It was very much a good news, bad news scenario for Portland Timbers after their trip to Chicago ended in a 2-2 draw.
Good News: the unbeaten streak continues! Bad News: we threw away a lead against a team that had failed to get anything from being two goals down in their last fifteen attempts, stretching back over two years.
Good News: seriously, 12 games unbeaten! And 3rd in the West ahead of Seattle and LA. Bad News: only two wins in the last six, and those were against each conference’s early-season whipping boys, and of the four draws, we’ve twice gone into the last 15 minutes in winning positions and dropped points.
Good News: Diego Valeri was back, he scored, had a hand in our second and was pretty, pretty good. Bad News: he went off, our night went to shit and we ended up on the losing end of a 2-2 draw.
In the aftermath, there was a seeming consensus on twitter that Caleb Porter had blown it by taking of Valeri after 67 minutes, with the Timbers 2-0 up.
There is no doubt that the fact the team lost their lead when Valeri wasn’t on is worth bringing up as the figures would seem to support the idea that when Diego starts, you take him off at your peril.
If you exclude the first few matches, which Valeri started and finished, and the Houston match which he only left due to injury, Diego has started seven and been subbed off four times. In those matches the team’s aggregate scores are 12-4 when Valeri is on the field, and 0-4 with him off.
This ignores the DC game that Valeri didn’t play in, of course, and weirdly enough the Timbers have won both games the playmaker has sat out entirely having beaten San Jose 1-0 earlier in the year.
You would expect Valeri’s withdrawal, given how he is often the creative pivot in the team, to cause a drop off in attacking potency and that is indicated by the team failing to score once in the 64 minutes Valeri has sat on the bench despite averaging a goal every 47 minutes or so when he’s on the field.
The surprise is how poorly the team defend with him off the field. They’ve conceded the same number of goals in those 64 minutes as they had in the other 566, though I doubt there is any direct link between Valeri going off and our defence losing their way.
Porter has shown himself very adept at using subs, a skill that got him out trouble early on in the year when the Timbers seemed to start every game a goal behind. To put Porter’s record in context, John Spencer’s “W-L” record after the first sub was 11-21, Gavin Wilkinson’s was 4-4, and Porter is 6-2.
However, in the last few matches his ability to work some magic from the bench when it’s needed has waned.
Having a depleted squad, be it due to injuries, suspensions or international duty, limits a coaches ability to make a positive impact from the bench, and when the squad gets thin, that’s when you may look more to consolidate rather than put teams to the sword. Of the last four times the team has led when Porter has made his first change, three of the matches have finished with no further goals being scored for either side.
Chicago are the first team since the San Jose game to “beat” the Timbers post-sub, and yes, Valeri went off after scoring then too. Since the San Jose game the Timbers have been outscored 4-5 after the first substitution has been made, having “won” 6-2 over the first five games, but I see that as a product of a coach adjusting to a different squad dynamic over the past few matches than a coach who’s lost his touch. He’s managed to put a starting XI together that’s been in a losing position only once in the last nine games, and that was an injury-enforced change, so the Timbers are getting into good positions and generally if they can do that, Porter mostly calls it right to keep it that way.
The problem with taking Valeri off, and one potential reason for the side’s relatively poor showing after his removal, is that we don’t have anyone of his ability to fill the void he leaves. Perhaps Nagbe could, one day, but for now he’s not that guy, and without Valeri we start to retain less of the ball out of our half and that puts more pressure on the defence.
That’s what we saw in this game as the Fire came out firing, and got the goals that they no doubt feel they deserved or all their effort. That’s what those who railed against Porter’s substitution choice saw. The consensus seemed to be that everything had been going well up until then, and then Porter spencered it by bringing off Valeri.
The problem I have with this is, and this where I’ll respectfully disagree with the coach below and likely most other fans, is that we were already pretty poor before Valeri went off.
With the way we were playing, there was absolutely no reason for that team to get a goal. They got a goal out of nothing. It wasn’t like they had a flow or anything. It popped up in a moment, and we fell asleep.
Now, while I don’t disagree that the goal, the events that led directly to Magee making it 2-1, “popped up in a moment” when we had fallen asleep, but I don’t agree it came out of nothing. ***
For all we were stroking the ball around (somewhat) nicely and, in our mind, controlling the pace of the game, Chicago weren’t paying attention. They missed the lesson when Zemanski scored and just kept doing what they’d been doing, which was pressing hard and upping their tempo.
In the first half, the Timbers averaged 5 passes per minute, to Chicago’s 3 as they outworked and outplayed their hosts. By the time Valeri went off that situation had turned around entirely and our patient, deliberate play was being disrupted by a fired up Chicago. Our passing accuracy had dropped from 83% to 63% and the problem was that weren’t getting our attacking players involved enough because the Fire were pressing, or we were just plain sloppy and caught on our heels at times.
It’s true that Valeri had two shots at goal in the second half, equalling the entire team’s tally after he went off, and of his four passes, one led to the Timbers’ 2nd goal, but the problem is that he only had four passing opportunities in over 20 minutes of play. His minutes per pass rate had gone from 2.4 to 5.4 before he went off, and having Valeri making passes every five minutes is not how to get the best out of him.
By taking off Valeri, we were losing a lot of our attacking threat, but we were 2-0 up at the time and clearly Porter felt all was well. Can’t really blame him, and really the change makes perfect sense when you consider that Valeri is coming back from an injury, and we have a big week ahead. My problem isn’t with taking off Valeri, it’s that the change wasn’t bold enough.
