am not so concerned about the last couple of losses–getting a draw at SKC and one vs Chicago when they are so hot are not disasters. Losing to the likes of Colorado and Minnesota are. Actually, I think that with parity being the state religion of the MLS, we really ought to get used to the idea that every year we are going to win games we didn’t expect to win, and to lose games that surprise us. After all, the other team is also winning unexpected games, and sometimes that is against us.

    If you pencil in wins for games yet to be played, even lowly Vancouver would end up leading the conference. This exercise shows the price we pay for our sleepwalking–we have no games in hand. But even this doesn’t matter because with almost half the season left, any team–even Minnesota, Colorado and RSL–could finish among the top in the conference by the time the dust settles. And given our run in 2015 and that of Seattle in 2016, this is not such a far-fetched notion.

    It is a serious logical error to base predictions of future returns on past performance. This practice only makes sense if you assume there will be no changes in the relative team performances. But this is one of the big problems with sports statistics, and is just about the entire reason the sports betting industry is booming.

    Now we will see if the athletic training shake up is substantive or just asking one guy to take one for the team by throwing himself under the bus. Given how mad Caleb Porter was at the press conference, perhaps resigning was self-defense.

    I do think Jake Gleeson is a good shot-blocker, if he happens to be in the right spot when the play unfolds. I do not think he makes good decisions about moving into the right place, or about leaving his line. And if he kicks one more ball into the opponent’s bench, I will have to do, well, something. Something severe.

    1. C.I. DeMannC.I. DeMann

      Speaking of parity, did you see RSL’s 6-2 win over LA this week? RSL dominated the entire game. It was bewildering. And what the hell’s up with LA at home this year? They’re 1-5-3 at home, and 5-3-1 away. That is just insane.

      1. Roy Gathercoal

        A most delightful game experience, for it not being a Timbers win. I think back to the 2015 5-2 win at LA, and how that seemed to spark the MLS cup run.

        I suspect that part of the issue has to do with managing the egos that come with a Hollywood team. Arena probably did not get enough credit. When you think of it, though, how’d you like to manage a team of players who are there only because they want to live the glamorous life of LA’s wealthy after dark?

  3. Papez107

    I’m sorry for Nik Wald but something had to change. The Timbers have looked like a team that was gassed at the end of games and with all the injuries and re-injuries. There are a lot of questions about both the Thorns and Timbers injuries and fitness. Nik was only the Timbers athletic trainer and not the Thorns who have seen a lot of problems recently. If they are using similar sports science systems then they should really look at what is going on. The Timbers looked great at the end of 2015 and really dominated teams at the end of games and Nik was incharge then. I wonder if the system changed during that time or maybe this is just a bad run of luck. I hope this leads to something positive. Maybe someone getting fired help the team realize that not playing a full 90 has life changing consequences for people they have gotten to know and like.

    1. C.I. DeMannC.I. DeMann

      My feelings are similar to yours. It’s almost assuredly not all Nik’s fault, but something had to change, and he’s the obvious person to send packing. Not being a medical-type/training=type person, I have no suggestions what should be done now, but hopefully the Timbers can find someone who does.

    2. Roy Gathercoal

      I agree. This new field of “Sports Science” is much less science than it is “we now have the technology to measure stuff we could only intuit before.” The requisite time it takes to really analyze things as complex as human behavior has been overrun by technological advances. So it may not be either the fault of technology, or of the person trying brand new stuff, but perhaps one of those “we thought that bloodletting to allow the evil humours to escape sounded like a great idea, and everyone was doing it” sort of situations.

      After all, nearly all of the other aspects of the sport have been building slowly, incrementally, for decades or longer. There are improvements–or at least changes–but these tend to come as a result of careful study of the history and philosophy of the sport. This kind of Sports Science wasn’t even a thing a decade ago, and still isn’t a thing most of the places where the sport is played professionally.

      The temptation with any new technology is to place too much faith in the few data points you have. There tends to be way more extrapolation than testing.

