The off season lumbers on with the owner poking at a wound that fans thought had scabbed over, but it turns out might still be a little raw underneath, and the league patting itself on the back with an awards season that even Grammy organizers think is getting a bit too niche. The players are all off doing whatever it is they do when they’re not kicking a ball about most days and the fans are entertaining themselves in the only way they know how when there is no football to focus them: stoking the drama fire to keep out the cold.
The backroom staff will be working though. The work for 2014 doesn’t begin here, those wheels have been in motion for a long time, but it certainly ramps up a notch as Caleb Porter and, yes Merritt, Gavin Wilkinson start to push pieces across the table, charting the march to silverware liked generals in an old World War II war room.
A D-Day of sorts will be looming for some of the guys who bled green and gold for the team this year; the day that they’ll get the call, or text, to tell them that they’re a Portland Timber no more. In previous years, with the team finding new and interesting ways to fall short expectations and/or implode entirely, it’s been fairly easy to call which players would be getting the heave-ho, but this year is something different. There isn’t a ton of fat to trim from the squad, at least in terms of quality or performances on the pitch, but trim Porter and Wilkinson must because treading water with what we have isn’t going to be good enough.
Real Salt Lake delivered a harsh lesson in the conference final, and while just getting that far (and topping the West after the regular season) was already a spectacular achievement, it wasn’t a win, and Caleb Porter is a winner. Portland took a giant leap forward in 2013, but they are still a small step away from true greatness. Taking that step will mean freshening up, improving and supplementing, and coming back stronger. That means cutting.
Start At The Back
Donovan Ricketts’ Goalkeeper of the Year win was well-deserved. He rolled back the years with one important save after another, and his presence at the back was a reassuring one for fans and fellow players alike. He’ll be 36 by the time Portland kick off the season against Philadelphia in March, and is showing some signs of wear and tear. Despite the many great saves, I still felt there were times he got down to low shots slowly, and bad habits like pushing rebounds back out in front of him aren’t going to be untaught now. Ricketts returns in 2014, I have no doubt, but I wonder if it’s the last hurrah for a big guy whose body always seems to be on the verge of betraying his heart.
The defence in 2013 was like painting the Forth Bridge, the work was never done. Always some change, some shuffle; some by choice, most not. By the end, though, Porter had struck upon a pretty settled four in front of Ricketts – Harrington, Kah, Danso and Jewsbury. The played together through October and November, keeping three clean sheets to round out the regular season. When it came to the postseason crunch though, they concede 8 in 4 against two of the conference’s best sides and teams we can look forward to battling it out with next year.
Tiredness may have played a part as four of the goals they conceded came late in games: a gut-wrenching fourth from Real Salt Lake and three from Seattle with the ties already “won” for Portland. The season is a long one, and 3 ties in 8 days certainly didn’t help, so such late-game fatigue shouldn’t be surprising with an aging defense like Portland’s. By the time First Kick rolls around next season, the back five would have an average of 32, with Michael Harrington the whippersnapper at 28. The 36 year old Mikael Silvestre is still in reserve to add a bit of class, if not pace, to the back.
It’s the lack of speed, more than the abundance of years, that concerns me most. In a system predicated on possession, pressing and playing on the front foot, having a defensive line that can’t play a high line effectively is a severe drawback to any title aspirations. You either sacrifice the space in behind, and hope your offside trap works every time, or you drop off to compensate and open up a space in front. It was from this part of the pitch that Portland were hurt time and again, with Morales of RSL in particular lapping up the pockets of space he was finding there.
Kah and Danso, the Gambian Bash Brothers, will be 33 and 30 next year, and neither bring a lighting burst of pace with them. They bring presence, solidity and intimidation, and a fair bit of a talent to be fair, but not leg speed. Andrew Jean-Baptiste, still only 21, has a bit more of that, but all the rawness of a guy still learning the ropes. The great hope must be that Jean-Baptiste returns after the break, renewed and refreshed for a new year to earn his spot through merit, and not thanks in part to the misfortune of others. The likes of McKenzie were brought in last year, but failed to dislodge Jean-Baptiste from the team, while David Horst missed most of the year through injury.
