Tag Archives: Caleb Porter

Backs To The Wall

The Timbers go into the second leg of the Western Conference final knowing that they need a huge performance to turn around a two goal deficit to Real Salt Lake. That this is not the first time that Portland have faced adversity should give Timbers fans some hope, and Kevin Alexander goes over three previous occasions where the Timbers have had their backs to the wall, and come out fighting.


Welcome Home?

14th April 2011, Portland Timbers vs Chicago Fire

The difficulty here wasn’t so much in the strength of the opposition – the Fire picked up one point in six trips to the west coast in 2011 – but in the occasion. This was the home opener, the first MLS match in Soccer City, and the fans were beyond ready for it to get here.

This was despite an indifferent start that had seen the Timbers outscored 2-6 in the opening three road games. Coming into the home games, they were being forced to make changes at the back with key players still missing.

So, injury troubles, tough road trips and a keyed up home crowd. This should all sound pretty familiar.

Jake Gleeson was making his second start, and in front of him Futty Danso was making his MLS debut after a David Horst ankle knock. All these guys are still around the club, in some shape or form, but this curtain raising team is noticeable more the guys who’ve moved on:

    Eric Brunner, the one solid part of a shifting and unsettled defense;
    Steve Purdy, the dependable full back soon to be adjudged to be less good than Jeremy Hall;
    Jeremy Hall, the ineffective right winger adjudged to be of less harm in defence;
    James Marcelin, the non-soccer specialist and Keeper of Secrets;
    Jorge Perlaza, the striker who ran a lot and didn’t score;
    and Kenny Cooper, the striker who fell a lot and did, but not enough.

Troy Perkins, who would’ve started had he been fit, and whose trade is turning out to be the greatest trick Gavin ever pulled.

James Marcelin replaced Peter Lowry for the draw against New England, and he held onto his place alongside Jack Jewsbury in the heart of midfield for the visit of Chicago.

Now, I mean no disrespect to either guy (both of whom have a bunch of MLS appearances and goals under their belts), but read that sentence again:

James Marcelin replaced Peter Lowry for the draw against New England, and he held onto his place alongside Jack Jewsbury in the heart of midfield for the visit of Chicago.

How far we’ve come in terms of player quality and depth since 2011.

As for the game, well, the heavens opened and 29 minutes in Jorge Perlaza delivered the first MLS goal to Portland. Rodney Wallace doubled it eight minutes later. Perlaza added a third after the break before the Timbers were pushed back by two late Chicago goals. An own goal off a Jewbury corner restored a two goal cushion and sealed the win.

It was a win which kickstarted the season, and the terrific home form was almost entirely responsible for the close run at the making the playoffs.


Meet The Neighbors

24 June 2012, Portland Timbers vs Seattle Sounders

A little less than a month had passed since Cal FC had hammered what would later prove to be biggest and shiniest nail in John Spencer’s head coaching coffin. The visit of the Sounders was the Timbers’ first match at Jeld-Wen since that night, but having lost in LA the previous week Portland went into the derby match with more than just local pride at stake.

Spencer replaced Hanyer Mosquera, suspended, with Futty Danso, and Mike Chabala was replaced by Steven Smith, who had been spared playing in LA in mid-June. Ex-Sounder Mike Fucito made his first start for Portland, replacing Danny Mwanga alongside Kris Boyd.

Again, that last sentence should underline the difference in quality and depth from then to now. There are times we’ve been stretched by injuries or call-ups, but I’m happier knowing that there is an Alhassan or Valencia to step in and not, well, Fucito or Mwanga. That kind of depth is worth points here and there, and makes the difference over 34, or more, games.

Meanwhile, Franck Songo’o, Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan were the three attacking midfielders, with Diego Chara given the work of two men to do on his own, as usual. It was a formation that, in retrospect, seems designed to bring out the worst in his players: Chara has so much to do that at times there’s no option but to foul, even if it’s right on the edge of his own box; Songo’o, the mercurial winger and creative attacker, Barcelona and all that, was asked to defend; Nagbe, the young and inconsistent player was given a role where his tendency to drift out of games left a gaping hole right in front of the (patchwork) defence; Alhassan, who borrowed a bit from both Songo’o and Nagbe in his nature and aversion to the kind of kick-and-rush high intensity football Spencer wanted to play.

And yet, despite these glaring deficiencies, magic happened, as it does in Portland from time to time.

There was no getting away from the plain fact that Seattle were the better team, and looked set to finish the job that Cal FC had started in ending Spencer’s time in the top job. He must surely have known he was living on borrowed time, and aware that a bad result against Seattle could bring about the end.

Spencer put his trust in his striker, another man unaware his Timbers career was all but over. Kris Boyd delivered the opening goal after only a quarter of an hour, set up by Smith and Songo’o.

This would be John Spencer’s last hurrah in Portland. A couple of bad results on the road ended his stewardship, a 3-0 loss at Real Salt Lake the last time we saw him prowling the touchline. He went out fighting though, and his team delivered a 2-1 win that was the foundation for a run towards the Cascadia Cup in 2012 – the green shoots at the end of two long, barren years.

From Boyd’s “I can’t hear a thing” celebration, to his confrontation with Fredy Montero, and the explosion of noise when Portland’s least favorite Colombian was shown red in injury time, this match provided many of the great MLS Timbers moments for fans,despite it coming during a time when Spencer’s coat was, to borrow a Scottish phrase, on a shoogly peg.

So, John Spencer won this battle, despite having already lost the war. If nothing else, he went down fighting, and took down the nouveau douche lot from up the road on the way.


This Was Not In The Script

30 March 2013, Colorado Rapids 2-0 Portland Timbers

Fifty minutes in, the Timbers were in a distressingly familiar position – they were losing.

That had been the case at this point in the previous three matches (1-3 vs New York, 0-1 vs Montreal, 0-1 vs Seattle) but they could take some heart from coming back late in two of those matches to grab a couple of points, losing only to Montreal having still mounted a fightback.

Caleb Porter’s arrival had certainly brought goals, but far too many of them were at the wrong end. With 50 minutes gone in Colorado, the Timbers had been outscored 5-8 in a little under 4 games, with the home doubleheader against New York and Montreal accounting for 5 out of the 8 goals against. The introduction of Jack Jewsbury as the deepest lying member of a three man central midfield in Seattle had seen the hosts held a 1-1 draw, with Jack sweeping up behind Diego Chara and Will Johnson. Those three remained in place for the trip to play the Rapids, with the defence patched up by replacing Mikael Silvestre with David Horst.

Fast forward to fifty minutes in and the Timbers were two goals down and had been outshot by 11-3.

The charge of the white brigade was led by The Captain who headed home Ryan Johnson’s cross, Johnson-to-Johnson resuscitation. Will’s header halved the deficit before the hour was out, then a corner in the Rapids box with 20 minutes to go earned Portland a handball call; there was never any doubt that The Captain would take care of the penalty himself.

Though Portland would have to content themselves with another hard-earned point on the road, unable to find the killer third goal, the way the team fought back in these two road games set the tone for the season to come: 2013, the year where the final whistle was merely a minor inconvenience that got in the way of a Timbers win now and then.

