Frederic Piquionne scored the Timbers’ hundredth MLS goal, 814 days after Kenny Cooper scored their first. In a five-part series, I’ll use those goals to talk about the Timbers as they were and how we got to where we are.
Part 1: Island of Misfit Toys
Part 2: Everyday Magic
Part 3: Defensive Axis
Part 4: Endurance
Part 5: Maximum Impact
Goal 32. Jorge Perlaza vs Vancouver Whitecaps
20th August 2011
Jorge Perlaza scored the Timbers’ first home MLS goal, yet his time would not end happily in Portland. He was not the only victim of scant consideration being given to “the other guys”.
Jorge Perlaza was first to react to a loose ball in the box following a Jack Jewsbury free-kick, sweeping the ball home to fire the Timbers 2-0 up against their Cascadian rivals.
Perlaza’s goal would prove to be decisive in a 2-1 win that kicked off a late, ultimately doomed, run at reaching the playoffs after gaining only nine points over the fourteen previous games.
Jorge Perlaza’s place in Timbers history is secured by virtue of scoring the first MLS goal at Jeld-Wen Field. A fantastically timed run in behind the striker, a cool little cut-back and the nonchalant finish of a guy who does this kind of thing all the time. He followed it up with a second that was strikingly similar to his goal against Vancouver.
His goal against Vancouver, his sixth of the season, would be his last in MLS.
To see the way Perlaza harried and hurt the Fire defense on that wet April night, you would think that the Timbers had signed the Colombian Michael Owen (the young one). However, by the time the Timbers inaugural season was over he’d already begun to the look more like the Colombian Michael Owen (the old one) to many fans.
However, I will refrain from retreading my already well-documented appreciation of Perlaza here.
Jorge Perlaza’s role in the Timbers team was always going to be a tough one. 40 goals in over 200 appearances in Colombia didn’t seem to indicate that the Timbers were buying a goal machine, but that’s what Cooper and Boyd were for, right?
Perlaza’s job was never to be the main goalscorer. Sure, you’d want a few goals here and there, but his job was as a wingman for the the other striker.
Spencer’s focus on getting the best out of his big striker marginalized the role of the second striker, which ignored the fact that the best striking partnerships are just that, partnerships. Under Spencer it was all one-way, towards the big guy.
Problem was that rather than put guys who could play that role in the team Spencer puts guys in who kinda looked like they should be able to play that role, but really couldn’t or wouldn’t.
When the goals dried up, it was easier to drop the other guy than admit your marquee striker is a bust because you don’t know how to get the best out of him. Spencer did drop Cooper for a spell, which didn’t change the team’s fortunes much, before it was Perlaza’s turn to ride the bench. After starting the first nineteen games of 2011, Perlaza wouldn’t put together another run of more than four starts in a row before leaving.
As Boyd misfired in 2012, it wasn’t until Spencer went that the Scot was dropped. The difference from the previous year was that dropping the underperforming striker coincided with a change in system away from a two-man attack to a more fluid three man attack. It seemed to take fresh eyes looking at the situation to recognize that the problem wasn’t necessarily with the personnel, but the roles that had been foisted upon them.
Much of the coverage of a team will center around the big names – the goalscoring striker, the creative playmaker or the defensive rock – which pushes the likes of Perlaza, and others, into the margin. Every successful team will have their fair share of these guys, the “oh, that guy” guys, the ones that provide the cohesion to the squad.
Perlaza’s defensive analog, in many ways, would be Diego Chara. Chara’s job was to protect the defence, putting his body on the line if he had to, and support his midfield partner, just as Perlaza’s (or Mwanga, Fucito or any of the other “second strikers”) job was to harry the opposing defence and support his striking partner.
Just as Perlaza was expected to play second fiddle to his partner, Chara found himself alongside the club captain and face of the franchise, whose stellar start to the year only put more emphasis on Chara sitting deep and covering. Despite being sold to fans as a “box to box” midfielder when he was signed, the Timbers never really saw that from him as he often effectively became a fifth defender.
