Goats 1, Donkeys 0

No-one said being a Timbers fan would be easy.

There were some positives to take from the 5-3 defeat to LA Galaxy at the weekend, but panning for gold in the 1-0 loss at Chivas USA would be as futile as searching for signs of intelligent life in YouTube comments. The Timbers served up a performance so leaden that it could be considered a danger to public health.

It was the kind of showing that would get football stopped.

It’s strange to think that a 1-0 defeat on the road was somehow worse than losing 5 goals at home, and yet that’s the overriding feeling I have after enduring 90 minutes of ball-numbing suffering.

Gavin Wilkinson made a couple of changes to the team from the weekend, with Futty in for Horst and Chara for Palmer. Apart from that, it was business as usual with the team playing in a 4-2-3-1 again. Though, at times it seemed more like a 4-4-1-1 or plain ol’ 4-4-2 to me.

I had hoped, after showing up better in the middle during the second half, that Eric Alexander would start alongside Chara, but Jewsbury, who seemingly knows all the secrets, continues to hold on to a place with a death grip.

My own hope, before the match, was a Chara/Alexander two behind a three of Songo’o, Alhassan and Nagbe – though I wouldn’t have been adverse to Nagbe sitting and Richards starting. The team, as announced, just seem a bit too defensive for my liking against a team that had drawn a blank in three of their last four MLS matches and managed only 11 goals in 17.

It’s not like packing the team with defensive players did anything to help 0]”>the situation against Real Salt Lake.

The game itself was pretty even in the opening stages. The 1pm kick-off time saw a bunch of local kids groups given tickets to attend, lending the match a “Chuck E Cheese at lunch time” atmosphere, made all the more grating by the addition of no-one’s favourite football fad, the vuvuzela.

It was hard not to recall the infamous Estonia vs Scotland match from 1996, when a dispute over floodlights led to the surreal situation where Scotland kicked off against no opponents, in front of no home fans. Only one team turning up and no fans? Hello Home Depot Center, 2012.

Ryan Smith, who had tormented the Timbers defence like a wasp in the car the last time the teams met, started this time, matching up against his namesake, Steven Smith. Rather than purely to annoy me by forcing me to specify which Smith I’m talking about, it seems like the move was a deliberate attempt to exploit Steven Smith’s ever-more apparent defensive weaknesses.

When Steven Smith had come to Portland earlier this year, I’d sounded a hopeful note. I remember him from his time at Rangers, where he had burst onto the scene and looked every inch the future Scotland stalwart. Injuries hit, and took a toll out of the player, such that he ended up kicking around the lower English leagues before being picked up by the Timbers.

The player I remembered from his Rangers days was an explosive wing-back with a good crossing boot. I expected the injuries to take a half-yard or so off his pace, but I thought his defensive awareness and crossing ability would, at least, remain.

It’s getting harder to hold onto that belief as week after week Smith has been found lacking in a number of areas. His crossing has been haphazard – I’m being kind – and he seems to have compensated for losing a bit of pace by developing a penchant for going to ground early and diving into tackles.

Ryan Smith certainly came out the best in this particular duel, and it was by beating Steven Smith that the Chivas man was able to set-up the only goal of the match early on.

Smith had a poor game, no doubt, but he wasn’t alone in this as every defender would, if they’re being honest, hold their hands to having had an off day.

Futty could, and probably should, have done a bit better in getting close to Smith and shutting the winger out, but the moment that Smith was able to get square on, there was only ever going to be one winner there.

I like Futty – and Horst too – but it’s becoming ever more apparent what the team miss by not having Brunner, for all his own faults, on the backline.

Mosquera is by far the Timbers’ best defender, but he came out second best in his own personal duel in the build up to the goal. His desire to push out of defence and close down can cause more problems that it solves sometimes.

Futty has to take a share of blame for turning his back on the man, but had Mosquera not been off ranging like Aragorn reborn, he wouldn’t have been trailing the Chivas runner. The cross ultimately didn’t come in so we weren’t punished for it, but it’s concerning when even your top man is making basic errors.

Kimura had a strange match against LA. His sloppiness in the tackle, and poor concentration, led to two of the LA goals, but he also popped up at the other end to score, so there’s that. He still looks like a guy who is adjusting to a new team, so it’d be unfair to lay into him too hard until he’s got a run of games under his belt.

I thought, in the goal, he had allowed himself to be attracted towards the ball, and by going so narrow left the space at the far post wide open. He at least made a valiant effort to get back, but too little, too late.

