In his first Portland Post-Match Post-Mortem (PPP), Nick Garner looks at the good and the bad in the Timbers 1-0 win over Colorado
Portland Post-Match Pontification: Urruti Must abandon the theatrical flopping and melodramatic gamesmanship
by Nick Garner, Portland
The Colorado Rapids and Portland Timbers entered the match last Friday battling for playoff position, the former riding momentum from a 2-1 victory at home over FC Dallas, and the latter with something to prove after conceding an early goal and consequent draw against Western Conference cellar dwellers Chivas USA.
The teams’ fortunes seem to have nearly reversed since their last meeting, a 3-0 result for the home team at Jeld-Wen Field on June 23rd.
After that defeat, Colorado proceeded to go on a bit of a tear in 11 out of 12 league matches while Portland, missing the regular contributions of several players due to injuries, suspensions, and national team call-ups, only garnered a point or three in 6 of 10 fixtures.
Portland most recent success was a thorough drubbing of Toronto FC, seen by some as a signal that the Timbers’ mid-season woes were behind them, but perceived by others as simply to be expected against the second worst side of the Eastern Conference.
The line-ups were slightly altered from the previous outing; Portland replaced young center back Andrew Jean-Baptiste with the resurgent Mamadou “Futty” Danso, presumably a response to Jean-Baptiste’s arguably worst of season performance against Chivas USA the week before.
With Ryan Miller out the rest of the season due to injury, and having not challenged for a starting position in recent memory anyway, the Timbers opted for Jack Jewsbury at right back over Alvas Powell or the positionally bereft Sal Zizzo.
The erstwhile team Captain and nominal Club Captain doesn’t have the speed of Powell or Zizzo in getting forward, but his veteran spatial intelligence makes him more solid than either on defense, at least until Powell matures or Zizzo adapts and develops.
Jewsbury had played in Michael Harrington’s spot at left back in the previous meeting, but the latter returned to his usual position this time, as his speed would be needed to counter assaults by Marvell Wynne and Atiba Harris.
As it turned out, neither Jewsbury or Harrington would get forward much, with Porter utilizing them to keep Colorado honest; that extra threat held in reserve, with a reliance on the midfielders and lone forward to generate attacks.
This decision may have something to do with the Timbers failure to build play from the back, though credit has to be given to Colorado’s aggressive badgering of Portland’s defenders.
The final change for Portland was the, perhaps surprising, start of new Argentine forward Maximiliano Urruti in place of Ryan Johnson.
Piquionne started at forward in the last meeting between the two teams, but was out with an ankle injury, so the decision to start Urruti over Ryan Johnson may be an effort to get him acclimated to the team for the final stretch of regular season games and into the play-offs, a strategic decision based on predicted player match-ups and tactics, or some combination.
Jose Adolfo Valencia has also challenged Ryan Johnson for the starting forward position in recent weeks, so it wouldn’t have been a shock to see him get the nod again, rather than riding the pine.
To my mind the decision was a mix of tactical acumen and long-term strategic development, as Urruti brought something to the match that we haven’t seen to such an extent from any of the other forwards by playing as something of an aspiring false nine.
I say aspiring because he’s not quite there, showing an inclination to drop back to harry the opposition for possession and create his own chances, but not quite being in sync enough with his teammates to provide consistent link-up play, yet.
The forward showed some of his quality as he constantly pressured Moor, forcing the Colorado defender to make rapid and risky clearances.
While his harrying of the rival defense earned him a yellow card for persistent infringement, it paid dividends when the pesky Argentine swooped in to force a poor clearance; the misfired ball intercepted by Rodney Wallace, headed to an onrushing Diego Valeri, and chipped over a confounded Clint Irwin.
Piquionne, Ryan Johnson, and Valencia have all shown some facility for tracking back to make something from nothing, and to assist their teammates with generous passes, but Urruti has an already ingrained sense for off the ball movement and dominant possession play that could improve greatly as he acclimates to his new team, hence the immediate minutes.
Part of his adjustment process will have to include abandoning the stereotypical Argentine propensity for theatrical flopping.
After going down under the weight of an aerial challenge, Urruti’s leg-clutching histrionics caused some initial concern on the sidelines, with Ryan Johnson prepared to enter the field.
This bit part playacting was revealed to be at least a touch of melodramatic gamesmanship when the officials failed to be persuaded by his performance and he hopped back up after the administration of the trainer’s magic spray.
Valeri, the Timbers frontrunner for MVP, made his first start in three matches as he recovers from a groin strain, and seems to have been disabused of the odious diving habit, so it is to be hoped that he’ll clue his young countryman in on the local preference for upright play.
Colorado coach Óscar Pareja, leading his team on the road, may have opted for a more conservative, defensive, formation to start this match, with Nick LaBrocca playing on the right wing of a 4-4-2 rather than as part of the attacking trio, including Deshorn Brown and Atiba Harris, that failed to light up the scoreboard in midsummer.
Shane O’Neill started alongside Drew Moor at center back over German Mera, and Argentine playmaker Martin Rivero over Nathan Sturgis, O’Neill returned from Under-20 U.S. National Team duty, and Rivero having recovered from a broken foot in preseason that caused them to miss the last match between the Rapids and the Timbers.
