The atmosphere around the Timbers this week is noticeably lighter than it was after the weekend. A victory, at home of course, against Conference leaders San Jose Earthquakes was followed by news that the team had traded for Colorado Rapids right-back Kosuke Kimura.
I don’t know a great deal about Kimura, so I won’t comment too much about it except to say that I can only hope we’ve found the right guy for a position that’s been a problem since day one which is strange for “one of the easiest positions to play if you’ve got half a brain.”
By the way, what does that say about the guys who haven’t exactly excelled themselves at full back for the Timbers?
Kimura will go straight into the team, which you would assume would see Jewsbury back into central midfield. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Nagbe pushed out wide again rather than rested, which is what I think would be the best thing for him and the team.
Back to the game…
The visit of one of the league’s hottest teams, after a match where the Timbers failed to master even the basics, didn’t exactly inspire confidence. And yet, there was always the sense that winning this match was just something Portland would do, backed up by ridiculously daft stats about the team’s record when the moon was full. Don’t drink and Microsoft Excel, kids.
The hashtags quickly turned from #WhyWeLost to #WhyWeWillWin on twitter as the fans’ gallows humour turned to, at times self-deprecating, hope.
Tactically, not much changed in the team’s approach from the Rapids match to this one. John Spencer still had the team lined up in 4-4-2, with Lovel Palmer replacing Diego Chara. Nagbe seemed to play a but deeper, perhaps to compensate for the fact that Lovel Palmer is not Diego Chara.
While it was a better performance all round for Nagbe, his defensive work was probably the most marked.
He had a couple of good touches in attack, but still seems a yard or so of the pace. He looks like he’s missing a bit of sharpness, and he’s been leaned on pretty heavily for a second year pro.
It may be that Kimura’s signing will bring Jewsbury into midfield, and allow Nagbe to rest and recharge the batteries. Certainly, a Jewsbury/Chara midfield seems more up Spencer’s alley than a Chara/Alexander one, and Jewsbury’s move to full-back may be the reason why Nagbe hasn’t had a break yet.
Of course, the loser from Chara’s return will probably be Lovel Palmer. While Palmer wasn’t bad – he even managed to get a shot on target, which is probably a bad sign for those seeking portents of an impending apocalypse – there’s simply no getting round the face that he’s not Diego.
Apart from general work rate and presence, Palmer’s ball skills lag those of Chara. The most telling instance what 70 minutes in, with the Timbers up by 2, but being pressed back by rolling attacks from San Jose.
On getting the ball, there wasn’t even a moment’s thought of looking for an easy pass – right in front of him to Nagbe, who in turn had Songo’o just out of shot, but free, on the right flank – but rather he just got his head down and put his foot through the ball. Mwanga ends up giving away a foul in trying to chase down the ball.
While you can understand it on one level – he got the ball out of the “danger area” after all – it only hands possession right back to the opponents. It’s one of my pet hates. I’m not a tactics nazi who disdains long-ball football – though I’m not a big fan of it either – but it’s not a defensive strategy. It’s a sign of panic, and like a drop of blood in the water will only encourage the piranhas to attack even more, so launching the ball back at your opponents and drooping ever deeper will only bring them further upon you.
Nerves play a factor in this. A confident team rarely close out a match by punting the ball up the pitch but instead will look to kill the opponents momentum by retaining the ball and frustrating the team chasing the match.
Palmer’s play was indicative of the team as a whole as the match wore on, and it’s understandable that a team who had lost so many late goals would suffer from Squeaky Bum Syndrome against a team dubbed “The Goonies” for their reluctance to accept defeat. Nevertheless, I felt we really missed the often undervalued side of Chara’s game – his ability to keep it simple.
The difference between the two players is pretty apparent. Chara is all across the midfield, linking up play and keeping the ball moving. Palmer plays much more narrowly, and is more prone to resort to the long, hopeful ball.
Unsurprisingly, the goal did come for San Jose a couple of minutes later. Fortunately, the Timbers held on to record the win, but it wasn’t for the lack of effort on San Jose’s part. They’ll certainly feel that their second half efforts warranted at least a point from the match.
