Six Degrees: Kansas City

A few quick thoughts on the Portland Timbers  3-2 win over Sporting Kansas City.

1) Man oh man, it’s good to be a Timbers fan right now, isn’t it?  Each and every week, it seems we prove something new.  This time, we proved we can win on the road.  And not against some chumps, either.  This was against one of the best teams in the league.  And we didn’t steal those 3 points.  We earned them.  We were the better team.

Absolutely amazing, isn’t it?  Such a change from last year.  We’re no longer the loveable losers.  We’re contenders, now.  Legitimate contenders.

2) In last week’s column, I was a grumpy old man, up in arms over the team’s late-game bunkering.  Since then, enough people have argued against me, trying to teach me something about soccer, that I’m starting to question myself.  Yes, maybe our “bunkering” is really just the other team getting desperate and throwing numbers forward.  Maybe our boys are doing the best they can, surviving the onslaught.  I may be willing to concede this point.  Maybe.

But there were still a few times against KC that I thought the Bunker Monster had returned.  Not as bad as at San Jose, but still, it felt a little bunker-ish.  I’ve got one more thought on this matter and then I’ll move on: Frederic Piquionne is an excellent late-game sub, especially if we’ve got the lead and our defense is under siege.  He’s a big target and he’s outstanding 1v1.  When the other team’s sending everything forward and our defense is just trying to clear the ball out of danger, Freddy gets on the end of those deep, desperate clearances, then has the strength and skill to hold onto that ball a good long while.  Heck, he even gets close to a few shots on goal.  The other team has to give him a little attention, which means a little less pressure on our tired, besieged, late-game defense.  I’m not sure we should be starting Piquionne, not when he’s this valuable as an end-of-game sub.

3) Since I’m talking about Piquionne, let’s do some quick hits on a few other players.

Diego Valeri – He sees things other players just don’t.  It’s like he’s playing in slow-motion or something.  Smooth as silk.

Ryan Johnson – I love his work rate, I love his first-goal header, and I want to marry his second-goal assist.

Darlington Nagbe –  Could his goal have been any cooler?  That pass was slightly behind him and he somehow throws his feet backwards to tap it in.  Backwards!

Rodney Wallace – When the guy brings it, he brings it in a big way.  Huge shot from distance.  Fabulous goal while being crunched forward and behind.  Tons of energy.

Diego Chara – He’s short, he’s hard, he’s got a yellow card, and he’s tied for the league lead in assists.  Who’da thunk it?

4) So let’s talk about the improvements we’re seeing from so many players.  The guy next to me at the bar was talking about how everyone looks “so much smarter” this year.  I agree completely.  But why?  Have they really learned so much more from Caleb Porter and his possession-based style?  Or did they already know all this, they just didn’t have a chance to show it?  I imagine it’s a little of both, really.  But whatever the reason, we Timbers fans are the beneficiaries.  This is a team that is fun to watch.  The style of play is so much more attractive.  Even better, when we win, it doesn’t feel lucky.  We’ve become a team that should win.

5) Now, I’m gonna say something a little dangerous here, so please don’t freak out, but I think we have to give some credit to general manager Gavin Wilkinson.  Yes, yes, we may not like him much, but we have to acknowledge what he’s done.

Our current success didn’t begin on opening day.  It didn’t even begin when Caleb Porter finally left Akron and landed at PDX.  No, our team started changing almost as soon as we fired John Spencer mid-season.  From that point on, everything Wilkinson did was about building a “Porterball” team.  Caleb Porter, still coaching at Akron, was able to watch our games, analyze the tape, and tell Wilkinson what kind of changes needed to happen and what sort of players he needed.  Gavin could have fought him, but he didn’t.  Instead, he broke down the old and built up the new.  I am perfectly prepared to give Caleb Porter most of the credit.  He’s the architect.  But he couldn’t have done it without a lot of front office help.  Thanks, Gavin.

