Tag Archives: Kalif Alhassan

Six Degrees: Please Please Me

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This last game’s gotten me a little emotional. I apologize in advance. Continue reading Six Degrees: Please Please Me

Six Degrees: Charge!

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Last week, we lost by two goals and I called it a blowout. It certainly felt like one. We were dominated by Salt Lake from start to finish. This week, we won by four goals. So is it another blowout? Continue reading Six Degrees: Charge!

Timbers 100: Part Two – Everyday Magic

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 32. Jorge Perlaza vs Vancouver Whitecaps

20th August 2011

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Jorge Perlaza scored the Timbers’ first home MLS goal, yet his time would not end happily in Portland. He was not the only victim of scant consideration being given to “the other guys”.


Watch The Goal Here

Jorge Perlaza was first to react to a loose ball in the box following a Jack Jewsbury free-kick, sweeping the ball home to fire the Timbers 2-0 up against their Cascadian rivals.

Perlaza’s goal would prove to be decisive in a 2-1 win that kicked off a late, ultimately doomed, run at reaching the playoffs after gaining only nine points over the fourteen previous games.


Jorge Perlaza’s place in Timbers history is secured by virtue of scoring the first MLS goal at Jeld-Wen Field. A fantastically timed run in behind the striker, a cool little cut-back and the nonchalant finish of a guy who does this kind of thing all the time. He followed it up with a second that was strikingly similar to his goal against Vancouver.

His goal against Vancouver, his sixth of the season, would be his last in MLS.

To see the way Perlaza harried and hurt the Fire defense on that wet April night, you would think that the Timbers had signed the Colombian Michael Owen (the young one). However, by the time the Timbers inaugural season was over he’d already begun to the look more like the Colombian Michael Owen (the old one) to many fans.

However, I will refrain from retreading my already well-documented appreciation of Perlaza here.

Jorge Perlaza’s role in the Timbers team was always going to be a tough one. 40 goals in over 200 appearances in Colombia didn’t seem to indicate that the Timbers were buying a goal machine, but that’s what Cooper and Boyd were for, right?

Perlaza’s job was never to be the main goalscorer. Sure, you’d want a few goals here and there, but his job was as a wingman for the the other striker.

Spencer’s focus on getting the best out of his big striker marginalized the role of the second striker, which ignored the fact that the best striking partnerships are just that, partnerships. Under Spencer it was all one-way, towards the big guy.

Problem was that rather than put guys who could play that role in the team Spencer puts guys in who kinda looked like they should be able to play that role, but really couldn’t or wouldn’t.

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When the goals dried up, it was easier to drop the other guy than admit your marquee striker is a bust because you don’t know how to get the best out of him. Spencer did drop Cooper for a spell, which didn’t change the team’s fortunes much, before it was Perlaza’s turn to ride the bench. After starting the first nineteen games of 2011, Perlaza wouldn’t put together another run of more than four starts in a row before leaving.

As Boyd misfired in 2012, it wasn’t until Spencer went that the Scot was dropped. The difference from the previous year was that dropping the underperforming striker coincided with a change in system away from a two-man attack to a more fluid three man attack. It seemed to take fresh eyes looking at the situation to recognize that the problem wasn’t necessarily with the personnel, but the roles that had been foisted upon them.

Much of the coverage of a team will center around the big names – the goalscoring striker, the creative playmaker or the defensive rock – which pushes the likes of Perlaza, and others, into the margin. Every successful team will have their fair share of these guys, the “oh, that guy” guys, the ones that provide the cohesion to the squad.

Perlaza’s defensive analog, in many ways, would be Diego Chara. Chara’s job was to protect the defence, putting his body on the line if he had to, and support his midfield partner, just as Perlaza’s (or Mwanga, Fucito or any of the other “second strikers”) job was to harry the opposing defence and support his striking partner.

Just as Perlaza was expected to play second fiddle to his partner, Chara found himself alongside the club captain and face of the franchise, whose stellar start to the year only put more emphasis on Chara sitting deep and covering. Despite being sold to fans as a “box to box” midfielder when he was signed, the Timbers never really saw that from him as he often effectively became a fifth defender.

This season the Timbers fans have seen Chara used to much greater effect thanks to Caleb Porter employing him as more of a Roy Keane type player than a Claude Makelele.

So long as Jewsbury was playing above himself, all was well in midfield and little thought was given to Chara. To his credit, Chara never seemed to complain or grumble about the role he’d been lumbered with, so that when the team’s form dipped, and Jewsbury’s regressed to the mean, the little Colombian just worked that bit harder.

Porter’s big change was to move these guys out of the shadows and into the spotlight with the rest of the team. The role of support striker is now split between two or three guys, with each having other responsibilities in both defence and attack. And rather have a designated holder in midfield, he moved towards a double-pivot in midfield between Chara and Will Johnson, which has freed both guys to remain active in both attacking and defensive phases.

Some of the most headline grabbing play this year has been from guys who played in the roles that were a seeming afterthought under Spencer. Will Johnson is the club’s top scorer, and suddenly Chara is hot news to the wider MLSosphere. Valeri, Nagbe and Wallace have been among the goals and assists, and the other greatly marginalized role under Spencer, the full-back, is being nursed back to health after a couple of years of neglect and misuse.

100 Marcelin CloserThe lack of attention given to marginal or specific roles hurt the team. James Marcelin, for instance, was was often used as a “closer” late in the game, which seems perfectly fine until you consider that he wasn’t actually that good a player. Defensively, he looked have the attributes you’d want, but given the ball he quickly showed why he’s currently without a club.

I honestly thought we’d seen the end of Jack Jewsbury, Portland Timber, this year. And yet, he’s emerged as one of the team’s most vital players. Jewsbury has played at left and right back, as well as in midfield, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pop up elsewhere as and when Porter needs spots filled.

By turning players whose roles were disposable under the old regime into integral components in his XI, Porter has found that the best way to unlock the potential of your star players is to pay close attention to the guys around them.

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Goal 46. Darlington Nagbe vs Real Salt Lake

31st March 2012

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A game can be turned on its head in a second, with a single swipe of a boot. No Timbers player provided a greater example of just such a game changing presence than Darlington Nagbe.


Watch The Goal Here

When Eric Alexander lofted the ball into Darlington Nagbe’s path there didn’t seem to be much on for the attacker, but having already pulled the Timbers level, he seemed to be on a one man mission to drag his team to victory.

One controlling touch with his knee, a swing of his right boot saw Nagbe slice the ball away from the despairing keeper and into net for 2-1. It was a strike even his own teammates had to applaud.


When Darlington Nagbe put the Timbers ahead against Real Salt Lake, a lead they would lose with two last gasp RSL goals, it was only his fourth goal of his MLS career and yet the nature of it was not a surprise.

Only his second ever goal, a header to make it 3-0 against New England, was ordinary. His first, though…

To win the Goal of the Year award in your first season is good, to do it with your first professional goal is just showing off.

Despite a resume of one absurd goal after another, just check out his latest MLS goal, it would be fair to say that over the first couple of seasons, Nagbe seemed unable to find a “home” on the pitch. His quality has never been in doubt, but there are times it’s seemed like he was never going to truly fulfill his potential.

A list of the five youngest Timbers goalscorers.
A list of the five youngest Timbers goalscorers.

