Balance: Timbers seek balance in 2-2 draw with Rapids

Four games into the 2013 season and the Timbers have been behind by two goals in three of them, coming back to snatch a couple of points from the jaws of defeat.

The Timbers have also been behind by a couple of goals on their previous three trips to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, and had shown none of the determination to get back into the game that Caleb Porter’s team did this time around. Rather than go to the customary 3-0 defeat, the Timbers rallied to draw 2-2 thanks to two goals from Will Johnson.

There’s something to be said for that kind of resilience. I’m not sure we’d get it in previous season, and I certainly don’t think we’d get the tactical changes by Caleb Porter that have, mostly, worked to turn a match around in Portland’s favour.

But, there’s also something to be said for not gifting teams a couple of goals head start before trying to reel them in. The Timbers have been schizophrenic this season, with two almost entirely different sides seemingly starting and finishing the games.

To underline the disparity, if points were awarded for winning individual halves the Timbers would have zero from all the first halves, and a goal difference of 1-6, but would have won three and drawn one of the second halves, outscoring the opposition 6-2.

Losing five goals in the opening two matches, winning only one point from a home doubleheader, seems to have chastened Porter somewhat. The return to fitness of Jack Jewsbury has allowed the coach to adopt a strategy that stays true to his fundamental beliefs in ball retention and tactical flexibility while looking add a bit more defensive protection by playing the club captain as a deep lying midfielder.

Jewsbury played his part in the Timbers’ draw in Seattle, so his inclusion against Colorado came as little surprise. It seemed to make perfect sense in terms of Porter’s strategy in playing at altitude. Keeping the ball, and making the Rapids players hustle after it was a part of it, and the team played a little deeper and pressed less, presumably to conserve energy.

Chara Johnson Pressing

The problem was that we never really made Colorado work all that hard without the ball. Part of the reason was that our passing was so poor at times we simply gave them the ball back, and let them control the tempo of the game.

passes per minuteKeeping the Passes Per Minute up would’ve worked the Rapids defence and midfield hard, and the Timbers had the likes of Alhassan, Trencito and Piquionne on the bench to go after tired legs late on.

The two halves against Colorado see the Timbers record their lowest PPM this season. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the passing accuracy against the Rapids was also at an all time low. Colorado never managed a PPM of over 5 either, as the game was played at a much slower tempo than either of the home matches this season.

While much of the Timbers’ passing woes were self-inflicted, the Rapids also did a good job of pressing the Timbers backline. Porter quickly had to adjust the way the team brought the ball out of defence.

ricketts

Clearly, after seeing the pressure the Rapids were putting on in the first ten minutes, the signal went out to Ricketts to go long. A subsequent attempt to play out from the back also led to the opening goal for the Rapids in 17 minutes.

Colorado Goal 1

It’s easy to criticise Jewsbury here because he’s the guy who’s nearest, but not near enough, to the shot from Powers, so the initial question is “why didn’t he close the shot down?” Chara lending himself to harrying after the ball in the corner left Jewsbury with two players to keep an eye on, and he does what he can to close the shot down but it was a helluva strike. Do this play over again and Jewsbury gets a block in, or the ball is ballooned over the bar.

I don’t even think it’s Chara’s fault. He was doing his job in a system that asked him to be something different from moment to moment. Played in the middle with Will Johnson and Jack Jewsbury, the way the team were set up with attackin width from Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri, Chara also had to cover across to the right-side as Valeri doesn’t bring a great defensive game to an unfamiliar position on the right flank.

He was doing that there, looking to help turn the ball over in a dangerous area. The problem is that despite recognising the need to add some defensive steel to the team, Porter hasn’t yet found the right blend.

To accommodate Jewsbury in the centre, we’ve sacrificed Valeri out wide. He’s played there for a bit against Montreal and Seattle already, and not really shown his best side in the role. The quandary for Porter is that Valeri’s ability makes it tempting to rely on him too much, and that to do so would make the team too one-dimensional and risk teams developing strategies solely to “deal” with Valeri. So we want to find ways to utilise his ability in ways and areas that make it much harder for opponents to adjust to, which makes sense, but as we do so we lose much of what he brings to the attack in the meantime, with no guarantee that Valeri will ever be suited to play the wide role in an attacking three.