      And we are not talking about something as straightforward, even, as designing the best possible artificial playing surface! We still don’t know a lot about what makes a good field, although we do tend to know one when we experience it.

      The drive to eke out a percentage point or maybe even two in a league that practices such parity is overwhelming.

      Coaches don’t know why they win games, or why their athletes are on top one game and playing through a fog the next. It is clear that all this science has not given the Timbers’ coaching staff real insight into why the same team can put in a Montreal and Dallas performances.

      So who knows? Whenever it comes to science, I tend to trust those who speak with the most certainty, the least. Real science is about thrashing about in the unknown, not about understanding something completely. As long as you don’t understand something completely, you are going to make mistakes. The question is not avoiding these misunderstandings, but nurturing the ability to not be so sure of yourself you are the last in the room to recognize a big mistake.

      I am not at all sure sports science is beyond this stage, yet.

  4. fdchief218

    I’m perfectly happy to dump on Jake for the first Chicago goal, C.I. My seat in 109 put me in a direct line behind Gleeson looking past Nikolic to Alvarez. There was no question the moment that shot left Alvarez’ boot that it was going through to Nikolic; neither another Chicago nor a Portland body was close enough to touch it. So Jakes has two dangers to worry about; Nikolic taking the ball and either deflecting it or turning with it, or the ball going straight thru on goal.

    And given that, Jake’s correct play is to step forward with the shot and cut the ball off as it gets to Nikolic. Either tackle it away or go to ground and take it off his foot. If he does he eliminates both threats.

    Instead he plants himself, and as a result has only a fraction of a second to try and make a reaction save when Nikolic dummies. That’s not a good option and unsurprisingly it didn’t work.

    But. I don’t think we need a new ‘keeper. We need a new ‘keeper COACH; someone w more, and higher-level, experience that Adin who can help Jake improve on the consistent errors he makes on stuff like this and his misjudgements coming off his line.

    1. Roy Gathercoal

      I’m not so sure. After all, a specialty coach’s main effect on a team is long-term. By the time you get to the professional level, you would think that errors like “not being in the right place” might not be a game-to-game thing. And Gleeson spent years under the tutelage of the previous coach.

      I think it is more a matter of maturity. Keepers tend to perform better as they get into their golden years of late thirties. Rimando is 38, almost unheard of for a professional footballer. He might have waited a year too long, but it might also be that he has a crappy defensive line in front this year. He still seems to be able to stop one-on-one shots.

      You seldom see really good keepers in their mid-twenties. I attribute it to the increased leadership responsibilities of the keeper, as well as less reliance on physicality and more on mentatality. The young guys do often tend to be great shot stoppers, but the mental toughness required to be uninvolved for twenty minutes then to suddenly be in the hot seat takes some mellowing.

      Average keepers never get the mental stuff, and end up being pretty much eclipsed when they leave their physical prime.

      The kind of things we fault Gleeson for–distribution, positioning, being able to anticipate rather than reacting, making good decisions about coming off the line–are much more nuanced things than is pure physical size and reaction time.

      On the other hand, I have never even played a keeper on a television soap opera, so what do I know?

        1. Roy Gathercoal

          I am sure the thought has crossed the mind of some people, principally living in that northern fish-throwing hamlet.

      1. fdchief218

        Shot-stopping is pure reflex, and it’s a gift, you can’t coach it, tho you can improve the player skills. But tactics and judgement CAN be improved with teaching. Stepping up to Nikolic wasn’t in the Keeper Kabbala. It was pretty much Goalkeeping Basics, and Jake isn’t THAT young. His coach should be spanking him this week for not making what should have been the obvious play on that ball.

  5. Timber Dave

    “I’m starting to think PKs are nothing but random chance and the best you can do is just put it on frame, knowing that once every ten times, it’ll get saved.”

    This is why I hate a penalty shoot-out. It is completely a roll of the dice. I don’t have anything better to replace them with, but I just hate them.

