Tag Archives: Jack Jewsbury

Six Degrees: Frustration, Fan Clubs and Quick Fixes.

frustration


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

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

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

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

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

You may begin flaming me now.

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

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

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

4) A few individual notes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Timbers 100: Part Five – Maximum Impact

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 88. Rodney Wallace vs Sporting Kansas City

27th April 2013

impact

A change of style was expected when the Timbers appointed a new head coach, but the individual impact Porter has had on the players both new and old has been the most refreshing change of all.


Watch The Goal Here

The Timbers pounced upon a loose pass by Sporting Kansas City, with Diego Chara showing physical strength and presence of mind to play the ball into the path of Rodney Wallace.

Wallace slots the ball coolly past the keeper, notching his second for the season and the Timbers third on the night. It would prove to be the winner, and the first time the Timbers had scored three on the road.


Rodney Wallace’s goal against Kansas City was the crucial third in a 3-2 win, just as it was his goal that proved to be enough for Portland to hang on to against Dallas in early 2011 when a late breakdown threatened to see a three goal advantage wiped out entirely..

100 Pts Per Goal

His impact in games, especially when it comes to scoring goals, is second to none on the Timbers roster. He just has a knack of scoring important goals, with every single goal of his “earning” points in someway.

Compare and contrast that record with Kris Boyd. The Scot scored a bunch of goals against LA – his three is second only to Landon Donovan’s four in matches between the clubs – which is nice, except that each and every one of them end up being consolation goals, despite putting his time 1-0 up twice.

After this goal Wallace would add winners against Chivas USA and DC United with his next two goals, and diversified into assists by having a hand in all three of the Timbers goals against Colorado in their last match before this little mid-season break.

Over the first two seasons Wallace had struggled to put together a consistent run by confounding the previous coaches very rigid round-hole tactical system. In defence, Wallace always looked more comfortable in attack than when defending,but when played as a winger, it was his defensive cover and pressing that impressed more than his wing play.

His role, as he’s come to define it, didn’t exist then, so Wallace was destined to fall between two stools. With his new role that covers a much larger territory than Spencer’s tight lines, Wallace has finally found a role that rewards his lightning ability to change the speed of play and defensive reading of the game without relying on him to be the last line of defence or forcing him to play in a box.

Nevertheless, Wallace had to play his way into the team having started 2013 on the bench.

100 Wallace Start Sub TableIn the 177 minutes Wallace had played coming off the bench, the Timbers have scored four times, with all of them coming this season in under 80 minutes of late game “Wallace Time”. He scored one himself, a late, late equalizer against Seattle, and notched an assist against Dallas.

Wallace’s importance to the team was underlined when he missed three games due to international duties, a situation Merritt Paulson bemoaned on twitter.

A tough run of games admittedly, with trips to Chicago and LA and visit from Dallas but, despite racking up five points, the Timbers rarely looked as fluid as they had done with Wallace in the team. Wallace saw his minutes limited in 2012, his standing among the fans drop, and a spot on the bench waiting for him in 2013, and he fought back with the kind of spirit that Caleb Porter has instilled through-out the team. This joie du foot is underlined by the fortunes of Jack Jewsbury this year.

Jewsbury’s move to right-back has reinvigorated the player and given him new purpose within the team, lending an experienced head to the defence and a steadying influence in the flanks. It’s hard to picture an XI without Jewsbury in it right now, though long term options are starting to pile up behind him at right-back at least.

Given the way he lost the captaincy it’s a credit to the man himself and the coaching team that Jewsbury hasn’t missed a step going into the XI, and has embraced the new without dishonoring the past – a tricky balancing act for a guy who was so inexorably linked to the old regime by talk of being “captain for life”.

Though money can, and does, skew things towards those who can pay the most, good coaching is still pretty easy to spot, and you can see it in abundance in Portland. Rodney Wallace didn’t suddenly become a great player, it just took great coach to bring it out of him.

And Jewsbury’s case is a great example of man management and smoothing over what could’ve been a delicate situation. Contrast that to publicly lambasting the club’s assist leader in an effort to get him to try harder.

All in all, it’s a marked difference for the days when players didn’t seem to know what the plan was on the field, and the atmosphere wasn’t great off it. As an aside, it’s a long held theory of mine that the time until a manager is sacked and a weight being lifted off a club is inversely proportional to the number of goal celebrations that make a point of including the manager. Just saying.

Motivating hungry players like Will Johnson or Diego Chara, or firing up Andrew Jean-Baptiste or Darlington Nagbe are fairly simple tasks compared to the job Porter has done in getting some fantastic contributions from some of the more experienced signings.

Frederic Piquionne, Pa Moudo Kah and Mikael Silvestre have a combined age of 101, but there’s no sense that any of the three are just here for the cash like a score of previous such signings to the league. Generally speaking buying guys the wrong side of 30 from the middle east isn’t the way to go about building a team founded on hard-work and technique, but Kah gives us just those traits and more and doesn’t seem to be lacking in hunger. Silvestre was a joke before coming to Portland, and provided a couple of punchlines in his debut, but pre-injury he’d become the the heartbeat of a defence that was giving up very little.

Piquionne, like Silvestre, hadn’t played a competitive (domestic league) game in over a year before joining the Timbers. It had been a 4-0 defeat for Doncaster in April 2012 which wouldn’t seem t bode well, but he has added an extra dimension to the attack since joining and looks to have the energy (for 60-70 minutes, at least) of a player 10 years his junior.

Soccer fans are well accustomed to the effects of the new manager bump, or the new star striker who scores in his debut before fading away as the season goes on. all of Perhaps this is Porter’s bump and the likes of Wallace or Piquionne will fade with the team as the season wears on, but I’m not so sure. There’s a different feeling about this season. Things are being done better, on and off the field, and this breeds a cautious optimism in even glass-half-empty Scots that this not a flash in the pan.

Not all are as impressed by the Timbers, or their unbeaten run, but we as fans are allowed to get a little carried away. The clouds around Jeld-Wen Field have lifted but with this being the Pacific Northwest and all, they are never too far away.

So, let’s all enjoy the sunshine in the meantime.

100 join fix

Goal 100. Frederic Piquionne vs Colorado Rapids

23rd June 2013

funsun

The future’s bright, the future’s green and gold. The Timbers have started 2013 beyond most fan’s wildest expectations, and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change anytime soon.


Watch The Goal Here

A quick free kick is taken by Will Johnson, who rolls the ball to Rodney Wallace. Wallace’s cross is attacked by Frederic Piquionne, whose header has too much on it for the Rapids keeper.

The goal was the club’s 100th in MLS, and Piquionne’s first, though he already had already set a record with four in a single US Open Cup match.


There is something fitting in the 100th goal coming from one of the new guard. Will Johnson’s quick thinking caught Colorado out, as it would do again for the Timbers’ 2nd goal of the game. Ben Zemanski’s interception started off the lighting strike move that led to Ryan Johnson adding a third.

I’ve already written about squad depth and covered a lot of what I like about the club’s trade policy this year, so this part will be fairly short.

The word that applies most to what I see from Portland is “fun”. Fun on the pitch, fun off it. There have been times during the first couple of years that it would be easy to forget that the game can be pretty damn fun sometimes.

Winning helps, of course, but more than that it’s just the joy of watching a group of guys go out there and express themselves.

The team work hard to make it seem effortless at times, with the old guys buying into the new way of doing things and complementing the fresh blood.

Of course, there is no way of knowing where this story will go from here. My performance on the Prediction League only underlines that I’m not a guy to take tips from, and I don’t think there is anything a time traveller from the future could tell us about the rest of this season to come that would surprise a Portland Timbers fan.

Our little midseason break is over, and it’s back to real soccer again. Good feelings tend to only last as long as good results do, and in a way Porter has set a bar for himself that will be harder and harder to raise but that’s a challenge the man seems to relish, or else why would he leave his place at the top of the college soccer pyramid for a spot with a team that was trending downwards.

I don’t think a defeat or two will dampen the ardor of the Rose City faithful. There’s an understanding that everything must come to an end and there will be times when luck deserts the side or we’re just flat out bad.

That’s fine. We accept that. So long as we can see progress on and off it, and players on the field that honor the badge and have some damned fun doing it, the Timbers Army will always have the team’s back through good times and bad.

We can’t know the future, be it’s gonna be a whole lotta fun finding out what it holds for us.

Well, mostly.


Thanks for reading this series of posts. It’s taken a bit of time to put them together, and I hope you enjoyed at least something in there.

I won’t be posting as much on here for the next while. You probably noticed by output has been way done. There could be another move in the near future, and simply put, it’s time to get a job and put the hobbies on the backburner for a bit.

I’ll still post things here and there when I get the time, but for the next few months at least it’ll be left to our fantastic group of contributors to bring you the kind of coverage of the Portland Timbers and Portland Thorns that you’ve come to expect from the site.

Thanks again for swinging by, and if you’re new then please do stick around and see if the place is for you.

#RCTID

The Four Axemen

As the dust settled on a convincing 3-0 victory, four players more than most would have had an extra reason to want to bask in the moment.

Rodney Wallace, the confounder of low expectation; Darlington Nagbe, maturing with every match; Jack Jewsbury, essential now more than ever, without the armband; and Diego Chara, no longer our little secret.

No other players had logged so many minutes in a Timbers kit as these four before 2013 kicked off, clocking a combined 18,000 minutes of football for Portland.

Their combined start against Chivas USA was their 25th, stretching back to a 1-0 win against San Jose in April 2011. In fact, all four of the Timbers wins in 2013 so far have come in the six matches the four have started together. In those six games, the Timbers have earned 14 of their 18 points.

It’s a sign of Porter’s exemplary use of experience to alleviate the turnover of the past ten months or so. Under John Spencer, the club very much placed themselves out there as a young club, that would work harder than everyone else. The average age of players bears this out, in that first year at least: the Timbers average age was 24.9 against a league wide average of 25.6, and a play-off average of 25.8.

