Tag Archives: Gavin Wilkinson

Timbers 100: Part Three – Defensive Axis

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

Part 1: Island of Misfit Toys

Kenny Cooper and Eddie Johnson

Part 2: Everyday Magic

Jorge Perlaza and Darlington Nagbe

Part 3: Defensive Axis

Eric Brunner and Kris Boyd

Part 4: Endurance

Sal Zizzo and Bright Dike

Part 5: Maximum Impact

Rodney Wallace and Frederic Piquionne


Goal 50. Eric Brunner vs Chicago Fire

20th May 2012

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


Watch The Goal Here

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Goal 53. Kris Boyd vs Seattle Sounders

24th June 2012

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


Watch The Goal Here

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Spencer found that one out the hard way.

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Roster Talk

Ahead of the first round of the Re-Entry Draft, which to my Scottish ears still sounds a euphemism for something that belongs in Roger’s Profanisaurus, the Timbers have announced the re-signing of 3 players, as well as the exercising of the option on a further 8.

It puts to bed the appearance of a Mr Rodney Wallace Esq on the original list put up by MLS. Whatever shape the supposed negotiations took, we won’t know the details for some time, the end result is that Wallace is at least signed on for 2013, though the roster is a pretty nebulous thing at this stage, and things may, and most likely will, change.

The current roster now looks something like this.

Players who were under contract for 2013

# Pos Player Name Age Country
21 M Diego Chara 26 Colombia
9 F Kris Boyd 29 Scotland
D Michael Harrington 26 USA
12 D David Horst 27 USA
35 D Andrew Jean-Baptiste 20 USA
8 M Franck Songo'o 25 Cameroon
13 D/M Jack Jewsbury 31 USA
M Will Johnson 25 Canada
24 F Sebastián Rincón 18 Colombia
33 D Hanyer Mosquera 25 Colombia
1 GK Donovan Ricketts 35 Jamaica
6 M/F Darlington Nagbe 22 Liberia


Players re-signing, or having options exercised, for 2013.

# Pos Player Name Age Country
17 M Eric Alexander 24 USA
11 M Kalif Alhassan 22 Ghana
23 GK Joe Bendik 23 USA
98 D Mamadou "Futty" Danso 29 The Gambia
19 F Bright Dike 25 USA
90 GK Jake Gleeson 22 New Zealand
18 D Ryan Kawulok 22 USA
27 D Chris Taylor 23 USA
22 D/M Rodney Wallace 24 Costa Rica
7 M Sal Zizzo 25 USA
16 M/F Brent Richards 22 USA


That leaves three of the current squad, as listed on the official site, currently unspoken for.

# Pos Player Name Age Country
10 F Danny Mwanga 21 DR Congo
20 F Jose Adolfo Valencia 20 Colombia
2 F Mike Fucito 26 USA


The big stand-out there is Danny Mwanga. It would be foolish to read too much into his omission – as it was with Wallace and the Re-Entry Draft (sorry, it just amuses me every time I write that) – for the press release today, but if what Chris Rifer suggested on timbersarmy.org about Danny’s salary increasing is true then it may be worth just keeping an eye on all the same.

Speaking of the Re-Entry Draft, WVHooligan has a look at a few decent options to consider.

MLS have released an updated list of eligible players, if you want to take a look. Obviously, Rodney Wallace’s name is no longer there and, oddly, neither is Steve Purdy’s.

And while I’m on drafts, Stumptown Footy have suggested a trio of midfielders that the Portland Timbers could go for in the SuperDraft in January.

By the way, just as an aside, I’m no longer as convinced as I was that Kris Boyd isn’t back in 2013. Just a hunch.


Andrew Wiebe at MajorLeagueSoccerSoccerDotCom took a longer look at the Timbers deal to acquire the homegrown rights of Bryan Gallego. It’s certainly an interesting move. I don’t know that we should heap all the credit on Porter’s shoulders.

Gavin Wilkinson has taken a few knocks, on this site especially, but this deal seems to me to be a collaboration between Wilkinson and Porter, rather than the work of one or the other and so Gavin deserves some of the kudos too, assuming that Gallego actually makes it to the big leagues eventually etc.

The most logical way this deal works, in my mind, is the trade of Kimura to New York for allocation money is worked out by the front offices. Porter would give his approval that Kimura isn’t part of his plans, so go ahead with the deal and, oh, by the way, this kid I’ve worked with, I really rate him, he’s in New York’s academy system, could we fit him into the deal somehow? Phone calls go back and forth, the club get the nod from the league, and a deal is worked out to add Gallego in, with the Timbers writing off money due as part of the Cooper deal.

Or it goes the other way, with the move for Gallego coming first and fitting Kimura in to bring some allocation money back to Portland, for reasons as yet unknown.

Just my conjecture, but it’s what makes sense to me rather than one guy doing it all. Good communication between Porter and the front office is essential if he is to have any chance of putting out a successful team.

I still have deep reservations about Gavin’s ability to guide the ship, but I’m not an ideologue or anti-GW zealot, by any means. Perhaps because I wasn’t there at the time he was butting heads with a large sections of the fans, I don’t have the same visceral reaction to the man than some have, but I just try to call it as I see it. And I simply haven’t liked what I’ve seen so far. At all. But if he can turn it around, and give Porter the backing he needs to make a success of it, then I’ve no problem in giving him credit for the job. I was a big fan of John Spencer, but when it reached the point where I thought he was doing more harm than good, I said so. I’m a rationalist – I respond to reason and evidence, so equally, if we see the same problems repeating, then I make no apologises for “yet another anti-GW article, #yawn”.


MLSSoccer.com have done their review of the year for the Portland Timbers. Interesting choice to give Best Newcomer to Kris Boyd. Personally, I’d have gone for Hanyer Mosquera or Steven Smith. As for the MVP nod towards Chara, I’d agree with that. Other players have hit higher heights than Diego, but no-one has been as consistently good. Again, an honourable mention to Mosquera.

It’s an interesting read, with some OPTA and tactical stuff thrown in there, but I’ll be glad when we can start talking Previews rather than Reviews. I’m reading for 2012 to be done already.

Identity Issues

It almost seems too easy to pile on General Manager–and widely maligned ginger super villain–Gavin Wilkinson after the abortive mess that was the Portland Timbers 2012 campaign. Most, if not every, PTFC supporter is well aware of Wilkinson’s past hits; from throwing his squad under the bus (a few times), to somewhat callously slagging off players on their way out of town. Unfortunately for Wilkinson, with each interview he grants, the hits keep on coming, usually in the form of anyone but Gavin Wilkinson being made responsible for the club’s substandard play.

And so, with the first round of #Rostergeddon behind us, and the next round rapidly approaching, Wilkinson delivered another few gems in the form of two separate quotes on Monday:

“The general manager’s job is to get the pieces for the head coach to help the success of the organization, and it’s about the organization,” Wilkinson said. “And it’s also about giving Caleb the pieces he wants to work with, the pieces he thinks will contribute the way he sees them contributing.”

“We have enough athleticism, we have enough ability,” Wilkinson said. “What we want to fix is maybe the mental side of it and bring in mentally tough guys who have been in the league and succeeded in the league.”

Critics of the Ginger Bilbo Baggins (and in the spirit of transparency, I count myself solidly in this camp) will first point to the fact that by Gavin Wilkinson’s own standards, he has been an abject failure as a general manager. They will likely point out that the last two years have not done the organization any favors, particularly the way ‘upgrades’ and releases have been handled, and short of seeing the Cascadia Cup in the Fanladen, fans are very down on the club’s ability to perform in an MLS league that ranks somewhere towards the middle internationally.

But what I found particularly interesting about Wilkinson’s latest interview is how it plays into something I’ve been saying about the club since it’s ascendancy to MLS; it quite plainly does not have a footballing identity. While it ultimately falls on the players to play the game, it is the responsibility of management to set the direction of the club, which starts with the hiring of key staff and then make sure that staff does their jobs.

In the beginning, both Wilkinson and owner Meritt Paulson tried to sell us on a strategy of bringing in footballers with athletic prowess to make a team that could out-MLS everyone in MLS with hustle and and a pure athleticism that could produce some beautiful football and ultimately solid results. This seemed odd on its face given that the club had hired John Spencer, a manager who immediately implemented a 4-4-2 system, which classically relies on a solid back four that can defend and get up the pitch during an attack, coupled with a pair of central midfielders to support the back four and initiate the attack going the other way. Under Spencer, the team rarely found themselves being able to boast of success in either area. They were ostensibly a 4-4-2 team that couldn’t take leverage any the 4-4-2 formation’s advantages, due in great part to a bevy of personnel issues.