The reunion with Caleb Porter, his old college coach at Akron, seems to have settled Nagbe down a bit and the word I find myself using most when describing Nagbe’s play this year is mature.

As the club’s first SuperDraft pick, there was a weight of expectation on the youngster’s shoulders, especially as a Hermann Trophy winner in his last year in Akron. Unsurprisingly, as a rookie, his form was anything but consistent, but there were flashes here and there of the kind of player the Timbers could have on their hands.

More progress was expected from Nagbe in his second year, and with his brace against RSL added to an equaliser against Dallas a couple of weeks earlier, it seemed that Nagbe had truly arrived at last.

However, he wouldn’t score another MLS goal for John Spencer and it would be August before Nagbe got his name on the scoresheet again as he round out 2012 playing deeper in midfield.

2013 has seen him reborn as a wide attacker in a fluid system that rewards those moments when Nagbe does something otherly, but doesn’t rely on them when Plan A fails. Diego Valeri’s presence takes much of the weight to be, to repurpose a Jose Mourinho catchphrase, “the special one” off Nagbe’s shoulders and the released burden, along with more focused on-field directions, has allowed Nagbe to finally grow into his role as a guy who can couple a good team ethic with moments of individual brilliance. The addition of Diego Valeri to the squad plugged what had been a glaring hole in the team to armchair managers everywhere; he was a playmaker.

It’s seem quaint to think that there was a time I was passionately in favor of Eric Alexander being given a shot as a playmaker, or at the very least an attacking midfielder. That’s not a slight on Alexander, who I think is a perfectly decent MLS midfielder, it’s just, Valeri.

The Argentine brought experience to the role, and we’ve seen the roles around it adapt to bring out of the best in him. If he’s getting marked too tight in the center, Nagbe can come inside to disrupt things or give Valeri some breathing room. A stark difference to players being thrown into specific roles and expected to do well because, on paper, they should. It didn’t take Valeri long to announce his arrival on the scene, and he’s also making a habit of scoring easy-on-the-eyes goals.

Rodney Wallace has emerged as the third head of the Timbers very own Cerberus in 2013, though given the fluid nature of the attack with midfielders pushing on from deep and strikers pulling wide, a perhaps more fitting mythological reference for the Timbers attack would be a Hydra, where attempts to shut one player out of the game will only give another two the space and time to hurt you just as bad.

100 Goals and AssistsGiven the way Wallace was played at left-back, or moved around the midfield, it’s little surprise that his goal scoring/creating contributions were sporadic at best over the first two years. This year, played in a more advanced role, Wallace has had a great impact on the side since breaking into the starting XI.

With, essentially, a goal a game created or scored by Rodney Wallace this season, it’s little wonder that the Costa Rican has very quickly become one of our key players.

In pushing his way into the line up, Wallace has displaced the player that many thought would be the creative playmaker on the squad coming into 2011.

There are none on the Timbers roster more mercurial than Kalif Alhassan. The Ghanaian midfielder’s best run in the Timbers side came in that debut season, when he notched five assists in a run of eighteen straight starts. 2012 got off to the best possible start for Alhassan, with a start, an assist and another assist a goal in a the 3-1 win against the Union. It’s still his only MLS goal for the Timbers as efforts to repeat his screamer against Puerto Rico in 2010 haven’t been successful, as yet.

Despite his undoubted ability and skill – there are times I doubt even Kalif Alhassan knows what Kalif Alhassan is going to do next, let alone the defenders – he’s been unable to pin down a starting spot since that first year. Injuries hampered him in 2012 and 2013 has seen him take a back seat to Wallace and Nagbe, with Valencia and Zizzo pushing to go past him too.

The rawness and inconsistency – a world beater one game, totally anonymous the next – that we saw in both Nagbe and Alhassan is still front and center with Kalif. Potntial and talent will carry you so far, and buy you so much credit, but there’s always a clock ticking in the background and if Alhassan can’t crack the team or show that he’s matured as Nagbe has.

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His numbers, when he’s on the field, are pretty good but 6 starts in 17 isn’t the figure one of the most promising players in MLS only ywo years ago should be hitting.

The problem with getting consistency from someone like Alhassan is that to do that you’re likely to sand off some of the rough edges that make the player special in the first place. Nagbe is a great example of an “instinctual” player – almost all of his great moments happen in a flash, with seemingly no time to think about it. There have been times when he’s had too much time to think and picked the wrong choice, but he’s shown a readiness to learn from it, and from someone like Diego Valeri.

To describe the likes of Valeri or Nagbe, Alhassan or Wallace as a “playmaker”, while technically accurate, would do a disservice to the fact that it’s the interaction between everyone that makes the play.

The Timbers have often seemed to lean heavily on one or two players to make things happen, and it would seem to be the case this year as well, but it’s an illusion. The reality is that the threat can, and will, come from anywhere.

We are all playmakers now.

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Timbers 2, Dynamo 0: Porter’s Perfect Plan Dismantles Dom’s Destroyers

It’s easy, in the warm afterglow of a 2-0 victory, to look back and think “of course the Timbers would do that“, but it never looked that obvious or simple going into the game against Houston. This really looked like a big test of Caleb Porter, coming hot on the heels of a tough trip to Colorado.

That game wasn’t pretty, but Porter has shown that even at this early stage he’s not afraid to change things up from week to week. After starting the same XI in the opening two home games, he’s made five line-up changes in the next three games, the same number John Spencer made in the first five games of 2011 and 2012. In the Scot’s first year he played the same line-up from game to game on two occasions, and two of his line-up changes were forced by injuries, so there was a sense that he was pretty settled on his ideal team and system early on. Porter’s changes post-loss to Montreal have been the clearest contrast to the “old ways” – he’s showing a willingness to adapt and change to find the right mix for that particular game. It didn’t work against Colorado, but it would work back at Jeld-Wen Field.

New Coaches

Thinking back to that debut season, game five was the Timbers’ second win of the season, beating Dallas 3-2. Things were looking good after a shaky start. In the next five games the Timbers would play a settled XI on three occasions, with the three players introduced to the starting XI being Troy Perkins, Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe. After ten games, the Timbers had a perfect home record, with five wins from five. The record wouldn’t last eleven games, and the Timbers would lose six of the next seven and kiss goodbye to the playoffs.

I don’t know that we’ll see such a settled selection from Porter. Certainly, the injuries in this match aren’t part of the plan and Horst’s in particular puts a real strain on the backline. I’m sure Tucker-Gangnes is a big part of Porter’s plan, but I don’t think it’s this soon as he seems the ideal candidate to do what Andrew Jean-Baptiste did last season and get a spell on loan before being thrown into the mix against experienced strikers. Does anyone think Futty Danso is the solution?

There’s still time till the end of the transfer window for the Timbers to add to the defence, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Timbers experiment there, even if just for a spell at the end of a (hopefully comfortably won) game. With confusion surrounding the long-term status of Hanyer Mosquera, the likelihood being that Mosquera is a Timber no more, perhaps getting another defender in was already part of the plan.

