What Now 2: Electric Boogaloo

Okay. I’ll admit it; I’ve always wanted to write a blog post with “Electric Boogaloo” in the title. I was young in the Eighties. Sorry.

Anyway.

So; here we are.

The Portland Timbers are coming off a pretty ragged season with a team in some disarray and no head coach. The next time we’ll see the Boys in Green on the pitch will be in the spring, when – we hope – the new coach Caleb Porter will have brought some calm and order to the House of Pane, shattered by poor results on the pitch and broken by hard feelings off the pitch between the most hardbitten supporters and the interim coach/long-term general manager Gavin Wilkinson.

There has been talk of a wholesale housecleaning.

But in my opinion that is all it is; talk.

Given the approach that this team management has taken in the past, and what we’ve seen on the pitch this season and last, I cannot believe that who we will see run out on the pitch next season will be all that much different, either in form or in function, from what we have seen up until now. We will not suddenly see a side full of crafty veterans leading enthusiastic youngsters, all bursting with soccer skills.

As we talked about in the preceding post, we are likely to see many players of fair-to-middling grade MLS abilities… but many of them will have one or more limitations, ranging from trivial to significant, in their skill-set. And we will see a smaller but significant group that is better skilled – when they are at their best – but prone to maddening reversals of fortune, drifting in and out of matches, or in and out of the roster as their touch ebbs and flows.

That’s who we seem to be, that’s who Gavin and Merritt seem to find to stuff the Boot Room with. So that’s what we need to work with. That’s how we need to go forward.

We’re not going to be Spain. Let’s abandon the notion that we will ever have the quality to play “Timber-taka”.

We’re not going to be Germany, or France, or even Holland.

So.

We need to be Finland.

You say; OK, smart guy – how can we win as Finland?

Here’s how;

1. Play smart, not hard. OK, yeah, play hard. BUT play smart, too.

I heard a lot of talk on the ‘Net about how the 2012 Timbers lacked “heart”. How they didn’t play “like they cared”. How the team would roll over and die like a possum on the interstate when things went wrong.

But when I watched the team I didn’t usually see that.

OK, Dallas away? Yeah, crap, I saw it then.

But what I usually saw was a team that was tossed out onto the pitch without a plan. Without a through understanding of their opponents. I saw a group that had been given some vague instructions on what their coach wanted them to do, probably some offhand suggestions on how to cope with the opponents’ strengths, and then told to go play and see what happens. Not surprisingly, when our opponents then went through us like a dose of salts the guys got frustrated and confused; they felt like they had been out-coached and couldn’t win – from the stands that looks a lot like jackin’ it. But in my opinion it was pure coaching laziness; an approach that says, we’re just gonna go out and kick the ball around and hope for the best.

If you’re Spain, or Germany, or San Jose… you can get away with that. You have such dominant skills – even if those skills are the skills of a Lenhart; deep-dyed evil flopping and thuggery – that you can impose them on your enemy.

The Timbers can’t. Finland, remember, the plucky little guy?

For teams like us, teams with a thin roster and limited skills, each match has to be approached as a new challenge. Every opponent is a new day, a new plan. The team; the tactical plan, the roster, the communications, the discipline, needs to be adjusted to every match – and then constantly assessed during the match to re-adjust to the opponent’s moves.

Gavin, as a coach, was flat-out awful at this. Spencer seemed to pick this up from him; his “tactics” never varied. His starting XI seemed to be “whoever played well last match”.

We can’t win that way.

Merritt is going to have to give Porter the resources to do an extensive scouting and preparation for each match next season and the next on ad infinitum. And Porter will have to be constantly assessing both our team and our opponents to find the most advantageous matchups he can find. And then use his substitutions to counter their counters.

It will be nerve-wracking. It won’t always work. But I believe that it can work better than the past two season’s lassiez faire approach.

2. Play disciplined: you aren’t the dinosaur, you’re the small mammal that eats their eggs.

The 2012 Timbers were among the least tactically disciplined – and sophisticated – teams I have watched outside Vancouver away this past October and several U-12 sides in North Portland.

