Tag Archives: Lovel Palmer

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.

Forward the Foundation

After a slow start, the much-promised Rostergeddon got into full swing on a day that would’ve reminded many fans of English football of Transfer Deadline day. All it needed was Harry Redknapp in his car telling a reporter that David Horst was a “great lad, great lad, really like ‘im.”

What we got was five players on the way out (with another whose status is up in the air), two players coming in (and another potential) and a Breaking Bad-esque pile of allocation cash.

Chris already did a great job of going over the wheeling and dealing in his post, so I’ll keep my thoughts on the deals “brief”.

The first deal confirmed was that of Kosuke Kimura to the New York Notcosmos. Kimura had staggered around the right-back position like a punchdrunk boxer for much of his time in Portland. Whether that’s due to his own deficincies or coming into a team with no real direction, that’s up to you to decide, but whatever the reasons, the move was one that was always likely to happen.

Kimura, who also found time to fit in an unsuccessful trial in Poland since the season ended, was joined by a second-round draft pick to New York, with the Timbers getting the homegrown rights to Bryan Gallego, a centreback who just so happens plays his college soccer for Akron Zips. You may have heard of them.

Given Porter’s background and experience of the college game, no-one will have a clearer idea of who he wants in the SuperDraft, so it’s interesting to me that he’s given up a draft pick to make this deal work. Of course, there’s a long way to go before the draft, plenty of time to wheel and deal for other picks, but the acquisition of Gallego’s homegrown rights is illuminating for a couple of reasons, I think.

Here’s a player Porter has worked closely within Akron, and it seems rates highly enough to give up a draft pick to get him. Being a homegrown player, Gallego wouldn’t have been eligible for the SuperDraft (as is my understanding, which could be way wrong), so is this a roundabout way to “draft” a guy Porter really wanted? Whether Gallego steps up this year (he’ll be 20 in March so, without getting into my pet peeve about youth development in the States, it’s not that crazy an idea) or he’s one for 2014, it also points towards a change in philosophy at the back for the Timbers.

It’d be fair to say that we’ve had a lot of guys with heart and spirit, but who are limited in technical ability. That won’t fly under the system Porter favours where the defenders have to be comfortable on the ball and able to play an intelligent, possession-based game. Clearly, Gallego already knows what Porter wants from his defenders, and Porter likes what he sees from Gallego.

Next came the news of Eric Brunner going to Houston. A sad one, but not unexpected. I’d written about the potential of Brunner’s leaving and while I leaned towards him staying (I thought Danso would be first to go) the news of his departure didn’t surprise me.

Brunner’s injury really took the wind out of the defender’s sails. He had a good 2011, and looked set to form a partnership with Mosquera at the back, but in his enforced absence he was usurped by David Horst.

With Horst holding down the position, Mosquera a lock and Jean-Baptiste hungry to push on in 2013, Brunner found himself squeezed out. A fine servant to the club in his time in Portland, Eric leaves with the best wishes on the Timbers faithful.

Michael Harrington’s arrival was the next announcement. The last time we picked up a former Kansas City starter who’d found himself relegated to the bench, it worked out pretty well! Harrington will give us options at both left and right back, and seems like a very solid addition to the squad.

Next up was the departure of Steve Purdy and Lovel Palmer. Purdy had been unable to really cement a place in the team since the move up to MLS. I liked what little I saw of him, but given his sporadic appearances in the team, it was of little surprise to see the option on him declined.

Lovel Palmer. I’d written about how I couldn’t see a future for him in Portland. I’ve been critical of him in the past, and justified in (much of) it, so I can’t say I’ll miss having him on the team but, nevertheless, I’m sure he gave his all. It just wasn’t good enough, consistently enough. Fare thee well.

Steven Smith was next to go, announcing it himself on twitter. This was one where I thought “oh no” at the time, but the more I thought about it, and the more I read about it, the more it made cold hard sense. Talk is that Smith would’ve needed DP wages to stay, and with Spencer going (and Boyd likely to go), there was little to hold Smith here on a personal level. There will be no shortage of offers back “home”.

The “final” announcement was that of the signing of Will Johnson from RSL. The Canadian international has been an important part of the RSL midfield over the past few years, and it’ll be interesting to see where he fits in in 2013. There are times we’ve lacked a bit of bite and spark in the middle, and Johnson will provide both of these in spades.

The MLS released the Re-Entry Draft list shortly afterwards. It would be worth keeping an eye on as the Timbers have the #3 pick and the draft is a good way to fill out the squad and/or pick up pieces that can be traded on later.

It certainly raised a few eyebrows among Timbers fans when Rodney Wallace’s name appeared on it.

It’s important to note that the club and player have a couple more days to thrash out a deal that would see Wallace stay, and Merritt’s omission of Rodney from his “so long and thanks for all the fish” tweet would suggest the intention is to work something out. The talk is that the Timbers want to negotiate Wallace’s salary down. I’m not his biggest fan, but he is a decent squad player. He’s just not worth the money he’s currently pulling, in my opinion.

All in all, a pretty good day for the Timbers. Too early to make definitive judgements, of course, but it’s a start to Porter’s reign that fills me with cruel, cruel optimism!

Five out, two in and a complete revamp of the defence is underway. Given that so much of Akron’s play under Porter was built from the back, it makes sense that the gaffer would start his own rebuilding there.

Onwards and upwards.

#RCTID

All You Need Is Love(l)

Emerging from the wreckage of the Shitfest in Seattle, the vitriol directed towards Gavin Wilkinson and Merritt Paulson for talking the talk of taking the Cascadia Cup seriously before admitting they had used this crucial match as a try-out for 2013 bestrode the landscape like a colossus, unavoidable to all but those with their heads firmly planted in the sand.

The team selection, as well as tactics, were under the spotlight, with the decision to bring in Rodney Wallace and Lovel Palmer at full back a stand-out WTF moment. While the decision to give Wallace the nod was lent some credibility by Steven Smith’s reportedly “tight hamstring” – which would, if so, lead me to question why he was on the bench at all. What if Wallace had pulled up with an injury in the first 5 minutes? Would Smith have come on? Was he fit for a potential 85 minutes, but not an actual 90? If not, was he taking the space on the bench that could’ve been better given over to a young player to experience the “big game atmosphere”? And so on… – the choice of Lovel Palmer ahead of Kosuke Kimura, Jack Jewsbury, Ryan Kawulok, Steve Purdy, Sal Zizzo, Slabby or some kind of hastily improvised scarecrow left many fans, to borrow the hashtag, #facepalmer-ing themselves into a light coma.

In the event, Palmer surprised no-one by having a typically poor-to-mediocre game, something that has characterised much of his Timbers career since joining the club with Mike Chabala in exchange for Adam “MLS Cup Finalist” Moffat and a chunk of change.

Such is low regard he is held in by Timbers fans, and the criticism of his play that follows as surely as night follows day, that Palmer took to twitter to have a little dig back at those who deign to criticise him.