The Houston match already featured a change in the centre of defence, the second in two weeks. Silvestre returned to partner David Horst, but Porter’s big change was to introduce Rodney Wallace to the starting line-up, with Ben Zemanski sitting this one out. Jack Jewsbury dropped back into the right-back role he held for a spell last year – a run of matches that included victories against Seattle and San Jose. I had come to think that today would be a great opportunity to introduce Wallace to the first XI, but I had him replacing Diego Chara in the same 4-3-3 that been deployed since Jewsbury’s return to the team. My thoughts were that Wallace offered a little more in attack, something we needed to support the attacking three and I worried that Diego Chara would get drawn into a kicking match with the Dynamo midfield, and that that could lead to the Timbers putting themselves in trouble.

Shows why I write a blog and Caleb Porter coaches a Major League Soccer club. Porter kept Chara in the side, and the Colombian had the kind of game that alerted those outside the #RCTID bubble to just how good we already knew he was.

Rather than slot Wallace in alongside Will Johnson in midfield, Porter returned to the 4-2-3-1 with Wallace playing on the left and Darlington Nagbe going right. This brought Diego Valeri back into the centre where he could be more effective.

Tactical Changes

I was a little surprised to see the team return to this formation as it had caused the team problems in the opening couple of matches, leaving the team short in the middle and exposed on the flanks, but Porter countered this by playing an asymmetrical formation where the left was more your “traditional” wing, with a wing-back pushing up to support and overlap the attacking midfielder, and the right saw Nagbe given license to roam inside knowing that Jack Jewsbury would sit back and cover the space behind.

HOUearlyformation Jewsbury took his place in a back five that had a combined age of 155, with the return of Mikael Silvestre to the defence alongside David Horst. There can be few Timbers backlines that have carried such a wealth of experience, and it told throughout the match. The way the team were lined-up, it essentially took more of a 3-3-3-1 shape in possession, with the most experienced and best technical players on the outside of the three at the back

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The Dynamo made their intentions clear early on with a very physical approach. I’m sure this came as little surprise to the Timbers, and early on the team did well to get their passing rhythm going despite the close attentions of their opponents.

It was the interplay of Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe that gave me most hope in those early stages.

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Without a proper outside-right threat down that flank, it was up to Valeri and Nagbe to work it between them, with occaisional support from Chara or Jewsbury. The Timbers worked their first shot in the game in eight minutes from a move started by a pass from Nagbe to Valeri that also displayed the early tempo and rhythm the Timbers had to their passing and movement.

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F-ing the P-word

For all the expectation, or at least hope, that Porters arrival will see the start of a real blossoming of young talent, I think his greatest job in this first year will be in getting an improvement from guys who are running out of time to fulfill their potential. Rodney Wallace being a prime case in point. He’ll be 25 in June, but has thus far failed to hold down a position in the starting line-up. It’s been hard to see where Wallace’s best position is. Is he a left-back, or a winger, or is he a central midfielder? We’ve seen him play well, and we’ve seen him play not-so-well , in all these positions but he’s never really gone out and stamped himself upon a role on a consistent basis.

Porter’s answer, so far, is that Wallace is all of those things, and none of them. He can cover at any one of them, and do well, which makes him very valuable in a system where he’ll have to do them all, often in the course of a few minutes. One start, and four sub appearances are too soon to call whether Wallace will be one of the defining stories of 2013, but he certainly brings something new to the table. Including a functioning left foot. Are you taking notes, Mr Nagbe?

In the same bracket as Rodney Wallace are guys like Kalif Alhassan and, to an extent, David Horst. Kalif started the season in the line-up, but dropped out on the road. His return to the team here was in far from ideal circumstances, replacing Diego Valeri when his face got up-close and personal with Taylor’s elbow.

A quick word on that foul. Yes, it wasn’t nice and when someone has to go off with such an obvious injury of their face, you kinda assume that someone would have to be booked for that, but going by US Soccer’s guidance on the difference between reckless and careless tackles (one being deemed caution-worthy, the other not) you can see how the ref would see Taylor’s actions as careless than reckless. I’m inclined to agree, for what it’s worth, though it’s never nice to see one of your guys on the receiving end. Still, I wonder if there’s a Dynamo blog starting a campaign to get Taylor a red card?

Alhassan did well when he replaced Valeri, and it helped the team that the three behind Johnson all knew each other well already. I don’t doubt Alhassan’s ability, but getting consistency out of him would give the Timbers a potent threat across the attack.

I feel for Horst as it looked like he had a chance to establish himself in the first team, but his injury means he’s now going to be out for months. If the Timbers do sign another defender, you wonder where that leaves Horst because I doubt Porter would want a mere stopgap signing. He’s 27 and has only started 35 MLS matches – of the 9 MLS veterans in the starting team, Horst had the fewest top level starts. There’s no reason why Horst couldn’t have another six or seven years in him, but it’s going to be tough for him losing so much time with a new head coach.

Probably the biggest example of a guy who’s potential has been touted, but needs to start cashing the cheques his early hype was writing is Darlington Nagbe. When Valeri exited proceedings, Nagbe moved into the central role. I had hoped to see Alhassan there as I think his ability to do something even he didn’t expect could be the key to unlock the Dynamo defence, but Nagbe seemed to take the added responsibility on his shoulders and did well in the role.

It was, by far, his most mature persformance for the Timbers. There have been better games, but today we saw a player step up a level and, after a rocky spell as Houston “harried” at the start of the second half, Nagbe settled into his role and didn’t look like the rookie who would try and force something to happen and disappear into his shell if it didn’t.

Clashing Styles

Despite a little wobble after the injury to Horst, after which the Dynamo forced a few set piece chances, the Timbers controlled the first half in terms of possession, in spite of some, ahem, forceful pressing by the Dynamo. I’m not opposed to physical play, it was pretty much the only play I had growing up watching Scottish football, pre-Sky TV, but there’s a line where physical can cross over into dangerous and it’s up to the ref to draw that line, and draw it early. I don’t think Ricardo Salazar did that, and it just emboldened Houston to keep it up to the point that I’m just happy we got through the second half without anyone else leaving significantly more broken than when they stepped on the field, routine potential Donovan Ricketts injury aside.

To the Timbers credit though, they stood up to the challenge. Not many clubs would’ve lost two starters, including the guy who was being billed as your playmaker, and come through to win by two goals. They did it by standing toe to toe with Houston when the game got scrappy, losing only 51% of duels, which helped limit Houston to only one shot on target.

Old Heads

The second half began with Portland controlling the tempo of the game, forcing Houston to defend on the edge of their own penalty box as they probed for a way through. The visitors were limited to one shot at goal from distance by the Ghost of Rosters Past, Adam Moffat, which skidded past Ricketts’ left hand post.

Defensively the team relied on the experience of Jewsbury and Silvestre to cover for Jean-Baptsite, who’d replaced Horst. AJB has a big future, but he’s still raw and as important as knowing when to put the young players in is to a coach’s ability to develop talent, so is knowing when to pull them for their own good, whether it’s to protect them, or keep their feet on the ground.

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Jean-Baptiste most likely has a run of games ahead of him now, and a chance to prove that he’s ready for a starting role now. I’m pleased to see his progression as I thought he was a talent in those first games last season and while he still has plenty of rough edges, he has tons of MLS and international experience around him now. I certainly hope he does it as I’d rather be answering the question of who replaces Silvestre in a year or so than still wondering whether Jean-Baptiste is ready.

Plan B: Just like Plan A, but with goals.

