It’s easy, in the warm afterglow of a 2-0 victory, to look back and think “of course the Timbers would do that“, but it never looked that obvious or simple going into the game against Houston. This really looked like a big test of Caleb Porter, coming hot on the heels of a tough trip to Colorado.
That game wasn’t pretty, but Porter has shown that even at this early stage he’s not afraid to change things up from week to week. After starting the same XI in the opening two home games, he’s made five line-up changes in the next three games, the same number John Spencer made in the first five games of 2011 and 2012. In the Scot’s first year he played the same line-up from game to game on two occasions, and two of his line-up changes were forced by injuries, so there was a sense that he was pretty settled on his ideal team and system early on. Porter’s changes post-loss to Montreal have been the clearest contrast to the “old ways” – he’s showing a willingness to adapt and change to find the right mix for that particular game. It didn’t work against Colorado, but it would work back at Jeld-Wen Field.
Thinking back to that debut season, game five was the Timbers’ second win of the season, beating Dallas 3-2. Things were looking good after a shaky start. In the next five games the Timbers would play a settled XI on three occasions, with the three players introduced to the starting XI being Troy Perkins, Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe. After ten games, the Timbers had a perfect home record, with five wins from five. The record wouldn’t last eleven games, and the Timbers would lose six of the next seven and kiss goodbye to the playoffs.
I don’t know that we’ll see such a settled selection from Porter. Certainly, the injuries in this match aren’t part of the plan and Horst’s in particular puts a real strain on the backline. I’m sure Tucker-Gangnes is a big part of Porter’s plan, but I don’t think it’s this soon as he seems the ideal candidate to do what Andrew Jean-Baptiste did last season and get a spell on loan before being thrown into the mix against experienced strikers. Does anyone think Futty Danso is the solution?
There’s still time till the end of the transfer window for the Timbers to add to the defence, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Timbers experiment there, even if just for a spell at the end of a (hopefully comfortably won) game. With confusion surrounding the long-term status of Hanyer Mosquera, the likelihood being that Mosquera is a Timber no more, perhaps getting another defender in was already part of the plan.
The Houston match already featured a change in the centre of defence, the second in two weeks. Silvestre returned to partner David Horst, but Porter’s big change was to introduce Rodney Wallace to the starting line-up, with Ben Zemanski sitting this one out. Jack Jewsbury dropped back into the right-back role he held for a spell last year – a run of matches that included victories against Seattle and San Jose. I had come to think that today would be a great opportunity to introduce Wallace to the first XI, but I had him replacing Diego Chara in the same 4-3-3 that been deployed since Jewsbury’s return to the team. My thoughts were that Wallace offered a little more in attack, something we needed to support the attacking three and I worried that Diego Chara would get drawn into a kicking match with the Dynamo midfield, and that that could lead to the Timbers putting themselves in trouble.
Shows why I write a blog and Caleb Porter coaches a Major League Soccer club. Porter kept Chara in the side, and the Colombian had the kind of game that alerted those outside the #RCTID bubble to just how good we already knew he was.
Rather than slot Wallace in alongside Will Johnson in midfield, Porter returned to the 4-2-3-1 with Wallace playing on the left and Darlington Nagbe going right. This brought Diego Valeri back into the centre where he could be more effective.
I was a little surprised to see the team return to this formation as it had caused the team problems in the opening couple of matches, leaving the team short in the middle and exposed on the flanks, but Porter countered this by playing an asymmetrical formation where the left was more your “traditional” wing, with a wing-back pushing up to support and overlap the attacking midfielder, and the right saw Nagbe given license to roam inside knowing that Jack Jewsbury would sit back and cover the space behind.
Jewsbury took his place in a back five that had a combined age of 155, with the return of Mikael Silvestre to the defence alongside David Horst. There can be few Timbers backlines that have carried such a wealth of experience, and it told throughout the match. The way the team were lined-up, it essentially took more of a 3-3-3-1 shape in possession, with the most experienced and best technical players on the outside of the three at the back
The Dynamo made their intentions clear early on with a very physical approach. I’m sure this came as little surprise to the Timbers, and early on the team did well to get their passing rhythm going despite the close attentions of their opponents.
It was the interplay of Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe that gave me most hope in those early stages.
Without a proper outside-right threat down that flank, it was up to Valeri and Nagbe to work it between them, with occaisional support from Chara or Jewsbury. The Timbers worked their first shot in the game in eight minutes from a move started by a pass from Nagbe to Valeri that also displayed the early tempo and rhythm the Timbers had to their passing and movement.