Now, it’s hardly on the levels of Ashley Cole’s #bunchoftwats or anything tweeted by Joey Barton when he’s not cut-and-pasting from smartquotationsforreallydumbpeople.com in a futile effort to shed his “what a terrible bellend” image, but nevertheless it’s somewhat unusual to see an active player having a shot at his own team’s fans; fans who have endured the kind of season that would have CIA interrogators taking a sharp intake of breath and muttering something about it being a bit too cruel.

It’s less unusual to see the part-time Old Gregg lookalike completely miss the target.

Now, on one hand, it’s rather unfair to Palmer that he’s not allowed to fire back when he’s on the receiving end of some, admittedly funny, criticism…

… but on the other hand, I find it hard to feel sympathy for someone who has been abject for much of his time in Portland. In a team that has struggled, Palmer has still managed to stand out as being a beacon of shittery.

Yet, he tweets, “Shout out to all the REAL timbers fans that stand by their players through the good and bad times.”

Aside from the fallacy that only “real” fans, whatever that means, stand by their players, the thing is that no fan, real or otherwise, wants to see their own players play terribly. To think otherwise is madness.

But neither will some fans simply stand by and watch someone repeatedly stink up the field and accept it.

Sure, seeing Palmer’s name on the team sheet may cause me to break out in a cold sweat, but the moment the whistle goes, he gets full support. Twitter perhaps skews that perception as it makes it a bit easier to be critical or a smartarse when you’re sat at home in your underpants at 3am on a dark and cold Sunday morning (calm yourself, ladies), but if I’m at the game I shout support, I sing and I cheer as do the overwhelming majority of Timbers fans.

But just as you and I may vanity search now and then (fuck you, the actor Kevin Alexander), so you can be sure players do. I’m not sure whether Palmer has read this blog, or any of the other Timbers fan sites, or if he gets his feedback through facebook or twitter, but fans nowadays have the means to voice their opinions in such a way that players are more exposed to it, as opposed to the post-mortem grumbling about how crappy a player is that would’ve been carried out over a pint or six with your mates down the pub.

It must be hard to read such damning criticism on a weekly basis. Twitter makes it even more direct as you an @ the player into your scathing bon mot, though it’s not something I’d personally do as it seems to me to be the internet equivalent of shouting at someone in the street.

Palmer has sought in the past two deflect criticism, by claiming he doesn’t care what people say…

… but clearly he does or he wouldn’t be whining about “real fans”.

So, while I can understand that Lovel is angry that these keyboard warriors are daring to question the ability of a man who has been capped at international level, and who is still missed by some at his old club, there’s a vocal group out there that don’t feel they’ve been given any reason to expect anything good from him. He either has to HTFU, or go out there and prove them wrong.

People are going to have opinions, and they’re not going to be shy in sharing them, but you can’t write off those that may think you’re not good at kickball as not being “real fans”. Fans are going to bring a wide array of outlooks and perceptions with them, whether that’s thinking that it would be better if Vancouver win next week or that Gavin Wilkinson is doing a not-terrible job. To disagree with someone doesn’t make them in some way less of a fan.

I would love nothing more than to see Palmer go out there and astound us with some top drawer football. Even the middle drawer would be nice, you know, the one where you keep your old t-shirts or socks. And if he wants to come off the field and shove his 30 yard, top corner, screamer of a goal down the throats of his critics, more power to your elbow, good chap. The thing is that, much like my dream that I will wake up one day and find that I piss only the finest champagne (serious question – would you still drink it?), Palmer turning in a string of great performances is, sadly, unlikely.

It’s hard to see where the relationship between player and fans goes when it’s clearly soured on both sides. If, as some suggest, Palmer’s inclusion in the starting XI against the Sounders was his try-out for 2013, then it’s hard to imagine that Palmer will be around for much longer. It may be best if he’s not, for his sake as much as that of the “real fans'” collective sanity.


And like that, Lovel’s “REAL fans” tweet was gone.

Tis But A Scratch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Make or break time.

#RCTID

EDIT:

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

Trading Places

Portland Timbers recently attempted to kick start their ailing season by bringing Danny Mwanga in from Philadelphia in exchange for Jorge Perlaza. General Manager Gavin Wilkinson indicated that they would be seeking to improve key areas over the next few weeks, so it’s highly likely that the trading is far from over.

Timbers fans hoping to see the team take a step forward this year have been bitterly disappointed by a number of sub-par performances, culminating in a humiliating loss to Cal FC in the US Open Cup.

As the front office look to strengthen their squad over the next few weeks in the hope of kick-starting a playoff push, it seems an apposite time to review their preview dealings in the transfer market.

The system of trades in MLS, while familiar to American sports fan, can seem Byzantine in it’s complexity to outsiders, and that is without wading into the murky waters of Allocation Money.

Regardless, by looking over six of the highest profile trade moves, and addressing the clubs policy in general, can we get an idea of where the club is heading and whether fans have reason to believe that a second year with no playoff soccer can be avoided?

Let’s see…

[learn_more caption=”McCarty / Wallace”]

Dax McCarty was already a veteran of almost 100 MLS matches with FC Dallas, and still only 23, when taken as the Timbers’ first pick in the expansion draft that greeted the clubs arrival in Major League Soccer.

Yet McCarty would only be a Timber for as long as it took to make a deal with DC United to exchange the midfielder for the Costa Rican left-back Rodney Wallace.

Despite his youth and being an important part of the Dallas midfield an abundance of players there, as well as the emergence of Eric Alexander, led Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman to leave McCarty unprotected.

In trading away the US international the Timbers lost a hard-working, combative midfielder, who allied grit with a finesse that delivered 17 assists in his time at Dallas.

On the face of it, the move for Wallace made some logical sense. In building a team from scratch they had also moved for left-back Anthony Wallace as their fourth pick, but had traded him right back to Colorado Rapids in return for allocation money. It left the team with no left-back on their nascent roster, and that role is traditionally one where it is difficult to find quality.

Rodney Wallace, himself a first round pick for DC in the 2009 SuperDraft, already had a couple of years of MLS experience under his belt. He’d also played in the same University of Maryland side as Jeremy Hall, who’d joined the Timbers a couple of days previously, which was something that Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson thought would be “a tremendous benefit” to the team.

In the end, there are few fans who would consider Wallace to have been a benefit to the team. A couple of goals and assists in his first year failed to mask the fact that Wallace has never really set the heather on fire at Portland due to displays that are only consistent in their inconsistency. He never looked comfortable at left back, seemingly better suited to midfield, and yet, when moved to midfield, he looked lost.

He now finds himself behind Steven Smith in the pecking order, and could even be considered third choice for left back behind Mike Chabala. With a substantial cap hit of $110,000 it wouldn’t surprise if he was one of the pieces that the Timbers were looking to move out to freshen up the squad, as they did with his ex-college team mate Jeremy Hall.