Attempting to spell out these personnel problems in each area of the pitch is difficult, due primarily to the fact that the personnel in each area of the pitch changed around so much, that John Spencer’s famous quip that he was fitting “square pegs going into round holes” became a talking point in its own right. However, it is fair to say that forwards were often more isolated than an ascetic monk on a hilltop, waiting for the inevitable long ball from a cartoonish rotation of unsuccessful left- and right-backs, all but nullifying the supposed athletic advantages the squad was meant to be built around. The midfield was toothless and unimaginative; often featuring two defensive-minded center-mids, with largely ineffective service sporadically coming from the wings. To use a very cheap analogy, it’s as if Merritt Paulson gave his GM the chassis of a Bugati Veyron and charged him with the task of sourcing parts and a competent driver, only to find what he saw as a Bugati running like a fucking Geo Metro with an increasingly befuddled toddler behind the wheel.

Looking from our tortured MLS past, to the somewhat unclear MLS future, that toddler, John Spencer, is but a distant memory in the minds of Timbers supporters and former Akron Zips coach Caleb Porter has been brought in to right the ship. The choice is interesting, inasmuch as it seems to be both an admission that past two years of football played at the club are to be forgotten, while still remaining well within the thus-far unsuccessful MO of owner Meritt Paulson, who is always after the next up-and-coming (read: unproven) talent to build his club around. The problem here is obvious, in a rush to obscure his lack of soccer knowledge and the FO’s gross  mismanagement, it seems that he has been watching Barcelona games on Fox Soccer, and now hopes to sell us on the idea that he’s going to build an MLS Barca here in Portland, without actually holding his people responsible for the success of that massive undertaking.

If you close your eyes, you can probably imagine Paulson yelling: “Just build me a fucking Veyron this time and let me know when you’re done, so that I can go for a ride. WEEEEEEEEEE!”

It is expected that Porter will institute a 4-3-3 system, one which is favored in the modern game by teams like Barca for its positivity, but which also places a much higher premium of player technique and creativity, especially in the midfield. When done poorly it can leave the back-line isolated and vulnerable to attack, something the Timbers were quite prone to under the more defensive 4-4-2 setup. Porter seems to be saying all the right things and his clubs at the college level have played some very attractive, and very successful football, but he’s not walking into a hand-picked group of players at PTFC. This is still a club with a fair amount of personnel issues all over the pitch. And so, it seems, the identity of Caleb Porter’s PTFC  will depend largely on the direction of Merritt Paulson’s “soccer guy,” Gavin Wilkinson. That last sentence isn’t one prone to give supporters of the club much hope. In fact, you may want to call your favorite Timbers supporter now to talk them off the ledge, if you haven’t done so already this off-season.

The way “Timbers insiders” will tell it now–in a revisionist history fitting of Stalin or George W. Bush apologists–John Spencer was basically in charge of personnel decisions, directing his boss to scrounge up the squad we saw the past two seasons. While it is reasonably to expect that Spencer most certainly had sway in the process, as any manager does, it seems incredibly unlikely that this was actually the case, particularly given the sense of exacerbation with which Spencer bemoaned the lack of solid options at key positions. But this revisionism, which smacks of desperation by the FO to deflect some of the ire seen in the North End towards the end of last season, brings up management issues that many fans have quite rightly questioned. Firstly, if Spencer was essentially in control of personnel decisions, what the fuck was Gavin Wilkinson doing the past two years? It certainly wasn’t his job, even as he has described it as recently as Monday. Secondly, if he hasn’t been capable of doing his job the past two seasons, why is he being given a third? I’ve yet to hear a decent explanation for this and I’m most certainly not holding my breath.

What’s staggering is, while it’s easy to get focused on personnel, Wilkinson’s history of general managerial incompetence, when it comes to shaping the identity of the club, spans well beyond player signings. When John Spencer was hired as the first manager of the MLS Timbers, it was based on his history and reputation as a highly respected coach in MLS under Houston Dynamo’s Dominic Kinnear. And while few could doubt Spencer’s energy, passion, and ability to work day-to-day with players, it was often that case that he looked pitifully out of depth on match-day  unable or unwilling to adjust to tactical changes and woefully off-base with substitutions. Things only got worse when Trevor James, an MLS veteran, left the bank at the end of the first season. Wilkinson’s answer was as simplistic as it was incomprehensible, he doubled down on USL-era coaches and perennial ‘parts of the problem’ Amos Magee and Adam James. The results were predictable as the club struggled once again to find an identity or any points on the road for that matter. The James departure and its aftermath may seem like a small event, but it was a clear opportunity for Paulson and the man he relies on for soccer related counsel to step in and assert some control over the situation, to bring someone in that could assist Spencer in bringing the team into his system before things got so out of hand that the club was dropping games to amateur teams in front of its fans to the tune of “Taps.”

But for 2013 at least, we are going to battle with Gavin Wilkinson at the helm, and what Gavin Wilkinson is saying is that he believes that PTFC is basically set-up to allow Caleb Porter to succeed. He would have us believe that it is not, as many fans have complained, a lack of quality on the pitch– or should we say the right kind of quality on the pitch–but rather a lack of mental toughness that has held this squad back to this point. This could very well mean that we won’t see a great deal more change to the roster ahead of the upcoming campaign, not even in key areas for a 4-3-3 formation, like the midfield.

Given Porter’s track record, particularly as the U-21 coach for the USMNT, it has to be said that short of changing his mind, this is the crux of the gamble Wilkinson is making with PTFC’s future.  As noted sports philosopher Shaquile O’Neal once said, “Don’t fake the funk on a nasty dunk;” either this team actually takes on the identity of a fluid, 4-3-3 style attacking Porter team–with the players we currently have (give or take a pair here and there)–or Porter could be forced to be the face of another season of disjointed, disappointing play as square pegs are unceremoniously and repeatedly jammed into round holes without even the courtesy of a lubricant.

For supporters, whose anxiety is sure to produce some positively epic SCUSA posts in the coming days, we can only sit back and wait to see what happens with the rest of #Rostergeddon before we decide just how much to freak the fuck out. With Gavin Wilkinson at the helm we may have to be resigned to the fact that as long as we have no solidified footballing identity and as long as failure is accepted at the highest levels of this club, this is what our normal is.


Admin note: Logan has asked that a line be edited from the piece as it seemed to be detracting from discussion of the actual thrust of the article. Let’s keep the conversation on what matters, please. Thanks.

Portland Timbers kick off the MLS offseason with a flurry of activity

Twitter has been buzzing with anticipation for days and right at the stroke of noon, the Portland Timbers made their first official MLS offseason announcement. Here’s a rundown of the transactions:

* Timbers acquire allocation money (what jersey # will allocation money wear?) and the rights to homegrown player and current Akron Zips defender, Bryan Gallego, from the New York Bulls in exchange for Kosuke Kimura and a 2013 2nd round draft pick.

Rumors of Kimura being sent to the Red Bulls came to light on Sunday afternoon. The rest of this deal though didn’t become clear until the Timbers dropped the press release. Word is the Timbers received over $100,000 in allocation money (not confirmed) along with a promising defender who is very familiar with incoming coach Caleb Porter. It remains to be seen whether Gallego, who will turn 20 in March, will forego returning to Zips for his junior year. To get anything promising in return for Kimura who, despite his love for the badge, really struggled from day one with Portland, is a positive takeaway as far as I’m concerned.

 * Timbers acquire defender Michael Harrington from Sporting KC in exchange for allocation money.

In a league not known for strong fullbacks, Harrington had the unfortunate luck to try and crack a starting lineup with two of the better performers in the league: Seth Sinovic and Chance Myers. Harrington carries a steeper price tag than I would like ($125,000), but if he can solidify a position that’s been weak for the Timbers since coming to MLS, it just might be worth it.

 * Timbers acquire allocation money from the Houston Dynamo in exchange for defender Eric Brunner

This one stings a bit. If there was a guy you could count on to bring it in every match he played it was Eric Brunner. It was a difficult 2012 campaign for Brunner has he spent over three months out of the lineup while recovering from a concussion he suffered in a May match against Vancouver. General Manager Gavin Wilkinson, not always known for his appropriate goodbyes to players, had nothing but praise for Brunner:

“Eric is a great person and quality player, and these types of decisions are never easy. We very much appreciate his service to the club over the past two seasons, both on and off the field. The opportunity in Houston for Eric is one that he is excited about. He is well-liked and will be missed”

* Timbers acquire Will Johnson from Real Salt Lake in exchange for allocation money

The news of this move was broken on Sunday as well, and even with the other news today, this is by far the most exciting of the transactions.

Johnson is one of those players you love to hate — as long as he’s on the other team. Johnson will provide some much-needed tenacity as well as some outstanding skill on the ball. This is clearly a move orchestrated by Caleb Porter, who likely sees Johnson playing a huge role as a winger or attacking center midfielder in his possession-based attack.

While he is a Canadian international, Johnson does not occupy an international slot on the Timbers roster.