6) Maybe the biggest thing I love about this year’s team are the intangibles.  Let’s count them off: We’ve got leadership, both from the coach and from the captains.  We’ve got a united locker room.  We’ve got young players making strides.  We’ve got cagey veterans, showing them the way.  We’ve got an over-arching philosophy, and we stick to it.  We can adjust tactics, whether it’s week-to-week or half-to-half.  We’re even-keeled.  We’re scrappy.  We never, ever give up.

A few weeks ago, I predicted playoffs for this team and got a little guff about it.  “Playoffs?” they said.  “So soon?  I’ll be happy with just improving.”

Well, I’m making the same prediction now, folks, and I don’t see how anyone can argue against me.  Barring a major slew of injuries, this team is going to the playoffs.  And I don’t they’re sneaking in, either.  I think they’re a top-3 seed.

With our new coach, new system, and new players, everyone thought we’d have a rough time of it early.  We’d take our lumps, slowly improve, and then start climbing out of the cellar.  By the end of the year, maybe we’d be a mid-table team.

Well, here it is, people.  We’ve taken our lumps, yes.  We’ve slowly improved, yes.   But we’re not in the cellar.  We’ve got the sixth best record in the league.  And we just beat KC on the road.

You’re not rooting for a loveable loser anymore, Portland.  You’re rooting for a contender.

Feels good, doesn’t it?

21 thoughts on “Six Degrees: Kansas City

  1. “The guy next to me at the bar was talking about how everyone looks ‘so much smarter’ this year. I agree completely. But why? Have they really learned so much more from Caleb Porter and his possession-based style? Or did they already know all this, they just didn’t have a chance to show it?”

    The difference in play between the previous two seasons and this year, the difference in play between the Timbers and all other MLS teams is the set tactical work executed by Caleb Porter which is built on top of his perception of how the game should be played. Without a philosophical framework and the proper execution of set tactical work in training there is no coaching. This is absent from coaching in the US from youth to pro and is one of the biggest barriers to developing our youth players and developing the MLS. We are lucky to have Caleb Porter here in Portland, but lets not settle just yet. There are many players available with a higher tactical ceiling that would make Portland absolutely dominant in the MLS.

    1. How long before the USMNT comes calling?

      I know he had troubles with the U-23 squad, but after all this MLS experience, he’s a different coach now.

      1. I don’t know that he’s a different coach; I think he’s the exact same coach that made a few mistakes, combined with a half a dozen fluke plays that lead to a bad showing. Watching a replay of one of the U-23 games, I don’t see much different in his tactics (perhaps they didn’t press the ball forward quite enough)

        It just takes more than 2 games to pick up a style and method of playing. Look at the Timbers after 2 regular season games; the exact same record that the USMNT had. Much like the Olympic qualifiers, we saw a lot of missed passes; a lot of *glitches*. We’re seeing less of that (though some might say still a little too much). We’re seeing through balls get through.

        We may well not make the playoffs this year, but I’d be elated if we did! This thing we’re building? It’s a 2-3 year project. Jewsberry is doing his Job at Back, but he’s not a long term solution; We need another Harrington. Nagbe still needs to figure out if he’s a support man or the scoring machine we want him to be. Baptiste needs a bit more time to Gel, and if we keep losing Centerbacks to injury, we’re gonna need another Silvestre.

        That said; we’re playing much better this year, and seeing the progress 2012 was supposed to bring.


  2. Feels weird. Every game there is a moment when I think, “Here we go, the wheels are coming off.” Except they never do. Looking at April, if you had told me that we’d walk out of those 4 games with 10 of 12 points I’d have either called you a liar or chuckled at your naive optimism. Faith, once lost, is hard to restore. However Caleb and the boys are slowly turning me around.
    Addendum: Teams thought Jeld -Wen was loud before? The team keeps winning our opponents are going to need a new definition of ‘loud’.