McCarty on the other hand would only spend a few months at DC before being traded to New York Red Bulls in exchange for Dwayne De Rosario, where he’s become an anchor in midfield.

While there may have been some sense in the trade at the time, it’s hard for Timbers fans to not to look back on it with hindsight and wince.

 

Verdict: Qualified Failure

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[learn_more caption=”Cronin / Perkins”]

After a fantastic year in the Timbers final USL season in 2010, goalkeeper Steve Cronin was one of the first four players announced as members of the MLS squad.

The stats for that final year certainly indicate that his step-up to the big league was a no-brainer – a 42.86% shutout rate and 114.5 minutes per goal conceded.

However, almost before the ink the dry Cronin had been traded to DC United in exchange for another keeper, Troy Perkins. If the McCarty/Wallace deal was an error on the part of the front office then this trade was nothing short of a masterstroke.

2011 would be Cronin’s second bite at MLS after spells at San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy before dropping to USL. His final year in MLS, 2008 with the Galaxy, saw Cronin play 22 matches and ship 44 goals. Admittedly, it was a difficult year all round for LA but a rate of 2 goals lost per game is not good.

Despite this, DC saw enough in Cronin to grab him for cover. It signalled a premature end to Perkins second spell in the capitol.

A spell in Norway with Vålerenga broke up Perkins’ time at DC. From 2004 to 2007 he made 77 regular season appearances, conceding 97 goals, and won the Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2006.

Signing Perkins was a risk for Portland, though as his return in 2010 was less than glorious. He shipped 37 goals in only 22 appearances, making the 2006 and 2007 seasons seem a long time ago. There was no guarantee he could be that keeper again.

The gamble paid off in fine style as Perkins was a rock at the back for the Timbers in an often difficult debut season. He played 29 times, losing 38 goals, and posted a shutout rate of over 30% for the first time in his career.

2012 has seen Perkins improve further, getting back to his very best form.

2005’s figures are skewed by Perkins having played only two matches that year.

A regular contender for Save of the Week, Perkins has been the saviour of the Timbers on a myriad of occasions.

Cronin, on the other hand, make a couple of sub appearances for DC in 2011, and lost 4 goals to mirror his 2008 MLS season. He was released at the end of the year, and has since left the game to become a State Farm agent.

 

Verdict: Undoubted Success

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[learn_more caption=”Moffat / Chabala & Palmer”]

Adam Moffat clocked a grand total of 239 days with the Timbers, four substitute appearances and a sum of 100 game minutes before being traded away to Houston Dynamo for two defensive players, Mike Chabala and Lovel Palmer.

It was another move, like the McCarty deal, that made some sense in the context of the time. Jeremy Hall wasn’t doing enough to justify his place in the team at right back, and on the other flank Rodney Wallace was frustrating all and sundry.

Palmer and Chabala would bolster the squad at right and left back respectively and give, as Wilkinson explained, “more depth at the back and more options.”

The industrious Moffat had found himself unable to break into the side thanks to the coach’s preference for Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara in the middle.

A tough-tackling defensive midfielder, the Scot brought aggression and passion to the pitch, but also knew what to do with the ball when we got it with a good range of passing.

He’d been Portland’s third pick in the expansion draft after coming to the States in 2007 and establishing himself at Columbus Crew despite a serious knee injury early on.

In trading Moffat away, along with a chunk of allocation money, the Timbers bolstered their defence with two experienced players.

Chabala had already played for the Timbers in 2006, when loaned out by the Dynamo. Though much of his time in Houston was on the periphery of the team, 2010 saw him clock up a career high 22 starts. 2011 had seen him return to the fringes, and he had only 2 starts under his belt before being moved on.

Palmer had been a regular for the Dynamo since moving there in 2010 from his native Jamaica. Able to play at full back or defensive midfield, it was in the former role he would establish himself at Portland.

It would be fair to say he’s not won a great deal of admirers among Timbers fans who have wearied of his wayward distribution and ball control. Coach Spencer moved him into midfield this year, and that switch coincided with a marked improvement in defence albeit with a sense that Palmer in midfield carries the cost of curtailing the club’s creativity in attack.

Meanwhile, Moffat no-nonsense style has proved a hit with fans in Houston. He would return to haunt Portland with a screamer from distance when the clubs met a couple of months after the move.

I can’t help but ruefully shake my head when I see Palmer play the role for Portland that Moffat excels in with Houston and think that, even in a 2-for-1 deal, we got the shitty end of the stick.

 

Verdict: Failure. But only just.

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[learn_more caption=”Hall / Alexander”]

As already mentioned, Jeremy Hall had joined the Timbers from New York Red Bulls before the expansion draft, making him the first MLS trade the club had made.

Hall had been in New york since being drafted in the first-round in 2009. A strong debut season boded well for the athletic right-back, but his form tailed off and he found his opportunities limited in his second year.

Though he was quickly installed as first choice for the Timbers, he was a frustrating player to watch. He had fantastic pace, and a willingness to break forward at every opportunity, delivering three assists and getting nine shots at goal – impressive numbers for a full back.

The problem was his willingness to get forward at EVERY opportunity. He was often caught out of position and seemed to lack the defensive awareness his position demanded.

His relatively large salary – around $129,000 – made it difficult to justify so much money being spent of a player who clearly wasn’t living up to expectations. The writing was on the wall with acquisition of Lovel Palmer to play in the same position.

Hall’s time as a Timber came to an end in August when he was traded to FC Dallas for Eric Alexander.

Alexander had been a factor in McCarty being unprotected in the expansion draft, so it was somewhat of a surprise to find Schellas Hyndman willing to let him go, even with the deal sweetened by Portland picking up some of Hall’s salary for the rest of the year.

No-one was more surprised than Alexander himself, but Hyndman’s reasoned that the signing of Daniel Cruz in midfield left them overstocked in that area yet light in defence.

In Alexander the Timbers gained a hard-working, versatile midfielder who carried a salary of less than half that of Hall’s.

Eric has struggled to pin down a starting place for Portland since the move, and has fallen foul of Coach Spencer’s high standards but, despite this, he remains fairly popular with fans, thanks in no small part to his play this season.

Despite being 10th in terms of playing time, he leads the club in assists, and is third for shots taken (591 mins, 3 assists, 13 shots).

Hall, on the other hand, had a torrid time at Dallas. He failed to win over the fans, and even Hyndman later expressed regret about the move.

To be fair, he carried an injury during his time at Dallas which limited his mobility before being traded to Toronto FC where he promptly got injured in preseason. Having only recently returned to action, he played a part in Toronto’s first league win of the season.

Despite Alexander’s lack of first team action even Dallas fans would agree that Portland got by far the better end of this trade.

 

Verdict: Success

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[learn_more caption=”Cooper”]

Though strictly not a trade in the sense of the other deals in this list, it would be remiss of me not to address Kenny Cooper here.

