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.
Remember last year when Dike burst onto the scene late in the season and started lighting up scoreboards? Yeah. Again. Now. I believe.
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.
Who is this Kalif that puts shots of frame? Where did he come from? When did we sign him? #RCTID
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.
I’ll begin with the moment that we’re probably all thinking of: an injury-time header against last years MLS Cup champions, a team who thoroughly out-classed the Timbers on their last visit to Jeld-Wen in a 5-3 rout that saw the Galaxy net 4 in 9 minutes and then coast through the next 60 minutes at a canter. Andrew Jean-Baptiste was a stalwart on defense all through the game, showing again how he could handle Keane and Zardes with his strength, speed, awareness, and presence. ESPN’s match summary reads…
Once again, stoppage time wasn’t kind to the Galaxy, as Portland stunned the champs with a late goal. L.A.’s veteran back line wasn’t to blame this time, either. Instead, it was youngster Gyasi Zardes who was victimized by Jean-Baptiste.
Funny that Jean-Baptiste and Zardes are both 21, but only one is a youngster. This is perhaps accurate though, he has been learning, changing, improving in leaps since he was drafted at the beginning of 2012.
06/19/2013 At LA
Here he is paired with Pa Modou Kah for the Gambian’s first start, and one could be forgiven for worrying that this debut pairing would look like his debut with Silvestre against NY at home. Instead and the two of them looked near-unbeatable. His speed kept him blocking the counter-attacking passing lanes that LA have exploited for years, he blocked runs, his deft touch nicking the ball from Robbie Keane in style. Jean-Baptiste and Kah held a Donovan, a Keane, and a blazingly fast Zardes all on the field and the Timbers looked, except for two sharp shots on goal, in safe hands. Keane is nothing if not quick and clever in both drawing penalties and sneaking behind or in front of defenders, ghosting free to link up with Donovan but neither of those happened in LA. We were all left to wonder if this centerback pairing may look like the future of the Timbers backline that had seen 3 futures already this season.
05/08/2013 At Dallas
In Dallas and Jean-Baptiste is paired with Futty, replacing David Horst, gone for the season with an ACL tear, doing admirably. Small errors here and here, but steady and solid until the 75 minute, when he yanks the jersey of Blas Perez, who begins to fall. Jean-Baptiste inexplicably tries to hold him by his jersey. If you watch the replay, Perez is leaning back away from him and Jean-Baptiste is whipping him around 180 degrees, trying to hold him upright. Whether he thought Perez was going to slip behind if he let go or if he worried he’d have a penalty called if Perez hit the ground, a more seasoned defender would have let him go earlier. He did not, Juan Guzman gives him a yellow and a penalty, Kenny Cooper slots in the penalty, and the Timbers walk out of Dallas with a single point instead of three. Perhaps he’s not directly at fault, but he’s implicated, and for a defender such an implication is not a good thing.
03/16/2013 At Seattle
In Seattle, there he is in the 15th minute, paired with Silvestre because David Horst is still injured, bumping Eddie Johnson from behind, sprinting to catch him after Silvestre steps too far forward and Johnson finds a clear path into the empty box with only Jean-Baptiste in any position to defend. He’s lucky to not be sent off, the Timbers are lucky to not give up a second goal on a dangerous free kick. In the stands we groan and worry. It’s a tactical foul, and one done prudently, but it’s naked enough to referee that it’s dangerous, the sort of thing that can lead to a red with an uncharitable referee and leave a team 75 minutes to try to catch up a man down. And then there he is again, redemptive: in injury time, with a delicate cross into the box 10 yards out that Rodney Wallace tucks into the corner with his head and silences most of CenturyLink, leaving the visitors all alone in the empty cavernous 300’s singing.
02/17/2013 Preseason San Jose
Barely 2 minutes in, here he is with his left arm ever so slightly out-stretched as he tries to mark Mike Fucito, who misdirects a first time cross into the aforementioned arm. Just like the end of the season in 2012, Wondolowski tucks the penalty away in front of the North End. Two minutes later Ryan Johnson loops a glancing header over Jon Busch. Jean-Baptiste runs the length of the field to embrace him. I wonder, watching as I am alone from a conference room in Texas, whether he’ll be off on loan again, assessed as not quite ready for MLS for another year yet.