Horst’s three seasons in Portland have been marked by injuries – ankle and hip knocks in early 2011, hip surgery made him miss the start of 2012, and a hip strain put him out for the start of 2013 with a tibia fracture pretty much ending his year. As with Eric Brunner before him, there are some tough decisions to make and if you accept that Porter’s high tempo, possession based pressing style is at odds with an aging, creaking defence, then it’s hard to make space for a guy who has spent probably half of his time in Portland injured. Horst, like Brunner, is a good MLS defender but like his old colleague, his tendency to “act first, think second” also sets him on the outside of Porter’s more cerebral brand of soccerball. It can lead to many moments of great heroics, but also to those rash decisions that cost the team goals and points.
In the full-back positions, we’re well covered at right back, but very thin at left. It’s okay when Harrington is playing basically every minute, but there’s little doubt that the club needs someone else (besides Jewsbury or Wallace, who are both compromised by playing here) to back him up at least. Alvas Powell’s signing added a bit of youth and verve to the back line and even if the steady head of Jack Jewsbury won out in the end, he has time and potential on his side to dislodge the elder statesman if he wants to. As well as these two, there’s Ryan Miller, Sal Zizzo and Ben Zemanski who can all fill in. Oh, and Michael Harrington. It’s a stark difference from the left side, and long way from the days the team run with pretty much no right-backs to speak of, but had Smith, Chabala and Wallace all in contention on the left.
Given all this, who do I think is on his way out of Portland? It would certainly be hard to see any of the five who started in defense in the playoffs getting cut, but the honest truth is that it’s very unlikely Portland line-up next year with the same configuration. There’s Silvestre to consider first off – does he come back, and if he does, is a 36 year old who just missed a year really the answer, regardless of his footballing pedigree or Rhum making ability. Then I have to reckon that Jean-Baptiste comes back to stake a claim next year. That puts the positions of Kah and Danso at risk.
Kah has already earned cult status among fans, and he’s probably the more polished of the two Gambians if prone to getting caught up in red mist a bit too often, but Danso’s solid run in the team (and 3 years on his elder countryman) has probably earned him a spot at coming back next year. The knock-on of this is that I can’t see much of a future in Portland for McKenzie or Horst. Perhaps if Kah decides to move on, room could be found for a backup with good MLS experience, but I suspect that same experience will be leveraged to use the players as makeweights in potential trade deals.
At full-back, we hope for another injury free year from Harrington while at right back, Ryan Miller and Sal Zizzo have to be worried about the places on the roster. More was expected of Miller, while Zizzo failed to move off the periphery of the team even in a position where the team has historically been weak. True, Zizzo can play as a winger, but it’s hard to see where an old-fashioned winger fits in except to shake it up late in games, more in hope than expectation. When Bright Dike was moved on, Zizzo lost the one guy on the front line he seemed to have the greatest connection with. An unused sub in 16 games after an early-season injury, it’s not too much of a leap to see him slipping out of the club altogether. There are other teams in the league who would benefit from having a good winger in their team, one who racked up a few assists last year with some consistent game time, and Portland would probably get more from trading Zizzo than keeping him. Miller’s future is a bit murkier to read, but I’m sure the front office are open to all inquiries.
Which leaves Jewsbury and Powell. Jack found his home on the team, and I can’t see him being dislodged next year, especially if we do bring back AJB, or generally freshen up in the middle, but I’d certainly want to keep Powell around. There are a lot of rough edges to sand down there, but the talent and the engine are there for him to go on to be a menace to MLS left backs all over the country.
I realize now, nearly 2000 words in, that I won’t get to the rest of the team today. In many ways, the defense is the easy part as it seems fairly obvious that there will be changes there despite having a good year, on the whole. The rest of the squad is a bit tougher to read, so it’s probably right I take a bit of time to think about it a bit more before returning to the topic.
Previous years have seen players leave under a cloud. While I’m sure the likes of Kris Boyd, Lovel Palmer and Mike Fucito will have some fond memories of their time here, for some it didn’t end well and will carry an unpleasant aftertaste. That won’t be the case with the Class of 2013. In some ways, it makes the parting more mournful since there’s a greater sense of having been in this together and achieving some great things, but at least it allows the fans and players to part on good terms.
The building for 2014 has to start with the sweeping away of some of what has gone before. While we fans make our own entertainment, the backroom staff will be hard at work getting ready to announce the first big trade and chances are it’s going to have some impact on the back line.