The Timbers returned home after some bounce games in Tucson, and found the Timbers Army ready and waiting for some actual football after a long, and at times, tumultuous offseason.
The San Jose Earthquakes were the visitors in the first round of matches in the Portland Timbers Preseason Tournament – a name so dull that not even Don Garber would want to trademark it.
The game itself ended in a 3-3 draw. San Jose scored a penalty after a handball by Jean-Baptiste, got an easy second from a free header off a free kick, and scored a third off a rebound from a Ricketts save after a weak turnover of possession in their own defensive third. So, much as it was in defence.
For certain, there is still a lot of work to be done in shoring things up at the back, but for now I’d like to talk about the other end, because it was there that I saw many reasons to be optimistic about 2013. I’m sure I’ll return to the defence at some point…
Ryan Johnson scored a hat-trick, which is a pretty good way to go about endearing yourself to the home faithful. Diego Valeri had a hand in the latter two goals, providing lovely assists for Johnson to get through on goal and finish with consummate ease. A lot of pixels have been spent bemoaning the fact that the Timbers have lacked a creative “number 10” type in their roster, but it looks like Valeri is exactly that kind of player.
The first goal is the one that stands out to me, though. If ever there was a passage of play that typifies what Caleb Porter is bringing to Portland, it was then.
The quick passing and intelligent movement of the midfield served to open up space down the San Jose left, and the Timbers were ruthless in exploiting it. It begins before Nagbe has even touched the ball.
Harrington cushions the header down to Nagbe on the left side of the Timbers midfield. Towards the end of last season we saw Nagbe play more centrally, and it seemed to stifle him a little. Nagbe works best when he can pick up in space and drive forward, but we also saw last season with Songo’o the problems that a wide player coming inside can cause when all they’re doing is running into traffic.
In this instance, Diego Chara makes a clever little diversionary run forward. San Jose were set up pretty well, with two players holding the middle, but Chara’s move forces their #4 to follow him, and leave a space for Nagbe to run into. With San Jose short-handed in midfield now, it draws their wide #10 inside to match up, freeing space in front of Ryan Miller.
Nagbe has options for the pass, with Will Johnson holding and Kalif Alhassan forward. Diego Valeri also makes himself available for the pass, as he continually does. Part of the Timbers problems last season were there were too many players who would disappear, or hide, for too long. Songo’o, Alexander, Boyd – all players I liked, but all were guys who would drift in and out of matches. It stunted the Timbers attack all too often, leaving us with nowhere to go and panic was never far from setting in. That shit just won’t fly under Porter.
The next three passes are all one touch. Nagbe to Alhassan, back to Johnson, out to Miller. As easy as one-two-three, the Timbers have pulled the San Jose midfield around and opened up space out wide.
There’s no steadying touch, or thought of looking for the long, hopeful ball forward from Miller. Alhassan has made the move forward, and the man who should’ve been tracking him from midfield has given up on the job. This means that when the first time ball comes forward from Miller, one of the San Jose central defenders is forced to come across to match the run.
Ryan Johnson comes to life as the ball enters the attacking third. With a gap opening up at the near post, all it needs is for Alhassan is to deliver the ball into that area. Johnson times the run to perfection, going from back to front and sending a deft header looping beyond the reach of the keeper into the far side of the net.
What you can see from the overview is that much of the Timbers off the ball movement was heading from right to left, opening up the space they needed to execute a quick series of passes left to right. It’s like a boxer dropping his shoulder to entice an opponent in before dropping him with the hook he never saw coming.
For all the talk about possession, this is the essence of what Porter’s teams do. Yes, they’ll keep the ball, and work it across the pitch, playing nice little triangles and diagonals but, like a Chess Grandmaster, when they’ve maneuvered their opponents just where they want them, they’ll strike, and do so swiftly and with purpose.