* Finally, in other moves

The Timbers declined the options on defenders Lovel Palmer and Steve Purdy. Both will be eligible to participate in the MLS Re-Entry Draft this coming Friday.

It also appears that left back Steven Smith will not be rejoining the team in 2013. Nothing has been announced by the team, but Smith did post this on Twitter:

We’ll have more about the Steven Smith move once it’s officially announced by the Timbers.

Six Defining Moments of 2012

2012 is rife with talk of apocalypse, and there were certainly times that the sky seemed to be falling in on the Timbers. A managerial sacking, fans protests, twitter meltdowns, cup embarrassments, defensive horror-shows and, bizarrely, a late season triumph.

Thinking of some of the defining moments of the Timbers year, it would be easy to think of Spencer’s sacking, Porter’s hiring, the Cal FC defeat or Perkins’ trade as the big moments, and they probably are, but the lack of a definite article in the title is deliberate as I want to take a look at 6 other moments that I think would, in their own way, come to define the Timbers’ season.

1. The Late Collapse vs Real Salt Lake

Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon
When: March 31st, approx 19:45
What: There was still an air of optimism in Portland as the Timbers kicked-off against RSL. A opening day win, heralding the arrival of Kris Boyd with a debut goal, had been followed by a gritty road draw and a narrow road loss while RSL were coming off a home defeat to Chivas USA.

Despite the setback of going 1-0 down, the Timbers roared back with a brace of classy Darlington Nagbe goals to lead 2-1. The minutes ticked away, James Marcelin came on to help close the game out, the Timbers were looking at a 7 point haul from their opening 4 games, with a visit from Chivas USA up next.

And then, disaster. Two goals in the dying minutes overturned the result, giving the visitors a 3-2 win. Like a pin popping a balloon, suddenly the early belief and confidence was gone.

Another defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory result against Chivas the next week – throwing away a lead to another late winner – only cemented the belief that it was going to be another long season.

2. Eric Brunner’s injury vs Vancouver Whitecaps

Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon
When: May 26th, approx 18:06
What: With the second worst defensive record in the Western Conference in 2011, bolstering the defence was a priority for the Timbers in 2012 and, in the signing of Hanyer Mosquera, they thought they had their man to partner Eric Brunner in the heart of the back four.

Brunner had emerged from 2011 as a fan favourite, and a rare bright spot at the back for Portland. It was always going to be a case of Brunner + A.N. Other at the back, or so it seemed.

The partnership between Mosquera and Brunner took a while to get together thanks to injuries and such, but it looked like the club had finally found a solution in the middle, even if the full-back positions continued to perplex.

A concussion sustained early in the match against the Whitecaps saw Brunner removed at half-time. It would be September before Brunner saw action again, thanks in part to a further knee injury, when he came on as a late game sub. By this time, David Horst had made the position beside Mosquera his own.

The instability that followed – Danso and Horst would come in and out of the team – would see the team lose goals left and right before they finally settled on Horst. Horst looked out of his depth early on, but steadied to become a solid presence at the back, but one of the big “What if?” questions that hang over the Timbers season is “What if Brunner had never gotten injured?”

3. Kris Boyd’s goal vs Seattle Sounders

Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon
When: 24th June, approx 13:16
What: Steven Smith to Franck Songo’o, touched off to the overlapping Smith, a low cross ball to the middle where an unmarked Kris Boyd taps it past the Sounders keeper.

Boyd’s goal put the Timbers on their way to a 2-1 victory against their great rivals – their first MLS victory against the Orcish minions from the North. It would also put the Timbers in the driving seat to win the Cascadia Cup.

The win came less than a month after the Timbers had lost 1-0 to Cal FC, the same team the Sounders would thump 5-0 shortly afterwards. If that loss had represented the nadir of the club’s fortunes, the derby win was the zenith, with hopes restored that the club could yet get it’s playoff hopes back on track.

And yet, a little over two weeks later, John Spencer had been sacked.

4. Kris Boyd’s misses vs Chivas USA

Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon
When: 28th July, multiple times
What: Strictly speaking this is more than a single moment, but Boyd’s first half showing against Chivas would come to define so much of his season, and how it went into a tailspin.

Boyd was already getting criticism for not scoring enough goals, or justifying his hefty price tag, and it seemed to be weighing on the Scot. Gone were the natural, smooth finishes of early in the season – think, the flicked header against the Union, the calm finish against the Galaxy, the (wrongly) disallowed bit of skill and finish in the same match.

Now the finishes were nervy, jittery, rushed. In his desperation to score, he was hampering his natural instincts.

The first chance was much like that flash of skill against the Galaxy. Boyd heel-flicked a header down from Richards to control the ball, but rushed his shot, and sent it wide.

The second chance saw him caught offside, and of course he finished it with aplomb.

The third chance came only minutes later, and a nice touch left his defender for dead, but Boyd took the shot from a tight angle rather than the easy lay-off to Chara. Trying too hard.

The fourth chance came after a shot by Chara was palmed out by the keeper. Boyd swung at the rebound, barely connecting and only looping the ball up ineffectually.

Chivas would score the only goal of the game in the second half. Boyd’s time as a starter would come to an end only weeks later.

5. Bright Dike’s goal vs New York Red Bulls

Where: Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey
When: 19th August, approx 18:08
What: After a toothless showing in Toronto, Boyd was relegated to the bench. Bright Dike made his first-ever MLS start, after spending time on loan with LA Blues earlier in the season.

473 seconds. That is how long it took Dike to do what Boyd had gone 384 minutes without doing – score. Dike got on the end of Sal Zizzo’s low cross to put the Timbers in front, the first of five goals the striker would go on to tally before the season was out.

The Timbers would double their lead, but some poor defending, terrible officiating and an familiar late game sucker-punch resulted in a 3-2 defeat.

Dike’s form would bring him to the attention of the Nigerian national team, and would keep his more expensive team mate cooling his heels on the bench until injury ended Boyd’s 2012, and potentially his Timbers career.

6. Gavin Wilkinson’s experiment vs Seattle Sounders

Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Washington
When: 7th October, approx 17:00
What: The Timbers knew that a favourable result in Seattle’s backyard would guarantee them the Cascadia Cup. Interim head coach opted to switch out both full-backs and give starts to Lovel Palmer and Rodney Wallace. The game ended in a 3-0 defeat.

Peeved would be one word to describe the fans’ reaction to Wilkinson’s tinkering. Fucking furious would be two words.

Excuses would be made for the changes, some more convincing than others, but the fact remained that the Timbers went north to play their biggest rivals, with silverware on the line, with two guys in the team who had never convinced in their positions.

The defeat put the Cascadia Cup in doubt, and it would take a first road-win of the season against a frankly awful Vancouver Whitecaps to seal the deal. Had the cup been squandered… Well, that’s another “What if?” and one that would be best written by the writers of the Saw franchise should the Timbers fans have ever gotten their hands on Wilkinson.


So, there we have my thoughts on six moments that would shape and define the Timbers season. Which would you add as your own?

The Strange Case of Ian Hogg

With the new head coach now set to arrive within weeks, the most pressing question on my mind is how well the Timbers general manager will work to field a side capable of performing better under Caleb Porter than it did for John Spencer, or for Gavin himself, for that matter.

Most of you who have read my earlier posts know that I am skeptical of Gavin Wilkinson as an evaluator and selector of playing talent. The recent release of the young defender from New Zealand does nothing to reassure me that working with a new coach will change that.

Many of you may not even remember Ian Hogg. He was signed from the Auckland FC club on August 8, and in his roughly thirteen weeks as a Timber he never stepped out on the Jeld-Wen pitch as part of the Big Side, never logged a minute in a Portland jersey playing in an MLS match. His league vita is a blank.

His playing time was limited to the last two reserve matches; 71 minutes in the 4-nil loss to the Galaxy reserves away and then the full 90 against the Seattle reserves here. He provided a speculative cross into the box that was deflected and resulted in Richard’s goal against the Sounders.

And that was that. Hogg was waived (with Renken and Braun) on November 19th.

My sole sighting of the man was in the Seattle reserve match. I recall that he played a decent game, and appeared to be capable of playing a solid backup to Steven Smith at left back. He showed a similar knack for getting caught upfield on occasion, but he had decent wheels enough to scramble back into position. He could go forward as well, and provided service into the 18 that was at least no worse than what we saw from our starters at LB and better than some; sorry, Chabala.

So his odd little tenure with the Timbers leaves me with more questions than answers about Gavin’s man-management skills.

If you recall, early August 2012 was perhaps the worst of a bad, bad place the Timbers had been for the preceding month. Late July had been a disaster after John Spencer’s sacking, culminating in the meltdown that was Dallas away. The Portland defense had shipped 15 goals over the preceding 7 matches and the dark star that was right back was never darker – Kosuke Kimura had a VERY bad July, though you could observe that the remainder of his 2012 wasn’t that much brighter.

