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#9

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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.

Six Degrees: Let The Record Show

record


1) Winning is so good for my psychology. Right now, everything seems perfect. All I want to do is sing and dance and throw awesomeness at you.

What kind of awesomeness? How about this: right now, your Portland Timbers are tied for the league lead in points-per-game with Montreal. In total points, we’re three points behind RSL with two games in hand. We’re one behind Colorado with THREE games in hand. We’ve given up the fewest goals in the league. We’re tied with KC for best goal differential.

Not enough awesomeness? I’ve got more. Ryan Johnson just tied Portland’s MLS-era record for most goals scored. Diego Valeri just BROKE the assists record.

Yes, folks, three points can leave a man feeling a little tipsy. I’ll try to make it through this column without breaking anything or spilling beer on the carpet.

2) Having a week and a half off really made a difference. We looked so refreshed and aggressive, especially on offense. It reminded me of our early season form. Our entire front four was on fire. RJ and Nagbe scored, Valeri and RFW almost did. Hell, even Trencito was blasting towards goal. That was the most dangerous 1 v 5 break I’ve ever seen.

I hope we can hold on to this offensive form. This offensive aggression. I hope our legs stay fresh and injuries don’t haunt us. A few too many guys were banged around last night. We don’t need them joining Will and Piq on the injured list. Our bench seems to get thinner every day. (On the plus side, Bright Dike’s getting closer and closer. Fingers crossed.)

3) There’s plenty of good things to say about the defense as well. Both David Ferreria (who’s a whiny little turd) and Blas Perez (who’s a whiny big turd) were shut down last night. Complete non-factors. I’ll give credit to Ben Zemanski and Pa Kah.

I’m starting to think that Kah’s a little like basketball player Kevin Garnett, in that part of his game involves getting into his opponent’s brain. He was barking in Perez’s ear all night long, and Perez just got more and more frustrated, eventually getting a yellow card for “dissent,” which I’m pretty sure is official-speak for “bitching.”

There’s a side of me that sort of likes Kah’s mind games, but another side worries it will blow up in his face. He should definitely be a little more careful after the game’s over. After the final whistle blew last night, he was right there next to Perez, circling him, giving him a complete earful. It’s amazing Perez didn’t slug him. Though maybe that’s what Kah wants.

4) After the Vancouver game, I was very unsure about Alvas Powell, but man, did he look better last night. I think this kid might be the real deal. In that first game, sure, he looked fast, but he also looked overwhelmed and panickey. Not last night. Last night he really looked like the right back of our future. Hell, he may be the right back of our present. He’s still got those young, fast legs, but last night he showed us he’s also good with the ball at his feet, he can stay calm under fire, and he can learn and improve. Sure, he might need to work on his crosses, and there were a few times he didn’t get back when I should have, but the kid’s only 19. And if we know anything about Caleb Porter, it’s that he’s got a lot of experience teaching teenagers. Put all of those things together and I think Alvas Powell might be starting the rest of the season. It makes me a little sad to say this, because it means Jack Jewsbury’s days with Portland may be numbered. But I guess we can save all that talk for the off-season, right?

5) Okay, let’s have some quick-takes on a few players.

Ben Zemanski – Outstanding work, brother. Thanks to your performance, we didn’t miss Will Johnson at all. And for the record, I’m not jumping on a bandwagon here. I’ve liked you from the start.

Michael Harrington – You had to trim the hair, dude? At this crucial point in the season? If your play falters in any way, we’ll know who to blame. Your barber.

Donovan Ricketts – Quit rolling around in pain and giving me ulcers. You are not allowed to get injured. Do you understand me, sir? Zero. Injuries.

Andrew Jean-Baptiste – I can’t overstate how fun it’s been watching you grow up this year. Earlier in the season, I didn’t trust you. Now I do, completely and totally. You’ve become rock solid.

Ryan Johnson – My one-person Ryan Johnson fan club will be having a party to celebrate your tying Kenny Cooper’s MLS-era scoring record. All the haters can form a line at the door. I’ll be inside, eating cake and ice cream.

6) I’ll end this column by easing back on the optimism and trying to get some perspective. This season is far from over and the Timbers are far from perfect. Sure, we won and we looked good doing it, but Dallas is in a slump, we were at home, and it’s a game we were supposed to win. A much bigger test will be our next three games. Real Salt Lake at home, then Seattle away, and Real Salt Lake away.

Now, regarding Seattle, I’m a little hopeful. The Flounders haven’t beaten a playoff-caliber team since June 8th, when they beat Vancouver. I’ll also remind everyone that we took a point from them earlier this season. That was in their house and at a point when the Timbers were still figuring out who they were. We know who we are now. The Flounders? They just disrupted things by bringing in Clint Dempsey. It’ll be a sellout, of course, and their fans will be all geeked up, but I still think we can go in there and get a point.

The two Real Salt Lake games? Much more difficult. They’re not slumping and they’re not changing their roster. They’re just flat out good. Getting a point on their home field will be tough, so we absolutely MUST WIN on Wednesday. A draw is unacceptable. A draw would make all of my current optimism come crashing down.

