Wagons East

A little over 500 days since their MLS debut, and at only the 28th time of asking, the Timbers finally scored more than once in a single road game as they put two past a severely depleted Toronto FC side at a BMO Field with more wide open spaces than a Constable and Turner exhibition.

The 2-2 draw allows Portland to stretch their unbeaten streak to 2 matches (and in the context of this season, two matches without defeat definitely constitutes a streak) but they had to come from behind, again, to earn a point in a match they really could’ve and should’ve won.

Suspensions and injuries forced Gavin Wilkinson into a couple of changes, with Rodney Wallace and Sal Zizzo starting at left and right wing respectively. Just like John Spencer seemed determined to play a certain way, and would crowbar players into positions that didn’t suit them to fit the system, so Wilkinson seems wed to playing with a 4-3-3. It led to the situation where 4 of the Timbers 7 subs were out and out attackers – Mwanga, Fucito, Dike and Richards.

Long spells of the first half brought to mind the old saying about bald men fighting over a comb, as neither team seemed set to play to anything other than their positions as bottom scrapers in their respective conferences. It was every inch the Wooden Spoon Showdown it had been billed as as both teams seemed to have simply “not losing” foremost in their mind.

Domination of the early possession stats by Portland belies the fact that there wasn’t really any clear cut chances of note created, with the Timbers most dangerous looks coming from set plays. It was a combination of a set play and the kind of woeful defending that puts you bottom of the pile that gave the Timbers their opener after 20 minutes.

Sal Zizzo scored his first MLS goal in his 50th appearance when Toronto gave him the freedom of the six yard box to poke it home after David Horst’s header wasn’t cleared. It was less to do with rare good fortune for Portland than it was to do with the fact that Donovan Ricketts’ old team, Montreal Impact, are the only side to have conceded more than Toronto this year and bad defences make bad mistakes. That’s what they do.

They almost compounded it by doing exactly the same thing a few minutes later in letting Zizzo drift around the the six yard box unchecked. It didn’t fall for him this time, but it’s not hard to see why Toronto are where they are.

Having gotten their noses in front, the Timbers started to slide back towards their own goal as the half wore on. Toronto pushed on without ever really troubling Ricketts and it was hard to see how they would get back into the match without their two top scorers, unless Portland gave them a helping hand.

That helping hand came a little over 10 minutes into the second half when Eric Hassli levelled things up.

It’s a frustrating goal to lose because there were three points where the Timbers could’ve prevented the goal, and three seperate failures.

  • You have a 6’3 defender getting a free header. If ever someone is going to be an aerial target for a long ball, it’s the 6’3 guy, and yet it was left to Mosquera to make a late, and fruitless attempt to get to him. I’m not saying anyone has to beat him to the ball, but at least putting a challenge in makes it much more difficult.
  • If Rodney Wallace actually makes contact with the ball, it never reaches Silva.
  • Mosquera’s late dash to go for the first ball leaves him the wrong side of Hassli and he gives up on the ball where Hassli take a gamble on the rebound.

To Ricketts’ credit, he made a good save (nitpickers corner: he could’ve pushed it wider) but he was left helpless as Hassli followed up.

While I’m on Ricketts I’d like to say I thought he had a good debut. There were a couple of shaky moments, including late on when he came for a ball he was never going to get and then charged about the box like Rocky trying to catch the chicken, but other than that he looked fairly assured. His distribution was decent, especially when he kept it short. 88% of his clearances over the half way line went to opponents, but he was successful in finding a team-mate 89% of the time he kept it shorter.

It’s not Ricketts’ fault that Wilkinson traded Perkins for him and while there is still, rightly, anger above that move I don’t think it’s fair to the new guy to be constantly holding him up against Troy. It’s like dating a girl whose ex died in a car crash or something, and there’s no hope of ever living up to the myth that he has become. Not that Perkins is dead, but, still… Montreal…

Anyway, things got worse soon after the equaliser when Toronto doubled their tally, and again it was poor organisation and players being given too much space in and around the box.

Kimura, a man who get beaten more often than a Catholic in Larkhall, gets beaten too easily, but the damage had already been done in the middle where the defenders completely lost track of what it was they were supposed to be doing.

It looked like another case where the Timbers would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Part of the problem was that, for all the possession, there seemed a lack of urgency going into the final third.

Going with Wallace and Zizzo was a brave choice, though rather enforced by Songo’o being suspended and Alhassan picking up a knock. Neither have particularly stood as starters in the past.

The differing styles of both players led to a bit of imbalance in the attack. Zizzo is a winger, pure and simple, whereas Wallace is a left back being played at left midfield.

It’s a chicken and egg scenario with Wallace – was he attacking less because Toronto were playing more down their right, or were Toronto getting more job down their right because Wallace was attacking less?

In Wallace’s defence, I will say that having him in front of Steven Smith seem to give the Scot a bit more protection than having the mercurial Songo’o at left wing.

It seems to be a trade-off: you either get the attacking verve of Songo’o, but leave Smith exposed to 1-on-1’s which he’s shown little aptitude for or you get the more defensive Wallace who’ll track back and cover Smith, but offer next to nothing down the wing.

It may just have been the strategy for this match as there were a couple of instances where we had a potential break on, only to put the brakes on and slow it right down in the final third.

