Tag Archives: Kris Boyd

Timbers 100: Part Four – Endurance

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 61. Sal Zizzo vs Toronto FC

15th August 2012

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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.


Watch The Goal Here

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.

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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.

100 Road PerformanceGiven 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.

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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.

Jack Jewsbury’s ripper of a strike won the Cascadia Cup for Portland and gave Gavin Wilkinson a positive note to leave center stage on.

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.

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Goal 74. Bright Dike vs San Jose Earthquakes

27th October 2012

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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?


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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.

They weren’t always pretty, as his very first MLS goal shows, but Dike’s sheer athleticism was a thing of beauty on its own at times too.

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.

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His first came in the match after Zizzo’s goal, when he put the Timbers 1-0 in New York, off a Zizzo assist.

It wasn’t long before he had number two, scoring the only goal against Colorado before the consolation against RSL, and equalizers against DC United and San Jose.

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.

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Timbers 100: Part Three – Defensive Axis

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

Part 1: Island of Misfit Toys

Kenny Cooper and Eddie Johnson

Part 2: Everyday Magic

Jorge Perlaza and Darlington Nagbe

Part 3: Defensive Axis

Eric Brunner and Kris Boyd

Part 4: Endurance

Sal Zizzo and Bright Dike

Part 5: Maximum Impact

Rodney Wallace and Frederic Piquionne


Goal 50. Eric Brunner vs Chicago Fire

20th May 2012

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


Watch The Goal Here

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Goal 53. Kris Boyd vs Seattle Sounders

24th June 2012

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


Watch The Goal Here

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Spencer found that one out the hard way.

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The Pragmatist

Once Arsenal is in possession of the ball, the right and left backs automatically become wingers. It’s almost like playing with two wingers on each side. That’s the way we’re going to encourage our guys to play –when we get the ball, get forward and attack. Attack in numbers and defend in numbers.

John Spencer promised to bring direct, attacking football to Portland when he was hired as the club’s first MLS head coach, and that is, for the most part, what the Timbers fans got.

It was certainly direct. The ball would be cycled from defence to attack in as few passes as was necessary (often only one).

The team were also pretty attacking, even if it was often toothless. The Timbers would get the ball forward quickly, run into a dead-end or give up possession tamely, and then be caught out of position at the back.

In a way, Spencer sowed the seeds for his own destruction. By emphasising a direct style, he was leaving his full-backs cruelly exposed, which in turn would stretch the space between centre-backs and leave the team vulnerable to breaking runs from midfield as well as being exposed down the flanks.

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When Spencer would adopt a defensive posture, such as against Sporting Kansas City, the team showed they were capable of grinding out results against good teams, but at the expense of pretty much any attacking threat. Or attempts to play football. This ugly style didn’t really fit the pre-season promises of attacking, exciting football, but Spencer never seemed able to square-the-circle and find a way to combine his style with the players he had at his disposal, and balance defence and attack. It was either one or the other or, on occasion, neither.

After Spencer’s dismissal, Gavin Wilkinson stepped in and changed the side’s 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3, preparing the ground for Caleb Porter. Porter himself confirmed that he and Wilkinson had been in a constant dialogue even as the new coach was guiding his Akron Zips through the NCAA Championship.

The announcement of Porter’s hiring had some Timbers fans drooling at the prospect of “Timber-taka” after watching Akron’s “Death by 1000 passes” video, but Porter himself seemed keen to temper those who were expecting Cascadia’s answer to Barcelona to rock up when New York visit on March 3rd.

I am realistic, I’m not naive. I don’t think that we are just going to throw the ball out and play beautiful soccer and automatically pass the ball around and beat the New York Red Bulls on March 3rd.

There’s no doubt that Porter will seek to instill a change in the footballing culture of the Timbers, but in the short term I suspect we’ll be seeing a more pragmatic approach from the new coach.

They brought in a couple veteran guys like myself and Will Johnson, guys who have been around and been around successful teams and been in successful locker rooms and kind of know what it takes to win in this league. So it sounds to me like this year is all about bringing those pieces together and winning.”

Michael Harrington was signed from Sporting Kansas City, obstentibly to replace Steven Smith, who departed after becoming one of the Timbers most dependable and consistent players over the home stretch of 2012. After spending much of their first two years stumbling in a slapstick manner from one full-back catastrophe to another, there was something inevitable about the team finally seeming to lock down on of the positions at least, only for that player to up sticks and leave.