I like the guy’s athleticism, but he needs to tighten up his defensive work.

Again, we weren’t punished here, but Kimura was caught hanging around up field – he’d raced forward long before the ball came back to Chara. It’s tough for Kimura, and Smith, as given the way the Timbers were playing, with Alhassan and Alexander narrowing up top, the onus was on the fullbacks to get forward and provide the width.

It’s this delicate balance of knowing when to get forward, and when to cover, that makes the fullback role such a tricky one to play well. To be fair, if Chara doesn’t give the ball away sloppily (collector’s item, that one) there’s perhaps no problem for Kimura.

His defensive judgement though can lead to situations like late on where he completely misjudged the flight of a lofted ball and ended up almost gifting Chivas a gilt-edged chance.

The full-back area has been a constant problem for the Timbers. Having Kimura in at right-back is certainly better than having Jewsbury play make-believe there, but Smith isn’t really convincing that he’s an upgrade over Chabala or, whisper it, Wallace at this point. Chabala’s big weakness is his final pass/cross, but it’s not like Smith is putting the ball into dangerous areas from wide right now. Aside for a late forward ball to Kris Boyd that the striker nudged narrowly wide, I’m at a loss to recall any serviceable delivery from Smith.

Considering all three Timbers goals against LA came directly or indirectly from set-plays, it’s perhaps not that surprising that the team struggled to create much going forward.

The first half in particular was remarkable for the toothless nature of the Timbers attack. They at least stepped it up in the second half.

You can see pretty clearly that the Timbers were playing a bit further up field, and they created more chances as a result. There was the aforementioned Boyd chance, while Alexander had a couple of attempts screwing the best chance wide after a nice back heel lay-off from Jewsbury.

Smith had a chance in injury time when the ball pinballed around the box, before Sal Zizzo laid it off for the Scot to curl his effort just wide with his weaker right foot. It was one of those chances where you just wished it had fallen to his left boot, where he could’ve got a clearer shot away or laid it off to Jewsbury. Such are the fine margins of defeat.

Truth is, for all the gained territory and pops at goal, Chivas never look overly ruffled. They Fonzied their way through the second half, happy to soak up what pressure the Timbers tried to apply.

It was a pedestrian display from the boys in green. Even when they were supposedly chasing an equaliser, it never truly seemed like there was a real sense of urgency.

Given the Timbers road form, and manner of play, there was always the sense that when Chivas got their noses in front, the game was over, even after only 15 minutes. That is truly depressing. Where is the fight?

I had thought that perhaps a change in manager would signal a fresh approach to road games, but it’s not surprising that the same shit keeps happening when it’s basically the usual suspects.

Wilkinson took the defeat last week on his own shoulders, and he’s welcome to much of this one as well. He set out a team with very little attacking impetus. He left Boyd woefully isolated and provided little support to his wide defenders. And when it came time to roll the dice and try to find a way back into the game, he made subs that left me shaking my head.

First Nagbe went off for Songo’o. Fair enough, Nagbe was largely invisible, but it was hardly a change designed to throw bodies forward.

Ten minutes later, I was literally halfway through writing a tweet to the effect that I hoped to see Mwanga or Zizzo on to replace Jewsbury, with Alexander taking over Captain Marvel’s role when Wilkinson made a change. He brought on Zizzo, but Jewsbury stayed on the field and Alexander came off. Okay, fine. The third change saw Alhassan off for Mwanga, and by this point I’m at a loss to explain what the thinking was.

I can’t say Jewsbury was especially bad in this match, but he was pretty ineffectual. Story of his season. He’s rarely outright awful, but neither does he have an impact on the match. His inviolate place in the team seems to have heldover from John Spencer’s days, as has his captaincy.

I don’t expect the captain to be the best player, but I do expect a leader. Maybe the players themselves would disagree, but I don’t see a great deal of leadership from Jewsbury. He doesn’t seem to be a shouter, or a motivator, nor is he a guy that leads by example. He’s just out there, misplacing passes and looking every inch the MLS veteran on the down slope of his career.

I worry about Boyd, too. He cuts a frustrated figure more often than not. There were some giving him stick on twitter, but I don’t give that notion a shred of credence. It was interesting listening to his interview on John Strong’s Talk Timbers podcast, as he gave his thoughts on playing the 4-2-3-1.