I’m happy today. Check this space on Thursday to see if I’m miserable again.

Six Degrees: Frustration, Fan Clubs and Quick Fixes.

frustration


1) The key word in Portland these days? Frustration. We can’t put the ball in the net, we can’t defend set pieces, we can’t get three points at home. Frustration, frustration, frustration. I left Saturday’s game with a small black cloud in my wake.

But as always, Coach Porter’s all about keeping the lows high. And I can understand that, since, in many ways, we really did play well Saturday night. We had passion, energy, possession, and lots of good scoring chances. You could even suggest that this game came down to one play. We gave them a set-piece goal, so we didn’t get the win, simple as that. If we stop them on that one play, it’s all candy canes and daisies here in Timbers Land.

But we didn’t, so here I am, trying to make the best of it. I’m not gonna go all super-optimism like last week, but I will try to keep the lows high. Coach’s orders.

2) First of all, this game felt like the playoffs. From the very start, there was a ton of energy in the crowd. Cheering, booing, cursing, desperation. Everything about it screamed playoffs. Perhaps this is what all our games will be like the rest of the year. We certainly have more at stake than we did this time last year, when we were just running out the string. Let’s keep bringing the passion, Portland. Hopefully it will spur the boys on.

That being said, I must grudgingly admit that Vancouver’s traveling fans were outstanding. And I know I’m going to make a lot of people angry with this, but in many ways, they seemed to have won the day. From my seat, at least, sitting in 218, the Vancouver fans were louder, more enthusiastic, and better organized than the Timbers Army. I’ve never seen this happen before and I hope I never will again, but a number of times during the game, I found myself a little disappointed with the Army, wondering why they weren’t picking it up a little, rising up to match the Vancouver passion. Maybe the Vancouver fans didn’t seem significant way over in the TA section, but they sure did in mine. And yes, I’ll admit that maybe the TA’s chanting was disrupted by all the foul calls, but still, from where I was sitting, the Vancouver fans won.

You may begin flaming me now.

3) Let’s hear it for Vancouver’s designated hockey goon, Brad Rusin. He was only in the game 17 minutes, but he made the most of them, smashing Diego Valeri to the ground three or four times. And he’s so gigantic, it looked like a high school senior picking on some tiny little freshman kid. So how cool was it when he smashed into Valeri like a runaway train, only to injure himself and get carted off the field? Don’t mess with Argentinians, pal. They’re not flesh and bone like you or me. They’ve got Wolverine skeletons or something.

But I think the thuggery was all part of Vancouver’s plan. Their physical play really slowed the game down in the first half. With the constant fouls being called, there was no chance for Portland to get an offensive rhythm, which made things super-frustrating for players and fans alike.

I have a feeling we’ll see a lot of teams doing this the rest of the season, since it works so well. The Timbers will be winning ugly, if we win at all.

4) A few individual notes.

Ryan Johnson – He leads our team in scoring, but everyone prefers Piquionne, which drives me absolutely crazy. I feel like starting a one-person Ryan Johnson fan club. I’ll have t-shirts and signs and everything. It’ll be awesome. You’re not invited.

Jack Jewsbury – I like him better than Zemanski in Chara’s spot, but the lost chemistry between Will and Chara is noticeable, no matter who’s the sub. Everyone please send healing prayers in the direction of Diego Chara’s big toe.

Diego Valeri – Very active game, very good game. Diego is always trying for the degree-of-difficulty passes and I can’t say I mind too much. That assist to my boy Ryan was sweet.

Darlington Nagbe – Also a very active game. Sadly, there were few times he was charging toward the goal, seemingly on the verge of something brilliant, only to slam on the brakes and look for help. It’s frustrating, but I guess when you’re swamped by five Whitecap defenders, these things happen.

Alvas Powell – Not a bad MLS debut for the 19-year old Jamaican. He seemed a little overwhelmed at times, and my section mates and I were terrified he’d give Vancouver a PK, but on the whole, he shows great potential. That being said, I’d rather have Jack back there. Sorry, but Jack’s my security blanket.

5) July was a tough month for the Timbers, going 1-2-1 over that span. I was hoping we’d leave our troubles behind, but no, the malaise has followed us into August. We can’t score, we can’t defend set pieces, we can’t get three points at home, much less on the road. We had midsummer slumps in 2011 and 2012. Now we’re doing it again in 2013.

But here’s the good news. This year, despite these summer doldrums, we’re still in contention. Firmly in contention. Check out the standings. All other results aside, a three game win streak would move San Jose from 8th place to 1st. San Jose! So if those bums are still in it, then Portland sure as hell is, slump be damned.

If we tie every game the rest of the way, we’ll finish with 47 points. Enough to make the playoffs? Dunno. Maybe. But I’m going to count on some wins. I think Seattle and Vancouver will have their Cascadian hearts broken yet again, I think we’ll get back into form as the weather gets colder, and I think we’ll finish this year safely above the red line, something our neighbors in the fishing village to the north are getting a little desperate about.