Jewsbury took up his place at right-back in the next match, and Wallace was restored to the starting line-up as the Timbers record their first win, and then the second, and the third…

Colorado has never been an easy place to go to, and the Timbers have had some real nightmares there, so 2-0 down with 40 minutes to play would have signalled game over in previous years, but they fought back and put another point on the board. Changed days.


France provided a great example of the value of a strong home second leg performance, overturning a two-goal lead to qualify for the World Cup. The Timbers won six of their regular season games by at least two goals, almost half, and would’ve added a couple more big wins against Seattle for late rallies and lapses. They’ve fought back time and time again in the past and there is no reason to think they won’t do so here.

Mirriam Webster defines belief as “a feeling of trust in the worth or ability of someone” and that pretty well sums up my feeling going in the game. I believe because I trust in every guy that takes the field on Sunday night to put in a performance that is worthy of the honor of playing for this club, in this town. My belief isn’t blind faith in happy endings; RSL are a really good team and they hold the upper hand going into the game, so I don’t expect a fairytale end as much as I hope for it. It may happen, there is certainly a chance of that because we have the ability on and off the pitch to make it happen, but if it doesn’t, my belief is unshakable that every single person in attendance will be in no doubt that there was no more that this team could do and they had already achieved more than most could’ve dared to dream for.

A New Hope

As fans and players await the second leg of the playoff tie with Seattle, Kevin Alexander writes about the changes the Portland Timbers face both on and off the pitch.


At three hours, this two-legged tie between Seattle and Portland is appropriately epic in length, with the potential for going even longer on a night where the away goal rule is not in effect. By the time the final whistle blows on Thursday night, and fat ladies everywhere begin to sing, the skies over Jeld-Wen Field will be black, and it is not hard to imagine, given this is Portland in November, that they will have opened for the denouement of what the noisy majority will be hoping is merely part one of a forthcoming trilogy of blockbuster performances. Continue reading A New Hope

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.

Six Degrees: Blowout

blowout

1) I feel safe calling Friday night’s 4-2 loss our ugliest game of the year. It’s the first game we lost by more than one goal. I’m not sure if a two-goal loss qualifies as a “blowout,” but that’s certainly what this felt like. It felt like Real Salt Lake did whatever the hell they wanted, and we couldn’t do a thing to stop them.

No surprise, I’ve had a black cloud of gloom following me ever since, but I knew I had to shake it off and bang out this column, so, in an effort to raise my spirits, I did a little research. I checked out last season’s schedule and compared it to this one.

Let me list this year’s “blowout losses.”

    8/30 – RSL 4-2

Now, let me list last year’s “blowout losses.”

    4/14 – LA 3-1
    4/28 – Montreal 2-0
    6/30 – Col 3-0
    7/7 – RSL 3-0
    7/14 – LA 5-3
    7/21 – Dallas 5-0 (ouch!)
    9/5 – Col 3-0
    10/7 – Sea 3-0

Also, last year’s team lost to Chivas three times. Chivas. Three. Times.

Well, I’m suddenly feeling much better about our current struggles. How about you?

2) The TV color man gave an astonishing little factoid Friday night, one that I have since confirmed by looking at lineups from previous games. The fact: since the start of July, Will Johnson and Diego Chara have played together a total of FORTY-FIVE MINUTES. It was the first half at Philly.

Another quick look at the schedule tells us this: on July 1st, our record was 7 wins, 1 loss, and 9 draws. Since then, with the Johnson/Chara partnership in tatters, we’ve got 2 wins, 4 losses, and 3 draws.

There are a thousand variables in our team’s current form and it’s fun to analyze and re-analyze all of them, trying to figure out what’s wrong. But maybe – just maybe – it all comes down to this simple fact: when Will Johnson and Diego Chara play together, we kick ass. When they don’t, we suck.

I’d love it if this was all that was wrong with the Timbers. I have a simple mind. I like simple answers.

3) Having a simple mind, as I watched the game, I didn’t fully understand what I was seeing. Or rather, I knew WHAT it was – a complete domination – I just didn’t understand WHY. Why was RSL making us look like a high school team? When RSL had the ball, they did whatever they wanted. When we had it, everything was a struggle. On the other side of the ball, our defense was in a constant state of frantic, overwhelmed recovery. I’m not sure RSL’s back line broke a sweat.

Fortunately, this website has a writer whose mind ISN’T so simple. If you haven’t read Kevin Alexander’s article yet, do so now – here’s the link – because he breaks it down in a systematic way, putting into words and pictures the steaming pile of feces that was Friday night’s game.

All of it makes me wonder if Caleb Porter and his staff might be switching things up a bit too much lately. Sure, they’ve had to plug in a non-stop stream of replacements, but that doesn’t explain how lost our attackers looked last night. Do we need our core group of attackers – Valeri, Nagbe, Wallace, and Ryan Johnson – to go through some remedial instruction? Or do they simply need Will Johnson and Diego Chara tag-teaming it behind them? Is the recent addition of Alvas Powell causing things to go awry on the right side? Hard to say, but I hope we can figure things out, because our offense looks awful. Friday night’s two goals were both fairly flukey and, beyond them, we didn’t threaten at all.

4) Watching Friday night’s referee, Baldomero Toledo, I was reminded of an old expression about schoolteachers. “If one kid fails a test, it’s the kid’s fault. If fifteen kids fail the test, it’s the teacher’s fault.”

In this situation, I’d say, if one player gets booked, it’s the player’s fault. If EVERY player gets booked, it’s the referee’s fault.

It got so bad last night, it seemed like Toledo was carding people just because he didn’t know what else to do. If there was a situation on the field, and he didn’t know exactly what happened, but he was pretty sure SOMETHING happened, he’d just hand out a couple bookings. I mean, somebody must have done something, right?

The best moment of the night was when Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Joao Plata shook hands and Toledo immediately gave them yellows. I’m pretty sure he carded them for shaking hands. Which he should, of course. We can’t have a bunch of hand-shakers running around out there, ruining our game.

5) A few very quick player notes.

Darlington Nagbe – Dear Lord, man. That goal was SICK.

Donovan Ricketts – You still look a little stiff, but there was nothing you could do about those first couple of goals. They were so perfectly placed, they grazed the post.

Sal Zizzo – When Train’s rocket blast didn’t go in, I automatically assumed it was just more bad luck for the Timbers. Thanks for stepping up and sinking that rebound. It’s good to have you back.

Javier Morales (RSL) – Your little bicycle kick was cool and all, but honestly, man, there wasn’t a Timber within 15 feet of you. You could’ve set up a lawn chair and had drinks, you were so open.

6) Okay, I’m gonna end this column with some extremely questionable advice for Caleb Porter. Our next two games are Toronto at home and Chivas away. We can beat these teams with our reserve squad, so I say we rest EVERYBODY. Give the regulars a couple weeks off. Let Nagbe and Valeri go off to their Fortress of Solitude, or wherever it is they go, so they can recharge their superpowers. Send Will Johnson and Diego Chara to Vegas, so they can plan out some kind of “buddy movie” over blackjack and all-you-can-eat buffets. Let Donovan Ricketts spend the next two weeks in the trainer’s room, slowly moving back and forth from the hot tub to the massage table, reggae on the stereo and a Red Stripe beer in his gigantic hand.

