What Now?

Well.

That was pretty damn awful, wasn’t it?

Shy of sticking a finger in the eye of the Colossus of the North (who thought that a single win at CLink meant that they should be handed the Cascadia Cup and were shocked, shocked that the Whitecaps weren’t willing to help them out worth a lick) the past season was pretty much a washout.

We got our coach fired, went one match away from going winless on the road, and generally exposed the weaknesses and problems in the side that the Front Office had spent the past two years ostensibly building. Two days after the final match of the second MLS season we find ourselves back, if not where we started in 2011, at least no better off than we were at the beginning of 2012.

Ugh.

So the obvious question is: where can we go from here, and how do we get there?

We’ve got a new coach coming on board sometime in the winter, there will probably be some roster changes, and MLSTimbers v.3.0 will get a rollout sometime in the late winter. Obviously we can’t know much or do anything about this but speculate.

But speculate we can, so why not? That’s why we’re here.

First, let’s take a look what we have now.

Individually I want to suggest that the flaws in Gavin Wilkinson’s player selection can’t be better displayed than through a quick look at the present Timbers roster. In my biased opinion the current side is dominated by two kinds of players; the “consistent but limited” and the “limited by inconsistency”. We just flat out don’t have any players with consistent, genuinely game-breaking talent, the sort of marquee player that our rivals have in people like Wondolowski or Montero. Yeah, I hate those guys, too, but I can’t deny their quality. We just don’t have that and the record seems to show that we never will.

So what do we have, and what does that tell us about our Front Office’s tendencies to pick and choose players?

———-

The way I see it the Consistently Limited make up the bulk of the side.

With these guys you know what you’re going to see. They bring pretty much the same game every time they run on the pitch. It’s not that they can’t play, or that they’re hackers and goofs. They’re all at least substitute-grade MLS quality guys. But their game, that game we know we’ll see, is lacking in one way or another. These guys all have a shortcoming, or shortcomings, that put a limit on their ability to produce winning soccer in one way or another.

Starting from the back we have Ricketts, whose limitation seems to be primarily age and fragility that comes with a history of injury, and the Bendik/Gleeson binary star, limited merely by their inexperience – though Bendik seemed to be at least a solid journeyman during his limited stint this season.

On the backline we have Mosquera, limited by his judgement and inability to communicate with his linemates, and Kimura who is limited in so many aspects it’s hard to figure out where start. In midfield we have Wallace and Palmer, who are sort of the Mosquera and Kimura of the center of the pitch; the one makes constant errors of judgement while the other is simply a quandary; why is he doing this for a living and I’m not?

Diego Chara, whose effort and defensive sturdiness are unquestionable is limited by his inability to keep from getting called for fouling and his poor forward passing. Jack Jewsbury is simply not young enough and mobile enough anymore to have more than a moderate impact.

Up front Bright Dike is limited by his poor touch and sloppy finishing, while Kris Boyd is limited simply by his style of play; without good distribution and service from the midfield he is simply wasted up top.

———-

The Limitedly Inconsistent are a minority on the team, but an important one. With these guys you never know whether they’re going to bring their A-game, or whether that game is going to last the entire match. They show streaks of brilliance matched with random outbursts of mediocrity or outright blunders.

David Horst is the poster child for this group. A stand-up guy who anchors the backline for 89 minutes he will suddenly make a horribly mistimed lunge, or stab, or find a way to mark space, or do something that will gift the enemy a goal. You love to see him most of the time, and then tiny remainder you look away because it’s like a car accident unfolding on the Sunset Highway at rush hour.

In midfield Darlington Nagbe who to me is still something of an enigma labelled “potential”; will he be the Nagbe that passes accurately and can score a clinical goal, or the one that gets knocked off the ball and is marked out of the game mid-match? Kalif Alhassan is another skilled but unpredictable midfielder; you never know which Kalif will show up – will it be the one that can provide a lovely assist, or the one whose crosses float over the entire 18 like a shiny soap bubble? Some matches Sal Zizzo is a speedy winger and clinical crosser while others earn his nickname “Zig Zag Zizzo”, running aimlessly about and lofting random high balls into the blue. Franck Songo’o can provide brilliance in attack and sturdy defence but can also repeatedly dribble into trouble and wander about seemingly at random.