On first glance the Timbers 2012 average age of 26.8 would seem to indicate that they had taken care of any issues with inexperience, but that includes the signing of Donovan Ricketts (post-Spencer) and ignores one crucial factor – the marquee signings of Kris Boyd, Hanyer Mosquera, Steven Smith and Franck Songo’o were all very impressive, but the one thing they shared in common was having never played a minute in MLS.

In 2011, the players that took the field for Portland averaged 31 MLS appearances, pre-Timbers. By 2012, even allowing for players having built some experience the previous year, that figure had risen only to 39.9 appearances before their first appearance in a Timbers kit. Take out Ricketts and Kimura, and that figure drops to 35.

The four guys mentioned above brought experience at a reasonable level in Europe and South America, but all would take time to adjust to soccer in the states. That carries an efficiency cost, and when you’re taking hits in key areas like attack, and central defence, you’re going to run into problems.

None of these guys will feature under Caleb Porter, but that doesn’t mean that Porter has shied away from buying in experience from abroad, the difference being that in Mikael Silvestre, Diego Valeri and Frederic Piquionne we have guys with French and Argentine caps, as opposed to Scottish and Cameroonian.

The experience of playing in the best leagues compensates for some of that footballing culture shock as you generally don’t build up long careers in the best leagues without having to work well in various different styles and formations.

Rather than back up his building of Scots-Colombian axis in the north west with established MLS campaigners, Spencer made a mess of it.

Jack Jewsbury and Troy Perkins stand apart in this regard, as two guys who brought a ton of MLS games, 294 between them, to the team and made them count. Neither of the next three guys with most MLS games in 2011 would be still on the roster in 2012 – Cooper, Goldthwaite and Brown.

2012 saw him bring in three guys who’d kicked a ball in MLS before suiting up for us: Eric Alexander, Danny Mwanga and Mike Fucito. I’d say that was three clean swing-and-misses.

Those guys had a pre-Portland total of 130 MLS games, and combined for 54 in 2012, only 24 of which were starts. All have gone for 2013.

Caleb Porter, while doing much the same as Spencer before him in that half of the guys making debuts for the club are also making their MLS debuts, has added some quality MLS experience.

For Kevin Goldthwaite, Eric Alexander and Mike Fucito, read Michael Harrington, Will Johnson, and Ryan Johnson. Porter’s three had 421 MLS appearances between them, and have have all featured in every match so far, giving freedom to guys like Diego Valeri to adjust and settle in, and bringing out the best in Rodney Wallace and Darlington Nagbe.

Rodney Wallace

Wallace has been the story of the season so far for Portland. In a way, his story has often mirrored that of the club. He started the first 19 matches in 2011, but only 3 of the last 15 as the club’s early optimism ended in what looks in hindsight like the final couple of hurdles, but in reality was killed in a horrible run from May to July.

His 2012 was disrupted by injury, never quite getting started before hitting another bump in the road, just like the team as a whole.

Thus far in 2013 he’s started in the sidelines, and forced himself into the limelight just as the team has really started blossoming into something potentially very special.

If he can stay fit, and continue his good work then there’s no reason why this can’t be a breakthrough year for Wallace. He came into the season 6th in the Timbers All-Time minutes played, and has overtaken Brunner into 5th, but is still 1500 minutes behind Nagbe in 3rd. There’s no reason for him to see that gap widen as Porter seems to have found the ideal role to get the best out of him on both sides of the ball.

Wallace ZoneHe never convinced me at full-back or as a winger, but Porter has him playing out of a zone, rather than with a defined role. Zonal attacking, if you like. This allows him to go outside or in, or switch sides with Nagbe, all safe in the knowledge that at least one of Harrington (or Jewsbury), Will Johnson or Chara will have his back.

Playing with the brakes off, which isn’t to say he neglects his defensive duties as he’s one of the teams most effective players in closing down.

The main axis of Timbers defensive actions, running from Wallace to Jewsbury
The main axis of Timbers defensive actions, running from Wallace to Jewsbury

Wallace isn’t the only player Porter has taken the brakes off. Darlington Nagbe, while still frustrating, is showing signs of maturing.

Darlington Nagbe

Nagbe crossed over 5000 minutes for the Timbers this year, and into 3rd overall ahead of Troy Perkins and has started 42 of the Timbers’ last 45 games, so even though he will be only 23 in July, he’s already a key part of the team and has a wealth of experience under his belt.

With Wallace on the bench, Nagbe started the season on the left, cutting in onto his natural right foot but he’s shifted to the right side to make room for Wallace.

This move gives the Timbers guys in wide attacking roles who have more options of what to do going forward. With Nagbe on the left, 99% of the time he’s going to cut inside, and defenders will know that and expect it. Wallace can go round the outside as well as cut inside, forcing defenders to hesitate or wait for the attacker to make the first move – a great advantage to quick guys with lightning feet like Wallace and Nagbe.

Nagbe will still naturally comes inside more, but this means he can exploit any space created by opponents putting someone on Valeri, who’ll pop up on either flank throughout the game, or by the movement of Ryan Johnson up front.

Getting the best out of Nagbe was a puzzle that stumped John Spencer. We saw him played all over midfield and attack, rarely settling on one role before being move to plug another hole somewhere else. The problem wasn’t so much that Spencer was a bad coach who couldn’t find Nagbe’s role within the team, as it was that Spencer was a poor team builder who didn’t put the bodies around Nagbe that would allow him to naturally find his role.

Nagbe, more than most, benefits from being able to play without having to think about it too much. Under Spencer he was put under the constraints of a narrowly defined position, and it asked Nagbe to do more thinking than playing.

With a guy like that, you want him to go out and there and just let it happen. Know what you should be doing when the other guys have the bal, sure, but when we have it, you want him working on instinct. It’s no coincidence that if you were to list the top five Nagbe moments, they’d all be instances where he seemed to do things that surprised himself as much as anyone else. At the other end of the scale you’d have the bad misses, or the flubbed final passes that came when he’d be given too long to think about it.

With a solid base behind him, and the right group around him in attack, we’re starting to see a more confident looking Nagbe. Even in games where’s he’s not having a great night, he’s not hiding or letting his head drop.

Jack Jewsbury, similarly, didn’t let his head drop when the captaincy was given to Will Johnson and he started the year injured. His return to the XI had coincided with an upturn in the club’s fortunes.

Jack Jewsbury

Number one in minutes played, Jewsbury became the first player to reach 100 on-field hours for the Timbers. He also leads the club in all-time goals and assists, and has over 260 MLS appearances in total.

Making Jewsbury the captain made perfect sense in 2011. He was the guy with most league experience, while Perkins and Cooper were both coming back to the league after a spell in Europe.

A stellar first half of 2011 was followed by a less than stellar 2012, and I wasn’t the only one who wondered where Jack fit in this year. The debate was still going only a month ago.

The answer is wherever Caleb Porter needs him, be it midfield, full-back, or filling in at centre-back if needed. Despite the perception that Porter’s arrival would see the team look towards youth, in this early phases at least, the opposite has been true.

The average age has risen slightly from 26.8 to 27, with only two of the Timbers top ten in minutes played under 26 years old (Nagbe and Jean-Baptiste). The average age of that top ten is 28.4.

Porter knows the value of experience, and recognised a gold mine in Jewsbury. He’s shown himself adept on either side of the defence and his steady head on the back line has helped the team cope with a rotating cast of characters in the centre.

We saw a bit more attacking from him against Chivas, largely let down in the final third by his crossing as only one of his six attempts were successful, but his steady passing in the opponents half made up for. Discounting crosses, 9 of Jack’s 12 passes were successful.

Valeri Jewsbury

Getting the ball into Valeri’s feet is crucial to the Timbers, something Chivas tried to counter by putting a man on the Argentinian, and Jewsbury is good at doing just that. No surprise to see Valeri log so many actions close to Jewsbury’s busiest areas.

It made sense, and it forced the Timbers into more cross balls than was ideal, but it didn’t stop them from picking holes in the Chivas defence to lay the ball through as Chivas failed to compensate for the speed that Portland can play at, often turning defence into attack in seconds.

At the heart of this ability to transition so quickly is Diego Chara.

Diego Chara

Everyone knows about Chara’s defensive exploits, and there are probably a few guys who could show the physical evidence of it. But he’s more than an engine to gather yellow cards, he’s shown this season that if he’s given the chance, he can add value to the attack.

CharaBrk1

Every bit as solid a passer of the ball as Jewsbury, Chara hasn’t really had the chance to show what he can do in attack as he’s been seen as the defensive enforcer in midfield. Will Johnson and Chara are both able to play as the holding player or the going one, and as they play together more their reading of each other will only get better.

Chara finds himself, for maybe the first time in his MLS career, closer to the top of the assist table (joint 4th, or 2nd if you want it to sound even better) than the foul table (5th). He’s still putting in a great defensive shift every game, but he’s had some of the burden taken off him by Will Johnson alongside, and the way Porter expects everyone to contribute to defence.

The rest of the league are starting to take notice of Chara now, as much more than “that guy who fouls a lot”, and I’m sure there are a few Timbers fans who are only starting to realise just how good Chara can be as the guy who drives attacks from the back.

As with Nagbe it’s about more than simply getting the player to play “better”, it about putting guys around him that allow him to play more naturally, and we’re seeing that from Chara now.

These four guys will likely end 2013 as the top four in the Timbers all-time minutes played table. As it stands, Wallace needs only 700 minutes or so to pass Perkins.

For all Spencer’s mistakes, he actually had the core of a really good team all along, he just didn’t know how to use it. His loss is Porter’s gain as the new coach has been able to lean upon their collective experience as he sets about redefining what soccer means in the Soccer City.

The Outsiders

Nine games into 2013, and so far the Timbers have started four different players at right back, as well as two guys at left back, neither of whom are natural left backs. Crisis, right?

This mirrors, somewhat, the situation in the centre of defence where calamity has piled upon catastrophe and confusion to leave the club in a situation where Donovan Ricketts, a man who seemingly runs the risk of straining a shoulder brushing his teeth, as the one constant figure on the back line. We’re screwed, yeah?

In past years this defensive crisis would have been the point as which Timbers fans buckled in for another bumpy ride, but this year the team are on a seven game unbeaten run, with three clean sheets in the last five games.