This season the Timbers fans have seen Chara used to much greater effect thanks to Caleb Porter employing him as more of a Roy Keane type player than a Claude Makelele.
So long as Jewsbury was playing above himself, all was well in midfield and little thought was given to Chara. To his credit, Chara never seemed to complain or grumble about the role he’d been lumbered with, so that when the team’s form dipped, and Jewsbury’s regressed to the mean, the little Colombian just worked that bit harder.
Porter’s big change was to move these guys out of the shadows and into the spotlight with the rest of the team. The role of support striker is now split between two or three guys, with each having other responsibilities in both defence and attack. And rather have a designated holder in midfield, he moved towards a double-pivot in midfield between Chara and Will Johnson, which has freed both guys to remain active in both attacking and defensive phases.
Some of the most headline grabbing play this year has been from guys who played in the roles that were a seeming afterthought under Spencer. Will Johnson is the club’s top scorer, and suddenly Chara is hot news to the wider MLSosphere. Valeri, Nagbe and Wallace have been among the goals and assists, and the other greatly marginalized role under Spencer, the full-back, is being nursed back to health after a couple of years of neglect and misuse.
The lack of attention given to marginal or specific roles hurt the team. James Marcelin, for instance, was was often used as a “closer” late in the game, which seems perfectly fine until you consider that he wasn’t actually that good a player. Defensively, he looked have the attributes you’d want, but given the ball he quickly showed why he’s currently without a club.
I honestly thought we’d seen the end of Jack Jewsbury, Portland Timber, this year. And yet, he’s emerged as one of the team’s most vital players. Jewsbury has played at left and right back, as well as in midfield, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pop up elsewhere as and when Porter needs spots filled.
By turning players whose roles were disposable under the old regime into integral components in his XI, Porter has found that the best way to unlock the potential of your star players is to pay close attention to the guys around them.
Goal 46. Darlington Nagbe vs Real Salt Lake
31st March 2012
A game can be turned on its head in a second, with a single swipe of a boot. No Timbers player provided a greater example of just such a game changing presence than Darlington Nagbe.
When Eric Alexander lofted the ball into Darlington Nagbe’s path there didn’t seem to be much on for the attacker, but having already pulled the Timbers level, he seemed to be on a one man mission to drag his team to victory.
One controlling touch with his knee, a swing of his right boot saw Nagbe slice the ball away from the despairing keeper and into net for 2-1. It was a strike even his own teammates had to applaud.
When Darlington Nagbe put the Timbers ahead against Real Salt Lake, a lead they would lose with two last gasp RSL goals, it was only his fourth goal of his MLS career and yet the nature of it was not a surprise.
Only his second ever goal, a header to make it 3-0 against New England, was ordinary. His first, though…
To win the Goal of the Year award in your first season is good, to do it with your first professional goal is just showing off.
Despite a resume of one absurd goal after another, just check out his latest MLS goal, it would be fair to say that over the first couple of seasons, Nagbe seemed unable to find a “home” on the pitch. His quality has never been in doubt, but there are times it’s seemed like he was never going to truly fulfill his potential.
The reunion with Caleb Porter, his old college coach at Akron, seems to have settled Nagbe down a bit and the word I find myself using most when describing Nagbe’s play this year is mature.
As the club’s first SuperDraft pick, there was a weight of expectation on the youngster’s shoulders, especially as a Hermann Trophy winner in his last year in Akron. Unsurprisingly, as a rookie, his form was anything but consistent, but there were flashes here and there of the kind of player the Timbers could have on their hands.
More progress was expected from Nagbe in his second year, and with his brace against RSL added to an equaliser against Dallas a couple of weeks earlier, it seemed that Nagbe had truly arrived at last.
However, he wouldn’t score another MLS goal for John Spencer and it would be August before Nagbe got his name on the scoresheet again as he round out 2012 playing deeper in midfield.