It showed in all aspects of our play. It showed in our backline the most; our repeated inability to catch attackers offsides, in our failure to mark and cover each other, in our backline/keeper communications. But it also showed in attack, in our inability to put together strings of attacking passes, or an attack that didn’t consistently breakdown inside the 18. It showed in out wasteful finishing, and our failure to get repeated chances on goal from an attacking series.

It even showed in something as simple as our throw-ins. I can’t be sure, but I’d think that we had the poorest ratio of throws to possession-from-throws of any team in MLS. We were just terrible at throw-ins.

Oh – and corners and free kicks! Gah! We were so good at that in 2011! The hallmark of a team that is dangerous from set-pieces is that the team will place the free kick where it wants to, and the players will get to the ball before the defenders. We took a huge step backwards there; our set-piece discipline was terrible in 2012.

See the theme here? We were either careless or wasteful on the pitch, and it cost us.

Overtalented teams can be wasteful. There will always be another chance, another shot, another corner.

Finland – sorry, the Timbers – can’t afford to be wasteful. They can’t afford to be careless. That shot has GOT to be on frame. That corner has GOT to be on a Timber’s head. Because it might be the one chance you get all half, or even all match. You HAVE to make it count.

Teams with good but limited skills can succeed with on-field discipline; hell, look at the entire history of Italian international football.

If Coach Porter can succeed in instilling that sort of discipline in this team, I think we should see some real improvement on the pitch in 2013.

3. Quantity has a quality of its own, but it’s a lot better and more fun to have quality instead

In my opinion, infusing more intelligence and discipline in our coaching and our play can take this group of players – or someone like them – further in 2013 that we have come so far.

But the problem is that to go further, we STILL have pieces that aren’t there.

Remember; the Soviets won in the end. Pluck, smarts, and discipline can only take you so far.

We still need someone who can create from the center of the midfield; someone who can provide service, start attacks, and provide a threat that will negate the current problem that if you take away the flanks the Timbers cannot generate attack.

We still need a right fullback who can be relied upon to shut down that wing.

We need Coach Porter to recognize this, and to insist that the team move the heavens and the earth to find and bring those players here.

———–

So here’s what I think is our bottom line:

We need a coach who understands the game, and how individual players, groups, and tactics can be tweaked to get the most out of that game. If I understand this correctly, Caleb Porter appears to be such a coach.

We need a group of players willing to be coached in such a way, and willing to adapt their game to take advantage of their strengths, minimize their weaknesses, and work together to do that. We will see whether our players will be such a team.

But – to me most important – we need an owner and a general manager that understands that this is how a team like Portland moves forward.

I’m not sure whether Merritt and Gavin are such a management.

But we’ll see, won’t we?

————–

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to put 2012 behind us and warm up the songs for 2013. RCTID- Onward, Rose City!

Advertisements

16 thoughts on “What Now 2: Electric Boogaloo

  1. There has to be a balance between “Onward” meaning “the past is done, look to the future” and “we don’t need to learn from our mistakes”.

    I hope the fans, as well as the players and the coaching staff, can find this balance. We are perilously close to a place where the awful 2012 season haunts all future attempts.

    Meanwhile, I have heard little about the three other members of the Timbers coaching team. Is there a problem with the guys who actually spend most of the time with the players? Head coaches are one thing, but a fine coaching staff can save the carcass of even a novice head coach.

    Is our staff of the caliber necessary to support Caleb Porter?

    1. “There has to be a balance between “Onward” meaning “the past is done, look to the future” and “we don’t need to learn from our mistakes”

      Agree, agree, agree. Yes. In my view there are two “bad” ways to take this season; one would be to seize on it and use it to beat the Front Office with because Gavin is and has been a curmudgeon about the vocal fans. The trainwreck that was this season owes a hell of a lot to mistakes made above the level of the pitch, and both the fans and the FO should simply accept that and look for ways to improve, or at least not repeat those mistakes.

      But the other would be to put a shiny happy face on it and try to blow it off. And the team has tried to do that about some of the events of this season; remember Ricketts as an “upgrade” from Troy Perkins? Pretty much any informed fan could tell that the trade was pretty much even-up, a lateral move that traded a younger guy with distribution problems for an older guy with a history of serious injury. Do that sort of thing enough and the fanbase starts to assume you’re lying because your lips are moving. That’s NOT a place we want to go.