I don’t know a great deal about Harrington, but I haven’t heard many anticipating exciting wing play from him. Rodney Wallace seems, at times, to suffer from Jeremy Hall Syndrome, forgetting whether he’s a winger or a full-back. I thought he played his best football in the centre of midfield, but I don’t think there’s room for him there now, and I’m not sure he’s the guy to play as the left-sided attacker as that’s where I expect Nagbe to play next season.

Under Spencer, the full-backs were pushed on, acting like wingers as the team looked to get the ball in from wide positions, despite never signing an out-and-out targetman. To go back to the 1000 Passes video for a moment, the first thing you notice is, not surprisingly given the title, the number of passes being made by the Zips.

The attractive way they pass and move together is certainly eye catching, and you can see why it draws comparisons with Barcelona’s tiki-taka style, but what is more relevant to the Timbers is the way they use the possession to dominate the field.

They won’t simply content themselves with knocking it across the back a few times, as they seek to use possession to pin their opponents back into their own half. The old adage that you can’t concede a goal if the opposition can’t get the ball is true, and by keeping the ball the Zips are able to conserve their energy.

Domination of the field and conservation of energy were not the team’s forte under Spencer. The direct style Spenny wanted his team to play resulting in a side that eschewed possession for attacking thrust and ceded the ball to the opposition in over 70% of games.

The relentless athleticism also led to issue with late game collapses. As the system changed under Wilkinson, undoubtably in consultation with Porter, and there was less emphasis on the full-backs getting up and down the line, the number of late goals conceded started to drop. The hiring of a new fitness coach as well as an increased emphasis on modern alaytical techniques – something you never felt fit with Spencer’s up-and-at-them old school style – will, one would hope, allow the team to up the tempo without running out of gas in the final 15 minutes.

The role of the full-back is important under Porter’s possession-based system. With the team pushed on, the full-backs allow them to make the field as big as possible and stretching it to the sidelines. They aren’t the “almost-wingers” of Spencer, but still require sound technical ability and awareness as they’re an important part in circulating the ball and probing for space to get in behind the defence.

Providing you can get the right players in, this possession of the football acts as both defence and attack, and gives the full-backs a safety net to push forward. It would be fair to say that full-back isn’t the league’s strong point, so the hiring of Harrington, a player with bags of league experience, is a pretty solid get, if not exactly a reason to get the bunting out and rush down to get a new name on the back of your shirt.

Of course, it’s one thing to play like that when you possess the technical ace card by being able to attract the hottest prospects, it’s another when you’re a team coming off of a 17th place finish, with the 3rd worst defensive record.

mlsdefence

Even though the league has seen a general trend towards more goals per game despite an increasing in defensive spending, when the figures are broken down to level of investment vs results you can see that there is a relationship between more spending and better defences.

investvddefv2

The above charts maps all the changes since 2008 for MLS clubs, going back the official salary info that gets released. What you see is that a team will generally spend more on defence from one year to the next 70% of the time, though most changes tend to be very minimal variations up or down, and that an increase in spending tends to see a reduction in the number of goals conceded.

defcolorbar

Obviously it’s much more complicated than more money = better, but I think it’s illustrative all the same. Sensible investment in keys areas will bring about an improvement, and a marked improved in defence will give the team, obviously, a better chance of turning 0 points into 1, and 1 point into 3. It only takes a second to score a goal, but you need to defend for the full 90 minutes.

The likelihood of your investment returning in terms of fewer goals being conceded increases as you spend more money on that area. It’s basic soccernomics, to steal a phrase.

In the signing of Harrington, I see a “safe” pick at left back and Merritt Paulson confirmed what everyone knew, that the Timbers weren’t done with the roster, or indeed, the defence.

Two areas where GW/CP still want to make additions: creative mid and right back. Goal is to have all spots filled by start of pre-season

The tweet that also seemed to confirm the rumour of Timbers interest in Mix Diskeruud, with talks apparently stalling a few days later and Diskerud now looking likely to stay in Norway, the flirtation with Portland looking more and more like an attempt to force Rosenborg’s hand in contract negotiations than a serious contemplation of a move to the States. Since then Diego Valeri has emerged as the man the Timbers want to pick up, with speculation being that he will be signed as a Designated Player.