  3. I used to sing “we’re gonna win the league, we’re gonna win the league! as soon as f***ing Gavin leaves we’re going to win the league!!!”. I am now singing the original verse saying “I don’t know how, I don’t know when but we’re going to win the league!” I think Gavin has done well to make the number of changes we made this offseason and keep things within the salary cap guidelines. Porter seems to have the ability to see what pieces we need and to make them fit together, something that was never Gavin’s strong suit. Gavin freed of this duty can do what they say is his strength, contracts and negotiations. I only worry now how long we can keep Porter here before he moves on. Merritt if your listening pay this man well! he deserves it.

    1. Oh, good. I was worried people were going to lynch me for saying good things about Gavin.

      And I agree with you completely about Porter’s contract. Pay him, Merritt! He’s our Thierry Henry. He’s our David Beckham. Whatever it takes, Merritt. Keep the man here!

  4. Continuing your metaphor, every good Architect needs a good contractor, right?

    I think that your playoff predictions look good . I think we’re still in for some bumps before we get there though. We need some major work (like, this is what practice this week is about, work) on set piece defense and man-marking. I’m also concerned that if Silvestre goes down our already thin back line won’t be able to hold it together. This is one of the reasons I’d like to go get another wily vet for CB instead of digging for depth in the A-League. Finally, I’m not sure we can always expect a Houston-like performance if Valeri is missing. He’s got no cards yet, but another game or two out due to injury seems likely just because of math.

    1. As I was writing, I thought “You know, I need some sort of construction metaphor to go along with this architect thing.” Sadly, I couldn’t come up with anything good. Can I count on you in the future as my construction-related-metaphor-supplier? The pay’s pretty bad, but we’ve got a good 401k plan.

    2. Oh, and I’m with you on the CB thing. We need someone soon.

      And Valeri? We can lose him for a game or two, and be okay. But if he’s down for too long, there could be trouble. But honestly, we can’t go out and find another Valeri. We’ll just have to make due with Nagbe, et al.

    3. We’ve got a tough stretch ahead. 10 of the next 15 games are away… Luckily we get 8 of 13 at home to finish the season. If we’re anywhere near the playoffs come August we’re not only going to make it, we’re going to be in the top seeded section. Stay healthy Timbers, and gut out the next three months.

      1. I actually think that the next month at least looks far easier than last month. Aside from Dallas, we play the Revs, Chivas (not as good as they look), DC, and Vancouver. That’s a way less scary slate of games. Remember, BC Place is totally our house.

      2. Agreed. Easier opponents, but they’re all on the road. So, a mixed bag.

        Fortunately, WE DON’T LOSE ON THE ROAD!

        WOO-HOO! WOO-HOO!

        (Sorry. Quick little spaz-attack there…)

  5. Good work.

    Especially because you said many of the things I have been thinking. So it must be good, eh?

    Just to keep things interesting, I would like to point out a few things.

    #1 Look at FCDallas and Chivas. Then Look at LA and Seattle last season vs. this season. Contenders are able to stay in the game over the entire season. Things look great and I am as optimistic about this team as my genome will allow but let us avoid both setting our sights so high early that we are bound to be majorly disappointed about mid-season and avoid being lulled into a false sense of security. There are some good teams in the MLS this season. What is more, many of these teams are playing some great football on particular weekends.

    I was a bit, uh, well, humbled when I saw LA go to RSL without much of their starting lineup, with rookies on both ends of the field, and still come away 2-0. What would we look like without, say Valeri, Nagbe, Silvestre, and Will Johnson (just to pick a few) out of the lineup any particular game?

    This season is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. So that we can be the most effective supporters possible, let’s keep that in mind.

    #2 Bunker or turtle, you are right. Don’t let ’em confuse you with facts and insight!

    Consider this: If “throwing everyone forward” forces us into bunkering, and if the odds are we lose points when we bunker, then why don’t teams do this for 90 minutes? The answer, of course, is that they become vulnerable if the team is flexible and resilient enough to counter effectively.