Then when Colorado comes to the house of pane on 9/20, we’ll be healthy, we’ll be rested, we’ll have Horst and Dike on the bench, and we’ll be ready to start an end-of-the-year winning streak.

I’m a simple man, so I’ll cling to this simple belief: put Will Johnson and Diego Chara on the field together and we cannot be stopped.

Space, The Final Frontier

space

These are the voyages of the starship Timbers FC. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new (pond)life and new (un)civiliz(ed douchebags)ations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

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.

Space.

mptwitterThe 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.

Real Close

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.

Timbers Distant

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.

realeasydefending

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.

Caption
The form table makes for uncomfortable reading, with many of our rivals in much better form that us.

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.

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.

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.

#RCTID

Timbers 100: Part Three – Defensive Axis

Frederic Piquionne scored the Timbers’ hundredth MLS goal, 814 days after Kenny Cooper scored their first. In a five-part series, I’ll use those goals to talk about the Timbers as they were and how we got to where we are.

Part 1: Island of Misfit Toys

Kenny Cooper and Eddie Johnson

Part 2: Everyday Magic

Jorge Perlaza and Darlington Nagbe

Part 3: Defensive Axis

Eric Brunner and Kris Boyd

Part 4: Endurance

Sal Zizzo and Bright Dike

Part 5: Maximum Impact

Rodney Wallace and Frederic Piquionne


Goal 50. Eric Brunner vs Chicago Fire

20th May 2012

100 banner 5

When is a defender not a defender? Is it when he’s scoring goals, or when’s he failing to prevent them? Taking a look at Portland’s rocky relationship with ‘the big guy at the back’, and what a defender means to them then and now.


Watch The Goal Here

Eric Brunner fired home from four yards after a corner by Franck Songo’o was headed back by Hanyer Mosquera and flicked on by Kris Boyd.

It was Brunner’s first goal of the season, and put Portland on the road to a 2-1 victory, helping put a run of four defeats in five games well behind them.


Brunner’s goal against Chicago was his fourth, and final, goal for the Timbers before leaving the club at the end of the 2012, just as Songo’o, Mosquera and Boyd did too.

It was also his first goal scored with his foot for the club. His first ever goal grabbed all three points against his old club, Columbus Crew, after a quick corner. He rubbed salt into LA’s wounds with the third in a 3-0 win, again from a corner, and his last goal of 2011 got the Timbers all the points against Chivas USA. Yes, with a header from a corner.

The common factor in all of Eric Brunner’s goals is that they came from set plays, which shouldn’t be that much of a surprise when you think that it’s on corners and free-kicks that the big guys can get forward.

With a concussion sustained in the net match, Brunner’s career with the Timbers effectively ended and with his passing went what had been one of the team’s key scoring threats.

Jack Jewsbury’s exceptional set piece delivery in 2011 was the defining feature of the season, and it was from his boot that the ball was delivered towards the likes of Brunner, Futty Danso and Kevin Goldthwaite (via the head of, uh, Eric Brunner).

100 Def Head GoalsEven though the Timbers recorded fewer corner kicks than the league average, they scored nine headed goals which doesn’t count goals scored with the the foot, like Brunner’s last hurrah.

Given this bounty, you can’t really blame Spencer for doubling down on set piece or crossed goals. In 2011, 10 of the Timbers’ 40 goals were scored by defenders (25%), compared to 6 of 45 (13.5%), which is the league average. Almost double what the rest of the league were averaging.

2012 saw Spencer bring in Mosquera, an imposing presence; a heavyweight Futty. Danso scored three in 2011, including the last goal of the year against Real Salt Lake, so it would stand to reason that Mosquera would score more. Fast forward to now and neither guy has scored for the Timbers, but only one of them is still in Portland, and it’s not the “upgrade”.

That year saw only four goals from defenders, which meant that our tally matched the league average of around 11-12%.

100 GFD LA

No goals from defenders this season, yet, but that could be due to the upheaval in defence and the fact that the team have attacking players now with aerial threat that’s been missing at times, along with the ability to cross a ball.

100 Goal Chart

The goals from defence, in proportional terms at least, were replaced from midfield but you have to account for the six fewer goals the Timbers scored in 2012 which would point to an over-reliance on set-play situations as a part of the plan which suffered through poorer delivery from Jewsbury and Songo’o, as well as weak crossing from the likes of Mike Chabala and whoever else got stuck at full-back.

With no goals from defence this year, the Timbers have seen the goals previously scored by the likes of Futty Danso off a corner kick, scored by Ben Zemanski on a late run forward or Will Johnson after attacking pressure draws a penalty. It’s a different kind of attack, an while we’ll still see balls lofted in for people to attack, this side are more concerned about it being as part of live play than from a dead ball an that changes the emphasis to attack.

That’s not to say we’ve given up on defenders pitching in as a team with Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Futty Danso and Pa Modou Kah on the roster will inevitably score some along the way as the Timbers attack increases pressure, drawing free-kicks and corners.

The fact is, while it’s good to get the big guys up and throw the ball into the mix, the defenders aren’t primarily there score goals, and the move for Mosquera was as much about plugging the defence as beefing the attack.

A clean sheet is the most valuable asset in soccer. More so than a goal, I think. A goal could mean anything, really. It could be the last minute winner, or the 1 in a 5-1 thrashing. A clean sheet has actual value. In fact, if you were to discount consolation goals and goals that weren’t result critical (ie goal #3 in a 2-1 win), only 27 of the Timbers 40 goals in 2011 actually mattered. So, only a 2 in a 3 chance that a goal will mean anything, whereas every single clean sheet your team get is worth, at the very least, one point. Guaranteed.

Obviously it’s not as cut and dried as that as every goal matters as they change the game, but it’s serves to underline the point that the teams that top the league are generally built on solid foundations at the back. It’s something that I think is often overlooked by teams who concentrate on the headline figure who’ll put the ball in the net. The Timbers certainly did this, going big on Cooper and Boyd, but it was only after John Spencer left that they made a move that seemed curious at the time – signing Donovan Ricketts in exchange for Troy Perkins.

That trade left a bitter taste in the mouth that has been steadily washed away by the taste of Ricketts’ [this metaphor got away from me and it’s probably best it remains unpublished]. The fact his contract has been renewed only weeks after his 36th birthday is testament to what he’s done this season behind a defence that has been in a seemingly constant state of flux. The Timbers paid more for someone who looked older, and played olderer but it worked. It was the right call.

Flawed though the method of working out goals that count is, if you were to carry it on to 2012, you’d find only 23 of the 34 goals counted which pretty much mirrors season one. 2013 though sees 21 of 28 having a direct effect on the result, a rise to 75%.

The reason behind this jump is the Timbers much improved clean sheet record which has seen them register 8 clean sheets in half a season, compared to 9 and 5 through the whole of 2011 and 2012. Of the 9 shut-outs in 2011, the Timbers won 8, giving it a value of 2.8 points. That dropped to 2.2 in 2012, but is back up to 2.5 this season.