I have to return to the full-back position though, as I feel that is the crucial area the Timbers need to get right this year. Hopefully Porter will find the special formula to fix it. The Timbers invested in defence last season, bringing in Steven Smith and Kosuke Kimura, as well as Hanyer Mosquera in the centre, but only one of those guys will, presumably, be playing in Timbers green in 2013.

I wouldn’t expect fireworks over Portland when the, hopefully first choice, guy they have for right-back lined up actually signs as I suspect it’ll be one of those “consistent and dependable” types, married to sound technical ability and tactical nous.

Though I’d worry about his pace against teams with quick wingers, Jack Jewsbury would do a decent job at right-back, I think. He filled in last year, and though I felt it robbed the team of a bit of width in the final third at times, the football under Porter wouldn’t necessarily place those same demands on him.

As I’ve said before, it’s hard to see a place for Jewsbury in the midfield, especially following the signing of Will Johnson.

There’s no doubt the talent on that roster is there, but talent is such a small part of winning in MLS games. It’s hardly even worth talking about. It’s more about teamwork and hard work and those kinds of things, those things get you results in MLS.

Will Johnson echoed his new team mate, emphasising hard work over talent. There’s no doubt that Porter’s style will require great athleticism as lots of movement on and off the ball are essential, and Johnson brings a more dynamic presence to the centre than Jewsbury.

boydy

Porter used the press conference to drop the biggest hint yet that Kris Boyd’s time as a Timber is as good as over. Though he wouldn’t say outright that Boyd was done, he did confirm what many have suspected that Boyd’s penalty box based style isn’t what Porter himself expects from his striker.

Kris Boyd is a player that I think will have a hard time playing in the way that we want to play. And that’s no knock on Kris. He would fit in a lot of different systems but, with what I want out of my strikers, it’s going to be difficult for him to offer what I’m looking for in that position.

In a way, I find this encouraging. Not because I don’t rate Boyd as I do, and still believe he has all the tools to be a big star in MLS should he decide to, and get the chance to, remain in the league; but because it represents a change in the way the Timbers are building their team. No more is about just getting the “best” players and making them fit into a system, as it seemed to be for the first couple of years, but rather it is about putting the system in place first, and get the “right” players for that system.

The door isn’t closed on Boyd, but with the emergence of Bright Dike, the stockpiling of strikers, and the imminent announcement of a new DP, it’s hard to see Boyd hanging around for long. There was talk out of Scotland about Boyd going back to Rangers, but in the short term that would seem unlikely. Rangers are labouring under a player registration ban until 31 August but, thanks to a quirk of the calendar, that day falls on a Saturday, which means the registration (and transfer) window will be extended to Mondays 2nd September meaning that Boyd’s old club would be able to register players for the upcoming 2013/14 season.

However, even if there was gas in the Rangers talk, that leaves 9 months where Boyd would either be being paid not to play – and at 29 one would imagine Boyd would want to maximise his playing time – or a potentially messy situation where Rangers would risk the wrath of FIFA and the SFA in playing Boyd as a trialist (trialists are allowed to play in league games in the Scottish lower leagues). The likelier outcome, given that a move with MLS is a more remote possibility, would be to loan Boyd back to the UK, say to a club like Nottingham Forest who have Boyd’s ex-manager, and oft-time suitor, Alex McLeish in charge, until the end of the season, putting the player in the shop window for a potential transfer or, failing that, writing off the last few months of his contract and allowing the player to find a new club back home in the summer. This would represent the least financial loss for the club, as opposed to simply buying out the whole year of his remaining contract. We shall see.

But anyway, let’s get back on track. With much of the work thus far being done on bolstering the defence and midfield, I think it’s pretty clear where the priorities of Porter and Wilkinson have lain this offseason.

Porters looking to put some 1-0’s on the board, and win games by simply not losing them first. That sounds obvious and dumb, but it’s something we’ve struggled to do as we’ve often been our own worst enemy. Shutting-out the opponent guarantees at least a point, and all it takes is one swing of the boot, or graze off the shoulder to turn that one into three.