    Look, I don’t need to see us in the opponent’s final third every game all game, but I have heard Coach Porter say that pressure and possession is the key to winning against teams that throw everything at you. I just want to see on the field this final element of Porterball.

    Even when the other side gets frantic, I want to see our team possessing and passing and steadily working the ball upfield. There is no place for sustained periods of aimless long balls and ceding the offensive half of the field to the other team.

    This is a legitimate concern and could end up being an achilles heel if other teams start hearing from their scouts “if you don’t like the pressure, just send a few guys forward into their box, they will collapse into a turtle and you can take all the time you want to play your game.”

    In particular it seems that we go to bunkering when we get the lead. This is classical football wisdom and as naive as I probably am, I believe it is ineffective. Especially with a 1 goal lead. Even with a two-goal lead.

    I would even go so far as to say that in the MLS we have developed a culture in which most games are decided by one goal for this very reason: Once you get a lead, you start bunkering, which frees the other side to play their own game. I really would like to see some more 4-goal games. . . if for no other reason, it makes for better spectatoring and that is what MLS really needs right now, an expanded fan base.

    #3 You left out Donovan Ricketts. I know the guy came to this team under a cloud not of his making. But come on, let’s get over it. Three saves of the week so far and likely a fourth real soon. What more do you want from a keeper?

    However, it is not necessarily a good thing to be experiencing great saves each week. It would be better if our defense were staffed and managed so that our goalkeeper could step out for a beer during the game. . . This points to a huge problem we have to solve, or we will end up back at #1, running a sprint for the first 100 yards of a marathon. What happens if Ricketts is injured? Do we expect Gleeson or Kovic to make these spectacular saves? Or will we start giving up three goals each game?

    #4 Right on target. There are certain things a coach is responsible for, ways in which he can affect the team’s performance. This is one area in which Porter has succeeded. I suspect his recent experience at the collegiate level, in which you are not coaching pros and you do expect players to listen and respond might well have a lot to do with Porter’s early success.

    I suspect some of the changes made in the off-season were to replace hardened pros with coachable players. Many of the guys making our team have something to prove, or have seen the premature ending of their careers flash before their eyes.

    Porter has given them a shot at glory. It will be interesting to see if this continues, if Coach Porter will still be able to motivate his players to do things they otherwise would not do as professional footballers at the end of the season. I hope so.

    Reading Ricketts’ recent statement about why he has turned his career around turned on some lightbulbs for me. . . “he believed in me”

    #5 Again, right on. I study organizations and consult businesses. This has made me keenly aware of what happens that is not visible. During Spencer’s tenure I argued here that it might be the case that Merritt Paulson, not Gavin Wilkinson, was the one interferring with the coaches plans. It might be that the disaster of last season was the lesson the owner needed to learn when to not try to coach the team.

    If so, then a lot of credit goes to Gavin Wilkinson for keeping the ship afloat when he was crunched from above and below, for being the loyal lieutenant who covered for the mistakes of his superiors. This is mostly speculation, but I would urge us all to consider that in most organizations what the public sees is not really what is going on.

    Good piece, CI. Thank you. This is a great time to be a Timbers supporter. I mean, every time is great to be a Timbers supporter, but the angst-cost is much lower now. That is a good thing. I just hope we remember the marathon. . .

    1. Excellent points, Roy. And you’re right about this being a marathon. I wish I could keep my emotions from flying back and forth between euphoria and despondency. I need to listen to Porter. Keep my highs low and my lows high. But it’s so tough.

      1. I just reviewed the game again, this time specifically looking at the bunkering issue.
        We looked fine, even after the go-ahead goal, until the 73rd minute. That was when Futty was injured, and Zemanski was already poised to enter the game for Ryan Johnson.

        This substitution left the Timbers without a clear forward in the game until Piquionne came in later. The problem with this substitution–and at San Jose both Valeri and Johnson were subbed out about this point–is that it signals that we lose interest in going to goal.