10/29/2012 San Jose
Here he is back after his loan spell at LA Blues, for his first start since the season opener against Philadelphia, bookending the promise of the beginning of the season with a promise of the next season. San Jose is in punishing form, Supporters Shield winners already, Lenhart and Gordon imposing their physicality, throwing themselves into defenders fearlessly and somehow still controlling deft flicks to one another and Wondolowski. ESPN is watching this game because Wondolowski is chasing Roy Lassiters record for most goals in a season and the porous Timbers defense looks like the backdrop for a record-setting. Wondo has 26, Lassiter 27. And then there is Jean-Baptiste, 6’2, 210 pounds, punishing Lenhart, blocking out Wondolowski, chasing back, logging 20 clearances against a team that played almost exclusively in the air. His passing and distribution are varied and intelligent, his speed and strength plainly obvious. He looks like the future and he looks as if he might be given the chance to be so.
There he is in the 51st minute, watching Gabriel Gomez’s free kick sail towards him, tick off of his head in a half-hearted attempt at a clearance, then turning to watch it fly past Troy Perkins. Originally recorded as an own goal, it was given to Gomez, mercifully. And then, again, there he is 3 minutes later meeting a free-kick with a perfectly timed leap and guiding it to the far post where it sneaks under Zac Macmath on the wet turf of Portland in March. And that’s the thing of Andrew Jean-Baptiste: his mistakes are almost always followed by his redemptions. We don’t see this that year though, Baptiste goes to the LA Blues for further development, not to return until the end of the season, Mosquera, Horst, and Futty preferred for the rest of the season. Perhaps it was that initial error or perhaps that was the plan all along, but the pattern one can see there in his first start is the pattern one can see again and again, a learning mistake and a fiery focus born of the need to make amends.
From my limited experience here is how it goes as a defender: you make painful errors that lose your teams points and pride and faith in you and then you have two options: to center, focus, redouble your efforts and carry on, or shrink from the job and vanish. Strikers can score once or twice to retain their place, defenders need but err once or twice to lose theirs. He’s not immune to errors and until very recently he was quietly dreaded for them as much as his raw talent was admired, but as we see more of him, we can he has that tenacious absolute drive that seems to snap him into the right places in games, making crucial blocks and clearances, delivering passes, slipping away from his marker to catch a header.
According to a Merritt Paulson tweet last year, Andrew Jean-Baptiste is the second fastest man on the team, second only to Nagbe. For a man built like a linebacker or rugby player this is no small talent but that is all that is, a talent. That talent though, seems to be matched by a growing intelligence, confidence, and ability to shape not only a backline but a game. I have a theory as to why this seems to be happening so quickly. The thing of the Porter Timbers is that their style and objectives, defined with the kind of clear-eyed conciseness that Porter displays everywhere, allow players to learn and grow because there is a sense of how things are probably going to be that limits the number of wrong moves the team will make or an individual will make within the team. “Style is in limitation” as Helenio Herrera said. The Ricketts of 2012 and Ricketts of now, the Nagbe, the Rodney Wallace. None of these players looked confident in their system, where their team-mates would be, how to anticipate the number of myriad ways things could and would go wrong. With a system, with a style, you have a basis for growth and so you see these players, the younger players in particular, growing and blossoming together, becoming better because they have a structure and confidence in one another in which to learn. And so Andrew Jean-Baptiste goes from a promising player out on loan to now a promising solid defender in the backline, and after Saturdays game, the catalyst of an indelibly ecstatic memory. Will he err again? Almost certainly, but if there’s one thing we can have learned from watching him thus far, it’s that he’ll make amends with all the speed he can muster.
1) This might seem a little weird, but these days, when I watch a Timbers game, I actually think quite a bit about this column. I know I’m going to have to write it, so as I watch the game, up there in the stands, I start planning the column in my head, thinking about what I’ll say. And, I gotta tell you, at Saturday night’s game against L.A., my thoughts were not good. Up in my part of the stands – section 218, with its charmingly obstructed view of the north-end goal – I was bitching with my section-mates Randy and Tyus. We were all incredibly frustrated the entire game. As we complained, I began writing this column in my head. Here are some of the key points I knew I’d have to make:
On the whole, LA was the better team all night long.
