I made my first road trip last weekend, as one of the Timbers Army that marched (or more accurately, bussed) deep into darkest, fishiest Mordor, past the Black Gates of Tacoma to face a team that have done the seemingly impossible by getting rid of Fredy Montero and still managing to be even more unlikeable this year than last.
Though a little bemused by, or completely unaware of, the local orcish tribe who seemed so taken by the notion of fire that they were burning scarves just so as to gaze into the hypnotic flames. Their fervor can be the only explanation for why they were so quiet during the match, since even their own fellow customers complained of not being able to enjoy their Groupon-ed Entertainment Experience™ in their customarily gentle corporate lull.
The biggest noise from the home crowd came when Eddie Johnson scored, though even then the hubbub wasn’t enough to remind Eddie that they were present as the striker chose to celebrate in front of the traveling fans, most of whom could only see him on the Jumbotron from their acoustically-beneficial position in the clouds.
Despite the second half taking the shape of one of those all-too familiar “been here, done that, sacked the coach” situations where the Timbers would limp out with a moral victory, a metric thus far unaccounted for by short-sighted MLS administrators, but no points on the road, and a loss against them.
With time running out, and home customers by this point more anxious about beating traffic than their greatest rivals, a ball was thrown into the box by future US defender (the needless hype starts here, cos that’s always healthy) Andrew Jean-Baptiste, and Rodney Wallace rose unmarked at the near post to send the remaining customers into a mild sulk.
Away fans celebrated with gentlemanly handshakes and backslaps, and threw their hats into the air with a raucous cheer (or lost their shit entirely, one of the two), and the Army left having seen the team earn a point, kicking a dent in Sigi Schmid’s assertion that this year was Seattle’s turn to win the Cascadia Cup because they have two of the three derby games at home.
I’m sure I’ll get round to watching the game again soon, and probably writing a thing or two on the game and what we’ve seen from Porter’s Timbers so far. There are two weeks to fill till the next game, after all! When standing in a crowd of drunk lunatics (and I mean that in the very fondest sense) it’s sort of difficult to really follow the game in any great depth, so it’ll have to wait for now.
It was clearly also difficult for the Jumbotron to follow what was going on, with the Timbers new signing “Hernandez” coming on late in the game, cunningly disguised as Freddy Piquionne.
As an aside, I assume the Jumbotron has gained or will inevitably gain sentience like Skynet and will soon see what has been obvious to fans around the country since their club invented football, that the Sounders fan base is worthless and compel them to commit mass suicide as part of the turgid half-time “entertainment”.
That Jean-Baptiste and Wallace had combined to both earn, and make, a big point on the road got me thinking of when the two last shared the park last season. Early season injuries had put Jean-Baptiste in, and Wallace had started Spencer’s second season as first choice left back. Almost exactly a year ago the Timbers led 1-0, thanks to a Boyd goal, at home to Chivas USA when Wallace was subbed out at half-time. They lost 2-1, not because Wallace was subbed out or that Mike Chabala came on, but because Fucking 2012™, that’s why.
That match and the one that followed in LA, where Boyd scored one of the best goals of his career only to see it ruled out because Fucking 2012™, were the blows that knocked much of the early season optimism, and remaining belief in coach Spencer, out of fans
The Costa Rican international was a big part of Spencer’s vision for football in Soccer City, such that he willingly gave up Dax McCarty and allocation money to get him. The small group of players that played more minutes in 2011 than Wallace makes for interesting reading: Brunner, Jewsbury, Perkins, Cooper, Chara, Alhassan, Perlaza and Futty. Four those are gone, and only two took the field against Seattle.
Despite being a big part of Spencer’s plans, though the signing of Mike Chabala indicated that at least someone had their doubts about Rodney at left-back, Wallace played 700 fewer minutes in 2012, dropping behind the likes of Smith, Songo’o, Alexander, Palmer and the midseason experiment in catastrophe failing to trump likeability, Kimura.