        It seems as if there is an alarm in Porter’s head so that if we have the lead at the 75th minute, the team goes into “keep away”. It is still possession but the play becomes aimless. This changed the feel of the game.

        It means the opportunity to make a great scoring run is by-passed if there is a relatively safe pass option. It means that when the ball gets to the opponent’s final third, we are as eager as they are to turn the ball back to centerfield. And it means that Ricketts and the back four choose the long ball clearance ahead of starting a play that might result in a scoring sequence.

        On its own this might not be such a big deal. But it really seemed that tonight SKC was waiting for the moment. Within minutes of the change in the feel of the game they were breaking forward with players left unmarked. Conversely, they did not have to worry so much about preventing the midfield attack because whenever we did win the ball it immediately went to a safe pass target rather than to a potential scoring play.

        Coach Porter says we don’t want to change our game and for the most part I believe he is doing that. There is clearly no conservative “play for a tie away” approach from the first whistle. Yet that 75th minute marker becomes a target for any opponent tied or down a goal–that is the point Portland changes their game to keep-away. It is still possession, but the purpose–to develop plays that create scoring opportunities–is replaced with “keep the ball”, possession with no other purpose.

  6. Re; the late-match defensive issues I think we need to think of this as two separate but related problems;

    1. How do you keep possession leading late in the match, and
    2. How do you defend effectively if you CAN’T keep possession late in the match.

    I think there’s some value to the observation that when your opponent is willing to throw bodies forward you’re going to spend a lot of time defending. Possession becomes difficult when the other guy is OK with taking more chances and pressuring the ball higher, willing to risk giving up a quick counter. So to a certain extent I’m willing to accept that we’re going to have more difficulty playing possession football under those circumstances.

    But we need to develop better skills at midfield and forward at shielding the ball and passing accurately underpressure. I think this is where Piquonne’s skillset comes in; he seems to be better at this than our other forwards. Maybe he should see if he can communicate that to RJ and Nagbe… Our backline needs to work on finding midfielders and forwards and hitting them rather than just lumping it out.

    But…if that was all there was to defending no Italian teams would have ever won anything ever. There IS an art to playing catenaccio, but I’m going to suggest that it’s an art that we lack artists for right now.

    To beat the bunker you basically have either to a) pull it apart with timed runs and precisely delivered passes, or b) bomb it with lobs onto heads (and from there either on frame or to open players nearby). So to beat beating the bunker you have to mark tightly (especially runners), cut off passing lanes, and be strong in the air. Your midfielders and forwards have to roam out a bit and obstruct attempts to work the ball into position and block passes or crosses.

    At least to this point I don’t see us having those skills. We’re better, yes, but as we showed on both goals at SKC (and several of the attacks late in the match) we still tend to let ourselves ballwatch and get pulled out of position. Our midfielders and forwards collapse very tightly on the backline, allowing for free movement around our 18. And we don’t have anyone in particular who can consistently get up over attackers, especially at CB. Horst is probably our biggest beast in the air, and he’s done for the season…

    So I think Porter needs to continue jiggering with this. I’m going to suggest that I’d actually be more OK with bunkering if I thought we could be good at it.

    1. This is an interesting subject, one I think we’ll be talking about all year. I just hope we don’t have too many more last-minute San Jose-style goals, because if we do, I won’t be capable of an intelligent dialogue. I’ll just be moaning, crying, and predicting the end of the world. You guys will have to talk me off the ledge.

  7. I was one of the ones on you about guaranteeing playoffs – and while I still think guaranteeing playoffs that early was a little jump-the-gun-ish, I’m fully with you now in that I think they will make the playoffs. So huzzah! Happy to be wrong in trying to pump the brakes!

    1. Glad to have you on board, Peter. Of course, now that I’ve proven myself to be a frighteningly prescient seer, you pretty much have to support all my future predictions. No matter how ridiculous. You know this, right? I can count on your support?

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