I’m used to playing with someone up front, but as a formation it does work. Your role does change because you find yourself with two centre-halves most of the time […] and it’s important for the two wide men […] to get on the ball and create chances.

That’s the crux of the matter. Boyd needs those around him to do their jobs before he can even think of doing his. If he could conjure it all out of thin air on his own, he’d be playing at the Camp Nou and not in front of a bunch of bored kids at freaking Home Depot Center.

With the sacking of Spencer, the guy who brought him here, I’m coming more and more to fear that Boyd’s time in Portland will be one season, and done. Though he has never said as much, listening to his interview it’s clear that he’s bitterly disappointed with how things are going so far.

You can enjoy your life but when you’re not winning games it affects everything because you want to win games. I’ve won so much, and I’ve won so many games in my career. You get used to winning and when you’re not doing it, it’s not easy to come to terms with.

Where Do We Go From Here?

With Toronto’s win, the Timbers are now tied for last overall. There’s a seven point gap to LA on the edge of the play-off places, and I expect LA to climb a place or two before the season’s out. Vancouver are a further four points ahead of LA. That’s potentially 11 points to turnover in 15 games.

The play-offs are gone. Done. Forget about it.

For so long the Timbers had stayed in touch almost despite themselves, but this result finally put a pillow over the face of our faint hopes and mercy killed the fuck out of them. And I think this is a good thing.

The play-offs have been hanging around on the sidelines like a creepy uncle at a kid’s birthday party. The club has been unable to put them out of their mind, and it’s led to a conservative approach to team selection as we’ve “chased the dream”, or more accurately “sort of drunkenly staggered in the general direction of the dream with no real idea where we were going, or why we were going there”.

Truth is, even if every other team conspired to outdo our kamikaze tailspin and sneak us into the play-offs, it’d only prolong the misery that is the 2012 season.

Time to draw a line through it, forget about it and start planning for 2013. And that means it’s time to shake this team up.

Give the kids a chance.

I want to end 2012 with hopes of green shoots, rather than faced with the same old dead wood.

We’re already bottom. It’s hardly going to get worse, is it?

I also think we need to get someone in before the end of the year. By all means, be thorough, but we need a guy with top level experience to come in and shake this place up. It’s perhaps not surprising that when you build a staff that’s largely made up of USL alumni, you end up with a team that plays like a USL team. We’re too often tactically naive, and there are good players on this team who aren’t playing to their potential – that’s a coaching issue.

Next up is Dallas at the weekend. I may not have a match report up for that one as I’m flying back to the UK at the start of next week, which means I get to enjoy the pleasure of 3am kick-offs once more.

#RCTID

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19 thoughts on “Goats 1, Donkeys 0

  1. Chewy for smith – Alexander for jewsbury- with zizzo or songo’o wide….Perkins and the defense were obviously talked to, with a very positive step forward playing the ball out of the back. Still no real attempts on goal. Love love LOVE Nagbe, but where is he?!?! Has he shrunk or have other teams neutralized him or does our game plan not include him touching the ball….?

    1. I believe Darlington is simply lacking confidence in his own abilities. It is unfathomable to me that someone possessing that level of skill is unable to express it consistently, heck, #6 has done squat since the Real match.

  2. I loved the guy as a player – he was a beast – but I finally have to ask; what the hell is Cameron Knowles doing to earn his paycheck?

    I agree that we miss Brunner, but…if we’re that thin in the back that the loss of one centerback is enough to crack open the defense like a hammer, well, we’re going to be the lifetime holders of the wooden spoon. And I realize that the instability of the backline has also been a problem. But…Kimura and Smith were solid professional defenders before coming to Portland. What the hell has happened to them? Why are these guys making Soccer 101 errors? The entire backfield is playing like the U-9 side at St. Mary’s Academy, and when the troubles are that widespread I think you have to start asking about what’s going on with the coaching?

    You know how I feel about Gavin (tho I have to say I am getting pretty hacked off about his bizarre fidelity to the whole captain-for-life thing. WTF?) but I was willing to sit and let him see off this season, figuring that he couldn’t do THAT much damage. But now I’m finding that I agree with you. These players are becoming far less than the sum of their parts – and the parts (outside Chara and Parkins and flashes from Songo’o, Kalif, Alexander, and Mosquera) are looking worse as the season progresses – and I worry that by the end of the season the problems will be so ingrained that nothing short of blowing up the entire side will change that.

    Damn. Onward, Rose City!