Pareja was forced to contend with a number of setbacks early in the season, perhaps giving a mistaken impression of the quality of his charges.
With many of those initial obstacles overcome, the Rapids have been rising in the standings and sought to suppress the Timbers’ attempts at a resurgence.
As play began, the Timbers sought to correct the mistakes they made against Chivas that earned them a draw rather than a win, in particular a lackadaisical start that coach Caleb Porter described as “casual.”
Colorado didn’t make it easy on them, starting off with an aggressiveness of their own, with an early foul by Atiba Harris sending Diego Chara tumbling *ass over teakettle and earning a yellow card for the Rapids’ offender.
Chara may have been stalling a bit, allowing the Timbers to regroup, and perhaps trying to send a signal to the officials to help set the tone for the match; to dissuade the Rapids from using trips, hip checks, and shoulder shoves to break the Timbers’ rhythm.
This gambit may have backfired, as calls, or the lack of them, tended to favor the Rapids for most of the game.
That’s not to say that every call was against Portland, or that all of the calls against the Timbers were undeserved, but that slowing down and disrupting play disproportionately impacts the Timbers’ preferred style, arresting their momentum and forcing restarts that often led to more contentious aerial duels when slick give and go passing and through balls would have been optimal.
One call that might have spared the Timbers another ignominious draw, had the goal been a bit wider, came after Edson Buddle ricocheted a poor Danso clearance off of Ricketts’ near post, but was incorrectly ruled offside.
Buddle would cleverly make a habit of lining up offside on free kicks and corners in the hopes of winning second balls in the box, a feint that Portland has fallen prey to in the past.
Colorado used a number of other techniques to squelch the Timbers offense: putting immediate and constant pressure on the backline, leading to poor clearances that were more easily challenged.
Buddle enticed Danso to lay hands on him as Andrew Jean-Baptiste is more wont to do, leading to a free kick that may as well have been a corner. Other factors that could have swung the match Rapids’ way included earning nine corner kicks to Portland’s one, creating set piece opportunities against a Portland defense that has often been a sieve to dead ball plays; the furious restart after conceding a goal to take advantage of the Timbers past habit of succumbing to post goal lethargy; the aforementioned air balls to capitalize on height disparities in the midfield; and intercepting Portland’s uncharacteristically errant passing to dominate possession.
Perhaps another sign of the physical and airborne nature of the game is the seemingly excessive number of hand balls.
Nagbe and LaBrocca may have both had a hand on the ball as the Timbers midfielder tried to gain control for a counterattack, but it was unclear from the camera’s angle and evidently the official’s as well, as neither got a card.
Rodney Wallace got called for a (judging by his grin, intentional) handball, when he tried to regain both his feet and possession after Wynne took him down in an uncalled-for hard challenge in the Rapids’ right corner.
Valeri, in a rare display of seeming naivety, picked the ball up after assuming a foul would be called on Rapids midfielder Hendry Thomas, instead getting a reminder to play until the whistle. Jewsbury committed a handball as well, which belies the positional wisdom I credited him with earlier.
Late game substitutions indicated that both teams were still on the attack in the final minutes: the Rapids brought in Deshorn Brown for Harris, and Jaime Castrillón for LaBrocca, while the Timbers swapping Kalif Alhassan for Valeri, and Ryan Johnson for Urruti, only going to the bench to exchange Nagbe for Zemanski in the 89th minute; a sign that Timbers faithful usually equate to parking the bus.
In spite of this ominous indication of bunkering, Ryan Johnson continued to hustle for insurance in the three minutes of extra time, literally stretching himself to maintain possession, and later racing into a one-on-one against Irwin before, with superlative speed, Wynne surpassed him and slid the ball and his feet out from under him.
Wynne is recognized as one of the faster defenders in the league. The Timbers’ Alvas Powell has shown that he can turn on the jets when necessary and, if he learns to use his speed to make tackles as marvelously as Wynne, he can combine that with his nascent crossing skills to become precisely the kind of fullback that Porter wants: an offensive defender.While Colorado left with nary a point, despite having looked the more impressive side by many statistical measures, we’ve seen enough soccer to know that the numbers don’t always add up, and we have born witness to several games where the unexpected wins the day.
This wasn’t the most beautiful game to watch, particularly for those Timbers fans that harbor fantasies of “Little Barça” supplanting “Little Beirut” as a Portland pseudonym, but aficionados should take comfort that Porter is more of Bayern Munich fan these days anyway, which may make more sense given his professorial reputation.
So-called Porterball wasn’t as much in evidence as the possession with purpose posse would prefer.
Colorado forced the Timbers to delve into reservoirs of flexibility and stick-to-itiveness to grind out a result, qualities that will be much needed as Portland faces the top teams in the Western Conference, as well as a revivified Chivas, to close out the season.
As for Colorado, they must show the Sounders that turbulent Rapids are a force to be reckoned with, prove to the Earthquakes that they cannot be moved, and top the Whitecaps to remain above the red line of playoff cutoff.
*Editor’s Note: That’s what I call Keeping Portland Weird.