The club had just apparently concluded that its defensive woes would be solved by swapping keepers with Montreal, a move that infuriated many fans, and though Donovan Ricketts had yet to play a minute for Portland the frustration and anger of a season in tatters was boiling over.

The problems that had plagued the team since 2011 – the lack of a quality attacking/distributing midfielder and the cohesion of the backline (especially at right back) – had never seemed greater. But the one place that had been a similar defensive problem earlier in the season, left back, was actually looking better.

Steven Smith’s play in May and June was frankly awful. It didn’t help that he had nobody in front of him willing to track back on defense at that point; it took the early substitution against Colorado to convince Franck Songo’o that defending was part of his brief. But by early August Smith’s play was visibly improving. The need for a quality right back was still painful in early August; the need for an immediate upgrade at left back?

Not so much.

The timing of Hogg’s release is almost as peculiar as his signing. Accepting that premise that Mike Chabala was never going to be a useful substitute and a decent backup was needed, what had changed between August and November to make Hogg superfluous?

There was and is still no obvious replacement for Smith. Kawulok and Taylor seem to be primarily right backs and Jean-Baptiste a centerback, and we’ve seen the horrors that emerge from putting either Wallace or Palmer in the backline. Cam Vickers has been slotted in back occasionally but is listed as a forward/midfielder with the U-23s.

There seems to be no urgency to sign a replacement left back; mind you, this may be a matter of “early days yet” with the new head coach, but the prospect of the incoming Porter does not seem to have stopped the Timbers’ Front Office from bringing in either players or assistant coaches during the waning days of the 2012 season.

So what was the point of signing Hogg if never to play him? Why not play him somewhere – right back could hardly have been worse? Why sign him instead of bringing him on as a trialist? Why not keep him over the winter and see if he fits with Porter’s scheme for 2013? At least superficially he seems like a “Porter” sort of player; young, relatively speedy, with a decent tactical instinct for the opportune pass as well as a fairly competent defender. Why then release him and not, say, Chris Taylor, if you’re going to boot defenders who don’t play for you?

When he was signed Gavin said “Ian is a young, talented left back with good athleticism and a desire to succeed, we have signed him through the remainder of the season and look forward to closely evaluating him as we move to next season.” What happened? One has to assume that Hogg failed his evaluation, but why? Who did he lose out to? What were his failings, and where were they shown?

I have had more than one occasion to rub my head over a Gavin move, ranging from signings and releases to starting elevens. The strange case of Ian Hogg just reminds me once again why the man who seems like a bluff Kiwi sort of fella is to me a soccer riddle wrapped in an enigma inside a conundrum crafted into a beer cozy for a can of Steinlager, and I sure hope Coach Porter is better at figuring him out than I am.

The Man, The Myth

When John Spencer was relieved of his duties in July of this year, club owner Merritt Paulson was at pains to point out that the Timbers were not “waving a white flag for 2012” as there were “still many games to play.” Indeed, Wilkinson inherited a team that weren’t far off the playoff spots and had, in their last four matches, beaten both Seattle Sounders and San Jose Earthquakes.

Gavin Wilkinson echoed that point, insisting that he was “responsible for bringing all those players here” and how it was “up to me to get a little bit more out of them.”

As we all know, Wilkinson promptly led the side on a four game losing streak, and before long the message had subtly shifted. “When I came into this position, it wasn’t a simple process of just going out and trying to win. We had to address some issues and there were some changes and there’s been a little bit of progress.”

In those first seven matches of Gavin’s interimship, the club picked up 2 points and the idea that Portland would reach the postseason became the notion of delusional fantasists as reality set in.

By the time the side took the field against the Sounders, looking to secure the Cascadia Cup, all focus was on laying the groundwork for the next season. Gavin’s decision to rest the “injured” Steven Smith and Kosuke Kimura in favour of the Katastrophe Kids, Rodney Wallace and Lovel Palmer, was dressed up as being “important to see a few players in different positions so we could go into the offseason making the right decisions.”

This notion that Gavin has been testing players for next year has taken such firm root that it’s become a generally accepted “fact” among a growing proportion of fans and pundits. It is, in my opinion, no more than a myth.

It’s easy to dress up a tactical fuck-up like sticking Wallace and Palmer into the line-up as some kind of experiment. Yeah, sure, it was just test to see how they would cope in the atmosphere, or pace of the game, or whatever. Of course. It rings every bit as hollow as those emergency rooms cases where the hapless individual explains that he accidentally fell backwards onto the beer bottle and it just got lodged up there.

What were we meant to learn about Wallace and Palmer that we didn’t already know for the numerous times they’ve already played at full-back, including a whole run of matches THIS SEASON already? If Wilkinson truly was assessing the squad and using it as some kind of tactical Petri dish, then why haven’t we see Ryan Kawulok in the team? Jean-Baptiste? Richards, after he got a whole two starts when Gavin made 6 changes to a team that lost 5-0 against Dallas? Where’s Rincon, or Taylor, or even Hogg (yes, I know there’ve been injuries, but they haven’t always been out), to mention but a few?

Instead, Wilkinson had picked a more settled team that his predecessor. 7 players have started at least 12 of the 15 matches (80%) that Wilkinson has been in control for. Seven. Kimura, Smith, Horst, Mosquera, Jewsbury, Songo’o and Nagbe.

That’s the entire back four. Now, I totally get that continuity is important in defence, probably more so than anywhere else of the pitch (when you think of great defences it’s generally a unit you think off, when you think of great attacks it might be one or two guys, on the whole) but does anyone out there actually think that this will be our back four next season? Cos if it is… well, that’s an early Halloween scare, right there. And if you accept that it won’t be the chose four next year, why aren’t we giving others a chance?

If you consider that Ricketts was only signed in August and has played when fit, that Chara only falls a couple shy of 12 starts due to injury, and that Zizzo has started 9 of the last 10 matches, then you can stretch that “settled” number up to 10. Dike has started 7 of the last 9 if you want to make it a full team.

By comparison, only five players reach the 80% criteria under Spencer – Perkins, Jewsbury, Chara, Boyd and Nagbe. (3 of these are mainstays under Wilkinson, one got traded and one fell out of favour.)

It’s quite clear to me that Gavin has a pretty clear idea of his “best eleven” and he is, in general, sticking to that core group. Fair enough. Continuity and all that. But aren’t we supposed to be figuring out what we have so as to make the right decisions in the offseason?

Putting to one side Ricketts, who was signed after Spencer left, and Kimura, who played the one match under Spencer that he was available for, there are really only six players who have seen themselves get significantly more game time under Wilkinson than Spencer.

David Horst (29% / 87%) played five straight games for Spencer following Brunner’s injury, and has held that role under Wilkinson despite a couple of starts for Danso along the way. I don’t think we can chalk that one down to Wilkinson.

Steven Smith (47% / 80%) is a little misleading as Smith was signed in April and, in actual fact, played 8 of the 10 matches he was available for under Spencer, so he’s actually been used as much under Wilkinson as he was under Spencer.

Hanyer Mosquera (59% / 93%) is another example where a player’s enforced absence has skewed the numbers. But for an early season injury and a 3 game suspension in June, he was clearly a first choice under Spencer.

Franck Songo’o (47% / 80%) has more to do with a player taking the time to adjust to a new league and new team mates than it does with Gavin Wilkinson bringing him through, in my opinion.

Which brings us to the two guys whose increased game time I would ascribe to Gavin Wilkinson.

Sal Zizzo (6% / 60%) seemed to have designated a “super sub” under Spencer, but since given a run of games under Gavin Wilkinson, he’s put in some great showings and has made four assists in his last eight starts.

Bright Dike (0% / 47%) went from forgotten man to hero when given a chance by Wilkinson and has repaid his former USL boss with four goals and some all-action performances. So, fair enough, hats off to Gavin Wilkinson there. I’d have big reservations if Dike is truly the man we look to lead the line next season, but he’s in a purple patch right now, and we’re getting a good return from him, so strike while the iron’s hot.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these two have shone together as they seemed to have struck up an immediate understanding. Three of Dike’s goals have been assisted by Zizzo, and it really seems to be the case that the two players are bringing out the best in each other.

Three guys who have seen their game time limited since Spencer left are Eric Alexander, Kris Boyd and Kalif Alhassan. In the latter case, injuries have been a big factor, as they have been to a lesser degree with Boyd, but the sense persists that these are three guys who don’t really fit under Wilkinson.

As with Zizzo & Dike, Alexander and Alhassan seem to bring the best out in Boyd as they seemed to be the two players who were most in tune with the Scottish striker. All of Boyd’s goals have been scored when either player is on the field, with Alhassan and Alexander both logging assists for Boyd.

