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
Part 2: Everyday Magic
Part 3: Defensive Axis
Part 4: Endurance
Part 5: Maximum Impact
Goal 61. Sal Zizzo vs Toronto FC
15th August 2012
Hodophobia, fear of travel, is something Timbers fans would be familiar with after one wearying disappointment after another on the road. For Sal Zizzo the toughest journey he’s faced so far has been from the bench to the field.
Steven Smith’s corner was met by David Horst at the back post. The ball fell into the path of Zizzo, who took a couple of stabs at getting the ball home.
It remains Zizzo’s sole goal in over 60 MLS appearances, but he made up for a lack of goals with four assists in the latter half of the season in his most productive spell in Portland.
121 days, 718 minutes of play, had elapsed between the Timbers last road goal and Sal Zizzo poking the ball over the line in Toronto.
Kris Boyd had been the last Portland player to enjoy scoring on foreign soil, way back in April when he put the Timbers 1-0 up on LA.
Zizzo and Boyd’s goals were the only times that year that the Timbers had taken the lead in eleven road games, and the ten previous to Toronto had seen the Timbers draw two and lose eight. Nagbe’s equalizer against Dallas was the only other goal the Timbers had scored on the road in 2012.
The strength of Portland at home during their debut season, including one run of five straight wins and another of four, only threw their road form into even sharper focus. Only 12 of the team’s 42 points (29%) were earned on the road in 2011, and that dropped to 7 in 34 (21%) in 2012.
Neither Boyd nor Zizzo’s goals would count towards the Timbers first road win on 2012, and it’s a curious stat that of Boyd’s 7 goals, 5 were to put the Timbers 1-0 up, and the Timbers lost 3, drew 1 and won only once.
Getting the first goal is often crucial, on the road arguably more so, and the Timbers haven’t been able to consistently do so. Their overall tally stands at 41-39 in favour of the opposition, but their away record is poor, going behind in almost two-thirds of games.
Given their poor record in scoring first away from home, and a consistent inability to get points from those games, it’s little wonder that the Timbers were among the poorest road teams over 2011 and 2012, performing well below average.
By way of comparison, home form was reasonably good with the Timbers getting the first punch in more often than not, and converting those 1-0 leads into a minimum of 2 points a time.
A number of lost leads in 2012 cost the Timbers crucial points, but a back of an envelope calculation shows that even if they’d only performed only averagely well on the road that year they would’ve earned 10 more points and nudged Vancouver out of the playoffs.
Five wins in 43 matches is nowhere near good enough, and it’s a telling that four of those wins involved the team keeping a clean sheet on the road, something the Timbers have only managed seven times in total.
Two of those shut-outs have come in the Timbers last three trips, and Porter’s side have yet to taste defeat on the road as part of a run that stretches back to a 1-0 win in Vancouver.
Sal Zizzo played in that match too, and he came to be one of the defining figures of that strange period between head coaches which is not something you’d expect of a guy who made the most appearances off the bench in 2011 with 16. He still managed 4th with 8 in 2012, but 11 of his 12 starts came under Wilkinson and he struck up a very fruitful relationship with Bright Dike.
Between the two of them we got a glimpse into a facet of Porter’s gameplan that many hadn’t given much consideration to before he arrived, which was his direct game. It’s easy to get caught up in talk about possession and quick passing, and forget that the best teams know when and how to do things “the easy way”.
Dike’s ability to bully defenders and be a target man allowed the team to fully exploit the natural width that Zizzo gives you, which they did to some effect. Frederic Piquionne plays the same way when the team break quickly, able to offer an aerial threat if a cross comes in but adds a better close control and awareness than Dike which is perhaps what let the attack down at times.
Given the resources at his disposal, Wilkinson did the best he could in putting out a team that fit the blueprint agreed with Porter. Clearly there was no way the Timbers could play then as we do now, as there was no Valeri figure back then to corkscrew the attack around, but they could take a look at players within the context of one facet of Timbers 2.0 and use that as a base to judge who stayed and who went.
Zizzo’s impact clearly did enough to earn him a spot ahead of Eric Alexander or Franck Songo’o, but we saw him used as a wing back at times which seems to have been an acknowledgement that while Zizzo did well executing this kind of gameplan, that wasn’t the Porter’s Plan A. You could see how a pacy wing-back with the ability to swing in a ball to the head of your big striker could be a real benefit to any team, especially one built to very exacting specifications Porter and Wilkinson had in mind.
Dike and Zizzo have seen their chances to play their way into Porter’s Plan A hampered by injury, and both have seen other guys come in and own their role.