  3. Time and time again the Timbers get the ball in midfield then promptly take their foot off of the gas pedal; allowing our opponents to get back into defense and pack the 18. The result being we then look even more lost without any offensive imagination. For a young team with supposed speed we have a gift for bringing a game to a mind-numbing crawl. The season is done and it’s time to try something different.

    1. It’s a definite problem.

      The way we were set up, we had our two wide guys – Alhassan and Alexander in the first half – who would often narrow the attack. After Chivas got the goal, they were happy to pack the centre. There’s one instance that springs to mind, just after the Chivas goal, where they had five or fix guys in a little square from on the edge of their box. We had nowhere to go, and the move fizzled out.

      Because of the slow pace, and the narrow attacking line, it puts more onus on Smith and Kimura to get forward and provide the width, but that in turn leaves them exposed if we turn the ball over – which happens far too often.

    2. When you look at the guys on the pitch, though…where IS the speed?

      Nagbe has some deftness but not in a straight-ahead footrace. Zizzo? Yep, he’s fast. Songo’o and Alhassan have a quick first step but seems to survive more on stepovers and spins than pure speed. But the rest of the starters? Can’t think of anyone I can think of as “speedy”.

      In fact, you pretty much nail it; we’re slow. Slow everywhere, slow getting back, slow going forward, slow moving to space. Gawdawful slow. Combine that with our tendency to sag back every chance we get and we manage to make even Old Spice look like he was a young rascal out on his first date with pre-Botox-Posh.

      1. Xavi and Iniesta aren’t particularly speedy players either, but they manage to move the ball quickly and always seem to anticipate the runs of others. In the last two games we only had 1 situation where a long ball was played into the run of a teammate (Perkins’ throw-distribution to Nagbe) and it nearly turned into a goal. We should be attempting to play others in on goal at least 10 times per game, and we get virtually none.
        Individual speed is great, but the ball moves much faster. We need coaches that can get our players to pass the ball into the runs of their teammates. Pure and simple.

  4. This is a side stuck in a terrible mental place. We’ll have a shot at winning some more home games, but without the pump-up factor of the J-W, they’re going to have to get really lucky out on the road.

    I think I now have my answer to this season. It’s not the mediocre coaching of Spence or GW. It’s not the lack of some magic formation for this team. It’s the assemblage of a team of mismatched parts, few of them actually starter quality, over the last year and a half. I see it as Gavin’s huge fail.

    If Gavin only signed the people that Spencer wanted (extremely unlikely), then why did he and Merritt allow themselves and the organization to depend totally on the judgement of a brand-new, unproven rookie coach?

    Come October, I think that we’ll have to blow up this current team and rethink every position. And I hope GW isn’t there at that point to muck it up further.

    1. Good comment on this over at Stumptown Footy: “…there’s no real plan, there’s no real overarching strategy, so the players right now are basically like sullen angsty teens, standing around saying “man, what’s the point. I have no idea what to do”.”

      Ouch.

      1. They play like 11 individuals, rather than 1 team. Everyone trying to be a hero and dribble Maradonna-like through Chivas’ defense. Nobody thinking about playing one- and two-touch combinations through midfield.
        Chivas absolutely schooled us in that regard. Their midfield full of nobodies managed to look dangerous on practically every possession.

  5. The fullback positions have been a problem at least since the start of the MLS era. I am pretty disappointed with the “improvements” of Smith and Kimura. But…question for Kevin and anyone else: How much of the problem is defensive ability and how much is instructions from the coach to run forward every possession on offense? Maybe if they were instructed to stay back?

    1. The problem is, as I see it, we lack attacking width. Alhassan is bit better at staying wide, but even he’ll push inside. As does Nagbe and Songo’o when they play as “wingers”. Alexander isn’t a winger anyway, so it’s little wonder he’s not at home there. The only wide attacker we’ve got who will consistently stay wide is Zizzo, and he continues to underwhelm when given a chance to start.

      What this means is the attack tends to narrow the further up the pitch it goes. It leaves practically all the responsibility for giving width to the full-backs bombing on. The overlapping full-back is a pretty common sight these days, so it’s not unique to the Timbers, but most other teams use the full-back as a “second man” – doubling up on the opposing defender and either buying space for the winger, or giving the winger a chance to put the full-back in behind the defence.

      That’s where we fall down. The full-back is often the only guy out wide and it means if you give the ball away – and we’ve proven time and again that we’re not a particularly good passing side – your full-back is left horribly exposed.