In fact, the five game barren spell Boyd had between the 1-0 win against Kansas City and the 2-1 win against Chicago coincides with a five match stretch where neither Alexander nor Alhassan started. They all start against LA, Boyd scores; they return against Vancouver, Boyd scores. Can you guess which two players didn’t start any of the final three matches Boyd played before being dropped for Dike (ignoring the cameo against San Jose)?

All of this is to get off the point though. The fact is that, at best, you could say that Wilkinson brought Zizzo and Dike into the fold. Beyond that, what have we learned about this roster during this grand period of experimentation?

That Palmer and Wallace are every bit as not-very-good as we remembered them to be? That Mike Fucito will run about a bit, but just don’t expect him to score goals? That Sal Zizzo isn’t a right-back? That’s not a lot to show for 15 matches worth of time. If these are all things that Wilkinson thinks are questions that needed to be answered so as to build towards 2013, then I can’t help but fear for the worst with this guy as General Manager.

I haven’t addressed players being used as subs, cos I don’t think you’re going to learn a great deal about someone based on a 20 minute cameo here or there. Players need to start, and be given a few matches to show what they can do. We’re simply not doing that.

Don’t believe the hype. There is no appreciable difference to squad rotation under Wilkinson than there was under Spencer. In fact, only twice have the Timbers named an unchanged XI from one week to the next, and both of those occasions were with Gavin in charge. We’re not learning anything we didn’t already know. Beyond the change of formation and a couple of different faces, you would be hard pressed to see any difference.

You can’t put out a settled team every week and still play the “experimentation” card. You’re either rotating the squad and giving different people a chance to do different jobs, or you’re picking the same bunch of guys week in-week out.

Even if you buy that early on Wilkinson was looking to push the team to the playoffs and only latterly, when that became impossible, turned to experimenting with the roster the fact is that of the 13 line-up changes in the last five matches, 5 have been enforced (injuries or suspensions) which leaves 8 in a very broad “tactical” category, or, if you prefer, 61.5% of line-up changes have been tactical. That is actually lower than the same criteria under Spencer (64.7%) and a big dip in Wilkinson’s overall 72.7%. So Wilkinson is changing things up and giving players a chance, he’s making changes when they’re forced upon him.

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. The greatest trick Gavin has pulled is that he’s working to some kind of plan.

Monkey Jesus

With the Cascadia Cup up for grabs, 1500 Timbers fans made the trip up the I-5 into enemy territory with hopes high that they would be returning to the Rose City with silverware. A draw would’ve been enough to secure the title. In the end those same fans would make the return trip having seen their side lose 3-0 in front of an (official, if not actual) 66,452 crowd. Closer to 66,500 if you include the Timbers playing and coaching staff, who spent much of their time spectating in any case.

The absence of Hanyer Mosquera from the back line, as well as the return of Diego Chara to midfield, forced our Gavin Wilkinson to make changes.

Now, you and I in our n00bishness may think that if you’re missing a crucial piece from your defence in such a big match, that would seek to make sure you keep changes to a minimum at the back, right? WRONG! What you do is change the full-backs and goalkeeper too so that you have change 80% of the back line. That is the right thing to do.

And the attack that has hardly been striking fear into defences? Well, you make no changes there and you most certainly do not, under any circumstances, start your team’s leading assist provider. That would be the actions of a madman.

So, into defence came Futty Danso, Lovel Palmer and Rodney Wallace. I got up at 1:55am for the game. I checked twitter and saw the line-up at 1:58am. The temptation to go back to bed at 1:59am was strong. It wasn’t so much that I feared the worst as I expected it.

Wallace’s spot in midfield was taken by the returning Chara, with the rest of the midfield and attack as it was for the 1-1 draw with DC United last week.

Not to blow my own trumpet, but after doing a bit of research on Seattle and watching a few games – those are hours I will never get back – I’d identified what I thought were pretty obvious patterns to the Seattle attack.

1 – They would look to overload the right with Rosales/Evans, Tiffert and Johansson. As such we would need a left-back who could make the right choices, as well as having a left midfielder who would track back and help out.

2 – They lacked a left-footed player on the left side, and Gonzales doesn’t get forward nearly as much as Johansson, so we had to expect that they would look to come inside and ping the ball diagonally to the back post for Montero or Johnson to attack.

3 – Johnson’s aerial threat meant that there was no way we would win every duel, so we had to make sure that the players were alive to the second ball and that we won that.

Given all that, here was the line-up I’d have gone with – Bendik/Ricketts; Kimura, Horst, Futty/Brunner, Smith; Jewsbury, Chara, Alexander; Nagbe, Mwanga, Songo’o

My reasoning? As I said, I felt continuity (as far as possible) at the back was crucial, though I wouldn’t be adverse to Jewsbury starting ahead of Kimura (with Nagbe back to midfield and Zizzo starting).

My thinking is that, since Seattle offer less threat down their left, Kimura – who I don’t particularly rate highly, but still think is better than Palmer – could be given a set of simple instructions of “keep tight, don’t let them come inside and stay on your feet”. Ditto if Jewsbury subs in there.

If we play with Nagbe, I’d play him a little off the wing rather than as a winger. Here I’d want Nagbe to look for space and, in the process, either pull Gonzalez narrow (opening up space for the overlap of Kimura/Jewsbury) or force Alonso to drop in and mark him, opening up space for Songo’o to come inside from the left, with support from Alexander (and Smith on the outside).

Mwanga is up top because I felt it would be pointless to play long ball football as the Seattle central defence would eat that up all night long. Rather, playing Mwanga would emphasise movement and passing over physicality or “lumping it into the mixer”.

The help out Smith on the left, since Songo’o isn’t the greatest defender in the world, Alexander would be given the job of playing left of centre, and to shuttle across to back up the Scot. He’s shown, when he subbed for Chara earlier this year, that he can play this disciplined, defensive role if asked to, and between the three – Smith, Alexander and Songo’o – I feel we’d have the numbers to match up and nullify much of Seattle’s threat.

That’s what I’d have done.

What Gavin did was put Wallace in at left-back. The reasoning seems to be it was because Wallace is more “athletic” than Smith. I’d back that line of thinking if the game was only one part of a heptathlon, but it isn’t, it’s the main event and you just put someone on the back line whose best attributes sure as hell aren’t his defensive ones. Wallace has looked decent in the last few matches playing in midfield, where his lapses in concentration aren’t directly punished by having an opponent go clean through on goal.

Maybe Gavin thought Wallace’s “athleticism” would get him forward, and push Seattle back and win the battle down the flank that way. Well, that worked a fucking treat, eh? Because, as you know, that slovenly Smith never gets up and down the line.

The decision to drop Smith was a strange one – references to a Wilkinson quote “player health” abound on twitter, but at the time of writing they aren’t being reported. Smith has a case for being the Timbers most improved player over the past few weeks. He had a really rocky spell earlier in the season, but as his fitness has improved and he’s become more attuned to the league, he’s settling in very nicely.

Now, I’ve nothing against Wallace. I think he’s perfectly functional (if a tad overpaid) as a squad player, questionable as a starter and downright objectionable as a defender. You almost can’t get mad at the guy whose known to make mistakes when he makes mistakes, instead you should direct that ire at the guy who put him in what I felt was the key position on the field to make those mistakes.

The first goal came about as, surprise, Seattle overloaded that flank.

Rosales, Tiffert and Johansson are all out there on the right. Wallace is trying to marshal Tiffert, while keeping an eye on Rosales, as Johansson bursts forward. Songo’o fails to track his man.

The Seattle midfield has narrowed, negating the Timbers 3v2 advantage in the middle, as Zizzo stays out wide. The ball forward by Alonso is missed by a diving Wallace, and Johansson runs on to it. His pass into the centre is aimed towards Montero, but Danso gets there first and directs it past a helpless Ricketts.

Fucking. Textbook. Elementary. Football.

The second goal followed soon after as the Timbers were in disarray. That is, more disarray than is usual.

Here we have Danso following Montero out of defence (a). Tiffert (d) will slot into the space left by Danso (d) as the ball goes left to Evans. Now, there’s only place Evans wants to go here, and it’s inside (c). Palmer’s job here is to get tight, and force Evans onto his weaker left foot, and down the side (b). Instead, Lovel stands off Evans (e), letting him get his head up and measure the cross to Johnson, who is making a customary back post run (f) to finish the move, and the Timbers hopes of a result here, off.

Taking a leaf from the seemingly half-arsed way Wilkinson prepared the team for this match, I’m not even going to bother going over the 3rd goal in any detail, except to say we failed to win the second ball when Johnson got a flick-on because Wallace was asleep at the back post, which was fine cos he was only marking Fredy Montero. Equally, I’ll give the substitutions as much thought and consideration as Wilkinson seemingly did. There, done.

Sure, there were chances for Portland. Songo’o had a couple of sites of goal, Wallace had a free header from a corner, Dike had a sniff, as did Nagbe. Nothing that would overly worry Gspurring, the Sounders keeper.