Despite great value from their shut-outs in 2011, the flip side is that the Timbers were shut-out themselves too often, meaning of the 9 times Portland failed to score, they lost 8. As with so much of that first year team, it was either the sublime or the ridiculous.

2012 saw the Timbers fail to net 12 times, earning 2 points. With half the season gone, the Timbers have failed to score twice in 2013 but they’ve drawn both these ties. When you can still get points on the rare occasions you don’t score, then it’s going to be that much tougher for others to slow you down.

The Timbers are making their goals count, and have put to rest one of the team’s great weaknesses under previous management; the late game collapse.

100 Goal Agg TimeThe Timbers are winning the second half for the first time in MLS after it being their Achilles Heel through ‘11 and ‘12.

The figures can paint the story of the years. 2011 saw the Timbers start games slowly, but go into the break with a fighting chance before falling just short as the second half wore. 2012 was never good enough; chances are, whenever you tuned in, the Timbers were losing. 2013 has seen some slow starts, but big comebacks and a couple of blow-out wins, judging by that ridiculous second half score.

Brunner wasn’t the only big casualty at the back.

The fact that the Timbers have the third best defence on 0.94 goals per game defies conventional wisdom when you look at the way that Caleb Porter has had to adapt it to account for a laundry list of injuries.

Keeping this figure below 1.00, guaranteeing those cleans sheets, is what gives the team it’s forward momentum up the table. It’s not unreasonable to think that other teams are going to start finding answers to the questions Porter has posed them in attack so far, so keeping it closed down at the back becomes ever more important, especially moving into the offseason.

Whether Caleb Porter can keep all the balls in the air remains to be seen, but with the season halfway gone, you’d have to say he’s doing a pretty fucking good job so far.

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Goal 53. Kris Boyd vs Seattle Sounders

24th June 2012

auldhabits

There are no sure things in football, and the transfer market provides no greater example of this. A team is only as good as its ability to recognize talent, something that few in Portland seemed to possess, until now.


Watch The Goal Here

Steven Smith and Franck Songo’o combined down the left, before the Scot fired a low cross into the path of Kris Boyd to put Portland 1-0 against their great rivals.

The Timbers would go on to record a win, with David Horst scoring the important second goal. The three points helped the team on their way to Cascadia Cup glory, salvaging something from a year of miserable soccer.


Kris Boyd was a gamble. A million dollar gamble. When you put those kinda wagers on, you run the risk of losing fingers if it doesn’t come off for you so perhaps John Spencer is lucky to have just lost his job.

Truth is that Spencer’s gamble wasn’t on Boyd alone, but on leveraging his knowledge of and contacts within the English and Scottish leagues to put together a side to succeed half the world away.

Boyd was joined by Steven Smith, ex-Rangers teammate, with Franck Songo’o picked up after a spell bouncing around England and Spain, and they were linked with many more British-based players as Spencer sought out the familiar.

This little clique was not the only georgraphical grouping in the team. Five Colombian players – Diego Chara, Hanyer Mosquera and Jorge Perlaza, Jose Valencia and Sebastian Rincon – all started the 2012 season in Portland, though only three remain this year.

And then there is New Zealand, that footballing powerhouse. Jake Gleeson looked like the future of the team at one point, but looks less so today now that he’s, at best, third choice. Cameron Knowles is an ex-Timbers player and current-Timbers defensive coach, a job title akin to Chief Deckchair Arranger on the Titanic at times. And then there’s Ian Hogg, whose existence is only marginally better attested to than Sasquatch.

These were the three wells the Timbers dug in 2011 and 2012, and they kept going back to them long after they came up dry. A failure to recognise the problem saw a whole bunch of guys deemed surplus to requirements before Caleb Porter set foot in Portland.

Boyd, Songo’o, Smith, Mosquera, Perlaza, Hogg. They all flopped to a greater or lesser degree and have been swept away so that Caleb Porter could start with a fresh slate.

In one sense, looking for value in Colombia makes sense. The league there isn’t rich, but is good enough to be of a standard to produce good MLS players while not so good that it’s as yet on the radar of most of European powers, driving up the price and shallowing the talent pool available to the rest.

In 2012, there were 30 Colombians in MLS, ranking them just behind USA in representation. This year it is down to 20, with the likes of Fredy Montero and Juan Pablo Angel joining Mosquera and Perlaza in leaving the league.

This year the Timbers didn’t add to their Colombian collections, nor their Scots or Kiwis, as they cast their nets a bit wider. Silvestre and Piquionne had a history in the UK, but added experience at the top level in other countries, while the likes of Kah and Valeri have added cool heads where they’re needed in defence and attack.

This season has seen the Timbers use fewer American players than ever before, even when the team seemed to be composed of a Scots-Colombian confederation.

100 Foreign PlayersThough players like Dike and Purdy count a foreign players despite being born in the States, and Nagbe more likely has US caps in his future rather than Liberian, but it illustrates a consistent reliance in buying in talent, something that has only increased over the three seasons.

The African contingent, of which Nagbe and Dike can count themselves, has stayed steady, with an Umony being replaced by a Songo’o, which in turns is replaced by a Kah, who is counted as African for the purposes of this, and as homage to CI DeMann’s “Great Wall of Gambia”.

The biggest variation in South and Central America, where 2012 saw a big jump as the Timbers went big on Colombia; a bubble that seems to have popped with the 33% reduction in representation this year, caused by a whole bunch of MLS teams scouting the country for the same bargains. Diego Chara is the one South American to have played in all three seasons, and stands alongside Rodney Wallace and Jack Jewsbury as the best trade/expansion moves the Spencer/Wilkinson brain trust ever pulled off.

The European contingent has also undergone a big change. The 4 Europeans who played in ‘11 and ‘12 are all Brits – Moffat, Boyd, Smith and Eddie Johnson – but none of the 3 Euros in the 2013 roster are, being replaced by two Frenchmen (Silvestre and Piquionne – yes, I know, New Caledonia and Martinique.) and a Serb, Milos Kocic.

Despite bringing in more foreign players, Porter has added MLS experience in the likes of Will Johnson, Ryan Johnson, Kocic and Ricketts, but it does leave the places for “homegrown” talent at a premium.

Darlington Nagbe and Andrew Jean-Baptiste have featured as SuperDraft picks, with Brent Richards seeing time here and there. Beyond that a number of players orbited the first team but never made the pitch, like Chris Taylor or Ryan Kawulok.

It’s to be expected that only a few will ever make the grade. There’s a reason why the big clubs have yearly intakes that can field numerous teams through the age levels, and why tags like “ex-Barcelona youth” don’t mean a great deal on their own.

Dylan Tucker-Gangnes, their sole 2013 SuperDraft pick, and Bryan Gallego may yet have a future, and there are some in the U-23’s or reserves that could take the step up, but for now it’s hard to see the Timbers breaking their reliance on buying in talent.

The days of gambling on bringing in players with impressive resumes from abroad clearly aren’t gone, but we’re putting it on guys with impressive international experience rather than experience of toiling around the second or third tier of English football.