There have been long spells in the past couple of games where you wouldn’t have known Valeri was on the pitch. In order to get involved in the play he has to come inside, and this leaves the team unbalanced down the right, pulling Chara across.

shotsIn the last match, this made it difficult for us to carve out decent chances at goal, in the first half especially. Since switching from the 4-2-3-1 to the 4-1-2-2-1, we’ve closed up the defence a bit but lost some attacking thrust. Though we picked up a bit in the second half against the Rapids, it was still only half the number of shots we got off in the second half of the New York match.

noattacking support

Part of the problem is that Valeri isn’t a natural striker, and 26 goals in over 170 games before coming to Portland suggest he’s not the guy to make those runs. He works best in the “hole”, making the passes that pick out those attacking runs, but we’ve been unable to get him there in the past couple of matches.

It leaves Caleb Porter a selection headache and that headache’s name is Jack Jewsbury.

Part of the reason I questioned Jewsbury’s spot in the team was that I couldn’t see any way to fit him in that didn’t hurt us in some way. I put him behind Will Johnson and Diego Chara for a spot, but that’s not to say he doesn’t add to the team when he’s selected – a passing accuracy of 85% against Colorado is way above the team average, so in terms of circulating the ball well, he does okay. And I don’t blame him for the first goal for the Rapids.

However, in the 135 minutes that Jewsbury has played in the last couple of games, the Timbers have scored one and conceded three. In the 45 minutes he’s been on the bench, the Timbers are two-zero.

Clearly that’s far too small a sample to conclude anything major, and those 45 minutes have been when the Timbers a chasing down a single goal deficit, so you’d expect some more attacking play – hence Jewsbury’s removal for more attacking options of the bench.

In correcting for over-balancing in attack in the first couple of games, it seems we’ve slipped a little too far the other way. The problem, as far as I can see it, is that in fitting Jewsbury into the midfield three, we’re inevitably going to lose some of our attacking threat by asking them to do jobs they’re not best suited for.

Valeri out wide on the right didn’t work. Porter adjusted, adopting a diamond formation. Chara went right, and Valeri came back into the centre. Though this seems better designed to accommodate Jewsbury and still play Valeri in his best position, it then asked Nagbe to play a role he’s not suited to.

We’ve seen Darlington used in a variety of positions as Spencer tried to figure out how best to use him. For me, Nagbe’s key area is that area left of centre, 30 yards from goal. That’s where you want to see Nagbe getting his head up, with the ball at his feet, and running at defenders. You don’t want him 50 yards from goal, linking up play, though he can do that, and I don’t think you want it spearheading the attack. As I said, he’s a guy I want running at players with the ball, not timing runs in behind them.

If anyone knows how to get the best out of Nagbe, it’ll be Caleb Porter. He’s put him out left thus far, asking him to make those diagonal runs at goal. Somewhat underrated is Nagbe’s defensive game – he works hard out wide, and his tracking back is night and day to that of the Timbers’ other mercurial wide attacker, Kalif Alhassan.

He’s not a striker though, and Piquionne isn’t here to watch Nagbe play that position ahead of him too often this season.

Valeri OptionsAs well as playing Nagbe out of position, the diamond doesn’t really offer Valeri as many options around him as the 4-2-3-1 does.

The diamond really limits your wide attacking options, and puts a lot on the full-backs to do the leg work. Ryan Johnson will also drift wide to add to the threat, but with the 4-2-3-1 the opposition have to deal with runs either side of the full-back and a mobile striker.

To be fair, it was from Johnson (Ryan) drifting out wide that the Timbers got back into the game, after a somewhat questionable penalty decision had put the Rapids up 2-0. Johnson (Ryan) crossed a sweet left-footed ball to the near post, where Johnson (Will) lost his man to head home.