They completely took us out of our game.
When they attacked, they had four or five guys in the box. When we attacked, we had two guys, maybe three.
We kept giving it back to them. They’d attack, we’d survive, then give them the ball. Repeat ad naseum
2) I’ve been to a lot of sporting events in my life. I’ve never seen a crowd lose its damn mind the way we did after Beast’s goal. Never. People were jumping up and down, slapping hands, hugging, practically crying. I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple babies were conceived during those few insane moments. And the noise? Oh my God, the NOISE. The Timbers always have a great crowd. Always. But Saturday night, it turned into something else. It was like we morphed into some kind of giant screaming monster. None of us were entirely human.
And it wasn’t just the crowd, either. The team almost killed Beast, they were going so nuts. The players were jumping on him, the bench was jumping on him, I’m surprised the COACHES didn’t start jumping on him. If you didn’t watch the video above, do so now, because the best part’s at the very end, when Frederic Piquionne and Ben Zemanski are running around like a couple 12-year olds. Two grown men absolutely FREAKING OUT. Priceless!
3) Well, because of that ending, this column has to change, right? I can’t bitch too much, right? After all, we won the game. Suddenly, the Timbers aren’t a pathetic bunch of losers. Now they’re scrappy fighters, full of piss and vinegar. (note: I have no idea what this expression means, but I’ve always liked it…)
So here’s what I’ll say: maybe the Timbers weren’t bad, maybe LA’s just good. Maybe they’re a team that matches up well with us. Both times we’ve played them, it’s been super, super tight. Maybe this is just two evenly-matched heavyweights trading shots, each hoping to land a knockout blow.
In our first match-up, down in California, we couldn’t land the haymaker. This time, we did. In our third and final game with LA, what will happen? I predict a bloody mess. Just like on Saturday.
4) I suppose I could go on and on about how bad the officiating was. I could give a long list of mistakes. I could talk about how me and my section-mates lost track of how many players had yellow cards. I could even make a few always-amusing bong-hit jokes. But I won’t do that. I’ll just make a quick statement: maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but I absolutely love booing the ref. It’s totally fun. In fact, he doesn’t even need to be all that bad. I’ll boo him anyway, just for the pleasure of it.
I’d like to thank Major League Soccer for continuing to employ poorly-trained, barely-competent, borderline-criminal referees. You’ve given me so many happy hours of booing.
5) Some quick player notes:
Andrew Jean-Baptiste – Even before Beast’s goal, I was all prepared to talk about his improvement. I swear. I went through a period of not trusting the guy on D, but he’s really changed my mind. He’s looking totally solid back there.
Ryan Johnson – Would you people get off his back already? Why does this guy get absolutely no respect? He’s leading the team in goals! He’s third in assists! He runs his ass off on defense, harassing the goalie, harassing the back line. And yet everyone wants Piquionne or Valencia. What does Johnson have to do? Sprout wings and fly?
Donovan Ricketts – Dear Lord. This guy is unconscious. The play where Zardes was all alone? No one between him and the goal? I honestly wasn’t all that scared. I mean it. I knew Ricketts would do something awesome. And he did. (and I thought the crowd was loud after THAT play. I didn’t know what loud really was…)
6) Finally, I want to talk about the atmosphere after the game. There’s always a good number of fans who stick around the cheer the team as they circle the field and lift their log slices. But on Saturday, EVERYONE stayed. And cheered. The entire time. And then afterwards, we all went outside the stadium and just wandered around for awhile. Were you there? It was fabulous! It felt like I was back at Mardi Gras. People were singing cheers, waving flags, dancing to street musicians, hi-fiving strangers.
This is why we love sports. Because of times like Saturday night, when we become part of something bigger than ourselves. When we stop being 20,000 individuals, and instead morph into one gigantic screaming monster.
Man, I’ve been crazy-busy these last few days, and somehow Kevin Alexander got his column out before I did. Which is fine, I say. He’s provided you the calm, considered, and logical analysis. Now I’m here to bring you the TRUTH.