F-ing the P-word
For all the expectation, or at least hope, that Porters arrival will see the start of a real blossoming of young talent, I think his greatest job in this first year will be in getting an improvement from guys who are running out of time to fulfill their potential. Rodney Wallace being a prime case in point. He’ll be 25 in June, but has thus far failed to hold down a position in the starting line-up. It’s been hard to see where Wallace’s best position is. Is he a left-back, or a winger, or is he a central midfielder? We’ve seen him play well, and we’ve seen him play not-so-well , in all these positions but he’s never really gone out and stamped himself upon a role on a consistent basis.
Porter’s answer, so far, is that Wallace is all of those things, and none of them. He can cover at any one of them, and do well, which makes him very valuable in a system where he’ll have to do them all, often in the course of a few minutes. One start, and four sub appearances are too soon to call whether Wallace will be one of the defining stories of 2013, but he certainly brings something new to the table. Including a functioning left foot. Are you taking notes, Mr Nagbe?
In the same bracket as Rodney Wallace are guys like Kalif Alhassan and, to an extent, David Horst. Kalif started the season in the line-up, but dropped out on the road. His return to the team here was in far from ideal circumstances, replacing Diego Valeri when his face got up-close and personal with Taylor’s elbow.
A quick word on that foul. Yes, it wasn’t nice and when someone has to go off with such an obvious injury of their face, you kinda assume that someone would have to be booked for that, but going by US Soccer’s guidance on the difference between reckless and careless tackles (one being deemed caution-worthy, the other not) you can see how the ref would see Taylor’s actions as careless than reckless. I’m inclined to agree, for what it’s worth, though it’s never nice to see one of your guys on the receiving end. Still, I wonder if there’s a Dynamo blog starting a campaign to get Taylor a red card?
Alhassan did well when he replaced Valeri, and it helped the team that the three behind Johnson all knew each other well already. I don’t doubt Alhassan’s ability, but getting consistency out of him would give the Timbers a potent threat across the attack.
I feel for Horst as it looked like he had a chance to establish himself in the first team, but his injury means he’s now going to be out for months. If the Timbers do sign another defender, you wonder where that leaves Horst because I doubt Porter would want a mere stopgap signing. He’s 27 and has only started 35 MLS matches – of the 9 MLS veterans in the starting team, Horst had the fewest top level starts. There’s no reason why Horst couldn’t have another six or seven years in him, but it’s going to be tough for him losing so much time with a new head coach.
Probably the biggest example of a guy who’s potential has been touted, but needs to start cashing the cheques his early hype was writing is Darlington Nagbe. When Valeri exited proceedings, Nagbe moved into the central role. I had hoped to see Alhassan there as I think his ability to do something even he didn’t expect could be the key to unlock the Dynamo defence, but Nagbe seemed to take the added responsibility on his shoulders and did well in the role.
It was, by far, his most mature persformance for the Timbers. There have been better games, but today we saw a player step up a level and, after a rocky spell as Houston “harried” at the start of the second half, Nagbe settled into his role and didn’t look like the rookie who would try and force something to happen and disappear into his shell if it didn’t.
Despite a little wobble after the injury to Horst, after which the Dynamo forced a few set piece chances, the Timbers controlled the first half in terms of possession, in spite of some, ahem, forceful pressing by the Dynamo. I’m not opposed to physical play, it was pretty much the only play I had growing up watching Scottish football, pre-Sky TV, but there’s a line where physical can cross over into dangerous and it’s up to the ref to draw that line, and draw it early. I don’t think Ricardo Salazar did that, and it just emboldened Houston to keep it up to the point that I’m just happy we got through the second half without anyone else leaving significantly more broken than when they stepped on the field, routine potential Donovan Ricketts injury aside.
To the Timbers credit though, they stood up to the challenge. Not many clubs would’ve lost two starters, including the guy who was being billed as your playmaker, and come through to win by two goals. They did it by standing toe to toe with Houston when the game got scrappy, losing only 51% of duels, which helped limit Houston to only one shot on target.
The second half began with Portland controlling the tempo of the game, forcing Houston to defend on the edge of their own penalty box as they probed for a way through. The visitors were limited to one shot at goal from distance by the Ghost of Rosters Past, Adam Moffat, which skidded past Ricketts’ left hand post.
Defensively the team relied on the experience of Jewsbury and Silvestre to cover for Jean-Baptsite, who’d replaced Horst. AJB has a big future, but he’s still raw and as important as knowing when to put the young players in is to a coach’s ability to develop talent, so is knowing when to pull them for their own good, whether it’s to protect them, or keep their feet on the ground.
Jean-Baptiste most likely has a run of games ahead of him now, and a chance to prove that he’s ready for a starting role now. I’m pleased to see his progression as I thought he was a talent in those first games last season and while he still has plenty of rough edges, he has tons of MLS and international experience around him now. I certainly hope he does it as I’d rather be answering the question of who replaces Silvestre in a year or so than still wondering whether Jean-Baptiste is ready.