So how has Porter got his defence working despite the fact that all common sense is telling us that it shouldn’t?

The coach got a rude awakening in the first couple of matches, losing five goals and gaining a single point from two home games.

MON Harrington LBIn those early couple of games the Timbers played with their full-backs as auxilliary wingers. Both Michael Harrington and Ryan Miller were upgrades of what the team had there before, but both ran into familiar problems in trying to play such an attacking system against teams, Montreal especially, who are happy to sit in and hit on the counter.

NY Miller RBNew England’s game plan was very similar to Montreal’s, but they left with only a point. Progress, but learning how to deal with these kind of ‘we’ll sit here, break us down if you can’ teams will become an increasing factor for Porter’s team as their reputation grows as a team to be respected and feared.

Percentage of passes made in opposing half
Percentage of passes made in opposing half

Porter had his full backs play a little more conservatively after the opening couple of games, replacing Miller with Zemanski in the starting line-up and reining Harrington back a little.

This system served them well over the next couple of games and, following a tweak that saw Jewsbury replace Zemanski, they picked up a couple of home wins and clean sheets. This despite those four games seeing four different centre-back pairings start.

This stability was coming at the cost of attacking incision. There was plenty of pressure, sure, and certainly a chance or two, definitely, but most of it was reliant on someone producing a bit of something special to spark the attack into life and you can only rely on that so often. The introduction of Rodney Wallace against Houston added a,for some,surprising source of this attacking“x factor”.

Where Valeri is the maestro, looking to conduct delicate symphonies with the ball, Wallace is the rocker who kicks the door down and just does his thing without a care. His direct running, and ability to dovetail nicely with Valeri, Nagbe and Johnson, causes nightmares for defences when he’s on form, and he gives the team someone is attack who will happily attack round the outside as well as coming in.

Nagbe doesn’t really offer this on the right side, as he is much more at home cutting into the middle. Ryan Johnson and Diego Valeri have popped up there on occasion, but you’d prefer both to do their work in the middle the park.

RBRetreat

Neither Zemanski or Jewsbury offered as much of an attacking presence down the right as Miller had. The sacrifice was worth it for the sake of adding some defensive stability as Jewsbury’s extra body at the back helped mask problems in the middle.

However, as the team emerged from an impressive four point double header against San Jose, Caleb Porter faced up to the problem down the wings. The previous four games, while bringing in eight points, had seen the team record their four lowest shot tallies of the season so far.

It wasn’t as simple as getting Jewsbury to attack, or even bringing back Ryan Miller, because the positive effect Jack had on the defence seems to outweigh any supposed benefit you’d get from Miller over Jewsbury in attack, or asking Jack to do something un-Jack like attack.

The change Porter made seems so obvious in hindsight, but before that…


Defence

Michael Harrington had shown in those early couple of matches that he could play as an attacking, over-lapping full-back without neglecting his defensive duties. This is important as much of Portland’s plan is predicating on keeping the ball, yes, but also on winning it back quickly. In “Statement of the Obvious of the Week’, the Timbers do best when the opposition don’t have the ball.

Passes refers to Number of Pass Attemtpts in one half
Passes refers to Number of Pass Attemtpts in one half

The match against New York saw the visitors record 199 passes in the first half, but that half exists only as a nightmare where Silvestre forgot where or who he was for 45 minutes, so if you exclude it from the record, opponents that have fewer than 200 passes have scored once in over 300 minutes (the second half vs Montreal). The flipside being that we concede a goal a game in games where the opponents can average over 200 passes per half.

Both Jewsbury and Harrington made a big difference on defence. Despite playing the MLS Cup finalists and the Supporters Shield winners over three games, the Timbers restricted their opponents to an average of 192 passes per half, compared to the 203 over the first four matches.

Even as the Timbers dropped their own pace, going from 6.5 passes per minute across the first two matches to 5.3 in the next two, the fact they were able to starve the opposition of the ball was key to‘fixing’ the defence, and they did this by forcing the other team to misplace their passes, dropping their success rate from 72% in games one to four to 66% in the three games, leading up to Kansas City.

Porter wouldn’t want to sacrifice those defensive gains on a gamble that‘everything was all right now’. Despite Futty and Silvestre being due to start their third match in a row together, equalling the record of Jean-Baptiste and Silvestre, the coach wasn’t about to fall into the trap that a few good results meant that everything was fine back there.

Harrington had been an unsung hero over the season so far, overshadowed by bigger and flashier stories like that of Diego Valeri, or Ryan Johnson, or Will Johnson or Donovan ‘Save of the Week’ Ricketts, despite having all the hallmarks of a patented Portland disaster at left-back. A guy not playing in his natural position, on a back line that was in flux and coming off a season where it had set new standards for ineptitude. This shouldn’t work.

And yet it did, because, in a bold new strategy, the front office had gone out and signed someone good. Like, actually very compentent at kicking the football and running and such. It’s a revelation.

Still, there he was playing on the left when his natural position was on the right.

Porter’s idea was to switch him to the right, and put Jack on the left.


Attack

With Wallace in the side, the team didn’t need someone to go past him on the outside to lend width to attack, which keeps the opposing defence stretched across the field. We saw less of Harrington the wing-back and the lack of attacking thrust from Jewsbury down the right was hurting the attack in that it allowed teams to play tighter, negating space to our creative players in the centre.

The switch of full-backs allowed Porter to take the leash (somewhat) off Harrington, freeing him to attack more, while Jewsbury sat in on the left. On a single game basis against the Wizards, the strategy made sense – it put the more solid Jewsbury against Myers, while Harrington’s attacking threat might put the shackles on Zusi.

The team lost two goals, having lost one in the previous three matches, but they emerged from Kansas City with three points, becoming the first West Coast team to do so in their new stadium. Harrington gave a little more in attack, and Jewsbury did what Jewsbury does, only he did at on the left.

HarJewLB

The switch from Harrington to Jewsbury on the left was pretty seamless, with Jack adding a little more passing stability, upping the success rate from Harrington’s average of 79.7% to 85.2%, with the biggest jump being passes from within his own half (74.9% to 83.3%).

HarLBRBatt

The difference is on the other side, where we’ve seen someone more akin to the guy who started the season on the offensive, and that has helped the attack, without sacrificing defence because Jack’s got it covered.

New England was a frustrating match. The Timbers took more shots than any other match this season, but failed to score for the first time in 2013. The chances were there to win it, but poor finishing, good goalkeeping and bad luck combined to thwart the Timbers, while avoiding scares at the back too. We lose than game to a sickening late goal last year, is all I’m saying.

Games like this are going to happen along the way. Nagbe had an off day with a couple of glaring misses and bad choices, while we struggled to get any consistent interplay between attackers going. It wasn’t helped by the full-backs posting their lowest figures in attacking – the two players combining for only 17.8% of play in the opposing half, thanks to a drop from Harrington from 67% attacking play (passes in opposing half) to 52%.

I’m inclined to put this last match down to a dash of ‘bad night at the office’ syndrome and New England offering a style that Caleb Porter hasn’t quite found the answer to. Yet. He will, I’m sure.

I like Harrington at right back. I like him, flat out, regardless of his passionate hatred of children and small, frail puppies, but I think he offers than little bit extra at right back. I’m not sure where the leaves the defence though. Jewsbury is going nowhere, especially with the loss of Mikael Silvestre, so what roles Ryan Miller, Ben Zemanski and Ryan Kawulok have in the short-term at least is hard to say. Zemanski can at least fill in in midfield, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Miller deployed in the ‘Wallace role’ on the right at some point, but it’s hard to put any of them before Harrington or Jewsbury. And then there’s Sal – Zizzo’s, inconclusive but mostly encouraging, try-outs as a right wing-back were not for shits and giggles.

Besides, we’ve been given a pretty good lesson on the value of depth, and we’d be fools not to heed it, so let’s not take the fact we have guys who can’t get in the team as a bad thing.

The gaffer’s bold, and innovative, choice to fix the defence from the outside-in by bringing some stability to the full-back, Jewsbury adding an ‘old head’ to the back four, worked and the switch of Harrington to the right is the right step on the way to ironing out the kinks in attack.

Given the injury to Silvestre, I doubt the full-back position will see much change over the next few matches. We may see them switch back to counter a specific threat, or exploit a perceived weakness, but I like Harrington and Jewsbury watching the flanks.


Mo’ Problems

Now Caleb Porter has to fix the middle, having jerry-rigged it through the last couple of punishing matches. Pa Modou Kah, signed to play havoc with tweeters and bloggers who liked to abbreviate Alhassan’s name to #KAH as well as cover for the fact that we HAVE NO DEFENDERS, joins after a few years in the middle east. He’ll be 33 in July, and will cover for the 36-in-August Silvestre while he is out injured. At 22, you might have expected to see Dylan Tucker-Gangnes in there by now, certainly in leagues around the world, but still wet behind the ears from college he seems to be one for further down the line. The potential for four of the back five to be over-30 against FC Dallas is pretty high.

In setting a foundation to put the team in contention for the play-offs, Porter has turned to experience, and it’s those experienced players that have been among his best performers. Ricketts, Jewsbury, Silvestre and Harrington have all stepped up this year and, just as Porter’s tactical malleability is putting lie to the notion that the Timbers would be playing like a knock-off Barcelona every week, he is showing that he is much more than guy who only gets the best out of kids.

The Timbers have one home match in the next five, with two trips to Eastern Conference teams and a visit to Dallas to face a team with five win and four clean sheets in five home matches this season.

Porter’s team have already taken big strides this year, but getting a return from their trip to Texas may be his biggest step yet. Any result is likely to be built upon shutting their opponent down, but grabbing the all-important goal will rely on guys like Harrington and Jewsbury striking the right balance between defence and attack.

Balance: Timbers seek balance in 2-2 draw with Rapids

Four games into the 2013 season and the Timbers have been behind by two goals in three of them, coming back to snatch a couple of points from the jaws of defeat.

The Timbers have also been behind by a couple of goals on their previous three trips to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, and had shown none of the determination to get back into the game that Caleb Porter’s team did this time around. Rather than go to the customary 3-0 defeat, the Timbers rallied to draw 2-2 thanks to two goals from Will Johnson.