A case could be made that the value of playing a designated sitter in Jewsbury is that it frees Will Johnson and Diego Chara to be a little more forward thinking and spontaneous, but I didn’t see enough of this from either player to compensate for losing the extra attacker to play Captain Jack.

The problem is that despite being there to add defensive steel to the team, as long as there are issues behind Jack, goals will be lost despite him.

David Horst started in place of Mikael Silvestre, the only change from the Seattle game. Horst’s game is a little different to Silvestre’s, and perhaps not as suited to the possession style Porter wanted, especially as the Rapids harried the backline.

silvestrehorst

The natural assumption to make would be that Horst is 3rd in line, and that Silvestre will resume duties alongside Andrew Jean-Baptiste. That makes sense as Jean-Baptiste has started the season fairly well, and has most to learn from playing alongside Silvestre. There are still moments where his relative rawness is all too apparent, such as the lead up to Colorado’s second goal.

Colorado Goal 2 AJB header

It’s a bit of rash play from a rookie defender, though I wonder if he does that with the Silvestre guiding him. The next time a similar ball comes across, I’m sure he makes the right choice. That’s part of the learning process, and it can be cruel at times but as long as they’re all new mistakes, and not the same ones over and over, then at least you’re learning from them.

Mosquera’s leave of absence puts a large question mark over his future, and Futty Danso looks to have fallen behind Dylan Tucker-Gangnes. I can’t help but bring to mind the scenes of David Brent in The Officfe specials, turning up at the old office uninvited when I think of Futty. *sadface*

So, a veteran, a couple of rookies and a host of guys who served time on one of the league’s worst defences last season. It’s not rich pickings, and finding the right balance and system that minimises our defensive deficiencies without also sacrificing our attacking verve isn’t going to be done in a few games.

Is Jack Jewsbury the answer? I’m not sure he is, but the fact is the Timbers return from two tricky road trips unbeaten. Can’t say that’s been the case too often. That we’re still doing things the hard way is concerning, though. It may be that until we settle on a back five, and they start to find a rhythm together, we’ll see more performances like this.

It comes as no real surprise though. I wrote before the season that I thought we’d see a more pragmatic approach from Porter early on. It was easy in those days to get carried away with videos from Akron and speculation about what Porter would bring to the Timbers.

As Caleb Porter himself has noted, it’s a results business at the end of the day. I don’t think the Timbers would be over the top in their expectations for this season given the scale of the turnover, but there’s no reason why they can’t find themselves in contention for being one of the five best of nine Western Conference teams.

These early months will see a lot of tinkering and experimentation to find the right balance, but if the Timbers are to reach the playoffs, they need to stay in contention through a very tough schedule. The next four matches see the Timbers play 2012 playoff teams. If the Timbers have grind out some wins through the next eight games or so, there’s no reason why they can’t push on as the schedule eases up through the run-in.

With two home matches coming up, Caleb Porter has the chance to spend that extra bit of time with the players on some issues. How Porter lines up will tell us a lot about how far along the coach himself feels the team are. We could see Jewsbury start, and give the diamond another go, or perhaps at the expense of Diego Chara who has been at about 85% of his old Chara-ness for me – still better than most, but just a little down of his usual standards. Perhaps we’ll see Alhassan recalled, or Piquionne start with Johnson going wide, and we revert to the 4-2-3-1.

I suspect what we’re seeing right now is the very reason Jack Jewsbury is still on the roster. He’s not the future of the team, and his presence is somewhat awkward is some respects, but he can help with the transition towards the team that the Timbers will be.

The Porter era was labeled “Timbers 2.0” by some, but really what he have right now is more a pre-release Alpha. Timbers 2.0 will actually be launched sometime during Q2 or Q3 of 2013.

It’d be nice to win, and damn entertaining, to win 4-3, but right now I’d take a scrappy 1-0 with the ball cannoning in off a defender’s knee as long as it represents a step towards a bright future without having to sacrifice results.

19 thoughts on “Balance: Timbers seek balance in 2-2 draw with Rapids

  1. I am hoping that we turn it around by the 2nd half of the season. But I am not sure if Ricketts is going to be the keeper for us by then. He has given up 7 goals in the first 4 games.