1) Clearly, when you have a 2-2 tie, there must be somebody to blame. Obviously, in this case, we can blame the Chicago groundskeepers. Did you see the goalposts? They were GIGANTIC! They must have been three feet across. How else could we hit the woodwork twice in the first 30 seconds? Three times in the first four minutes? And Valeri’s goal was off the post, too. Ridiculous! Who do they think they’re fooling? Clearly, these posts were thicker than regulation. Don’t believe me? Did you see the Chicago groundskeepers dragging that big-ass goal to the opposite end at halftime? Hmm? Did you? I’ve scoured the internet and there is no video showing they DIDN’T switch the goals. That’s all the proof I need. Conspiracy, I say! Conspiracy!
I’ve already contacted the league commissioner. He says he’ll look into it.
2) Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s get serious. These ties are getting old, aren’t they? Yes, it’s wonderful that we haven’t lost on the road. Yes, it’s great that we can “learn a lesson,” as Coach Porter says, and still get a point on the road. Yes, yes, and yes again. But generally, teams make the playoffs because they WIN games. We’re sort of the opposite. We’re going to make the playoff by not losing. Am I complaining? I’m not sure. I’m really not. The “not losing” thing is great. But honestly, this is getting a little weird.
Love the spirit, fellas. Love the “refuse to lose” spirit. Now, let’s turn it up a notch. “Refuse to lose or tie” isn’t nearly as catchy, but let’s try it anyway. Three points from here on, what do you say?
3) That being said, you do realize we were missing four starters, right? 36% of our starting lineup was off playing for various national teams. How did the subs do? Pretty good, actually. At forward, Freddy Piquionne was everything we could ask for, actually. Two assists, good work rate all night. If he scores a couple goals before Ryan Johnson comes back, Coach Porter’s going to have a tough decision to make.
Ben Zemanski? I like him. Yes, his goal was super, but I liked him even without the goal. He’s fast, he’s disruptive, he’s always in the middle of things. Reminds me of Diego Chara. I don’t think Rodney Freakin’ Wallace’s starting spot is in danger, though.
Nor is Donovan Ricketts’s. Milos Kocic was only okay in goal, I thought. He couldn’t do a thing about that free kick goal. It was a perfect shot. But the other goal? Super-hard to tell what happened there, with bodies flying all over. Did Kocic drop it? Or was it knocked out of his hands? I dunno, but I do know this …
4) … I’ve just about had it with Andrew Jean-Baptiste. Not only will Futty Danso be starting the moment he steps off the plane from Gambia, it’s possible Jean-Baptiste will lose his job before then. To McKenzie, maybe? To Tucker-Gangnes? To me? I don’t know. But I know that every single game, Beast does something that scares the hell out of me. He’s either wrestling someone in the box or missing an assignment or running into the goalie. And do you remember how Coach was screaming at him during that US Open Cup game versus Wilmington? I think Beast’s position as a starter is in serious jeopardy. If anyone out there can tell me how I’m wrong and how Beast is a lot better than I realize, I’d love to hear it. Educate me.
5) A lot of people are screaming about how the Timbers fell apart as soon as Diego Valeri came out of the game, and I’m not going to contradict that. But I’m not sure we can complain too much, and here’s why: Caleb Porter’s not just managing the game, he’s managing the entire season. He knows we’ve got a ton of games coming up – important games, too – so he’s figuring out who needs rest, who needs to play. He’s worried about Valeri’s bad hamstring. He’s wondering if the international call-ups will be exhausted when they come back. He’s wondering who’ll be the next central defender to blow out their knee. So I can forgive him taking Valeri out of the game early. He’ll probably do the same with some other players in the next couple weeks. We’ve got a tough stretch ahead. Coach is thinking long-term.
6) So how do the next few weeks turn out? Well, obviously all my predictions have come true this year, so I’ll drop a few more on you. Feel free to call your bookie right away.
I think we crush Tampa Bay in tomorrow’s US Open Cup match. Our boys have a bad taste in their mouths. Tampa will pay the price.
Then a quick turnaround for a Saturday game and I think we eke out a tie versus Dallas. We’re at home, but Dallas is leading the league and we’ll be tired and undermanned. So, yes, another damn tie. Curse them.