6) Speaking of desperation, let’s talk about Seattle’s new striker, Clint Dempsey.

With all the trouble Portland’s having scoring goals, what would a foolish front office do right now? Well, they’d probably break the bank on a big name striker, desperate for that one guy who would fix everything. I pray Portland’s GM Gavin Wilkinson doesn’t do this. Why? Look at Seattle. Earlier this year, they overpaid Obafemi Martins, because he was going to be their high-priced savior. Now they’re overpaying Clint Dempsey because HE’S going to be their high-priced savior. Except he’s not. What will he be, then? Well, he might be Herschel Walker.

For those of you who don’t know that name, here’s some American football history. Herschel Walker was a fabulous Dallas Cowboys running back in the 1980s. The Minnesota Vikings felt they were one fabulous running back away from winning it all. So they traded their entire world for Herschel. Money, players, draft picks. They gave Dallas everything, just so they could have that one final piece.

What happened? The Herschel trade didn’t save the Vikings, it saved the COWBOYS. They used all those draft picks to build a TEAM. A team that won three Super Bowls in four seasons.

Now, the Cowboys haven’t won a Super Bowl since. Why? Partially, it’s because they’re doing just what the Vikings did back in the ’80s: throwing big money on a series of high-priced saviors. And when teams do that, they fail.

Gavin Wilkinson, Merritt Paulson, please don’t look for the quick fix. Let Seattle do that. Let them bring in over-priced saviors. It will only hurt them. What Portland needs is a great TEAM.

Do we already have that? Maybe, maybe not. But I’m willing to wait and see how this season plays out.

Timbers: Damn the Flow

Damn the flow


Seventy-nine minutes into the match, Darlington Nagbe was fouled by Steven Lenhart. Nothing surprising there as only David Ferrera and Javier Morales have been fouled more often than Nagbe this season, and the five fouls suffered by the Timbers attacker in this game took him past the 46 fouls he’d suffered in the whole of 2012. He’s basically getting kicked at twice the rate which reflects the Timbers greater attacking presence and his role within it.

San Jose’s 18 fouls committed sets a season high, and it’s the first time since March 2012 that the Earthquakes have been in such an ugly mood, which is saying something for a team with Steven Lenhart among their number.

Lenhart DefenceSpeaking of Lenhart, it’s kinda interesting, I think, to note that the striker committed three fouls in the match, all in the last fifteen minutes. And yet none of them were in his one half as San Jose pressed high and we struggled to break them down despite piling on the pressure. The foul on Nagbe, with him going back to his own goal, came three minutes before the Timbers were back in the game, but they blew their chance to grab a point late on, having surrendered two cheap goals after the break.

The first came from the penalty spot, so we can just chalk that one up to bad luck, because refs aren’t infallible you know, right?

Ach, you know what, I’ve watched it and gone from dubious but plausible, to a dive, to a Bale-like “searching for contact” move and it just underlines how hard all this is to do on the fly for one official. In this case the assistant had a ton of bodies between him and the ball and the ref’s view meant he was reliant on reading the body language of the players and direction of the ball to judge.

I know if it’s Nagbe going down there in exactly the same way, I’m screaming for the penalty. In this case we were on the wrong end of a call, but for all we pin this on the ref, the most interesting thing for me is that we were the architects of our own downfall.

SanJoseGoal1

A simple giveaway by Jack Jewsbury puts us on the back foot, and perhaps Chara nips Salinas in the heels whereas Zemanski seems to stumble and ease the pressure on the San Jose player, but the end result is we take our our fate and put it right in the hands of the referee in front of a home crowd.

That it came as something of a shock that the Timbers conceded the next goal is a testament to the spirit in the team this year, but it too came with a stink of poor officiating on it. Was Lenhart offside? Sure looks likes it in the freeze frame, but once again if we’d done our job it would’ve never been an issue in the first place.

SanJose Goal2The free kick sees the Timbers line-up in a row of five, with three active San Jose attackers and one passive. Theoretically, we’ve got a man spare with a 6’ 4” Jamaican as a last reserve, so all looks good until Jack Jewsbury gets drawn into the melee for the ball leaving Lenhart all alone at the back.

Both of these injustices were easily avoided by our own actions, so yeah, blame the refs, but that’s not going to help sort out the underlying problems that the officiating masks.

Our defense has generally been good this season, but that’s not to say it’s not being stretched on a weekly basis. A lot of our defensive success can be put down to Ricketts rolling back the years, but with Jewsbury at least partly culpable in the loss of both goals this week it shows what can happen when even a single part of that defensive wall starts to chip away.

The giveaways are unusual for Jewsbury, who is one of the team’s better performers in terms of passing accuracy.

Timbers San Jose Passing AccuracyOver the last two games only Ben Zemanski and Darlington Nagbe have shown greater accuracy than Jewsbury, but not all mispasses are equal as Jack has shown already. It’s a thin line for the likes of Jewsbury and his counterpart on the left, or the right, Michael Harrington to walk as they have to be able to judge when to push the play forward or keep it circulating.

