Ryan Johnson doesn’t really belong on the list, but there’s a strong-to-pretty-much-certain chance that he’s going to end up on it. It’s not a pretty list, certainly not one you would think someone would choose to be on, and yet Ryan Johnson is, in a way, doing just that. An offer has been made to him to sign for the Timbers in 2014, but seemingly he is more interested in pursuing offers abroad (especially at the salary level Portland would’ve wanted him to sign up, to allow them to still deal in other areas) and so it’s on the list he goes: that list of one year wonders who filled the #9 spot in the roster for a season, then packed their bags and headed east.

There’s just something about this place that exposes the very best or worst in people, but the reason Johnson doesn’t truly belong on that list alongside Kenny Cooper or Kris Boyd (dream on Danny Mwanga, you’re a footnote at best) is that rather than expose weaknesses in his game, while playing in Portland Johnson delivered consistent results as part of a rotating attack.

It’s been interesting to some chatter framing this as the Timbers looking for an “upgrade” for Johnson. I know he has his critics, and there are times I’ve thought he’s had a tendency to drift out of matches, or fail to impose himself on opposing defences in the way an attacker playing Porterball has to in order that the likes of Valeri, Nagbe or Wallace can load bullets into the chamber for him or others. I’m really not so sure it’s an upgrade that Gavin Wilkinson and Caleb Porter will be looking for.

Wilkinson did the rounds, mentioning that he has “to go out and find a #9 that can complement Urruti and share time”, something that describes Ryan Johnson pretty well. I’m sure he has chafed at a lack of time, in the way that, say, a guy of more advanced years and having already played out his career at a high level in Europe might not , but I wouldn’t expect a winner like Caleb Porter to hold a player’s desire to play against him, so long as he channels it into performances on the pitch when he gets let off the leash.

It’s also significant that Gavin are upfront that this isn’t a Cooper-Boyd eggs-in-one-basket situation where the team’s hopes are pinned on a striker (a position notorious for flaky performers, especially in the $100-$300K range) bagging the goals. To a large degree, that gamble was made last year when Diego Valeri joined as the #10, and it paid off.

It’s easy to get drawn in by the glamor of the goal-getter since they are the one individual on the team who gets more of the spotlight than the others, by virtue of doing that whole “putting the ball in the net” thing. They get the big contracts and endorsement deals cos it’s a lot easier to stitch together highlight reels of great goals and assists than it is to highlight great reading of the play, and intelligent possession of the ball. Also, scoring goals is just sexier.

Are they worth it though? Wilkinson has seen his colleague in the head coaches office make the assumption that investment in dollars would yield a bounty in goals twice, and be proven wrong and he only needs to look around the league to see how little importance they have if the team isn’t there to back them up.

This might seem a strange thing to say when the league has seen 3 players score 20 or more for the first – equalling the tally from 2007 to 2011 – as well as heavy investment in the likes of Robbie Keane, Clint Dempsey and (rumored) Jermaine Defoe. Surely that points to more goalscorers in the league, and yet if you look as the figures for the top 20 goalscorers in 2013 it shows that the teams that actually progressed into the postseason didn’t rely so heavily on bulk scorers, like Camilo at Vancouver or Magee in Chicago.

Counting only players in the MLS Top 20 goal scorers, except in the case of Seattle and Houston whoe top goalscorers didn't make the list.
Counting only players in the MLS Top 20 goal scorers, except in the case of Seattle and Houston whoe top goalscorers didn’t make the list.

Marco di Vaio was the only player to make it to the postseason with 20 goals under his belt (where he promptly flopped and picked up a red card on the way out). There’s certainly no need for Porter and Wilkinson to go out there looking for a 20 goal a year striker to replace Ryan Johnson’s almost 1 goal every 2 games average (taken on goals per 90 mins), not when goals are coming from elsewhere – Ryan was one of 3 Timbers players in the top 20, the only club with 3 players on the list.

In a talk with the official site, Wilkinson mentioned a few names as the kind of player they were looking for to replace the Jamaican striker: Robbie Keane, Di Vaio, Chris Wondolowski and Mike Magee. “We’re looking for a finisher,” he says.

Certainly those guys are finishers…

striker stats

There’s two primary ways to read Ryan Johnson’s figures here. One is of that ineffectual striker who failed to get involved enough with the attack (his low shots per 90 compared to the other four), the other is of a striker who was clinical when chances his way (high accuracy and conversion rate on a par with the MLS MVP). Perhaps it’s a bit of both, and Wilkinson’s highlighting of busy finishers like Magee and Wondolowski, who both average a shot more per 90 minutes, would seem to indicate that the thinking from within is that Johnson could’ve got more if he’d worked harder to get into position more, or integrated better into the attack.