2011 saw the Timbers keep nine clean sheets, six of which came at home, but 2012 had only five, three at home. As this map shows, the Timbers also struggled to score, going goalless twelve times in 2012, up from nine the year before.

In their three home clean-sheets of 2012, they won two by 1-0 (Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City) and drew the other against Columbus Crew. With a bit more defensive stability, even with meagre returns from another under-performing attack, the Timbers could reasonably expect to grind out a few 1-0’s along the way, and those extra few points could be what it takes to put a side in with a chance of glory, in a league where over half the sides qualify for the post-season.

I suspect his experiences with the USMNT may have just chastened college soccer’s rising star. Where once he rejected DC United, following the disappointment in failing to reach the Olympics and the resultant somewhat-backlash against the young coach, Porter has now decided that a club at a crossroads was the perfect fit, saying he was “uncomfortable being comfortable” in Akron.

Caleb Porter will, I’m sure, seek to bring more than defensive grind to Portland as the signing of Ryan Johnson and Diego Valeri speak volumes as to how Porter will look to utilise pace and craft to break through defences. Given the way the Timbers struggled in offence, closing the door at the back will only take you so far before the old attacking frustrations kick in. The Timbers have lacked a creative central midfielder thus far, with Alexander seemingly happier a little deeper, and most of the flair in the team is played out wide.

Porter expressed a desire to utilise Homegrown Players more going forward. With Brent Richards spending much of 2012 on the fringes of the team and Steven Evans announced as the club’s second Homegrown player, following a successful season with the U’23s and University of Portland, it’ll be interesting to see how and when these guys are fed into the starting XI.

While I don’t think the roster reconstruction is over, the addition of a right back and a creative midfielder seem like the last two big pieces of the puzzle. The are still questions over the attack – I love me some Dike, but I’m still not sold on him as a consistent starter – but I think it’ll be a case of one out before we get one in, as we’re carrying a lot of bodies in attack, and they can’t all play together, unless you want to turn the clock back to the early days of football when the 1-2-7 formation held sway.

I expect to see the team play possession-based, attack-minded football, but not naively so. Porter clearly has strong ideas on how the game should be played, but I don’t think he’s such an ideologue that he’ll seek to play in a way that leaves the team exposed at the back. Equally, I don’t think it’ll be exclusively 4-3-3 all the way. Barcelona can do that because they’re so much better than just about anyone else, but the Timbers aren’t. As Spencer found out to his cost, simply going out there and doing the same things every week doesn’t work so well in as league where parity rules. You need to adapt, or die.

As for how the team will shape in attack, and seek to better a record that saw only Chivas USA go more matches in 2012 without finding the opposition net, we’ll have to wait and see what the next few months bring, but I’m encouraged by the focused way that Porter and Wilkinson have been going about their business thus far.

As Kristen noted, Porter isn’t exactly one for Patton-esque stirring speeches – at least not in public, though by all accounts he has the ability to inspire players to go above and beyond – but I was encouraged by his press conference as he addressed many of the areas of concern, showing that he gets it. Learning from previous mistakes, both his own and those of others, is key to becoming a better person and a better coach, and Porter seems to have done that.

Of course, the proof will come when the season gets underway, but for now I’m pretty optimistic that the Timbers have turned the corner and are ready to start delivering some success to a fanbase that have endured two tough years, but keep on coming back and in greater numbers than before.

Under Construction

The second stage of the Re-Entry Draft passed with the Timbers again declining to select anyone, to little surprise. It was left to Real Salt Lake to raise eyebrows when they selected Lovel Palmer.

There’s no doubting that Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey have shown an ability in the past to build good squads but, as they rebuild their team after a less-than stellar 2012 (sound familiar?), this is still a move that causes me some head scratching. There were occasional games and flashes of the kind of player Palmer could be (mostly for Jamaica), but these were vastly outweighed by ineffectual and downright bad performances that earned him the “facepalmer” nickname among some fans. Perhaps Jason Kreis is just the man to wheedle some kind of consistency from Palmer after a frustrating spell in Portland. Anyway, let the countdown begin to the inevitable 45 yard screamer into the top corner the first time the Timbers visit Rio Tinto.