2013 has seen him reborn as a wide attacker in a fluid system that rewards those moments when Nagbe does something otherly, but doesn’t rely on them when Plan A fails. Diego Valeri’s presence takes much of the weight to be, to repurpose a Jose Mourinho catchphrase, “the special one” off Nagbe’s shoulders and the released burden, along with more focused on-field directions, has allowed Nagbe to finally grow into his role as a guy who can couple a good team ethic with moments of individual brilliance. The addition of Diego Valeri to the squad plugged what had been a glaring hole in the team to armchair managers everywhere; he was a playmaker.
It’s seem quaint to think that there was a time I was passionately in favor of Eric Alexander being given a shot as a playmaker, or at the very least an attacking midfielder. That’s not a slight on Alexander, who I think is a perfectly decent MLS midfielder, it’s just, Valeri.
The Argentine brought experience to the role, and we’ve seen the roles around it adapt to bring out of the best in him. If he’s getting marked too tight in the center, Nagbe can come inside to disrupt things or give Valeri some breathing room. A stark difference to players being thrown into specific roles and expected to do well because, on paper, they should. It didn’t take Valeri long to announce his arrival on the scene, and he’s also making a habit of scoring easy-on-the-eyes goals.
Rodney Wallace has emerged as the third head of the Timbers very own Cerberus in 2013, though given the fluid nature of the attack with midfielders pushing on from deep and strikers pulling wide, a perhaps more fitting mythological reference for the Timbers attack would be a Hydra, where attempts to shut one player out of the game will only give another two the space and time to hurt you just as bad.
Given the way Wallace was played at left-back, or moved around the midfield, it’s little surprise that his goal scoring/creating contributions were sporadic at best over the first two years. This year, played in a more advanced role, Wallace has had a great impact on the side since breaking into the starting XI.
With, essentially, a goal a game created or scored by Rodney Wallace this season, it’s little wonder that the Costa Rican has very quickly become one of our key players.
In pushing his way into the line up, Wallace has displaced the player that many thought would be the creative playmaker on the squad coming into 2011.
There are none on the Timbers roster more mercurial than Kalif Alhassan. The Ghanaian midfielder’s best run in the Timbers side came in that debut season, when he notched five assists in a run of eighteen straight starts. 2012 got off to the best possible start for Alhassan, with a start, an assist and
another assist a goal in a the 3-1 win against the Union. It’s still his only MLS goal for the Timbers as efforts to repeat his screamer against Puerto Rico in 2010 haven’t been successful, as yet.
Despite his undoubted ability and skill – there are times I doubt even Kalif Alhassan knows what Kalif Alhassan is going to do next, let alone the defenders – he’s been unable to pin down a starting spot since that first year. Injuries hampered him in 2012 and 2013 has seen him take a back seat to Wallace and Nagbe, with Valencia and Zizzo pushing to go past him too.
The rawness and inconsistency – a world beater one game, totally anonymous the next – that we saw in both Nagbe and Alhassan is still front and center with Kalif. Potntial and talent will carry you so far, and buy you so much credit, but there’s always a clock ticking in the background and if Alhassan can’t crack the team or show that he’s matured as Nagbe has.
His numbers, when he’s on the field, are pretty good but 6 starts in 17 isn’t the figure one of the most promising players in MLS only ywo years ago should be hitting.
The problem with getting consistency from someone like Alhassan is that to do that you’re likely to sand off some of the rough edges that make the player special in the first place. Nagbe is a great example of an “instinctual” player – almost all of his great moments happen in a flash, with seemingly no time to think about it. There have been times when he’s had too much time to think and picked the wrong choice, but he’s shown a readiness to learn from it, and from someone like Diego Valeri.
To describe the likes of Valeri or Nagbe, Alhassan or Wallace as a “playmaker”, while technically accurate, would do a disservice to the fact that it’s the interaction between everyone that makes the play.
The Timbers have often seemed to lean heavily on one or two players to make things happen, and it would seem to be the case this year as well, but it’s an illusion. The reality is that the threat can, and will, come from anywhere.
We are all playmakers now.