The Aesthetics

Football has no place within the much debated world of aesthetics.

Actually, this could be considered a faulty or incorrect statement. Let’s try it again.

Football exists very tenuously within the realm of aesthetics.

Books have been written about this, columns have been written about this, tomes by intelligent men and women exist on the ideals of football.

Where does the abstraction of the team fall between the idealistic vision of “The beautiful game” and the current vision of what it takes to win in MLS?

The vision currently is thus, while MLS has taken strides towards an existence within the realm of the 4-3-3, the tempo pass, the creative midfielder, it still exists within the proposal of the 4-4-2, or (providence forbid) the Catenaccio. While certainly not many, or really any teams in MLS play with a full sweeper behind the back four, overload one side (preferably the right) push up the field and attempt to cynically disrupt the offense to counter attack, there is a certain current methodology towards winning MLS cup.

The current back-to-back champions of MLS have indicated this with the almost Italian philosophies of Bruce Arena and LA Galaxy. Bruce sets up a star powered team to play on the counter attack, inviting pressure upon the Galaxy and dictating the game with a deep lying creative midfielder (now gone) to play the ball up the field to streaking forwards. There is a reason why seemingly the Galaxy play tight and then seem to open up the game with late goals. They invite play through the middle, to their defensive side and frustrate their opponents leading to their opposition pushing more players into the attack. Then the hammer blow comes down as the midfield and full-backs are caught up field with only a center-back left to protect.

There is also a reason (or few reasons) why Galaxy were poor at the beginning of the season and started to play well later. Many fans point towards Robbie Keane’s form in the second half of the season after returning from the Euro’s, almost as though he had flipped a “Give-A-Shit” button. However, one can merely look at the rock of stability in Omar Gonzalez and the solidifying of LA’s defense through the addition of the “Should have been 2011 MLS MVP” to the back line. With Juninho covering in the midfield and the fluctuation passion of a disinterested Landon Donovan, the 2012 Galaxy eventually morphed into a version of a team that was reminiscent of the 2011 Galaxy team in terms of effectiveness.

LA plays a bizarre version of possum as they press and retreat. As well, Bruce Arena doesn’t just stick with one particular style. Reacting against the opponent they will at times shorten the field by moving the back line up (as they did against Seattle to great effect) which makes the field much smaller to play within. This has the effect of increasing the need for “touch” players for the opposition, something which is lacking in a general sense within MLS. When shortening the field, the midfield and defense of LA is given a shorter path to pressure the ball, enabling them to spring the attack quicker into the opposition end. With quality in defense and counter-attack, the Galaxy used the not-so-great ball outlet of Christian Wilhelmsson who frequently ran the touchline as a pressure valve.

Now, this works when you have David Beckham receiving the ball and pinging passes to all-star players like Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. This move also fails more often than not when you have David Beckham receiving the ball and pinging passes to players like Chad Barrett and Adam Cristman.

Houston themselves play within the realm of a 4-4-2, and play with a sense of positional discipline that would make Roy Hodgson pleasure himself repeatedly. They are underrated in the league within the realm of movement, fluidity and passing as they do attempt to play the ball. Paramount for Houston, though, is defensive rigidity, responsibility and ability. They play tough through the middle of the field, hitting anything that moves with slight shoulders, grabs and challenging headers. This kind of defensive presence through the midfield often leads to ugly games as typically teams within MLS are more than happy to mix it up physically.

What all this brings us to is the amazing challenge that Caleb Porter has taken on in Portland. He steps into a world that currently revolves around “two-banks-of-four” Houston Dynamo and “Catenaccio light” LA Galaxy.

Certainly there has been some success within the league with teams that attempt to play the ball “see: Real Salt Lake and Miami Fusion”. However, even Real Salt Lake hasn’t had unmitigated success playing the pass and move game within the confines of MLS. Their win within MLS cup came during their transition to playing on-the-ground/passing football and came two years after Jason Kreis was put in charge to change the direction of the new team.

Throughout 2012, Timbers fans were able to see the truly varied approaches of multiple head coaches at their position. With the start of the 2012 season, they were able to see more of a wing approach. While lip service was given to portray the team attempting to play through the middle of the field, the team typically still pushed the ball out to the wings and attempted to dump the ball into the box. Quite often this lead to immediate turn overs and midfielders/wing players getting caught up field with the immediate destruction of the full-backs happening. When build up play happened with the full-backs overlapping up the field and playing balls with the outside midfield players near the corner of the penalty area, the impact was that the Timbers typically took one too many touches, got caught in possession and then the full-backs and outside midfield were caught up field.

Quite often this would lead to break outs in the Timbers defensive end with players like Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury attempting to break up plays with fouls, or getting bypassed on the way to the back line.

