I, like most of you, are thoroughly disappointed in only notching up 1 point from are two opening games at Jeld Wen. I had high hopes of 4, even 6 points, from those two games. Dreams of a couple of clean sheets and goals galore at the other end. Those were wild dreams; more realistic dreams told me to hope for a couple of 1 or 2 goal victories. But 1 point? That was almost the stuff of nightmares! Surely, we would muster at least one victory out of those two games? Or at worst a couple of draws! Disappointment loomed large this weekend. But as I processed I found hope. Here’s why.
Of Portland Timbers starting XI against the Impact only 5 of them were on the books last season. One of those, Donovan Rickets, joined late in the season and made only 9 appearances. Another, Jean-Baptiste, was largely considered a backup and only played 5 games. There is an awful lot of new in this team. To highlight that; in the Timbers opening game of their debut MLS season there were 4 players who had been with the Timbers in the USL. So we have one more player than the very first season we were in this league. I am not going to hide behind excuses of this being a “rebuilding” season or any of these other technical terms used to excuse being crap. There’s is still a good core of players around the club that have been here awhile and the team has developed both on and off the field. But this is an attempt to explain why we failed to win in the first two games, and why I have hope that this season will be a good one.
First let’s look at the defense. In the defense on Saturday we have Ricketts, Miller, Jean Batiste, Silvestre & Harrington. Of these 5 players only Jean Baptiste & Ricketts were here last season. Jean Baptiste played 4 games and Rickets 9. They only played together once. So essentially you have a back line that is learning to play together. Partnerships take time to form and communication takes time to develop. What I’ve seen in the Portland defense is a defense that generally looks OK, even good at times but seems to have lapses and times of miscommunication. Sounds exactly like a bunch of new guys playing together. It cannot be stressed enough how much finding a rhythm together in defense matters. Each can do their own job easily enough, but if you don’t know the style of the guy next to you- how he plays, how he communicates, what he does when he’s on the ball – mistakes can easily happen. That’s what I think we see in several of the goals conceded over the last 2 weeks. Players failing to cover for their teammates, miscommunication, assuming a task is someone else’s. It’s all there and it’s all very predictable. Lest we forget on top of a completely new defense we also have a defender in the heart of it who is virtually a rookie.
Jean Baptiste has a lot of talent and looks like he could really develop into a class defender, but he is a rookie. Rookies make mistakes. Sometimes small, sometimes big. Fortunately there is experience within the backline. Silvestre has experience in abundance and both Harrington and Ricketts are very experienced within MLS itself. This is something I think the Timbers lacked in the first two seasons. There were very few players with multiple seasons as starters in the MLS. Porter has done a great job of rectifying that. That’s also good for some of the problems this blog is addressing. Generally players who are moving within a league will be able to adapt at a quicker rate. Of the Timbers 6 new signings who started against Montreal 3 came directly from MLS teams, all boasting well over 100 MLS appearances. Miller also comes as an American with some MLS experience. Hopefully, the familiarity helps these guys to settle quickly.
The other place where I really see the sheer amount of newness in the team is in attack, specifically in and around the penalty area. The Timbers dominated possession against Montreal, a rare thing in their opening two MLS seasons. Possession was kept primarily through simple short passes. It was incredible refreshing to see, given the Timbers tendency over the last couple of seasons to panic in possession. Even defenders were playing short, simple passes to each other and into midfield. It was beautiful! The problems in attack came further up the field, usually in the final stages of an attack.
In offense you have a striker that hasn’t played with any of the players around him. Behind the attacking trio you have 3 midfielders that haven’t played with each other, and two that haven’t played with any of the guys ahead of them. It takes time to get to know each other on a football field. When it comes to attacking this really shows itself in the final third. It should be easy for any professional to complete short and mid range passes to stationary players. It should also be relatively routine to play simple passes to players on the move in the middle of the field. The most difficult passes for players to complete are those to players on the move in the final third. Whether you are pinging a cross in from out wide or trying to thread a through ball into the area there are many factors that make these kind of passes the toughest to complete. Of course many of these factors revolve around the opponents’ defense and positioning but the movement of the attacker is probably a bigger key. You have to know which direction he is going to turn, the speed at which he is going to run, when he is going to make his move, where he wants the ball played etc. When you’re just getting used to each other those things don’t come easy. Time and time again the Timbers offense broke down right around the area trying to produce one of these more technical passes. As they get to know each other and move towards being on the same wave length we should see more successful through balls and crosses and that should mean MOAR GOALS!!!
Knowing that the defense and offense should improve as they become more familiar with each other gives me hope. I hope it gives you some too… believe beyond reason! The problems we’ve seen so far, in defense and in offense, are mainly down to players forming relationships. They will learn to play together. They will get better. And… here’s hoping, and believing, they’ll defend the Cascadian Cup and qualify for the postseason!!
We’ve got a good opportunity to start on that track this weekend, heading up North to that fishing village.