There’s something to be said for that kind of resilience. I’m not sure we’d get it in previous season, and I certainly don’t think we’d get the tactical changes by Caleb Porter that have, mostly, worked to turn a match around in Portland’s favour.

But, there’s also something to be said for not gifting teams a couple of goals head start before trying to reel them in. The Timbers have been schizophrenic this season, with two almost entirely different sides seemingly starting and finishing the games.

To underline the disparity, if points were awarded for winning individual halves the Timbers would have zero from all the first halves, and a goal difference of 1-6, but would have won three and drawn one of the second halves, outscoring the opposition 6-2.

Losing five goals in the opening two matches, winning only one point from a home doubleheader, seems to have chastened Porter somewhat. The return to fitness of Jack Jewsbury has allowed the coach to adopt a strategy that stays true to his fundamental beliefs in ball retention and tactical flexibility while looking add a bit more defensive protection by playing the club captain as a deep lying midfielder.

Jewsbury played his part in the Timbers’ draw in Seattle, so his inclusion against Colorado came as little surprise. It seemed to make perfect sense in terms of Porter’s strategy in playing at altitude. Keeping the ball, and making the Rapids players hustle after it was a part of it, and the team played a little deeper and pressed less, presumably to conserve energy.

Chara Johnson Pressing

The problem was that we never really made Colorado work all that hard without the ball. Part of the reason was that our passing was so poor at times we simply gave them the ball back, and let them control the tempo of the game.

passes per minuteKeeping the Passes Per Minute up would’ve worked the Rapids defence and midfield hard, and the Timbers had the likes of Alhassan, Trencito and Piquionne on the bench to go after tired legs late on.

The two halves against Colorado see the Timbers record their lowest PPM this season. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the passing accuracy against the Rapids was also at an all time low. Colorado never managed a PPM of over 5 either, as the game was played at a much slower tempo than either of the home matches this season.

While much of the Timbers’ passing woes were self-inflicted, the Rapids also did a good job of pressing the Timbers backline. Porter quickly had to adjust the way the team brought the ball out of defence.

ricketts

Clearly, after seeing the pressure the Rapids were putting on in the first ten minutes, the signal went out to Ricketts to go long. A subsequent attempt to play out from the back also led to the opening goal for the Rapids in 17 minutes.

Colorado Goal 1

It’s easy to criticise Jewsbury here because he’s the guy who’s nearest, but not near enough, to the shot from Powers, so the initial question is “why didn’t he close the shot down?” Chara lending himself to harrying after the ball in the corner left Jewsbury with two players to keep an eye on, and he does what he can to close the shot down but it was a helluva strike. Do this play over again and Jewsbury gets a block in, or the ball is ballooned over the bar.

I don’t even think it’s Chara’s fault. He was doing his job in a system that asked him to be something different from moment to moment. Played in the middle with Will Johnson and Jack Jewsbury, the way the team were set up with attackin width from Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri, Chara also had to cover across to the right-side as Valeri doesn’t bring a great defensive game to an unfamiliar position on the right flank.

He was doing that there, looking to help turn the ball over in a dangerous area. The problem is that despite recognising the need to add some defensive steel to the team, Porter hasn’t yet found the right blend.

To accommodate Jewsbury in the centre, we’ve sacrificed Valeri out wide. He’s played there for a bit against Montreal and Seattle already, and not really shown his best side in the role. The quandary for Porter is that Valeri’s ability makes it tempting to rely on him too much, and that to do so would make the team too one-dimensional and risk teams developing strategies solely to “deal” with Valeri. So we want to find ways to utilise his ability in ways and areas that make it much harder for opponents to adjust to, which makes sense, but as we do so we lose much of what he brings to the attack in the meantime, with no guarantee that Valeri will ever be suited to play the wide role in an attacking three.

There have been long spells in the past couple of games where you wouldn’t have known Valeri was on the pitch. In order to get involved in the play he has to come inside, and this leaves the team unbalanced down the right, pulling Chara across.

shotsIn the last match, this made it difficult for us to carve out decent chances at goal, in the first half especially. Since switching from the 4-2-3-1 to the 4-1-2-2-1, we’ve closed up the defence a bit but lost some attacking thrust. Though we picked up a bit in the second half against the Rapids, it was still only half the number of shots we got off in the second half of the New York match.

noattacking support

Part of the problem is that Valeri isn’t a natural striker, and 26 goals in over 170 games before coming to Portland suggest he’s not the guy to make those runs. He works best in the “hole”, making the passes that pick out those attacking runs, but we’ve been unable to get him there in the past couple of matches.

It leaves Caleb Porter a selection headache and that headache’s name is Jack Jewsbury.

Part of the reason I questioned Jewsbury’s spot in the team was that I couldn’t see any way to fit him in that didn’t hurt us in some way. I put him behind Will Johnson and Diego Chara for a spot, but that’s not to say he doesn’t add to the team when he’s selected – a passing accuracy of 85% against Colorado is way above the team average, so in terms of circulating the ball well, he does okay. And I don’t blame him for the first goal for the Rapids.

However, in the 135 minutes that Jewsbury has played in the last couple of games, the Timbers have scored one and conceded three. In the 45 minutes he’s been on the bench, the Timbers are two-zero.

Clearly that’s far too small a sample to conclude anything major, and those 45 minutes have been when the Timbers a chasing down a single goal deficit, so you’d expect some more attacking play – hence Jewsbury’s removal for more attacking options of the bench.

In correcting for over-balancing in attack in the first couple of games, it seems we’ve slipped a little too far the other way. The problem, as far as I can see it, is that in fitting Jewsbury into the midfield three, we’re inevitably going to lose some of our attacking threat by asking them to do jobs they’re not best suited for.

Valeri out wide on the right didn’t work. Porter adjusted, adopting a diamond formation. Chara went right, and Valeri came back into the centre. Though this seems better designed to accommodate Jewsbury and still play Valeri in his best position, it then asked Nagbe to play a role he’s not suited to.

We’ve seen Darlington used in a variety of positions as Spencer tried to figure out how best to use him. For me, Nagbe’s key area is that area left of centre, 30 yards from goal. That’s where you want to see Nagbe getting his head up, with the ball at his feet, and running at defenders. You don’t want him 50 yards from goal, linking up play, though he can do that, and I don’t think you want it spearheading the attack. As I said, he’s a guy I want running at players with the ball, not timing runs in behind them.

If anyone knows how to get the best out of Nagbe, it’ll be Caleb Porter. He’s put him out left thus far, asking him to make those diagonal runs at goal. Somewhat underrated is Nagbe’s defensive game – he works hard out wide, and his tracking back is night and day to that of the Timbers’ other mercurial wide attacker, Kalif Alhassan.

He’s not a striker though, and Piquionne isn’t here to watch Nagbe play that position ahead of him too often this season.

Valeri OptionsAs well as playing Nagbe out of position, the diamond doesn’t really offer Valeri as many options around him as the 4-2-3-1 does.

The diamond really limits your wide attacking options, and puts a lot on the full-backs to do the leg work. Ryan Johnson will also drift wide to add to the threat, but with the 4-2-3-1 the opposition have to deal with runs either side of the full-back and a mobile striker.

To be fair, it was from Johnson (Ryan) drifting out wide that the Timbers got back into the game, after a somewhat questionable penalty decision had put the Rapids up 2-0. Johnson (Ryan) crossed a sweet left-footed ball to the near post, where Johnson (Will) lost his man to head home.

A case could be made that the value of playing a designated sitter in Jewsbury is that it frees Will Johnson and Diego Chara to be a little more forward thinking and spontaneous, but I didn’t see enough of this from either player to compensate for losing the extra attacker to play Captain Jack.

The problem is that despite being there to add defensive steel to the team, as long as there are issues behind Jack, goals will be lost despite him.

David Horst started in place of Mikael Silvestre, the only change from the Seattle game. Horst’s game is a little different to Silvestre’s, and perhaps not as suited to the possession style Porter wanted, especially as the Rapids harried the backline.

silvestrehorst

The natural assumption to make would be that Horst is 3rd in line, and that Silvestre will resume duties alongside Andrew Jean-Baptiste. That makes sense as Jean-Baptiste has started the season fairly well, and has most to learn from playing alongside Silvestre. There are still moments where his relative rawness is all too apparent, such as the lead up to Colorado’s second goal.

Colorado Goal 2 AJB header

It’s a bit of rash play from a rookie defender, though I wonder if he does that with the Silvestre guiding him. The next time a similar ball comes across, I’m sure he makes the right choice. That’s part of the learning process, and it can be cruel at times but as long as they’re all new mistakes, and not the same ones over and over, then at least you’re learning from them.

Mosquera’s leave of absence puts a large question mark over his future, and Futty Danso looks to have fallen behind Dylan Tucker-Gangnes. I can’t help but bring to mind the scenes of David Brent in The Officfe specials, turning up at the old office uninvited when I think of Futty. *sadface*

So, a veteran, a couple of rookies and a host of guys who served time on one of the league’s worst defences last season. It’s not rich pickings, and finding the right balance and system that minimises our defensive deficiencies without also sacrificing our attacking verve isn’t going to be done in a few games.

Is Jack Jewsbury the answer? I’m not sure he is, but the fact is the Timbers return from two tricky road trips unbeaten. Can’t say that’s been the case too often. That we’re still doing things the hard way is concerning, though. It may be that until we settle on a back five, and they start to find a rhythm together, we’ll see more performances like this.

It comes as no real surprise though. I wrote before the season that I thought we’d see a more pragmatic approach from Porter early on. It was easy in those days to get carried away with videos from Akron and speculation about what Porter would bring to the Timbers.

As Caleb Porter himself has noted, it’s a results business at the end of the day. I don’t think the Timbers would be over the top in their expectations for this season given the scale of the turnover, but there’s no reason why they can’t find themselves in contention for being one of the five best of nine Western Conference teams.

These early months will see a lot of tinkering and experimentation to find the right balance, but if the Timbers are to reach the playoffs, they need to stay in contention through a very tough schedule. The next four matches see the Timbers play 2012 playoff teams. If the Timbers have grind out some wins through the next eight games or so, there’s no reason why they can’t push on as the schedule eases up through the run-in.