    1. I’m not as down on Ricketts. I think he’s okay, but I think his signing was more a clearing of the deck to make way for Gleeson to come through. I think the signing of Kocic is an indication that maybe Gleeson isn’t where the coaching team thought he’d be by now, but I think the move for Ricketts was more about ridding the team of a longer term deal with Perkins without a big drop in performance, so that Gleeson could go into 2014 ready to be the number one.

      1. Do you think Porter rates Gleeson as a potential starting keeper? I’ve personally never seen enough of him to give me a lot of confidence, though I know he’s struggled with injuries and has had precious little time in front of goal to improve. Would a loan be a good idea for him, if it’s clear that Kocic is now healthy?

      2. The only sense I can make for the Perkins/Ricketts trade, in a playing sense at least, and have the Timbers come out in credit is that we were make a trade was perhaps marginally detrimental in terms of performance, but would save money in the medium-to-long term and be an easier transition to Gleeson than trying to drop an in-his-prime Troy Perkins. I think Kocic is an insurance signing – not as good as Ricketts, but better than Bendik and able to step in if, when, Ricketts gets injured if Gleeson isn’t/won’t-ever-be ready.

      3. I keep wondering if keeping David Meves around is an indication they’re actually trying to shop Gleeson? Get him healthy, get him some exposure, and find a new home for him. Agree about Kocic as a backup for an injured Ricketts, if, if, but wonder if Porter really sees Gleeson as the future? Certainly, that’s what we all thought in 2011. 2012 brought many other things to bear. Porter is very high on Meves. Hmmm….

      4. When we traded for Ricketts there was a lot made about the Jamaican being a better mentor figure. We had a couple of fairly young keepers in Gleeson and Bendik then. We don’t really hear about him in those terms anymore and Bendik has gone, traded for the older Milos Kocic.

        Perhaps it’s injuries, or perhaps Porter isn’t as big on Gleeson as Wilkinson was/is, but for whatever reason I get the sense that Kocic was signed because Gleeson wasn’t as far along as the management would’ve hoped but the team need a contingency plan should Ricketts get hurt or we need a solid keeper to hold the fort next season until, say, Meves is ready to be put in.

      5. You know, in retrospect, that rationale doesn’t hold. Perkins is doing quite nicely – why would the FO want to drop him for Gleeson at all, especially in the 2013 season? It seemed to me that we had a potentially solid goalie for the next several years, and we gave that up for a goalie who isn’t better by the numbers now, more expensive, and who everyone assumes will be out soon, meaning we’ll have to find someone else. There’s just nothing about this trade that makes a lot of sense, especially when you add in Ricketts’ lack of yelling on the field and his being an introvert. C’mon – you want someone to mentor young goalies, I’m sorry, but I don’t see him as that guy. It’s not his personality, and that’s fine – but we shouldn’t ask him to do it.

      6. The front office was big, real big, on Gleeson as a future Timbers keeper back in 2011. When the move was made for Ricketts we got the whole “mentor” talk which seemed to be a sign that they were still looking towards Gleeson as the future. Since then, we’ve gone out and signed Kocic and seem really keen on Meves, and there’s very little talk of Gleeson. Maybe Jake is still the guy, but reading between the lines it seems to me that Porter isn’t super-keen on Gleeson – at least in the short-to-medium term – and so we’ve got in a steady MLS keeper in Kocic and are looking at another young keeper in Meves.

        We don’t know all the terms of Perkins’ and Ricketts’ contracts. Yeah, we can look at the salary figures that are released, but really those are just a snapshot and don’t really represent the “bottom line” figure that each player hits. What I’d guess went down, and it is just a guess, is that in Perkins we had a keeper who was on a large salary for multiple years. Also, it has to be said, he was good but not great in 2012 (though he went on to be great with Montreal, but there you go). So the brain trust (and the talk is that the Perkins trade was the first deal with Porter’s fingerprints on it) got together and crunched the numbers.