Both of these guys have been among the busiest players on the team over the past two games, receiving successful passes for teammates over 60 times each. Nagbe and Valeri lead the way in this regard and by using these passing stats we can build up a map of the Timbers play against Philadelphia and San Jose so we can see how things changed.


Balancing the Attack

Passing Maps Combined

These pictures use the players average position over the match, and the wider the lines, the more passes between those players. This passing map shows us the primary avenues of play in the Timbers team by highlighting those players that exchanged the most passes.

What is noticeable is that the Timbers “network” was much more widespread against San Jose. Ryan Johnson is an isolated figure against Philadelphia, and his lack of involvement down that side is a stark contrast to the work of Rodney Wallace against San Jose. Welcome back, Rodney.

Wallace added a left side to the attack that stopped us playing in little triangles far from goal, but Ryan Johnson was only marginally more connected this time despite playing through the middle from the start.

The only two players with whom he shared more than seven passes were Donovan Ricketts and Michael Harrington, which tells you that Johnson wasn’t getting involved with his feet and this was leaving a big hole in the middle in te first half.

You can see by the positions of the subs that came on (the lighter green) that the Timbers were in attack mode from the bench, with Piquionne in particular adding a lot to the attack. In his half hour stint against the Quakes, Piquionne logged five shots.

A couple of moments aside, it was another Ryan Johnson performance that gave me some trouble remembering that guy who scored all those goals against San Jose in preseason, and who looked like the ideal spearhead of Porter’s attack. His recent form isn’t great.

After Johnson started 12 of the first 13 games, with four goals for his efforts, Frederic Piquionne commanded his place for the next few. Johnson has started the past four games, scoring in the comeback win against LA, but failing to complete a full 90 mins, with only 5 shots in all that time. By contrast, over the same four games The FP has had 8 shots at goal, or one every 19 minutes to Johnson’s 57 minutes. But then, for all Piquionne is getting shots off he’s generally wayward or blocked with only 2 of 8 shots on target compared to Johnson’s 3 of 5. So, yeah.


Creative Minds

Returning to the passing stats above for a moment though, the ball found its way to Nagbe and Valeri most often which you would certainly expect in an attacking team.

Nagbe Valeri combined passes last 30 mins SJThe duo traded 17 passes over the last match, a figure only topped by the 20 passes between Nagbe and Jewsbury, and the 18 between Harrington and Will Johnson, yet it was only in the last 30 minutes of the match against the Quakes that we really saw the partnership become effective.

A triangle of attacking play, with the apex pointed towards the San Jose goal reflected the pressing of the Timbers having given up the lead and being spurred into more direct action. This kind of play was in stark contrast to the play we’d seen from them previously.

Nagbe  Valeri comparison

Against Philly we saw neither player put significant passes into the box, but against San Jose, and largely in that last half hour as we saw earlier, suddenly Valeri began putting the ball into the most dangerous part of the pitch and Nagbe was there to profit from one such ball forward.

TimbersGoal

These kind of passes from Valeri come with a big reward at a high risk, with perhaps no greater example than Valeri’s flicked pass for Will Johnson in the first half. You know, there’s a part of me that’s annoyed with Will Johnson for missing that because that pass deserved a goal at the other end of it.

There’s a good reason why his teammates give him the ball so often despite his seeming wastefulness, and it’s not just because Coach Porter told them to. They know what he can do and you put up with the odd bad pass or misread signal here to there if you can get to the gold like these (near) assists.

Meanwhile, if you look at Nagbe’s 90% success rate, a lot of those passes are sideways with very few penetrating passes. True, a larger part of his game is built on driving with the ball at his feet for forward movement than is Valeri’s, but it was only when he began buzzing around the edge of the box that i was reminded of what i’d missed in his recent run of mature, reliable performances – the danger he brings to the attack.

The goal was his 6th of the season, but his 1st in over a month. Coming as it did, only three minutes after Lenhart had fouled him in his own half, the goal was the perfect response by Nagbe and put the side on the road to almost claiming a point, had Piquionne only picked a yard either side of Jon Busch for his late header.

So we return to where we started, Timbers on the receiving end of some tough play and poor officiating but able to take heart, I think, from the fact that we don’t need to blame this result on these factors because we can blame ourselves.

Seriously, go with me, how great is it to feel like we lost today because we blew it, not the ref? Had Johnson tucked that chance away, or Jewsbury not slacked off for a fraction of a second (twice), or Freddie picked a corner, we’re looking at a very different result and that’s all down to us putting ourselves in the position to have these chances at all.

Last year we weren’t putting ourselves in a position to blow it by not putting away these chances, so the losses felt very different. This won’t be shrugged off as just bad luck or a bad day at the office because every game is a lesson at this stage on the team’s redevelopment but neither will it be overly dwelt upon because there’s too much work still to be done.


A Good Trend

Our passing and chance creation improved dramatically against San Jose and this is encouraging, but what is less so is the lack of goals from recognised goal getters. Piquionne’s touch was good and Johnson’s got a good eye for goal even if he’s finding him starved of the ball when everyone is feasting around him, but neither of them are scoring.

