Alexander the Trade

After 30 appearances in Timbers green, Eric Alexander is the latest player to find himself packing his bags and moving on after being traded to New York in exchange for allocation money.

Trading for or with allocation money has become a feature of the Timbers’ dealings this offseason as Caleb Porter reshapes his team. Given the veil of secrecy that MLS have thrown up around allocation money it’s virtually impossible to tell what value the club are getting for players like Alexander, or Brunner, or Robbie Findley but clearly the front office feel they would rather have the lucre than the player who led the club in assists through 2012.

And I can’t say I’m surprised, nor am I outraged by the move.

With the trading of Alexander, and the cutting of Franck Songo’o, the club have ditched the two leading assist providers from last year which, when taken with the departure of leading scorer Kris Boyd, would make it seem like Torontoeqsue levels of facepalmery are unfolding in the Rose City.

Neither Boyd nor Songo’o fit the new aesthetic and, while Alexander’s style was a better fit, I never felt that he was a guy who was going to make a starting spot his own under Porter.

Alexander was a generally tidy and composed player, which made him a stand out in 2012 where these were two features we seemed to perpetually lack in midfield. He provided a creative presence from central midfield that we lacked in Jack Jewsbury or Diego Chara.

When Darlington Nagbe moved back into that central midfield role, it essentially pushed Alexander further out of the team. He would have appearances in wide midfield, but this never looked like a position that suited him.

Coming into 2013, those features Alexander brought to the team are now being brought by others. Diego Valeri is the creative player, while Will Johnson brings a steadying and composed presence to the centre. Nagbe continues to develop, and we still have Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury, neither of whom are particular flashy on the ball, but both of whom can keep it moving.

Put simply Alexander was, at best, fifth in line for one of the two or three spots in midfield. Breaking it down further, I’d put Will Johnson and Diego Chara, potentially even Darlington Nagbe, ahead of him in central midfield. There’s also Rodney Wallace, who showed last year that he could play there, and Jack Jewsbury in the mix. In attacking midfield he’s behind Diego Valeri, Nagbe and, judging by his involvement in the team so far, Kalif Alhassan. We’ve also seen Alhassan played deeper in central midfield during the preseason in Tucson which was a pretty big sign that Porter was looking beyond Alexander for other options there.

Alexander provided six assists in 2012, but two of those were secondary (the pass to the guy who made the assist) and another couple were simple passes to Nagbe, who then did all the hard work on his own before scoring. That’s not to denigrate, or belittle, what Alexander did for the club but just to underline that looking at a bunch of numbers on a webpage doesn’t tell the whole story.

As I said, I thought Alexander was a good player, and I’d have liked to see him get more of a chance last season to show what he can bring to the table, and earn that roster spot for 2013. That he was never really given that chance – he played 125 minutes of the last 9 games of 2012 – is pretty telling.

John Spencer, the guy who traded for him, never really seemed to find a place for him in the his starting XI. He was an after-thought for much of Gavin Wilkinson’s interim spell. Now Caleb Porter has clearly felt he wasn’t going to be commanding a starting spot any time soon either. That’s three coaches – for all you may pick faults in each – who have looked at Eric Alexander and thought of him as a squad player, at best.

I think that part of the problem was that, while Alexander was, and is, undoubtedly a good player, I never felt he was a game changer, or someone that really imposed himself on matches.

In an ideal world, you probably keep an Eric Alexander on the roster as a decent back-up. In a far-from-ideal-world, where you have work within the constraints of a salary cap and roster size limit, hard choices have to be taken and that means the guys on the outer margins are going to the be the first to get excised to balance the numbers.

Also, from the point of view of Alexander himself, it’s a good move for him. As fans, we selfishly want to hoard all the best players for ourselves even if a guy has little chance of breaking the first XI anytime soon. As a player, he wants to play and, if his chances were as limited in Portland as I think they were, it’s good for him to get a move out and a chance to earn a spot elsewhere.

Every trade is a risk. You could trade someone on and see them blossom, and it makes you look foolish, and the fans will make sure you know all about it. Equally, you could be beset by injuries and suddenly moving that fifth-choice guy on doesn’t look like such a good move anymore. But if we all spent our lives preparing for the worst case scenario, you’d never get out of bed in the morning.

In this case, while I’m sad to see Alexander go, I think it’s a risk worth taking. We don’t know what the club have in mind for the allocation money, so it would be silly to rush to condemn them as only time will tell whether they made the right move.

Thanks Eric, and all the best.

16 thoughts on “Alexander the Trade

  1. Good post Kevin and I agree. I think what we’re starting to see in MLS is the need to raise this salary cap. All of these trades around the league for allocation money is getting to be a bit ridiculous. I didn’t see Alexander as a starter, but definitely saw him as a valuable member of the team and would’ve been nice to have him as depth.

      1. although it is clear that his tenure in New York did not expose Portland’s decision as outright silly. . . for all his stats and for whatever reason New York didn’t want Cooper for longer than he was at Portland. So goal production was not the only reason.

        As for Cooper with Hassli, who knows? Maybe this is the combination for which Kenny has been waiting, or it might be that Cooper is traded away next year to someone else.