With two home matches coming up, Caleb Porter has the chance to spend that extra bit of time with the players on some issues. How Porter lines up will tell us a lot about how far along the coach himself feels the team are. We could see Jewsbury start, and give the diamond another go, or perhaps at the expense of Diego Chara who has been at about 85% of his old Chara-ness for me – still better than most, but just a little down of his usual standards. Perhaps we’ll see Alhassan recalled, or Piquionne start with Johnson going wide, and we revert to the 4-2-3-1.

I suspect what we’re seeing right now is the very reason Jack Jewsbury is still on the roster. He’s not the future of the team, and his presence is somewhat awkward is some respects, but he can help with the transition towards the team that the Timbers will be.

The Porter era was labeled “Timbers 2.0” by some, but really what he have right now is more a pre-release Alpha. Timbers 2.0 will actually be launched sometime during Q2 or Q3 of 2013.

It’d be nice to win, and damn entertaining, to win 4-3, but right now I’d take a scrappy 1-0 with the ball cannoning in off a defender’s knee as long as it represents a step towards a bright future without having to sacrifice results.

Two Into One Won’t Go

I’m sure Caleb Porter would have been happy to ignore the issue of who would be the club captain after the last guy to guarantee that particular role to Jack Jewsbury was most recently spotted at a Blazers game, quite pointedly not being Caleb Porter.

As the extent of the changes to the roster and playing style became clear, it was hard to see what role Jewsbury, Captain Jack, still had. Will Johnson adds more to the midfield, and the signing of Valeri left Spencer’s unshakeable midfield duo of Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury in a monkey-knife fight for the final spot.

Fate intervened, with Jewsbury deux-ex machina-ed out with an injury in preseason that eased any immediate selection pressure, and the front office promptly set about adding more depth in midfield in Ben Zemanski and Michael Nanchoff who happened, by pure Seinfeldian coincidence, to have played for the Akron Zips under Caleb Porter. The continued trading right into February would squeeze the cap a little tighter, and so Porter’s seemingly no-more-than-feint admiration for Danny Mwanga, who only renegotiated his hefty salary in December, put the striker on the chopping block. Mwanga left, sending a SuperDraft pick to Portland into the bargain, and Frederic Piquionne joined on, I’m sure, more favourable terms for the Timbers.

With a battle to earn a spot on the field ahead of him, some raised the question of his suitability for the captaincy. The captain is the guy with the armband and Jack clearly can’t wear it if he’s not playing (or, at least, it’d be weird if he did). And the front office responded by telling everyone that Jack Jewsbury was still the captain, but Will Johnson was also the captain, but a different kind of captain because Jack is the “club captain” and Will is the captain captain. All clear?

It’s all completely unnecessary, only marginally less so than 1562 words on the subject would be, because it’s doesn’t matter. Not really. Why not just say, “Jewsbury is still captain and if Jack doesn’t start, then the decision is made based on who deserves the armband”? There’s no need for all this two captains bullshit.

If Jack’s your guy, Caleb (and Gavin, and Merritt and whoever), then he’s the captain. Period. It’s not a big deal. You’re not crowning new a pope here, it’s the captain of a soccer club.

Yes, it’s important within the fabric of the game. It does matter, on some level, as it serves two purposes; he’s the guy who leads the group in the dressing room, the guy who rallies the team despite of, or on behalf of, the guy in charge; and he’s also the bridge between the fans and the players, more significant perhaps as the days of a truly “local” XI are mostly gone at top clubs. He is “one of us” out there, leading the way on the front line.

Some people make a big deal of captaincies, like British journalists who preside over the candidates for the job like the jury of a medieval witch trial that’s been without a good dunking in a long, long time.

Really, it’s just another of these little deceptions and lies about the game that we allow ourselves to believe because it makes this game much more fun to follow, especially with a habit that is eating into the time we could be doing things like studying and getting a job because it turns out moving halfway round the world is exactly as cheap as I never thought it would be.

For example, there’s the fact that it’s actually pretty boring, most of the time. Right? It is. Well, sometimes, at least.

So, who wears an armband doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. The leader in the locker room is still the leader. The captaincy is just a symbol, and one that wouldn’t be diminished by just letting Will Johnson wear it during game days that Jack isn’t playing in, of course. Just generally not wasting time doing something when nothing needed doing.

Will Johnson, I assume, didn’t get the captaincy because his name was drawn out of hat. He’s the guy that Porter sees as being the leader of the squad, which has, it’s worth pointing out, changed greatly from the one that Jack Jewsbury had built a long relationship with. This is, as much as it’s still a dream life for most fans, just another workforce, clocking in every day, doing their jobs and undergoing regular public evaluation. That, as well a coaching change, would naturally give the group a different chemistry, and if Will’s the man to lead Timbers 2.0 into game one, then he wears the armband. Easy.

But if Jack’s back, whenever that may be, then everyone lines up behind him. Doesn’t changed the routine, if it’s working, in the dressing room, so everyone’s listening to the same voice, and Jack adds a wealth of his own experience to the mix. Win, win?

There might be something about seeing “the captain” starting on the bench, or sitting out entirely when fit, that doesn’t feel right for something, but the twenty-two on the field are what matter, and if Will passes on the armband to Jewsbury when if he comes on alongside, it’s a nice show of respect to a guy who’s done a lot for this club, on and off the pitch, and is responsible for at least one of the Top 5, maybe even Top 3, favourite MLS memories for just about every Timbers fan. Sure, he may not be the guy you build the club’s playing future around, but even if history doesn’t win you a place in the team, it does grant you a certain position within the club where that guy can still, and will still be the captain, even if the leader on the park is the guy the fans are chanting for now.

It’s all a silly fudge. While concerning yourself with this, even for a minute if that’s all it took to sketch out this David Brent-ian solution, you weren’t doing something duh-obvious like naming the annual preseason tournament. Jack’s the captain, Will’s doing it now, big deal, next question.

I guess marketing concerns and the league’s seeming need to constantly attempt to artificially generate buzz with like whatever this Fashion Week thing is, it means that any opportunity for a ceremonial press release/news story should never be passed up, so blah-blah whatever something. Oh, and they do this all the time overseas, so it’s no big deal, bro, I don’t even know why we brought it up.

It’s just so silly to me, coming from a UK culture, because the captaincy is, like the papacy, usually only something you give up when the big man upstairs, or wherever it is Gavin nests, decides that you’re time is up. And I don’t mean to insinuate that Jack Jewsbury lives in a castle with 40 nuns now.

While this doesn’t feel like a full on NC-17 stripping, being more of the PG-13 where you might have caught a flash of sideboob level, it does feel like a bit of put down, a subconscious sidelining of a player taking a reasonably big bite out of a tight salary. I mean, if both guys are in the team, who wears the all-important armband? If Jack, then why bother with this fudge, and make an issue of Jewsbury’s status at all? If Will, then man-up and say Will is your guy and stop pussyfooting around it.

The captain over here in Scotland, or I should say over there now, if he’s the kind of guy who’s led the club through thick and thin, would bleed (insert club colours) and is beloved by the fans, he stays the captain even if they’re out the team whether through injury or simply being a guy with maybe a couple of top-flight years left in him as a squad guy.

That may or may not be relevant in Jewsbury’s case. He might think he’s got another 5 years of 30+ start seasons in him. Or maybe, at 32 by the season’s end – and believe, as someone mere months younger than Mr Jewsbury, I’m very conscious not to say he’s too over the hill – maybe by then he’s looking beyond playing. Jack has worked closely with Curt Onalfo, John Spencer, Gavin Wilkinson and, now, Caleb Porter -all guys with experience of playing MLS (or some level in the US), none of them were big “stars”, and all turned to coaching in their mid-thirties (injury accelerating Porter’s progress by a few years). It would be hard to not see the pattern and where Jewsbury may be influenced in taking the next couple of years.

Fans get that, I think. Jack’s not the hero to some that a two-year captain and scorer of important goals may expect, albeit without the vitriol aimed a previous club captain who’s hung around Portland when he not scouting in the South Pacific, but he’s the guy who’s been the face of the side since joining MLS. I don’t think everything done by Spencer was wrong and while I questioned Jewsbury’s place in the team when he wasn’t playing so well that doesn’t mean Jewsbury isn’t the right guy to still be the captain and figurehead for the players.

One Team, One Town, One Army, Two Captains.

One of these is not like the other.

O Captain, My Captain

In what has been a busy week for the Timbers, what with trades and new team name unveiling going on, Ives “Soccer By” Galarcep broke the rumour that the Timbers were looking to tie down the signing of Norwegian-born, US-capped midfielder Mikkel “Morning Star” Diskerud.

The move makes a lot of sense in the wake of the club’s manoeuvring up the Allocation Order, or the “Because Why Not Make Things More Complicated Than They Have To Be? Order”, as I believe it was originally called. They are now second only to Toronto and one would suspect that part of the trade with TFC included a gentleman’s agreement on the issue of the Canadian side passing should “Mix” leave Rosenborg, while one of the Toronto executives dropped a paint can and another swung round with a large plank of wood to smack him on the back of the head in the slapstick fashion that I imagine Toronto officials live every day.

With Will Johnson, Diego Chara, Eric Alexander and Darlington Nagbe all in consideration already for the, as most assume, three midfield spots that Porter will seek to fill (though I suspect Nagbe will be played further forward, perhaps as an inverted winger/forward), throwing Diskerud into the mix (pun count: 1) leaves one glaring question…

What about Captain Jack?

Jack Jewsbury leads the club into so many categories – goals, assists, minutes, starts, even shots. You name it, chances are Jewsbury holds the record (record/disk, eh, i’m claiming it – pun count: 2).

It should come as no surprise given that only Darlington Nagbe played more minutes than Jewsbury in 2012, but the passing matrix recently released on MLSSoccer.com, and analysed by the Stumptown Footy guys, also showed that no player had made more passes than Jewsbury. I don’t doubt a similar matrix for 2011 would give the same results.