Following the recent moves, and the re-signing of Danny Mwanga, it leaves the roster looking something like this:

# Pos Player Name Age Country
21 M Diego Chara 26 Colombia
9 F Kris Boyd 29 Scotland
D Michael Harrington 26 USA
12 D David Horst 27 USA
35 D Andrew Jean-Baptiste 20 USA
8 M Franck Songo'o 25 Cameroon
13 D/M Jack Jewsbury 31 USA
M Will Johnson 25 Canada
24 F Sebastián Rincón 18 Colombia
33 D Hanyer Mosquera 25 Colombia
1 GK Donovan Ricketts 35 Jamaica
6 M/F Darlington Nagbe 22 Liberia
17 M Eric Alexander 24 USA
11 M Kalif Alhassan 22 Ghana
GK Milos Kocic 27 Serbia
98 D Mamadou "Futty" Danso 29 The Gambia
19 F Bright Dike 25 USA
90 GK Jake Gleeson 22 New Zealand
18 D Ryan Kawulok 22 USA
27 D Chris Taylor 23 USA
22 D/M Rodney Wallace 24 Costa Rica
7 M Sal Zizzo 25 USA
16 M/F Brent Richards 22 USA
F Ryan Johnson 28 Jamaica
10 F Danny Mwanga 21 DR Congo
20 F Jose Adolfo Valencia 20 Colombia
2 F Mike Fucito 26 USA


With the Timbers having traded away all their picks in the 2013 SuperDraft – an interesting development considering Caleb Porter would be the one head coach in MLS who’d be best placed to judge the quality of the crop of players coming through this year – any further moves are likely to be players coming into the league from abroad, or further intra-MLS trades.

Portland Timbers Depth Chart 2013
Portland Timbers Depth Chart 2013

Looking at the current depth chart, there are a few things that stand out. One, we’ve got loads of strikers. Like, tons. If, as we suspect, we’re going to be playing with one guy in the middle, it’s very likely we’ll see at least a couple of these guys gone by the time First Kick rolls around.

portland_timbers_forestRumour still swirls around the future of Kris Boyd, with the bastion of journalistic integrity, The Sun, reporting that Boyd is set to be axed by the Timbers. Nottingham Forest, where Boyd had a fairly productive loan spell, have been linked with the Scot and they would certainly fit the bill as the sort of club I’d expect him to go to – Championship, fringes of the play-offs, looking for that extra little push to put them over the line. We’ll see what happens there.

Gavin Wilkinson, deflecting rumours about the club being interested in signing Mikkel Diskerud, did confirm that the Timbers were actively seeking to bring in a creative, attacking midfielder. A look at the depth chart shows that the Timbers do lack that creative guile through the middle, so it certainly makes sense that it’s there that the Timbers are looking to add to.

Yesterday Merritt Paulson echoed his General Manager in confirming the club were actively pursuing an attacking midfielder.

Two areas where GW/CP still want to make additions: creative mid and right back. Goal is to have all spots filled by start of pre-season

There is a real dearth of options at right back currently. Palmer and Kosuke Kimura have both departed leaving Ryan Kawulok, who hasn’t been given his chance yet, and Jack Jewsbury, as well as Michael Harrington who could fill in on either side. Paulson’s tweet would seem to indicate that Jewsbury is no more than a depth option at right back, which makes sense to me as I think his lack of pace would leave the side vulnerable, but it once more feeds into the insecurity around Jewsbury’s spot on the team.

Stumptown Footy recently had a piece on Wilkinson talking to both Jonathan Bornstein and Robbie Findley, two players that the Timbers hold the MLS rights to, with the strong suggestion that at least one of the two is an immediate target.

Findley has struggled in Europe since leaving RSL at the end of the 2010 MLS season. He hasn’t scored for Nottingham Forest (them again) since February 2012 and a loan spell at League Two side Gillingham ended after a month, with a sum total of 243 minutes on the pitch, one league start and more yellow cards than goals (1-0). A common refrain from Forest fans about Findley is that he is a striker who seems to be utterly bereft of confidence, and a return to the States may be just the thing to get him back on track as he’s unlikely to break into the Forest team any time soon.

Bornstein’s move to Mexico hasn’t been terribly fruitful for the US international, and Tigres seem to be making another effort to move him on. Of the two, Bornstein would seem like the more logical “get” at this point. We’re practically tripping over strikers at the moment, and I’m not sure we need to be taking on a drastic rehab case like Findley on top of everything else 2013 will bring. Bornstein could add depth to midfield and at left-back (perhaps pushing Harrington to right back). Again, we’ll see what, if anything, happens there.

