1) Sunday’s 1-0 victory over LA was an interesting game, with both good and bad.
Good: the Timbers looked dangerous for long stretches. Bad: they couldn’t turn that into shots on goal. Bad: the Galaxy kept breaking out in numbers. Good: then they’d get shut down by our backs. Good: it was super-fun to cheer in the cold and rain. Bad: I’m pretty sure I now have that Chinese bird flu. Continue reading Six Degrees: Dare To Dream?→
As the dust settled on a convincing 3-0 victory, four players more than most would have had an extra reason to want to bask in the moment.
Rodney Wallace, the confounder of low expectation; Darlington Nagbe, maturing with every match; Jack Jewsbury, essential now more than ever, without the armband; and Diego Chara, no longer our little secret.
No other players had logged so many minutes in a Timbers kit as these four before 2013 kicked off, clocking a combined 18,000 minutes of football for Portland.
Their combined start against Chivas USA was their 25th, stretching back to a 1-0 win against San Jose in April 2011. In fact, all four of the Timbers wins in 2013 so far have come in the six matches the four have started together. In those six games, the Timbers have earned 14 of their 18 points.
It’s a sign of Porter’s exemplary use of experience to alleviate the turnover of the past ten months or so. Under John Spencer, the club very much placed themselves out there as a young club, that would work harder than everyone else. The average age of players bears this out, in that first year at least: the Timbers average age was 24.9 against a league wide average of 25.6, and a play-off average of 25.8.
On first glance the Timbers 2012 average age of 26.8 would seem to indicate that they had taken care of any issues with inexperience, but that includes the signing of Donovan Ricketts (post-Spencer) and ignores one crucial factor – the marquee signings of Kris Boyd, Hanyer Mosquera, Steven Smith and Franck Songo’o were all very impressive, but the one thing they shared in common was having never played a minute in MLS.
In 2011, the players that took the field for Portland averaged 31 MLS appearances, pre-Timbers. By 2012, even allowing for players having built some experience the previous year, that figure had risen only to 39.9 appearances before their first appearance in a Timbers kit. Take out Ricketts and Kimura, and that figure drops to 35.
The four guys mentioned above brought experience at a reasonable level in Europe and South America, but all would take time to adjust to soccer in the states. That carries an efficiency cost, and when you’re taking hits in key areas like attack, and central defence, you’re going to run into problems.
None of these guys will feature under Caleb Porter, but that doesn’t mean that Porter has shied away from buying in experience from abroad, the difference being that in Mikael Silvestre, Diego Valeri and Frederic Piquionne we have guys with French and Argentine caps, as opposed to Scottish and Cameroonian.
The experience of playing in the best leagues compensates for some of that footballing culture shock as you generally don’t build up long careers in the best leagues without having to work well in various different styles and formations.
Rather than back up his building of Scots-Colombian axis in the north west with established MLS campaigners, Spencer made a mess of it.
Jack Jewsbury and Troy Perkins stand apart in this regard, as two guys who brought a ton of MLS games, 294 between them, to the team and made them count. Neither of the next three guys with most MLS games in 2011 would be still on the roster in 2012 – Cooper, Goldthwaite and Brown.
2012 saw him bring in three guys who’d kicked a ball in MLS before suiting up for us: Eric Alexander, Danny Mwanga and Mike Fucito. I’d say that was three clean swing-and-misses.
Those guys had a pre-Portland total of 130 MLS games, and combined for 54 in 2012, only 24 of which were starts. All have gone for 2013.
Caleb Porter, while doing much the same as Spencer before him in that half of the guys making debuts for the club are also making their MLS debuts, has added some quality MLS experience.
For Kevin Goldthwaite, Eric Alexander and Mike Fucito, read Michael Harrington, Will Johnson, and Ryan Johnson. Porter’s three had 421 MLS appearances between them, and have have all featured in every match so far, giving freedom to guys like Diego Valeri to adjust and settle in, and bringing out the best in Rodney Wallace and Darlington Nagbe.
Wallace has been the story of the season so far for Portland. In a way, his story has often mirrored that of the club. He started the first 19 matches in 2011, but only 3 of the last 15 as the club’s early optimism ended in what looks in hindsight like the final couple of hurdles, but in reality was killed in a horrible run from May to July.
His 2012 was disrupted by injury, never quite getting started before hitting another bump in the road, just like the team as a whole.
Thus far in 2013 he’s started in the sidelines, and forced himself into the limelight just as the team has really started blossoming into something potentially very special.
If he can stay fit, and continue his good work then there’s no reason why this can’t be a breakthrough year for Wallace. He came into the season 6th in the Timbers All-Time minutes played, and has overtaken Brunner into 5th, but is still 1500 minutes behind Nagbe in 3rd. There’s no reason for him to see that gap widen as Porter seems to have found the ideal role to get the best out of him on both sides of the ball.
He never convinced me at full-back or as a winger, but Porter has him playing out of a zone, rather than with a defined role. Zonal attacking, if you like. This allows him to go outside or in, or switch sides with Nagbe, all safe in the knowledge that at least one of Harrington (or Jewsbury), Will Johnson or Chara will have his back.
Playing with the brakes off, which isn’t to say he neglects his defensive duties as he’s one of the teams most effective players in closing down.
Wallace isn’t the only player Porter has taken the brakes off. Darlington Nagbe, while still frustrating, is showing signs of maturing.
Nagbe crossed over 5000 minutes for the Timbers this year, and into 3rd overall ahead of Troy Perkins and has started 42 of the Timbers’ last 45 games, so even though he will be only 23 in July, he’s already a key part of the team and has a wealth of experience under his belt.
With Wallace on the bench, Nagbe started the season on the left, cutting in onto his natural right foot but he’s shifted to the right side to make room for Wallace.
This move gives the Timbers guys in wide attacking roles who have more options of what to do going forward. With Nagbe on the left, 99% of the time he’s going to cut inside, and defenders will know that and expect it. Wallace can go round the outside as well as cut inside, forcing defenders to hesitate or wait for the attacker to make the first move – a great advantage to quick guys with lightning feet like Wallace and Nagbe.
Nagbe will still naturally comes inside more, but this means he can exploit any space created by opponents putting someone on Valeri, who’ll pop up on either flank throughout the game, or by the movement of Ryan Johnson up front.
