These are the voyages of the starship Timbers FC. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new (pond)life and new (un)civiliz(ed douchebags)ations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
That has been stuck in my head because I watched Star Trek into Darkness just recently (it was allright, I guess) but also because it provides a tenuous link to what has prompted me to write after watching the Timbers go down 4-2 in Utah.
The referee changing/destroying the game aside, it was the use of space that was the great difference in the teams last night. RSL used it well and exploited it, where the Timbers were often adrift in attack, unable to get any flow or rhythm to their play where they needed it most.
Which isn’t to diminish those other factors. It’s important after a defeat to seperate the excuses from the facts. The fact is that the Timbers are missing key players in an already small trusted squad, and that’s going to tell when you face a top side in their own yard, which isn’t to excuse a defeat, but merely give context to a result that could otherwise be taken as a source for despair.
Defence carries the most obvious scars, with spellcheck-botherer Rauwshan McKenzie making his first MLS start for the Timbers alongside Andrew Jean-Baptiste. This left Michael Harrington as the elder statesman of the back four at the princely age of 27, and that McKenzie (26) has started fewer than thirty times in five and a half years in MLS shows how badly the Timbers miss the old heads of Silvestre, Jewsbury and, yes, Kah.
He may be a hothead, but that pulls focus from the 95% of his game that’s rock solid and Jean-Baptiste seems to trust him which takes a lot of weight off his shoulders to be the main man at the back.
Futty is also on his way back into contention, which is probably bad news for McKenzie who may have to wait a bit long to get over the game starts mark.
It’s been a big year for AJB, playing a part in all but two matches this year in the league. He’s started sixteen of the last seventeen, providing on constant in the heart of defence. He’s a better, bigger player now than he was at the start of the year, but I wonder if it may be time to give him a rest. I felt at times he missed an old head alongside him to rein him in when needed, and there have been other instances where he’s tried to do too much on his own. A break might freshen him up for a run-in that is as tough as you could hope to avoid.
Porter’s magic touch can only go so far, and his previous trick of throwing a completely untested pairing into the mix and having it work, somehow, didn’t spark here. Our makeshift team wasn’t a match for Jason Kreis’ fizzing Salt Lake side. As an aside, I’m not sure what his ambitions may be but there’s surely a higher level than MLS for Kreis to make his mark in.
In many ways they are the team we want to be, and why not mould yourself after them? For me, going into this match, RSL were, and are, the best team in the league and I saw a lot in their play that is very like the play we saw from Portland when mostly-everyone was fresh. Built around a talented and talismanic Argentinian in offense, with a tight-knit core of “you’d love them if they were your guy” types and underrated gems aond exciting young talent bubbling over.
They got their game going, with the space between attackers kept to a minimum. Their passing was crisp and fluid, but crucially it was with purpose and almost supernatural accuracy that was matched by the final, killer, touch.
The Timbers were punished by a team that not only created chances, but took them so precisely out of Ricketts reach that I’m pretty sure the big man himself, or a member of the Timbers coaching team will have paced out that goal to make sure that it wasn’t actually a few inches over regulation.
I also suspect if those same chances were falling to Ryan Johnson, that’s our tale; a hard luck story. The Jamaican striker is on a bit of a drought, by his own high standards.
It’s the first time since May that he has gone on a three game starting run without scoring, and back then a convenient international break allowed the Timbers to freshen up in attack. Valencia did well, considering the team were down to ten men, and his vicious shot led to the Timbers second of the night when Nick Rimando wasn’t in the mood for dealing with that kinda shit tonight.
And who’s that over there, oh right it’s Bright F-ing Dike. So there’s that.
Johnson never really felt like a part of the game in the way that the RLS attackers were and that was because the Timbers didn’t have the tight movement between attackers. The distances were too great so any ball that went up there was immediately contested in 1-on-1’s, never allowing us to overload the attack to our advantage because we’d general lose out or fail to control the play.
Johnson’s desire to run the channels meant that our play in the final third was built around finding a quick ball into space for him to run onto to, or to create space for others with his movement. We never really got the passing quick and crisp enough, and the movement was just a little too late to make RSL sweat too greatly.
It’s little surprise that both goals were something from nothing.
Nagbe took everyone by surprise with a typically Nagbian fuck-this-I’ll-score-then-if-no-one-else-will move. Then Valencia stung the palms of Rimando for Zizzo to follow up on.
