The Core

The Core


After a 1-0 victory against Douchey Clint & the Cunt Bunch, the Timbers moved to within 180 minutes of filling the temporary Cascadia Cup-shaped hole in the trophy room with a Supporters Shield. The win wasn’t a swashbuckling display of their superiority over The Team That Don Bought, but was marked out as another tough win ground out, at times, in a manner that’s coming to define “Porterball” as much as any of the stylish attacking football that we do still see in fits and starts deep into October, which is no mean feat when you play with this intensity on dreaded turf.

Just as well the pitch is so small here – saves energy for these late season runs. Nice out-of-the-shoebox- thinking, guys.

Despite only scoring once in four of the last five matches, the Timbers have defied the odds by winning three of those and drawing the other, because we don’t do losing anymore it seems. The last four matches have seen changes to the starting XI made in the case of injury or international duty, with Porter putting a lot of faith in a small core of trusted players. This is a marked difference from the team of last season, which should come as no surprise given how that year played out.

30 players have played over 50% of MLS minutes for the Timbers in their respective seasons, and they’re pretty evenly distributed across the years, with 10 in 2011, 9 in 2012 and 11 this year so far.

Players Minutes 111213

The real differences start to reveal themselves as you look at who the teams relied on most by setting the bar a bit higher, to 75% of minutes across the whole year. This gives you an idea of the team’s “core”. When you looked at this number, you noticed a big shift to 6-3-6 players across the respective seasons.

There is a chicken-and-egg scenario at play here: do teams do poorly because of inconsistent selection, or is selection inconsistent because of poor play? Probably a bit of both, on balance, with each feeding the other in a viscous cycle. Nevertheless, that the majority of teams that reach the playoffs do so while relying on a core of 6-7 consistent performers while the sides down the bottom tend to have only 2 or 3 regulars.

Timbers XI

This year is the first that you could theoretically pick a “best XI”, or at least, “most available XI”, and if you wanted to stretch it further then the bench would consist of (in order from most minutes to least) Alhassan, Danso, Zemanski, Piquionne, Silvestre (yes, still), Valencia and Kocic (since we need a keeper). That’s a pretty deep bench, just a shame we’ve never had it.

On paper, the numbers of the 2011 and 2013 squads are similar: 6 “core” players made up of a solid keeper, defender, two hard-working midfielders and a couple of attacking players. So why did Spencer fail in ‘11 doing the same thing with his team as Porter in ‘13?

Well, putting aside how they did things differently on the pitch, we can look at the “best” team from the first year and see what it tells us.

Timbers XI 2011

Chara quickly, and rightly so, establishes himself as a fixture in the team, a constant across all seasons, joined by Jewsbury for the first two, and Will for the latest. Brunner and Perkins at the back were pretty solid, as it goes, but the problems arise when you look at who we were relying on in attack.

Kenny Cooper flopped and Alhassan hadn’t yet developed beyond the idea of what a good player should be. That’s not an attack that instills fear in the hearts of of opposing defence. Of the rest, Perlaza didn’t score enough, Wallace was at least forty yards too deep, and Nagbe was sparking into life here and there, but lacked guidance on the pitch at times and could disappear from games. The balance wasn’t right from the start with too much placed on a big name striker returning to the league after some years in Europe (what could go wrong there?), and a bunch of players who were new to MLS.

Timbers XI 2013

This year’s team is a pretty good XI, actually. I wouldn’t mind seeing that one take the field anytime soon. Harrington is the first fullback to feature in over 75% of minutes, and if he sees another 25 minutes over the last two games, he’ll blow past Eric Brunners single year record for minutes played (2795). There’s a good chance Ricketts and Nagbe will also pass Brunner’s total this year.

Looking at the “core” attack this year it’s potential player of the year Diego Valeri and a much more comfortable and assured Darlington Nagbe. Never underestimate the value of timing, something Caleb Porter would understand from having to build teams with a high turnover and range of ability, and he’s walked into a job with a bunch of young players like Nagbe and Alhassan as well as Valencia and Jean-Baptiste all hitting that point where they are maturing into the footballers we hoped they could be as well as an owner and front office that were eager to set two years of effort right whatever it took. Take nothing away from the work he’s done with these guys, but a keen eye for talent and squad building such as himself would’ve known there was a potential bounty to harvest in Portland if he managed it right, and you can see more and more why he waited for the right job, and why a struggling Portland ticked the right boxes, before stepping up to MLS.