Getting the best out of Nagbe was a puzzle that stumped John Spencer. We saw him played all over midfield and attack, rarely settling on one role before being move to plug another hole somewhere else. The problem wasn’t so much that Spencer was a bad coach who couldn’t find Nagbe’s role within the team, as it was that Spencer was a poor team builder who didn’t put the bodies around Nagbe that would allow him to naturally find his role.
Nagbe, more than most, benefits from being able to play without having to think about it too much. Under Spencer he was put under the constraints of a narrowly defined position, and it asked Nagbe to do more thinking than playing.
With a guy like that, you want him to go out and there and just let it happen. Know what you should be doing when the other guys have the bal, sure, but when we have it, you want him working on instinct. It’s no coincidence that if you were to list the top five Nagbe moments, they’d all be instances where he seemed to do things that surprised himself as much as anyone else. At the other end of the scale you’d have the bad misses, or the flubbed final passes that came when he’d be given too long to think about it.
With a solid base behind him, and the right group around him in attack, we’re starting to see a more confident looking Nagbe. Even in games where’s he’s not having a great night, he’s not hiding or letting his head drop.
Jack Jewsbury, similarly, didn’t let his head drop when the captaincy was given to Will Johnson and he started the year injured. His return to the XI had coincided with an upturn in the club’s fortunes.
Number one in minutes played, Jewsbury became the first player to reach 100 on-field hours for the Timbers. He also leads the club in all-time goals and assists, and has over 260 MLS appearances in total.
Making Jewsbury the captain made perfect sense in 2011. He was the guy with most league experience, while Perkins and Cooper were both coming back to the league after a spell in Europe.
The answer is wherever Caleb Porter needs him, be it midfield, full-back, or filling in at centre-back if needed. Despite the perception that Porter’s arrival would see the team look towards youth, in this early phases at least, the opposite has been true.
The average age has risen slightly from 26.8 to 27, with only two of the Timbers top ten in minutes played under 26 years old (Nagbe and Jean-Baptiste). The average age of that top ten is 28.4.
Porter knows the value of experience, and recognised a gold mine in Jewsbury. He’s shown himself adept on either side of the defence and his steady head on the back line has helped the team cope with a rotating cast of characters in the centre.
We saw a bit more attacking from him against Chivas, largely let down in the final third by his crossing as only one of his six attempts were successful, but his steady passing in the opponents half made up for. Discounting crosses, 9 of Jack’s 12 passes were successful.
Getting the ball into Valeri’s feet is crucial to the Timbers, something Chivas tried to counter by putting a man on the Argentinian, and Jewsbury is good at doing just that. No surprise to see Valeri log so many actions close to Jewsbury’s busiest areas.
It made sense, and it forced the Timbers into more cross balls than was ideal, but it didn’t stop them from picking holes in the Chivas defence to lay the ball through as Chivas failed to compensate for the speed that Portland can play at, often turning defence into attack in seconds.
At the heart of this ability to transition so quickly is Diego Chara.
Everyone knows about Chara’s defensive exploits, and there are probably a few guys who could show the physical evidence of it. But he’s more than an engine to gather yellow cards, he’s shown this season that if he’s given the chance, he can add value to the attack.
Every bit as solid a passer of the ball as Jewsbury, Chara hasn’t really had the chance to show what he can do in attack as he’s been seen as the defensive enforcer in midfield. Will Johnson and Chara are both able to play as the holding player or the going one, and as they play together more their reading of each other will only get better.
Chara finds himself, for maybe the first time in his MLS career, closer to the top of the assist table (joint 4th, or 2nd if you want it to sound even better) than the foul table (5th). He’s still putting in a great defensive shift every game, but he’s had some of the burden taken off him by Will Johnson alongside, and the way Porter expects everyone to contribute to defence.
The rest of the league are starting to take notice of Chara now, as much more than “that guy who fouls a lot”, and I’m sure there are a few Timbers fans who are only starting to realise just how good Chara can be as the guy who drives attacks from the back.
As with Nagbe it’s about more than simply getting the player to play “better”, it about putting guys around him that allow him to play more naturally, and we’re seeing that from Chara now.
These four guys will likely end 2013 as the top four in the Timbers all-time minutes played table. As it stands, Wallace needs only 700 minutes or so to pass Perkins.
For all Spencer’s mistakes, he actually had the core of a really good team all along, he just didn’t know how to use it. His loss is Porter’s gain as the new coach has been able to lean upon their collective experience as he sets about redefining what soccer means in the Soccer City.
A few quick thoughts on the Portland Timbers 3-2 win over Sporting Kansas City.
1) Man oh man, it’s good to be a Timbers fan right now, isn’t it? Each and every week, it seems we prove something new. This time, we proved we can win on the road. And not against some chumps, either. This was against one of the best teams in the league. And we didn’t steal those 3 points. We earned them. We were the better team.
Absolutely amazing, isn’t it? Such a change from last year. We’re no longer the loveable losers. We’re contenders, now. Legitimate contenders.
2) In last week’s column, I was a grumpy old man, up in arms over the team’s late-game bunkering. Since then, enough people have argued against me, trying to teach me something about soccer, that I’m starting to question myself. Yes, maybe our “bunkering” is really just the other team getting desperate and throwing numbers forward. Maybe our boys are doing the best they can, surviving the onslaught. I may be willing to concede this point. Maybe.
But there were still a few times against KC that I thought the Bunker Monster had returned. Not as bad as at San Jose, but still, it felt a little bunker-ish. I’ve got one more thought on this matter and then I’ll move on: Frederic Piquionne is an excellent late-game sub, especially if we’ve got the lead and our defense is under siege. He’s a big target and he’s outstanding 1v1. When the other team’s sending everything forward and our defense is just trying to clear the ball out of danger, Freddy gets on the end of those deep, desperate clearances, then has the strength and skill to hold onto that ball a good long while. Heck, he even gets close to a few shots on goal. The other team has to give him a little attention, which means a little less pressure on our tired, besieged, late-game defense. I’m not sure we should be starting Piquionne, not when he’s this valuable as an end-of-game sub.
3) Since I’m talking about Piquionne, let’s do some quick hits on a few other players.
Diego Valeri – He sees things other players just don’t. It’s like he’s playing in slow-motion or something. Smooth as silk.
Ryan Johnson – I love his work rate, I love his first-goal header, and I want to marry his second-goal assist.