Cooper joined the club from 1860 Munich with high hopes, and Wilkinson raving that the striker was “a great signing” who added experience and a goal scoring pedigree to the attack.

It’s hard to find fault with Wilkinson as Cooper had scored 40 times in 90 regular season matches for FC Dallas before joining 1860 Munich midway through the 2009 MLS season.

Though Cooper struggled to find form in Europe, Timbers fans were still excited by the prospect of him leading the line with over 40% predicting a goal haul in double figures in an online poll.

In the end Cooper never seemed at home in Portland, and would score only 8 times in 34 matches, marking his poorest year in MLS. Those figures get thrown into stark relief by Cooper’s 11 goals in 13 games since being traded to New York Red Bulls in exchange for a first-round 2013 draft pick.

Cooper’s shot accuracy also dipped to 38%, while it averaged 50% across all other years

The reasons for Cooper’s failure to find the net consistently at Portland are hard to pin down. He often seemed without a real purpose or clear idea of his role, and would drift ineffectually all over the pitch in search of the ball, disappearing out of matches like a namesake DB from the back of a Boeing 727.

Despite rare flashes of the potent finisher he could be, the overriding memory of Cooper as a Timber is one of frustration, fans and player alike.

Cooper’s travails are perhaps best encapsulated by an incident in a match against DC United where he had a meltdown from 12 yards. He missed twice from retaken penalties before Jewsbury stepped up to score, and would later be subbed. He was never quite the same player afterwards.

His resurgence at New York, which has seen him touted for international honours, has been a talking point among Timbers fans. Some point the finger at Spencer’s tactics as having doomed Cooper to fail, whilst others see the greater talents – Thierry Henry, Joel Lindepere and, ahem, Dax McCarty to name but three – around him in New York as the real answer.

Cooper’s year in Portland is an example of “right man, wrong place”. It underlines the fact that simply going out and buying the “best” isn’t always the right move if that player isn’t suited to how the club play, or vice versa.

The coaching staff never seemed to be able to bring out the best in Cooper and his role as totemic front man has been taken up this year by Kris Boyd, a striker who broke records back in his native Scotland.

Boyd currently has 4 goals in 12 matches.

 

Verdict: Kenny Flopping Cooper

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[learn_more caption=”Perlaza / Mwanga”]

All of which brings us to the most recent trade. Jorge Perlaza, a polarizing and frustrating player at times, traded to Philadelphia Union for Danny Mwanga.

Clearly it’s too early to call on whether this is a good deal. Perlaza saw a little time towards the end of the Union’s defeat to DC United, though Perlaza did score in a friendly. Having been burnt on seemingly “good deals” before, most fans are wisely taking a wait-and-see approach.

Perlaza’s contribution to the cause was recognised by most Timbers fans, but few shed tears to see the Colombian leave, despite him scoring the first goal at JELD-WEN Field. A record of only 6 goals in 41 matches simply wasn’t enough.

I’ve written in the past about the value I think Perlaza brought to the team, but I can also recognise the sense in this trade. The team are struggling for goals – only Chivas USA have scored fewer in the Western Conference – and a fresh impetus up top may provide the spark they need.

In Mwanga, that spark is a 20 year old, 6’2” striker who hit the MLS at full speed in his first season, scoring seven times in his first 14 appearances. A refugee from DR Congo who had settled in Oregon, he had been drafted first by the Union in 2010.

It would certainly seem on that early evidence that Portland have got the better end of the deal, but the trade is not without its risks.

Since that early burst, Mwanga has found goals and game time under Piotr Nowak hard to come by. Niggling injuries have hampered him, and when he has played it’s often be out of position, or from the bench as Nowak focused on defence over attack.

The trade that saw Sebastien Le Toux join Vancouver Whitecaps this year meant Mwanga lost the one player he seemed to have an intuitive understanding with, and he’s cut a forlorn figure this year, with no goals in his 11 matches.

Worryingly for Timbers fans, if Mwanga’s early form for the Union was taken out of the equation his record is five goals in 47 appearances (526 minutes per goal) – one fewer goal than Perlaza, who’d played six fewer matches (440 minutes per goal).

The change in scenery may do both players the world of good. Certainly Mwanga has looked a lot happier since the trade, and has talked of his return to his “hometown”.

Perlaza’s situation is a little more difficult to read following Nowak’s recent departure, but given the chance he could yet shine away from Portland as Cooper has.

 

Verdict: Time will tell…

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[learn_more caption=”Overall”]

It wouldn’t be fair to say the front office has outright failed in it’s transfer dealings, and neither has it been a roaring success. The truth is there’s been a mix of the good, the bad and the indifferent.

From the ten players selected in the expansion draft, only one has racked up any meaningful first team action – Eric Brunner. Six never kicked a ball for the club with four – McCarty, Wallace, Arturo Alvarez (to Real Salt Lake for a second-round draft pick) and Jordan Graye (to Houston for a fourth-round 2014 draft pick) – traded away and two – Robbie Findley and Jonathan Bornstein – who had left the league.

In terms of moves outwith MLS there’s been tendency to go for almost exclusively Colombian and Scottish targets. Colombians make up the largest non-American bloc in the league and the Timbers have played their part in pushing that number up.

Diego Chara has been a mainstay in the Timbers midfield, and is popular with with fans for his rambunctious style on the pitch. Jorge Perlaza wrote himself into the history books with the club’s first home MLS goal, if not the hearts of the support.

This year has seen three Colombians join – Jose Adolfo Valencia, Sebastián Rincón and Hanyer Mosquera.

Valencia is a huge prospect, but unlikely to see any game time until 2013 due to injury. Rincón is young and skillful, but hasn’t yet got his chance during his loan spell.

Of the three, Mosquera is the one that’s made the immediate impact. He’s a huge presence in the heart of defence and, if he can continue to improve, will undoubtedly prove himself one of the best centre-backs in the league.

Steven Smith joined Boyd, his ex-Rangers teammate, at the end of April following a spell in England. A bustling left-back, his signing has seemed to edge Wallace closer to the door. Rumours swirl linking Portland to a move to another ex-Rangers player, Kenny Miller, but are, as yet, unsubstantiated.

The move to sign Boyd was a big deal. Signed as a designated player, he represents a large financial undertaking. Goals haven’t exactly flowed as yet, and there are some fans who wonder if they will. I still have confidence that he’ll find his feet before too long.

The worry is that the Timbers are often limited in scope when it comes to transfer targets, and don’t seem to address the problems the squad clearly has.

The lack of a natural attacking midfielder has been glaring for some time, and the team still have problems at right back, where Jewsbury has been filling in.

If this article were to be written last year, getting Jewsbury from Kansas City would’ve been viewed a stunning success. Jewsbury had been a solid, if unspectacular, part of Kansas City’s midfield, but during those early months of 2011 he was transformed into a set-piece specialist and driving force behind the Timbers. He delivered eight assists and seven goals in 31 matches, defying all expectations of him.

