Sunday, August 26, 2012

No shortage of excitement in Rose City

Tonight's match between the Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps may not mean much in the table as far as the Timbers are concerned,  though the win takes them out of the basement.  And it may not have more meaning than just being a single game in a season full of frustration, confusion, and uncertainty. 

That being said tonight's match was more than worth the price of the ticket...if you could get a ticket.  The Timbers refused to be the whipping boy for Vancouver's ambitions,  playing hard and smart through most of a game much like three plus decades of games between the two sides.   Physical.  No quarter given.  The Timbers may not have a shot at much this season but they are still in the running for the Cascadia Cup, and what is more important really?  An MLS Trophy?  A Lamar Hunt Cup?   No,  in the mythic kingdom of Cascadia, this Cup is the Grail.  

Forging of legends aside,  this match was worth remembering for the realities of its nuts and bolts football as well as for its drama.   First off,  Darlington Nagbe was the player we all want him to be early in this game.  He was strong on the ball, assertive,  looking for shots and calmly delivering the team's first goal in an attacking sequence that says the Timbers are better than they've looked this season.   Second,  Franck Songo'o was brilliant on the field.  His twists, turns, feints and attacks wreaked havoc with Vancouver's defense.   Songo'o showed a command of the field and a ferociousness when Vancouver got the ball that must have been inspiring to his teammates if it was making me feel the intensity thirty rows up in the stands.   And his free kick perfectly placed to tantalize Vancouver's keeper as it went into the net was worthy of any master of the game anywhere.

Songo'o is an enigma of sorts.  He came to the team as a walk-on.  His resume is substantial enough as far as where he's trained and where he's played that it gives one pause to think he's not a designated player, one of the rarified strata of the MLS,  but his career has not been marked by a breakout performance in which he rose to his potential and showed his prowess as a footballer.  Tonight he showed that he's got grit and is willing to raise the stakes.  He showed poise in his finesse with defenders out in the corners.   He showed attacking sensibilities as he gathered the ball out in the twenty some yard range and loaded up shots,  something the Timbers haven't done enough of.  I'd say, Franck is looking to make his mark here in our PDX, and that we may see the unfolding of a star who's arrived at the right place and time.   I am rooting for him!

But there's still more good news from tonight's match.  Kimura, our outside defender, appears to play with greater intensity after his nose is broken.  I can't recommend that as a way to find his innner fierceness, but I think he clearly wanted to rub Vancouver's nose in the dirt.  He was a clear danger in the attack and didn't seem to struggle with getting back to harass the Caps when they were on the attack.  At both ends,  he was a factor in the match.  

Sal Zizzo and Eric Alexandar both contributed solid performances in this match.  They were wasps buzzing into the attack and were not hesitant to challenge for the ball.   It's interesting to think about the combinations in the midfield.   Zizzo did not get much starting presence earlier in the season,  but he plays intensely.  I have the impression that for a guy his height,  he's pretty effective winning balls in the air, of which there are still too many.

Best image from tonight, apart from Songo'o's goal, is that of veteran defender Steven Smith heading a shot away from danger on the line as he covered the goalmouth when Donovan Ricketts was out.   In my view,  this is a brilliant demonstration of Smith's value to the team.  Ricketts had moved aggressively to win the ball on his right leaving the goal mouth open.  When Ricketts was not able to cover the space and a Caps player slotted the ball to the empty net,   Smith was there. Smith was confident and what would have been a tying goal was displaced.   Brilliant!  Just excellent demonstration of experience and teamwork.

On the downside.  There are still clear moments when the two center defenders, Horst and Mosquera, don't have the needed self-organization which means that opponents are still able to line up shots from twenty yards and have a clear look at goal.   I don't know why this happens.  Both are solid defenders but I'd say it's a chemistry issue.  They aren't always understanding each others' signals.   There were five or six moments during the match when the defense was at sixes and sevens.   The Vancouver goal came on one of those moments.   

A win is always good.  The Timbers' could have scored half a dozen times with a little more precision.   But it doesn't matter how many goals,  a win is a good thing.  And a win in the Cascadia Cup this year may be the best thing.   For now, of course.   We have high expectations for the future.