Someone definitely arriving in Portland very soon is Caleb Porter. The new head coach bid farewell to Akron, and can now give his full attention to the Timbers as pre-season looms every bigger on the horizon.

Six Defining Moments of 2012

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

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

1. The Late Collapse vs Real Salt Lake

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

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

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

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

2. Eric Brunner’s injury vs Vancouver Whitecaps

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

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

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

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

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

3. Kris Boyd’s goal vs Seattle Sounders

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

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

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

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

4. Kris Boyd’s misses vs Chivas USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Gavin Wilkinson’s experiment vs Seattle Sounders

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

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

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

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


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

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?

Unfinished business

I’ve been writing this for days now. I’ve only just decided to start over. Bear with me. I’m going to write fast and see if I can get the words out before they become too much of a mess. Apologies in advance.

I’ve been a little haunted since the reserves match Sunday. It was a fun game and, after Saturday (when I missed the derby to attend a memorial service), it felt… healing. It felt like going home after a long, drawn-out absence.

I never thought I’d see Kris Boyd play in a reserves match, but there we were. And he looked good. He was active and engaged and, within the first ten minutes of the match, had an assist and a goal.

And then it felt like the end.

Did we just see Kris Boyd’s last goal as a Timber?

My heart hurts to think about it.

After several games on the bench, limited minutes and a view from the sidelines of a derby match, his injury against San Jose has set me on edge. Maybe that was it. Maybe that reserve match goal really was Kris Boyd’s last wearing our club’s badge.

A couple days ago, another member of the Timbers Bloggers Battalion posed this question: if I could bring back only five players next year, who would they be? I warned him that my picks would be entirely emotion-driven.

Eric Alexander, of course, because I know he can do more. Diego Chara for the effort he puts in every time he suits up for us. David Horst for the sheer fact that I want to see him beat the crap out of the OTHER Eddie Johnson sometime in the near future. Mike Fucito because I can’t help loving that little hobbit.

And, it will come as no surprise, Kris Boyd.

Boyd makes the list not just because of my ridiculous fan-crush, but because I think he has some unfinished business here.

If we go back to the “Cubbie incident“, we remember that Cubbie tried to paint him as the failed savior of the Timbers 2012 season and the reason John Spencer was fired. Lame.

But, watching Boyd struggle since then, it seems he took it to heart. He’s had flashes, momentary glimpses of the player he should be, but those have been few, separated by long instances of Gavin-imposed exile.

So, what happens now? The season is coming to a close, the playoffs are beyond our reach. Boyd’s one-plus-one contract is weighing on my mind.

Will he stay? Does he want to stay? Does incoming manager Caleb Porter want him to stay?

I want him to stay. I want him to succeed. I’m a sucker for a romantic comeback story and the scene is set for one here.

Here’s the thing: I loved Kenny Cooper. I will always keep a special place in my heart for Kenny. Soft-spoken, polite, misused Kenny Cooper.

And now, I wait to see what happens to Kenny’s replacement. Kenny, let’s remember, is currently among the league’s leading scorers. For another club that figured out how he works.

Here’s to hoping that we get a second chance at figuring out how Kris Boyd works. If anyone from the Timbers coaching staff needs me to point them in the right direction on this one, I’ve got a fair few Youtube videos I can point out.

So, here, because I feel I need to, a few words not *about* Kris, but to him.

Stay. If the choice is yours to make, I hope you choose to stay. The Portland chapter of your story is still being written. Don’t leave in the middle. Stay and become a legend, not just a footnote in our history.

I was there at the press conference when you were introduced to the Timbers faithful. I was there for your first goal at Jeld-Wen. I stood with you, shoulder to shoulder, at midfield during a season ticket holder event and looked up into the North End and I imagined a day in the future when I would tell my kids about this guy, this legendary Scottish striker that, by some odd turn of luck, ended up here in Portland.

I hope that, after I tell them about your rocky first year, I will be able to tell them about your triumphant comeback in your second year here, when you led the league in scoring and led our club deep into the playoffs.

Help me tell that story, Kris.

Give me a story to tell.


You can read more from Kristen at her blog.