Darlington Nagbe – Could his goal have been any cooler? That pass was slightly behind him and he somehow throws his feet backwards to tap it in. Backwards!
Rodney Wallace – When the guy brings it, he brings it in a big way. Huge shot from distance. Fabulous goal while being crunched forward and behind. Tons of energy.
Diego Chara – He’s short, he’s hard, he’s got a yellow card, and he’s tied for the league lead in assists. Who’da thunk it?
4) So let’s talk about the improvements we’re seeing from so many players. The guy next to me at the bar was talking about how everyone looks “so much smarter” this year. I agree completely. But why? Have they really learned so much more from Caleb Porter and his possession-based style? Or did they already know all this, they just didn’t have a chance to show it? I imagine it’s a little of both, really. But whatever the reason, we Timbers fans are the beneficiaries. This is a team that is fun to watch. The style of play is so much more attractive. Even better, when we win, it doesn’t feel lucky. We’ve become a team that should win.
5) Now, I’m gonna say something a little dangerous here, so please don’t freak out, but I think we have to give some credit to general manager Gavin Wilkinson. Yes, yes, we may not like him much, but we have to acknowledge what he’s done.
Our current success didn’t begin on opening day. It didn’t even begin when Caleb Porter finally left Akron and landed at PDX. No, our team started changing almost as soon as we fired John Spencer mid-season. From that point on, everything Wilkinson did was about building a “Porterball” team. Caleb Porter, still coaching at Akron, was able to watch our games, analyze the tape, and tell Wilkinson what kind of changes needed to happen and what sort of players he needed. Gavin could have fought him, but he didn’t. Instead, he broke down the old and built up the new. I am perfectly prepared to give Caleb Porter most of the credit. He’s the architect. But he couldn’t have done it without a lot of front office help. Thanks, Gavin.
6) Maybe the biggest thing I love about this year’s team are the intangibles. Let’s count them off: We’ve got leadership, both from the coach and from the captains. We’ve got a united locker room. We’ve got young players making strides. We’ve got cagey veterans, showing them the way. We’ve got an over-arching philosophy, and we stick to it. We can adjust tactics, whether it’s week-to-week or half-to-half. We’re even-keeled. We’re scrappy. We never, ever give up.
A few weeks ago, I predicted playoffs for this team and got a little guff about it. “Playoffs?” they said. “So soon? I’ll be happy with just improving.”
Well, I’m making the same prediction now, folks, and I don’t see how anyone can argue against me. Barring a major slew of injuries, this team is going to the playoffs. And I don’t they’re sneaking in, either. I think they’re a top-3 seed.
With our new coach, new system, and new players, everyone thought we’d have a rough time of it early. We’d take our lumps, slowly improve, and then start climbing out of the cellar. By the end of the year, maybe we’d be a mid-table team.
Well, here it is, people. We’ve taken our lumps, yes. We’ve slowly improved, yes. But we’re not in the cellar. We’ve got the sixth best record in the league. And we just beat KC on the road.
You’re not rooting for a loveable loser anymore, Portland. You’re rooting for a contender.
The Portland Timbers failed to mount a comeback for the second straight week, falling to the Montreal Impact 2-1 last night at Jeld Wen Field in Portland.
Here’s five quick takeaways from last night’s match.
* Focusing on the positives
While I’d prefer the Timbers to actually get a lead in a match, the fact the team has shown some heart and resolve to mount comebacks these first two matches is already markedly different than what has been shown since the club’s entry into MLS. This and the fact that the team is infinitely more dangerous and entertaining to watch is helping keep me a bit grounded despite the fact the club has only garnered one point after the first two matches at home.
* Donovan Ricketts
Listen, I still don’t think Ricketts is the #upgrade the Timbers front office and coaching staff thinks he is, but I saw a lot of tweets blaming Ricketts for the loss and that’s just not the case. In a nutshell, turnovers in poor positions, some epic ball-watching and failure to track back all led to the Timbers’ demise. I’ll have to watch the replay but if I remember correctly, I thought Andrew Jean Baptiste might have been at fault on one goal and Michael Harrington and Will Johnson were both in no-man’s land on the second Impact goal. Mikael Silvestre seemed to be caught in no-man’s land much of the night but that’s a different thing altogether. Again, Ricketts actually came up with some huge saves last night and the score might have been worse. Still, I’d love to see Milos Kocic get a shot when he’s healthy but Caleb Porter has been quite open about the fact that Ricketts is his guy.
* Diego Chara
Has Chara been the Timbers best overall player over the first two matches? Maybe. While Diego Valeri and Will Johnson have been grabbing most of the attention, Chara has been pretty spectacular. Last night, his beautiful switching cross to Zemanski led to Ryan Johnson’s goal in the 80th minute. It’s worth noting that the addition of Will Johnson has definitely had an incredible impact on Chara’s play.
* Andrew Jean-Baptiste
I’m very excited about the potential for Jean-Baptiste. Remember, he’s only 20 years old (he turns 21 in June) and while he still makes mistakes, he is extremely gifted and is only going to get better.
* Some surprising statistics
It’s early, but these really help reinforce how different a team the Timbers are in 2013.
After two matches, Portland leads MLS in:
– Shot attempts (40)
– Shots on goal (16)
– Corner kicks (12)
Still, it’s time to start converting these chances, which seems awfully familiar to characteristics in past Timbers teams. However, I’m hopeful and optimistic that this team will get better.
When the whistle blew for half-time, it was met with mix of shell-shocked bemusement and anger. Bemusement, as the Portland Timbers had controlled so much of the game, with over 60% of possession, and yet it was New York who held the 3-1 advantage. Anger because they were the architects of their own downfall.
Despite that possession advantage, the visitors had gotten more shots on target and had made it count, helped by the fact that the Timbers defence, and Mikael Silvestre in particular, had had an absolute shocker.
Silvestre had been pitched straight into the starting line-up days after flying in from France to join up with his new teammates, and looked every bit as jet-lagged as you’d expect. The details of the cavalcade of calamity that unfolded in front of the Timbers Army in that first half will be better summed up by others, but suffice to say that, as passes went astray and runs went unnoticed, it seemed to me that this was a team that was crunching through the gears.
During that first half I felt a sense of nervousness and tension about the Timbers play, which is understandable with so many new faces on the field, as well as a new coach on the sideline. It’s not so far off being an expansion team again, and it’s against that measure that it may be best to judge these early months as there is clearly much that is still a work-in-progress.