He’s made sub appearances in all three of the Timbers matches this season, and a goal makes a compelling case to give him a chance to earn a bigger place in Caleb Porter’s PTFC 2.0. It would be a big turnaround for a guy whose name was often followed by “and Palmer” by fans as a prime example of the clubs very visible failure to get the best out of the full-back position, and in finding value in players with MLS experience.
For every Jack Jewsbury or Eric Brunner there’s a Lovel Palmer, Kenny Cooper, Eric Alexander or Adam Moffat. Troy Perkins – can the Timbers even claim to have gotten the best of the him now that he seems to be more solid behind a couple of old Italians?
Yet, clearly (or at least I hope) John Spencer and Gavin Wilkinson had an overarching vision for this group of players. It got me thinking about what kind of team we’d be watching if all those guys had clicked in 2011.
The direct football in that first season, with the rush of goals from Kenny Cooper negating the need for a costly experiment in importing goals from Scotland for 2012, would’ve only emboldened John Spencer to further build a team in the image of his particular Dr Frankenstein, Dominic Kinnear.
In a strange way, I’m sort of glad it didn’t work. Not that I like losing. I’m a very bad loser. I don’t even let my kids beat me at Candyland. But I have to say there were times that I didn’t really like watching the actual football over the past couple of years. I much prefer watching what we’ve seen thus far from Caleb Porter’s team. And it is his team as much of the house that Spencer built has been cast away.
The changes go beyond those of style or formation, or even all the new faces to get used to; the whole atmosphere is different. Different in good way. There’s a real sense that there’s some substance to the fan’s customary early-season optimism now, much of which comes from the new head coach.
Caleb Porter seems like more of a Portland Timbers head coach than John Spencer, who was a Portland Timbers head coach, if the emphasis makes sense to you. If it doesn’t, what I mean is I get the feeling that the reason things feel better is that Porter gets it.
He gets us.
And most importantly, he gets football.
John Spencer may get another chance to take charge of a team but it’s hard to shake the belief that he’s one that group of managers who make much better coaches. Believe me, as a Scot and a Killie fan, I’d have loved to see Spenny and Boydy light it up in 2012, but it wasn’t to be and though it’s very early for Porter, I’m impressed at the start he’s making in Portland.
The roster is flexible enough now, and deep in some areas, that the team can fluidly move in the 4-3-3 shape, going from 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-2-2-1 (sorry, numbers. I can’t help it) and back, or even morphing from 4-3-3 to a 2-up top diamond as the situation demands.
Aye, it would be nice to win a game or twenty. Two points from three games, and six goals conceded, doesn’t make for the greatest record though it did take Gavin Wilkinson six games to get two points, and his team conceded fifteen on the way. There are concerns, but it still doesn’t dampen the belief that we’re on the right path and that’s it’s surely only a matter of time before the Timbers are gearing up for cold November nights of post-season soccer under the floodlights.
But it may not be this year. There are still spots in the roster that need work, and it’s unlikely that Porter’s going to hit on the magic combination straight off the bat – how many “classic” teams were the very first starting XI put together by a head coach/manager? I’m going to bet very few, if any. There’s some tough time ahead, no doubt, but all we can ask if for more good times than bad.
And the Cup. The Cup stays. That is not up for negotiation.
In 2014 we’ll be a year further into Jean-Baptiste and Nagbe’s development, Jake Gleeson will have been mentored into a top MLS goalkeeper, Diego Valeri will have had a year to wrap his head around MLS refs and Caleb Porter would’ve thoroughly drunk Mike Petke’s milkshake.
In short, this is only the start. The open beta. Some guys will pass through like Silvestre and Piquionne but, unlike with Kris Boyd and Franck Songo’o, this transience is entirely part of the design and not a symptom of the problem.