Zizzo, in particular, has the toughest route into the XI. Nagbe, Wallace, Valeri, Alhassan and Valencia are his competition in attack, and Jewsbury, Harrington and Miller bar his path in defence.
He’s been here before though, as has Dike, and I wouldn’t put it past another Zizzo-Dike combination on the scoresheet before 2013 is played out.
Goal 74. Bright Dike vs San Jose Earthquakes
27th October 2012
From matches in front of a few hundred people in Southern California to the brink of Africa Cup of Nations glory in South Africa, via the Pacific Northwest, Bright Dike’s story is one of being the right man at the right time. Has his time run out already?
Eric Alexander gets a foot in to deflect the ball towards Bright Dike in the San Jose box. The striker’s first shot is saved, but he finds the net with his second and fires the Timbers level in a largely meaningless end of season game.
It was Dike’s fifth goal in under 900 minutes, and it was fitting that it was he who scored the goal that brought down a year that promised bright things for the soon-to-be Nigerian international.
Timbers fans attentions were diverted from round the clock, 24-hour Porterwatch for a time after the curtain fell on the 2012 season by Bright Dike’s improbable run at making the Nigeria squad for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.
A debut against Venezuela in Florida was followed by a goal against Catalunya that makes up for its shady existence as far as the official FIFA records are concerned with being a goal against a defence with freaking Pique and Puyol in it. Three touches and it’s in.
He didn’t make the squad in the end, and Nigeria didn’t seem to miss him on the way to winning the cup, but that was the least of his worries after injury forced him to miss preseason.
A bitter blow for a guy that had been forced onto the sidelines while money was thrown at players to do the very thing that Dike showed he could do under Gavin Wilkinson – score goals.
It was exactly the kind of dynamism that was missing in the previous custodians of the “number nine” role. Sure, a case could be made that both guys were and are better than Dike, but that doesn’t change the fact that Dike did more in those last few months of 2012 to remind Timbers fans what a striker was than his highly paid teammates.
There’s a reason why Dike’s name has been verbicized by Timbers fans and why to be Diked doesn’t mean to be beaten by a sublime piece of skill, but no-one has ever pretended Dike is something that he’s not.
The same can’t be said about Kris Boyd, though it’s perhaps not the Scot’s fault. He’s never made any secret of the fact that he’s a penalty box striker, and that’s what he likes to do best. In his own way he is every bit as limited as Bright Dike in that they both have a fairly narrow skillset that are geared towards one particular style of play. For Boyd, it was looking to get on the end of passes in the box while Dike went out to earn his name, and score goals along the way.
As it happens, Dike’s style fits Porter Swiss Army attack because it works, given the right circumstances. As poor and disjointed the Timbers were in 2012, even moreso after Spencer’s sacking, Dike found the net five times in under 900 minutes.
His first came in the match after Zizzo’s goal, when he put the Timbers 1-0 in New York, off a Zizzo assist.
As Dike was rounding off 2012 it seemed like a long time since Kris Boyd had last scored, grabbing two in a 5-3 loss to LA in July.
The writing was already on the wall by the time for Boyd. Spencer was gone and there was no getting away from his penalty miss against Cal FC no matter how many journalists you refuse to speak to. Player and club mutually fell out of love with each other, and Boyd spent most of the tail end of 2012 on the bench after having his starting spot Diked from him.
The move for Boyd was always a gamble and in the end the guy with a poor record outwith Scotland continued to have a poor record outwith Scotland. Having played few games since leaving Rangers, and with an aborted spell in Turkey behind him, Boyd had joined the Timbers as a player short of fitness and out of sync with his teammates.
Never one to make the list of a club’s fittest players in the first place, Boyd always looked a little short of sharpness and hustle that could’ve been the result a lessening of desire and focus as much as tired legs struggling to meet the demands of a league populated by proper athletes. We’ll never know.
Since his time in Portland, Boyd has returned to his old club in Kilmarnock, and scored at a moderate rate before seeing another coach who made a big deal about signing him sacked months after signing him. Where Boyd goes from here is a mystery, with Killie now under new management and with a war brewing with the fans over ownership of the club, and Rangers seemingly not on the cards.
In many ways, Dike is at a similar crossroads, but it’s one he’s been at many times before. Strikers have come and gone, failing to provide the answers the management sought, yet Dike endured on the sidelines until, with a change at the top, he got his chance to shine.
It’s hard to see a way past Johnson and Piquionne into the starting XI for Dike as it stands, with the Nigerian on the comeback trail, but that’s been said before and he’s still found his way to goal if he’s got to Dike someone to get there.