The biggest problem I saw in the first half, aside from the defensive lapses, was the failure to bring the attacking players into the game. Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri never felt connected to the rest of the Timbers play for long spells.
Caleb Porter had a big job on his hands during the break at 3-1 down. Many coaches would’ve hooked Silvestre off but Porter stuck with his man, and Silvestre had the courage to put a torrid half behind him and face the music again.
Aside for the Silvestre issue, there was the fact that the tactics just weren’t quite working in the first half. Yes, they had seen more of the ball, but the truth was they weren’t really threatening New York with it. Yet it was not so broken that it needed a entirely new game plan. With a few tweaks to the system the Timbers were transformed in the second half. It was not a dramatic shift – it was the same players, playing broadly in the same shape – but it was enough to bring some bite to back up the Timbers’ first half bark.
I thought that if Silvestre played, the club may have to play a little deeper to compensate for the veteran’s relative lack of pace, and that seemed like the case in first half. And, individual errors aside, New York never really threatened too much in that first half, so on one level the deeper line worked.
Silvestre deserves some time to settle before leaping to judgment, and his improved second half showing seems to point to the first half as being aberrational. Silvestre’s distribution highlights what the Timbers have long been missing at the back – someone comfortable with the ball at his feet. I’d worry about playing him if the club were under the kosh, or faced with a pacey front line as I feel playing deeper to cover his lack of pace leaves the team a little too stretched out, but in matches like these, home games or matches where you would expect to be in control, he adds a lot to the backline.
Andrew Jean-Baptiste was the stand-out on the defence though. Thierry Henry was kept very quiet by the young defender, though there’s a tendency to put the blame on Henry for having a bad game than giving recognition to the guy who made life difficult for him. Jean-Baptiste still has a bit to learn when it comes to what to do with the ball, but he looks like someone Porter can build a defence around.
Both outside backs had solid, if unspectacular games, but I think Timbers fans will take that over what we’ve had for much of the last two years!
Where the deeper line hurt the team wasn’t on the defensive side, but was in stretching the space between defence/midfield and attack.
The issue with Darlington Nagbe is that you don’t, as a general rule, want Nagbe doing the bulk of his work 50 yards from goal. You want him picking it up 30 yards out and driving toward goal. The first half graph shows Nagbe doing a lot of work in deep midfield, but in the second half he was “off the leash” and playing a much more attacking game. It’s no surprise that both the Timbers second half goals benefited from Nagbe picking it up 30 yards or so from goal and running at defenders, as well as Diego Valeri’s preternatural ability to ghost unseen into spaces in key areas.
The problem in the first half was that Portland were struggling to get the ball to Valeri in the areas where he can do the most damage.
Valeri was doing much of his work on the right flank (unsuccessfully, one might add) as he sought to get involved. This was corrected in the second half, and we started to see Valeri getting on the ball centrally, where he could really hurt New York.
Porter was able to affect this change by pushing Nagbe on, which gave the New York midfield a new puzzle to solve, as well as closing up the defense and midfield behind him, allowing the team to play shorter, sharper passes and get the ball moving with some purpose and zip.
Will Johnson and Diego Chara were both terrier-like in the engine room, with Johnson looking every inch the natural captain. The two dovetailed beautifully, with one going and one staying as required, and it was one of the few times I’ve seen Chara play where I didn’t think he was taking the weight of covering his defence all upon his own shoulders as Johnson’s all-action presence beside him freed him up a little. Johnson and Chara complemented each other very well, and between them they ensured that Portland won the midfield battle. There will be few teams that are able to out-muscle or out-hustle Portland in midfield with these two players, that’s for sure.
As you can see, both players were pressing in New York’s half early on, but it never felt focused. After the break both players played with a more deliberate strategy, still giving no quarter but adding some consistency to their pressing game. There’s more to pressing than simply haring after the ball all over the pitch, you have to press at the right time lest you leave a gap behind you and that’s what we saw more of in the second half.
As well as their defensive work, both guys are comfortable on the ball, and displayed some solid passing through-out the match. Both hit over 80% accuracy and they occupied two of the top three spots for players with most passes (Harrington being the other). In fact, 12 of the top 13 were Timbers players (taking in by passes per minute), once more underlining Portland’s dominance of the ball.
Having course corrected during the interval, the Timbers shot figures improved across the board in the second half, and once they had got the second it was only a matter of whether time would run out before they got the equaliser.
This never-say-die attitude was best summed after the Timbers had made it 3-3 when the ball was promptly fished out of the net and returned to the centre spot. To be fair, it was not entirely one-way traffic in the second half, and New York had chances to exploit space on the counter as Portland camped out in New York’s half, but I don’t think anyone could’ve complained about the result had the Timbers won the match in true Hollywood fashion with Ryan Johnson’s late overhead kick.
Possession figures weren’t much changed from the first half to the second, going from 60.6% to 65.5% with accuracy also rising by a single percentage point, yet the Timbers brought a greater purpose to the second half. The shot count rose, and the key players were able to influence the game where it matters.
It took 45 minutes for Portland to find their rhythm, but once they had it was all New York could do to hold on. They weren’t simply stroking the ball along the halfway line and racking up the numbers, they were playing the game in the New York half and that is reflected in the Timbers playing more passes in the opponent’s defensive third than any other club on opening weekend.
New York were hemmed in for long spells, looking to hit on the break. However, such was Portland’s territorial dominance that only Montreal made fewer passes in the opponent’s defensive third than New York.
There have been so many changes around the club this offseason that a few teething pains are to be expected. I don’t think Silvestre, five games into the season, makes the same mistakes as he did, and as the defence build up a better understanding of each other and their roles, someone like Olave isn’t going to go walkabout in the six yard box, completely unchecked by anyone in green.
As well as the fluid football, what was also encouraging to me was, even though it wasn’t quite working in the first half, Caleb Porter was able to tweak it and get a result. The fact that he and his players were still disappointed after their fight back speaks volumes.
The Timbers are here to win, and the rest of the league had better get used to it.
Shy of sticking a finger in the eye of the Colossus of the North (who thought that a single win at CLink meant that they should be handed the Cascadia Cup and were shocked, shocked that the Whitecaps weren’t willing to help them out worth a lick) the past season was pretty much a washout.
