C.I. DeMann is back with his final regular season Six Degrees, looking back at a 5-0 romp against Chivas, and a season that no-one would’ve predicted (except, perhaps, a certain head coach with big brass balls).
With this wonderful regular season finally over, I’m feeling the need to reflect. So I’m gonna start this column with a very quick game recap, then we’ll head down memory lane.
1) Well, clearly, this 5-0 victory over Chivas was a fun game to watch. So fun, in fact, that I wonder why Coach Porter doesn’t tell the boys to score three early goals in every game. Here are my favorite moments from the match, just for sheer enjoyment.
- Diego Valeri’s second goal. I’ve stated before how much I love the chip shot goal, and this one was no exception. But even before the shot, the way Valeri handled the ball under pressure, he made it look effortless.
- We saw that same easy confidence on the Rodney Freaking Wallace goal. Valeri collects the long pass from Futty Danso, fights off a Chivas mugger, then, looking as cool as the other side of the pillow, sends a laser through the defender’s legs and right to Rodney’s foot. Just heavenly. He truly is “the Maestro.”
- In the 2nd half, Will Johnson’s free kick was fabulous. He’s getting awfully good at those, isn’t he? How many free-kick goals did he have this year? Three? Four? This one was hard, fast, and bent perfectly around the side of the wall. If you watch the replay, you’ll get a laugh watching Kalif Alhassan scurry out of the way, trying not to get hit by Will’s rocket.
- The last bit of entertainment was Erik Torres’s late almost-goal. It came off a lovely cross and Torres got free right in between Futty and Jack, both of them acting like he was the other guy’s mark. After Ricketts makes the save, Futty and Jack are looking at each other blankly, wondering what the hell just happened, while Pa Modou Kah does the whole “Crazy Kah” thing, eyes wide, chest out, screaming at them both. Meanwhile, Donovan’s down on the ground, watching it all, looking faintly bemused. For some reason, I found the whole thing very entertaining.
2) Okay, on to reviewing the regular season.
First of all, everyone out there who predicted Portland would win the Western Conference… you’re lying. NO ONE predicted this. Improvement? Sure. Playoffs? Maybe. Tops in the conference? No way.
How did we get here? Well, it was quite a ride. Hopes were high after the amazing opening night 3-3 comeback draw against New York. But we followed it with the home loss to Montreal, which made me think we were heading for another disappointing year. Then we began the ridiculous, almost hard-to-believe 15-game unbeaten streak. During that streak, I think we were all sort of in disbelief, wondering if it was real. By the end of the 15 games, we may have been in first place, I can’t remember, but it didn’t last, because then came our midsummer swoon, when we lost Diego Chara and Will Johnson to injuries. Without them side-by-side, during July and August we had 2 wins, 4 losses, and 3 draws. Very frustrating times. But once Chara and Will came back, so did everything else, and we finished the year with an 8-game unbeaten steak. Now look at us. Tops in the West.
Right now, our lineup is solid, but it’s fun to remember the early part of the year, when no one knew what we had. Not even Coach. He was juggling the lineups, trying to figure out who fit, who didn’t, how to put the pieces together. At the beginning, the shakiest position was right back, where we had Ryan Miller for a few games, then tried out Ben Zemanski, then went with Old Reliable, Jack Jewsbury. In the middle of the season, we signed 19-year old Alvas Powell and put him back there (where he looked pretty good, I thought), before eventually returning to Jack, who’s help guide us through this end-of-season success.
Centerbacks? Don’t even get me started. All I can say is, thank God for Andrew Jean-Baptiste, who was the only center back to never get hurt. Mikael Silvestre looked incredible, then went down for the year. David Horst finally got healthy, then he went down, too. We threw Futty in there, to great success, but then he got banged up a little. Somehow, amazingly, the team discovered Pa Modou Kah playing over in Turkey or Nepal or somewhere and he’s been a perfect addition, despite the occasional attacks of crazy. Am I missing anyone? Did Raushawn McKenzie start a game or two? Maybe someone else? With all the injuries, who knows. Fortunately, now we’ve got the Great Wall of Gambia and things seem to be set. I have every finger and every toe crossed that our centerbacks stay healthy from here on.
At the striker position, Bright Dike was the heir apparent there, but he got injured in preseason. Ryan Johnson killed it at the start of the year, then cooled off. We brought in Maximiliano Urruti in September and he seems like a keeper, but now he’s hurt his hammy (and those don’t heal quickly). Fortunately, there’s Jose “El Trencito” Valencia, who seems to finally be living up to all his potential, which is good, because I think he’ll be playing some important minutes in the playoffs.