———

Of the entire current side there’s one guy who I would say has grown into a solidly dependable player who is both consistent and relatively skilled; Steven Smith. A liability in the back at first his play in the last half of the season has progressed to where he’s among the best of our defenders – yes, a low bar but, still – and has shown promise going forward. Of the current group of starters he seems the best rounded and most skilled.

Of the remainder we don’t really have any solid indicators. Eric Alexander has shown signs of being in the second group but his minutes have been so limited as to make that pure speculation. Eric Brunner was a hell of a defender prior to his injuries but hasn’t been a standout in the short stints he’s played in the late season; hard to tell how well he will come back, if at all. Jean-Baptiste showed well against San Jose on Sunday, but he is one of the large group of young players we just haven’t seen enough of this season to really judge. Brent Richards has looked better tracking back than he did in his earlier outings but his play retains the erratic quality of a young player. And we’ve just seen way too little of guys like Hogg, Kawulok, Purdy, Fucito…

But in general, given what this group seems to tell us about Gavin’s – or Gavin and Merritt’s – weakness in assessing players we need to assume that these young players are likely to have similar weaknesses. This seems to be the Front Office’s style; they see either only the strengths of the consistent-but-limited players, or the “manic phase” of the skilled-but-inconsistent players while not noticing the weaknesses of the one and the depressive phase of the other.

And we need to assume that if this same group continues to pick the players for the incoming coach we are likely to see very similar sorts of players next season. Gavin’s record, in particular, goes back to the USL days and was very like this; Portland saw players like Mamadou Keita and Ryan Pore, inconsistent guys who could play but would tend to drift out of the match, or the season, or guys like Scot Thompson and Takayuki Suzuki; good solid players but just not the sort that got you to the league championship finals.

This is likely to be it; this is likely to be “who we are” until and if we get a new group in the executive suite.

So the question is; how do we go forward, how do the Timbers get better, with these sorts of players?

And that is the subject of the next post.

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13 thoughts on “What Now?

  1. I don’t see anything changing soon…GW & MP have made it clear with their current roster: mediocrity abounds at most positions…and they don’t really have a vision to improve the roster significantly. What a waste of time with MP letting his future coach complete his college season instead of evaluating/training his team…that decision speaks loudly about getting office planning and direction.

    1. Well, I thought that the “starting the season with the same holes at right back and ACM we went apeshit over up in Section 109 all during 2011” spoke pretty loudly, but YMMV…

      And re: Porter, not sure if there was any “letting” involved. Porter had the whip hand, and probably made it a condition of his employment.

  2. to be fair, most teams have shaky starts. Portland’s has been particularly bad this year, but it’s growing pains.
    The faithful won’t give up cheering, and that’s what it’s going to take for a few more years (sadly I think) until we get our footing and form the basis of a team that can challenge for honors.

    1. Not saying we should stop cheering. I’m suggesting that we are what we are, but there are ways that we can move forward next season, instead of backwards from the modest 2011 achievements.

      And I’d buy “growing pains” if we had merely repeated the 2011 results. We didn’t; instead the team as a team regressed in many aspects, including overall record as well as aspects of on-field play. I think we as supporters should expect to see better in 2013; not honors, perhaps, but a more solid side and better play.

    1. Hmmm. Dunno about that, but I’d merely observe that the guys with the most value are also the ones we probably want to keep around because we’re not particularly deep anywhere but up front. We can’t afford to trade away decent backs or midfielders because our backline and midfield are, in effect, one-player deep. What’s behind that is either an unproven young player or a known liability.

      Forwards? Christ, we’ve got buckets. But the ones we could trade nobody wants, and the others we have no reason to trade…

  3. During the months of July and August, Steven Smith was one of the weakest players in the team.
    I liked Purdy in the back though.
    The chairman has his marketing down right, now you guys have to start getting good players in. Songo’o is the only player in that team who could make it outside the MLS right now. Good post!

    1. Disagree on Smith. In May and June he was awful; I hated to see him on the pitch just because I knew the opposition would run at him and he’d get burned. But by August he was starting to look half-way decent and by September and October he was, as I said, the most complete defender we have. But, as I also said, that ain’t exactly a gold standard. Beckenbauer he isn’t.

      But neither was Steve Purdy. He was what most of our defenders our; a consistent, but limited player. I liked him too, at least as much as I liked any of our backline, and he isn’t Kimura, I’ll say that for him.