By no longer fishing in three same pools, only one of which has really given us any sort of meaningful return, and widening our vision to places like Scandinavia, the Timbers are finding more value and MLS-ready players. Diskerud, Miller and Kah are or have been playing there, and the latter looks like the proverbial rock at the back.

Just as Spencer inclined towards the UK and Europe as the place to get the best players, and Wilkinson shopped at home and where the rest of MLS were heading, so Porter’s “backyard” is the States. The Timbers took a few punches on the transfer front over the first couple of years, regularly coming out the arse end of one trade deal after another, but are finally starting to land a few haymakers in return.

The two Johnsons, and the Zemanski and Harrington deals are absolute steals. Criminal. Illegal in nineteen States. For the grand outlay of “a bunch of allocation cash” the Timbers have added thirteen goals and eight clean sheets. Even more importantly they’ve signed guys who can bridge a divide that had opened last season between the players and fans.

Will Johnson will likely never have to buy a beer in Portland for the rest of his life, while guys like Harrington are getting involved with the fans on twitter. The days of fans demanding jerseys from players are a thankfully distant memory.

There’s a connection to these guys that was never quite there with the likes of Boyd, Songo’o or Mosquera. We wanted to love Boyd, but dammit he just didn’t score enough. We’ll always have the Monstero Death Stare [Monstero was a typo, but I’m not fixing it]. And I wanted Songo’o and Mosquera to get it right because they both had the tools to be good players, but it just never quite fit.

A squad is a constantly evolving thing, and we’ll see the front office make further moves to improve and strengthen the side. Signing a Jamaican defender, Alvas Powell, was the team’s first move of the summer, so perhaps we’re replacing Wee Glesga with Little Kingston. Right now, we seem to be in a consolidation phases with the club getting a number of players tied down to longer contracts but that doesn’t mean that enquiries aren’t be made all the time.

The new regime’s record is pretty good, but as many previous managers have found to their cost, you’re often only as good as you’re last couple of deals.

John Spencer found that one out the hard way.

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Timbers 100: Part One – The Island of Misfit Toys

Frederic Piquionne scored the Timbers’ hundredth MLS goal, 814 days after Kenny Cooper scored their first. In a five-part series, I’ll use those goals to talk about the Timbers as they were and how we got to where we are.

Part 1: The Island of Misfit Toys

Kenny Cooper and Eddie Johnson

Part 2: Everyday Magic

Jorge Perlaza and Darlington Nagbe

Part 3: Defensive Axis

Eric Brunner and Kris Boyd

Part 4: Endurance

Sal Zizzo and Bright Dike

Part 5: Maximum Impact

Rodney Wallace and Frederic Piquionne


Goal 1. Kenny Cooper vs Colorado Rapids

19th March 2011

A BIG NAME

Kenny Cooper arrived in the Pacific Northwest with the hopes of a city on his shoulders, and a big name on his back; he left with eight goals and a couple of extra syllables.


Watch The Goal Here

With ten minutes remaining in their MLS debut, the Portland Timbers got their first goal when Kenny Cooper rifled home a long range free kick. By this point the Timbers were already well beaten having lost three goals in the first half hour, and Cooper’s strike marked the first, and only, shot on target that the visitors would muster through 90 inauspicious minutes.

Timbers fans celebrated the goal with gusto though, and most chalked the result down to a slow start; something that John Spencer would surely put right in good time.


The German language is renowned for its Bandwurmwörter, “tapeworm words”, where compound words can stretch to ridiculous lengths, so it’s fitting that the guy who spent a couple of years playing in Munich would see his name turned into a Bandwurmwörter of its own among the Timbers faithful: Kennyfuckingcooper.

He earned that moniker despite his eight goals earning him top goalscorer in the Timbers’ first MLS season. The problem was that eight goals wasn’t really enough considering the hype and bluster around the creation of the team and signing of Kennyfuckingcooper to spearhead the attack. The Timbers fell just short of the playoffs, and Cooper fell just short of winning the kind of place in Timbers fans’ affections that the club’s first MLS goalscorer should hold as the only common thread through his increasingly inconsistent performances was his ongoing and never-ending battle with the forces of gravity.

A feature of Cooper’s time back in MLS has been the way he’s found goals in burst, which isn’t uncommon for strikers, but when you’re the main guy the attack is supposedly building to, it becomes a problem.

At Portland, Cooper scored goals two and three within 41 days of his first, and the goals five, six, seven, (a beauty), and eight within 33 days towards the season’s end. In the 136 days between these two scoring bursts, he found the net once.

This pattern continued after Cooper left Portland after one year for New York. Backed by talent like Thierry Henry, Cooper streaked to 11 goals within 73 days before going on a 58 day drought. He returned to familiar ways, scoring patchily and generally underwhelming, before finding himself on the move to his third MLS club in three years.

Generally that kind of movement isn’t a good sign, especially considering he scored a very respectable 26 times in 67 appearances. Only Thierry Henry (29 in 51) and Chris Wondolowski (43 in 62) outscored Cooper through ‘11 and ‘12, yet New York were happy to let him go for allocation money.

In Dallas Cooper has landed back where he had his greatest success as a pro, scoring 40 in 90 appearances before a less than productive spell in Europe.

Cooper’s hot streak at the start of 2012 was salt in the wounds for Timbers fans, who watched their team struggle to fit another big name striker in to the puzzle. There’s no doubt that Cooper could’ve, should’ve, been handled better but he never seemed like a good fit for the big guy/little guy style John Spencer was looking for in his attack.

Caleb Porter’s style would probably suit Cooper better than Spencer’s was ever going to, but I don’t think Kennyfuckingcooper would suit Porter’s style so much. His movement, good touch and threat in the air would all be a benefit to the Timbers now, but too often you got the impression that he was playing for Kenny Cooper rather than the team. His constant flopping would only break-up the rhythm of the attack, and it’s that ability to step up the tempo and push opponents back that’s vital to getting the kind of results from our attack that we were promised when we signed Kenny Cooper.

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Goal 23. Eddie Johnson vs Toronto FC

30th July 2011

GHOSTS

A good team is more than the eleven on the field, or the eighteen in the squad; it’s about the entire roster. Portland Timbers have used 49 different players in 85 matches, with a host of players making only fleeting on-field cameos.


Watch The Goal Here

With four points from their previous nine matches, the Timbers faced Toronto FC at home, where Eddie Johnson’s goal in the 23rd minute got Portland off to the best possible start.

Jack Jewsbury would add a second, but the Timbers ended up with only a point after throwing away another lead late in the game. Johnson swept the ball home from the edge of the box for his first MLS goal in only his second start after being among the “first four” signed by the expansion club, and the only one from outside the USL Timbers.


Eddie Johnson, Adin Brown, Adam Moffat. Freddie Braun, Brian Umony, Brent Richards. Kevin Goldthwaite, Mike Fucito, Peter Lowry. Joe Bendik, Jake Gleeson and Ryan Pore.

Twelve guys, of the 49 MLS Timbers, who clocked less than 400 minutes on the field during their time in Portland, not including the 2013 debutants.

