To fill the long months before the Timbers are back in action, and since it’ll give me an excuse to write about something other than the inevitable drama and rumormongering that will fill timelines in the absence of some kickball, I’ll be doing an occasional series on certain goals or passages of play that sum up what was 2013 for me.
I’m still weighing up whether the site will be able to run in 2014. Finally settled in Southern Oregon, it’s back to school for me which brings all kinds of drains on time and finances that would make it hard to run the site as I hoped to. Still, I do have ideas of how it could return for next season in a format more geared towards longer-form pieces that don’t necessarily have to follow the “who’s injured this week/trade rumor” news cycle. Having writers like C.I. DeMann (buy his book, seriously – it’s better than buying him a beer since you both win this way, though you could do that too) and John Lawes covering the teams from game to game took a lot of the load off me and made it a bit more fun for me, and I’d love to get some of the talented writers and watchers of the game that follow this team of ours on the site now and then to wax lyrical, and long if they want, about the topics that matter to them.
That’s all for the new year though, so let’s bring on the the goals.
Diego Valeri, and how things would never be the same again.
It makes sense to start at the beginning since it served notice, 13 minutes in, that this was an entirely different team to what had come before in Portland. I mean, that was obvious already to anyone with even the vaguest repressed memory of the previous season. Six debutants starting, and Ricketts still carried a faint whiff of Eau de Ginge about him, with a new coach in the dugout. Same fans though.
Some things never change.
The Timbers fell down 1-0 before 10 minutes were done, but the way they fought back highlighted just how deep the changes went from last year to this. The mentality difference is a piece for another time, perhaps, and since I started this by saying I was going to frame the discussion around goals, it’s the difference in playing style I’ll write about here.
The move for the goal started fairly innocuously, from New York’s point of view.
Squint a bit, and ignore the text, and you could be looking a a screengrab from 2011 or 2012. Both those years were marked by the “get it wide, whip it in” mentality that John Spencer wanted to instill in his team. To achieve this he brought strikers big in both goal scoring pedigree and stature and put a high value in acquiring full-backs who could get up the line and whip in a cross.
The futility of playing such a system with guys like Kenny Cooper and Kris Boyd in attack, or Lovel Palmer and Mike Chabala swinging the balls in, is a subject that all Timbers fans are well aware of, but examples of this kind of mentality litter those years with Chivas in 2011 and Boyd’s first MLS goal being good examples of what John Spencer was aiming for, but never quite hitting consistently enough.
So, given that the Timbers are known for having a playbook that ranges all the way from Plan A to Plan A, and Ryan Johnson is a big guy, it makes sense for the New York defence to back off a bit into their own box, anticipating a ball whipped in for the Jamaican to attack. Which is just what the Timbers want you to think.
In a moment, Portland are able to turn a position of seeming weakness – 1 man in the box, 7 outfield New York player behind the ball – into a strength through two passes and four sublime touches from Diego Valeri.
It really is that simple when you’re that good.
Make no mistake, without Valeri’s magic, this isn’t a surefire goalscoring opportunity when he picks up the ball. Sure, he could try a snapshot, but we all know those are hit and miss even with the best players, or maybe he drops a shoulder and gets pushed off by the bigger defender or squeezes a shot out from under immense pressure. Still, the passes and the way Portland shaped to play the cross ball in order that the guy on the opposite side of the pitch could get a few yards of space in front of the box was a radical shift away from the route-one of old.
This trick, the shock of the new, always wears off however. Over June and July, Portland would fail to score in 3 of 5 games, while those goals they did get were becoming more difficult to come by. Of course there were extenuating factors, the fact Porter rarely had a settled team to pick from just one of them, but it is nonetheless noticeable that it was only once they started to adopt a new approach, the results started to come again. In 9 of their last 15 matches, Portland “lost” the possession battle, compared to 2 of the first 15. Porterball, if it ever existed, had changed to become something else.
The issue was never about talent, as it so often had been in years one and two. We had the talent, the issue was that other teams had found ways to neutralise it. Porter’s genius was in adapting to this, and changing in a way that was subtle, evolutionary.
In the end, the team came up short over 180 minutes against Real Salt Lake. It had been a long season, and there were some tired legs on the field by the time the final whistle went. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in that, and that’s why the fans stayed behind to proclaim their heroes all the same.
We understand that not every player on the field that night will be back in Portland next year, at least not in Timbers green. There will be new faces, and new heroes next years I’m sure as Porter looks to bridge that gap to the likes of RSL, but one man that will remain here is someone who I saw draw some criticism on twitter for being unable to change the tie in Portland’s favor.
Diego Valeri’s play over the season has underlined the difference this year. Here was a big name signing that lived up to the hype, and more. Whether it was assists, goals, or just all round link up play, it’s hard to think of any highlights on the pitch that year that don’t in some way involve Valeri at some point.
The blowback was inevitable as his name was tossed into the hat for MVP awards. Much of it seemed to be centred on how other players – Will Johnson, Darlington Nagbe, Donovan Ricketts – deserved it more, which is a good position to be in as a fan, I guess. Valeri’s underperformance when it mattered was used as a stick to beat him with, conveniently ignoring the facts that all of those players would have individual reasons to look back over the the last two matches and wince at some “what could’ve been” moments, and that Valeri is playing through the postseason carrying an injury.
All of this is my way of saying that Valeri would be my pick for player of the year, if such a thing had any value. Without all of the players working as a team, none would truly shine as individuals, but Valeri’s impact just has that little bit extra sparkle for me. I get why others have gone for Will, the captain’s captain, or Nagbe, though I feel when he has an MVP year, everyone’ll know he had an MV-MF’ing-P year, or Ricketts, the man with the cleanest sheets this side of a marine barracks.
This goal set the stage for what was to come, both from the club as a whole and Valeri as an individual.
It was going to be a good year.