    Also, the rate is more like one in four or one in five than one in ten: The PK conversion rate is generally around 75-80%. I guess that includes misses too, so maybe the rate is one in six or seven if you put it on frame.

    1. Roy Gathercoal

      I also hate the penalty kick. While I am willing to admit there is some skill involved, as the player who is consistently able to place the ball into the top corner will complete more kicks, and the keeper who can reach the top corners will save more, the largest part of “the art” of taking these kicks have to do with whether you can guess where the other is going to go.

      No keeper alive can consistently stop a kick if he cannot see the kicker, and no kicker alive can consistently beat even a decent keeper if they agree in advance which quadrant of the net will be the target.

      It is possible for a kicker to miss the net. It is possible for the keeper to stumble. Those are slim probabilities.

      Our problem lies with time.

      In a traditional tournament, you must have a winner and loser. Unlike the less physically demanding baseball, it makes no sense to play longer if both teams are at the point of exhaustion without a winner.

      My father was in a high school baseball game that once lasted until 1:30 am! That was taxing, but as long as you could continue to sub on pitchers, the players could continue. This is not possible in soccer, without seriously jeopardizing the health of the players.

      I can think of several possibilities for alternatives. I will bet that others can come up with more.

      (1) The weighted last score. In this scenario if the teams play to a draw in all the allowed extra time, the team that scored the last goal will progress. If neither team has scored, then the away team progresses. This at least will take out the absurd situation in which coaches both sit back, choosing to play for the shoot out rather than take chances in soccer play.

      (2) A possible, though complicated, route is to pre-select tie breakers, so that both teams know in advance that if they are even in goals, then a second factor (perhaps shots on goal) will determine the winner, and then a third factor, etc. This is how we handle the need to decide among teams with the same records for the supporter’s shield, for example.

      (3) at one time, top league soccer in the US experimented with a “golden goal” in which teams played until the first team scored. There are several reasons this ended up being scrapped, but it is a possible alternative.

      (4) at another time, the league experimented with a player trying to score from an open field run vs a lone keeper, so it was more like a breakaway with a lone attacker facing a keeper. Despite the disadvantages, this does end up looking more like soccer play and much less forced. The keeper can go anywhere within the box and so choose to remain on the line or move out to meet the attacker.

      (5) My personal favorite is to scrap the traditional extra time periods. If teams are even at the end of regulation play, then both coaches choose one player to remove from the game, and play continues for five minutes. If drawn at the end of this time, then the coaches remove a second player and play for another 5 minutes, 9 vs 9. Then 8, 7, 6, etc. down to the final highly improbable one vs one duel. Teams practice playing short-sided games, and even 3 vs 3 drills, so this would not require new skills. It would also tax a team’s versatility and flexibility, as players have to cover new situations. And it would be entertaining!

      No matter what the solution, it will not be a traditional game of two 45 minute halves. The whole point is that in some situations the traditional game does not yield a clear winner. So any solution will end up deviating from “regular soccer.” The question is whether it can be done safely, expeditiously, and in an entertaining manner. It is a matter of trade off preferences.

      I don’t like the trade-offs we currently face with the shoot off from the penalty spot.

      But then, I also don’t like the way defensive fouls in the box are handled, for it places too much weight on the shoulders of the referee. With the PK as the result of a defensive foul, the ref is essentially asked to make the usual decision about whether a foul reaches a certain level, but potentially putting the entire game on the line with that one call.

      This, however, is a different matter!

      1. fdchief218

        It’s a crapshoot,sure. But so is pretty much every other option you mention. The obvious solution is the original solution…schedule a rematch in a week and play again to a regulation time win. That was the FA Cup until the television era, and the latter is why the later rounds, and all other knockout matches, no longer get replayed. IMO everything else is a coinflip more-or-less, so PKs are just more coin-flippy than the other options. Question of degree rather than nature…

  6. Timber Dave

    Re Asprilla’s headers: It was his header that sent the ball to Adi when he caused our PK. So yes, they do have positive outcomes sometimes! Wish it happened more — like Mattocks, the man can jump.


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