3) Okay, since we’re talking about strikers, let’s discuss Portland’s most dangerous goal scorer this year. And that would be… EVERYONE.
Isn’t it great? Teams like Montreal and Chicago have just one big scorer. Some teams might have two guys. Seattle and LA, maybe. But Portland has FIVE.
During the entire Chivas game, I was yelling for everyone to feed Rodney Wallace the ball. When Rodney got it, I’d be shouting, “Shoot it, Rodney! Shoot it!” Why? Because I wanted the Timbers to become the first team in MLS history with five different 8-goal scorers. Sadly, Rodney finished with seven, so we didn’t quite make it.
But what did we do instead? We became the first MLS team with four different NINE-goal scorers! Aww, yeah, baby! We’re the hydra! Chop off one head and two more grow in its place!
4) So that’s the monster at one end of the pitch. The monster at the other end? The Iron Lion of Zion, Mr. Donovan Ricketts. Over the course of this regular season, Donovan’s done the following:
- He’s banged out 14 shutouts, which is tops in the league and a career high.
- He’s compiled a 0.97 Goals Against Average, which is 2nd in MLS among season-long starters.
- He’s set himself up as the favorite to win MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.
- He’s made Portland forget Troy Perkins.
One more moment from the Chiva game, a moment which was both entertaining and worrisome: Donovan going down late with a pulled muscle or something. It was worrisome for obvious reasons, but it was entertaining simply for the reactions of Futty and Kah. Ricketts was on the ground, the trainer working on him, and Futty and Kah were right there the whole time, hovering over Ricketts like they were brothers or something. It was just a really touching moment between three friends and I’m glad we all got to see it. Those three “Grumpy Old Men” have got our defense tight as a drum. Let’s all pray that Donovan’s injury is nothing serious so those three can take on the playoffs together.
5) Okay, that’s a pretty decent review of this wonderful regular season. I’ll probably review again when the year is finally and completely over, but for now, let’s move on. Let’s leave familiar ground and move into something none of us know anything about: the playoffs.
This is uncharted territory for Timbers fans. I’m serious when I tell you I’m not even sure how the playoffs are organized. I THINK there’s a play-in game this Wednesday which doesn’t involve us. I THINK maybe we play the winner of that game next weekend. I’m PRETTY SURE that’s a two-game series, home and away, highest aggregate goal count wins, but I’m not positive. And who knows how they do the tiebreaker? If we win that series, I THINK the next series is also a two-gamer, but again, I’m not sure. And I’m ALMOST POSITIVE the MLS Cup is a one-game thing. And it’s hosted by the team with the best record. Which means if we play KC or NY, it’ll be a road game, but against anyone else, we’ll be at home.
So that’s how new this playoffs thing is. I don’t even know the rules.
But whatever, I’ll learn. We all will. This will be a fun adventure. And NEXT year, when we make the playoffs again, we’ll all be experts. And who knows? Maybe we’ll be defending champs, too.
6) Last thing. And I’ll try to make it quick, since this column is WAAAAYYY too long already.
Dear lord, Diego. Has there ever been a high-profile signing that has worked out so beautifully? After Kris Boyd last year, I really didn’t want another fancy-pants designated player, but then you got here and you’re… perfect. You’re talented, you’re humble, you make the other players better, you’re a family man, you score goals, you get assists, you’re working super-hard on your English, you’re getting the OTHER Latino players to work on THEIR English. It’s almost like someone created you in a laboratory to be The Perfect Caleb Porter Attacking Midfielder.
As good as you’ve been, it’s natural for us fans to wonder, can we keep you?
Could Diego Valeri play in the English Premier League? La Liga? Serie A? Bundesliga? Maybe. He might be good enough. He’d make a lot more money, that’s for sure.
But I’m not sure he will. I’m not sure he wants the big city and the huge stadium and the enormous hype. I think maybe he’s a Portland kind of guy.
I’m gonna leave you with a link to an MLS Insider story from back in August. Watch it. Watch Diego talk about how insane it was playing soccer in Argentina. Watch how comfortable he seems here. Watch him carrying his daughter on the pitch post-game.
He truly is The Maestro and he’s probably going to win MLS Newcomer of the Year. Could he do all this in Europe? Maybe. But with his daughter watching from the stands? Probably not.
I think Valeri’s here for the long haul. I think he’s a Portland kind of guy.