As the dust settled on a convincing 3-0 victory, four players more than most would have had an extra reason to want to bask in the moment.
Rodney Wallace, the confounder of low expectation; Darlington Nagbe, maturing with every match; Jack Jewsbury, essential now more than ever, without the armband; and Diego Chara, no longer our little secret.
No other players had logged so many minutes in a Timbers kit as these four before 2013 kicked off, clocking a combined 18,000 minutes of football for Portland.
Their combined start against Chivas USA was their 25th, stretching back to a 1-0 win against San Jose in April 2011. In fact, all four of the Timbers wins in 2013 so far have come in the six matches the four have started together. In those six games, the Timbers have earned 14 of their 18 points.
It’s a sign of Porter’s exemplary use of experience to alleviate the turnover of the past ten months or so. Under John Spencer, the club very much placed themselves out there as a young club, that would work harder than everyone else. The average age of players bears this out, in that first year at least: the Timbers average age was 24.9 against a league wide average of 25.6, and a play-off average of 25.8.
On first glance the Timbers 2012 average age of 26.8 would seem to indicate that they had taken care of any issues with inexperience, but that includes the signing of Donovan Ricketts (post-Spencer) and ignores one crucial factor – the marquee signings of Kris Boyd, Hanyer Mosquera, Steven Smith and Franck Songo’o were all very impressive, but the one thing they shared in common was having never played a minute in MLS.
In 2011, the players that took the field for Portland averaged 31 MLS appearances, pre-Timbers. By 2012, even allowing for players having built some experience the previous year, that figure had risen only to 39.9 appearances before their first appearance in a Timbers kit. Take out Ricketts and Kimura, and that figure drops to 35.
The four guys mentioned above brought experience at a reasonable level in Europe and South America, but all would take time to adjust to soccer in the states. That carries an efficiency cost, and when you’re taking hits in key areas like attack, and central defence, you’re going to run into problems.
None of these guys will feature under Caleb Porter, but that doesn’t mean that Porter has shied away from buying in experience from abroad, the difference being that in Mikael Silvestre, Diego Valeri and Frederic Piquionne we have guys with French and Argentine caps, as opposed to Scottish and Cameroonian.
The experience of playing in the best leagues compensates for some of that footballing culture shock as you generally don’t build up long careers in the best leagues without having to work well in various different styles and formations.
Rather than back up his building of Scots-Colombian axis in the north west with established MLS campaigners, Spencer made a mess of it.
Jack Jewsbury and Troy Perkins stand apart in this regard, as two guys who brought a ton of MLS games, 294 between them, to the team and made them count. Neither of the next three guys with most MLS games in 2011 would be still on the roster in 2012 – Cooper, Goldthwaite and Brown.
2012 saw him bring in three guys who’d kicked a ball in MLS before suiting up for us: Eric Alexander, Danny Mwanga and Mike Fucito. I’d say that was three clean swing-and-misses.
Those guys had a pre-Portland total of 130 MLS games, and combined for 54 in 2012, only 24 of which were starts. All have gone for 2013.
Caleb Porter, while doing much the same as Spencer before him in that half of the guys making debuts for the club are also making their MLS debuts, has added some quality MLS experience.
For Kevin Goldthwaite, Eric Alexander and Mike Fucito, read Michael Harrington, Will Johnson, and Ryan Johnson. Porter’s three had 421 MLS appearances between them, and have have all featured in every match so far, giving freedom to guys like Diego Valeri to adjust and settle in, and bringing out the best in Rodney Wallace and Darlington Nagbe.
Wallace has been the story of the season so far for Portland. In a way, his story has often mirrored that of the club. He started the first 19 matches in 2011, but only 3 of the last 15 as the club’s early optimism ended in what looks in hindsight like the final couple of hurdles, but in reality was killed in a horrible run from May to July.
His 2012 was disrupted by injury, never quite getting started before hitting another bump in the road, just like the team as a whole.
Thus far in 2013 he’s started in the sidelines, and forced himself into the limelight just as the team has really started blossoming into something potentially very special.
If he can stay fit, and continue his good work then there’s no reason why this can’t be a breakthrough year for Wallace. He came into the season 6th in the Timbers All-Time minutes played, and has overtaken Brunner into 5th, but is still 1500 minutes behind Nagbe in 3rd. There’s no reason for him to see that gap widen as Porter seems to have found the ideal role to get the best out of him on both sides of the ball.
He never convinced me at full-back or as a winger, but Porter has him playing out of a zone, rather than with a defined role. Zonal attacking, if you like. This allows him to go outside or in, or switch sides with Nagbe, all safe in the knowledge that at least one of Harrington (or Jewsbury), Will Johnson or Chara will have his back.
Playing with the brakes off, which isn’t to say he neglects his defensive duties as he’s one of the teams most effective players in closing down.
Wallace isn’t the only player Porter has taken the brakes off. Darlington Nagbe, while still frustrating, is showing signs of maturing.
Nagbe crossed over 5000 minutes for the Timbers this year, and into 3rd overall ahead of Troy Perkins and has started 42 of the Timbers’ last 45 games, so even though he will be only 23 in July, he’s already a key part of the team and has a wealth of experience under his belt.
With Wallace on the bench, Nagbe started the season on the left, cutting in onto his natural right foot but he’s shifted to the right side to make room for Wallace.