I went to bed last night, knowing that I would wake up to gold from Wilkinson and the Unsackable One didn’t disappoint.

Those two [David Horst and Futty Danso] haven’t played together an awful lot.

Who picks the team, and who hasn’t been rotating the squad? Look, I get that defensive consistency is important (as I said earlier), but by my quick reckoning Wilkinson has set out the same back four in 7 of the last 9 matches. You can’t have it both ways – you’re either trying players out and seeing what you have, or you’re picking a settled team

They had a lot more mobility in the midfield. They had a lot more freedom and kept the ball moving. They caused problems.

We (supposedly) outnumbered them and yet you’d think Seattle had the extra midfielder. As I said before the game, quick movement of the ball was vital. We did none of that. Seattle did. They won.

(That’s what happens) when you’ve got mature players that understand the game and understand what is expected, and we had problems solving it.

A good coach is supposed to help players “understand the game” (hint: coach). A good coach is supposed to make sure that a player “understands what is expected”. A good coach is supposed to identify problems on the field, and solve it p- not just sit back and blame the players for not understanding. You see something going wrong – fix it! Change it if you have to. Shuffle players around. Relay instructions to the guys on the field. You see it happen all the time in matches all over the world. That’s your job.

Then there’s this…

I have no words.

In a big environment you want players to play well and sometimes when things aren’t going well, one or two players start hiding a little bit. That’s not a go at the players, it’s just the environment.

Just like you know when someone starts a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” it will be followed by the most egregiously racist statement, so “that’s not a go at the players” will, when utter by Gavin Wilkinson, inevitably be preceded by him having a go at the players. Have the courage of your convictions, Gavin. If you want to blame the players, do it. Rev that bus up, crank up the Whitesnake, run them over and back up if you feel like it. Don’t fob us off with crap about “the environment” because you fool no-one but yourself.

We learned a little tonight about certain individuals. It’s going to be an evaluation process through to the end of the year. It was important to see a few players in different positions so we could go into the offseason making the right decisions.

First off, players in different positions – what did we learn about Wallace and Palmer at full-back that we didn’t already know from the many times they’ve played full-back before? That they are as mediocre as everyone already knew? Well, good job Captain, sorry, General Manager Obvious in underlining that point on the biggest fucking stage of the year. I’m giving you the world’s slowest hand clap over here.

Second, and this maybe just my interpretation of what Wilkinson is saying, but it sounds to me that he thought this game was just another experiment. Another attempt to throw shit at the wall and see what sticks. He used the biggest game of the season – the chance to salvage something worthwhile from a Wynaldian trainwreck of a season, in the backyard of our greatest rivals no less (YES, THAT FUCKING GAME) – as an EXPERIMENT? Fuck off with your “it was the players fault” bullshit, if anything they were only taking their cue from you. 1500 fans paid hard cash in good faith to watch Wilkinson tinker with stuff to prove some vague point about players that he should not be allowed to wriggle out of responsibility for signing in the first place.

I wouldn’t put Wilkinson in charge of a McDonald’s franchise, let alone a Major League Soccer team.

Look, as much as it pains us to admit it, we all know Seattle are a better team, with a better head coach. If it wasn’t for the rivalry aspect, there would be no great embarrassment in going there and losing (though the manner of said defeat may be good cause). We know that. So the very least we expect is that the head coach, the general-fucking-manager, takes it seriously and approaches it in the proper manner.

You certainly don’t use it as an excuse to tinker with things. And if the front office did any work at all in scouting Seattle, it was either woefully produced or completely ignored by Wilkinson.

I was 100% on board with the idea of writing off the season, and using the time to see what we had for 2013, and what we needed to get. It made sense. But I don’t think we’ve got that, despite Wilkinson mentioning it whenever he gets a chance. What we’ve had, as far as I can see, is the same small group of players, sometimes playing in different roles, but generally playing in the very positions where we already know exactly what to expect from them. The fringe guys don’t seem to be getting a look in. Eric Alexander gets pity minutes here and there. Danny Mwanga can’t get a run of games together to build some consistency or confidence. Fucito is granted a farewell tour of Seattle (and, with any luck, top flight football) while Richards, Jean-Baptiste and Kawulok can’t get a look in. What are we supposed to be learning, exactly?

When you play a team that are, and the league doesn’t lie, better than you, in their home ground, you adjust your tactics accordingly. You seek to nullify their strengths, and exploit their weakness. You don’t send out two full-backs who aren’t up the task and then resort to lumping the ball forward to Dike who had more success drawing blood from Seattle defenders than he had drawing saves from the Seattle keeper. That is just sloppy.

Gavin Wilkinson’s management of the squad post-Spencer puts me in mind of Cecilia Gimenez, the 81 year old amateur fresco artist from Spain. Both have sought to repair something that, while hardly a masterpiece in the first place, certainly needed a bit of work to bring out it’s best features but their cackhanded attempts have rendered the result a laughing stock. At least the Monkey Jesus is proving popular though, so Cecilia has that over Gavin.

Sure, he never wanted to be head coach and he’s only there to fill in before Caleb Porter gets to add his rut to the wall John Spencer presumably spent 18 months beating his head against. The thing is, I don’t think the guy who has watched Wallace and Palmer (sorry to keep picking on these two – they weren’t the only non-performers out there by any stretch) in training for weeks, months even, and still hasn’t recognised that neither of them are top flight full-backs should be in charge of scouting and signing players. It’d be like hiring Stevie Wonder as an interior decorator or Abu Hamza as a juggler.

Despite this result, the Timbers can still salvage the Cascadia Cup by beating Vancouver next week in the final road match of the season. Winning the trophy after this omnishambles, in our first road victory in our last road match, would be so Portland.

#RCTID

Only Four More To Go

This will be a (relatively) short one this week because I didn’t notice my VPN subscription had expired so I can’t rewatch on MLS Live, and I’ll save you my “MLS Live should be available in the UK anyway” rant for this week. Instead, I’ll be relying on the MLS highlights for the few pics I do use and cursing them for not carrying the passages of play I had noted and hoped to talk about. Extended highlights, anyone?

The Timbers made their second trip this season to the heart of Mormonia to face Real Salt Lake after snatching a draw from the jaws of victory against San Jose last time out. The first trip to Rio Tinto in 2012 ended in a 3-0 defeat, and gave owner Merritt Paulson the silver bullet he needed to end John Spencer’s reign of terror(ble football), ushering in a Golden Age of beautiful, free flowing, orgasmic football under our esteemed and benevolent overlord, Gavin Wilkinson.

This second visit also ended in defeat, and three goals scored, but at least this time the Timbers got one of them and, but for the width of the crossbar, they could’ve snatched an, in some ways undeserved, point on the road for the second match on the trot.

The Timbers midfield and defence struggled to come to terms with the movement of Salt Lake’s Fabian Espindola and Javier Morales. It was almost inevitable that it would be the movement of these two that would lead to Real’s first goal.

As Morales picks up the ball (1), the Timbers central midfield two of Wallace and Jewsbury are a little narrow giving space either side to the veteran Argentinian and Tony Beltran (both circled) who has pushed forward.

Espindola will drop off his marker, Horst, and slip into the space between defence and midfield. When he picks up the ball (2), he’s dropped between Wallace and Jewsbury and is then able to turn and run at the space. Morales makes a looping run round the outside and as the Timbers defence gets drawn towards the ball (3), Espindola has the awareness to flick it off to Morales. Jewsbury throws out an arm and tugs back Morales, preventing him getting a shot off or playing in Beltran on the overlap.

From the resulting free-kick, the Timbers make a mess of it. Wallace is positioned as the “runner” – the guy on the edge of the wall whose job it is to charge out and close down the ball the second a touch is taken (or, usually, just before it’s taken – how often do you see free kicks blocked by a guy 5 yards from the ball?).

Rather than charge out, he seems confused by Morales’ little backheel, hesitates and then does a pretty, but ineffective, pirouette. But that’s only part of it. The wall itself parts, allowing Espindola to drive the ball low between Mwanga and Mosquera and into the bottom corner.

Despite Real being the better team, the Timbers did have their chances, but were denied by a combination of good keeping from Rimando, or the final ball just not quite being good enough.

A failure to pick up Morales would once again lead to trouble for Portland later in the first half.

Again, the central two fail to follow Morales, giving him lots of space to work, and it’s his give and go, and then a run inside that leads to the free kick when Jewsbury leaves a foot hanging. There were calls of “dive” from some Timbers fans, but I don’t agree. It was a pretty clear foul, and a really lazy, half-arsed “tackle” from Jewsbury.

This time the wall weren’t to blame as Morales hit a fantastic free kick over the wall and beyond Joe Bendik.

Although both goals came from set plays, it was the Timbers inability to deal with good movement from the Real attack – Morales and Espindola in particular – that were the key. That and Jewsbury having a horror show, and a terrible effort at building a wall.