Porter is blending experience with youth, and looking to get more out of established MLS players than his predecessor. Will Johnson, Michael Harrington and Ryan Johnson all look like solid acquisitions, and despite the whole captain/club captain thing there’s little doubt that Johnson is the guy that founds the new Timbers. He’s the lynchpin in midfield and though Valeri is the guy that drives the attack, Porter’s Timbers are much more in the image of Will Johnson than Diego Valeri. It presses, works hard, and looks to play tidy passes to control the game.
Guys like Wallace, or Alhassan; Nagbe or Chara; these players are throwbacks or carry-overs from the old regime, but now they all have the chance to stake their place in the Timbers’ future. For Wallace it’s been a fleeting glimpse, with only 22 minutes across the three games, but he’s given his chances of more minutes the world of good now. In the spirit of renewal, it seems only fair to give him a fresh start.
I’ve not been his biggest fan, and been pretty critical on occasion, but I always felt he gave reasonable value as a versatile squad player coming in off the bench. It may be the ultimately that is his role at the Timbers, but the change in philosophy could be what the player needed too.
I don’t want to get carried away too early, but last season we lose that game with, no doubt, the “28 year old” Sounders debutant scoring a late goal to set off more fireworks, a tactic designed to rouse the locals from their gentle slumber for a half-hearted round of applause and Jumbotron led chant/weak-ass flash mob dance moves. The TA leaves sickened, twitter turns blue and Merritt Paulson’s is a blur of tweet-and-delete popcorn fodder.
Rinse and repeat.
The comeback against New York, the near-comeback against an increasingly impressive looking Montreal, and now a point at the death in the Clink all speak to a new spirit in the team, so I’ll take these moments and hold on to them even as the defensive slips or failure to score first yet tug at me to start worrying because I truly think that it’ll get fixed.
Teams are already wary of the Timbers new style.The second half against New York sent out a signal, and while it’s too early to say whether Montreal played so defensively because of who they were playing or just because that’s just who they are, rarely do you see Seattle, at home, look so willing to just ride out a match at 1-0 with so long still to go.
Maybe it was fatigue having played midweek, because fuck knows 4 early-season games in 14 days is a horribly punishing schedule for professional athletes, or maybe it was because the Timbers simply aren’t going to accept defeat and controlled the game in the Sounders own backyard.
If we can only close the door at the back, we could turn these points into three. The Timbers now have a couple of weeks to work (mostly) together on the training field before they travel to play the Rapids in a couple of weeks. After that comes another two home games.
The trip to Colorado will be the fourth time the clubs have met at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. 1-3, 0-3, 0-3 reads the record of the first three games and having won and lost only 1-0 at Jeld-Wen, there does seem to be something about playing at altitude that didn’t agree with Spencer’s and Wilkinson’s teams. The next match is another test for Porter’s boys, but they can at least take comfort in the fact that it’s the only visit there on league business in 2013.
Houston Dynamo and a home/away double-header against San Jose Earthquakes follows and from there the Timbers have only 2 home matches in the next 7. By then the season will be 14 games old, and we’ll have a good idea how things are going to go in 2013.
By that stage Spencer had amassed 18 and 15 points in 2011 and 2012 respectively, and Wilkinson’s side had earned 11 points in the first 14 games of his interimship. It’s hard to put a figure on what the Timbers will have in 2013 by that stage as so much remains a work-in-progress, but anything in the Spencer range would put the team in a good positions down the stretch, where they have a run of three home matches in a row, and will play four of the last six at Jeld-Wen Field, all against Western Conference rivals.
The old football cliche is that it’s the hope the kills you, but it what makes the success all the more special when it finally does come. I was fortunate enough to see my local club, Kilmarnock, win two cups in my lifetime. This is a club that I can still recall playing in the lower leagues so I know how those fans who were TA before there even was a TA would feel to see their club lift some silverware.
My mood was best summed up by another fan on the bus home – “we got a draw that felt like a win”. The wins are coming.
We don’t just hope, we believe.