With a lack of defensive integrity at the back, John Spencer attempted to fix this problem by limiting the amount of times that his full-backs or midfielders got caught up field. Without a true midfielder capable of delivering the ball through the middle of the field, the Timbers would often sit back and try to “not get beaten”. The problem with this is that not only did this kill the offense, but the 2012 Timbers were not talented enough at full-back and center-back to play a defensive shell game. Games would vacillate between defensive slog fests where eventually Portland would be beaten by the mental defensive mistake that always seemed to happen, and offensively open games where the Timbers couldn’t sustain leads.

This ultimate nadir of this tactical confusion was the Timbers 1-0 loss to amateur team Cal FC in the US Open Cup. Portland created a mind-boggling 37 shots with 15 shots on goal and 0 goals (including a missed PK). Out of those 15 shots on goal, there were really none that challenged the keeper. There was so little confidence in the team finishing their shots that they could have played for 500 minutes in a row and probably not scored a goal. At that point the Timbers had managed to neuter the confidence of offense AND have a defensive catastrophe… at home…. to an amateur team filled with valets and dishwashers.

Certainly John Spencer wasn’t a one trick pony, but it seemed that his train of thought in adaptation and recognizing trends was simply not fast enough at the time. When he attempted to play Lovel Palmer at defensive midfield to man-mark against Kansas City the experiment worked (although in a method of nihilistic frustration as the Timbers rarely threatened and won the game on an own goal). However, he then extrapolated that this formation and deployment would work in the next game against a Montreal side that had no intention of playing the same method into the Timbers hands. This resulted in a 2-0 loss on the road with more offensive ineptness.

With John Spencer sacked and in the rear view, Gavin Wilkinson took over as head coach of the Timbers. While fans that watched his coaching style before bet on the inevitable return of the long ball tactics he used during the USL days of the team, the real tactics he used were a bit different. Wilkinson (in conjunction of the hire of Caleb Porter) took the shackles off the full-backs and asked them and the midfield to attempt to attack. This, in combination of the poor defensive form, the lack of ability of players in the midfield to play defense, and the inevitable confusion that happens with a coaching change lead to some terrible performances by the Timbers. There were suggestions that Wilkinson was attempting to implement the changes that Porter would envision in 2013, there were suggestions that the team was getting shadow coached by Sean Mcauley. Either way, the team’s defense was routinely exposed in the early going of Wilkinson’s tenure leading to a number of truly horrific games.

As time elapsed, the new defense and offensive scheme coalesced into a slightly more congealed attack and defense. Mind you this congealed presence DID NOT improve the Timbers ability to win, score goals, and prevent goals. The performances of Steven Smith became more composed down the left side, and even though the right back position remained a sieve the entirety of the year, the Timbers found themselves ready to play for the right to lift the Cascadia Cup against their hated rivals, the Seattle Sounders.

They imploded instead.

On the road, Wilkinson started two full-backs (Lovel Palmer and Rodney Wallace) that were largely relegated to bench and reserve appearances as they both had proven over the course of the season their lack of the basic ability to play in defense. As well, Wilkinson started a fourth choice Center-back (Futty Danso). These choices were supposedly to increase the athleticism in the team and replace a nebulous injury (athleticism a trait that Wilkinson has frequently touted as important to him and to Porters new offense). The Timbers were absolutely destroyed on the road and thrashed like a limp rag as the defense and midfield were unable to contain, press or even think on the ball.

Somehow, despite this loss, the Timbers were still able to play for the Cascadia Cup….. again on the road… This time the game to win was against Vancouver.

And this is where any kind of beautiful aesthetics went out the window completely.

Wilkinson set out a side with a game plan to play cynical, aggressive, pressing football with a long ball emphasis that would have made Charles Reep proud (Reep was one of the foremost English proponents of long ball play). Wilkinson restored the three players in the defense with their progenitors and had his defensive line push up as high as possible. This was not to have the intent of playing the pressing and drop game that teams like Barcelona implement (in which Barcelona press up high in order to decrease the space available to the opposing players and the size of the field, and then upon possession of the ball they drop deep in order to expand the field to give their players the ability pass freely around a large space) he did this in order to destroy the flow of the game.

The Whitecaps didn’t possess the ability (or, at the very least, decided against it) to play the ball on the ground and break the defensive line. The first 15 minutes of the game showed the kind of football that would have made Ronaldinho cry in shame. The ball barely even noticed the grass as it logged more frequent flier miles than an airplane. The Timbers had no real intent of keeping possession; they merely attempted to push up on the opposing Whitecaps players, disrupted their game and then kick the ball up to the front as fast as possible. The goal for the Timbers came about from some of the scant amount of decent play, as the deadlock was broken by a wonder strike late. Nine times out of ten that game finishes 0-0.