The second half saw a change from the Timbers with Bright Dike coming on for Steven Smith. Wallace dropped to left back and the team took up more of a 4-4-2 shape.

On the hour mark there was hope for Portland when a fantastic cross from Sal Zizzo was met by the head of Dike and he sent it beyond Rimando for 2-1.

Given this boost, Wilkinson did what any manager would do and took off a defender and put on a more attacking player to try and press for an equaliser.

Oh, did I say he took off a right back, and put Zizzo back there? That is the guy who’d just set up the goal, and wasn’t, isn’t, and most likely never will be, a right back. Meanwhile Jack “I’ve played right back” Jewsbury stayed central, even though we had literally just brought on a central midfielder in Eric Alexander.

Last week, I’d hoped we’d at least bring Alexander on, in order to help retain possession further up the field as we defended a lead. We showed what a good passer of the ball he was against Real, misplacing only 1 of his 15 attempts, making the decision to leave him on the bench against San Jose all the stranger.

With Zizzo at right back, a lot of our threat down the right was neutered, and Wilkinson would complete the job by hooking off Songo’o with a few minutes to go. His replacement, Kalif Alhassan, never really got involved – little surprise when you have all of 8 minutes to make an impact – and, in fact, failed to touch the ball in the final third.

There was, as I mentioned before, that chance for Dike that crashed off the bar. It was, as my wife pointed out, almost the San Jose match in reverse. Once more, it was from Zizzo’s cross and it makes the decision to push him further back all the more odd when you think that we effectively removed this weapon from our arsenal. Dike looked fired up for this after coming on, and the RSL defence didn’t look too sure of how to deal with him so it seemed like the ideal scenario to test them by throwing the ball into the area from wide and letting Dike do what he does best. But we decided not to do that.

I think the move to put Zizzo at right back may be a sign of the management losing faith in Kimura. Kimura came to the Timbers with a “won’t be missed that much on the field” sentiment from Rapids fans that suggested we weren’t exactly bringing in a game changer, but after the trouble the Timbers have had at full-back, someone who could at least do the basics would be a step forward.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anything from Kimura to suggest he’s good enough. His reading of the game is poor, and you won’t go poor by betting against him in 1v1s. He has tons of heart, and there’s no doubting he seems like a great guy, the kind that fans can identify with, but he’s a footballing liability too often. Perhaps there was an injury concern, fatigue issues, but it seems to me that it was a management who wanted to test Zizzo in the role, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is further experimentation at right back before the season is out.

Losing, With Style

Little has changed on the road for Portland since Spencer left. The record under Wilkinson is 2 draws and 5 defeats, compared to Spencer’s 2 draws and 6 defeats. We’re scoring more, which is nice, but conceding more, which isn’t.

Again, a lot was made of possession post-match. “I think the possession stance of this team has changed dramatically from what they were,” said Gavin. It’s certainly true that we’re keeping the ball more since Spencer left – of Wilkinson’s 13 games, we’ve hit 50% or more 8 times, compared to 5 in 17 under Spencer – but of those 13 times we’ve been on top, we’ve won twice.

There may be something to Sigi Schmid’s “our league is a counter-attacking league” quote. Certainly, it seems that the team we have is built for that style of play, unsurprisingly since it was John Spencer that had a big hand in putting the pieces together. In fact, we win almost twice as often when we have less of the ball (29% to 15%) though it’s hard to separate on figures alone which games we’ve set out to counter-attack, and which we’ve simply been beaten back by a better team. Or been shit.

It certainly seems, from looking at the figures (as flawsed as that approach may be) that the team benefit from taking a counter-attacking approach most especially at home. In 18 matches where the Timbers have had equal-or-less possession than their opponents, they’ve lost once – the 3-2 defeat to, appropriately enough, Real Salt Lake earlier this season. Of those 18 matches, the Timbers have won 13. It’s a record worth almost 2.4 points-per-game, or to put it another way, better than any current home record in the league.

By way of contrast, when we’re “in control” of a match at home, that points ratio drops to 0.86, and we’ve won only 3 of 14. On the road, we lose a little over 50% of matches we have less possession in, which isn’t great, but of the 8 road games we’ve been seen more of the ball, we’ve lost 7 and drew only once (Toronto, 2-2).

I think those “philosophical” differences between Paulson and Spencer were, to a large degree, about this style of football. Perhaps seduced by seeing teams like Barcelona and Arsenal, Paulson has thought to himself “I want my team to play like that”. To which, and I’m speculating wildly here, John Spencer might’ve countered with, “not with this lot, you won’t.” Of course, things don’t simply work that way in football and there’s more to play that kind of football than just telling the players to pass it a bit more and play in a 4-3-3.

Clearly, given this new direction, there’s a method behind implementing the system now and getting players used to it, or simply seeing who can do it and who can’t. There was always going to be an adjustment period as players adapted. The issue is that it’s been shoehorned in when the season was still active. We weren’t so far off the play-offs when Spencer was told to pack his haggis and go, but by determining that the way the team played would have to change, and quickly, Wilkinson and Paulson effectively signed the death warrant of this season back in June, for all their public protestation otherwise.

Of course, if it leads to a stellar, or at least competitive, 2013 then the short term pain would be deemed worth it. Enter, Caleb Porter.

Porter has a big job in the off season in identifying those players who aren’t suited and getting them out, and bringing in players who can play “possession with purpose”. The way the current roster has been built has been almost magpie-like – picking up shiny pieces here and there with no real thought for how they fit together. That can’t continue if the Timbers hope to be successful. Signings have to made with the system in mind, rather than simply because he’s a good player and available, ala Kris Boyd. We’ve already seen how successful bringing players in and just plugging them into a system and hoping it works despite everything they (should) know about the player.

With four matches left of a dismal season, the Timbers get to stay in the Pacific Northwest for the remainder. DC United visit Jeld-Wen this weekend, and this followed by trips to Seattle and Vancouver as the team look to salvage a Cascadia Cup triumph from the wreckage of 2012. San Jose visit to round off the year.

#RCTID


[post_ender]

Bunked Off

Type the words “Football is a cruel game” into google and it’ll return around 19,100,000 results. Say the words to a Timbers fan and you’ll get one result – a weary sigh.

San Jose Earthquakes took their turn to deliver a swift kick to the balls with their late, late comeback to deny Portland their first road win of the year. Wondolowski’s injury time goal gave the home side a 2-2 draw and further cemented their reputation as a team that don’t know the meaning of the word “quit”.

Speaking of which, Gavin Wilkinson said in his post-match comments that San Jose “are a very talented team; they have a lot of self-belief and a tremendous coaching staff.”. Oh, to have other coaches say that about us now and then. Or, you know, once. Once would be nice.

After a draw against them, Wilkinson rang the changes. Injuries forced Chara and Ricketts to miss out, meaning a first start for Joe Bendik. I’d thought, pre-match, that we would see Wallace keep his spot at left-back after a good showing, with Alexander coming in for Chara, and I’d hoped we see Boyd given a start. One out of three ain’t bad…

Boyd did indeed start, but the surprise was that Wilkinson opted to abandon his 4-3-3 formation for a (broadly speaking) 4-4-2 with Danny Mwanga getting the start in attack. Wallace did indeed start, but in centre midfield, and Palmer took over the right back spot from Kosuke Kimura. Nagbe and Songo’o were tasked with giving the team width, and Steven Smith was restored to left back.

I was surprised to see the Timbers line up in a 4-4-2, especially as I’d done a quick bit of research that suggested to me that San Jose had faced some kind of 4-4-2 variant 17 times this season, and had won 12 of those matches. Meanwhile they’d faced a 4-5-1/4-3-3 12 times, and only won 6, losing 4.

Though, it should be said, that of the two 4-4-2’s to defeat San Jose this season, Portland are one of them. Perhaps lightning would strike twice.

Also, as an aside, I thought it was pretty curious that of the Earthquakes 5 defeats this season, 3 have come on trips to Cascadia, with Vancouver racking up a couple of them. Of their four trips to the north-west this season, they’ve only avoided defeat once – beating Seattle 1-0 back at the end of March. San Jose return north this weekend to beat Seattle, and then once more in October when the Timbers will host.

Back to the game.

San Jose rested Wondolowski and Alan Gordon, the club’s two top scorers, for the visit of the Timbers, but it didn’t stop them having a couple of efforts from distance that had Bendik scrambling and diving across the goal, only to go narrowly over or wide.

It took until the 12th minute before the Timbers had their first sniff of goal when Boyd bullied Beitashour to get his head on a Palmer long ball, but he sent it narrowly wide of Busch’s goal.