However, 2012 has seen a regression to the mean. His overall play has slumped, yet there seems a reluctance from John Spencer to drop the man he installed as captain, preferring to fit him in at right back instead.

The recent move to sign Mike Fucito, another striker, from Montreal Impact also confuses me. Is another striker really what the team needs at this point? I’ve no doubt Fucito will give his all, and he’s certainly looked eager in the little game time he’s had so far, but what is the front office’s overall strategy here?

And that is my concern.

At times it seems like there’s no guiding principle as to how the Timbers are working their trades. My own sense is that John Spencer and Gavin Wilkinson seem to have different ideas on the kind of squad they want, and this is leading to there being “Spencer players” and “Wilkinson players” on the roster, with very little overlap in that particular Venn diagram.

The transfer window remains open for some time, and the season is young, so the Timbers can still turn it around and reach the play-offs. The next few weeks will be very interesting in Soccer City USA.

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What do you think? Have the Timbers trade dealings worked for you, or not?

Sound off below.

Accentuate The Positive

Sunday night saw the Timbers battle to a 2-1 victory against Chicago Fire, a victory that ended a run of three matches without a win and over 7 hours without a Timbers player scoring a goal. It’s also the third match in a row that the Timbers have been unbeaten at home and kept a 100% record against the Fire intact.

With Jack Jewsbury out thanks to injury, it meant a start at right back for Mike Chabala. Futty Danso was a doubt for the match after his late game injury in the Houston match, but the MLS disciplinary committee took the decision out of the clubs hands by banning the Gambian for accidentally bumping the back Caleb Carr’s neck with his arm. If only Futty had kicked him square in the face instead as that doesn’t draw any sanctions, apparently.

Eric Brunner returned to his spot in the centre of defence, and those two enforced changes apart, it was the same team that drew in Texas that would face the Fire.

Again, what looked like 4-4-2 on paper played much more like a 4-1-3-1-1 as Palmer sat deeper, and Nagbe frequently dropped off the front line.

The Timbers knew their new-found defensive solidity would be tested against the speed and interplay of the Fire attack, but once more the team proved (largely) equal to the task.

Kris Boyd, for so long an isolated and frustrated figure against Houston, was much more involved this time round, and his early header from a Chabala throw-in produced a great stop from the Chicago keeper.

Indeed, it was from dead ball situations that the Timbers carved out their best chances on goal. The opening strike came from a corner, headed back across goal from Mosquera and skited into the path of Eric Brunner by Boyd, for the defender to score.

Relief was palpable as the long goal drought ended, but some things never seem to change, and after missing a couple of half chances, some sloppy defensive play allowed the Fire equalise.

While some measure of credit has to go to Pappa for the pass, the fact is it was another goal lost where the Timbers were undone as much by themselves as anyone else. Smith sclaffed his clearance, but all was still not lost had Palmer not gone to sleep and allowed Anibaba to get the space he needed to finish well.

There’s also the issue of three Timbers players huddled right in front of goal, which none of them awake to the through pass either. This is just poor alertness and concentration.

The team had almost come a cropper just prior to the goal when a corner was cleared to the edge of the box, before being worked back into to Pardo who was unmarked right in front of goal.

Fortunately for the Timbers, Troy Perkins came to the rescue once more, but if the chance had been a defensive wake-up call, it was one the Timbers failed to heed minutes later.

I thought Palmer had a decent game last week, but I can’t say the same here. While he wasn’t bad by any means, he is prone to lapses in concentration like the above and he seemed to drift out of the game as it went on.

In the second half he was a largely peripheral figure as he failed to impose himself on the game in the way that, for example, Diego Chara did, and does on a regular basis.

It will be interesting to see what John Spencer does when Jack Jewsbury is fit once more (presumably next week). Will Jack come in (as I assume he will) for Chabala or Palmer? My suspicion is that Chabala will sit, with Jack in again at right back.

There really is not much between Jack and Chabala at right back. Both have similar pass success rates, with Chabala perhaps a little more likely to get the ball forward than Jack. The two big differences I can pick between the two are that Chabala is a smarter full back than Jack, and his intensity is greater.

The reason I say Chabala is smarter is that I always feel he has a better understanding with the man in front of him than Jewsbury does. Despite the coach’s insistance that full back is the “easiest position to play” – something Jonathan Wilson might disagree with – the fact is that it’s not that simple – just ask Lovel Palmer, Jeremy Hall or Rodney Wallace. Chabala fits in much more naturally in the role, and his instinct of when to step up, or drop back is much more honed than Jewsbury’s, who often seemed to need that extra half-second or so to think about what he should be doing.

Chabala’s intensity was exmplemified by the little tête-à-tête with Nyarko just before half time. Chabala brings much more of a terrier mentality to the role than Jewsbury’s more measured, hands-off approach.

Both of these factors give Chabala a much stronger presence in the role than Jewsbury’s had so far. Spencer has already stated that when fit, Jewsbury will play which could, perhaps should, put Palmer’s place under threat.

If Jack’s place in the team truly is inviolate, then it would make sense to at least fit him in in his natural position, and a role he’s shown himself more comfortable in. We wouldn’t want square pegs in round holes, would we?

Of course, given the team’s victory this week, perhaps Spencer will bench the club captain and stick with the same XI, which would also be tough on Futty Danso who had started to form a formidable partnership with Mosquera, only to see Brunner slip back into the role and score.

Of course, I’m just a hopeless romantic who’d like to see us go to 3 at the back, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

The half brought another line-up change, with the largely ineffectual Franck Songo’o replaced by Sal Zizzo. Songo’o is a player I still haven’t got a handle on. He shows some really nice touches, and good tricks, but he still, for me, hasn’t offered enough final product. Step overs and jinks are all well and good, but if you end up getting robbed of possession or your final pass is weak, it’s all for nothing. I can’t shake the lingering sense than Franck Songo’o plays for Franck Songo’o first, and the Timbers second. I could be being harsh on him there though. Maybe it’s my ingrained Scottish suspicion of flashy players showing…

Zizzo’s bag of tricks is certainly a lot lighter but he offers a directness that the team were lacking. Songo’o will look to short, quick touches, bringing the ball inside and looking to beat a man or thread the ball through the eye of a needle; Zizzo will take one touch, knock it past his man and go round him in his bloody-minded desire to hit the byline and provide service to the strikers.

Zizzo’s introduction saw the whole flow of the Timbers play change.

Much of the Timbers first half play was focussed down the left hand side, where Rodney Wallace was putting in a much stronger shift than he had in the previous match. His defensive work was much more focussed and he and Smith are starting to build a good understanding down the flank.

With Kalif Alhassan on the bench, now is the time for Wallace to firmly stake his claim to the left midfield role, and while he could do with a better end result for his work, he won’t do his chances any harm if he can keep up this level of play.

With Zizzo on the pitch, the balance of play shifted to the right wing, and his direct running and pace caused the Fire backline all manner of headache.