The Timbers created their first good chance early on when Nagbe worked a give-and-go with Wallace but tried awkwardly to wrap his right foot round a ball that was screaming out for a left foot to stroke it past the keeper. The run, and the instinct to get forward were great, but the finish was lacking, and probably underlines why he’s not a guy to lead the line as, despite being a scorer of spectacular goals, his best work goes in before the finish.

HOUgoal1passesThen, 53 minutes and 34 seconds into play, Kalif Alhassan battles to win back a ball in right midfield, near the halfway line. He’s knocks it all the way back to Ricketts. The keeper surveys his options before going wide left to Silvestre. Silvestre forward to Harrington on the touchline, and then back to the ex-Arsenal man. He goes cross-field to Jewsbury, and gets it back from the right-back before he knocks it forward to Harrington again. This time the left-back has time and space and picks a ball down the line to Wallace, who knocks it back to Harrington. The ball crosses the backline to Jewsbury via Jean-Baptiste and a quick give-and-return with Alhassan is the first time the ball has crossed the halfway line.

Jewsbury rolled it Jean-Baptiste, who passed it on to Silvestre, before the ball was returned back to Jewsbury. Like they had with Harrington down the left, they’d worked the ball around for a second look at the Houston flanks, this time working down their left. This time Jewsbury played it inside to Chara who, with a bit of luck, worked a give and go with Nagbe and then sent over a truly magnificent cross for Ryan Johnson to finish. Twenty passes across seventy seconds of possession with purpose, culminating in a fantastic cross and goal. Every Timbers player except Will Johnson touched the ball in the build-up and the cross a thing of beauty that no screencaps would suffice to describe. Just go watch it again. The whole move. Welcome to the 2013 Timbers, this should be fun.

Comfort Zone

With the lead for the first time this season, the Timbers went for the jugular. In the period between the two goals, the Timbers maintained a pass accuracy of 82% and had upped the tempo from 6 passes per minute before the first goal to 9.6 after it. There would be no attempt to bunker down on a one goal lead here.

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The Timbers still committed four players to the attack, confident that a back three with Harrington moving between attack and defence, and the Chara-Johnson partnership in the middle screening them would take care of any Dynamo threat.

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Wallace struck the bar with a blast from distance that would’ve been fine reward for his work before Ryan Johnson got his second of the night, and put the result, even so early, beyond any real doubt. That second goal came about when Nagbe won the ball, and worked a couple of passes with Alhassan before releasing Johnson free of the offside trap. Johnson finished it like a 20 goal a season striker, and Caleb Porter could breathe a little more easily.

Houston had a bit more possession after the 2nd goal, but they never really threatened Ricketts’ goal, and it was Portland who went closest to scoring the game’s third when Nagbe went close after a fine pass by Alhassan put him in.

More Questions

The second half performance from Portland is as good as I can remember from the Kings of Cascadia. They were assured and focused, and determined not to be out-fought in ways that they precisely haven’t been in the last couple of years.

The fact it came with Valeri is all the more remarkable. Where the team looked a little rattled and off the boil in the minutes after Horst’s injury, the injury to Valeri seems to have galvanised the team into even greater efforts.

A number of guys came into the team, or into new roles, and gave good accounts of themselves. Jewsbury was the calm head at the right-back that we knew he would be, and his lack of pace was never really exposed as the defence put in their best shift of the season by far. Where this leaves Zemanski and Miller in the short-term at least is in the air, though we can’t even be sure that Porter will play the same system against San Jose, despite it working here. We’ve seen Spencer fall into that trap in the past, and I’m sure Porter won’t want to make the same mistakes.

Nagbe grew into the “number ten” role as the game went on, and while I’m sure Valeri still heads the queue in that particular position, Darlington sent out a message loud and clear that he can step up and fulfill that function really well. Alhassan’s showing after coming on was the kind of performance you want to shake out of Kalif more often.

Wallace was my man of the match. There wasn’t much in it, but I felt that he added a lot to both sides of the ball in a role that asked him to wear a lot of different hats. He was given a chance in this game, and he snatched it up with both hands. Let’s see if he can build on this.

Porter goes into the next double-header against San Jose with two very different selection headaches. One on hand, the sudden lack of depth at centre back is a big concern, perhaps not on a game-to-game basis, but the risk of disaster is ever present. On the other, he has a lot of guys playing well and pushing for spots on the team.

Spencer’s Timbers peaked between April and May of 2011, and would never really hit those heights again. Porter’s job will be to make sure his team peak in October and November, and performances like this lead me to believe that we are certainly on the right path.

Believe beyond reason was the mantra of last year. Believe with reason is my mantra for this.

#RCTID

Alhassan’s Creed

Kalif Alhassan has emerged as the story of preseason for me, in a playing sense at least. It’s hugely encouraging to see the likes of Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Dylan Tucker-Gangnes being given ample playing time, and a hat-trick against San Jose was a perfect way for Ryan Johnson to take his first bow before the Timbers Army. Michael Harrington, Will Johnson, Ryan Miller and Diego Valeri have come in and look to have improved the team in key areas.

I don’t think Ryan Johnson or Valeri have made the biggest splash this preseason. With Valeri I think it’s because my sense of relief that he’s as good as we dared hope has overshadowed the fact that he’s been really pretty good. Having gone so long without a creative attacking midfielder, I was worried that when we did finally sign one, he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, live up to two largely miserable seasons’ worth of pent-up expectation, but there are signs enough that Valeri will, though any verdict in that regard could only be taken in the winter, and certainly not before a competitive ball is kicked.

Alhassan has been a source of frustration thus far in his MLS career. The flashes of undoubted talent we’ve seen from the Ghanaian only serve to underline the myriad times when he’s seemed too lightweight and utterly inconsequential to the outcome of a match. His 2012 season was beset by injuries, and I wondered whether his presence on the roster was going to be one indulgence too far for the Timbers.

As it was the similar, in both style and effectiveness, Franck Songo’o who wouldn’t be returning to Portland, not even, it would seem, to the visiting locker room. A victim of increased demands, and a perceived lack of value for that not insubstantial outlay, Songo’o has gone and, with his untidy departure, Alhassan had one more obstacle to playing time cleared away.

Alhassan was promoted from the presumably lesser regarded “second half team” in Tuscon, just in time to help the Timbers to victory against Seattle in the third match. He was still in the starting XI when the Timbers played their first home game of the preseason, providing a pin point cross for Ryan Johnson’s first goal, reminiscent of another cross almost a year ago that served to introduce Kris Boyd to the Timbers faithful.

He sat out the second match against FC Dallas, as a largely second string team lost by a single goal, but played the full 90 against AIK in a line-up that will, with a couple of tweaks, likely be the team that takes the field in front a full house against New York on Sunday.

2013 is a big season for Alhassan. His raw talent has got him this far, but if he wants to develop into a top-flight player, he has to start showing more consistency into both fitness and form. In his favour, he’s still only 22, something that can easily be forgotten as his status as one of the few who span the USL and MLS eras, albeit briefly, would seem to mark him out as one of the old guard.