Tactically the game plan was a simplistic master stroke. For the un-invested fan the game was a giant pile of shit.

The problem here for Porter is that the method of press, kick and rush worked and does work. Granted this was against a slumping opponent who was suffering from their own offensive identity problem. However, MLS is still in the development phase in terms of players and (as well) in terms of tactics.

Porter’s Akron teams, as well as his ill-fated US U-23 team, attempted to build the offense from the back and prioritize the connection of the back four to the midfield. He attempts to play the game with two ball handling center-backs (the impetus of the attack) and 8 midfielders. The idea is that with possession and quality control you minimize the amount of time that the opposition can have to attack your own defense. His Akron team would pass the ball around in their own end with the free ease of a team on the training ground. The left back would push up, interchange positions with the midfield, then exchange the ball in rolling triangles between them and the center-back as the ball would make it over to the center-backs, the keeper, the right back, the midfield and then back across to the left back again.

The issue here is the ethos and rigidity with which Porter and, to a certain extent, Merritt Paulson see the game. The downfall of Porter with the U-23 Olympic team was the inability to adapt tactically to a situation or team in which a difference from his preferred tiki-taka style was needed.

The premier trophy in MLS has now been won and contested via counter attacking defensive first style and defensively rigid two banks of four style for the last two years. One can look at the 2012 San Jose Earthquakes in terms of a current MLS style of offensive execution. When implementing the towers of (either/or/and) Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart, San Jose operate within the realm of the big man/smaller man, goal poaching, defensive stability, somebody hit somebody, physical play that exists within MLS. Kansas City operated with such a pressing style within MLS that it leads to questions about the playability of their style. They use such physicality in their pressing and play that it became a question of “what is a foul and what isn’t a foul” towards the end of the year. Their style was such that it could be influenced heavily by the appointment of referees who have their own particular way of viewing physical interaction and the way in which players play. These philosophies worked (for the most part) as Kansas City, with their high octane press and disrupt style, only gave up 27 goals on the year (lowest in MLS); and San Jose, with their disrupt in the box and service to goal poaching striker formula, scored 72 goals (highest in MLS) on the year. Certainly one could look at LA’s Goals Against number from this season as very high, but you must remember that prior to the return of Omar Gonzalez and the refocus of the team to their defensive responsibilities that the defense was a sieve. Colorado, as well, won a MLS cup with a rugged defense, a big man up top and a direct style.

It is within this scope of “what works in MLS” that we see what John Spencer was heading towards. His attempted focus on wing play, physicality, playing to a big man, defensive rigidity would and should have worked. Spencer’s major problem was the quality of the players obtained by and for him. With unwise trades and acquisitions Spencer and Wilkinson traded players they could have used for players that weakened the defense and midfield significantly. Spencer’s philosophies are those philosophies that work for Dominic Kinear. The difference is that Kinear has consistently picked the right players (sometimes at the DIRECT expense of the Timbers) and Spencer did not.

Which brings us to a major problem for Porter, that is… the Players.

This is a league in which defensive work rate, athleticism and gritty hard nose play are en vogue. MLS teams typically don’t possess the financial ability, the scouting or the stature to lure technically skilled players to the league. Those that have been brought over haven’t always worked out, for a number of reasons. As well, many technical players may not want to play in a league that is currently dominated by very physical play. What Porter was able to obtain at Akron is not going to be readily available within the ranks of professionalism. With Akron, Porter was one of the (if not THE top) alpha dogs in college soccer. His prestige alone made it easier to pitch the ideal of playing fluid football to blue chip prospects with technical flair.

With the Timbers, Porter will have to operate with a manager and owner overseeing his every move, a salary cap, and teams like Los Angeles who are more than willing to unload a couple million dollars towards available players who have never heard of Caleb Porter, Akron, and Portland. His navigation of player acquisition, his ability to work with youth prospects and find diamonds with inexpensive players will be key to his ability to implement some kind of fluid football. As well, his ability to translate his requests to Gavin Wilkinson will be one of the key components that will determine his success and failure. If Wilkinson is unable to obtain the talent that Porter requires, if he decides to imprint his own ideals on the player selection, or simply if he scouts poorly… Porter may find the seas enormously difficult during his tenure as coach.

It is a cop out to say that time will tell, but that is the trope to use here. Important milestones for Timbers fans will be the acquisition or discovery of authentic and useful full-backs that are comfortable with the ball and proficient (at least one of the two) in attack. As well, another milestone will be the acquisition of an attacking midfielder. The Timbers desperately need a player that can control the ball, the tempo of the offense and provide service. The 2012 Portland Timbers starting lineup simply does not have the technical ability or poise to play with Porter’s system. It remains up to Caleb Porter, Gavin Wilkinson and Merritt Paulson to find these players. As well it remains to be seen if MLS is at a time in which stylistic possession with the players available under a strict salary cap can defeat counter attacking or negative-branded tactics.