This move gives the Timbers guys in wide attacking roles who have more options of what to do going forward. With Nagbe on the left, 99% of the time he’s going to cut inside, and defenders will know that and expect it. Wallace can go round the outside as well as cut inside, forcing defenders to hesitate or wait for the attacker to make the first move – a great advantage to quick guys with lightning feet like Wallace and Nagbe.
Nagbe will still naturally comes inside more, but this means he can exploit any space created by opponents putting someone on Valeri, who’ll pop up on either flank throughout the game, or by the movement of Ryan Johnson up front.
Getting the best out of Nagbe was a puzzle that stumped John Spencer. We saw him played all over midfield and attack, rarely settling on one role before being move to plug another hole somewhere else. The problem wasn’t so much that Spencer was a bad coach who couldn’t find Nagbe’s role within the team, as it was that Spencer was a poor team builder who didn’t put the bodies around Nagbe that would allow him to naturally find his role.
Nagbe, more than most, benefits from being able to play without having to think about it too much. Under Spencer he was put under the constraints of a narrowly defined position, and it asked Nagbe to do more thinking than playing.
With a guy like that, you want him to go out and there and just let it happen. Know what you should be doing when the other guys have the bal, sure, but when we have it, you want him working on instinct. It’s no coincidence that if you were to list the top five Nagbe moments, they’d all be instances where he seemed to do things that surprised himself as much as anyone else. At the other end of the scale you’d have the bad misses, or the flubbed final passes that came when he’d be given too long to think about it.
With a solid base behind him, and the right group around him in attack, we’re starting to see a more confident looking Nagbe. Even in games where’s he’s not having a great night, he’s not hiding or letting his head drop.
Jack Jewsbury, similarly, didn’t let his head drop when the captaincy was given to Will Johnson and he started the year injured. His return to the XI had coincided with an upturn in the club’s fortunes.
Number one in minutes played, Jewsbury became the first player to reach 100 on-field hours for the Timbers. He also leads the club in all-time goals and assists, and has over 260 MLS appearances in total.
Making Jewsbury the captain made perfect sense in 2011. He was the guy with most league experience, while Perkins and Cooper were both coming back to the league after a spell in Europe.
A stellar first half of 2011 was followed by a less than stellar 2012, and I wasn’t the only one who wondered where Jack fit in this year. The debate was still going only a month ago.
The answer is wherever Caleb Porter needs him, be it midfield, full-back, or filling in at centre-back if needed. Despite the perception that Porter’s arrival would see the team look towards youth, in this early phases at least, the opposite has been true.
The average age has risen slightly from 26.8 to 27, with only two of the Timbers top ten in minutes played under 26 years old (Nagbe and Jean-Baptiste). The average age of that top ten is 28.4.
Porter knows the value of experience, and recognised a gold mine in Jewsbury. He’s shown himself adept on either side of the defence and his steady head on the back line has helped the team cope with a rotating cast of characters in the centre.
We saw a bit more attacking from him against Chivas, largely let down in the final third by his crossing as only one of his six attempts were successful, but his steady passing in the opponents half made up for. Discounting crosses, 9 of Jack’s 12 passes were successful.
Getting the ball into Valeri’s feet is crucial to the Timbers, something Chivas tried to counter by putting a man on the Argentinian, and Jewsbury is good at doing just that. No surprise to see Valeri log so many actions close to Jewsbury’s busiest areas.
It made sense, and it forced the Timbers into more cross balls than was ideal, but it didn’t stop them from picking holes in the Chivas defence to lay the ball through as Chivas failed to compensate for the speed that Portland can play at, often turning defence into attack in seconds.
At the heart of this ability to transition so quickly is Diego Chara.
Everyone knows about Chara’s defensive exploits, and there are probably a few guys who could show the physical evidence of it. But he’s more than an engine to gather yellow cards, he’s shown this season that if he’s given the chance, he can add value to the attack.
Every bit as solid a passer of the ball as Jewsbury, Chara hasn’t really had the chance to show what he can do in attack as he’s been seen as the defensive enforcer in midfield. Will Johnson and Chara are both able to play as the holding player or the going one, and as they play together more their reading of each other will only get better.
Chara finds himself, for maybe the first time in his MLS career, closer to the top of the assist table (joint 4th, or 2nd if you want it to sound even better) than the foul table (5th). He’s still putting in a great defensive shift every game, but he’s had some of the burden taken off him by Will Johnson alongside, and the way Porter expects everyone to contribute to defence.
The rest of the league are starting to take notice of Chara now, as much more than “that guy who fouls a lot”, and I’m sure there are a few Timbers fans who are only starting to realise just how good Chara can be as the guy who drives attacks from the back.
As with Nagbe it’s about more than simply getting the player to play “better”, it about putting guys around him that allow him to play more naturally, and we’re seeing that from Chara now.
These four guys will likely end 2013 as the top four in the Timbers all-time minutes played table. As it stands, Wallace needs only 700 minutes or so to pass Perkins.
For all Spencer’s mistakes, he actually had the core of a really good team all along, he just didn’t know how to use it. His loss is Porter’s gain as the new coach has been able to lean upon their collective experience as he sets about redefining what soccer means in the Soccer City.