This offseason has seen Porter concentrate on bringing in experienced, established players, filling the vacuum left by an outgoing of the largely disappointing and under-used. There are still prospects in the side to look out for. Tucker-Gangnes looks like one who has all the tools to make it at this level, especially if he can glean as much as he can from the top-level experience of Mikael Silvestre while they share a pitch. Darlington Nagbe continues to promise so much, and if he can find a groove with his old coach Caleb Porter, it could prove very beneficial to the Timbers play-off hopes. Jean-Baptiste, Steven Evans, Jose Adolfo Valencia; all can probably look forward to more game time in 2013 with which to flourish.

Alhassan joins this group of young players who will seek to benefit from working with coach Porter, with early signs that Kalif is currently best placed to make early strides towards fulfilling his potential in a system that makes more sense of Alhassan’s talents than any other has thus far.

He often found himself stuck out on the flanks under John Spencer. It’s a move that makes sense as Kalif can cross as well as, if not better than, anyone at the club and his close control allows him to escape from positions that other players couldn’t. Yet, he never really fit out there, peripheral in every respect, and lacking the desire to put in the required defensive shift he often left the poor sap behind him cruelly exposed.

When he did drift inside, as he was predisposed to do, it unbalanced a team that was built on a “traditional” British style, that expected things in as direct and functional a manner as possible. The “get it wide, throw it into the box” approach of 2011 and much of 2012 simply wasn’t suited to a roaming wide midfielder, so rather than be the guy the club could depend upon to provide a touch of magic in the final third when needed, racking up both assists and goals, both he and Songo’o more often became the place where attacks went to die, running themselves into dead ends, and trying too hard to do too much alone.

Though he’s been mostly played wide under Porter, the change is that his movement and roaming are now absolutely a part of the plan rather than counter to it, and integral to both his and the club’s success this season. Though it’s clear that Valeri will be expected to do much of the heavy lifting in the creative sense, it would be foolish to lay all our hopes at his feet as other teams would get wise to that very early on, and set about negating his influence by fair means or foul. The movement and spontaneity of Alhassan, and Nagbe for that matter, are crucial in giving opponent’s something else to think about, and keeping the Timbers attack from becoming too predictable and two-dimensional.

Alhassan stands a good chance of the being the only player who took the field in Portland’s first MLS match to line up at the start of their third season. The fact he’s shown such staying power despite never really holding down a first team spot for any great length of time shows that his ability is clearly held in high regard by the Timbers coaching staff, but now it’s time for Kalif to start rewarding that patience with tangible, on-field returns.

It Begins Again

The Timbers returned home after some bounce games in Tucson, and found the Timbers Army ready and waiting for some actual football after a long, and at times, tumultuous offseason.

The San Jose Earthquakes were the visitors in the first round of matches in the Portland Timbers Preseason Tournament – a name so dull that not even Don Garber would want to trademark it.

The game itself ended in a 3-3 draw. San Jose scored a penalty after a handball by Jean-Baptiste, got an easy second from a free header off a free kick, and scored a third off a rebound from a Ricketts save after a weak turnover of possession in their own defensive third. So, much as it was in defence.

For certain, there is still a lot of work to be done in shoring things up at the back, but for now I’d like to talk about the other end, because it was there that I saw many reasons to be optimistic about 2013. I’m sure I’ll return to the defence at some point…

Ryan Johnson scored a hat-trick, which is a pretty good way to go about endearing yourself to the home faithful. Diego Valeri had a hand in the latter two goals, providing lovely assists for Johnson to get through on goal and finish with consummate ease. A lot of pixels have been spent bemoaning the fact that the Timbers have lacked a creative “number 10” type in their roster, but it looks like Valeri is exactly that kind of player.

The first goal is the one that stands out to me, though. If ever there was a passage of play that typifies what Caleb Porter is bringing to Portland, it was then.

TimbersGoal1

The quick passing and intelligent movement of the midfield served to open up space down the San Jose left, and the Timbers were ruthless in exploiting it. It begins before Nagbe has even touched the ball.

Harrington cushions the header down to Nagbe on the left side of the Timbers midfield. Towards the end of last season we saw Nagbe play more centrally, and it seemed to stifle him a little. Nagbe works best when he can pick up in space and drive forward, but we also saw last season with Songo’o the problems that a wide player coming inside can cause when all they’re doing is running into traffic.

In this instance, Diego Chara makes a clever little diversionary run forward. San Jose were set up pretty well, with two players holding the middle, but Chara’s move forces their #4 to follow him, and leave a space for Nagbe to run into. With San Jose short-handed in midfield now, it draws their wide #10 inside to match up, freeing space in front of Ryan Miller.

Nagbe has options for the pass, with Will Johnson holding and Kalif Alhassan forward. Diego Valeri also makes himself available for the pass, as he continually does. Part of the Timbers problems last season were there were too many players who would disappear, or hide, for too long. Songo’o, Alexander, Boyd – all players I liked, but all were guys who would drift in and out of matches. It stunted the Timbers attack all too often, leaving us with nowhere to go and panic was never far from setting in. That shit just won’t fly under Porter.

The next three passes are all one touch. Nagbe to Alhassan, back to Johnson, out to Miller. As easy as one-two-three, the Timbers have pulled the San Jose midfield around and opened up space out wide.

There’s no steadying touch, or thought of looking for the long, hopeful ball forward from Miller. Alhassan has made the move forward, and the man who should’ve been tracking him from midfield has given up on the job. This means that when the first time ball comes forward from Miller, one of the San Jose central defenders is forced to come across to match the run.

Ryan Johnson comes to life as the ball enters the attacking third. With a gap opening up at the near post, all it needs is for Alhassan is to deliver the ball into that area. Johnson times the run to perfection, going from back to front and sending a deft header looping beyond the reach of the keeper into the far side of the net.

What you can see from the overview is that much of the Timbers off the ball movement was heading from right to left, opening up the space they needed to execute a quick series of passes left to right. It’s like a boxer dropping his shoulder to entice an opponent in before dropping him with the hook he never saw coming.

For all the talk about possession, this is the essence of what Porter’s teams do. Yes, they’ll keep the ball, and work it across the pitch, playing nice little triangles and diagonals but, like a Chess Grandmaster, when they’ve maneuvered their opponents just where they want them, they’ll strike, and do so swiftly and with purpose.

What Now?

Well.

That was pretty damn awful, wasn’t it?

Shy of sticking a finger in the eye of the Colossus of the North (who thought that a single win at CLink meant that they should be handed the Cascadia Cup and were shocked, shocked that the Whitecaps weren’t willing to help them out worth a lick) the past season was pretty much a washout.

We got our coach fired, went one match away from going winless on the road, and generally exposed the weaknesses and problems in the side that the Front Office had spent the past two years ostensibly building. Two days after the final match of the second MLS season we find ourselves back, if not where we started in 2011, at least no better off than we were at the beginning of 2012.

Ugh.

So the obvious question is: where can we go from here, and how do we get there?

We’ve got a new coach coming on board sometime in the winter, there will probably be some roster changes, and MLSTimbers v.3.0 will get a rollout sometime in the late winter. Obviously we can’t know much or do anything about this but speculate.

But speculate we can, so why not? That’s why we’re here.

First, let’s take a look what we have now.

Individually I want to suggest that the flaws in Gavin Wilkinson’s player selection can’t be better displayed than through a quick look at the present Timbers roster. In my biased opinion the current side is dominated by two kinds of players; the “consistent but limited” and the “limited by inconsistency”. We just flat out don’t have any players with consistent, genuinely game-breaking talent, the sort of marquee player that our rivals have in people like Wondolowski or Montero. Yeah, I hate those guys, too, but I can’t deny their quality. We just don’t have that and the record seems to show that we never will.