We got our coach fired, went one match away from going winless on the road, and generally exposed the weaknesses and problems in the side that the Front Office had spent the past two years ostensibly building. Two days after the final match of the second MLS season we find ourselves back, if not where we started in 2011, at least no better off than we were at the beginning of 2012.
So the obvious question is: where can we go from here, and how do we get there?
We’ve got a new coach coming on board sometime in the winter, there will probably be some roster changes, and MLSTimbers v.3.0 will get a rollout sometime in the late winter. Obviously we can’t know much or do anything about this but speculate.
But speculate we can, so why not? That’s why we’re here.
First, let’s take a look what we have now.
Individually I want to suggest that the flaws in Gavin Wilkinson’s player selection can’t be better displayed than through a quick look at the present Timbers roster. In my biased opinion the current side is dominated by two kinds of players; the “consistent but limited” and the “limited by inconsistency”. We just flat out don’t have any players with consistent, genuinely game-breaking talent, the sort of marquee player that our rivals have in people like Wondolowski or Montero. Yeah, I hate those guys, too, but I can’t deny their quality. We just don’t have that and the record seems to show that we never will.
So what do we have, and what does that tell us about our Front Office’s tendencies to pick and choose players?
The way I see it the Consistently Limited make up the bulk of the side.
With these guys you know what you’re going to see. They bring pretty much the same game every time they run on the pitch. It’s not that they can’t play, or that they’re hackers and goofs. They’re all at least substitute-grade MLS quality guys. But their game, that game we know we’ll see, is lacking in one way or another. These guys all have a shortcoming, or shortcomings, that put a limit on their ability to produce winning soccer in one way or another.
Starting from the back we have Ricketts, whose limitation seems to be primarily age and fragility that comes with a history of injury, and the Bendik/Gleeson binary star, limited merely by their inexperience – though Bendik seemed to be at least a solid journeyman during his limited stint this season.
On the backline we have Mosquera, limited by his judgement and inability to communicate with his linemates, and Kimura who is limited in so many aspects it’s hard to figure out where start. In midfield we have Wallace and Palmer, who are sort of the Mosquera and Kimura of the center of the pitch; the one makes constant errors of judgement while the other is simply a quandary; why is he doing this for a living and I’m not?
Diego Chara, whose effort and defensive sturdiness are unquestionable is limited by his inability to keep from getting called for fouling and his poor forward passing. Jack Jewsbury is simply not young enough and mobile enough anymore to have more than a moderate impact.
Up front Bright Dike is limited by his poor touch and sloppy finishing, while Kris Boyd is limited simply by his style of play; without good distribution and service from the midfield he is simply wasted up top.
The Limitedly Inconsistent are a minority on the team, but an important one. With these guys you never know whether they’re going to bring their A-game, or whether that game is going to last the entire match. They show streaks of brilliance matched with random outbursts of mediocrity or outright blunders.
David Horst is the poster child for this group. A stand-up guy who anchors the backline for 89 minutes he will suddenly make a horribly mistimed lunge, or stab, or find a way to mark space, or do something that will gift the enemy a goal. You love to see him most of the time, and then tiny remainder you look away because it’s like a car accident unfolding on the Sunset Highway at rush hour.
In midfield Darlington Nagbe who to me is still something of an enigma labelled “potential”; will he be the Nagbe that passes accurately and can score a clinical goal, or the one that gets knocked off the ball and is marked out of the game mid-match? Kalif Alhassan is another skilled but unpredictable midfielder; you never know which Kalif will show up – will it be the one that can provide a lovely assist, or the one whose crosses float over the entire 18 like a shiny soap bubble? Some matches Sal Zizzo is a speedy winger and clinical crosser while others earn his nickname “Zig Zag Zizzo”, running aimlessly about and lofting random high balls into the blue. Franck Songo’o can provide brilliance in attack and sturdy defence but can also repeatedly dribble into trouble and wander about seemingly at random.
Of the entire current side there’s one guy who I would say has grown into a solidly dependable player who is both consistent and relatively skilled; Steven Smith. A liability in the back at first his play in the last half of the season has progressed to where he’s among the best of our defenders – yes, a low bar but, still – and has shown promise going forward. Of the current group of starters he seems the best rounded and most skilled.
Of the remainder we don’t really have any solid indicators. Eric Alexander has shown signs of being in the second group but his minutes have been so limited as to make that pure speculation. Eric Brunner was a hell of a defender prior to his injuries but hasn’t been a standout in the short stints he’s played in the late season; hard to tell how well he will come back, if at all. Jean-Baptiste showed well against San Jose on Sunday, but he is one of the large group of young players we just haven’t seen enough of this season to really judge. Brent Richards has looked better tracking back than he did in his earlier outings but his play retains the erratic quality of a young player. And we’ve just seen way too little of guys like Hogg, Kawulok, Purdy, Fucito…
But in general, given what this group seems to tell us about Gavin’s – or Gavin and Merritt’s – weakness in assessing players we need to assume that these young players are likely to have similar weaknesses. This seems to be the Front Office’s style; they see either only the strengths of the consistent-but-limited players, or the “manic phase” of the skilled-but-inconsistent players while not noticing the weaknesses of the one and the depressive phase of the other.
And we need to assume that if this same group continues to pick the players for the incoming coach we are likely to see very similar sorts of players next season. Gavin’s record, in particular, goes back to the USL days and was very like this; Portland saw players like Mamadou Keita and Ryan Pore, inconsistent guys who could play but would tend to drift out of the match, or the season, or guys like Scot Thompson and Takayuki Suzuki; good solid players but just not the sort that got you to the league championship finals.
This is likely to be it; this is likely to be “who we are” until and if we get a new group in the executive suite.
So the question is; how do we go forward, how do the Timbers get better, with these sorts of players?
I’ve been writing this for days now. I’ve only just decided to start over. Bear with me. I’m going to write fast and see if I can get the words out before they become too much of a mess. Apologies in advance.
I’ve been a little haunted since the reserves match Sunday. It was a fun game and, after Saturday (when I missed the derby to attend a memorial service), it felt… healing. It felt like going home after a long, drawn-out absence.
I never thought I’d see Kris Boyd play in a reserves match, but there we were. And he looked good. He was active and engaged and, within the first ten minutes of the match, had an assist and a goal.
And then it felt like the end.
Did we just see Kris Boyd’s last goal as a Timber?
My heart hurts to think about it.