      And note that Songo’o WAS outside MLS, for quite a while; he started out with Deportivo La Coruna and Barça in La Liga, went to the EPL, spent some time in the lower divisions there, back to Spain, and then here. He never caught on anywhere there. He is a skilled player for MLS but we’ve watched him all season do stuff like make poor decisions, get caught in possession and stripped of the ball. And it wasn’t until he got subbed off early in the Colorado (I think..?) away match that he started actually tracking back; before that his defending was atrocious.

      And, believe me – we’d LOVE to see Cristiano Ronaldo in Timbers green. But given what we’ve seen here and our owner’s pocketbook…we probably won’t. Damn it…

  4. What do you mean with your owner’s pocketbook? I thought Merrit Paulson was putting a good amount of money into the Timbers? I do believe they’re following the wrong strategy currently (http://footballtourette.com/2012/07/24/my-mls-experience-part-two-timbers-have-to-blaze-the-trail/).
    Songo’o rarely played on the highest level in Europe, only in second division teams but he’s the most skilfull player the Timbers got right now. He rarely has anybody to give the ball to, who can prolongue his intentions or who can speed up the pace.
    The physical level in the MLS is solid but the ballhandling is poor, and so is the tactical level. This especially goes for the Timbers.
    They need reenforcement in every single line. I hope they focus on eager,skilfull players to ake their game faster and some experience to raise the tactical level of their game, in every line!
    I hope the Timbers Army keeps rooting for their team as they did when I saw them last summer. They are doing a great job and can compete with the European level.

    1. The Timbers have consistently had one of the smallest budgets in MLS. Portland is a relatively small market, and Paulson doesn’t have the sort of deep pockets that, say, the Anschutz combine, the Hunts, and the Krafts have. Typically we’ve had to try and chisel out players at bargain prices – one of the most repeated knocks on Paulkinson (that is, the Merritt/Gavin brain trust) this past season was for splashing out big money for Kris Boyd.

      Agreed that they’re not on the right track now, but even when and if we realign out signing strategy it’s unlikely that we will be able to compete with the MLS big boys for the marquee players.

      But I want to argue that we don’t HAVE to do that. We can play soccer moneyball. Since we can’t be the Soviet Red Army in 1945 we can be Finland and fight smart and cheap. That’s the topic of the part two of this series.

      Franck can be a terrifically frustrating player just because when he brings his A-game he is, as you say, “the most skillful player the Timbers have”. But there’s no way of telling when he’s going to do that. IF – and to me it’s a big if; he’s 25, and the possibility of a player other than a keeper making big improvements in his play after his mid-twenties seems unlikely at best – he can lift his game to where he brings that skill to EVERY match then we’ll have a real gamebreaker.

      As you say, MLS is not a “skills” league. My problem with a lot of the talk we’re hearing about Porter is the notion that he’s going to turn this team into a possession-heavy, touch-passing team, a Portland Barca playing “Timber-taka” football. With our “best player” being Songo’o, and the reality that the refereeing here is always going to let thuggish defending shut down skill, I don’t see that happening.

      And the Army will be there, singing for the Boys. The challenge – to me, anyway – is turning the team around after this disaster of a season so the casual fans; the mom from Beaverton, the family from Clackamas, will keep paying for seats and merch. THAT is the danger in a string of seasons like this one…

    1. Right now I’d put Danny Mwanga in the “inconsistent” group. Is the the Mwanga that scores a brace against San Jose away? Or the Mwanga…well, the Mwanga that has showed up most of the rest of the time; just not quite there, his touch a trifle off, his movement off the ball a trifle slow…

      And looking back the one match I remember was the LAG away match in June. They were ineffective together, and I had to go back and look over the match reports to see what happened after that.

      Mwanga was subbed on late against Seattle home after all the goals were scored and I recall that he and Boyd did little after that. The next match, the awful 3-nil Colorado away thrashing, Mwanga subbed in for Boyd late so they didn’t share the pitch.

      They had one good match – as I recall it – against San Jose at home next, but then we began that string of horrible matches in July that culminated in the 5-nil beatdown at FCD. Most of that time they tended to be on and off as a pair, but I don’t remember them really forming a productive partnership. By August and Gavin Boyd was out of the lineup.

      Frankly, I think the problem is less the two forwards than that we don’t have a midfield that can provide Boyd with what he needs to score. I thought that he might feed of the chaos that Dike creates, but he never really did. In fact, Boyd never really did seem to find a strike partner he wanted here. Not sure why. But if he’s here next year Porter will need to provide both the midfield distributor AND the strike partner he needs…

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