        They had a young keeper they want to bring through, but a (reasonably) young and well paid keeper in the way. In a league where keepers are generally underpaid, there’s very little room in the cap for a highly-experienced, well=paid reserve. You’re right that Perkins is doing well, and could be good for a few years yet, but I really think the FO took the gamble that Perkins was on the slide from 2011 and that they could ship off his multi-year guaranteed salary for a slightly-bigger hit for a shorter term (saving money over 2-3 years, bearing in mind Montreal picked up the difference in salary for last season – this year is the first year we’re paying Ricketts’ full salary) and bring through (a potentially better than both) Gleeson under Ricketts’ stewardship without having to deal with an unhappy experienced keeper with a couple of years left on his deal to bite.

        I’m not saying they got it right. I don’t think there’s much between Ricketts and Perkins in ability, though Perkins has age on his side, and the subsequent moves in the keeper position would suggest that we left Plan A behind a while ago.

        The only other reasons I can think the FO make this move and it not be about clearing a path for a younger keeper to assume the role in 2013/2014 is that either a) the front office really do believe that Ricketts is flat-out better than Perkins, b) there was a big personality clash with Perkins or c) Gavin got drunk with the Montreal GM and woke up the next day with no recollection of the deal, but pride made him double down on the “upgrade”. a) I don’t think the FO really believe, b) doesn’t seem to fit what little we know about Troy, but who knows, and c) well, we did also get Fucito from the Impact, so I’d suggest that the Timbers staff don’t leave their drinks unattended when Impact FO are around, just to be safe.

      7. Thank you so much for the reasonable answer to my comment and not just calling me a bozo. I don’t hate Ricketts but I am still having a hard time feeling like the end result of the trade for Ricketts being beneficial for the Timbers.

    2. I’ve been wondering for the last two games why with three CDMs we have jewsbury central in front of the CBs and chara farther out on the right. Chara looks comparatively bad out wider and jewsbury is able to play right defense? Why have JJ central and Chara out, why not flip them?

      1. Also along those same lines, I noticed that when Wallace came on for Jack, they continued with the diamond shape, but instead of using Chara at the base, they moved Will Johnson back there. It seemed that was the deal in pre-season as well, with Will Johnson and the base and Chara on the right in one game in arizona. Will seems a bit more effective going forward than Chara so you’d expect him to play a bit further forward, i.e. on the right, is it a positional discipline thing? As chara does seem to move side to side a lot more than Jack or even Will, who will stay in the center. Just looking for your take on that one Kevin.

      2. Maybe Porter’s seeing the same things now, especially with Will scoring two goals. Remember, Porter’s still trying to figure everyone out. Maybe from here on, he’ll stick Chara in the back and make Will more offensive-minded. I can’t wait to see how they come out for the Houston game.

  2. Is Jack Jewsbury the team scoring and assists leader only because he did the set pieces and Portland was so good at them? What happens if you were to move Jack forward to pair with Valeri as playmakers while moving Charra back as more of a stopper in front of the back four?

    Or is Jack’s presence what is keeping the back four afloat, at least until Silvestre’ finds his legs?

    I am curious to hear ideas why Portland has dropped so significantly as a threat on set pieces. Is it just a personnel issue? or does Porter’s style do something to reduce our effectiveness on the corner? Frankly, after Valeri’s wundergoal in preseason I expected to see us scoring more from set pieces than ever before. That doesn’t seem to have happened.

    I am also intrigued as to how much the wind was a factor in the Colorado game. It seemed to make a mockery of both keepers and worked sporadically to cause high balls to hang like fireworks.

    As usual, well written and informative. Thank you.

    1. Kevin can give much better answers than I can, but in the interest of generating discussion:

      Jack started out strong the first half of the timbers’ inaugural MLS season scoring-wise, but it tapered off pretty quickly, and yes, he did get a lot of assists via the set pieces, which seemed to be our main method of scoring early on. He even made the all-star team that first year.