The first half had been pretty level, with very little between the teams in terms of passes, though San Jose were a bit more accurate (73%-67%). The second half though was a completely different beast.
The Timbers made almost 100 fewer passes in the second half, and dropped to 59% in accuracy. San Jose made a few more passes, and held their accuracy rate at 72%. The possession split went from around 50/50 in the first to somewhere near 35/65 in San Jose’s favour in the second.
No-one with even a passing acquaintance with either team would be surprised by those stats. The Timbers have an uncanny ability to throw games away late on, and San Jose have been free-scoring.
Alan Gordon’s strike was the only breach in the Timbers goal. The ex-Timber set up a heart-stopping final few minutes, but a Timbers defence led by David Horst refused to give way.
Though San Jose still made chances – Lenhart missed an absolute sitter earlier in the half – Horst marshaled the back line pretty well. It was a statement game for Horst who really stood out with some good tackling and presence at the back, and a threat from attacking set plays.
With Mosquera now free of suspension, it’ll be interesting to see if either of Horst or Futty are benched to make way. Given the way Spencer has tended to stick with what worked, I could conceivably see Mosquera riding the bench against Real Salt Lake at the weekend. Mosquera has been a totemic figure at the back for Portland this year though, so any decision to bench the Colombian had better be met with a solid defensive display on the pitch, or questions will inevitably be asked.
Moving further up the pitch, Franck Songo’o deserves a special mention. He was subbed out early against Colorado, and that must surely have stung. He responded with an imperious showing from a right-wing position where he tormented the Rapids back line.
He played a two key roles in the Timbers first goal – winning the ball and delivering the key final pass.
The interplay between Songo’o and Alexander got the team out of defence and over the halfway line, and the attacking instinct of Mwanga drove him past his marker to get the killer touch on a move that will be used in classrooms to demonstrate the concept of counter-attacking at speed. 90 yards, three men, three passes and a goal.
Songo’o also had a part in the Timbers’ second. His free kick from deep saw Futty challenge the keeper and the ball broke kindly for Jewsbury to poke home from close range. It was one of those goals where I expected the free kick to be called on Futty for having the temerity to fairly challenge the keeper, but in a rare MLS Referee With Common Sense moment, the goal stood.
The big worry now is that Songo’o’s participation ended with an injury. With Alhassan potentially still out, there’s no way that Spencer would want to having Songo’o out too. It leaves options out wide very limited as Rodney Wallace, who has filled in at left-wing, is still struggling with injury too, and Sal Zizzo has thus far failed to convince he is anything other than a late game sub to stretch tiring defenses.
It’s one reason why I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nagbe played wide, with a Jewsbury/Chara middle and Alexander on the other flank.
Eric Alexander also had a pretty good game on the left-wing, so I expect he’ll remain in a wide role, even if I feel he’s better suited to playing in the middle. He doesn’t seem entirely comfortable out wide, but the return of Jewsbury to contention in the middle leaves that area heavily congested, so it’s hard to see Eric getting much of a chance there.
The victory was just what the team and fans needed after the Colorado match. The team’s form at JELD-WEN is both a source of pride and frustration. Only RSL and Vancouver have picked up more home points than the Timbers in the Western Conference. Yet the team continues to show a Mr T like aversion to travel as only Dallas have fewer points on the road. If the Timbers could produce away form that even approached that of their home, they’d be sitting comfortably in the play-off positions.
Perhaps expecting a first away win of the season at RSL is a bit too much, but all Timbers fans will be hoping for at least some of the passion and verve that they show at home.
John Spencer faces a couple of selection headaches ahead of this weekend, and I worry that pulling Casablanca and setting out to “Play It Again, Sam*,” will come a cropper, but at least we can go into it with the afterglow of a victory behind us. I suspect that we’ll be setting out to play on the counter, with Jewsbury and Chara hunkering down in the middle. It’s not really made for exciting, free-flowing attacking football in the past, but as long as a play-off spot remains a possibility I suspect aesthetics will (continue to) be ignored in pursuit of points.
As a wise frog once said, “It’s not easy being green.”
* Yes, I know.