      As for Spencer’s/Gavin’s assistants, I assume that Porter will want to bring in his people or will choose to retain one or more of the current assistants based on his judgement, so there’s no real point in analyzing the coaching staff. The only other real staff issue we seemed to have was with match fitness early on in the year, but that seems to have been fixed, so the physios and trainers seem to be sorted.

      Sadly, the one assistant that I feel has GOT to be moved on is Cameron Knowles. I loved him as a player, hated that his career ended early because of an on-field injury, loved seeing the team not giving up on him…and he seems like a genuinely decent guy. But the defense degenerated so badly this season that I can’t see any point in continuing the experiment of letting him coach the defenders. I wish I thought that Porter could mentor him, but he watched our defense crater and did nothing while Gavin and Spencer resorted to the Kimura Option, when they weren’t playing Sal Zizzo at right fullback.

      I wish that Porter was coming into a club with a guy with tons of quality top-flight league experience in the office over his. What he’s got is Gavin, who was unspectacular in the division below MLS and doesn’t look to have improved since then. That’s what I see as the biggest “staff” issue for the coming season.

  2. I’ve said enough about our GM elsewhere, but I agree with your summary that we’re likely to see more of the same talent on the pitch – but with a hopefully great new coach – next year. The question is whether we’ll go from disappointing to great with those ingredients.

    It’s eminently clear that Gavin is in way, way over his head in his GM role. It was a hopeful gamble to give him that job, but he should be moved out. The stakes and opportunity are simply too high here. The question re Merritt is whether he’ll be open and rational and act upon that – relying on his HBS education. Or whether his unwillingness to humbly accept constructive criticism will overshadow his passion for the sport and a cup. We’ll see. I hope that passion for the sport will create openness to admitting a bad fit and acting upon that – showing us he wants a cup enough to show us he’s learning too. Otherwise, we’re heading into another sad Portland “almost great” franchise. The fans and the players – and the city – deserve much more than that.

    #RCTID, but still, #GWOUT

    1. I’ll be honest and say that while “great” would be, well, great I’d settle for “decent”. I’d settle for a team with enough skill and discipline and a coach with enough tactical savvy to, say, go to Seattle where a grinding out a nil-nil draw would be sufficient to win some silverware…and grind out a nil-nil draw.

      And I think I’ve expressed my feelings about our current GM pretty plainly. I agree that he’s been promoted above his skill level. I wish I thought that he’d accept that, move over to something like the Academy and make way for someone with top-level and international qualities. It’s clear to me that Merritt, regardless of his passion, will not ask that of him. The move will have to come from Gavin or it will be a replay of the Spencer debacle, and I agree with you that our Rose City should receive more and better. I’m still hopeful, but…

  3. Screw Finland. I wanna be Greece! Those scrappy bastards won the ’04 Euro Cup! Compared to that, the MLS Cup should be a breeze!

    1. There you go; Greece in 2004 should be poster kids for what’s possible for Portland; a team with limited talent but a hell of a lot of disciplined play and a touch of luck and brilliance. But they’re also a cautionary tale about what we’re likely to see over the long term. You’ll notice that it had been 24 years since a Greek team had made it to the UEFA finals, and since then the Greeks have been knocked out in the group stages of Euro 2008 and WC 2010 before getting back to the quarterfinals in Euro 2012.

      Being a club with limited means like Portland, or a small country like Greece in soccer or Finland in war, means that you have to a) play smart AND hard, b) be constantly organized and disciplined, and c) the random things have to break your way. But that means that you can have both a) and b) and if c) goes sideways on you you’re still out on your can. It’s a precarious way to do business, but I think that if we start approaching the game that way – rather than bumbling along thinking that we can do things like we did when were were the big monkey in the USL – we should have more success…

    1. Good read – thanks for that! I have to say that for what it’s worth I could see the Timbers living a very Everton-like existence in MLS if we continue with the same owner. Mid-table most seasons, with the occasional run at the playoffs and the random wreck. But to do that will require a coaching staff that works harder and thinks more than we have seen to date.