After several games on the bench, limited minutes and a view from the sidelines of a derby match, his injury against San Jose has set me on edge. Maybe that was it. Maybe that reserve match goal really was Kris Boyd’s last wearing our club’s badge.
A couple days ago, another member of the Timbers Bloggers Battalion posed this question: if I could bring back only five players next year, who would they be? I warned him that my picks would be entirely emotion-driven.
Eric Alexander, of course, because I know he can do more. Diego Chara for the effort he puts in every time he suits up for us. David Horst for the sheer fact that I want to see him beat the crap out of the OTHER Eddie Johnson sometime in the near future. Mike Fucito because I can’t help loving that little hobbit.
And, it will come as no surprise, Kris Boyd.
Boyd makes the list not just because of my ridiculous fan-crush, but because I think he has some unfinished business here.
If we go back to the “Cubbie incident“, we remember that Cubbie tried to paint him as the failed savior of the Timbers 2012 season and the reason John Spencer was fired. Lame.
But, watching Boyd struggle since then, it seems he took it to heart. He’s had flashes, momentary glimpses of the player he should be, but those have been few, separated by long instances of Gavin-imposed exile.
So, what happens now? The season is coming to a close, the playoffs are beyond our reach. Boyd’s one-plus-one contract is weighing on my mind.
Will he stay? Does he want to stay? Does incoming manager Caleb Porter want him to stay?
I want him to stay. I want him to succeed. I’m a sucker for a romantic comeback story and the scene is set for one here.
Here’s the thing: I loved Kenny Cooper. I will always keep a special place in my heart for Kenny. Soft-spoken, polite, misused Kenny Cooper.
And now, I wait to see what happens to Kenny’s replacement. Kenny, let’s remember, is currently among the league’s leading scorers. For another club that figured out how he works.
Here’s to hoping that we get a second chance at figuring out how Kris Boyd works. If anyone from the Timbers coaching staff needs me to point them in the right direction on this one, I’ve got a fair few Youtube videos I can point out.
So, here, because I feel I need to, a few words not *about* Kris, but to him.
Stay. If the choice is yours to make, I hope you choose to stay. The Portland chapter of your story is still being written. Don’t leave in the middle. Stay and become a legend, not just a footnote in our history.
I was there at the press conference when you were introduced to the Timbers faithful. I was there for your first goal at Jeld-Wen. I stood with you, shoulder to shoulder, at midfield during a season ticket holder event and looked up into the North End and I imagined a day in the future when I would tell my kids about this guy, this legendary Scottish striker that, by some odd turn of luck, ended up here in Portland.
I hope that, after I tell them about your rocky first year, I will be able to tell them about your triumphant comeback in your second year here, when you led the league in scoring and led our club deep into the playoffs.
In shock news, the Timbers suffered another defeat, their fifth on the spin, this time following a smash-and-grab win from Chivas USA, the only goal of the game coming midway through the second half.
The scoreline mirrored that of the recent match, though at least the performance was better here. Just a shame you don’t get points for that. No to get wins you need to score – something the Timbers haven’t done in 290 minutes of play – and it also helps to keep a clean sheets or so – it’s now 11 consecutive matches the Timbers have conceded in since a 0-0 draw with Houston in mid May.
Gavin Wilkinson made six changes from the team that collectively shat the bed against Dallas. Out went Chabala (gone from the 18 altogether), Danso, Alhassan, Fucito, Alexander and Mwanga and in came Smith, Horst, Richards, Boyd, Jewsbury and Nagbe.
I suspected they would line up in a 4-2-3-1 again, but I was a little surprised to see how far up the field Chara was playing. Jewsbury had the holding role, and that freed the Colombian foul merchant up to go forward and support the attack.
Songo’o and Richards played out wide, with Nagbe tucked in behind – and running beyond – Boyd in the striking role.
From early on it was clear that Songo’o was in the mood for this one, and he ryansmithed the Chivas defence time and again in the first half. He was at the heart of pretty much everything positive about the Timbers attack, and is virtually unplayable when he’s in this sort of form. Which is to say, occasionally.
Boyd had a couple of decent sights at goal – one chance he beautifully engineered with a deft flick, and another he completely fluffed. Such is life as a striker – the margin between hero and villain is often vanishingly small.
Playing up top can be a cruel position to play. Mistakes are amplified. A missed chance falls under much greater scrutiny than a midfielder’s misplaced pass that leads to nothing. No player is more derided than the striker that misses a chance that is “easier to score”, yet even the greatest strikers will miss a few of them along the way.
I’d rather have a striker get ten chances and miss them all than not get any at all. Course, I’d much rather he put at least one of those away, but we’ve all had bad days/nights at the office and this was one of these for the striker.
The only position, in my opinion, that is crueller than that of striker in terms of the difference a single mistake can make is that of goalkeeper, and we’ll get to that soon enough…
Brent Richards made his first start for the Timbers in MLS, and he was hugely impressive in the first half too. He added a bustle and energy that the Timbers attack has oft lacked this year, and he displays as much contempt for the fundamental laws of gravity as John Terry does for decorum and sportsmanship.
His aerial abilities certainly seemed to catch Chivas out early on, and the home grown player got a lot of joy from long, high balls punted in his general direction. He also added a threat from throw-in’s with a Rory Delap-esque long throws.
As well as what he could offer the club going forward, he also displayed a focus and willingness to work in defence that helped Kosuke Kimura at right back.
As much as I like Alhassan, I’ve always had big reservations about his defensive work, among other things. Though Chivas offered little in attack, I do feel that Kimura had a much more assured match here than he’s had in a while in no small part to the security afforded him by Richards’ work ahead of him.
Fans have been calling for a while for some of the young guys to be given a chance to shine, and it’s pleasing to see Richards not only given that chance, but grasp it both hands, take it home to meet his parents and buy a nice three-bedroom house in the ‘burbs.
In his more advanced role Diego Chara also impressed in the first 45. He had a hand in a couple of good chances, and it was his pass that set Boyd off down the right in a counter-attack that had echoes of Mwanga’s goal against San Jose.
Such chances to break on Chivas would be few and far between given their plan to defend in depth, both numerically and geographically.
The Timbers faced a team with one plan in mind: keep it tight, and hope to nick a goal. From very early on it was clear that this was not a team that would come here and look to exploit a Timbers defence that had just shipped five goals to a distinctly average FC Dallas the previous week.
