Timbers Draw In Chicago: Thrown Away

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.

10GAMES CP (2)

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.

PT 1HBV PASS

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.

Fire tackling
Fire tackling
Fire passing
Fire passing

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.

PT 1H Mid Press

PT Midfield Press 2H

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.

Chic 2H Shutdown

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.

PT Zemanski CB

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.

timbers goal 2

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.

AJB PushNow, 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.

AJB TackleEqually, 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.

The Timbers Front Three
The Timbers Front Three
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.

PT Movement Creating Opportunity

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.
#RCTID

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8 thoughts on “Timbers Draw In Chicago: Thrown Away

  1. still in support of your posts. I love a good stats rant and I agree with your thought there. There were contributing factors, but it seems the biggest shift that hits is we play better when we’re looking to score goals. We seem to keep possession. And as soon as that shift changes, and we get into defense mode we put a lot of the weight of the game on Jack Jewsbury, Baptiste, Kah, and Harrington. And it becomes about crossing your fingers and booting the ball up the line.

    I don’t know what we should have done differently to win that match, but I could feel the decline coming as soon as Chicago started throwing up all these reliable subs and we started tossing in recently injured players. They just had the fresh legs to press and it put us on our heels for sure. We could have pieced a win out of that game, but I think the other good news, the mistakes were identifiable and with some depth coming back from international duty we can use that game as a lesson to move forward in the games to come.

    1. I think part of the problem as well was that we started to ask primarily Will Johnson to do more of an attacking job, perhaps to compensate for the forwards not being as involved but what it meant was we didn’t get the runs from deep as the move developed that led to a good chance in the first half, and the Fire’s tighter lines in the second half snuffed him out too or played around him.

      Porter’s hands were tied to an extent with the kind of changes we could make given who we were missing and in the end I think where we went wrong was in not responding quickly enough to the Chicago XI that started the second half, and taking off Valeri only changed the match insomuch as it it rendered us a lot less dangerous in attack, but it didn’t address the issue of stopping Chicago’s pressing which got the break it deserved to a degree with the Magee goal.

      1. I thought Will Johnson looked like a forward during most of that match. It would have been exciting, had he scored a goal or two : /

  2. The real issue here seems to be that there’s no one besides Valeri who can play the Valeri role competently. WJ? Zemanski? Nagbe? Valencia? Nope. I think Porter should consider playing Piquionne there – bring him on as a sub for Valeri, not RJ. As you said, Piq can keep possession, and it allows a pretty seamless shift to a 4-4-2 if that’s what is warranted. That is has the additional benefit of making Valencia the first-choice sub for RJ is nice.

  3. I disagree with so much focus on Valeri being some sort of dark horse catalyst for the entire team’s playstyle (he IS a catalyst, but we’ve seen the team play possession just fine without him). I believe strongly that CP called a defensive playstyle in minute 60, as he’d done against other teams we were in a lead against to that minute. We’ve done it before with success, and Caleb’s numerical mind says that it’s the best way of taking the points, so he called bunker.

    If we go with that assumption (and why wouldn’t we? 2 very different playstyles were on display, and not just because Valeri came out), then we may be able to see why Valeri was subbed– because we were going to bunker and play chip-‘n-chase for the final 30, and we needed a speedy winger in zizzo with fresh legs who could chase the chips.

    1. Clearly I’m out of practice cos you’re not the first person to mention the talk about Valeri or us being a one-man team as being excessive. All I can say is once I knew I’d be writing this I made a point of avoiding other reports and going off the twitter reaction after the match, there was a lot of blame put on Porter for taking off Valeri and I thought Zemanski’s goal had masked the fact that we started the second half *ugly*.

      FWIW, I agree with you, and make the point a couple of times that I don’t think taking off Valeri made any significant difference cos the bigger problem was that the Fire were pressing higher up, and putting the foot in which was throwing us off and stopping us getting the ball into the attackers feet. As I wrote, in actual fact the sub make a perfect kind of sense at the time when you don’t know what’s going to happen.

      We pulled Chara back to join Zemanski, let Will do the box to box thing, and look to spring in Zizzo on the break. All makes perfect sense. Except I think it was th wrong idea. Chicago were dictating the pace of the game, and forcing the tempo up just when we wanted to slow it down and take the sting out of it, and Zizzo isn’t a guy who’ll get the ball into feet, and hold someone off to bring others into the game – he’ll get it, or run on to it, and look to get to the byline to swing one in. The FP is good in air, but the Fire aren’t Wilmington and the big guy loosed gassed for much for much of his last 15-20 minutes so we were just turning the ball over. But, without a Wallace or Johnson to put on, Porter’s hands were tied and he probably played the only hand that was available to him at the time so it’s hard to get too caught up in blaming Porter. The numbers are all there for folk to make their own minds up though. I did find his post-match comments interesting though for a guy I normally regard as being pretty straight about his team’s performances

      That was the point I was trying to make with the talk about subs, Valeri’s influence (which is worth watching to see if a relationship does develop there), and Porter’s options for the bench/ability to influence positive change.