As much as this season was shaping up to be the the Year of the Centre Back, with defenders dropping like flies, the fact is that here we sit with two games between the Timbers and the Supporters Shield, and the last thing on most people’s minds is the horror show in defence. Four clean sheets in the last six, with each one hard fought for and Donovan Ricketts taking the lion-in-zion’s share of plaudits for a string of saves that pretty much raise a middle digit at medical science, given the sense that the big man is, at times, only just held together by the collective intake of breath of the North End late in games these days.

No, in fact 2012 was the year where it all went wrong at the back, and that was despite signing Hanyer Mosquera to solve our problems.

Timbers XI 2012

2012 sees no defenders at all register over 75% of minutes, with Brunner going down with a long injury and nipping a potential partnership with Mosquera in the bud. Also, never underestimate the value of luck in this game, and 2012 saw the Timbers in short supply of it.

Despite seemingly being the guy to mould a stout defence around, Mosquera failed to hit the 75% mark (68%) and though Perkins would’ve got over that mark if he’d, you know, still been here by the end of the year, it’s telling that no defenders saw consistent time that year. Luck played its part, and key injuries certainly didn’t help matters, but bad planning was also a factor as the Timbers failed to build on the previous year’s pretty solid foundation. Cooper aside, 2011 hadn’t gone that terribly, and we nearly did make the playoffs in the end, but when it came to building on what he had, Spencer opted to raize it all and start again, albeit with the same blueprints.

It was Gus Vant’s Psycho, a worthless shot-for-shot remake, only with Kris Boyd cast in the lead as Kenny Cooper, with support from Franck Songo’o as Kalif Alhassan and Steven Smith as company for the million dollar striker. Things duly failed again, and we all know how that turned out.

It could’ve been different. It didn’t have to fail. Boyd is better than Cooper, by a margin, and Songo’o took a holiday at trained at Barcelona, so possessed some decent skills. And I’d’ve taken Smith at left back in February this year if you’d offered him, but Harrington is pretty nifty so I’m happy all the same.

Timbers XI 2012 B

Valeri has been a standout for the Timbers this year, to the surprise of pretty much no-one, and the role of creative midfielder is one fans and writers have been calling out for from day one of MLS Timbers, but was left unfulfilled till Caleb Porter finally brought 21st century soccer to Portland. Eric Alexander could’ve been that guy, but he never fit in here at all, and no-one else was ever really given the job beyond a game here or there, and it left Boyd exposed. Partners came and went, never giving the Scot a chance to build the rapport he needed, and when his own form suffered, his coach responded by lumping more responsibility on him, never once thinking to help his star player by adjusting to play to his strengths. Boyd was never a runner, so it made no sense for Spencer to play a game that stretched play and left penalty-box strikers like Boyd isolated, but that’s what he played, emphasising the wings over players in the centre who could feed the striker balls to feet.

Spencer also failed to solve the right back problem, which was the one position absent on 2011’s “best XI”. Porter has seen to this in both short term – with Jewsbury – and long – with, potentially, Powell – with the likes of Zizzo and Miller in reserve; either guy would’ve improved previous year’s teams, but are mostly kicking their heels this year.

Postseason is imminent. We’ve talked about this moment, and a few of us have probably planned our lives around potential match days, but this is when shit gets real. The coaches and staff all know this, as plenty of them have been over the course at various levels. Carrying momentum in results into the postseason, especially this kind of gritty, hard-to-beat rhythm the Timbers have going right now, is key to going long in the cut-throat knock-out competition that MLS thinks is the best way to crown the year’s best team but even more importantly, Porter knows his team.

Guys like Maxi Urruti have come in and given the team a fresh impetus in attack, and Porter has rested Jean-Baptiste over the run-in to give playing time to the more seasoned Futty Danso, but for the most part his XI is pretty settled. This kind of consistency gives the players a confidence in each other that has been sorely lacking over previous years, and it’s that sense that is providing a platform for Porter’s team to succeed.

Who knows what the team would look like if Portland hadn’t been beset with injuries, but I sense that running with a big squad is not a part of Porter’s agenda and we would be seeing similar playing time numbers all the same. The postseason will ask further questions of the Timbers depth and ability to think on their feet, but so long as Porter has his “core” there’s a sense that he will still find a way to keep it fresh, and to make it work.

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