[post_ender]

Bunked Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#RCTID


[post_ender]

Wanted?

With the team a goal down at home to their greatest rivals, Gavin Wilkinson must have at some point cast a glance across his bench in search of The One who could come on and change the game in Portland’s favour.

There he would’ve seen Kalif Alhassan, a mercurial winger on his way back to full fitness after a season that has defined stop-start; Eric Alexander, still the club’s leading assist provider, who had recently put in a great performance deputising for Diego Chara; Futty Danso, the big Gambian central defender who hasn’t kicked a ball for the first team since a 5-0 loss in Dallas; Mike Fucito, the ex-Sounders striker signed from Montreal; Danny Mwanga, a popular striker who had been traded to the club in exchange for Jorge Perlaza, who is now back in his native Colombia; and lastly, Kris Boyd.

Boyd was the marquee signing on the close season. A record breaking goal scorer, signed as a designated player to fill the gap left by Kenny Cooper, Boyd had joined when the club was still coached by John Spencer, and it’s not a stretch to speculate that Spencer was a big, if not the big, reason behind his decision to go to the Timbers.

He hit the ground running with a goal in his competitive debut against Philadelphia and would warm himself to the fans with his goal, and celebration, in the earlier match against the Sounders – a game the Timbers won.

But along the way there has been some rough sailing. A penalty miss against Cal FC saw Boyd cast as the villain to many, as well as some bad misses and a dip in confidence which led to his being dropped by Wilkinson once Spencer had been hustled out the door.

Confidence

Since his two goals in the 5-3 loss to LA Galaxy – Wilkinson’s first match in charge – it’s been a little over 400 minutes since Boyd last found the back of the net. There isn’t a striker who hasn’t gone through similar spells in their career. More than most positions the role of goal scorer is one that is founded, to a large degree, on confidence and once that takes a hit, it can take a while to get back on track.

“Instead of usually being composed and putting it in the back of the net, I’ve snatched at the last couple of chances. The chances have been there, it’s been bad finishing. It’s been bad finishing on my part.”

Boyd’s own words sum it succinctly. It’s the quandary a manager faces with a misfiring striker – do you stick with him and hope that a ball bounces his way and it sparks him back into goalscoring life, or drop him for the good of the team? If missing a couple of chances can kick a players self-belief down a notch, you can imagine that being dropped entirely isn’t likely to have him believe he can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Considering the season, in a competitive sense, is as good as over it’s pretty telling that Wilkinson dropped Boyd rather than let the highest paid player at the club play through a sticky spell. The suspicion is that Boyd was a “Spencer signing” and has no long-term place at the club under Wilkinson and Porter.

The Dike Factor

Certainly Wilkinson would point to the impact that Boyd’s replacement has had on the team. Bright Dike came back from a loan where LA Blues, where he’d scored a few goals – confidence – and found the net twice in his first three starts. Typical poacher’s efforts, both goals were scored in the box, as the result of fine work by Sal Zizzo to set up the chances.

Since a winning goal against Colorado though, it’s been a bit of a slog for Dike. He’s now 200 minutes since the last time he scored, though it was only the width of the post that denied him a winner against Seattle, and I’m not alone in sharing some doubts about Dike’s ability to lead the line as a first choice striker.

The received wisdom is that Dike is a better fit for the system than Boyd. As that system has changed, moving away from the 4-4-2 that Spencer played, so Boyd has seen himself pushed further to the periphery of Wilkinson’s brave new world.

The System

I had flagged up Boyd’s lack of suitability in a lone front man role as a concern when the Timbers signed him – urging that a good partner be found to play alongside him. Alas, the Timbers didn’t seem to know what they’d signed, or how to get the best out of him, and so he’s never really found the consistency that he had when he was focal point at Kilmarnock and Rangers.

However, where Boyd has struggled as the lone striker before is when he’s been on a team that has played on the backfoot. For Scotland, the formation is very much a 4-5-1, with the emphasis on the “5”. The midfield will sit deep, and Scotland will look to the lone guy up top to run into corner and chase lost causes all day in the hope that something breaks for him. That’s why Vancouver goal-machine Kenny Miller gets the nod more often than not, and why Boyd is no longer a part of the international setup.