In the first half, the four tackles down the Timbers right-wing were all successful, from a Fire perspective. The situation changed somewhat after the break as the foul count rose.

Given that I just wrote a blog where I was largely critical of Spencer, it’s only right that I give him the credit for his changes in this match. Recognising that the Timbers were playing much of the game in front of the Fire defence, his introduction of Zizzo gave them a ball in behind, and someone who would run at them and stretch that backline.

Jorge Perlaza came on for Nagbe later on, for much the same reason. Perlaza’s running and harrying would keep the Fire wary at a time when the Timbers were defending a lead when Logan Pause turned home Boyd’s flick from a Sal Zizzo corner shortly after the restart.

Nagbe has cut a lonely figure these past couple of weeks. He’s not getting involved in the way he was early in the season, and when he does have the ball he isn’t the same exciting presence. Where at the start of the season, he’d run at defenders, get them unbalanced and look to get a shot away, recently he’s been more reluctant to go for the jugular and is instead looking to pass it off.

It could be that’s what he’s been told to do, or that’s he’s just not comfortable in the role he’s being asked to play, but to me he’s looking a bit tired, or low in confidence. A rest may be the best thing for him – it’s only his second year in MLS and young players will blow hot and cold.

Perlaza showed great energy in his short spell on the pitch, and helped out in the late game defence with good tracking and harrying.

The way the field seemed to open up for the opposition would’ve had some Timbers fans chewing their nails down to the quick, but Perlaza did well to recognise the threat and get back to fill in and get a block in. But for a cynical foul on the breakaway, Zizzo would’ve been clean through as the wide man again showed what a valuable asset his pace could be.

Despite a great deal of late pressure, the Fire failed to really trouble Troy Perkins’ goal, and that was thanks to some more good defensive work from the Timbers.

Compared to the Houston match, you can see that the Timbers were pressing higher up the pitch. The backline has stepped up, and the second line had also moved further up the pitched. Especially encouraging is a third line half way up the pitch as the Timbers sought to press high and force the Fire into mistakes before they could even get into dangerous areas.

While the lack of open-play chances is still concerning, the Timbers still ground out a win here. When your attack isn’t quite hitting top gear, exploiting set plays is more important than ever. Delivery has improved – Songo’o and Zizzo delivered great corners that lead to both goals – and players are making runs and movements in the box with much more intent.

Players are starting to return to the fold from injury, with Zizzo having an impact in the last two matches from the bench, and Alhassan now making the bench. It would be interesting to see these two playing the wide roles in future, though Zizzo’s history with the club last year suggests that Spencer perhaps sees him more as an impact sub late in the game, using his pace and width to stretch and get in behind tiring defences. I can’t really argue with that, thought I do think that Zizzo has earned strong starting consideration at the very least.

It’s also nice to see the Timbers push back when challenged physically. There was a time when this team could be bullied by other teams, but there’s been a recent shift towards giving every bit as good as they get lately, and indeed it was the Fire players who spent most of the game falling dramatically to the turf in an attempt to hoodwink the referee, who was switched on enough to book a particularly egregious example late in the match.

It was also good to see Boyd more involved in the play as he seemed to have the measure of his opponents in the Fire defence. He had a hand in both goals for the Timbers, provided the cross for Chance Myers to score an own goal in the Sporting KC match, and scored the last open play goal against LA. Crucial, much?

Next up is Vancouver Whitecaps as the Timbers kick-off their Cascadia Cup campaign. The Whitecaps have a number of attacking dangers that it will be vital the Timbers defence have the measure of, but they’ve also shown defensive frailties that can be exploited.

Now off the foot of the Western Conference, the Timbers will hope to keep that momentum going. The football may not be pretty right now, but the points are nice.

#RCTID

D-Fens

The Timbers made their first visit to Houston Dynamo’s swanky new stadium, their second visit to Texas this year, and left the Lone Star State with another hard-earned point in their second goalless draw on the bounce.

John Spencer saw little to change in the line-up after the draw with Columbus – a match I attended after 12 hours in the air with a toddler and an infant, and as such have only the barest recollection of, but great thanks to Sheba for the tickets all the same – with Steven Smith coming back in to start at left back.

It meant Jewsbury continued at right back, and Palmer took up his new role as midfield enforcer with Nagbe and Boyd leading the line, and Songo’o and Wallace giving midfield width. Danso and Mosquera partnered at the back, hoping to build on a very promising beginning against the Crew.

Though it nominally looked like your typical Spencer 4-4-2, the reality was in took more of a 4-4-1-1 shape as Nagbe spent much of the game dropping deep to get the ball.

Whether accident or design, Nagbe’s ranging deep to get involved spoke to the isolation of the front line, and not for the first time.

It seems like the strategy over the past couple of matches has been to close the back door, and you could understand why – this was a team that had lost 13 goals in 8 matches prior to the Columbus match. And while you have to say it’s worked so far – two matches, no goals conceded – it has left the creative attacking players so detatched from play that they may as well take lawn chairs onto the pitch with them.

The defensive shape has to be praised though. For a team that has so often lacked defensive discipline, or shown a tendency for concentration levels to drop, the work the midfield and defence did to maintain order was, for the most part, excellent.

The lower screengrab highlights especially the good work done defensively to close down the space and hold their lines. You have two tight banks of four, no more than 30 yards from goal – it’s an intimidating sight for an attacking team to break down. Just ask Barcelona.

However, the flip side is that as good as those lines are defensively – where are the attackers? The gap between midfield and attack is more a chasm, and it’s one reason why it’s so difficult to get the ball to them effectively and build attacks.

The policy of dropping off and almost daring Houston to try and break them down is highlighted by the above shots, as well as this breakdown of where each team was tackling/intercepting play.

You can see at a glance how clustered these events are in and around the Portland box, and indeed the vast majoirity occur in the final 30 yards. It should also be noted how the play is being funnelled towards the centre.

Given that BBVA Compass Stadium has the same pitch width as Jeld-Wen Field of only 70 yards, it’s no surprise that the Timbers would look to narrow the play and really congest things in the centre.

Houston’s defensive play, as you can see, if more more spread out and they had a tendency to press higher up the pitch.

The Timbers’ defensive strategy worked for much of the game, with a few cutomary late chances given up as tiredness and injuries started to open up space. Danso was struggling laste on, but was unable to come off as all three subs had been used. One of those subs had been to replace Jewsbury with Chabala after Jack fell awkwardly in the first half. I don’t have the figures to hand, but I have a strong suspicion that Portland lead the way in enforced injury substiutions.

Palmer, often a lightning rod for criticism, did some good work covering at the back.

Palmer didn’t have a bad game at all – though someone needs to tell him that he doesn’t need to shoot everytime he has the ball within 40 yards of goal – but when alongside Chara in the centre it leaves the team very asnaemic in an attacking sense through the middle.

Chara was his usual self, buzzing around the midfield and getting stuck in, but neither he nor Palmer could offer the thrust through the middle that the team need.