      IIRC, Sigi made lamenting reference to our set-piece prowess that season (as in, “they can only score via set pieces.” Spencer’s response to that was one of his finest moments 🙂

      the thought of moving Jack forward is likely to give me nightmares tonight – no, please 🙂 Jack is past his prime and should only be seeing the field due to injuries, IMHO. I think Chara could do the job Jack’s being asked to do right now, and do it better.

      I admit it’s easy for me to pontificate on this as I’m not responsible for road results. But I would have loved to have seen what a similar lineup and strategy to what we showed at home could have done in CO on Saturday.

      I agree that Valeri hasn’t been as strong on set pieces and especially in taking corners as i initially thought. He did have a near-miss that hit or nearly hit the woodwork recently though – vs Seattle or Montreal?

      1. Ok, here is my question. What is the evidence that “Jack is past his prime”? Surely the age isn’t the only factor, in that there is very little difference in age between Jewsbury and some of those recently brought onto the squad. I think I recall that Jack is within six months of Troy Perkins in age. . .

        Has there been a visible, even quantifiable lag in his performance on the field? Or is it possible that Jewsbury is suffering a bit by being identified with the “old” Portland program. . . the “pre-Spencer” team, even? That has only been three years, though, which is not a huge amount of time in terms of human biology.

        I see a player who is still able to play for 90 minutes, who still gets his share of the tackles, who still hustles up and down the field–instead of forcing others to assume his responsibilities half of the time.

        But as always, I am willing to concede my eye is untrained. Is there something in Jack Jewsbury’s play that says “time for retirement” or is this a matter of playing style or even guilt-by-association?

        To me, Kris Boyd looked ready for retirement, even though he was younger in paper age. He walked whenever he could, and seemed to be careful to take every opportunity to rest. Jewsbury on the other hand, seems to still run with the other players, whether through experience or fitness he doesn’t seem to be getting burned one-on-one, and he does seem to be still running when called off the field, that is, he is not blowing and kneeling on the ground between whistles.

        So what am I missing? What should we look for to tell whether a player is still able to perform? What is it about Piquionne that makes him much “younger” than Jewsbury?

        I am beginning to feel like a Jewsbury defender, although I don’t feel that way. I guess I am more puzzled by the comments about him than I am convinced of his youth and vitality. How could you know when a player is ready for a fill-in role?

        What makes the difference in age for a player? Is it all reaction time, or plain speed, or is there something else that makes a footballer too old?

      2. I don’t think Jewsbury is finished, but I do think we saw a few months of the very best from Jack Jewsbury, and a season and a half of a solid, dependable MLS defensive midfielder. His set plays were arguably the defining feature of that early Timbers team, but they regressed to the mean and now we have Valeri taking everything. Until the All-Star break in 2011, Jewsbury played every single minute for the Timbers, and had scored five and assisted on six. In the season and a half since then, Jewsbury has scored five and assisted on six.

        The signing of Will Johnson knocks Jewsbury down the pecking order, and before the season kicked off, I thought Jack’s chances of getting into the team would be reliant on unseating Diego Chara. Given the way he filled in at right-back last season, he adds versatility and flexibility even if he’s bringing less to the attacking side of the game now.

        I’m sure there’s at least a couple of seasons, if not more, in Jewsbury but, for me, I don’t think his abilities are the kind you build a team around as much as you utilise them when the need arises. We’re looking to shut things down at the back, and need a good passer to fill that role, and so Jack goes in. I think he’s done okay, but the problems the team are having in conceding goals stem from the back four. There’s only so much he can do about individual errors around him, and while he’s there and we’re having to fit the three central midfielders in, we’re losing some attacking penetration.

  3. I feel a bit cheated in the loss of our “never received a PK decision” status. Sure it led us to a comeback away at Colorado, but I had fantacized our first PK would do something like allowing us a win away at Seattle. . .

    Or alternatively, that we would have missed the attempt, thus still giving us half a claim to the title. I guess this team has spoiled me already for 2-0 comebacks–they don’t seem quite as special as they used to be. . .

    1. Just think what our team record would be if we had been awarded the should have been called penalties?

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