I’m not sure how much more to expect from a #9 in the system we’ve seen from Porter so far. The attack is built around the ability of players to swap roles and stay mobile, which can often take that central striker out of his place, leaving a gap for someone else to fill. Indeed, we saw a more enthusiastic approach from Frederic Piquionne, but to little effect.

timbers strikers

Ryan Johnson’s position as the most efficient striker on the Timbers books is rock solid, and for all Piquionne peppering less than a third troubled the opposing keeper, and a fraction of those bested him. Valencia’s figures closely match those of Piquionne, even though his style is about as different from the veteran as it’s possible to go. Johnson’s shots per 90 doesn’t look so bad here, suggesting that there is something fundamental about Porter’s system that delivers good quality chances to a striker on an irregular basis.

Losing Johnson is far from ideal, though given his place as just one part of an attack Porter would rotate it’s not a crisis, nor is a sign of failure that he’s moving on without the club moving heaven and earth to try and keep him first. I’m not sure that Wilkinson’s goal of bringing in a busier striker is one that would work without some big changes to how the Timbers attack works (not something I’d rule out, to be fair), but I don’t think those names were an accident (nor a shopping list). With Piquionne getting on, and Valencia still a bit too raw and overeager, in need of a run of competitive games to find his natural level and groove, it would make more sense to be getting a Keane or Magee type (or a budget-appropriate facsimile thereof) to fill in here with someone like Urruti, and even Nagbe, given the task of doing Johnson’s job of pitching in as part of a more diffuse attack. Both share a keen eye for goal in terms of conversion rates, though Nagbe tends to be a better instinctual finisher than when he has time to think about it, but their accuracy drags their numbers down (goals per 90). Nagbe’s playing from deeper, and Urruti still finding his feet at a new club probably account for a good deal of this.

Wilkinson’s quote that they are looking for someone to “complement Urruti” is telling as it places Urruti at the centre of the attack, where Ryan Johnson was in 2013. No striker saw more game time than Johnson, despite call-ups to his national team (another consideration for Porter and Wilkinson moving into a World Cup year that also sees the club compete in the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time) and while it’s natural to frame the departure of own attacker and the arrival on another as the latter replacing the former, I think Johnson replacement was actually signed away back in early September, a little over a year after Portland made their first 2013 move by trading T**y P*****s (I don’t want you losing it again, Merritt) for Donovan Ricketts with a chunk of 2012 left. If Johnson’s eye truly is on a move abroad, then the club were already likely aware of the strong chance that he would be moving on long before the end of the season, allowing them to make a move that gets someone in, and settled, before the next campaign starts.

I don’t see the goal this offseason as being to add a headline striker ala Cooper or Boyd. I’m not sure how such a player would even fit into Porter’s team. Such a “greedy” striker – there was always a sense with those guys that if they picked the ball up 40 yards from goal, with 5 defenders between them and the net, their first thought would still be “I could score from here” and there would a strong chance they’d follow through on that without the second thought of “I wonder who would have a better chance of scoring than me?” – would unbalance the attack in such a way as to starve our other offensive assets of the ball and have the knock-on effect of potentially lowering the quality and/or frequency of goalscoring chances. That’s why someone like Piquionne was ideal as he brought the increased frequency of shots as well as still working within the framework laid down by the coach, and he would spend time on the bench without being disruptive to the group – a much underrated asset when games can come in burst of 3 in a week.

I’m sure that if a 25 goal a season striker came on the market, and he fitted in to what Caleb Porter wanted from his attack in 2014 (AND he didn’t cost a fortune, AND no-one else had already snapped this mythical striker up already), then we’d try and sign him, but I don’t think goal tally is the be-all and end-all. Porter ended our reliance on talismanic strikers in 2013, I don’t see him taking us backwards willingly. (Did I really just say a guy who scores at about a goal per game was a backwards move? I think I did. Yeesh.) But fitting in as part of a squad, and not just as part of the starting 11, is the primary goal and any benefit in terms of individual glory has to be weighed against the collective.

Gavin Wilkinson said specifically that he wanted to find a #9, one that would complement Urruti, suggesting that the Argentine wasn’t or isn’t that #9 and, by implication, neither was Johnson. Piquionne was, and it was once it became clear in preseason (or before) that for all Johnson’s ruthlessness in front of goal he wasn’t the #9 Porter needed, we went out and signed an old head to fulfill that role while we got it right elsewhere – fitting Valeri into the system, and getting the likes of Nagbe and Wallace playing off him was of greater importance to the team than trying to find the right balance to get the best out of an expensive, flaky striker. With attention turning to “fixing” the areas where we lacked last year (supporting width, central defence and attack), Piquionne’s spot in the team would seem to be the one needing most work. I’m sure, at the right price, there is a role for Frederic in 2014, but it’ll likely involve riding the pine a lot more as cover for our new #9, as well as Urruti, until (ideally) Valencia starts to deliver on his promise.

