We’re now two-thirds of the way through the Group F slate at the MLS is Back Tournament, and one of the event’s toughest groupings has given us plenty to chew on.
The Dynamo are evolving in a positive direction under Tab Ramos, yet some of their old ways persist, and that revealed itself in their 2-1 loss to the Timbers. This was a meeting of two teams who very much prefer to defend a lead rather than chase the game, which elevates the importance of strong starts and attentive defending in the box.
Houston fell short in that regard and got burned by Jeremy Ebobisse’s 35th-minute daisy-cutter, a glorious hit that put the Timbers in a position of leverage despite a late Dynamo rally. Yes, Houston have some individual talents capable of changing games; the question is their ability to reliably step up and do so when it’s required.
Which brings us to the next point: This team still ebbs and flows according to the mood and output of Alberth Elis. Though they did bring in a comparable attacking force in Darwin Quintero, the two strikers share a tendency to drift out of games, and/or fail to convert quality work into end product. They created danger on Saturday yet failed to draw blood until it was too late.
When there’s space to get out and run, they’re more apt to thrive; the problem is that teams like Portland, especially with a lead, know to arrange themselves in ways that reduce that possibility. All is not lost for the guys in orange: A victory over the slumping LA Galaxy in their group finale will probably get them into the next round.
The Black & Gold just love an end-to-end slugfest, even at times where a bit of circumspection seems useful, but at least they’re consistent about it. They looked more like themselves in that 6-2 demolition of the Galaxy, viciously punishing their crosstown enemies’ loss of shape and consistently abject defending, and seem to have collectively accepted that leaking a goal or two at the other end is a price worth paying for the liquid football they aspire to.
“The two teams know what’s at stake, the two teams know that all the fans at home are watching. Everybody felt that going into the game.”— LAFC (@LAFC) July 19, 2020
Bob Bradley after our 6-2 win over the Galaxy. #LAFC | #MLSisBack pic.twitter.com/hBE0ntrD0E
It’s a credit to the people who built this roster that the level remains so high even in the absence of the 2019 MLS MVP, Carlos Vela, with Diego Rossi happily stepping into the alpha role, Brian Rodriguez shifting through the gears and Bradley Wright-Phillips slipping seamlessly into the West Coast phase of his incredible MLS career. Depth is crucial in the MLS is Back format and LAFC have ample amounts of it, with the potential exception of one pivotal area…
As much as Bob Bradley talks about the 11-player collective when it comes to defending rather than just the backline, this team clearly misses Walker Zimmerman (traded to Nashville in the offseason). Their high-tempo high-wire act feels a little bit more risky without his assertive presence and I’m not sure they have anyone else who can provide that in central defense.
There’s a similar feeling around the goalkeeping position. Kenneth Vermeer arrived from Feyenoord over the winter for his experience and comfort with building out of the back but shipped six goals in his first three MLS games and was benched in favor of Pablo Sisniega this weekend. It’s an area to watch.
Am I being too harsh? Probably, because the issues for the OG Angelinos run far deeper than one, two or even several individuals. But LA’s star Mexican duo look more important than ever after that humiliation at the hands of the new kids across town, and in a wider sense the Galaxy have been papering over gaping cracks with big names and personalities for some time now.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s game lan worked well enough for the first 45 minutes on Saturday night. Centering themselves on Cristian Pavon and Sebastian Lletget in the wake of Javier Hernandez’s calf injury, LA showed urgency, tempo and structure in the opening stages and exploited the soft spots in LAFC’s system to good effect.
Bob Bradley and his group adjusted, however, and the Galaxy quickly ran out of ideas. When it collapsed, it did so in Hindenburgian proportions.
“The team gave up the battle and the fight,” said Schelotto. And it doesn’t bode well when coaches are forced to publicly voice such realities about their own team.
Watch Matt Doyle’s breakdown on the central cog of the Rose City club’s win over Houston. Recall the Timbers’ runs in the 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs and the last two U.S. Open Cups under Gio Savarese. Ponder the array of difference-making attackers and general positive vibes around the squad. Then ask yourself why it couldn’t work along similar lines at MLS is Back.
Jeremy Ebobisse is the avatar of Portland's pursuit of their best selves, having doggedly grown and proven himself over his time in Stumptown to reach the point of being a legit, cold-blooded matchwinner.
“The players have to earn their spot. Nothing is going to be given to anybody. He’s earned it. He has earned, he has worked hard, he has shown development every single year,” said Savarese. “This year he started with an even higher level, so the competition up top is difficult for me, because I think everybody is fighting to be able to play. And Jebo has deserved it, and another good goal today that was important for us.”
Portland will get to test those fast-rising ambitions on Thursday against LAFC, and it promises to be an enthralling occasion even with Portland already through to the Round of 16 and LAFC likely to follow. The Timbers look more comfortable managing games in different ways right now, most importantly by keeping the ball for longer stretches rather than hunkering down.
Postgame Savarese hinted at more squad rotation to keep bodies and minds fresh, so he might not consider his next lineup to be his first-choice XI. Nonetheless it’s a timely measuring stick to face the Supporters’ Shield winners with plenty still in the balance.