Three goals in four games for the Timbers isn’t good enough. The strikers have contributed to two goals in that time – Johnson’s strike against LA and Piquionne’s assist for Nagbe against San Jose this week.

If not these two, who? Dike is still some time away, so that leaves Valencia? While it would be nice to see Trencito let loose from the start, aside from a late cameo against Vancouver last May where he scored and had three shots in thirteen minutes of action, he’s rarely been used as an attacking threat, and despite over an hour of play over the past four matches, he’s failed to take a single shot at goal.

Throwing him into a Cascadia Cup match, against a team two points behind us in the table, would be a big risk and games like this call upon an old head.

Zemanski subbed for Chara, and there was very much a sense that it was a subbing with the Colombian’s place on hold for now. Zemanski did well, neat and tidy on the ball and, as the passing maps above show, matching Chara’s performance in many respects.

Chara could return as early as next week, so you’d expect him to start which leaves the question of Jewsbury’s role. He was at fault for both goals, but is generally a positive part of the team. Ryan Miller, and potentially even Ben Zemanski, are candidates to take over if the run of games is getting to Jack. These guys bring something different to the team, but having run with this backline for bit, perhaps Porter will refer to stick with what’s worked in the psat and trust that he and his team can work on the errors that were made that we can actually do something about now.


Kah, the original playmaker

One thing that came out of the research for this post was how important Pa Modou Kah is to the Timbers. Only Jewsbury can join the exclusive club of players who have received the ball more often than Kah, along with Valeri and Nagbe. These four were the only players to be consistently involved in over 20% of the team’s successful passing moves in both the last two matches, highlighting Kah’s role as a defensive playmaker, every bit as influential in his own way as Diego Valeri at the other end.

His most regular links were with Jean-Baptiste and Harrington, which makes sense, and he was often a source of balls into midfield or even straight to his attacker counterpart. He linked up with Nagbe against Philly, and found Valeri more often against San Jose.

In the absence of Silvestre, Kah has stepped into the defensive playmaker role, setting the tempo and dictating the angle of the next probe at the defence. It comes without the glory of Valeri’s position, but is a large part of why the team is able to keep its shape without resorting to long ball football.

It also comes with a high degree of risk as Kah found out a while ago and Jewsbury did tonight where all your good work can be undone by a couple of mad moments. Kah recovered from his stumble to put in assured performances lately, so we’ll see if Jewsbury can bounce back, though after being roasted by Danny Cruz it’s hard to shake the feeling that it might be time for Jack to rest those legs up in anticipation of a potentially longer-than-we’re-used-to season.

Defeats are never easy to take, but lessons will be learnt from this one and actions put in place so that we don’t make those mistakes again, I’m sure. We’ll stumble again, that’s certain, but it’s the picking ourselves back up that matters.


Decisive

No one likes to lose but I get the sense that defeat is literally painful to Caleb Porter, as in he’ll be spending his Sunday racked in agonizing stomach cramps all because the Universe dared to fuck with His Divine Plan. The Whitecaps will fancy their chances of taking something considering the Timbers poor run, but the match gives the home side the chance to equal their record of 5 straight wins in front of the Army – a record set when Jeld-Wen first opened – as well as putting some distance on our rivals and putting yet another tough July behind us.

What is it about that month that the Timbers don’t like? 4 points from 4 games this season is better than 3 points in 6 games last year and the 4 points in 5 of 2011, but it’s still slim pickings. The bright side is that 3 of those 4 games this season were on the road, which means the Timbers are about to embark of a run of three straight home matches.

Caleb Porter won’t be thinking (on the record) beyond Vancouver, of course, but past them lie FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake; every one a potential playoff rival.

If July was tough, August is downright crucial. Those three matches are followed by trips to Seattle and RSL in a month that will cast a long shadow over the Timbers campaign one way or another.

It’s not a time we want an attack floundering or a defence showing cracks, but no one said football was fair. It’s tough waters ahead, but a win against Vancouver puts the Timbers on the right foot to build momentum towards the playoffs.

Timbers 100: Part Two – Everyday Magic

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 32. Jorge Perlaza vs Vancouver Whitecaps

20th August 2011

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Jorge Perlaza scored the Timbers’ first home MLS goal, yet his time would not end happily in Portland. He was not the only victim of scant consideration being given to “the other guys”.


Watch The Goal Here

Jorge Perlaza was first to react to a loose ball in the box following a Jack Jewsbury free-kick, sweeping the ball home to fire the Timbers 2-0 up against their Cascadian rivals.

Perlaza’s goal would prove to be decisive in a 2-1 win that kicked off a late, ultimately doomed, run at reaching the playoffs after gaining only nine points over the fourteen previous games.


Jorge Perlaza’s place in Timbers history is secured by virtue of scoring the first MLS goal at Jeld-Wen Field. A fantastically timed run in behind the striker, a cool little cut-back and the nonchalant finish of a guy who does this kind of thing all the time. He followed it up with a second that was strikingly similar to his goal against Vancouver.

His goal against Vancouver, his sixth of the season, would be his last in MLS.