I started out by saying that it was unfair to put Ryan Johnson on the same list as Kenny Cooper and Kris Boyd as Johnson had actually done exactly what we’d hoped for, and played well for the most part. This is backed up by the figures that show him as an improvement where it counts (in front of goal) despite, or perhaps because of, not having the weight of the attack on his shoulders.

the list

The real reason he doesn’t belong on that list is because he was never a #9 in the first place. Despite this, the Timbers outscored all but two team during the regular season; of these two teams, New York had only three players score over 7 goals while RSL lacked their big goalscorer (Saborio) for patches throughout the year and had only two players score over 7 – Portland had 5 players with 7 or more goals. The key to teams scoring more (and let’s not forget that the player who scores a hattrick in a 4-3 defeat still earns his team exactly zero points, regardless of how awesome his goals were) isn’t in one guy bagging the bulk (Di Vaio scored 40% of Montreal’s goals, Camile got 42% of Vancouver’s – Johnson, Urruti, Piquionne and Valencia together contributed 22% of Portland’s goals) but in players sharing of the load as part of a more mobile, less predictable way and it’s team goals that will win more games, not individuals. Given Porter’s devout worship at the Church of Three Points, he’ll be more keenly aware of this most.

So, long story short, if and when the “replacement” for Ryan Johnson comes alongs, I don’t want to hear any “upgrade” talk from anyone, ‘kay?

5 thoughts on “#9

  1. Fantastic. The only piece that I think is lacking is an examination of how Johbson sets up our other goal scorers. My eye test says ‘not well’. Our other 7+ goal scorers all racked up significant assists, and were part of a rotating system. I think Johnson as a weak link in that loop, due to his lack of a soft first touch and inability to make creative passes.

    I really want Urruti to be that guy. There were glimpses from the end of the year that were encouraging, but I wasn’t blown away. Then again, I think we saw from Dempsey that plugging quality into a system halfway through the season isn’t necissarily going to bring early returns.

    1. Yeah, I think that speaks to him not quite fitting in. Also, four international call-ups over the season disrupted his fluency, and there were very few complete 90 minutes played over the year.

      He wasn’t the bustling, busy #9 that got as involved in trying to beat the keeper as a Keane might, but his tendency to drift out of games meant he wasn’t as effective as an attacking foil for others, putting the onus on Valeri, Nagbe etc to produce something special. That doesn’t mean he flopped, though, as I think the job he ended up doing, he did well and putting up solid numbers in terms of accuracy and finishing, it’s just it wasn’t the #9 Porter wanted, or at least wants going forward.

      Urruti could be the guy, and I look at him and see much of what we get from Ryan Johnson, but with a bit more link-up play and, well, Argentinianess which should go nicely with Valeri, but he needs time to bed in – hence why I think we jumped on getting him at a time when we looked more likely to finish 3rd-5th that 1st. Build for next year when Johnson would likely be gone, and look to add a more penalty-box focused striker in the off-season, on a budget and willing to rotate in and out as needed while still working within the rather broad definition of Porterball.

    2. Johnson had 4 assists which tied Nagbe. Based on his assists/minutes he was more productive than Nagbe. Of course I feel like Nagbe did a lot of other things to help the offensive production…like maintain possession, link up passes, carry the ball up field, etc… that eventually lead to chances and goals.

      1. Johnson, in the mood an in sync with the guys around him, was definitely an asset but as you say, there are other intangibles that aren’t measured so simply as shots at goal. I don’t think the plan was ever to have a recognised #9 this year. Johnson was 28, playing at the highest level he’d reached and a couple of years removed from the only double-figure goalscoring season on his MLS career. Even then, his goals per 90 mins in 2009 was actually marginally lower (0.44) than his 2013 figures (0.46), and his shots per 90 in 2009 was a little higher (2.37 – 2.18, or about 6 shots if he played every minute of ever regular season game) so this really was about the best you could expect from him. He delivered.

        Getting Valeri right, and slotting Will Johnson in beside Diego and getting the double pivot working was more important than a Robbie Keane-like goalscorer in year one. There’s only so much you can do in a year – just ask the old guy. So someone who could get involved in play with his back to goal, or off the shoulder of his marker like RJ was ideal, but going forward we can, hopefully, get that from Urruti (with a bit more emphasis on upping the tempo of our play in the final third, if only he can get fully locked onto Diego and Darlington’s wavelength) and add a more appropriate #9 to take down those defences that are resiliant to our attacks from the gaps between lines. This piece was largely written after picking up a few vibes that Johnson’s relative lack of goals compared to the players mentioned by Wilkinson, or on twitter, was painting his stint in the role as a kind of, albeit mild, failure since he was even outscored by the guy bought to create the chances. Not the case, and I hope he lands in a good place. He’s 29, so it’s a last shot for him to step outside the North American bubble again and make a mark.

  2. great analysis as always. My only concern, after watching the ‘every goal from the season’ video is that RJ scored a lot of headers…I’d kind of forgotten that. Urruti doesn’t seem like much of an aerial presence which worries me. We are a fairly short team and a forward that was good in the air seems like a big need for crosses and set pieces. I realize FP is amazing in the air, but I have to think if he is back, his minutes will be limited.

    maybe urruti is good in the air…we really haven’t seen much from him. If we are signing a new #9 I do hope he is a bigger presence with good, solid head.

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