      I think that something those of us in the stands don’t get the sense of is the degree to which Merritt hasn’t “got” that MLS is not the USL. In the lower division the Timbers were the big money club. We were Liverpool and Arsenal and it was Baltimore and Carolina that were Everton. I really think that Merritt has spent the first two seasons in MLS thinking that the way we worked things in USL would continue to work. I hope – REALLY hope – that this season has knocked the blinders off. This off-season will be interesting to watch just to see if that has happened.

      1. You’ve got exactly what I was trying to say. I could very well see us leading that Everton sort of life in MLS. No one ever blows off Everton in the EPL. If you don’t get up for them, they’ll win even if they aren’t Man City. With the way the current league is structured, a team like that ought to at least make the playoffs more often than not.

        As to the concerns about Porter, I think he’s a smart guy. Do I think we’re in for smooth sailing from day one? No. But I think that he’s certainly going to be more cerebral about formations and tactics as they relate to this week’s opponent than either Gavin or Spenny were. And that’s a step in the right direction. That sort of analysis is one of the things a team like Everton (or the Timbers) needs to be able to get enough points out of the season to earn some respect.

  4. Hi All…

    Good comments and thoughts all around on this subject!!!

    We all look forward to 2013 with a mix of hope and trepidation, with our hopes pinned firmly on the soccer brain of Caleb Porter, and our trepidation cradled in the knowledge that Caleb will still have to work with Gavin and Merritt…

    I guess my worries are that Caleb Porter is not quite the soccer messiah that everyone, or most folks, want to believe. Yes, he build a powerhouse program at Akron…BUT…college soccer team programs are not professional soccer team programs…they are very different animals.

    Whether you like him or not, Eric Wynalda made a very accurate observation about this difference in regards to Porter…whom he does not particularly care for. In college, Porter biggest job was consistently recruiting top flight talent into the Akron program year after year. Yes…he also had to be a good coach to use it properly…but…there is such a disparity of talent in college athletics in general, not just soccer, that even a medium quality coach can build and maintain a top quality program if he is a good recruiter. Recruiting talent and coaching talent are not one in the same skill set, and some coaches are only so so coaches, but brilliant salesmen of their program…and visa versa. As Wynalda said, Porters main job at Akron was keep recruiting 10 superb players every year into the program, and at that job he was excellent…but that did not prove that he was really a great coach of the game at the professional level.

    Wynalda pointed to Porters struggles with the USMNT U-23 team in failing to perform at the Olympic trials…as did numerous other people…as a warning flag about his ability to coach at the professional level. While the El Salvador game can be blamed on the goalies, for injuries, poor decisions regarding their injuries, and just plain mistakes, the Canada game was really rather a strategic debacle, where Porter was unable to coach around a very basic defensive scheme by team Canada. You see that scheme a lot in the MLS…not a reassuring sign.

    Also, intrigued by the ‘hype”, I went over to YouTube and watched the “Death By 1000 Passes” highlight video of Akron playing various teams. This video is supposed to show how great Akron was with their “superior” ball control passing offensive attack.

    Well…I watched it several times, and I came away rather unimpressed to say the least. Yes, Akron made lots and lots of little ball control passes…time after time…and held possession for a long time…BUT…the defenses they were playing against were playing VERY VERY soft and non aggressive defense. Akron did not really penetrate all that aggressively either…they seemed more content to just flip the ball around, and in fact, they really tended to just overload a side of the field and work that side, and ignore very very wide open weak side players just standing with acres of space to work in. Rarely…almost never, did they quickly reverse the ball over to the weak side to try and create from all the room that they had to work with…no…they were content to sit in their “triangles”, and show off their short game passing skills, while the defense mostly sat back, marking very loosely, and watched Akron pass the ball. Very low pressure, not very physical, not very aggressive with hardly any really physical challenges to the ball…and for all of that…Akron rarely got off a very good shot, and even more rarely scored an impressive looking goal. Most of the times, all of that passing just pooped out into a weak shot, or a soft dispossession of the ball by the defense.