And then ANOTHER quick turnaround for a Wednesday game against the LA Galaxy. We’ll still be tired and undermanned, only this time we’ll be in Los Angeles. To make it even tougher, we don’t know if we’ll be playing Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. One week, LA is an overwhelming force. The next week, they’re getting shut out. And so, for my prediction, I fall back to the easy choice. A tie. Another damn tie.
I wish I’d been there. But instead I was in the front room of my apartment watching the game. I miss the chanting. I miss the excitement. I miss my friends. I miss the TA. But there is one advantage to watching at home… you get to see the whole game. Let’s be honest, by a show of hands – OK so your probably in your underwear sitting in bed or something but you can at least nod along appreciatively- who has missed an important incident at a game because they were: tetrising, looking at their capo, talking with their neighbour, distracted by an incident in the crowd, had their view obstructed by a flag, scarf or other such object. We all have. It’s fantastic and much better than sitting at home watching a stream. But that’s what I have to do. I also may have lost any competitive analysis advantage I gained by the fact that it was 3am and I was sleepy. So if these are inaccurate please take your concerns up with someone who cares, like Kevin.
Here are a few quick points that I noticed in the game. Some positive, some not so positive.
1. Caleb Porter. Did you see that John “4-4-2” Spencer??? That’s called a tactical adjustment! Good job Caleb. Now in order to highlight why the tactical adjustment I need to say something complimentary about Seattle. It hurts to say this but Seattle are a good team. They’ve qualified for the playoffs every year since 2009. They are hard to play anywhere, but especially at clink. Porter saw that and made a tactical adjustment from the rough 4-3-3 we’ve been playing. This is something that very rarely happened under Spencer or Gavin. Porter has now shown he is not afraid to adjust tactics in game and for tougher matches. Until Portland becomes a dominant MLS force this is a very wise move. In this game the adjustment was semi successful. Jewsbury added a lot of support to the defence and was a big help in coping with Seattle’s potent attack. There were some not so positive things but we’ll talk about that a bit later. I’m just excited to see a manager willing to try new things and adjust to teams!
2. Rodney Wallace. There are certain things that elevate your status among supporters. Scoring against rivals is one of them. Scoring a late leveling goals is a big one. Do it twice… well in my book that’s pretty instant legendary status. Forever. Nothing Wallace does on the pitch takes away the fact. Only thing that can take it away is something really bad happen off the field (e.g. Gavin Wilkinson, Andrew F’in Gregor etc.). I’d also like to publicly say that I always liked Rodney Wallace, even when you didn’t. He is actually my second favourite Rodney Wallace ever. Sunday morning he became my favourite Rodney Wallace ever. I think Rod become a bit of a scapegoat for a team that was in general poor, particularly down the flank. But I think he has attributes that will continue to serve the team well.
3. Andrew Jean Baptiste. He literally looked like he was going to get shredded to pieces by Eddy Johnson for the first half hour or so. He did on the goal (by no means the only person at fault here). Again when he was deservedly booked for hauling Johnson down. But he responded impressively with maturity beyond his years. On a yellow card, facing a prolific and pacey attack AJB handled it with class and was a key part of an impressive second half defensive display from Portland. There was one highly impressive piece of work when Johnson was trying to connect with a through ball. He’d gotten the wrong side of AJB and was potentially one on one with Ricketts. AJB did everything that could be considered legal to keep Johnson out. Really making his presence felt physically, but without giving the ref any reason to give a pk. Of course Johnson tried to claim that penalty, but to no avail. It was really an impressive recovery from a poor start by Jean Baptiste. Of course, his night ended spectacularly with a beautiful assist for Wallace.
4. Lack of Shape. This was the hiccup in Caleb’s plan. For much of the night the midfield seemed a little shapeless. Other than Jack playing deep. Valeri continually drifted to his natural central role, this often forced Chara or Johnson out wider. Neither of them looked comfortable out there, so in turn they would drift back in. Thus, we didn’t really have any width. Nagbe provided some, but ultimately he is a right footed player playing on the left with the intention of drifting in and playing through balls or taking shots (PLEASE SHOOT MOAR NAGBE!). Width, of course, isn’t the be all and end all of football games. But it is a huge help in opening up space and creating chances. Creativity and passing have improved on the Timbers this year but we are still going to have difficulty in passing the ball through teams without using and creating space out wide. In turn that width will actually create more space in the middle. It’s also were our one goal against Seattle came; a cross from the brilliant winger Andrew Jean-Baptiste.