To see the way Perlaza harried and hurt the Fire defense on that wet April night, you would think that the Timbers had signed the Colombian Michael Owen (the young one). However, by the time the Timbers inaugural season was over he’d already begun to the look more like the Colombian Michael Owen (the old one) to many fans.

However, I will refrain from retreading my already well-documented appreciation of Perlaza here.

Jorge Perlaza’s role in the Timbers team was always going to be a tough one. 40 goals in over 200 appearances in Colombia didn’t seem to indicate that the Timbers were buying a goal machine, but that’s what Cooper and Boyd were for, right?

Perlaza’s job was never to be the main goalscorer. Sure, you’d want a few goals here and there, but his job was as a wingman for the the other striker.

Spencer’s focus on getting the best out of his big striker marginalized the role of the second striker, which ignored the fact that the best striking partnerships are just that, partnerships. Under Spencer it was all one-way, towards the big guy.

Problem was that rather than put guys who could play that role in the team Spencer puts guys in who kinda looked like they should be able to play that role, but really couldn’t or wouldn’t.

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When the goals dried up, it was easier to drop the other guy than admit your marquee striker is a bust because you don’t know how to get the best out of him. Spencer did drop Cooper for a spell, which didn’t change the team’s fortunes much, before it was Perlaza’s turn to ride the bench. After starting the first nineteen games of 2011, Perlaza wouldn’t put together another run of more than four starts in a row before leaving.

As Boyd misfired in 2012, it wasn’t until Spencer went that the Scot was dropped. The difference from the previous year was that dropping the underperforming striker coincided with a change in system away from a two-man attack to a more fluid three man attack. It seemed to take fresh eyes looking at the situation to recognize that the problem wasn’t necessarily with the personnel, but the roles that had been foisted upon them.

Much of the coverage of a team will center around the big names – the goalscoring striker, the creative playmaker or the defensive rock – which pushes the likes of Perlaza, and others, into the margin. Every successful team will have their fair share of these guys, the “oh, that guy” guys, the ones that provide the cohesion to the squad.

Perlaza’s defensive analog, in many ways, would be Diego Chara. Chara’s job was to protect the defence, putting his body on the line if he had to, and support his midfield partner, just as Perlaza’s (or Mwanga, Fucito or any of the other “second strikers”) job was to harry the opposing defence and support his striking partner.

Just as Perlaza was expected to play second fiddle to his partner, Chara found himself alongside the club captain and face of the franchise, whose stellar start to the year only put more emphasis on Chara sitting deep and covering. Despite being sold to fans as a “box to box” midfielder when he was signed, the Timbers never really saw that from him as he often effectively became a fifth defender.

This season the Timbers fans have seen Chara used to much greater effect thanks to Caleb Porter employing him as more of a Roy Keane type player than a Claude Makelele.

So long as Jewsbury was playing above himself, all was well in midfield and little thought was given to Chara. To his credit, Chara never seemed to complain or grumble about the role he’d been lumbered with, so that when the team’s form dipped, and Jewsbury’s regressed to the mean, the little Colombian just worked that bit harder.

Porter’s big change was to move these guys out of the shadows and into the spotlight with the rest of the team. The role of support striker is now split between two or three guys, with each having other responsibilities in both defence and attack. And rather have a designated holder in midfield, he moved towards a double-pivot in midfield between Chara and Will Johnson, which has freed both guys to remain active in both attacking and defensive phases.

Some of the most headline grabbing play this year has been from guys who played in the roles that were a seeming afterthought under Spencer. Will Johnson is the club’s top scorer, and suddenly Chara is hot news to the wider MLSosphere. Valeri, Nagbe and Wallace have been among the goals and assists, and the other greatly marginalized role under Spencer, the full-back, is being nursed back to health after a couple of years of neglect and misuse.

100 Marcelin CloserThe lack of attention given to marginal or specific roles hurt the team. James Marcelin, for instance, was was often used as a “closer” late in the game, which seems perfectly fine until you consider that he wasn’t actually that good a player. Defensively, he looked have the attributes you’d want, but given the ball he quickly showed why he’s currently without a club.

I honestly thought we’d seen the end of Jack Jewsbury, Portland Timber, this year. And yet, he’s emerged as one of the team’s most vital players. Jewsbury has played at left and right back, as well as in midfield, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pop up elsewhere as and when Porter needs spots filled.

By turning players whose roles were disposable under the old regime into integral components in his XI, Porter has found that the best way to unlock the potential of your star players is to pay close attention to the guys around them.

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Goal 46. Darlington Nagbe vs Real Salt Lake

31st March 2012

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A game can be turned on its head in a second, with a single swipe of a boot. No Timbers player provided a greater example of just such a game changing presence than Darlington Nagbe.


Watch The Goal Here

When Eric Alexander lofted the ball into Darlington Nagbe’s path there didn’t seem to be much on for the attacker, but having already pulled the Timbers level, he seemed to be on a one man mission to drag his team to victory.