  4. Your concern with draws is right on target. Draws are not half-wins, and we forget that at our peril. Just note that in Concacef, Mexico is undefeated. . . in the 3/1 point system, avoiding defeat is barely better than a loss. While I would rather draw than lose, teams without that killer instinct will pay.

    So the question then is “why all the losses?” First off, it is wonderful that we are on the plus side of the draws, that we are not talking again about how we let draws slip away from us into losses. There is something to the many observations about the role that “character” plays in the team, and this year’s squad seems to be unwilling to lose.

    I am a bit uncertain that I buy into the painting of previous years’ teams as “losers”, though. It is easy to demonize the past to emphasize the glory of the present, but it is also instructive to remember that this year is also a continuation of the past. Not all has changed. Not everything has been fixed.

    For example, we had a real underdog mentality in previous years; so much so that it was almost common for us to win the big games that no one expected. We seemed to make “beat the guy at the top of the table” some sort of mantra. Problem was, we lost so many games we really should have won, and seldom pulled the close ones out of the fire. And then there were the real stinkers. . .

    It is harder to maintain that underdog perspective when you are sitting near the top of the table and are undefeated away. It is even harder to maintain it when you are up 2-0 against a team most people expect you to thrash. But if you don’t have that underdog drive, then what keeps you going in the latter stages of the matches?

    I believe this is the motivational challenge we face in mid-2013. How do we keep inspired to scrap and fight when we are expected to win, and are comfortably ahead and when a victory seems so . . . inevitable.

    Porter addressed this earlier in the season when he made the case that we would be a hard-working team, even if our skill set was middling. He said “another team might be more skilled than we are, but there is no excuse for another team to outwork us.”

    As I watch the Chicago game, i saw a team that clearly out-worked us after we went up 1-0, before half-time. When our guts gave out to tired legs and our on-field inspiration/spark plug/catalyst left the field in the 66th minute, we had no way to respond to a gutsy Chicago squad which was clearly outgunned but which kept on coming at us.

    We have become the big-powered team we unexpectedly beat last year. Them has become us.

    There might not have been an excuse for us to be out-worked in the late match, but we were.

    For example, soon after the first Chicago goal, we had the ball in Chicago’s side and were outnumbered 5-2. At :78 at the goal kick, it was 6-2. In the 87th minute we ran a play in which we had seven players in the box–none of whom moved off the ball.

    The 89th minute was a brief bright spot with good movement and a return to our hard-working passing game. But a minute later, we cleared the ball across the half-line, to a spot not within 40 yards of a Timbers’ player.

    Then at 91:40 Valencia snagged the ball on a goal kick clearance, but two other Timbers in the area seemed not to even notice–they apparently made no effort to respond with help or even to get clear of their defenders.

    By the 93rd minute, when you would think we would be fighting mad and the most desperate to reclaim the two points that had inexplicably escaped our fingers, we just booted the ball out of bounds. Yes, we gave it away.

    Throughout the second half (and I would even start with about ten minutes left in the first half) we seemed to forget the whole possession thing. Instead of crisp passes and strategic runs, we seemed to adopt as our motto “move the ball forward, until you cannot go further.” Time after time we lost possession through an uncharacteristically sloppy pass or by dribbling the ball into traffic.

    This looked very much like our 2012 team.

    I don’t see it as being pegged quite so closely to Valeri’s substitution, but rather to the scoreline. Frankly, Zemanski’s goal seemed to surprise everyone. I will take it, but that kind of long ball opportunity is not what we should build our game plan upon. Instead, even at the time of that goal, it seemed the edge had dulled off of our crisp passing game and that too many players were walking and watching instead of participating.

    There is one other piece of evidence I would offer: The Diego Chara of the second half seemed eerily similar to the 2012 Chara–energetic, but almost frantic, launching questionable tackles as if he had no confidence in his teammates behind him, so that if he does not force a turnover, it means a goal.

    So he launches the low-percentage tackle-from-behind. In doing so, in this game in particular, I believe he smacked the hornet’s nest that was Mike Magee. A couple of Chara’s more risky tackles seemed to fuel an already passionate Magee, who then spread his upset to his teammates who collectively took it out on the visitors.

    And instead of replying in kind, we walked.

    There is no doubt that with or without Valeri on the field, if we had played through the game like we did in the first 30 minutes, the score would be convincing. But when you don’t have a stable of superstars, when you remove four of the stars you have, and then when you stop working hard, bad things will happen.

    Whether this motivational piece can be laid at the feet of the coaching staff, at the on-field leadership, the veteran players, or a general mental carelessness of the whole team, it it doesn’t change the 2013 season of the Portland Timbers will be the season of the great unrealized potential, in which the team bombed out of the postseason in the first round.

    I know we can change it, but we must start by throwing away the conventional wisdom that the smart way of managing games is to protect your lead when you hit 2-0. Whether that works for other teams, I cannot say. But it is clear, based on our clear record of dropping points two at a time, that it does not work for the 2013 Timbers. I hope we discover what does work before too much longer.

    It would be painful to have the start we did, with the potential we have shown, only to die in the first round of playoffs. Painful.

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