It’s kinda interesting, I think, to note that Zizzo announces his return with a goal, albeit little more than a consolation in the end, just as Dike is being rebooted ready to bring some pent-up Autumnal cheer to MLS defences. This pair were the highlight of an often grim interimship, and there’s something about the timing of it all this that makes me wonder if Porter might see if lightning could strike twice there.
What’s been missing, as well as goals, from Johnson’s game has been assists and Zizzo served up a handful in the run last year, with Dike his primary beneficiary.
In many ways the problems that exist with Johnson would, in theory, remain if we played Dike. Dike isn’t going to play like Piquionne, the only guy on the attack on Valeri’s level if you exclude Nagbe on the basis that levels don’t apply in his case, but he’s going to play like Dike.
If Valeri sits for a while, that changes things and perhaps makes room for Zizzo and a change to a system that exloits that. Perhaps we even see Zizzo in at right-back, or exchanging roles up and down the right with Powell.
Toronto are next up, at Jeld- Wen Field and Chivas away follow, and this, quite frankly, should-win double could put six points on the board and restore some confidence in a team that has a chance to avenge the results of this past week in our own backyard before this year is out. They also perhaps afford Porter that breathing-room, while meaning no disrespect, to freshen some and unleash others.
Those games will, ultimately, decide our fate in regards to the postseason. Looking at the table, as I said earlier RSL are my top team, and I put LA and, sadly, Seattle through with them. That leaves ourselves, FC Dallas, Colorado Rapids, Vancouver Whitecaps and San Jose Earthquakes. On reflection, I’d have been quicker listing the teams that are out of contention for those two spots in the West: Chivas USA.
After Toronto (also out of the playoff race in the East) the Timbers play out their year in the West, so the players can sleep in the own bed but it’s unlikely to be comfortable sleeping if they can’t put points on the board in games against our rivals.
There are a lot of six-pointers to come, given how close the race is, but Portland will need to improve on recent form, and quickly, if they are to end the year with the unspoken promise of postseason soccer fulfilled.
We’re this close, and quite frankly, it’ll be a disappointment if we don’t make it now. It’s in our hands, and we’re lucky to have three matches against teams with little to play for. It’s been a long time since we played against a team that ultimately doesn’t look like making the playoffs, and we lost that match in Columbus to a single goal in early July.
A run of eight games against genuine playoff contenders, east and west, has seen Portland scrape nine points off two wins and three draws. We have five more of those kind of games, at least, so getting full points against the other teams is a must.
Toronto and Chivas back-to-back perhaps affords us the chances to rest guys like AJB and Ryan Johnson, and start to feed guys back in and look to find something that works for who we’ve got right now. There’s no shame with going to places like Seattle and Sandy and coming back with nothing to show for it, but the manner of the latest defeat would be a signal to me that we need to freshen things up a bit.
The other space that I could tie back to my Trek diversion at the start is the space to breath, and to heal. We settle back into a regular weekly schedule, so no more three games in nine days carry on. That helps down the stretch.
We can cry foul every time we’re wronged by officials, on the pitch and off, but ultimately we hold our own fate in our hands with five matches at home, where we’re unbeaten since March.
We host Colorado, LA, Seattle and RSL and we arguably need to win at least two or three of those. Trips to Vancouver and Chivas USA, twice, could bring to an end a horrible run of one point in our last five road trips. That goalless draw against te Union was also our last clean sheet, the fourth in six games at the time.
There’s no doubting the effect of injuries on the team. McKenzie underwhelmed and we’re missing Will Johnson like Chicago Fire communication directors miss points, so it’s good to look ahead and see, in the first half of September at least, a potential for some good news stories.
Dike and Futty are coming back, Horst too, and we live in hope, day-to-day, that good news will come and our Johnson will be restored to its former glory in the hole where we’ve lacked penetration in the last few weeks, or been punished for unwise lunges by seeing red.
We’ve also seen another side of Kalif in the past few games, and he’s been a rare bright spot. I sometimes come off as down on Kalif, but it’s only because there’s clearly so much more to him than he’s shown, consistently at least.
The things about injury crises is they always pass, no matter how long they seem to drag on at the time. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and we’re not alone in facing off against playoff rivals, but if we can hold our nerve there’s no reason why this story has to end before with another tale of nearly-made-it.