Gleeson and Richards could yet add to their time and whittle the group down to ten, but there’s no chance for Eddie Johnson to add to his time on the field.

His goal against Toronto was followed a few weeks later by a season-ending concussion in his next start, and that season-ender became a career-ender for the striker.

Given the way that the team struggled to put the ball in the back of the net, it’s little surprise that you can identify five attacking players in the dirty dozen, as the front office looked for a solution.

Between those five they logged a little under 1200 minutes, or 13 matches, managing to get a whole six shots on target. Johnson’s goal was the only success for this misfit group.

The First 49
The chart above lists all of the players who have got on the field for the Timbers according to which seasons they’ve played in.

If you discount Gleeson as being still on the roster, of the eight players who only played in 2011, four of them were attackers – Umony, Johnson, Cooper and Pore. In 2012, ignoring Richards and Braun, it’s four of eight again – Boyd, Fucito, Mwanga and Songo’o.

The first couple of years were marked by constant upheaval in attack. Fourteen attackers played for Portland in 2011 and 2012, and only five appeared in both years – Nagbe, Alhassan, Perlaza, Zizzo and Dike. You can’t turnover so many players and hope to find any consistency.

Instead of taking a Spencerian “rip it up and start again” mentality, Caleb Porter and Gavin Wilkinson concentrated on bolstering the defense with an entirely new back five, and cherry picking the right guys to help the attack, even if that meant enduring a messy and public break-up with Mix Diskerud (remember him?) to get to Diego Valeri, or raising eyebrows by signing the 34-year old Frederic Piquionne.

This year, with ten debutants (excluding Valencia), only three attacking players have made their debuts – R. Johnson, Valeri and Piquionne. Of the ten players who played here prior to Porter’s arrival, three are attackers (Alhassan, Nagbe and Zizzo). Wallace has been converted into a more attacking player, not to mention Chara having the shackles taken off him and Dike likely to feature in some way once he gets fit.

The refreshing thing about the squad as it currently stands is that there is greater depth, yet less bloat. The attacking options available now all look likely to score, which wasn’t always the case in the first couple of years. It’s a very different prospect to be looking to Ryan Johnson coming off the bench than Mike Fucito or Brian Umony.

The four attackers “cut” by Porter have all been replaced, or upgraded, from within or by a good trade. For Mwanga, Boyd, Fucito and Songo’o, read Johnson, Piquionne, Valencia and Valeri. You could even thrown in Cooper to sweeten the deal in favor of the ex-Timbers, but I still prefer what we’ve got, sans Dike.

It’s impossible to say where Eddie Johnson’s career could’ve went if it hadn’t been cut short, but given the way that Spencer never really utilized him, or seemed to know how to get the attack to do what it was they were doing in his head, where it all worked so well.

It’s noticeable that, for all the turnover under Spencer, nothing really changed. The attack was the same regardless of who was playing, and that’s why you can’t lay it all at the individual’s door. Fucito and Mwanga have been picked up by other MLS clubs, so there’s something there, and a whole host have moved abroad or taken a step or two down the US soccer pyramid. There are a few who no longer play professional football, injuries or age being the most common reasons, while others like Umony have embarked on an adventure to Vietnam and Tanzania.

The same tactics were rolled out, such that the Timbers became reliant on having very particular players in set positions, like the target man “number nine”. Poor acquisitions, with seemingly little thought beyond the short term, left us with half a functional team that fell down entirely when one of it’s key players had a bad game. It never seemed to occur to the coach that the problem might lie with him, not when he could just swap one big-but-not-a-target-man striker for another big-but-not-a-target-man striker-who-gets-paid-like-crazy-money and hope that it would all fall into place.

Even though we’re carrying fewer strikers under Porter, albeit with Dike on the comeback trail, the system is flexible enough to adapt around the man up top. Given how injuries left the Timbers defense looking like a Stark after a Frey wedding, it’d be foolish to tempt fate by crowing about depth in attack, but even with fewer bodies in place, I’ve never felt more secure in our attacking options that I have this season, and these past few matches especially.

The revolving doors at Jeld-Wen Field also saw a number of defenders and midfielders come and go as well, with guys like Mosquera, Smith and Goldthwaite giving us a single season, and Alexander, Chabala and Palmer hanging around for at least part of two before being moved on within MLS. With their busiest offseason yet, it should follow that the team would be in an even bigger state of flux and instability than usual, but it feel like there’s much less instability this year.

The reason for this, I think, is that much of Porter and Wilkinson’s job was to sweep out the mistakes of the previous regime, so that they could rebuild around what Spencer and co had got right. So we have the familiar faces of Jack Jewsbury and Rodney Wallace, Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan, and we’ve lost a bunch of guys who never fit in anyway.

The guys who have come in have found out that that way to a fan’s heart is through the back of the opposition net, and they’ve bought into what it means for the fans to play for this team.

There will be bumps along the way, and other guys won’t fit in and will be moved on, but even these guys will have all played their part, however fleeting it may have been. Some left with a fond farewell, others with a cold stare, but none are ever forgotten.

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Timbers Draw In Chicago: Thrown Away

It was very much a good news, bad news scenario for Portland Timbers after their trip to Chicago ended in a 2-2 draw.

Good News: the unbeaten streak continues! Bad News: we threw away a lead against a team that had failed to get anything from being two goals down in their last fifteen attempts, stretching back over two years.

Good News: seriously, 12 games unbeaten! And 3rd in the West ahead of Seattle and LA. Bad News: only two wins in the last six, and those were against each conference’s early-season whipping boys, and of the four draws, we’ve twice gone into the last 15 minutes in winning positions and dropped points.

Good News: Diego Valeri was back, he scored, had a hand in our second and was pretty, pretty good. Bad News: he went off, our night went to shit and we ended up on the losing end of a 2-2 draw.

In the aftermath, there was a seeming consensus on twitter that Caleb Porter had blown it by taking of Valeri after 67 minutes, with the Timbers 2-0 up.

There is no doubt that the fact the team lost their lead when Valeri wasn’t on is worth bringing up as the figures would seem to support the idea that when Diego starts, you take him off at your peril.

If you exclude the first few matches, which Valeri started and finished, and the Houston match which he only left due to injury, Diego has started seven and been subbed off four times. In those matches the team’s aggregate scores are 12-4 when Valeri is on the field, and 0-4 with him off.

This ignores the DC game that Valeri didn’t play in, of course, and weirdly enough the Timbers have won both games the playmaker has sat out entirely having beaten San Jose 1-0 earlier in the year.

You would expect Valeri’s withdrawal, given how he is often the creative pivot in the team, to cause a drop off in attacking potency and that is indicated by the team failing to score once in the 64 minutes Valeri has sat on the bench despite averaging a goal every 47 minutes or so when he’s on the field.

The surprise is how poorly the team defend with him off the field. They’ve conceded the same number of goals in those 64 minutes as they had in the other 566, though I doubt there is any direct link between Valeri going off and our defence losing their way.

Porter has shown himself very adept at using subs, a skill that got him out trouble early on in the year when the Timbers seemed to start every game a goal behind. To put Porter’s record in context, John Spencer’s “W-L” record after the first sub was 11-21, Gavin Wilkinson’s was 4-4, and Porter is 6-2.