A lot of our play was directed towards the flanks, which allowed Chicago to press hard out wide and force turnovers from which to launch attacks.
The Timbers were warned a couple of times in the first couple of minutes of the second half as Magee’s movement and Jewsbury getting caught doing a dragback at the corner of the box. The Fire pressed harder, sometimes questionably so, but they also pressed higher and Magee proved a real handful with his play both on and off the ball.
In the first half, the Timbers pressing was very well organised and it snuffed out much of Chicago’s threat, but in the second half it wasn’t as effective.
Meanwhile Chicago were doing a better job of closing down the space in front of the defence, and denying the Timbers space and time there.
In general terms, the triumverate of Zemanski, Chara and Johnson did well and they rotated duties very nicely, such that if I’m Darlington Nagbe, I’m maybe a little worried about what Rodney Wallace’s return from international duty means. For much of the game, Zemanski was the deeper of the three, often dropping between Kah and Jean-Baptiste to help build from the back.
Zemanski did his chances of starting again no harm when he did move forward and was rewarded with a goal which was a thing of beauty.
Little surprise it came from Valeri being involved, his previous touches in the second half being a pass that led to his own shot at goal, and equally, given how tight the Fire were keeping it through the middle, it came from springing Piquionne in down the flanks.
Zemanski’s finish really was exquisite, and at that point it really did seem like it would break the Fire’s spirit and kill of the fightback before it really got going.
But the home side kept on pressing, getting the ball forward and drawing set-pieces, and throwing the ball into the box.
Well, we went up 2-0, and to be honest with you, it looked like it was going to be three or four
In all honesty, at the time I was worried about how the half was playing out and I’m struggling to see where Porter gets the 3 or 4 goals from, unless he’s referring to chances in the first half cos in the second, if you were out of the room when Zemanski scored, or blinked during Valeri’s tame effort from distance, you don’t see the Timbers doing much to threaten Chicago’s goal. You could say Kocic wasn’t really troubled by all this possession and increased tempo, but all it would take is a slip here or a slice of bad luck there and suddenly it’s 2-1 and all that pressure is going to start making people a little jumpy.
There’s a good chance that if Kocic scoops up the ball and holds it, rather that it spilling to Magee, that the Timbers weather the storm and Zizzo’s pace and width are able to stretch and hurt a tiring Fire defence in the last 15-20 minutes. Games can swing on such moments.
Now, I won’t make the case the AJB got a nudge in the back that sent him into Kocic, who then spilled it at Magee’s feet for that first goal because, hey, it’s a contact sport after all and if you rely on refs getting it right 100% of time, you’re going to be disappointed 100% of the time. Still, maybe someone will make that case here.
Equally, I don’t see the point in arguing that Jean-Baptiste won the ball from Magee, whose “foul” led to the free kick that made it level because when a player reaches in like that, it’s left to the referee’s interpretation, and I refer you to the stats above for how that will work out for you.
The fact is that it’s easy to lay blame for this drawtastrophe at the doors of Caleb Porter for blowing the sub, or the ref for being a ref. I’m sure these factors made a difference, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The Timbers didn’t drop points because Diego Valeri was taken off, but because Caleb Porter misread the match and didn’t make the right kind of change.
To be fair to the coach though, his hands were tied. Four players off on international duty to add to an injury list meant that Porter didn’t really have the tools at his disposal to change the game when it began to slip away from him.
We really missed Rodney Wallace, whose presence would’ve offered more than Nagbe and Zizzo combined, and without Ryan Johnson available, Porter probably kept Piquionne on a good 10 or 15 minutes longer than he’d have liked. His reluctance to bring on Valencia is understandable in that the youngster is much more mercurial presence than Piquionne, and when the team need someone who can hold up the ball in attack to relieve pressure, you stick with the guy who is handing out masterclasses in doing just that right now. Valencia is stuck in the margins for now, though I’d expect he’ll have a second chance to shine against Tampa. I just hope it is as an attacker than in midfield.
Zizzo tried his best, and got involved, but he’s not Valeri, and the methadone is never as good as the real stuff. His presence, rather than give us a good diagonal outball and keep the Fire defence pinned back a little, unsettled the balance of the front three as big gaps opened up between the all.
The tight interplay and close movement and understanding between the front three, with support from behind, that is a big part of why the Timbers have been so successful in attack this year.
With a key, arguably THE key, part of that attack on the field, it suffered and the Fire were able to force pressure under it told. Even a late chance which came off Kah’s surprised right foot from a Will Johnson free-kick, and could’ve grabbed all three points wouldn’t have masked a second half performance that left us hoping for such a last gasp effort in the first place.
The sky isn’t falling though. Bad news: it’s one of those draws that feels like a defeat. Good news: we went to Chicago and outplayed them for 45 minutes with at least six first team players unavailable and were a few inches from coming away with all three points.
It’s a huge fortnight ahead, with three of four games at home, and a trip to play the Galaxy. The US Open Cup match perhaps isn’t the ideal timing with Dallas and LA next up in the league, so we will get a better look at just how deep Porter’s squad really is, and it’s a brave man who backs against Portland when they’re still grinding out results on the road with a half a team missing.
Good News: we’re still not Seattle. Bad News: seriously, there is no bad news there.
Keep the faith, and stay the course.