    Frankly…I don’t see that type of offense working very well against the very rough and tumble defensive play in the MLS…and…it certainly did not work very well against Canada either…as Canada was also quite content to sit back, bunker down, and watch the show…so to speak.

    Besides…with our current Timbers players, and what may realistically be available to us on the market, even if we do clean house a bit, do you really see the ball control skills we need to play this style? In college, Akron was San Jose, or the Galaxy…a big fish in the pond. Porter will have none of the advantages in the MLS with Portland that he enjoyed at Akron.

    Let us hope that his “soccer brain” is really up to the task at hand…the USMNT U-23 experience notwithstanding…

    1. I think we’ll have to watch and hope. And worry.

      My hope is that Porter at least seems to have studied the game, and put some effort into his matchday planning. In turn, hopefully that will lead to his recognizing all the differences between his current position and his future one. At the very least, his teams’ disciplined approach to their matches argues that he understands the need for sophisticated positional play.

      My worry is…well, everything you’re mentioned; the difference between the responsibilities of a college coach and a professional. The difference in skill level between his current team and their opponents and his future ones. His difficulties with the U-23s speaks to a problematic weakness for playing a certain style whether or not the team has the players to succeed at that style (good writeup here: http://www.mlssoccer.com/news/article/2012/03/30/armchair-analyst-tactical-dogma-doomed-us-u-23s?module=from_footer that makes exactly that point).

      But the thing is that some guys learn from their mistakes; Porter may have learned from his – he certainly seems to be a pretty smart sort of guy. Some guys don’t seem to – Gavin seems to be THAT sort of guy. If we’re going to succeed – be a Greece or a Finland or an Everton – we’re going to have to hope that Porter DID learn from the U-23 mess…and that Gavin and Merritt are learning, too, and will encourage him to fit his tactics to the team while aggressively getting him more pieces he needs to make those tactics work.

  5. Hi FDCHIEF218 and BURNSBABE…and all…

    FDCHIEF218…Great article!!! Thank you for the link!!! Very informative, reminds me of the stuff that Kevin writes here for us…
    The article does point to a concern about Porter…in that he seems very wedded…or is that welded…to the 4-3-3 and his multi-pass possession style play, and that he will attempt to put the square peg in the round hole, strategically speaking. Maybe all he really knows how to play well is his Akron style of play and formation. HIs work with the U-23 USMNT team would seem to indicate that.

    The article made Porters, and the U-23 teams struggle sound so very much like ours this year with the Timbers…not having the right type of players…and/or access to add them to the team…to really play the style we were trying to play, and little to no ability to make meaningful adjustments on the fly during the match, or reset and re-organize for the next match, adjusting our strategy for the style of play of the next opponent.

    Burnsbabe…also a great article, thank you, and again, that article also says things that Kevin has been saying here all season…that with a team of our talent level…we really need to think our way around our opponents.

    Again…with Porter…at the professional level…he has not shown that “cerebral” ability in the very limited exposure that we had of his coaching abilities at that level. Now to a certain degree, I suspect that he was following marching orders from Klinnsman, as to how to play in formation and style, as Klinny seems intent on meldinjg the USMNT program into a more “Barca” style of play.

    But…that seems a big part of the whole problem to me…as FDChief’s article pointed out, now “everyone” is trying to learn to play like Spain NT/Barca…as fast as possible, damn the torpedos, full speed ahead…and yet they rather ignore the fact that it has taken Barca well over a decade, two or three decades depending on who you hear talk about it, to carefully craft this style of play, and develop players who could play it. This was not an overnight success for Barca, and there is really no guarantee that after this amazing core group of players ages and moves on, that Barca will necessarily come up with another 7 or 8 men like the “magic” group they now have to keep this Tiki-taka flame alive. There has never been another Beatles, nor will there be…and maybe the same is true for Barca…we should definitely all watch with joy and wonder, every Barca match that we can, while this remarkable team is still together.

    Speaking of that…last night, I was able to watch the last 30 minutes of the UEFA match between Barca and Celtic, which Celtic actually won 2-1…even the announcers were calling it a miracle, which it kinda was. Celtic scored one solid goal, header off a corner, and one late game lucky breakaway goal on a mistake by a Barca player on a long clearance pass by Celtic, as Barca was really pressing at the Celtic goal.