However, in the last few matches his ability to work some magic from the bench when it’s needed has waned.

10GAMES CP (2)

Having a depleted squad, be it due to injuries, suspensions or international duty, limits a coaches ability to make a positive impact from the bench, and when the squad gets thin, that’s when you may look more to consolidate rather than put teams to the sword. Of the last four times the team has led when Porter has made his first change, three of the matches have finished with no further goals being scored for either side.

Chicago are the first team since the San Jose game to “beat” the Timbers post-sub, and yes, Valeri went off after scoring then too. Since the San Jose game the Timbers have been outscored 4-5 after the first substitution has been made, having “won” 6-2 over the first five games, but I see that as a product of a coach adjusting to a different squad dynamic over the past few matches than a coach who’s lost his touch. He’s managed to put a starting XI together that’s been in a losing position only once in the last nine games, and that was an injury-enforced change, so the Timbers are getting into good positions and generally if they can do that, Porter mostly calls it right to keep it that way.

The problem with taking Valeri off, and one potential reason for the side’s relatively poor showing after his removal, is that we don’t have anyone of his ability to fill the void he leaves. Perhaps Nagbe could, one day, but for now he’s not that guy, and without Valeri we start to retain less of the ball out of our half and that puts more pressure on the defence.

That’s what we saw in this game as the Fire came out firing, and got the goals that they no doubt feel they deserved or all their effort. That’s what those who railed against Porter’s substitution choice saw. The consensus seemed to be that everything had been going well up until then, and then Porter spencered it by bringing off Valeri.

The problem I have with this is, and this where I’ll respectfully disagree with the coach below and likely most other fans, is that we were already pretty poor before Valeri went off.

With the way we were playing, there was absolutely no reason for that team to get a goal. They got a goal out of nothing. It wasn’t like they had a flow or anything. It popped up in a moment, and we fell asleep.

Now, while I don’t disagree that the goal, the events that led directly to Magee making it 2-1, “popped up in a moment” when we had fallen asleep, but I don’t agree it came out of nothing. ***

For all we were stroking the ball around (somewhat) nicely and, in our mind, controlling the pace of the game, Chicago weren’t paying attention. They missed the lesson when Zemanski scored and just kept doing what they’d been doing, which was pressing hard and upping their tempo.

In the first half, the Timbers averaged 5 passes per minute, to Chicago’s 3 as they outworked and outplayed their hosts. By the time Valeri went off that situation had turned around entirely and our patient, deliberate play was being disrupted by a fired up Chicago. Our passing accuracy had dropped from 83% to 63% and the problem was that weren’t getting our attacking players involved enough because the Fire were pressing, or we were just plain sloppy and caught on our heels at times.

PT 1HBV PASS

It’s true that Valeri had two shots at goal in the second half, equalling the entire team’s tally after he went off, and of his four passes, one led to the Timbers’ 2nd goal, but the problem is that he only had four passing opportunities in over 20 minutes of play. His minutes per pass rate had gone from 2.4 to 5.4 before he went off, and having Valeri making passes every five minutes is not how to get the best out of him.

By taking off Valeri, we were losing a lot of our attacking threat, but we were 2-0 up at the time and clearly Porter felt all was well. Can’t really blame him, and really the change makes perfect sense when you consider that Valeri is coming back from an injury, and we have a big week ahead. My problem isn’t with taking off Valeri, it’s that the change wasn’t bold enough.

A lot of our play was directed towards the flanks, which allowed Chicago to press hard out wide and force turnovers from which to launch attacks.

Fire tackling
Fire tackling
Fire passing
Fire passing

The Timbers were warned a couple of times in the first couple of minutes of the second half as Magee’s movement and Jewsbury getting caught doing a dragback at the corner of the box. The Fire pressed harder, sometimes questionably so, but they also pressed higher and Magee proved a real handful with his play both on and off the ball.

In the first half, the Timbers pressing was very well organised and it snuffed out much of Chicago’s threat, but in the second half it wasn’t as effective.

PT 1H Mid Press

PT Midfield Press 2H

Meanwhile Chicago were doing a better job of closing down the space in front of the defence, and denying the Timbers space and time there.

Chic 2H Shutdown

In general terms, the triumverate of Zemanski, Chara and Johnson did well and they rotated duties very nicely, such that if I’m Darlington Nagbe, I’m maybe a little worried about what Rodney Wallace’s return from international duty means. For much of the game, Zemanski was the deeper of the three, often dropping between Kah and Jean-Baptiste to help build from the back.

PT Zemanski CB

Zemanski did his chances of starting again no harm when he did move forward and was rewarded with a goal which was a thing of beauty.

Little surprise it came from Valeri being involved, his previous touches in the second half being a pass that led to his own shot at goal, and equally, given how tight the Fire were keeping it through the middle, it came from springing Piquionne in down the flanks.

timbers goal 2

Zemanski’s finish really was exquisite, and at that point it really did seem like it would break the Fire’s spirit and kill of the fightback before it really got going.

But the home side kept on pressing, getting the ball forward and drawing set-pieces, and throwing the ball into the box.

Well, we went up 2-0, and to be honest with you, it looked like it was going to be three or four

In all honesty, at the time I was worried about how the half was playing out and I’m struggling to see where Porter gets the 3 or 4 goals from, unless he’s referring to chances in the first half cos in the second, if you were out of the room when Zemanski scored, or blinked during Valeri’s tame effort from distance, you don’t see the Timbers doing much to threaten Chicago’s goal. You could say Kocic wasn’t really troubled by all this possession and increased tempo, but all it would take is a slip here or a slice of bad luck there and suddenly it’s 2-1 and all that pressure is going to start making people a little jumpy.

There’s a good chance that if Kocic scoops up the ball and holds it, rather that it spilling to Magee, that the Timbers weather the storm and Zizzo’s pace and width are able to stretch and hurt a tiring Fire defence in the last 15-20 minutes. Games can swing on such moments.

AJB PushNow, I won’t make the case the AJB got a nudge in the back that sent him into Kocic, who then spilled it at Magee’s feet for that first goal because, hey, it’s a contact sport after all and if you rely on refs getting it right 100% of time, you’re going to be disappointed 100% of the time. Still, maybe someone will make that case here.

AJB TackleEqually, I don’t see the point in arguing that Jean-Baptiste won the ball from Magee, whose “foul” led to the free kick that made it level because when a player reaches in like that, it’s left to the referee’s interpretation, and I refer you to the stats above for how that will work out for you.

The fact is that it’s easy to lay blame for this drawtastrophe at the doors of Caleb Porter for blowing the sub, or the ref for being a ref. I’m sure these factors made a difference, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The Timbers didn’t drop points because Diego Valeri was taken off, but because Caleb Porter misread the match and didn’t make the right kind of change.

To be fair to the coach though, his hands were tied. Four players off on international duty to add to an injury list meant that Porter didn’t really have the tools at his disposal to change the game when it began to slip away from him.