Half an hour in and Chivas were already defending in numbers and bunkering in. It’s a strategy that has served them fairly well, with four of their six wins prior to this match coming in 1-0 results. The other two were also one-goal victories, both 2-1. This isn’t a team that tends to blow out their opponents, nor do they get steamrollered having conceded more than 1 goal in only 4 of their previous 19 MLS match this year.
Having done so well in the first half, there seemed to be a slight drop-off in intensity in the second. The formation that had come as close to a 4-3-3 as we’ve seen from the Timbers this year in the first half took on more of a 4-1-4-1 shape in second.
Jewsbury still sat deep, but Chara didn’t have the same attacking focus that he’d had in the first half.
Richards, who’d had such a fine first half, also lost a bit of pep to his game in the second. Chivas seemed to wise up to the threat of Richards in the air, even as the Timbers continued to dementedly plough that particular furrow, and he didn’t quite have the same joy as he had in the first.
On the opposite flank, Songo’o tired and had less impact than he had before the break. The Cameroonian has had his share of injury problems, but he continues to struggle to find full match fitness, and it was a visibly tiring Songo’o who gave Chivas the chance the led to the only goal of the game.
All the Timbers good work in the first half was wiped out by a needless foul, poor defensive marking and a goalkeeping error.
You have to feel sorry for keepers sometimes. The slightest misjudgement and there’s a good chance they’ll cost the team a goal. Perkins has been one of the Timbers best, most consistent, players this year, but he has to take his share of the blame for this one.
Once in front, there was never any doubt that Chivas would look to park the bus and keep what they had. The Timbers failed to find a way through – Boyd missed a couple, and Nagbe joined the party with a couple of his own.
There was certainly a lot more positives to take from this match than there has been in the last few games. I don’t often agree with Wilkinson, but he’s right when he says that football is a “cruel, cruel sport at times”.
The Timbers continue to find frustration in attack, while they find that every mistake gets punished pitilessly.
I thought the tactics, in the first half certainly, were good and we got good performances out key players. What worries me is the drop-off in the second – something that’s happened too often to be mere coincidence.
Robbie Earle speculated in the commentary that Sean McAuley was doing much of the touchline coaching to give the players a “different voice” to react to, with Wilkinson saying his piece at half time. If the reaction from the players after the break is any indication, Wilkinson might want to consider getting a motivator like Mitt Romney in next time.
The Jekyll and Hyde nature of the team is annoying, but at least the drop-off wasn’t as dramatic as it has been in the past. And, hey, for a team that had lost so many late goals this season, only 2 of the last 15 have come in the last quarter hour, so that’s something. Right?
Of course, those 15 goals have been conceded in the last 5 games. That’s also something… *shudder*
I want to strike a positive note, as I did feel we played some good football at times, but we leave ourselves at the mercy of a single, silly mistake at the back when we fail to put the ball in the net. And if there’s one thing that you can count on with this team, it’s that they’ll make a mistake at the back at some point. Today it was Perkins, on another day it’s Kimura, or Smith. It’s a wonder we have any toes left considering the number of times we’ve shot ourselves in the foot.
Chivas recorded their third win over the Timbers this season with this result. You know what you’ll get from Chivas. They play pretty much the same way in most matches, and that strategy never really changed for Chivas as the match wore on.
Though Chivas has the edge in possession before the goal (53%-47%), the Timbers made almost half of their passes in the Chivas half, with only 39% of Chivas passes coming in the Timbers half. After the goal, the Timbers dominate possession (79%-21%), and have much more of the play in the Chivas half, but fail to take what chances come their way.
Like a dealer who gives a hit of the good stuff to hook you, so the Timbers give flashes of what they could be, reeling you in and making you believe, before sucker punching you square in the babymaker.
And yet, we’ll be back again for the next game, and what’s more we’ll have hope that next time it’ll be different.
Despite the scoreline in the last meeting, the Timbers are more than capable of beating Dallas next week. Unfortunately, they’re also more than capable of beating themselves.
The team have a week before they have a chance to avenge that 5-0 defeat in front of a Timbers Army that have been starved of reasons to be cheerful lately.
Portland Timbers fans are still basking in the afterglow of a fine derby victory, and with the dust still settling I thought I’d look back at one of the aspects of the Timbers play that really encouraged me – the wings.
Alhassan put in another good shift down the right, backed up by Jewsbury, but here I’m going start with a focus on the left wing.
Franck Songo’o has frustrated me so far this year. There’s been flashes of skill here and there, but he’s been entirely inconsistent and at times has seemed to lack focus and purpose in the final third.
I’ve also doubted his winger credentials, especially in light of his performance against LA.
Songo’o tendency to drift infield really hurt the Timbers in that match. He was coming in off the wing, and running right into the most congested part of the pitch, with LA packing three men in the centre of midfield.
He showed much more discipline against Seattle, sticking to his role a lot better.
For me, it was Songo’o best game in Timbers green. I’m still not convinced he’s an out-and-out winger, but his display against Seattle showed that he can play that wide role effectively, especially when he has Steven Smith on his shoulder.
The reintroduction of Smith down the left flank was a massive boon to the team. Where Songo’o may drift infield, and narrow the attacking line, Smith will pop up out wide and force Seattle to leave gaps in the middle, or give the Scot a free run at the byline.
Songo’o and Smith would combine out left in the build up to the first goal, scored by Kris Boyd.
As well as the combination of Smith and Songo’o down the left, another very encouraging aspect of the play was the way that they switched play from flank to flank.
Too often we’ve seen the Timbers work the ball down the channels, run into trouble and simply cede possession to the other team, but against Seattle we saw them switch play from one side to another with real purpose.
Here we see the team winning the ball deep, getting it forward quickly down the right and then working it across the pitch, right in front of the Seattle defence. Unfortunately the pass into the box is a poor one, but notice Smith once more making himself available down the line – finding himself level with the ball at both the start and finish of the move.
Another example of this crisp passing across the pitch to stretch the Seattle defence begins with Smith and Songo’o wide left and ends, via Nagbe and an onrushing Jewsbury, with Alhassan in wide right.
Alhassan’s dinked shot/cross (who knows with this guy) drops just wide of the post, but agains you see the team moving the ball with poise and precision.
This kind of crossfield passing is only possible with willing runners from fullback positions and hard-working guys in the middle who make themselves available for the ball, and move it on crisply.
No-one sums that role up better than Diego Chara.