You would think, adding all this up, that there would be much gnashing of teeth and grumbling of tweets over the increasingly distinct possibility that the club captain may be getting spun (spin, another record/disk one, pun count: 3) out of the frame, and yet there’s not.

2011 was certainly a banner year for Jack Jewsbury. Emerging from the doldrums of the Kansas City bench, he was installed as Timbers captain and quickly garnered a reputation as a set-piece specialist as he racked up assist after assist from dead balls.

He also ran Kenny Cooper close for top scorer, finding the net seven times – the same number of goals as he had in the four previous years with the Wizards.

To put Jack’s contribution in perspective, of the Timbers 40 MLS goals in 2011, Jewsbury was directly involved in 15 of them.

But even as 2011 wound to a close, following his inclusion in the MLS All-Star squad, there was a sense of diminishing returns from Jewsbury, and that seemed to be the case through much of 2012.

The numbers dropped – from 7 goals to 3 and 8 assists to 4 – as the team struggled. The blockbuster numbers of 2011 perhaps masked that, underneath it all, Jewsbury was, not to be rude (Diskerud, rude, okay, I’ll stop now, but still, pun count: 4), no more than a functional, workmanlike and honest midfielder, but not a game changer and as the club struggled, there was never the sense that Captain Jack was going to be the man to lead the team out of the dark.

There were moments of course, important goals at key times, but it never seem quite enough to justify the hefty salary and seemingly untouchable place in the team.

With the club seemingly intent on making big changes to how the club plays, his position within the team seems less and less secure. Indeed, John Spencer’s words before the 2012 season have never seemed so ominously prophetic for Jack.

Jack Jewsbury, as long as I’m here, will captain the Portland Timbers.

Say whatever you will about Spencer, but he wasn’t lying there!

The trade of Troy Perkins was a big indicator that the club would not shy away from making the Big Moves. Big enough that I felt the need to capitalise the words. No-one, regardless of how important you may be to the club, would be assured of a place on the roster, let alone in the starting XI.

Jewsbury turns 32 in 2013. He was paid a base salary of $180,000 in 2012. It’s hard to see who in MLS would take that burden on, regardless of how impressive the goals and assist numbers may look at a glance. Jewsbury chafed when he found starts hard to come by at Kansas City, so it’s doubtful he’d be all that happy at the thought of being a back-up where once he was a leader but he may have to suck it up under Porter’s regime. By all account, Jewsbury is a popular and highly-regarded guy in the dressing locker room, and if he were to make no secret of any upset or anger at such a demotion it would be interesting to read its effects on the squad’s harmony and ability to quick foster a sense of unity and togetherness that will be so crucial to Porter as he looks to mould almost a new team together in the full glare of fans and media.

Should it come to pass that Jewsbury time as a mainstay of the Timbers XI is over, then it raises the question of captainship.

The previous two popular suggestions for potential captains – Troy Perkins and Eric Brunner – have both left the club, so it’s a toss-up as to who could step in to the role if Jack were stripped of the armband. I threw the question out on twitter, and Horst seemed to be the most popular suggestion with other shouts for Will Johnson and Darlington Nagbe also getting a couple of tweets.

Of course, there’s no reason why the captain must play, and there’s a theory that the guy with the armband on the field holds little sway and that a club leader is a club leader regardless of his official status, but the symbolism seems to matter to some. With Jewsbury being moved on looking unlikely, there’s still a chance we’ll have at least one more year of Captain Jack, but given the tear-it-down-build-it-again approach Porter and Wilkinson seem to be taking to much of the Timbers roster, a new man being given the armband may be the perfect symbol for a new era in Portland.


Where does Jack fit in in 2013, and who do you feel should replace Jewsbury as captain, if he even needs replaced at all?

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The Questionable Seven

With only 180 minutes left of the 2012 season, the thoughts of Portland Timbers fans are already turning to 2013. A huge job awaits Caleb Porter when he flies west in December as the squad needs some urgent surgery if it’s to be in any shape to challenge for a playoff place next year.

Players like Darlington Nagbe, Diego Chara and Hanyer Mosquera can feel pretty secure in their positions within the team, while guys like Lovel Palmer and Mike Fucito may be starting to pack up their belongings in an old canvas sack as I type. For a large majority of the roster, though, this offseason will be one of great uncertainty.

Porter may decide that continuity is important to the team, and look to retain a large core of the squad, with a few additions and alterations here and there, but I suspect, in an ideal world, Porter would much to prefer to rip it up and start again, largely from scratch. There are precious few guys in the current roster who you would say fit into the mould of guys who can play the way Porter wants his teams to play, with quick, accurate passes and incisive movement.

With that in mind, I’ll take a quick look at seven of the guys I’d put into that “questionable” bracket and try and guess whether they’ll be back in Timbers green in 2013.

[learn_more caption=”Kalif Alhassan”]
2012 Record: 15 Appearances (10 Starts), 2 Assists, 1 Goal

Kalif Alhassan joined the Timbers in the twilight of their USL days with a view to progressing into MLS. Had a big role to play in 2011 with 6 assists in 27 starts, and on his day he is capable of creating a bit of magic out of nothing. 2012 has been something of a washout for the Ghanaian however, as he’s missed much of it through a series of niggling injuries.

Reasons to keep: He’s still young and can, hopefully, put the injuries behind him. With some disciplined coaching, could reign in his rather anarchic approach to tactical instruction and become a key component in Porter’s 4-3-3.

Reasons to cut: Injuries have curtailed his development at a crucial time, and when he does play he is inconsistent and tactically naive. Perhaps a little too similar to, but lacking the finesse of, Franck Songo’o.

Verdict: He doesn’t command a great wage, and is still pretty young, so he’ll be back. Next year will be the biggest of his Timbers career. Make or break time.

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[learn_more caption=”Jack Jewsbury”]
2012 Record: 31 Appearances (30 Starts), 4 Assists, 2 Goals

Captain Jack came into 2012 as an MLS All-Star following a tremendous debut year for Portland. However, he has rarely even threatened to live up to the standards of that first season with some fans questioning his seemingly unshakable place in the first XI. He’s far away the player with most on-field time for Portland in MLS with almost 800 more minutes than Chara, the club’s #2.

Reasons to keep: He’s clearly popular with the squad and respected by the coaching staff. His position as club captain has rarely been in doubt, and he has shown versatility in filling in at right back during an injury crisis.

Reasons to cut: Lacks the tenacity and awareness to be a regular defensive midfielder, as well as the craft and creativity to play further forward. Always a sense that wherever he plays, he’s the second best option there. Turns 32 next year, so is unlikely to improve.

Verdict: He’ll be back but whether he’ll be the first name on the team sheet any more is up for debate, though, considering he left Kansas City when she spent much of the back-end of 2010 on the bench, will he accept a squad role next year?

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[learn_more caption=”Kris Boyd”]
2012 Record: 26 Appearances (22 Starts), 1 Assist, 7 Goals

Kris Boyd set records for goalscoring in the Scottish Premier League, but after an undistinguished spell in England, and a short stint in Turkey, he came to Portland with expectations riding high that he could recapture his old form and fire the Timbers towards the playoffs. Like his predecessor, Kenny Cooper, he found it hard to adjust to the Timbers style and, despite leading the club in goals scored, he has failed to live up to his hefty price tag for many fans.

Reasons to keep: Goals. Boyd will score them if given the chance, but those chances have been too few and too far between. His link-up play is generally good too, and he will lead the line with passion and force.

Reasons to cut: He carries a hefty wage – 10th highest player in MLS – that doesn’t match up to his return in goals. Perhaps not suited to the way Caleb Porter seeks to play. Seemingly not rated by Gavin Wilkinson.

Verdict: Unlikely to be back in Portland in 2013, though it’s not clear cut. There is talk of a potential return before the season is out

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[learn_more caption=”Eric Brunner”]
2012 Record: 12 Appearances (10 Starts), 0 Assists, 1 Goal

Eric Brunner was a solid part of the Timbers defence, and everything was going well for the ex-Columbus man until a concussion sustained against Vancouver in late May. He’s struggled to get back into the team since, making only two subs thanks to a subsequent knee injury, with David Horst – young, cheaper – having improved.

Reasons to keep: Still, arguably, the Timbers best defender, or 2nd behind Mosquera, if you’re a fan of the Colombian. Solid, reliable and fiercely committed.

Reasons to cut: Such a long lay-off with concussion is a big worry, and the knee injury doesn’t help matters. In his absence, Horst has stepped up and shown he can do a job at a fraction of the price of Brunner.

Verdict: He’ll be back, assuming there aren’t deeper, thus-far-unspoken concerns among the coaching team about his injuries. If anyone gets cut from the defence, one suspects it will be Futty Danso. Whether he can dislodge David Horst, only time will tell.

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[learn_more caption=”Bright Dike”]
2012 Record: 10 Appearances (7 Starts), 0 Assists, 4 Goals

When Dike was sent out on loan to LA Blues earlier this season, you could’ve been forgiven for thinking that his Timbers career was over. After netting 10 times for the Timbers in their last year in USL, he didn’t make a single start in 2011, though he did still find the net once. Since his return from LA though, Dike has score 4 times – only 3 fewer than club leader Boyd.

Reasons to keep: Goals – the man has scored them. 4 in only 731 minutes. He’s scored from the start, and as an impact sub. He’s a handful to play against and a willing and hard worker. Has got the goals in the new system. Even with his obvious deficiencies, he has the scoring habit, and that’s a good habit to have!

Reasons to cut: He has a pretty poor touch, and lacks the more “all round” ability of his attacking colleagues. He’s a rather one-dimensional player, which is great when it works but leaves the team bereft in attack when it doesn’t.

Verdict: He’s certainly earned a 2013 roster spot, but I’d fear for the team if he’s back as first choice. A good weapon to have in the arsenal.

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[learn_more caption=”Rodney Wallace”]
2012 Record: 18 Appearances (14 Starts), 1 Assist, 1 Goal

Wallace joined the Timbers in exchange for Dax McCarty befoer the start of the 2011 season, but has never really convinced in the left-back role he seemed to be earmarked for. Despite that, he’s racked up over 40 appearances for the MLS Timbers meaning only four current Timbers have logged more on-field minutes than he.