So what do we have, and what does that tell us about our Front Office’s tendencies to pick and choose players?

———-

The way I see it the Consistently Limited make up the bulk of the side.

With these guys you know what you’re going to see. They bring pretty much the same game every time they run on the pitch. It’s not that they can’t play, or that they’re hackers and goofs. They’re all at least substitute-grade MLS quality guys. But their game, that game we know we’ll see, is lacking in one way or another. These guys all have a shortcoming, or shortcomings, that put a limit on their ability to produce winning soccer in one way or another.

Starting from the back we have Ricketts, whose limitation seems to be primarily age and fragility that comes with a history of injury, and the Bendik/Gleeson binary star, limited merely by their inexperience – though Bendik seemed to be at least a solid journeyman during his limited stint this season.

On the backline we have Mosquera, limited by his judgement and inability to communicate with his linemates, and Kimura who is limited in so many aspects it’s hard to figure out where start. In midfield we have Wallace and Palmer, who are sort of the Mosquera and Kimura of the center of the pitch; the one makes constant errors of judgement while the other is simply a quandary; why is he doing this for a living and I’m not?

Diego Chara, whose effort and defensive sturdiness are unquestionable is limited by his inability to keep from getting called for fouling and his poor forward passing. Jack Jewsbury is simply not young enough and mobile enough anymore to have more than a moderate impact.

Up front Bright Dike is limited by his poor touch and sloppy finishing, while Kris Boyd is limited simply by his style of play; without good distribution and service from the midfield he is simply wasted up top.

———-

The Limitedly Inconsistent are a minority on the team, but an important one. With these guys you never know whether they’re going to bring their A-game, or whether that game is going to last the entire match. They show streaks of brilliance matched with random outbursts of mediocrity or outright blunders.

David Horst is the poster child for this group. A stand-up guy who anchors the backline for 89 minutes he will suddenly make a horribly mistimed lunge, or stab, or find a way to mark space, or do something that will gift the enemy a goal. You love to see him most of the time, and then tiny remainder you look away because it’s like a car accident unfolding on the Sunset Highway at rush hour.

In midfield Darlington Nagbe who to me is still something of an enigma labelled “potential”; will he be the Nagbe that passes accurately and can score a clinical goal, or the one that gets knocked off the ball and is marked out of the game mid-match? Kalif Alhassan is another skilled but unpredictable midfielder; you never know which Kalif will show up – will it be the one that can provide a lovely assist, or the one whose crosses float over the entire 18 like a shiny soap bubble? Some matches Sal Zizzo is a speedy winger and clinical crosser while others earn his nickname “Zig Zag Zizzo”, running aimlessly about and lofting random high balls into the blue. Franck Songo’o can provide brilliance in attack and sturdy defence but can also repeatedly dribble into trouble and wander about seemingly at random.

———

Of the entire current side there’s one guy who I would say has grown into a solidly dependable player who is both consistent and relatively skilled; Steven Smith. A liability in the back at first his play in the last half of the season has progressed to where he’s among the best of our defenders – yes, a low bar but, still – and has shown promise going forward. Of the current group of starters he seems the best rounded and most skilled.

Of the remainder we don’t really have any solid indicators. Eric Alexander has shown signs of being in the second group but his minutes have been so limited as to make that pure speculation. Eric Brunner was a hell of a defender prior to his injuries but hasn’t been a standout in the short stints he’s played in the late season; hard to tell how well he will come back, if at all. Jean-Baptiste showed well against San Jose on Sunday, but he is one of the large group of young players we just haven’t seen enough of this season to really judge. Brent Richards has looked better tracking back than he did in his earlier outings but his play retains the erratic quality of a young player. And we’ve just seen way too little of guys like Hogg, Kawulok, Purdy, Fucito…

But in general, given what this group seems to tell us about Gavin’s – or Gavin and Merritt’s – weakness in assessing players we need to assume that these young players are likely to have similar weaknesses. This seems to be the Front Office’s style; they see either only the strengths of the consistent-but-limited players, or the “manic phase” of the skilled-but-inconsistent players while not noticing the weaknesses of the one and the depressive phase of the other.

And we need to assume that if this same group continues to pick the players for the incoming coach we are likely to see very similar sorts of players next season. Gavin’s record, in particular, goes back to the USL days and was very like this; Portland saw players like Mamadou Keita and Ryan Pore, inconsistent guys who could play but would tend to drift out of the match, or the season, or guys like Scot Thompson and Takayuki Suzuki; good solid players but just not the sort that got you to the league championship finals.

This is likely to be it; this is likely to be “who we are” until and if we get a new group in the executive suite.

So the question is; how do we go forward, how do the Timbers get better, with these sorts of players?

And that is the subject of the next post.

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.

[/learn_more]

[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?

[/learn_more]

[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

[/learn_more]

[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.

[/learn_more]

[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.

[/learn_more]

[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?

Tis But A Scratch

The Timbers were on the losing end of an eight-goal thriller with LA Galaxy in Gavin Wilkinson’s first match in charge since John Spencer was philosophically fired last week.

The defeat at JELD-WEN was the Timbers’ first MLS reverse since Chivas won 2-1 way back in April – and the five goals conceded were more than they had lost in the six matches between that match and this.

Wilkinson didn’t stray far for Spencer’s formula in his team selection. Boyd started, which was nice in a he’s-involved-in-virtually-every-goal-we-score kind of way. Chara’s suspension meant a place in midfield for Palmer and Jewsbury, with Alexander and Alhassan on the flanks. Mosquera returned to the starting XI, with Futty the man to sit out.

The one difference was this wouldn’t be the usual 4-4-2. Wilkinson lined his team up in a 4-2-3-1, with Nagbe tucked in behind Boyd. The truth is that the formation was a bit more fluid than some digits on a screen would suggest.

The night started so well as a crisp Alhassan cross was put beyond Saunders by Boyd after only a few minutes.

Having spent so often bemoaning the way the Timbers have failed to play to the Scot’s strengths, it was nice to finally see someone give him the kind of ball that he thrives on. And it was no surprise to see it was Alhassan.

Alhassan seems to be one of the few players who is on Boyd’s wavelength, and keeping Kalif fit – as well as instilling at least some semblance of discipline to his play – has to be a priority for Wilkinson and whoever takes over the top job in the long-term.

In retrospect, it’s easy to look back and see that there was something odd in the air. I mean, really, a Timbers goal in the south end?! As a wise scientist once said, “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!”

Buoyed by the early goal, some of the Timbers play was nice to watch. There seemed to be a noticeable drop in the number of long hopeful balls up the field, and much more pass-and-move play, with the ball staying on the deck.

However, a crazy ten minute spell midway through the first half saw all the encouraging early play undone in brutal fashion.

The Galaxy’s fightback was triggered by some of that mercurial ill-discipline from Alhassan as well as, in my opinion, some presciently poor defensive work from Lovel Palmer.

First off, there was no reason for Alhassan to dribble the ball around in that area – Palmer was wide open for an easy pass. Secondly, as soon as the ball was lost, just when you’d want your defensive midfielder to come alive, Palmer went to sleep.