One controlling touch with his knee, a swing of his right boot saw Nagbe slice the ball away from the despairing keeper and into net for 2-1. It was a strike even his own teammates had to applaud.


When Darlington Nagbe put the Timbers ahead against Real Salt Lake, a lead they would lose with two last gasp RSL goals, it was only his fourth goal of his MLS career and yet the nature of it was not a surprise.

Only his second ever goal, a header to make it 3-0 against New England, was ordinary. His first, though…

To win the Goal of the Year award in your first season is good, to do it with your first professional goal is just showing off.

Despite a resume of one absurd goal after another, just check out his latest MLS goal, it would be fair to say that over the first couple of seasons, Nagbe seemed unable to find a “home” on the pitch. His quality has never been in doubt, but there are times it’s seemed like he was never going to truly fulfill his potential.

A list of the five youngest Timbers goalscorers.
A list of the five youngest Timbers goalscorers.

The reunion with Caleb Porter, his old college coach at Akron, seems to have settled Nagbe down a bit and the word I find myself using most when describing Nagbe’s play this year is mature.

As the club’s first SuperDraft pick, there was a weight of expectation on the youngster’s shoulders, especially as a Hermann Trophy winner in his last year in Akron. Unsurprisingly, as a rookie, his form was anything but consistent, but there were flashes here and there of the kind of player the Timbers could have on their hands.

More progress was expected from Nagbe in his second year, and with his brace against RSL added to an equaliser against Dallas a couple of weeks earlier, it seemed that Nagbe had truly arrived at last.

However, he wouldn’t score another MLS goal for John Spencer and it would be August before Nagbe got his name on the scoresheet again as he round out 2012 playing deeper in midfield.

2013 has seen him reborn as a wide attacker in a fluid system that rewards those moments when Nagbe does something otherly, but doesn’t rely on them when Plan A fails. Diego Valeri’s presence takes much of the weight to be, to repurpose a Jose Mourinho catchphrase, “the special one” off Nagbe’s shoulders and the released burden, along with more focused on-field directions, has allowed Nagbe to finally grow into his role as a guy who can couple a good team ethic with moments of individual brilliance. The addition of Diego Valeri to the squad plugged what had been a glaring hole in the team to armchair managers everywhere; he was a playmaker.

It’s seem quaint to think that there was a time I was passionately in favor of Eric Alexander being given a shot as a playmaker, or at the very least an attacking midfielder. That’s not a slight on Alexander, who I think is a perfectly decent MLS midfielder, it’s just, Valeri.

The Argentine brought experience to the role, and we’ve seen the roles around it adapt to bring out of the best in him. If he’s getting marked too tight in the center, Nagbe can come inside to disrupt things or give Valeri some breathing room. A stark difference to players being thrown into specific roles and expected to do well because, on paper, they should. It didn’t take Valeri long to announce his arrival on the scene, and he’s also making a habit of scoring easy-on-the-eyes goals.

Rodney Wallace has emerged as the third head of the Timbers very own Cerberus in 2013, though given the fluid nature of the attack with midfielders pushing on from deep and strikers pulling wide, a perhaps more fitting mythological reference for the Timbers attack would be a Hydra, where attempts to shut one player out of the game will only give another two the space and time to hurt you just as bad.

100 Goals and AssistsGiven the way Wallace was played at left-back, or moved around the midfield, it’s little surprise that his goal scoring/creating contributions were sporadic at best over the first two years. This year, played in a more advanced role, Wallace has had a great impact on the side since breaking into the starting XI.

With, essentially, a goal a game created or scored by Rodney Wallace this season, it’s little wonder that the Costa Rican has very quickly become one of our key players.

In pushing his way into the line up, Wallace has displaced the player that many thought would be the creative playmaker on the squad coming into 2011.

There are none on the Timbers roster more mercurial than Kalif Alhassan. The Ghanaian midfielder’s best run in the Timbers side came in that debut season, when he notched five assists in a run of eighteen straight starts. 2012 got off to the best possible start for Alhassan, with a start, an assist and another assist a goal in a the 3-1 win against the Union. It’s still his only MLS goal for the Timbers as efforts to repeat his screamer against Puerto Rico in 2010 haven’t been successful, as yet.

Despite his undoubted ability and skill – there are times I doubt even Kalif Alhassan knows what Kalif Alhassan is going to do next, let alone the defenders – he’s been unable to pin down a starting spot since that first year. Injuries hampered him in 2012 and 2013 has seen him take a back seat to Wallace and Nagbe, with Valencia and Zizzo pushing to go past him too.

The rawness and inconsistency – a world beater one game, totally anonymous the next – that we saw in both Nagbe and Alhassan is still front and center with Kalif. Potntial and talent will carry you so far, and buy you so much credit, but there’s always a clock ticking in the background and if Alhassan can’t crack the team or show that he’s matured as Nagbe has.

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His numbers, when he’s on the field, are pretty good but 6 starts in 17 isn’t the figure one of the most promising players in MLS only ywo years ago should be hitting.