Reasons to keep: Can play all up the left-side and has turned his hand to a central midfield role too. He’s chipped in with a few goals and assists, and is still relatively young at 24.

Reasons to cut: Lapses in concentration can, and have, cost the Timbers dearly in defence and he simply isn’t as good as the other attacking options available. Commands a salary that is out of sync with his role as a squad player.

Verdict: Will be back, but only if the Timbers can’t find a taker for him.

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Eric Alexander”]
2012 Record: 23 Appearances (13 Starts), 6 Assists, 0 Goals

Eric Alexander joined the Timbers from FC Dallas towards the end of the 2011 season in exchange for Jeremy Hall, but has failed to nail down a starting spot, with only 16 starts in his time as a Timber. An industrious and tidy midfielder with good range of passing.

Reasons to keep: The clubs leader in assists, despite being on the fringes of the starting XI. It wasn’t so long that he was on the fringes of the USMNT. Showed his game has steel when he subbed for Chara and acquitted himself well in a more defensive role. Still only 24, and not a big earner.

Reasons to cut: Assists fudged by at least a couple of those assists having more to do with Nagbe creating something out of nothing than Alexander’s work. Unable to impose himself on the team when he’s been given the chance. Had his work rate questioned by management.

Verdict: Trade bait. Underutilized, under-appreciated and seemingly unwanted by an organisation that can’t seem to find room for him in midfield.

[/learn_more]

What do you think? Who goes, who stays, and whose place is up for debate?

Crackerjack

The drought is over, the losing streak has ended. The Timbers battled back from a goal down to equalise late on against 10 men FC Dallas and earn a point, their first in a month. It was a result that went some way to laying the ghosts of the recent 5-0 defeat to rest.

With a tricky trip to the East Coast looming it was important that the team gave themselves at least some hope for the rest of the season, and they’ll be somewhat satisfied by the way they were able to come back to earn a point from a losing position for the first time since the last visit from Dallas, way back in March.

Gavin Wilkinson set his team up in the now-familiar 4-3-3, with Boyd up top flanked by Songo’o and Richards. A midfield trio of Chara, Jewsbury and Nagbe were in front of the back-line of Smith, Horst, Mosquera and Kimura, with Perkins in goal.

Nagbe had taken a good share of the attention going into the match. I’d written about him, and then there was an article in The Columbian where the man himself said he’d like to “score a little bit more”.

It’s little wonder that Nagbe isn’t scoring as often when you see where he was playing against Dallas, as his heat map on the right is pretty indistinguishable from that of Diego Chara, aside from the Colombian’s customary greater work rate and involvement.

Nagbe is being asked to play deeper than we were used to from his first year and the start of this, and it’s taking some time for him to acclimatise to his new role. I still that he’s playing a bit within himself for whatever reason, but that’s probably just me nitpicking, as I tend to do.

Still, it was a tidy enough performance, and he had one good crack from distance that went close though he, like the rest of the team, took a while to get going in the match.

Diego Chara was once more playing in a slightly advanced role, with Jack Jewsbury sitting deep. I like Chara in this role. He’s every bit as chippy and industrious as he is when he plays in defensive midfield, but with the added advantage that when he does nick the ball from an opponents, he’s doing it much nearer their goal than his own.

The move here came to nothing, which was a shame, but had Boyd made that run across the defender, who knows what could’ve come out of it as the Timbers had numbers getting forward and Dallas had been caught out.

Ah, Boyd. Aye, I guess we have to talk about my fellow Ayrshireman. He came in for some stick on twitter – again – as he was isolated up top and never really got involved. The graphic on the right is everything Boyd did during the match, and it doesn’t make for pleasant viewing. I can’t jump onboard with those that are kicking Boyd as there was next-to-nothing coming his way, but I do feel that what we’re seeing now is what fans of Rangers and Scotland have seen in the past when those sides have played with one guy up top – Boyd is not that kind of player.

The heat wouldn’t have helped, that’s for sure, but the fact is Boyd isn’t mobile enough to play in the role that Wilkinson has assigned him. If you can get players around him and supporting him, it can work, but we never really did that in this match, and he was a peripheral figure.

Without a Perlaza, or even a Mwanga, running off him, creating space and giving him someone to work with, it’s hard to see how we’ll ever see the best of Boyd. It’s perhaps becoming apparent how much of a “Spencer signing” Boyd was as he’s singularly unsuited to the system that Wilkinson seems wed to, of having a lone figurehead up front.

I’m not saying Boyd is entirely blameless, but neither is it all on him. Just ask Kenny Cooper what a difference playing a system that works for you can make.

With Boyd having little to do, and Richards having a marginal impact out right, it was left to Franck Songo’o to provide most of the Timbers’ attacking impetus. Though he wasn’t quite on the rampant form he’s shown in the past, he was still by far the team’s most active player going forward, and looked most likely to find a way through the Dallas defence.

As usual he wasn’t your typical winger, though he did manage to whip a couple of good crosses round the outside, but he would often go roaming infield. It’s quite interesting to compare his approach to that of Brek Shea, the Dallas left winger.

Shea plays much more as a traditional winger, as you can see. He gave Kimura a tough time during the match, with an early warning shot fired across the bow of the Japanese fullback early on in the first half.

Meanwhile, Songo’o was tending to come inside more often as the game wore on, to the point that at times it seemed like he was playing the role I thought would suit him in a “Christmas Tree” formation.

There’s still a tendency for Songo’o to try and beat players where the better, and more simple, option is to pass it off, but in a midfield that has sorely lacked any kind of creativity for along stretches this year it’s nice to see someone who’s willing to try and magic something up.

The first half came to and end, and it was all pretty even, The match, understandably, lacked some intensity as both sides sought to conserve their energy as Portland sweltered with temperatures in the 90s, or the 30s if you’re of a civilized bent.

Any hope that the Timbers would come out and look to put Dallas under pressure for the first 10-15 minutes of the second half quickly went the way of John Spencer’s Big Bumper Book of Football Tactics book deal when the visitors put themselves ahead.

The goal was the archetypal Timbers goals to concede – a simple pass inside the full back and runner through the middle who isn’t picked up. Those playing along with the Timbers drinking game might want to retire if they value their liver at all.

AS much as Kimura got caught out by the ball, he at least made an effort to get back and put a block in. What Horst was doing letting Sealy run away from him, I can’t explain. It’s Defending 101 – stay goal side. Or at least close enough to put pressure on the player.

Horst is a player I like, but for me he’s simply not good enough defensively. Little elementary mistakes are made far too often, and it hurts the team.

A goal down, and things looked bleak for the Timbers, but referee Ricardo Salazar threw them a lifeline just a minute later when he sent off Zach Loyd for a second bookable offence.

Richards and Boyd were taken off shortly after, with Bright Dike and Danny Mwanga entering the fray but still the Timbers struggled to find a way to break down the 10 men. Dike had a good chance when he got one on one with Kevin Hartman after a cheap giveaway by Dallas, but his shot was saved.

Portland seemed destined to go goalless once more when Hartman made a great save from Mwanga in the 78th minute, but the Timbers kept plugging away and from the same passage of play they forced a corner, and would eventually find a route past the Dallas keeper from there.

There’s really no reason for me to post that pic as there’s no great analysis to be made of the goal, but damnit it’s been so long since we scored that I had to do it! Besides which, it was a cracking finish from Jack. The captain had a pretty tidy game, all told. He did what he had to do defensively, and didn’t seem nearly as wasteful in possession as he has been in recent weeks. I’m not his biggest fan, but an in-form Jewsbury is an asset to the team.

By this point the Timbers had fully committed to attack, going 3 at the back, whilst Dallas had brought on ex-Timber and non soccer enthusiast James Marcelin in an attempt to close the match out. I thought the momentum would carry the Timbers forward to snatch an unlikely win, but they still struggle to create opportunities in open play, and it was Dallas who had a good chance to take all three points.

I’ve given Kimura a lot of slack as he’s settled into a new team at a difficult time, but he’s now played 6 times for the Timbers and he continues to make the same mistakes. I like his general play – and he’s certainly the best option we have at right back, which says more about the roster than anything – but he’s turned around far too easily for my liking. I don’t recall seeing a lot of him from his time at the Rapids, so I don’t know if this is just an aspect of his play or whether it’s down to the system he’s being asked to play in with the Timbers.

So, the match petered out to a 1-1 draw that seemed to suit both parties. FC Dallas, on reflection, will probably be the happier team having played 40 minutes a man down.

I can’t agree with Gavin Wilkinson’s post-match assessment that “we deserved to win it”. Sure, you can point to shot stats (21-8 attempts on goal in favour of the Timbers, 7-3 shots on target) but there’s a marked difference in the kind of shots they were.

As you can see, Dallas were able to get all their shots off within the box, whereas the Timbers were, on the whole, taking pops from distance.

Even the possession stat of 57-23 in the Timbers favour is skewed by the Dallas sending off. Prior to that possession was pretty much 50-50 with the game being played in the Dallas half 51.7% of the time. After the sending off possession jumped to 66-34, with 61.8% of play coming in the Dallas half.

In saying that though, neither did we deserve to lose the match, though we can certainly fray the nerves and test the patience of all but the most serene/comatose of fans. There were times when you’d never have guessed that Dallas were a man short, and we still lack that killer final ball to unlock defences.

I don’t want to sound too negative a note after a hard-fought draw, but I feel that the result merely papers over the cracks. The problems are still there. The cold hard fact is that we’ve picked up 1 point from a possible 15 since John Spencer was sacked and we haven’t kept a clean sheet since the middle of May.

At the other end you have to go back to Mwanga’s lovely counter attack goal against San Jose for the last time Timbers created a goal that didn’t come from the first or second phase of a set play. That’s over 600 minutes without a goal in open play.

In defence we still lack solidity and focus, with mistakes being made and punished on a game-by-game basis. Perhaps the return of Eric Brunner will lend the back-line some steel, but it’s probably unwise to heap too much expectation on his shoulders alone.