Palmer’s almost preternatural ability to do the wrong thing at the wrong time is fast becoming a joke that even Daniel Tosh wouldn’t touch as being just too tasteless.

The thing is, I don’t think Palmer is necessarily a terrible technical player. You don’t get this far, and achieve what he has in the game, if you can’t master the basics. Sure, he’s not the best passer in the world and his long-range shooting fetish borders on the obscene.

What Palmer lacks, in my opinion, is the ability to make the right decision at crucial moments, and that’s pretty damned key if your responsibility is to protect the defence.

The ability to take in what’s going on around you, extrapolating that information and making the right decision – all within a split second – is one of the skills that is hardest, arguably impossible, to teach. You can teach a player to pass or shoot. You can hone his ability to cross a ball, or play to game plan. Teaching a player to think faster, and better, is much more difficult to do.

John Terry would be an example of a player who, for me, lacks this ability but his other abilities allow him to, more often than not, make a last-ditch recovery to salvage the situation. The late sliding tackle that is so beloved by fans and producers of slow-motion highlight reels is the action of a defender who has made a poor decision. The old adage is true – the best defenders will finish the match with barely a stain on their kit.

Palmer doesn’t have Terry’s ability to recover a bad situation, and his poor decision-making renders him a defensive liability. Lovel Palmer is a ticking time bomb of Fail.

In the Jimenez chance we saw Palmer marshaling a space rather than the man. For the Galaxy equaliser he changed it up.

For sure, it was a good finish from Mrs Cruise, but I’d think more of it if he’d done it with a guy on his shoulder and nipping at his heels. The fact is, for the second time this season, he was given all the time in the world, right in front of goal, and he punished us.

Palmer dropping off to shadow Donovan gave Beckham the breathing space he needed. Only Alexander – eventually – woke up to the danger, and by then it was too late.

Some more awareness from Palmer – or if you’re being kind to Palmer, a shout from Mosquera that he had Donovan covered – and Beckham doesn’t get thee shot away.

Yes, that should read Donovan instead of Keane. The perils of text in pics.

Honestly, at this point, I’m at a loss to explain what Palmer brings to the team. The fact that he only lasted to half-time may suggest that Wilkinson was asking himself the same question.

He displays poor defensive awareness, time and again, and offers next-to-nothing going forward. He just… is.

As Palmer’s moment in the spotlight passed, it was time for Kosuke Kimura to step forward.

A foul by Kimura gave the Galaxy a free-kick in dangerous territory. Beckham stepped forward and duly put the ball in the exact spot that just about everyone expected him to.

I actually had the thought, one that’s occurred to me in the past, that it might actually be a good idea for the Timbers to set up without a wall in this situation.

As you can see, Beckham puts the ball low and near the right hand post (X marks the spot) – right in the spot that most fans would’ve predicted him to aim for. It gives Perkins a good 13 ft or so to cover – and the wall gives him 10 fewer yards to respond, especially as the Galaxy players (ringed) crowd the end of the wall right in front of Perkins.

So, why not say “screw the wall”? Perkins could take up a more central position and he’d have a better sight of the ball from the moment it leaves Beckham’s foot.

It clearly couldn’t be a regular strategy as teams would quickly figure us out as the guys who don’t line up a wall and adjust accordingly – lining up a wall of their own for example, but I doubt no wall is a situation teams prepare for, and the confusion it sows may just be enough to prevent the Galaxy taking the lead.

I fully expect to be called a madman for this idea, by the way.

Kimura’s crazy spell continued when he switched off at a throw-in and allowed Stephens to get in behind him. A clumsy tackle in the box gave the Galaxy a penalty, and Donovan duly dispatched it.

It became 4-1 when Smith played a lazy pass which was cut-out by Beckham. Donovan was sent scampering down the right, where he blew past Horst and slid it on for Keane to tap home between Mosquera and Kimura.

Kimura wasn’t done though. A trademark Boyd free-kick – head down, hit it hard – was spilled by Saunders and the new man got his first goal for the Timbers to make it 4-2 before the break.

As the game slipped away from the Timbers, so the 4-2-3-1 seemed to go out the window. Nagbe began to play more as a striker, albeit deeper-lying than Boyd. By the time the second half rolled round, we were back in 4-4-2 territory.

Richards replaced Palmer, who was presumably sent into a quiet room to think about what he’d done tonight. This meant Alexander was shifted inside, and he looked happier there.

Though his play was generally pretty tidy, and he worked well with Smith, he lacked the attacking punch that Alhassan had down the right side. It gave the team a lop-sided feel.

Moving into the middle allowed Alexander to be more involved in linking play. In the second half he made only eight fewer passes than Palmer and Jewsbury combined in the first.

The team’s traded goals in the second period after Donovan and Nagbe had missed good chances one-on-one. Nagbe’s came about from a tremendous throw from Perkins, whose general distribution continues to frustrate. Great pace put Darlington in, but he lacked the killer touch to finish the move and put the Timbers within a goal of the visitors.

Keane would eventually put LA up 5-2 when Smith was drawn out of defence, and Franklin beat Richards to the ball over the top before laying it on a plate for the boyhood Galaxy fan. Boyd cut out the middle man later when he put another free kick past Saunders to make it 5-3.

Unfortunately, the Timbers were unable to find the goal that would set up a grandstand finish but few would forget this match in a hurry. Shown nationwide on NBC Sports, the game was a great advert for the kind of entertaining football MLS can serve up, even if it would give defensive coaches nightmares.

It’s a bittersweet result. On one hand, there was a lot of fight in the team. Boyd served up two goals, and played a key role in the other. He did his job. He scored. Strikers are often “streaky”, so getting a brace under his belt may just spur the club’s top scorer on further.

For spells, in the first half especially, the football was good to watch. There was some good interplay, movement and purpose about the way the Timbers crossed the field – a long way from the panicky, hit-and-hope football that defined much of the late Spencer period, even after they’d gone down 4-1.

There wasn’t really a great deal between the clubs. Both had porous defences that gave up chances to the opposition, but the Galaxy had a bit more nous and cutting-edge about them in attack. Despite the two defensive midfielders in the first half, I also felt that overall the Galaxy had the upper hand in the midfield battle, though there was little between the two in the second half.

In some respects, losing to a better team is to be expected. In Donovan, Keane and Beckham, the Galaxy have access to talents beyond those of the Timbers. The only way to beat a better team is to either get lucky, work even harder, or both. The Timbers certainly worked hard, but ultimately gave themselves too much to do. Luck wasn’t really as much of a factor as numerous individual mistakes and poor choices at the back were.

They way the side kept their heads up and kept plugging away is a world away from the same team that has rolled over in recent weeks.

However, the defence. Just not good enough. It’s not the first time that a player has simply blown past a comically-bad Horst tackle, and probably won’t be the last.

Smith’s crossing was as poor as I can remember it. It’s all the more frustrating as Smith is capable of so much better.. Kimura had that crazy spell in the first half, and clearly there’s a bit more work to be done in integrating him into the team.


Chivas await for the Timbers, and though Portland find themselves bottom of the Western Conference (2nd bottom overall), a win against their hosts could propel them, improbably, back into the play-off hunt. It’s not hard to think of the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the Timbers refuse to give up, no matter how devastating the blows they receive.