5. Freddy “Hernandez” Piquionne. Of course it was a small debut for the big man from West Ham (please note the West Ham is pronounced West ‘aam … it’s a cockney thing). But I was impressed with a few things. First, he is big and he knows what to do with it. He won several aerial challenges I don’t think any other Timber would have won. Second, his assurance on the ball. He was calm in possession always. I see this as a key sign of a player that has been there and done that. It’s a great attribute to be able to bring into the game. He didn’t look like he was going to let up the league and he may not be a huge headline setter but I believe Freddy has a few key things to bring to this Timbers setup. Sometimes off the bench and maybe sometimes from the start.
6. Staying in the fight. Again. It happened. Conceded first again and thought for a draw. 3 games in which we’ve been behind, twice by two goals and we’ve never looked down. It’s like the opposite of 2011. It’s brilliant.
7. Defend Cascadia. Well an away draw is a pretty good way to start the defence of the cup. The circumstances of it were of course brilliant. But in reality if we win our home Cascadia matches and draw away we will be in a great chance of retaining. If we can win at home and pick up one away win we will contain. And it is our house, in the middle of BC.
When the whistle blew for half-time, it was met with mix of shell-shocked bemusement and anger. Bemusement, as the Portland Timbers had controlled so much of the game, with over 60% of possession, and yet it was New York who held the 3-1 advantage. Anger because they were the architects of their own downfall.
Despite that possession advantage, the visitors had gotten more shots on target and had made it count, helped by the fact that the Timbers defence, and Mikael Silvestre in particular, had had an absolute shocker.
Silvestre had been pitched straight into the starting line-up days after flying in from France to join up with his new teammates, and looked every bit as jet-lagged as you’d expect. The details of the cavalcade of calamity that unfolded in front of the Timbers Army in that first half will be better summed up by others, but suffice to say that, as passes went astray and runs went unnoticed, it seemed to me that this was a team that was crunching through the gears.
During that first half I felt a sense of nervousness and tension about the Timbers play, which is understandable with so many new faces on the field, as well as a new coach on the sideline. It’s not so far off being an expansion team again, and it’s against that measure that it may be best to judge these early months as there is clearly much that is still a work-in-progress.
The biggest problem I saw in the first half, aside from the defensive lapses, was the failure to bring the attacking players into the game. Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri never felt connected to the rest of the Timbers play for long spells.
Caleb Porter had a big job on his hands during the break at 3-1 down. Many coaches would’ve hooked Silvestre off but Porter stuck with his man, and Silvestre had the courage to put a torrid half behind him and face the music again.
Aside for the Silvestre issue, there was the fact that the tactics just weren’t quite working in the first half. Yes, they had seen more of the ball, but the truth was they weren’t really threatening New York with it. Yet it was not so broken that it needed a entirely new game plan. With a few tweaks to the system the Timbers were transformed in the second half. It was not a dramatic shift – it was the same players, playing broadly in the same shape – but it was enough to bring some bite to back up the Timbers’ first half bark.
I thought that if Silvestre played, the club may have to play a little deeper to compensate for the veteran’s relative lack of pace, and that seemed like the case in first half. And, individual errors aside, New York never really threatened too much in that first half, so on one level the deeper line worked.
Silvestre deserves some time to settle before leaping to judgment, and his improved second half showing seems to point to the first half as being aberrational. Silvestre’s distribution highlights what the Timbers have long been missing at the back – someone comfortable with the ball at his feet. I’d worry about playing him if the club were under the kosh, or faced with a pacey front line as I feel playing deeper to cover his lack of pace leaves the team a little too stretched out, but in matches like these, home games or matches where you would expect to be in control, he adds a lot to the backline.
Andrew Jean-Baptiste was the stand-out on the defence though. Thierry Henry was kept very quiet by the young defender, though there’s a tendency to put the blame on Henry for having a bad game than giving recognition to the guy who made life difficult for him. Jean-Baptiste still has a bit to learn when it comes to what to do with the ball, but he looks like someone Porter can build a defence around.