Chara also seemed a little off the pace at times, which is unusual for him.

Palmer does his job well, but Chara is caught on his heels rather than being alive to the danger.

And again, he fail to match the runner, which forces Danso across and leads to a decent chance for the Dynamo.

On the whole though, the defence did their jobs well and I’m sure the second clean sheet in a row was greatly received by the coaching staff. Troy Perkins deserves big pats on the back for a couple of crucial one-on-one saves. Given he’s already wearing a mask, surely it’s not much of a leap to get him playing in a cape too. Superkeeper to the rescue.

The problem is at the other end. It’s now 427 minutes since a Timbers player last scored – at least, I don’t think we’ve signed Chance Myers yet – and that is a seriously long time to go without troubling Timber Joey to turn his chainsaw on.

To put that into context for a nerd like myself, you could watch the entire Star Wars trilogy (original, of course – no special editions) and still have time left over to get halfway through the Holiday Special, which coincidentally would probably leave you as depressed as watching your team fail to put the ball in the net in over 7 hours of play.

I mean, Bea Arthur, what the fu-

Sorry, back on topic. Given the isolation of the front line, it’s little surprise that good chances are as thin of the ground as Sounders fans pre-2009.

The introduction of Sal Zizzo after a lengthy lay-off gave the Timbers a bit of spark. He replaced Rodney Wallace on the hour after Wallace had had a poor match. He was wasteful in possession and generally looked like he wasn’t comfortable at all. I had held out hopes that Wallace would slot right in at left midfield as I felt his greatest weakness was his defending. I may have to revise that opinion as, on this evidence, his attacking isn’t so strong either.

Zizzo gave the team a bit of zip when he came on. In Zizzo the Timbers finally have someone who will take a player on, and go round the outside rather than look for a pass back. Nagbe and Songo’o are also good at taking defenders on, but these guys rely more on trickery to beat a man, whereas Zizzo will do it with good old fashioned pace, drive and strength.

Zizzo’s driving run leaves a defender in his wake, and he gets his head up to lay a nice pass off to Nagbe who doesn’t take the first time shot, and then can’t dig the ball out from under his feet in time.

In the end, a draw was probably the fairest result for both teams. The Timbers will hope to build on their defensive foundations, adding a bit attacking verve, as they look ahead to back-to-back home matches against Chicago and Vancouver.

It was interesting to note this on twitter after the match…

Strange for an owner that hates 0-0’s to have a team that has singularly failed to sign a truly creative midfielder.

But what do I know?

Till next time, #RCTID

Matter of Heart

Last week, John Spencer and his coaching team deserved the plaudits they got for pulling a tactical rabbit out of the hat in adjusting his team’s set-up to counteract the strengths of a till-then unbeaten Sporting Kansas City team. With Lovel Palmer plugged into a defensive midfield role, and a disciplined performance from everyone around him, the Timbers were able to neutralise much of the threat posed by Kansas City, and snatched an unlikely victory thanks to an own goal off a Kris Boyd cross.

I gave Spencer’s team selection a lot of praise last week, and I feel it was warranted. It wasn’t a pretty game, or a pretty performance but the team stepped up with arguably their best showing of the season so far, albeit one of the backs-to-the-wall variety. Going forward to this weeks match against Montreal Impact – the second bottom side in MLS this season, with only Toronto worse off, and I’m not sure at this point if Toronto aren’t some kind of grand prank being played on MLS – there was every reason to be hopeful that the Timbers could build on the Sporting result with another win, and at the same time see off an East Coast hoodoo that had seen the Timbers cross 3 time zones seven times, winning none and losing four.

What the Timbers fans got for their optimism was a disorganised, disinterested and bitterly disappointing performance that showed less heart than Tin Man repeatedly punching an orphan in the face. It wasn’t just the lack of desire though that cost the Timbers – they simply weren’t good enough from back-to-front.

In hindsight, the worst thing that could’ve happened last week may have actually been winning the match!

It would be folly to think that the Timbers won last week on organisation alone. They got a huge slice of luck in the own goal, and needed Perkins to make saves at crucial times. There’s an argument that Timbers made their own luck that night, but nevertheless, trying to pull off the same thing twice was always going to be pushing it.

And yet, that’s what the Timbers tried to do.

Steven Smith, the treatment table bothering ex-Rangers left back, replaced Mike Chabala at left back, but other than that change, all was as it was against Kansas City. The thinking seemed to be that since this strategy worked last week and beat the best team in the league, it was bound to do well against one of the the worst teams, right? Because that’s exactly how football works!

Yet, shockingly enough, the strategy that seemed so tailor made for countering a very specific style of football from Sporting didn’t fit against the Impact. Like the laziest kind of lounge magician, Spencer thought he could go one table over and pull off the same trick twice.

Palmer, asked to play the same deep lying role that he had the previous week often looked lost and unsure of just who or what he was supposed to be picking up. For all he was officially given a zonal marking role last week, as Spencer claimed, he just so happened to be marking a zone that contained Graham Zusi more often than not. Montreal didn’t have a Zusi. They don’t play that way. Their strengths are in their wide players and neither Felipe (who was my player of the match, for the record, with a fantastic range of passing on show) nor Warner are your archetypal attacking midfielders. So Palmer was left marking a zone with often no-one in it, and without that clearly defined opponent, he floated around without any sense of effectiveness.

Here Montreal were able to find space on the edge of the Timbers box as Palmer was sucked towards the back line, leaving his “zone” unprotected. Shades of Beckham in the LA match – also a match where Palmer had been parachuted in to play a holding role with seemingly no clearly defined instructions. Warner isn’t Beckham though, and his attempt to “Messi” his way through the mass of Timbers defenders was snuffed out.

It was very much a shot across the bow for the Timbers.

Palmer’s deep role can be seen even more clearly when the average positions of players are taken, using the heat maps on the MLS site as a guide.

It’s hard to be precise with this, obviously, but it shows that Palmer was often playing so deep that he could’ve been a third centre back. What is also noticeable if the way that the Montreal attack skews towards the Timbers left back area. Smith tried to play an attacking game, which saw him pushing up the field. This is fine – I wanted the Timbers to take the front foot and try to force Montreal back, but as you can see from the positions of the Montreal right back and right winger, they weren’t overly concerned with covering back, indicating that Montreal felt pretty comfortable dealing with the Timbers’ attack.

What was also concerning was Smith’s sometimes lackadaisical attitude to getting back, as was seen in the second Montreal goal.

At no point does Smith either seem alert to the danger, or show any real urgency to get back on terms with his man, or at least put pressure on him. The play began with a long ball out from the Impact keeper, and long before Sinisa Ubiparipovic became a threat there was time for Smith to get back. Credit must go to the final pass from Montreal which cut out defence and goalie, though a case could be made for Bendik staying on his line rather than trying to palm it out.