Similarly, when Rangers were successful in Europe, it was built on a defensive model. The football was, all but the most blue-nosed would admit, absolutely fucking turgid to watch when Rangers made it all the way to the UEFA Cup final. It was once more a system built on having a lone man up top foraging for scraps. That’s not Boyd’s strength.

The way the Timbers have been playing of late has relied on the lone man up top, but it is a much more attacking, fluid style than that of Scotland or Rangers.

I’d make the strong case that both Dike’s goals would get scored whether it was Boyd or Bright on the pitch at the time. Dike made a good run, and showed good movement and composure to get into place, but he didn’t do anything you wouldn’t expect a decent striker to do. What made the goals, rather, was the build-up play, and it was this that was so often lacking in the early part of the season.

The case is made by some fans that the team play better because Boyd isn’t there. His presence is too great a distraction for those around him. I don’t really buy this line of thinking, firstly as I don’t think that his fellow professional are so in awe of him, and secondly because I think any upheaval in tactics and style is inevitably going to bring about a period of reconstruction and uncertainty in play.

You’d expect after five or six games of a new formation and philosophy that you would start to see the results on the field, and so it’s been the case. As players got used to their new roles and responsibilities, so the play has improved somewhat (in an attacking sense, at least). It’s Boyd’s bad luck that just as the team start to click into gear, he’s found himself on the outside looking in.

Take nothing away from Bright Dike. He’s done well, and I’m sure he’s a handful to play against. But really, is he really that much different from Kris Boyd?

The stats would back up their attacking similarities. Both take about the same number of shots per match – one every 30 minutes or so – though Boyd gets more on frame, 45% – 27% of Dike’s admittedly very small sample size (not a euphemism). Even minutes per goal, 216-267 in Dike’s favour, doesn’t flag up any glaring differences. Dike may show a greater willingness to chase shadows into corners, but I’d balance that by making a case that Boyd’s link-up play is generally better.

The Future…?

The clock ticked past 70 minutes and Wilkinson took another look across the bench. Danny Mwanga was the man chosen to go on and change the game. Boyd remained seated. He would stay there until the final whistle blew on a 1-1 draw that leaves the Cascadia Cup to be settled.

At this point it would be easy to start second guessing every decision Wilkinson makes. Did he bring Mwanga on because he thought Danny’s pace and energy would be the key to unlocking the Sounders, or did Porter want Danny to get some game time? Has Porter made it clear that Boyd won’t be a Timber come First Kick 2013, and so that’s why the Scot can’t buy a start right now? Does Wilkinson simply not like or rate Boyd, and so he’s choosing to leave him out?

Boyd’s ability as a goalscorer isn’t in doubt, at least with me. Mike Donovan tweeted during the match, asking if there was any current Timbers player who could do what Montero did, turning and getting a looping shot off as he did? The answer was pretty easy – Kris Boyd. I’ve seen him do it live for Killie, and then again for Rangers. A confident Boyd, given the ball into his feet around the box is easily capable of this. For all his other faults, he’s still a danger in and around the box. His goal against the Sounders reserves was as typical a Boyd goal as you’re likely to see.

Should his time in Portland come to an end sooner rather than later, as I expect it will, he’d make a great add for a number of other MLS sides, though my suspicion is that his future would more likely lie back in the UK.

Ultimately a striker will be judged on the goals he scores. That’s why Emile Heskey is largely a joke figure among fans while still maintaining the respect of the players he’s played with, and coaches he’s played under.

With Kris Boyd, I worry that he’ll leave Portland with the fans never having seen the best of him. I still think that he has another couple of years at the top in him, and I’d hoped that they would be with the Timbers, but like Cooper and Perlaza before him, he may pay the price for not being quite prolific enough.

Does he miss good chances? Yes, of course. If your goal is to find a striker who never misses, good luck with that Quixotic quest of yours.

The Timbers will visit San Jose Earthquakes and Real Salt Lake over the next week. Diego Chara will miss out due to injury, meaning a possible return to the XI for Eric Alexander. With Kalif Alhassan back on the fringes of the first team, and given how these two players more than any others have been able to get on Boyd’s wavelength, the next two matches may be the best possible time to give Boyd one last chance to prove his doubters wrong.

“It’s the manager’s decision. There’s nothing I can do except the next time I go on the pitch, prove that I’m good enough to play.”

#RCTID


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