As for now…. All that Timbers fans can do is wait and see.

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8 thoughts on “The Aesthetics

  1. Well said. I think Porter is going to have to find a way to adapt when he realizes that he no longer has the most talented team on the pitch. I just hope he can find a way to motivate the players to believe in the system and that teamwork can find a way to win over the more talented teams in the MLS.

  2. OK, first of all, great, in-depth analysis that I think is right on target on many points.

    HOWEVER, I think there are a few missed points.

    1. There is a long-term effect of your core style of play: the overly-direct game may be a good, short-term winning strategy, but it does almost nothing for team chemistry and development over the long haul. You alluded to this in referencing our lack of finishing confidence against Cal FC, but your conclusion doesn’t address what to do about that. But the reality of MLS today is that teams that use a more defensive, direct, counter-attacking style game-in and game-out, don’t usually go very far these days, even in MLS. Houston, LA, San Jose, play more conservative football at times, to great effect, but none of them do this game-in and game out. All three teams often win the possession battle and have proven that they can break teams down in the buildup game.

    2. The improving quality in MLS: this is the reason teams that play an overly direct, long-ball style at the core of their system, are rarely finding success anymore in MLS.

    3. There’s always the disrupting, bus-parking game to knock you out of the playoffs. We are learning this from Sporting Kansas City. Spencer deserves some credit for handing SKC their first loss of the season, and the league took note. SKC is a possession team, but that’s not how they get their goals. Their buildup game is as rigid as you’ll ever see in a buildup game, and they can’t score on the from it to save their lives. The possession game keeps the other team off the ball and helps them control field position (it’s almost an American Football tactic). Their success comes from their physicality, as you say, and their relentless pressure defense. This works because they keep their positioning fairly strict even in possession, so when they do inevitably choke up the ball on the buildup, they are in an ideal setup to pressure and win it back quickly without leaving themselves vulnerable. That pressure and winning the ball back is how they get their goals. If you bunker down and take those short counters away from them, they suddenly can’t score (Greg Kinnear owes John Spencer a TY note for displaying the effectiveness of this tactic to the league). It’s a prime example of how a lack of team-creativity element in the core of your big-picture offensive strategy can burn you in tournament play, when that creativity becomes your only hope of scoring.

    In conclusion, MLS is not a top-tier league, but the quality is improving, a system to improve the refereeing is in place, and with that, the defense-first strategy has already fallen from a successful from a successful core strategy, to a mere strategic adjustment that can work part of the time when used smartly, in the appropriate context.

    I do agree that Porter will probably have to become more flexible in his tactics to succeed in MLS, but I don’t think that means we should abandon the idea of a core system that’s centered on a buildup-style game and emphasizes creativity, movement, and quick passing. It just means that he needs to be willing to flex out of that from time-to-time when the situation calls for it, and to be an effective tactition in these situations.

  3. Nice piece. One thing that gives me hope is that Porter BUILT Akron. Yes he had his choice of blue chip by the end but he built that program from nothing. He built it with recruiting kids like Cameron Knowles from New Zealand of all places. So my hope is that Porter was flexible and scrappy in building a national powerhouse and given enough time here he can do the same.

  4. Great stuff. Thanks.

    I’m more and more focused on the quality of refereeing and what is considered a foul in MLS compared to what is considered a foul elsewhere. The theory that I’ve heard is that in a league where a European foul doesn’t get called, that skill is minimized at the expense of toughness. Is this a conscious choice by MLS? What would need to happen for this to change. TimberGreen and others, can you say more about the measures to improve officiating?

    1. The establishment of the Professional Referees Organization (PRO), and the hiring of Peter Walton from the Premiere League to oversee a process that will grade referee performances and establish objectives for improvement, are big steps in the right direction, if not magic bullets.

      Here’s a good article: http://espn.go.com/sports/soccer/story/_/id/8157750/peter-walton-man-refereeing-mission-roger-bennett

      It does, certainly, remain a challenge for referees to maintain control of games in a league of players who are used to the physical status-quo, as part of the referee’s job is to try to keep the game moving too, and not turn this into Basketball.

  5. If Porter can get them to play as a team and not a bunch of individuals we will be miles ahead of last year. As a strict strategy the possession game has not shown to be successful in MLS but it definetly can be used with success. It builds communication, field vision, on the ball skill, off the ball movement, and staying ahead of the play. All of this has been sorely missing from this team. I hope Porter is given the time and pieces to biuld this franchise into a perennial threat.

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