    Still…as we say in golf, we hackers, “Better lucky than good”

    I have to say that Barca is just amazing…AMAZING…the speed, the precision, the movement on and off the ball, the incredible touch both making and receiving passes, the instinctive interweave of players, shifting positions seamlessly in the flow of play, offense to defense, defense to offense, and back and forth in complete ease and confidence. The incredible fitness…Celtic was obviously gassed, even after they scored the second goal with about 10 minutes left, which I thought would give them a big adrenaline lift…it did not…Barca just kept coming and coming, pressing and pressuring relentlessly, not looking tired at all…Celtic played just well enough in the back, great goalkeeping effort…to hold them off to the whistle.

    What a team…wow…just wow!!!

    I get why everyone wants to try to emulate that…but…really, I just can not see anyone, any team, especially an MLS talent level team even remotely being able to re-create that…and a pale imitation is not really possible, not with that style.

    If you can not play at Barca’s level, you had better not even try to play something similar, as the results would be ugly…very very ugly.

    We Timbers fans have already watched ugly for a year…or so…lets not try to go down that road again, trying to be something, even if only partially, that we most certainly are not…

    1. Y’know the other “bad example” that comes to mind? Totaalvoetbal.

      I loved the Dutch style of play; it was what drew me to soccer when I was in high school and college back in the Seventies. It was gorgeous to watch Cruyff & Co. play like the clockwork they were named for.

      But when you look back you have to conclude that for all the success it reaped “total football” was both incapable of climbing the final step AND inextricably linked to a very special group of players and time.

      The Dutch never managed to figure out the tough “conventional” soccer of Germany and Argentina. And after Krol and Neeskens and Rensenbrink went the team just couldn’t play at the same level. I can easily see the same thing happening to Spain and Barca when this generation of players moves on. They’re incredibly delicate instruments, these sleek tactical schemes. When they work they’re like a scalpel. But you bring a scalpel to a rockfight and chances are somebody will beat you down…

  6. Hi FDCHIEF…and all:

    Yes FD…you are ever so right!

    “Total Football” was certainly the precursor to “Tiki-Taka”, and look how long it took another team to come back around and really try something similar…AND…make it work!!!

    Spain/Barca have had better success than the Dutch, in part because I think they evolved the style a little further, and play at a slightly higher skill level than even the famed “Flying Dutchmen” of yore.

    But both teams…the fact that there have only been two teams in how many decades and how many teams and leagues of play…have ultimately shown how difficult it is to form and then maintain this remarkable style of play.

    As you say, these were/are incredibly delicate and precise tactical teams, and finding the right men, with the right skills, and right mindset, all at the right time and getting them together and having it click is a lottery odds proposition.

    I think this is why the venerable 4-4-2 “direct/wing attack” style of play still endures to this day. It is a relatively simple, and easy to build a team around style of play, and it is a much more stable and forgiving style format to use with players of…shall we say…limited and/or specialized skill sets, i.e…players who can only play defense, or whom do not have good one touch foot skills but can cross a ball really well, or players who play offensive midfield well, but are poor defensive midfielders…and so forth. In the world of cars, the 4-4-2 is “econobox” soccer…low cost, unexciting, mostly reliable transportation, usually with lots of cheap parts and service available to fix it when it breaks.

    The 4-3-3 tends to be a little more high performance…or a lot more with the right parts…vehicle…but it does tend to be a bit more finicky to use in the high performance mode, and requires much better parts and much higher maintenance.

    And…with the very physical defensive, and overall on field play in the MLS, very much “tough and conventional” as FDCHIEF described in his post above about the play of Germany and Argentina…and with the very “loose” and inconsistent work of the referees in the MLS, I have great qualms about how a precision play team will fare, especially with players whose skill sets and skill levels are really more suited to “econobox” than “performance” modes of play.

    And hey…Celtic did beat Barca the other night, and Barca did NOT look flat, and DID look very sharp…so “econobox” can still get it done…the soccer gods a’willing…

Wise Men say...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s