We really missed Rodney Wallace, whose presence would’ve offered more than Nagbe and Zizzo combined, and without Ryan Johnson available, Porter probably kept Piquionne on a good 10 or 15 minutes longer than he’d have liked. His reluctance to bring on Valencia is understandable in that the youngster is much more mercurial presence than Piquionne, and when the team need someone who can hold up the ball in attack to relieve pressure, you stick with the guy who is handing out masterclasses in doing just that right now. Valencia is stuck in the margins for now, though I’d expect he’ll have a second chance to shine against Tampa. I just hope it is as an attacker than in midfield.

The Timbers Front Three
The Timbers Front Three
Zizzo tried his best, and got involved, but he’s not Valeri, and the methadone is never as good as the real stuff. His presence, rather than give us a good diagonal outball and keep the Fire defence pinned back a little, unsettled the balance of the front three as big gaps opened up between the all.

The tight interplay and close movement and understanding between the front three, with support from behind, that is a big part of why the Timbers have been so successful in attack this year.

PT Movement Creating Opportunity

With a key, arguably THE key, part of that attack on the field, it suffered and the Fire were able to force pressure under it told. Even a late chance which came off Kah’s surprised right foot from a Will Johnson free-kick, and could’ve grabbed all three points wouldn’t have masked a second half performance that left us hoping for such a last gasp effort in the first place.

The sky isn’t falling though. Bad news: it’s one of those draws that feels like a defeat. Good news: we went to Chicago and outplayed them for 45 minutes with at least six first team players unavailable and were a few inches from coming away with all three points.

It’s a huge fortnight ahead, with three of four games at home, and a trip to play the Galaxy. The US Open Cup match perhaps isn’t the ideal timing with Dallas and LA next up in the league, so we will get a better look at just how deep Porter’s squad really is, and it’s a brave man who backs against Portland when they’re still grinding out results on the road with a half a team missing.

Good News: we’re still not Seattle. Bad News: seriously, there is no bad news there.

Keep the faith, and stay the course.
#RCTID

Depth Charge

There’s no hiding the love affair that is currently blossoming in the city of roses between Caleb Porter and the Timbers faithful. Cautious optimism has given way to a sense that this team will find a way through, no matter the opponent or obstacle.

The table doesn’t lie, and with a little over a third of the regular season gone the Timbers sit 2nd in the West, with the 4th best defensive record.

That latter fact is arguably the most remarkable of the two considering the constant changing around Porter has done at the back. It’s not been tinkering for tinkerings sake, most of it has been enforced, but it’s a testament to Porter’s eye for depth.

Buying depth isn’t as easy as it sounds, because if it was, I mean, you’d just pay for four good guys instead of two, right? Except there’s a salary cap, and we’re not NYCFC, so finding those four guys is a bit trickier than just going out and getting the best available, and paying them what they want.

Pa Modou Kah became the fifth player to start at center back for Portland, and Rauwshan McKenzie may be the sixth after joining recently as the Timbers have weathered a barrage of misfortune.

The coach said at the time of Kah’s signing that he didn’t see the Norwegian-Gambian defender as a replacement for the injured Mikael Silvestre, leading the backline, but he saw the Kah-Silvstre partnership as his ideal pair.

That would seem to indicate that it wasn’t in the script for Jean-Baptiste to be so heavily featured at this point. The exposure will be a great benefit to the youngster in the long term, and the Timbers have got through what could’ve been a clusterfuck of misfortune in defence without many dents in the body work, but it remains to be seen who of Jean-Baptiste, Kah, McKenzie and Futty get the nod from Porter from here on.

It’s not just in defense where Porter has added to the squad wisely, and found great value for the club’s outlay. Piquionne’s four goals against Wilmington will live long in the memories of Timbers fans, and we have Ryan Johnston, Jose Valencia and a returning Bright Dike in the hunt for goals. The addition of Will Johnson, and the reinvention of Jack Jewsbury adds depth to center of midfield and the full-back positions, and Porter continues to get the best from guys who’ve tended to underperform under previous coaches.

Without Porter and his team’s ability to find guys who can step up when needed, or offer variety or flexibility in changing the complexion of matches, we’re settling in for another one of “those years”.

A good example of the change, not just on the pitch but off it, from then to now is to look at the guys on the bench. These are our game-changers, the guys who might have to make a difference.

Rewind to 2011, and the Timbers lost their 100% home record with a 3-2 loss to DC United. Of the seven guys on the bench for the Timbers that night, three of them would’t play MLS football in 2012: Adin Brown, Eddie Johnson and Ryan Pore.

The midfield was covered by James “Non Soccer” Marcelin and Adam Moffat. Moffat would get on for a whole six minutes, and would be playing for the Dynamo in less than two months.

The final two, Darlington Nagbe and David Horst, are still on the roster, but it’s interesting to look back and note that despite being 2-1 down from the 75th minute, Nagbe didn’t get on. In the event Spencer only used two subs, something he did fairly often which seemed like a quirk of his at the time, but can be read retroactively as a sign that even he didn’t have faith in his back-up guys.

If you give Spenny another year to build his squad, then you arrive at the 1-1 draw with the Whitecaps in late May 2012. The bench this time was better, in that Horst, Rodney Wallace and Sal Zizzo all wouldn’t look out of place in or around the Timbers XI today.

However, it also had Lovel Palmer and Mike Fucito who definitely were Timbers players, I’ve seen the pictures, but I’ll be damned if my brain isn’t trying to wipe that knowledge out altogether.

Joe Bendik was back-up to Troy Perkins, and I think it’s fair to say we’ve upgraded there.

Franck Songo’o fills out the bench that night, and he’s swapped that for a couch this year, unless he’s finally found a club. Perhaps he and Steven Smith are out there, walking the land together.

This year, as we beat DC 2-0, because that’s who we are now, we had Kocic, Miller, McKenzie, Zizzo, Alhassan, Zemanski and Valencia.

Ryan Miller brings a lot of experience from abroad, and despite a grounding the States, seems to be taking a bit of time to adjust back into the groove over here, but he’s a solid back up to have. McKenzie adds depth to defense, while Zizzo, Alhassan and Valencia have been with the club since before Porter.

Ben Zemanski is a versatile player, a footballing Swiss army knife, who covers a lot of bases for a relatively bargain basement price.

This ability to fill out the squad with guys who represent great value is the key that has allowed Porter to do more than build a good first XI; he’s built a squad.

The average base salary of the benches under Spencer were $66k in 2011 and $70k in 2012. I couldn’t pull up figures for McKenzie, but I really doubt he’s going to be pulling the 2013 average of $65k significantly upwards.

It may be the heady cocktail of success and silky soccer getting to me, but I look at Porter’s bench and feel confident in flat-out saying it’s better than any bench we had under Spencer. And this is with key players out. Porter has done that, while still spending less than Spencer did to stock up on square pegs.

That’s not to say the squad is perfect, and I wonder how long we carry six central defenders when they’re all fit, but it’s certainly better than it has been in the past.

That is probably the most impressive thing about Porter’s reign thus far, and it’s this ability to build a squad that can all positively contribute that will do more to put Portland on track to silverware than all free-flowing football in the world.