Forgive us if the axe blog does not overreact to yesterday’s draw but there are too many positives to take from last night’s draw to already throw in the towel. Putting aside the fact 32 games remain in the regular season, this team is actually coming together and may take a couple more games until they really start to click. What we saw in several moments of yesterday’s match is that when boys pick up the pace and intensity of play they create problems for teams. Sure, they again missed some clear sitters but clear sitters are never as clear as they are from the stands and television.
The best way not to miss sitters is to continue creating the chances to miss them—the law of averages guarantees one will eventually be scored. Of course, that is of little consolation to Gaston Fernandez, Urruti, Diego Valeri, and Will Johnson who all spent moments with their head in their hands. But the point is that chances are being made, more chances than last season at this point. It is only a matter of time before the Timbers light up the opposition.
Chicago started the game with four changes from the side that lost in last weekend’s game against Chivas USA. They brought in Shipp, Amarikwa, Joya, and Matt Watson. Even with the new faces in their starting eleven, the Fire controlled very little of the game. They completed just 58% of the 206 total passes they attempted and held a measly 43% of the possession. Frankly, their approach to the game was the approach that is now becoming the preferred approach by any MLS club visiting the Timbers—physical play intended to break up the midfield connections. The effect of their game plan was telling: rarely do teams maintain 56% possession and complete 81% of their passes and leave the result late unless the flow of the game is obstructed in some manner.
Larentowicz was the classic bully he has been throughout his career. In the early portions of the game he did what he does best—which is very little other than play physical football. He harassed Nagbe at every chance he could, he broke up play in the middle of pitch, and worked to force the Timbers to the wings. Indeed, the Timbers put in 24 crosses as they looked to break open an unlikely juggernaut, the Chicago Fire defense.
Ironically, the Timbers best movements into the final third came through the middle, either with Valeri pulling the strings for Fernandez and Urruti, or through Nagbe’s rangy runs from deep in the Timbers half. However, it was Valeri who was key to the Timbers success in the early part of the game. On several occasions in the first half, as he drove through the middle, Valeri found the two strikers as they made runs into space on the left that but for Hurtado’s quick reactions would have seen the Timbers open their account.
Nagbe’s influence grew through the game. Once he determined to exchange his usual slashing runs for more direct play, he limited the effectiveness of Larentowicz’s and Matt Watson’s obstructionism. Indeed, the second half was defined not just by his rangy runs from deep in the Timbers half but also his defensive efforts that lead to regaining possession. It is often said that in order to improve overall play one only needs to commit to playing defense. Nagbe proved that correct. After things seemed to not go his way in the early moments of the game, he spent more time tracking back, pouncing on loose balls, and picking pockets. The result was he started a large number of the Timbers counterattacks.
Chicago opened the scoring in the 20 minute from a Larentowicz penalty kick awarded after Amarikwa got goal side of Paparattoto, before being taken down from behind. It was not an intentional challenge, nor was it an attempted tackle, Paparatto merely bumbled into the speedy striker and fell over him. Central defenders are going to give up penalties, but if that is the case you would hope the defender would get his pound of flesh from the challenge.
Given that width was our main inroad to goal the positive effect Zakuani’s introduction had on the Timbers attack was not surprising. Fernandez is a classy player and certainly has a nose for goal, but his pace on the left wing does not match Zakuani’s pace on the left wing. When Zakuani entered the game for Urruti he stretched the Fire defense, proving that Lovell Palmer and Patrick Ianni are not the answer to the age old MLS question: what does a good right back look like.
In the 79 minute, Gaston Fernandez once again popped up in the right place at the wrong time for the opposition. The Timbers worked the wing as Jewsbury drove on the right to get the cross into Valeri and Fernandez, but had to settle for the pass to Valeri. Valeri then opened space for an unobstructed shot as he drew defenders to the byline before slotting the ball to Nagbe, who rifled a shot from 18 yards that was mishandled by Shawn Johnson. As it seems to be his habit, Fernandez anticipated Johnson’s reaction and easily put the ball away to draw the Timbers even at 1 all.
Ricketts saved the draw in the second minute of stoppage time as he prevented Soumare from scoring from a set piece at the far post. Frankly, it would have been an unfair result to lose it late. The fact remains the Timbers were the better side for quality of play.