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.