It’s probably not lost to some that we now have two writers with different spellings of the same first name on board. Geoff Tebbetts has been writing for O&BP for the past two years, while Jeff Bull comes to us on loan from Conifers & Citrus, a blog on many things related to the Portland Timbers.
Because their styles of writing are a bit diametrically opposed, and because Cincinnati and Portland are scrapping at each other this weekend to kick off MLS competition in the Queen City, we thought it would be fun to put the two in the squared circle for a round. “Geoff vs. Jeff” will (hopefully) be a periodic head-to-head column that pits these two minds against each other for random soccer-related topics. There won’t be a true clear-cut winner on the topics, but it will at least give our writers the chance to get each other in mental wrestling holds to see which one taps.
Because it’s Cincinnati vs. Portland this week, the topic for Round 1 will be basic and clean:
What will Cincinnati or Portland need to do to take all three points? What might make Cincinnati or Portland drop points to the other squad?
Geoff: Why Cincinnati will take all 3 points
Yes, like Seattle, Atlanta had many of the statistics at The Benz in their favor when the final whistle blew. Cincinnati was fairly outplayed when it came to possession and attack. However, for all the numbers Opta churns out, only one set makes a difference. If your team’s number of goals matches the other team’s number of goals, it’s a big fat point that will spawn confidence. (The tongue-in-cheek celebratory shirt is optional.)
For much of the early season, Koch has been hard in the workshop to craft a back line that fits his need. In the end, he may have only needed the right help to return to form. The 4-man line failed at Seattle when Alvas Powell played a bit too high, revealing a spot vulnerable to the cross when the remaining three defenders scrambled back. This time around the defense stayed solid enough to keep crosses out, and the later addition of Greg Garza brought consistent stability on both edges of the pitch. Despite the discrepancy in possession, Atlanta’s attack (10 shots / 4 shots on goal) was not as threatening as Seattle’s (24/9).
A defense that is not a liability should generate a pathway to a stronger offensive weapon. Leo Bertone and Victor Ulloa appear to be gaining confidence in the middle, and if Kenny Saief and Allan Cruz have grown to trust Koch’s system, the build-up to the front line should produce more fruit. Most importantly, Fanendo Adi’s production was much sharper at home last year, and a vocal near-sell-out crowd should get the team excited to excel at a higher level.
Jeff: Why Portland will take all 3 points
The Timbers aren’t your run-of-the-mill defending champions missing a key player (Miguel Almirón) and going through an identity crisis straight outta The Netherlands. No, this is your 2018 MLS CUP runner-up that returned every single key player from a line-up that built two massive unbeaten streaks last season. All the newer players have had another year to get in sync with the core group, but the player to flag is Andy Polo, a winger now actually playing as a winger where he can stretch a defense vertically and/or spread the attack horizontally.
The overall seeing-eye familiarity allows Portland to transition with precision and speed that both teams they’ve faced so far struggled to contain. The attack is also unconventional, with the bulk of the string-pulling and even the scoring coming from dueling midfield maestros Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco. They play a forward, of course—Jeremy Ebobisse—who has been scoring steadily in 2019, but he’s equally important as a foil for the maestros. The Timbers can strike from distance or break a defense down. Expect the game to look more like the opener against the Seattle Sounders (Nicolas Lodeiro—BOO!) than the aimless meandering that Cincinnati had to “contain” against Atlanta. Portland will win this game by scoring more goals than FC Cincy. That’s my marker.
Geoff: Why Cincinnati will drop points
One could easily point out that the first two games have not been easy for Cincinnati and that the team will experience growing pains at many times this season. Yes, this could be Cincinnati’s best opportunity to squeeze a win against a team on a long road trip with its key player missing. However, we’re still not sure if Garza and Saief still need time to gel or if the 4-2-3-1 formation stays in place.
Ultimately, Koch’s urgency to push forward may hurt the team’s ability to penetrate the scoring column. Despite doing better with their possession against Atlanta, FC Cincy was caught offside eight times to Atlanta’s zero. (In comparison, FCC was offside only once against Seattle.) The engine was ready, but Atlanta’s own defense was effective at forcing Cincinnati to stall. Maybe Adi’s goal in Atlanta counts at home, but the team needs to be more observant and disciplined on the attack.
The other major issue that has plagued FCC since the preseason is the tendency to let the opposition head into halftime with the lead. Of the seven games played against MLS teams, FCC has had to start the second half trailing in five of them, while the other two were draws after 45 minutes. Yes, preseason means little, but playing from behind is that much harder when possession is dominated by the opposition. Granted, Portland is playing with a depleted squad, but two poor road performances by the Timbers means they’ll want to reverse their own poor opening defense and be the first to draw blood.
Jeff: Why Portland will drop points
The stupid suspension of Diego Chara puts a massive crack in Portland’s already-existing glass jaw. (Google Portland’s record without him.) As for the glass jaw, that’s a defense that has averaged 3.5 goals per game so far this season. To anyone who argues, “But that was Los Angeles FC,” I would respond, “Yes, but it was also the Colorado Rapids.” (At which, they’d point to the snow and the coldest game in league history as a tertiary assist for the Rapids.) One of the bigger items on the off-season punchlist was upgrading central defense—and that sort of happened. The Timbers picked up Claude Dielna from a New England Revolution defense that covered itself in a series of prat-falls rather than glory. Left with no brighter options, head coach Giovanni Savarese has started Julio Cascante next to the team’s one confirmed center-back, Larrys Mabiala.
The results, um, speak for themselves.
To make matters worse, FC Cincinnati pilfered a pair of (pickled) Portland players, in Alvas Powell and Fanendo Adi. This necessarily hands FC Cincy a cheat-code or two. Adi alone makes me nervous, but the idea of him finding a seam in the trouble area between Cascante and left-back Jorge Villafana just dumps in some more butterflies.
Put all the above together, and the cumulative concern goes something like this: Cincinnati will struggle if Adi (or, face it, Roland Lamah) can’t get service, but the best means of denying both players service comes with cutting it out in midfield and—whoops! No Diego Chara. Bottom line, if Portland’s attack sputters the way Atlanta’s did, I’d expect a similar result for Portland, and I am bracing for a worse one.
Did either Geoff or Jeff score a hit on their observations, or did this bout end in a double KO? Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage of Cincinnati’s home debut vs. the Timbers.