Boyd had started pretty well, looking eager to impress after his recent exile to the bench. The way he got to Palmer’s long pass was encouraging, but any hopes that the Scot would go on to silence his ever-so-vocal critics were extinguished when he left the field shortly after with a groin injury. It looks to me on the replay like an inadvertent knock on his inner knee/thigh from Beitashour caused Boyd to land off balance, and he seems to have tweaked something. A freak injury, and just the way his luck has been this year.

Bright Dike replaced Boyd, but the tide of play still flowed inexorably towards Bendik’s goal. Steven Lenhart had a good sight of goal with a header midway through the first half.

We’ve seen this kind of thing before, where a player can ghost into the space between defenders and get a free header. Had the ball been just a few inches lower, you’d fancy Lenhart to bury it, but the Timbers got away with it here.

I thought Mosquera’s actions were a bit odd in this move. He seems to just assume that the ball won’t come in first time and looks away to direct Rodney Wallace. By the time he decides to check where the ball is, he could’ve easily been caught on his heels and unable to react to the darting run by Lenhart.

Mosquera’s been something of a rock in an otherwise shaky back line this year, but it’d be fair to say he didn’t have his best night here. There have been a few times when Mosquera’s gone a-wandering out of defence this season, or switched off and been unable to react. I think he has all the tools to be a top defender but he needs to sharpen up his concentration a bit.

It looked like the Timbers would take a draw into the break, but almost out of nothing they took the lead through Danny Mwanga.

It was a nice bit of play between Dike, Mwanga and Wallace to work the chance for Danny to score, but I’d like to rewind the move a bit first.

Both teams had lined up with two guys in the “engine room”. Portland had Jewsbury and Wallace, San Jose had Baca and Cronin. Here we see Baca and Cronin been attracted across to where the ball is, leaving Wallace alone in the centre. Jewsbury gets in to intercept a loose pass and touches it off to Nagbe. By this point, both San Jose central midfielders are over by the wing.

How often have we seen this happen to the Timbers midfield, where it allows itself to be pulled out of shape?

The ball works it’s way back to Palmer at right-back.

Here you see that Dawkins has come back to cover Wallace, but Dawkins is an attacker. Wallace has a ton of real estate in front of him as Baca and Cronin are way out of position.

Palmer’s long ball is met by the head of Dike.

Mwanga is on to the flick, and he lays it off to Wallace who has rushed forward in support, all on his own. He displays a deftness of touch in rolling it back into the path of Mwanga, and the striker keeps his head to slot home and give the Timbers the lead.

Up until this point I’d been pretty critical of Mwanga and Wallace. Mwanga had struggled to get himself involved in the game, while Wallace at times didn’t seem to display any measure of tactical discipline as he seemed a bit too keen to hare around and try and get on the ball.

Credit where it is due, though. Wallace held his position well without being dragged across, and attacked the space well. Mwanga worked the one-two and kept his head when it mattered.

I fully expected an onslaught from San Jose in the second half, and just hoped we could keep it shut down for the first 10-15 minutes. Indeed, San Jose stepped up the pressure, and Portland struggled to keep the ball out of their own half.

There are few teams who make harder work of defending a lead than Portland Timbers. At a time when the match was screaming out for someone, anyone, in Rose City Red to get a foot on the ball and calm the match down, we resorted to the age-old sit deep, hit in long strategy. Indeed, it seemed like Gavin had misplaced his Bumper Book of Kickball Tactics (pop-up edition) and had instead been reading from Great Military Strategies of the Italian Army as the defence retreated deeper and deeper and deep …

… and then Franck Songo’o picked up the ball midway in his own half, went gambolling forward like a child on his first visit to Disneyland, beat two men and laid it off for Danny Mwanga to smash it in from distance. 2-0. Two. Nil.

The goal couldn’t have come further against the run of play had Danny been wearing a Dick Turpin mask, but nevertheless the Timbers held a 2 goal lead with a little under half-an-hour to play. If ever there was an unlikely time for a team to notch their first road win, it would at the ground of the league leaders, and yet that’s what it looked like the Timbers were, improbably enough, about to do.

Wondolowski and Gordon were thrown on by Frank Yallop in an attempt to rescue the situation. Wilkinson made no changes. I really thought that, the goal aside, the Timbers really needed someone in the middle who could hold onto the ball. I’d expected to see Alexander come on around the hour mark, and I reckoned it would be Songo’o to make way, with Wallace covering out left. Alexander had shown he could do the defensive side of the job when he’d understudied for Chara earlier this season, and he’s one of the few players on the team who looks truly comfortable on the ball.

But no.

The tide kept coming in, and there was a sense of inevitability when it finally subsumed the Timbers defence.

Wondolowski scored it, finally beating Bendik who had, up until that point, be Gandalfian in his determination to let nothing pass.

The goal highlighted, for me, the problem the Timbers faced. The defence was sinking deeper and deeper, practically camping out on the edge of our own box, which opened up space between defence and midfield. I felt, from very early on, that we missed having Jewsbury doing the role he’s been quietly effective in these past few matches in screening the defence. Even more so as the pressure piled through-out the second half. While the long ball caught us out to an extent, the amount of space between the two lines here is pretty shocking. You can’t open up a space like that and not expect teams like San Jose to exploit it.

The second half was becoming an exercise in frustration. For so long now Wilkinson has spoken about the importance of possession, and yet here, when possession would really matter, we abandoned it. We gave the ball away, again and again and invited the best team in the league to press higher and higher up the pitch.

The annoying thing was we’d already shown in the first half that we were capable of actually playing a bit of football.

This 21-pass sequence ranged from side to side, any showed some nice movement and touches. Although it died when Mwanga was robbed of the ball, it was hugely encouraging to me at the time as it displayed a patience and coolness that I felt we’d need.

Even though you might expect a San Jose side chasing the game to put a bit more pressure of the ball than they did in the 6th minute, it’s nonetheless striking how little we even attempted to knock the ball around and slow the game down. Instead, we got caught up in San Jose’s manic energy, and played the game at their pace, rushing things and resorting to desperate football.

You can see the marked difference in approach in the tackling graphs.

It’s little wonder we were unable to give the defence any kind of a breather when we resorted so often to hoofing it clear.

With the rest of the game played out almost exclusively in the Timbers half, Wilkinson signalled his intent by sending on Eric Brunner for Danny Mwanga with a few minutes to go. The bus was being parked.

Part of the problem for the Timbers was that, aside from the often aimless long balls, we didn’t have an effective point man up top to chase things down, or provide a target. We lacked someone to hold the ball up and give the defence some relief. Any time the ball did go in Dike’s vicinity, it seemed to either bounce off him or past him. I though Mwanga’s better movement might’ve been more use late on, but it wasn’t to be.

The final sucker punch came in stoppage time when a lofted ball into the box was turned home by Wondolowski. There were some who claimed offside, but he was definitely onside when the pass was made, and the touch came from a Timbers player so he couldn’t be offside from that.

In a way, if we were to lose a 2nd goal I’m kinda glad it wasn’t offside. I don’t think I could take the injustice on top of everything else!

After the bitter disappointment that greeted the final whistle, I was left with conflicting emotions. In all honesty, stripping away emotional attachment, we had no right to win that game. Even getting out with a draw was something of an upset. So, in a way, the fact we took a couple of chances really well, and were able to snatch a point is a strange kind of positive.

But you can get away from the fact that we threw away a 2-0 lead, whether it was undeserved or not.We only have ourselves to blame with the way we approached the second half. We essentially gave up even trying to match San Jose in the hopes that we could bunker in and ride out the storm.

And once more, another game passes where Gavin seems unable to read a match and make a proactive change. I was far from the only one screaming out for a change before San Jose’s first. The writing was not only on the wall, it was fucking chiselled there. We weren’t exactly lambs to the slaughter, but we did bring some mint sauce with us. It was, you felt, only a matter of when San Jose would score, despite the heroics of Bendik and Horst’s goal line gymnastics.

But we had to wait till it was 2-1 and San Jose had their tails up before we made a change. Like-for-like saw Palmer replaced by Kimura, before the Brunner change. I get what Wilkinson was doing, throwing another body in defence to match up to San Jose’s three strikers, but the game was crying out for another midfielder to start pushing back before the ball was on top of us. Maybe even, and this is pretty far out there, actually trying to keep the ball and slow it down and frustrate San Jose.

I think the worst thing about the result is that I didn’t meet the equalising goal with an anguished, Darth Vader-esque “NOOOOOOOO!” but rather I slumped back in my chair, ruefully shook my head and muttered “well, there it is.” No shock. No surprise. I’ve been conditioned to expect disappointment.

A point on the road, against a team that had won 6 of their last 7 home matches – scoring 22 in the process isn’t a bad result, but the manner of it – the grindingly predictable capitulation – leaves a sour taste.

The Timbers will stay on the road for their next match, paying a visit to Real Salt Lake. The last time we went there it was John Spencer’s last match, a 3-0 loss. What I’d give to watch that match with Spenny alongside…

#RCTID


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