This was probably my favourite passage of play, even though it didn’t come to anything in the end. I simply love Chara’s work here. He’s the first on the scene to take the ball from Smith, and then at every stage of the move, he’s always available to take the ball back. He doesn’t do anything flashy or highlight-reel worthy – his passing is simple and measured – but this kind of play in the middle is what allows the team to move the ball across the field at pace and keep the opposition moving, allowing the Timbers to probe for weakness.
Even when he does lose the ball, he’s straight onto it and wins it right back.
Someone like Chara is essential as the Timbers don’t have a passer like Beckham, who thinks nothing of launching a 50 yard crossfield pass. Instead, the Timbers looked to rely on quick, short passes and runs to work the ball across, with only one crossfield pass attempted (not including set pieces).
Once more it was the Smith/Songo’o combination down the left that combined to forge a great chance for Danny Mwanga to write himself into Timbers folklore by scoring against Seattle with his first touch at Jeld-Wen Field.
The team has oft been criticised for being predictable in the way they play. They’ll be direct, they’ll try and get it wide and cross it in. Teams have capitalized on this and neutralised the flanks, driving the team infield and into trouble as we’ve often lacked the short, quick passing game needed to carve open a team through the middle.
We finally saw a glimpse of that game plan clicking into place against Seattle. Smith has already made himself indispensable at left back, and Jewsbury is solid enough at right back – thought I still think that’s an area that needs to be strengthened with real quality.
Given this team’s tendency to find something that works one week, and blindly try to replicate it the next week without thought for the change of opposition I still worry that we seem to lack a Plan B.
It’ll be interesting to see who replaces Alhassan in the next match. Jewsbury isn’t the willing runner that Smith is round the outside, so isn’t going to cover for a player who drifts inside as well as the Scot, and that could leave the team lopsided and forced down dead ends. It may be that Zizzo’s time has come.
First off, I’ll just say I’m writing this on my iPod, which isn’t ideal. So no pics, and I’ll keep it brief. But The Timbers won. They beat Seattle, and there was simply no way I couldn’t talk about the game yesterday.
The tone for the day was set by the Army’s epic Clive Charles* tifo. As it rose, it snagged and tore a bit, but great work by the Timbers Army crew freed it up, and as the sun broke through, the full splendour of many hours of work was revealed.
On the pitch, the team also met similar problems. In the second half Seattle had us pinned back for long spells, threatening to spoil an outstanding start that had seen the Timbers race to a 2-0 lead, and only the most fervent of fans wouldn’t have felt queasy as time wore on.
Disaster, as it was with the tifo, was averted. Two first half goals had given the Timbers the cushion they needed to hold out during a second half that threatened to descend into chaos at times.
Kris Boyd’s opener came from a great low cross from Steven Smith, slotted home from six yards as the Seattle defence took leave of their senses. David Horst head butted the team into a two-goal lead shortly after from a corner.
The Timbers were rampant for much of the first half. Fucito buzzed around the attack, and Alhassan and Songo’o were finding joy where last week there was only woe.
Smith’s reintroduction to the team gave them an overlapping threat down the left that was so lacking against LA.
A quick word about Songo’o. I thought this was his best showing for the Timbers. He looked like he had purpose whereas previously he’s looked like he’s floated around with no clear goal in mind.
I still felt his best work came centrally – fortunately with Smith back in the team we had some width to compensate – with his behind-the-leg pass for Fucito in the second half a particular delight.
Also, I think it’s time to declare my man-crush on Diego Chara. I’m almost scared to considering my record – *cough*Perlaza*cough* – but seriously, how freaking good is this guy?
Watching the replay, I was mesmerised watching the Colombian dynamo. The guy is unflappable in possession.
The complaints about Xavi “only passing sideways” have largely died down as people have come to realise that he’s actually pretty ok at football.
So with Chara. Okay, he might not harvest tonnes of assists or send a fifty yard crossfield pass onto a sixpence, but watching him is a lesson for all kids on how to do the “simple” things well.
Three guys around him? No problem, he’ll pass through them. Snapping at his heels? He’ll lay it off and spin round you to get the pass back.
He never panics and kicks it away. He keeps his head up and finds his man, and then he’ll move and look for it right back.
He’s the beating heart of the team.
As well as a Xavi-like ability to circulate the ball so efficiently, he also has, to borrow another Barca/Spain player, the defensive instincts of a Busquets.
There was one point in the second half where he dived in to make a block, then got up and harried the play back from the edge of the Timbers box to the centre circle.
His play was a large part of why, even as Seattle pressed, the Timbers were able to hold them off.
Seattle’s attacking strategy was reduced to either shooting from distance, or falling over to generate set pieces.
Eddie Johnson, who seemed to have sharpened his elbows before kick-off, seemed to have a particularly tenuous relationship with gravity. Perhaps he suffers from Drogba’s Disease?
And Montero… He played like one of those entitled 16 year old shits who’ll scream the mansion down cos their daddy bought them a red Porsche instead of a black one. Fredy thinks the world exists to serve him and won’t take no for an answer.
When things weren’t going his way, he became ever more petulant. It’s a wonder he was able to go more than five yards without tripping over his bottom lip.
The ref has to take a portion of the blame. Time and again Montero, and a few of his cohorts, resorted to shoving and elbowing. If the ref had drawn a line earlier on and made it clear it wasn’t going to fly, perhaps some of the later unpleasantness could’ve been avoided.
Instead, Montero got away with what he wanted until Horst made sure he couldn’t wave it away. A weak performance by a ref who let himself be controlled by the match rather than the other way round.
The little shitehawk got his just desserts late on with a red card, at least.
It’s still too early to declare a corner has been turned yet. I don’t like going negative after a match like that, but…
I wasn’t impressed with much of Nagbe’s work. He seemed a yard off the pace of the game at times. He seemed to get caught in possession far too often.
Similarly, at the back things aren’t perfect. Despite his goal, and providing a real threat from set plays, Horst still showed his worst side with a poor effort to win the ball in the build up to Seattle’s goal.
Teams will still generate a number of decent chances against us, but on this day Perkins came up big again.
The potential loss of Alhassan for a spell is also a blow after injury forced him out. The Ghanaian can have you pulling your hair out at times, but is always capable of a dazzling piece of trickery.
Let’s not end on negatives though. This may be the last Timbers game I catch live this season, and if so it’s a great way to go.