The problem with getting consistency from someone like Alhassan is that to do that you’re likely to sand off some of the rough edges that make the player special in the first place. Nagbe is a great example of an “instinctual” player – almost all of his great moments happen in a flash, with seemingly no time to think about it. There have been times when he’s had too much time to think and picked the wrong choice, but he’s shown a readiness to learn from it, and from someone like Diego Valeri.

To describe the likes of Valeri or Nagbe, Alhassan or Wallace as a “playmaker”, while technically accurate, would do a disservice to the fact that it’s the interaction between everyone that makes the play.

The Timbers have often seemed to lean heavily on one or two players to make things happen, and it would seem to be the case this year as well, but it’s an illusion. The reality is that the threat can, and will, come from anywhere.

We are all playmakers now.

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Six Degrees – The Razor’s Edge

1) Man! What a game! You know, I’ve always heard that snails can slide their way along a razor and won’t get cut. That’s the image that was running through my head as I watched Saturday’s game. Both teams were living on the razor’s edge.

If you didn’t watch the game and only saw that it ended 1-0, you might think to yourself, “Oh, soccer is so boring… Another 1-0 game… Yawn…”

Well, lemme tell you, brudda, this game was one of the most exciting you could ever see. It could easily have been 5-4. Or 5-0, for either team. It was non-stop chaos. Back and forth, back and forth, both teams were just BLITZING the goal.

2) So how does a free-for-all like this end up 1-0? Because the goalies were absolutely brilliant. How many of those saves will be nominated for MLS Save of the Week? Donovan Ricketts is definitely nominated for that lay-out save in first half stoppage time, but Dallas goalie Raul Fernandez could have three or four saves nominated. The guy was out of his mind! The way we attacked him for 90 minutes, Fernandez is gonna have to go into therapy. He probably woke up screaming last night.

But back to our side, how great was it to have Ricketts back in goal? The one word that kept coming to mind was “comforting.” Every time our defense got leaky, Donovan stepped up, made the right play, and told all of us to just calm the hell down, because he’s got this.

Remember the last time we gave up a goal at home? Me, either. Apparently, it was against Montreal, back in early March. Since then, five straight shutouts. It’s good to have you back, Donovan.

3) Now, I feel like I need to blame someone for putting Donovan under so much pressure. Oh, sure, I could probably just give Dallas credit for being good, but I think our defense deserves some blame, too. They looked a little shaky. Jack Jewsbury, you’re on notice, sir. Quit letting guys zip past you! Lower the shoulder and drop someone if you have to!

Also, it was our first time seeing Futty Danso and Pa Modou Kah side-by-side at center back and, I gotta tell you, the Great Wall of Gambia is missing a few bricks. I’d hoped that starting two Gambians would lead to vampire teeth and complete intimidation. Instead, it just led to missed assignments, mental blunders, wide-open shots on goal, and me, up in the stands, soiling my delicates. Tighten up, people! Donovan can’t save us forever!

4) But our defense wasn’t entirely to blame. The ref was pretty bad, too. How many free kicks did Dallas have? 103? That’s gotta be a record. I think maybe he awarded Portland one, as well, but it was by accident.

Seriously, though, what is it with MLS referees? Every match seems to turn into a hockey game. I was telling the guy next to me that I was worried a fight was going to break out, and then one did! Some guy pops Freddy Piquionne, Freddy gets up in his grill, and then the dude head-butts him! Right in the mouth! What did the ref do about it? He took another bong hit, that’s what.

Jeez Louise, MLS. Get some decent refs for a change. Is there some sort of old folks home for retired European referees? I don’t care how old they are, I say we hire a few. We’ll give them whistles and maybe some of those motorized wheelchairs and then let them do their thing. Could they be any worse than what we have now?

5) Let’s talk about some players.

Darlington Nagbe. What a freakin’ goal. It actually caught me by surprise. Something about the slowness of the shot, plus the ridiculous angle, I didn’t realize it had gone in until the crowd started going nuts. I think the goalie had pretty much the same reaction.

Diego Chara. I love you, dude, but you need to go to finishing school. You’re now leading the league in almost-goals. Also, you now have 4 yellows cards. I’m pretty sure your 5th means a one-game suspension. We need you, buddy.

Diego Valeri. Once again, you looked really gassed at the end. What’s up with that? We need you at full-game fitness, okay? You’re too valuable to be subbing out after 70 minutes. On a more positive note, your almost-goal? Collecting, turning, and firing, all in one motion? Sick. Absolutely sick.

Futty Danso and Donovan Ricketts. Are you guys hurt? Futty, you had to leave the game. Donovan, you were holding your back and grimacing. We can’t have this, dudes! We need you right now! Heal! Heal!

6) Why do we need them so bad? Because there’s no rest for the weary. Wednesday, we go to LA to face the Galaxy. Four days later, it’s Colorado, here at home. Then three days after that, we go to Dallas for the US Open Cup quarterfinals. There’s not a bad team in the bunch.

Fortunately, we’re pretty good, too. But eventually this unbeaten streak will end. If it happens in the next week, I’ll be sad, but I won’t be terribly surprised. We’re living on the razor’s edge right now. We might get cut.