Both outside backs had solid, if unspectacular games, but I think Timbers fans will take that over what we’ve had for much of the last two years!
Where the deeper line hurt the team wasn’t on the defensive side, but was in stretching the space between defence/midfield and attack.
The issue with Darlington Nagbe is that you don’t, as a general rule, want Nagbe doing the bulk of his work 50 yards from goal. You want him picking it up 30 yards out and driving toward goal. The first half graph shows Nagbe doing a lot of work in deep midfield, but in the second half he was “off the leash” and playing a much more attacking game. It’s no surprise that both the Timbers second half goals benefited from Nagbe picking it up 30 yards or so from goal and running at defenders, as well as Diego Valeri’s preternatural ability to ghost unseen into spaces in key areas.
The problem in the first half was that Portland were struggling to get the ball to Valeri in the areas where he can do the most damage.
Valeri was doing much of his work on the right flank (unsuccessfully, one might add) as he sought to get involved. This was corrected in the second half, and we started to see Valeri getting on the ball centrally, where he could really hurt New York.
Porter was able to affect this change by pushing Nagbe on, which gave the New York midfield a new puzzle to solve, as well as closing up the defense and midfield behind him, allowing the team to play shorter, sharper passes and get the ball moving with some purpose and zip.
Will Johnson and Diego Chara were both terrier-like in the engine room, with Johnson looking every inch the natural captain. The two dovetailed beautifully, with one going and one staying as required, and it was one of the few times I’ve seen Chara play where I didn’t think he was taking the weight of covering his defence all upon his own shoulders as Johnson’s all-action presence beside him freed him up a little. Johnson and Chara complemented each other very well, and between them they ensured that Portland won the midfield battle. There will be few teams that are able to out-muscle or out-hustle Portland in midfield with these two players, that’s for sure.
As you can see, both players were pressing in New York’s half early on, but it never felt focused. After the break both players played with a more deliberate strategy, still giving no quarter but adding some consistency to their pressing game. There’s more to pressing than simply haring after the ball all over the pitch, you have to press at the right time lest you leave a gap behind you and that’s what we saw more of in the second half.
As well as their defensive work, both guys are comfortable on the ball, and displayed some solid passing through-out the match. Both hit over 80% accuracy and they occupied two of the top three spots for players with most passes (Harrington being the other). In fact, 12 of the top 13 were Timbers players (taking in by passes per minute), once more underlining Portland’s dominance of the ball.
Having course corrected during the interval, the Timbers shot figures improved across the board in the second half, and once they had got the second it was only a matter of whether time would run out before they got the equaliser.
This never-say-die attitude was best summed after the Timbers had made it 3-3 when the ball was promptly fished out of the net and returned to the centre spot. To be fair, it was not entirely one-way traffic in the second half, and New York had chances to exploit space on the counter as Portland camped out in New York’s half, but I don’t think anyone could’ve complained about the result had the Timbers won the match in true Hollywood fashion with Ryan Johnson’s late overhead kick.
Possession figures weren’t much changed from the first half to the second, going from 60.6% to 65.5% with accuracy also rising by a single percentage point, yet the Timbers brought a greater purpose to the second half. The shot count rose, and the key players were able to influence the game where it matters.
It took 45 minutes for Portland to find their rhythm, but once they had it was all New York could do to hold on. They weren’t simply stroking the ball along the halfway line and racking up the numbers, they were playing the game in the New York half and that is reflected in the Timbers playing more passes in the opponent’s defensive third than any other club on opening weekend.
New York were hemmed in for long spells, looking to hit on the break. However, such was Portland’s territorial dominance that only Montreal made fewer passes in the opponent’s defensive third than New York.
There have been so many changes around the club this offseason that a few teething pains are to be expected. I don’t think Silvestre, five games into the season, makes the same mistakes as he did, and as the defence build up a better understanding of each other and their roles, someone like Olave isn’t going to go walkabout in the six yard box, completely unchecked by anyone in green.
As well as the fluid football, what was also encouraging to me was, even though it wasn’t quite working in the first half, Caleb Porter was able to tweak it and get a result. The fact that he and his players were still disappointed after their fight back speaks volumes.
The Timbers are here to win, and the rest of the league had better get used to it.