Over the next four proper matches, the Timbers will play two game series against both Chivas and Dallas – two sides also struggling in the West.

Make or break time.

#RCTID

EDIT:

rhamje raised the point in the comments below that he felt Keane’s 2nd goal, LA’s 5th, was offside. I didnb’t think it was at the time, so I went back and checked, and had it confirmed. Definitely onside.

Clowns to the left, Jokers to the right

In a flurry of misguided optimism I had written in midweek about how I thought the Timbers could, should, and would, beat LA this weekend. In the end it was another disappointing road trip as the team succumbed to defeat to a poor LA Galaxy.

There was no surprise to see Danny Mwanga start alongside Kris Boyd in attack, and the rest of the squad was as predictable, save for the inclusion of Franck Songo’o at left midfield.

The match started with some end to end play, and the Timbers were looking dangerous in attack for the first time in a long time. With Nagbe playing high up the pitch, and Alhassan and Songo’o supporting from midfield, it certainly had an attacking look.

The Galaxy had gone with a 4-3-3 that became a 4-5-1 in defence. The central three of Beckham, Juninho and Sarvas seemed to take a while to work out their roles in the system, and this early confusion was exploited by Nagbe who was finding spaces between defence and midfield.

I wrote in my preview article about how early crosses to the back post could be effective in exploiting the Galaxy’s aerial weakness at the back, yet this was the one time we effectively got the ball into the box.

In fact, the level of crossing in the game for the Timbers was poor.

Five attempted crosses from the left all game, only one successful – and even that didn’t get into the box! All season we’ve been whiffing crosses in for big defenders to head clear with ease and when we finally play a team that can be truly hurt by height, we scale it back.

It’s little surprise that we were so absent down the flanks when your “wingers” are Alhassan and Songo’o. I worried that Songo’o out wide would hurt or wing play, and so it proved.

You can look at that pic and, sure, you can try and tell me that Songo’o is a winger, but I don’t believe you. I know he was sold as that but Spencer’s spiel that he has “never played in there probably in his career” looks kind of hollow when you engage your eyeballs and actually watch where Songo’o is playing. He is not a winger.

Sure, he might stand out wide when the Timbers don’t have the ball, but as soon as they get it, he drifts inside. Maybe it’s a tactical thing, and that’s what he’s been told to do, but even so I’ve never once see him display that winger’s instinct to take a player on round the outside and whip a cross in.

And before anyone points out false or reverse wingers, or guys such as Ribery and Robben, or even Messi, who have played outwide, only to come infield, there’s a big difference between what these guys can do from there than what Songo’o does. To be fair to Alhassan, while he is often guilty of the same ineffectual meandering infield, right into traffic, he at least stuck to the flanks a bit more.

I honestly think some people are getting blinded by the whole Barcelona thing. La Masia is a footballing factory – it goes through scores of kids, and only a select few every make it anywhere.

I think Songo’o is a talented player. He has skills. I just don’t know where he fits in in this time. It’s certainly not out wide.

With our wide midfielders narrowing the attack, it made Portland’s play predictable.

Get it wide, work it inside, run out of space, get it wide again. Repeat until the ball is knocked out of play or lost to the opposition.

While it paid off early on, and Boyd in particular had a good chance after some encouraging linking with Mwanga as well as Songo’o’s headed chance, the Galaxy quickly got wise to the ploy and started sitting Juninho or Sarvas alongside Beckham at the back of the midfield three and shut the play down.

I don’t profess to be a footballing mastermind. I’m just a fan with a blog. I’ve never played the game beyond schools level, and I’ve certainly never coached or managed outside of the Football Manager series of games.

Yet even I could see this was dangerous.



I don’t post these to show off, or brag about how clever I am (much). I take no satisfaction from it, but if I, a humble fan, could spot the potential for disaster by leaving the midfield so short, why in the name of Steve Guttenberg’s Left Testicle couldn’t the coaching staff? This is their job. They get paid to do this shit.

Sure enough, minutes after my last tweet, this happened.

This was the build up that led to the corner, that led to the Galaxy scoring the only goal of the game.

I really pity Diego Chara here. He would’ve had every right to be absolutely fuming with the coaching staff after this match. Time and again he was left so outnumbered in the middle I half expected Burt Young to emerge out of the dugout, urging the Colombian to “hit the one in the middle”.

Nagbe clearly had an attacking brief, and it shows in this defensive breakdown for the two players. To Chara’s credit, he did a good job, hamstrung though he was, and was a constant presence shutting down space and thwarting Galaxy attacks.

After an inital good showing, Nagbe again drifted out the match as it wore on. I wrote a while ago that I’d been concerned that Nagbe was slumping, whether through exhaustion or a loss of confidence, and looked in need of a rest.

Even the very best young players will hit a point where they need to be taken out of the team to allow them to recharge the batteries. Nagbe is only a second year pro, and there’s been a lot of expectation heaped upon his shoulders.

At times, Nagbe is contributing very little. The team, as a whole, are carrying more passengers than a Japanese bullet train, and they’re not all on the pitch.

Again, we had another game where the Timbers failed to adjust to the opposition they faced. Make no mistake – this LA team were poor. They didn’t outplay us. They simply had a strategy that worked, and one that we failed to even acknowledge, or so it seemed.

I can absolutely appreciate the team going out to attack and we saw that for much of the first half, but the thing is, if you don’t then score, you’d sure as shit better have a plan to defend as well. When we found our attacking play being stifled as the game wore on, we didn’t adjust. As the Galaxy began to exert control of the centre of the pitch, we didn’t adjust.

If this seems familiar, it’s because we’ve seen this movie before.

The changes finally came after the goal. Boyd – who missed that early chance and had another long range effort cleared, but is looking ever more anxious and frustrated in front of goal – went off, as did Alhassan and Songo’o, but by then the Galaxy were able to close down the match by sheer weight of numbers.

The parallels between Boyd and Kenny Cooper are concerning. Both are good strikers, solid goalscorers, and yet their time in the Pacific Northwest has been marked by bad luck, poor service and, at times, an apparent loss of confidence in front of goal.

I should address the goal as well, I suppose, as complaints about the refereeing were prevalent on twitter after the match.

While they certainly excelled themselves with some calls that betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of the offside rule, on the goal I see no problems, to be honest.

To get on my hobby horse for a moment – goalies get far too much protection as it is. The slightest glancing touch of a keeper is invariably called a foul on him, and it’s gone way beyond ridiculous. An attacker should have as much right to fairly challenge a goalkeeper as he does a defender.

That said, I can see nothing wrong with the goal. Donovan gets himself into a dangerous area, and some were arguing he was obstructing Perkins. I think he had as much right to move toward the ball, and get himself in a dangerous area, as Perkins did to try and clear it – which, by the way, I don’t think he was getting near in any case.

If Perkins had expended as much energy in playing to the whistle as he did in waving his arms around, he might have got more a hand to the ball.

It’s very much a subjective thing though. Some will see obstruction, some won’t. This ref didn’t. It wasn’t an egregious call by any means.

And Portland didn’t lose this match because a ref didn’t cover Perkins in cotton wool. They lost because they did what they always do.

I mean, who needs a Plan B when Plan A is working so well, huh?

Next up, Seattle. Yeah.

#rctid