        And some players just seem to thrive on change, always seeking the new challenge and quickly becoming bored with the old. I don’t know how much of a draw Dallas would be to someone coming from the Big Apple, however. . .

        So it could be that we will at some point see a Cooper goal from an Alexander assist.

        It looks increasingly likely that this would happen at the end of the game when both come off the bench. And for this year, at least, it will have to be an own-goal or a give–away assist.

  2. well written, inciteful. as usual.

    For all the turmoil and change in Portland this season, when I look around the league I see even some of the most steady teams making wide-ranging, roster-changing moves.

    New York is one example. RSL another. Add Columbus and Colorado and Dallas to the list.

    I wonder if this is a sign more of a change in the league than in specific teams. It almost seems as though the caliber of play in MLS has increased so quickly it has left a surprising number of players stranded, and many more starters finding new roles on the bench.

    On the other hand, this might just be a recency bias. Does anyone have a good feel for whether the pace of personnel change in the MLS has increased this year, or even in the last two years?

    Or it more a function of the newcomers out here in Portland, socio-politically semi-isolated from some of the long-time football hot spots as well as from the really big cities, see the to-be-expected changes ocurring and start crying either “the sky is falling!” or “behold the empire!”.

    1. In terms of the number of changes, there’s not much difference between this year and last. A quick (emphasis: quick) tally show that, if you strip out Montreal’s expansion moves in 2012, there were 102 moves by this time in 2012, compared to 104 this year. So, in overall terms, the number of moves is about what you’d expect, but I know what you about the perception. It certainly seems busier.

      The teams who have had the biggest jump in terms of overall transfer/trade work are Portland (up 180% on this time in 2012), Colorado (117%), Columbus (100%), Real Salt Lake (83%) and Toronto (50%). The biggest jump in players coming in – RSL (200% up), Colorado (167%), Dallas & Portland (100%). In terms of players leaving – Portland (500%), Toronto (250%), Columbus (200%), Chicago (100%).

      Don’t take those figures as gospel, but gives an idea.

      1. Do you have a breakdown by position? or by starting 11?

        It seems that we are playing musical chairs with forwards this year. . . Hassli, Cooper, Shea, Montero in addition to Boyd and Johnson. . .

        Perhaps you can help me wrap my head around these numbers. . . the reason that, for example, Toronto was only up 50% in overall trades over 2012 but 250% in players leaving? Is there a large number of Toronto players whose bones might be found in a mass burial pit somewhere just North of the border, sometime in the future?

      2. No, like I said it was just a quick scan across all moves. It’ll be interesting to see how many players make debuts in the first couple of weeks and compare those numbers.

        With Toronto, they had a quiet 2012 in terms of people going, so the jump from 2 to 7 is a 250% increase, but when you include players coming in the overall figure they went from 8 to 12, or a 50% increase.

        In terms of just flat numbers, the busiest teams so far are Portland (14 moves), Colorado (13), Toronto (12), Real Salt Lake & New York (both 11). Last year it was (excluding Montreal) LA (14), Chivas (13), Vancouver (11), Philly, San Jose & Seattle (all 10)

  3. Alexander was one of those guys in 2012 that always seemed to me to have problems bringing his “A” game every match. Dunno if it was something about him or whether he was one of those players who match up well against some opponents and not others. He’d have a solid outing – like the ones you mentioned – and then the next match it was as if he wasn’t out on the pitch. And those sorts of games killed; the 2012 side couldn’t afford any passengers…

    I will say that I would have rated him a little higher that you did. He wasn’t as tough defending as Chara or Jack but was much better going forward, and I thought for all that he didn’t get the minutes when he did he didn’t get shut down any more than Nagbe. And I thought he was much more consistent than Kalif – tho as you note clearly Porter disagrees with that.

    What I find interesting is that though you can see why Colorado, PTFC and TFC would want to deal; all three coming off bad-to-terrible seasons in need of a complete rebuild, but…RSL and NYRB..? You’d think that they would just need to jiggle a piece here and slot a guy there.

  4. RSL needed to make changes because they failed to make the CCL and lost all that sweet sweet bonus allocation money for playing in that tournament. Without that extra allocation money their salary cap became unmanageable. NYRB is a shitshow, that’s their story.

  5. Now a few weeks in we see that Eric Alexander has apparently nailed down a starting position with the high-powered Red Bulls. Interesting development. Perhaps we pulled the trigger too soon on Alexander, perhaps it was just a matter of having too many midfielders (as Kevin aptly pointed out) or perhaps it is yet another case of a player finding the right spot on the right team at the right time to flourish.

    Any way, my best to Eric, as long as it doesn’t come too often at the expense of the Timbers!

    Which leads me to a question I have been pondering. Given the way our line-up has shaken out with its surprises (e.g., Wallace) and challenges (e.g. losing Horst) if you were able to move players around, which one player in the MLS right now would you grab for Portland, keeping in mind that we would need to trade someone away. So man-for-man swap. . .

    And then, a little closer to reality, which player would you grab for their current compensation level? That is, who would be the best value for Portland at this point?

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