Both wide players had gilt-edged chances to attack the corners, and both cut inside. The Zizzo one especially had my head in my hands as it was the sort of opportunity you would dream of as a winger, but instead he allowed Toronto to get lots of bodies back behind the ball.

When he finally did put together some quick, incisive play in the opponents half it resulted in a goal that ranks up there as one of the very best the Timbers have scored in MLS.

With Toronto players clustered around for the throw-in, Nagbe had the confidence to stay out wide and not be dragged in. The quick passing between Fucito-Smith-Boyd-Alexander-Smith was the sort of things that coaches love to see and it tore a hole in the Canuck back line. Smith then had the presence of mind to look up and pick out Nagbe, all on his own at the back post.

The addition of Alexander in midfield, as well as Fucito up top (and pushing Nagbe further up the pitch) revitalised the Timbers attack. The partnership of Fucito and Boyd nearly paid dividends earlier when Fucito broke the offside trap and laid it on to Boyd but the Scot couldn’t beat the boot of Kocic in the Toronto goal.

Boyd came in for his customary criticism on twitter, nothing unusual in that. What was unusual was that Diego Chara also took a bit of stick.

It was far from Chara’s best game, that’s for sure. He still hustled, he was still all action, but his normally reliable passing was just that little bit off. This match was his “Cars 2” – objectively not that bad, but compared to the rest of his work, pretty poor. He pays the price for having set the bar so high, but I think he’s allowed a game or two when he plays down to everyone else’s bar.

Objectively, throwing away a goal lead against a team that are already bottom of their conference before they’re then shorn of a good number of starters is a bad result. Looking at the run of games left you have to wonder if there will be a better chance for the Timbers to record their first away win of the season.

However, in the context of the last couple of months, it is encouraging to see the team fight back and equalise late on again. We’re no longer a team that stops playing after 70 minutes. Instead we kinda take a wee nap for 20 minutes after the half but, hey, unbeaten streak, remember?

The Timbers stay on the east coast for a match against the New Jersey Red Bulls this weekend. The Bulls haven’t lost a home league match this year, winning 8 of the 11 and shutting out the visitors in the last 3.

So that’s a definite Timbers win, then. It’s just what we do.

#RCTID

7 thoughts on “Wagons East

  1. When I saw the video of Nagbe’s goal, I just about wet myself. The passing! Oh, the passing! If we could do that 2 or 3 times every game, we’d be in 1st place and on our way to an MLS Cup.

  2. Agreed. Again, all the same notes in the same song:

    1. Collective defensive brain-fart as almost the entire squad finds some way to make Toronto look like Barca: failure to challenge the free-kick, failure to mark or mark tightly, getting turned on the dribble, ballwatching…it’s like the team is programed to have a five- or ten-minute portion of every game where their minds go completely blank, they slow down and stop with their thumbs up their collective butts and their brains idling away as the opponent shreds them for a goal.

    2. And we still haven’t found any sort of consistency going forward. The Nagbe goal was lovely, but most of our “attacks” drifted away somewhere north of the halfway line. We pass like internationals back or laterally, but we seem to haven’t figured out that elusive “forward pass” thing you see in the instructional videos for kids.

    3. Boyd is a problem. When you’re a poacher and in alone on the keeper with the ball at your feet, you score. Period. I’ll credit him with a nice touch on the Nagbe goal, but the rest of the match he was slower than a day without bread.

    4. Merritt had a very curious interview that was shown on the “Timbers in 30” before the match, where he enthused all over Ricketts without ever mentioning the obvious issues (age, injury, recent form) that has had many fans questioning this trade; it made him sound like either a clueless fanboy who believed his staff’s PR brief on the guy or a duplicitous politician willing to lie without a tremor about things that outside observers know are not true in the confidence that he will never get truly punished for his mendacity.

    And after that Ricketts’ play was about on the level as the man he replaced; if he is supposed to be taking charge of the backline in a commanding sort of way that Troy didn’t have it was not in evidence last night.

    I want to be happy with a point on the trot. But this match just reminded me of all the issues this team has and the apparent either unwilingness or inability of the club’s management to address them.

    1. I’ve written so much kicking the team that I try – I really, really do – to take a positive approach, but yeah, most of the old concerns are still there – we were just up against a defence as bad as ours.

      The New York game is going to be one of those where the Timbers defy all expectations and win, or you spend 70 minutes watching through your fingers as the team is systematically taken apart. Hope’s a bitch sometimes!

      1. The thing is that I’d almost be OK with a, say, 1-nil loss against the NYRB if it was on some sort of freakish 30-yard screamer and all of these chronic problems looked like someone was taking the time to do something about them. We’ve seen these wins that look promising – Seattle, San Jose – and they turn out to be one-offs.

        At this point a “positive approach” for me isn’t going to be wins and draws, but seeing the team coalesce AS a team, and see them stop making these U-12 mistakes. I think if we can do that the wins will come. But right now, I don’t even get a sense that the management has an idea how to solve the chronic problems, let alone get better…

  3. I’m really curious as to why Fucito isn’t getting more time. To me, this guy always plays hard and seems to create at least 1 or 2 changes a match (…when he’s out there).

  4. From Constable and Turner to Cars 2! For a moment I thought the hidden theme was painting (especially after the Larkhall reference) but you fooled me and turned it into high/low art. Well done.

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