It’s a week and a bit before the Timbers play again, and it’s a big one. Without an away win all season – and having lost 8 of the last 9 – Wilkinson takes his troops to Toronto to face a team that have lost only 1 of their past 6 matches at BMO Field.

Portland’s point against Dallas has lifted them above Toronto in the race to avoid the wooden spoon, and they’ll be hoping to put some clear air between them as well as hauling in the sides above them. The playoffs – barring some kind of clichéd Hollywood miracle – are gone, but there’s still a chance for the club to add some respectability to a season that’s been memorable thus far for all the wrong reasons.

#RCTID


The thoughts of this blog, and every soccer fan I’m sure, go out to the family and colleagues of Kirk Urso, a Columbus Crew player, who died on Sunday morning at the tragically young age of 22.

Cascadi-argh

The problem with watching an M Night Shyamalan movie, apart from watching an M Night Shyamalan movie, is that you spend most of your time waiting for the twist – the shattering reveal that turns everything you just watched on it’s head. Shyamalan, after the huge success of The Sixth Sense (SPOILER ALERT: Simon is Hans Gruber’s brother), became “the twist guy”.

The Timbers have their own twist; their own little gimmick. They lose late goals. A fuckofa lot. And it’s getting every bit as head-smackingly tedious as Shyamalan’s third-act revelations did.

Despite John Spencer’s post-match insistence that losing so many late goals is “not a massive problem“ this season alone has seen the team lose 7 goals in the last 10 minutes of matches, while they haven’t scored a goal in that period. As Mike Donovan tweeted, in the last 20 minutes of home MLS matches, the Timbers have been outscored 4-18.

I really hope Spencer was simply trying to bat away negatives to put a positive spin on the match because if he really doesn’t think those figures represent a massive problem then I think we have the answer as to whether Spencer has lost it

While the loss of yet another routinely sickening late goal may not have been a surprise, Spencer did pull a couple of rabbits out of the hat in his team selection.

I can’t say I was surprised to see Jewsbury back in at right-back, even though I thought Chabala had done enough against Chicago to keep his place. The shock was that Chabala didn’t even make the subs bench either. I can only assume it was a late knock (there were no injuries listed on the Friday before the match) because I can’t fathom any other reason why Chabala wouldn’t even make it to the bench.

The midfield was where the big shake up came, as only Diego Chara retained his starting place there. Songo’o and Wallace were replaced by Kalif Alhassan and Eric Alexander. Lovel Palmer dropped to the bench to facilitate a move into midfield for Darlington Nagbe, whose striking role alongside Kris Boyd was filled by Jorge Perlaza.

Despite my pre-match hope that we might see the team line-up in a 4-3-3 formation, it instead was much closer to the 4-4-2 diamond formation that the team had played earlier in the season, with Nagbe at the point.

It was an attacking set-up, and it looked like it would pay dividends early on as the play was much more fluid and connected that it had been in recent weeks. There were noticeably fewer hit-and-hope punts up the pitch, and much more quick passing and interplay.

If there is a criticism to be levelled at Troy Perkins – so often the Timbers hero in recent weeks – it’s that his distribution is often poor, but this week was much improved.

Though he had less to do this week than he had against the Fire, he still played the ball out short more often, with less recourse to the long ball. It’s a personal thing, but I much prefer to see the keeper look for that short throw or pass that retains possession and allows the team to build from the back than the lazy punt. The long ball has it’s place – to launch a quick counter, taking advantage of opponents that have overloaded the attack – but it’s seemingly the default setting for many keepers and it’s more often than not a waste of possession.

Perkins mirrored the play of his team-mates, which focussed much more on building the play through passing and movement. In this kind of system, Diego Chara’s role is crucial in the transition from defence to attack and vice versa. His passing is often underrated by some as he’s not one to attempt the “Hollywood pass” very often, but he keeps the play circulating with an excellent 90+% success rate.

His defensive play was characteristically strong, covering the area in front of his defence with steely determination. For a small guy, he’s deceptively strong as many bigger players have found out to their cost.

He was joined in midfield by Alexander and Alhassan. Alexander’s recall was a welcome sight, even though he was nominally the left midfielder, rather than playing through the centre where he seems more at home. At times it looked like he was a little over keen to impress having been given the chance.

Alhassan started after a good showing in a midweek friendly against Valencia. There are many similarities between Alhassan and Songo’o in that they’re both clearly skilful, flair players but equally both prone to trying to do a bit too much on their own. Both can frustrate when they try a flick, or try to beat a man when the easy pass is on to a wide-open team-mate but that’s the price you pay for the times when it does come off for them.

Not everyone agreed with me that Nagbe has been looking a little low in energy and confidence lately, but I hoped his drop into an attacking midfield role would reinvigorate him, and he did show little flashes of the player that can get fans on the edge of their seats.

At times he was playing as an orthodox central midfielder, but he adjusted admirably well. It’s good to see him more involved in play, and running at opponents again.

As the resident Jorge Perlaza apologist, it should be no surprise to read that I thought he had a good game. He worked tirelessly and got involved in play in a way that Nagbe doesn’t when he’s asked to partner Boyd.

Though he’s unquestionably a frustrating figure – his finishing can be wildly erratic at times – his ball retention is good and he is a good link between midfield and attack in terms of his running and ability to hold up the ball and feed it to onrushing midfielders, much like his countryman Chara fulfils the role in linking defence and midfield.

He also created a good chance for Nagbe early in the second half with a good run down the right and first time cross into the path of Nagbe who got under the ball and sent it sailing over the bar, as well as a couple of chances for himself. With the addition of Fucito to the squad, there’s even more pressure of Perlaza to perform when he’s given the chance, and I’d hope his strong showing against the Whitecaps is a sign that he’s taken the challenge on board and raised his game.

Kris Boyd got back on the scoresheet again after a poacher’s goal in 67 minutes when Jewsbury’s erratic cross was palmed away the Whitecaps keeper right into the area Boyd had staked out at the back post. It was a typically opportunistic bit of finishing from the Scot as he got himself in the right place at the right time.

Boyd is the kind of striker that does his best work off the second ball, where he has the strikers instinct to attack the area the ball is going to be. This was a prime example of this where skill and luck put him in the right place to hook the ball home. Too often though the Timbers are looking for him to win the first ball in the air, and this isn’t his strong suit especially against big guys like Jay DeMerit, who only minutes before the goal has clattered clumsily into Kalif in what looked like a stonewall penalty, but was waved away by both referee and his assistant.

Despite indirectly supplying the assist for Boyd’s goal, I thought Jewsbury’s crossing had been poor all night. I wouldn’t be surprised if Whitecaps defenders were drawing lots as to who would close down Jewsbury’s crosses, as to be the first man to a Jewsbury cross is to more-often-than-not get hit.

With Alhassan ahead of you, it’s a tricky job as his defensive work isn’t his strong suit. Jewsbury coped well in the defensive sense, but again I felt he offered little in attack.

The lead would last less than 20 minutes before a routine long ball was poorly defending, and Darren Mattocks, on the pitch for all of a minute, was able to breeze into the box and thunder the ball past Perkins.

The defending had been generally good, but here they switched off at the back, and were punsihed. Mosquera allowed Hassli to get the run on him, and Horst failed to cover the space behind his partner which gave Mattocks the time he needed to blow past Horst’s weak challenge.

It was a sickening end to a match that the Timbers will feel they deserved three points from.

It’s not just the late goals being lost that are a worry, it’s the inability to hold a lead. On 8 occasions this season the Timbers have taken the lead, but they’ve only held onto it 3 times. Of the 5 times the Timbers have lost the lead in a game, they’ve then gone on to lose 3 – the horrible run of RSL, Chivas and LA. In short – the Timbers are as likely to lose a match as win it when they go ahead! (3 wins, 3 losses, 1 draw – yes, that’s only 7, they took the lead twice against Chicago)

In a weird coincidence, the figures are mirrored when they go behind. 8 times they’ve slipped behind, and only 3 times they’ve found an equaliser – Philly (W), Dallas (D) and RSL (L).

The seeming inability to turn around a game when the momentum turns against the team is troubling.

Recent weeks have brought around better defensive performances, and for long spells of the game against the Whitecaps, there was much to be happy about the attacking play. A bit more luck or composure in front of goal and the Timbers could’ve been comfortable.

It wasn’t to be, and it’s another 2 points dropped – doubly galling as it’s against both a local and conference rival. It’s all very well complaining about the refereeing – and the Alhassan decision was especially poor – but as Mike Perron tweeted, “nothing takes a referee out of a game like finishing chances.” So very true. As long as the match is precarious, you’re always one defensive lapse from undoing all your good work.

Of course, if you’d watched the highlights on the MLS site, you might be wondering “what chances?” and “what (non) penalty?”. Thankfully the MLS site haven’t included the penalty shout in their “highlights” package. You want to see Steven Smith get a yellow card? Oh, you better believe that’s a highlight. You want to see a contentious decision that the officials clearly got wrong? Not a highlight. Neither are a number of decent chances at goal or passages of play.

I really hope whoever it was that compiles the highlights had a hot date last night to explain such a slap-dash and lazy job.

There’s often so much more that I’d like to illustrate and show through screengrab and the like but, as I don’t have MLS Live, I’m limited in what I can illustrate here by what MLS choose to put into their highlights. This match is probably one of their worst efforts yet – hence the lack of pics. I’d have loved to have written more about Perlaza, for instance, but there was next to nothing for me to do so in the highlights. Hopefully I’d get MLS Live soon, but for now I’ll just make do.

I do feel that progress is being made. The defence – a couple of weak moments aside – looks solid and didn’t look any weaker for having one less defensive midfielder in the team. In attack, with the reintroduction of Alhassan and seeing Nagbe played in his more natural position, there are encouraging signs for the future.

There’s a break in MLS action for the Timbers until the middle of next month, with a visit to LA to play Beckham FC. Before then the Timbers kick-off their US Open Cup campaign with the visit of Cal FC in midweek. The promise of a CONCACAF Champions League place for the cup winners should be all the incentive needed for the club to take the competition, and their amateur opponents, seriously.

There’s no doubt the fans already do.

#RCTID