Plan B: Just like Plan A, but with goals.
The Timbers created their first good chance early on when Nagbe worked a give-and-go with Wallace but tried awkwardly to wrap his right foot round a ball that was screaming out for a left foot to stroke it past the keeper. The run, and the instinct to get forward were great, but the finish was lacking, and probably underlines why he’s not a guy to lead the line as, despite being a scorer of spectacular goals, his best work goes in before the finish.
Then, 53 minutes and 34 seconds into play, Kalif Alhassan battles to win back a ball in right midfield, near the halfway line. He’s knocks it all the way back to Ricketts. The keeper surveys his options before going wide left to Silvestre. Silvestre forward to Harrington on the touchline, and then back to the ex-Arsenal man. He goes cross-field to Jewsbury, and gets it back from the right-back before he knocks it forward to Harrington again. This time the left-back has time and space and picks a ball down the line to Wallace, who knocks it back to Harrington. The ball crosses the backline to Jewsbury via Jean-Baptiste and a quick give-and-return with Alhassan is the first time the ball has crossed the halfway line.
Jewsbury rolled it Jean-Baptiste, who passed it on to Silvestre, before the ball was returned back to Jewsbury. Like they had with Harrington down the left, they’d worked the ball around for a second look at the Houston flanks, this time working down their left. This time Jewsbury played it inside to Chara who, with a bit of luck, worked a give and go with Nagbe and then sent over a truly magnificent cross for Ryan Johnson to finish. Twenty passes across seventy seconds of possession with purpose, culminating in a fantastic cross and goal. Every Timbers player except Will Johnson touched the ball in the build-up and the cross a thing of beauty that no screencaps would suffice to describe. Just go watch it again. The whole move. Welcome to the 2013 Timbers, this should be fun.
With the lead for the first time this season, the Timbers went for the jugular. In the period between the two goals, the Timbers maintained a pass accuracy of 82% and had upped the tempo from 6 passes per minute before the first goal to 9.6 after it. There would be no attempt to bunker down on a one goal lead here.
The Timbers still committed four players to the attack, confident that a back three with Harrington moving between attack and defence, and the Chara-Johnson partnership in the middle screening them would take care of any Dynamo threat.
Wallace struck the bar with a blast from distance that would’ve been fine reward for his work before Ryan Johnson got his second of the night, and put the result, even so early, beyond any real doubt. That second goal came about when Nagbe won the ball, and worked a couple of passes with Alhassan before releasing Johnson free of the offside trap. Johnson finished it like a 20 goal a season striker, and Caleb Porter could breathe a little more easily.
Houston had a bit more possession after the 2nd goal, but they never really threatened Ricketts’ goal, and it was Portland who went closest to scoring the game’s third when Nagbe went close after a fine pass by Alhassan put him in.
The second half performance from Portland is as good as I can remember from the Kings of Cascadia. They were assured and focused, and determined not to be out-fought in ways that they precisely haven’t been in the last couple of years.
The fact it came with Valeri is all the more remarkable. Where the team looked a little rattled and off the boil in the minutes after Horst’s injury, the injury to Valeri seems to have galvanised the team into even greater efforts.
A number of guys came into the team, or into new roles, and gave good accounts of themselves. Jewsbury was the calm head at the right-back that we knew he would be, and his lack of pace was never really exposed as the defence put in their best shift of the season by far. Where this leaves Zemanski and Miller in the short-term at least is in the air, though we can’t even be sure that Porter will play the same system against San Jose, despite it working here. We’ve seen Spencer fall into that trap in the past, and I’m sure Porter won’t want to make the same mistakes.
Nagbe grew into the “number ten” role as the game went on, and while I’m sure Valeri still heads the queue in that particular position, Darlington sent out a message loud and clear that he can step up and fulfill that function really well. Alhassan’s showing after coming on was the kind of performance you want to shake out of Kalif more often.
Wallace was my man of the match. There wasn’t much in it, but I felt that he added a lot to both sides of the ball in a role that asked him to wear a lot of different hats. He was given a chance in this game, and he snatched it up with both hands. Let’s see if he can build on this.
Porter goes into the next double-header against San Jose with two very different selection headaches. One on hand, the sudden lack of depth at centre back is a big concern, perhaps not on a game-to-game basis, but the risk of disaster is ever present. On the other, he has a lot of guys playing well and pushing for spots on the team.
Spencer’s Timbers peaked between April and May of 2011, and would never really hit those heights again. Porter’s job will be to make sure his team peak in October and November, and performances like this lead me to believe that we are certainly on the right path.
Believe beyond reason was the mantra of last year. Believe with reason is my mantra for this.