      The Kimura example I posted above (and also the Jimenez chance for LA last weekend where Smith was caught out of position in much the same way) is maybe a bit harsh on the player himself, though if you watch the clip I took it from he bombs forward, the ball then goes left and back (where Chara has dropped back into Kimura’s position), and yet Kimura has simply stayed put. He made no attempt to drop back a bit, or cover himself, and the reason, as far as I can see, was that he was the attacking wide player at that point. If he dropped back there was nothing down the right side for the Timbers.

      So I see that example as both a failing of the player – poor defensive awareness – and of the system we played in forcing too much on emphasis to be a jack-of-all-trades down the wings on the full-backs.

      1. Kevin, I have a question for you then…

        I agree with pretty much everything you have said and agree that Zizzo has been really the only consistent “true winger” who always provides width. Meanwhile, there are so many people who have talked about how we don’t have a “true #10.” So, here is my question: Is the problem not that we don’t have a true #10, but that with how our wings tend to play farther inside that our attack, and in turn opposing defense, is to compact… making it harder for our CMs to play through a defense while that defense is able to pack a bit tighter in the middle? Should we be targeting better true wingers, as opposed to a #10?

      2. We lack so many pieces to play one way or another that whatever tactic we adopt, it’s going to be a compromise. As you say we lack a true #10 as well – that attacking creative player, ala Alexei Eremenko during his time at my local club, Kilmarnock. Every attack went through him, and his talent was such that even if teams put two guys on him, he could still move the ball around and find space. We don’t have that guy.

        Teams know if they sit deep and pack the middle, they can effectively snuff 99% of our attacks as we don’t work the ball fast enough and tend to narrow as we go forward, looking for the fullbacks to bomb on and provide the out-ball. If a team plays with two or three central midfielders, they can block the middle, turn over the ball and then spring a wide man on the break – and then we’re scrambling to get back into place.

        Having two out-and-out wingers at least stretches a team’s backline – though perhaps not so much at Jeld-Wen. Even if a team packs the middle, if you have two hugging the touchline you have somewhere to go. Your full-backs can then support and double up on the opposing full-backs. That in turn forces that middle to open up a bit as you’re able to play round the outside or work space with passing triangles.

        The problem for us right now is that we neither have the guys to play with that creative attacking midfielder/attacker properly, nor do we have true wingers who are going to go round the outside, hit the byline and get a ball into the box. There’s been no clear strategy as to how this squad has been built and it means whatever we do is a compromise.

        I don’t know if we’re better going out and bringing in a couple of wingers, or spending DP money on a #10 that’s why the guys in charge get paid the big bucks and I’m just a guy with a blog – but whatever we do going forward, I just want to see a clear direction and strategy behind the squad building rather than the haphazard, poorly thought out, approach we’ve seen thus far. Honestly, it’s been like watching a builder try to put up a house with no plans and with only a handful of tools. That’s why it’s key that the guy who comes in has a clear plan going forward, and has the authority to execute that plan – and if that means Wilkinson has to take a back seat, or leave altogether, then so be it, cos up till now he’s been as big a part of the problem as Spencer’s inability to manage a match or irrational team selection policy.

  6. Kevin, could you focus your analytics on Darlington Nagbe for a bit? I simply can’t remember the last time he even attempted to pass the ball to Kris Boyd, or even pass the ball forward into the box at all. I remember many, many attempts to dribble straight into clusters of 3-4 defenders with the expected result. How can we have a CAM that does not pass the ball forward?

    We have decent wingers with decent pace, but we cannot seem to distribute an accurate, early ball to any of them. I can’t remember the last well-weighted through ball out of midfield, and that is freaking scary. Nagbe has to take some of the blame for this, and I can’t help but wonder whether it is the USL-mentality coaching staff that is rapidly turning our players into USL material.

  7. One last thought on bringing on the young guys.

    I’m not sure if bringing the young players into this season and leaving Gavin in charge might not hurt the players more than it helps the team.

    Look at the players we’ve watched go “backwards” this season, starting with Nagbe. Look at the mess that is the backline. That can’t ALL be just the older journeymen. Some of that – I think a lot of that – has to be on the coaching staff.

    And those would be the guys “teaching” the young players how to play.

    I think the bottom line is that we were not a truly outstanding team in the USL. And pretty much the entire group of coaches and, now, our head coach, were the guys who were here in the USL days, playing USL soccer.

    Not sure if I want them training up a next generation of players to the USL level.

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