Smith, making an instant debut after his release by League One side Preston North End, looked like a man short of match sharpness. His last appearance for Preston was at the start of March, where he was subbed off after an hour of a 3-0 defeat to Colchester. Prior to that his last game time had been back in January. It showed.

Chabala found himself sitting this one out which strikes me as somewhat unfair. Chabala had put in a sterling effort against Kansas City, and while he may not be the greatest attacking full back around, he does offer a lot of bite and work-rate in defence.

You can see clearly the difference in tackles and interceptions between the two players. Yes, you might expect Chabala to be a bit busier given he was facing the best team in the league, but it’s still an illuminating picture. Smith’s focus seemed to be in attack, with less focus on getting back and covering. He was also prone to going to ground readily, which on a couple of occasions gave Impact players the chance to simply take a touch past him.

It would be ridiculous to write off a player based on one match, especially a debut but I still think Chabala has every right to be pissed off that he was overlooked. One of my criticisms of Spencer has been that it often seems he picks players based on his opinion of them, rather than how they’re actually playing. I’m sure he rates Smith highly, and I’m also sure Smith will go on to be a good left back for Portland given time, but throwing him into a match so soon, especially when Chabala had, in my opinion, earned that spot, sends out all the wrong signals to players. Players should earn the jersey, not just expect it.

Where’s the incentive to knuckle down and work harder to earn a spot in the team if certain players are going to get picked regardless? I can only imagine how dispiriting it must be for these guys to see their fine work one week rewarded with a spot on the bench the next.

It was also be silly to blame the defeat on one man. Smith bears the greatest culpability for the second Montreal goal, as I see it, but he didn’t lose this game for Portland. There were very few bright spots through-out the team, or on the bench. Again Spencer seems to have picked a team and tactic without any thought to the opposition. I can understand the call to “keep a winning team together”, but this wasn’t a team that played Sporting Kansas City off the park and swashbuckled their way to a well-deserved victory. This was a team that knuckled down, bunkered and got a bit lucky on the break. This was NOT the team for Montreal.

Even the great sides will change it up depending on opposition, and this Timbers team isn’t a great side.

With Palmer so deep, Jewsbury was given so much ground to cover as he was expected to get up and down the pitch. To his credit, he had a great chance in the first half thanks to a classic box-to-box run.

It had shades of the breakaway chance against Kansas City last week, where Chara fed in Boyd. But here, as then, the chance wasn’t taken as Jewsbury’s shot didn’t really carry much threat behind it, and Ricketts will be able to make a YouTube highlights reel worthy clip out of his theatrical save.

But even here you can see how deep both Palmer and Jewsbury were sinking in defence. There are three Montreal players and the ENTIRE Timbers defence and midfield behind the ball in the top left panel. This time, the Timbers broke well, and Jewsbury got forward, but too often there was a loose pass or a long ball out of defence that only invited the pressure back on.

The strategy of “keep it tight” was pretty clear as the Timbers repeatedly tried to defend in bulk, but it essentially cedes ground to the opposition, and as a result the midfield battle was one that Montreal pretty comprehensively won.

The above shows the passing and shooting of the central midfield pairings of both teams. What should be pretty clear is that the Montreal two are both more involved and operating higher up the pitch than the Timbers pair.

The problem with playing on the back-foot, looking to soak up pressure, defend in depth and break, is that it, by design, invites pressure. I wouldn’t say the Timbers parked the bus as Chelsea did against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals, but they had a tendency to drop off and give up space to the Impact whether through design or poor application. It worked against Kansas, but against the Impact the Timbers luck ran out.

There was a huge slice of bad luck in the two injuries the Timbers picked up. Purdy’s head knock forced him out early on, and Troy Perkins took a boot to the face as Nyassi went in stupidly high on a ball he was never going to win.

The handball decision given against Smith for Montreal’s opener was also bad luck on the Timbers part as it didn’t seem he had “handled the ball deliberately”, as per the Laws of the Game.

But luck, as well as poor officiating or a terrible playing surface, don’t excuse what was simply a terrible match from the guys in Rose City Red, and even though Lovel Palmer and Steven Smith have been singled out here, I also don’t think these two lost this match between them. It took an entire team to play this badly.

Another match passes where the Timbers clearly had the wrong strategy, but nothing was done to rectify it. There’s some mitigation in that two injuries forced the Timbers to make changes they wouldn’t have, given the choice, but the fact remains that it was clear the Timbers weren’t at the races in the first half, and the change, when it did finally come an hour in, was little more than a “deckchairs on the Titanic” style shuffle. Nothing was done to alter the shape or strategy. Perkins’ head injury put paid to any hopes that Spencer might throw the dice as the game wore on.

If Spencer expects a pat on the back for the way he set out the team last week, he has to except a large slice of blame for this week. I cannot explain how he thought taking what seemed to be a one-off, bespoke strategy and thinking it would simply work again against a completely different set of players was ever going to work. At best it was tactically naive, at worst it was downright bad management.

Had the Timbers got a point, which seemed to be the game plan, or even snatched three, they’d had better been leaving Montreal on horseback wearing Dick Turpin masks. It would’ve been nothing short of daylight robbery.

Football can be a cruel mistress at times, but it can also be unerringly fair too. This week the Timbers got what they deserved – nothing.

Next week sees Columbus Crew visit Jeld-Wen Field, and the Timbers Army will be expecting much more from their side. It’s not like things can get much worse… right?

P.T. F.C.

Beautiful Ugly

Football is often called “The Beautiful Game” but those who went looking for it at Jeld-Wen Field on Saturday would’ve been sorely disappointed. The unbeaten juggernaut that is Sporting Kansas City came visiting with the Timbers at a low ebb – four defeats in a row and no wins since the opening day – so it’s little wonder that the match bore more resemblance to trench warfare than Joga Bonito.

In the end, the Timbers stopped their losing run, and put paid to Sporting’s perfect start, with a scrappy, hard-fought 1-0 win. It was an ugly match; the kind of beauty that could only be appreciated by a parent, or in this case, a victor.

The Timbers knew they would face a physical team in Kansas City. They press high, they press hard and they take no prisoners. Any timidity or hesitation and the steamroller would’ve rolled right through Portland and left a team crushed by a fifth defeat on the spin. This was, after all, a match with 28 fouls and a couple of scuffles although, I never really thought it was especially dirty.

The Timbers not only stood up to the challenge, they pushed right back. They were physical and determined right from the first whistle and never allowed their opponents a moment to settle, hunting in packs to close off those in light blue.

In my match preview, I’d talked about Sporting’s effort and work rate, and the Timbers matched that and more, with Spencer taking a risk in his team selection. Injuries perhaps forced his hand to a degree, but the decision to play Lovel Palmer as a defensive midfielder could so easily have been one that backfired on the coach.

Instead, Palmer rose to the challenge with a seasons best performance, snuffing out much of the threat offered centrally by Graham Zusi. Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe played out wide, with Jack Jewsbury offering an extra insurance policy in the centre. Jorge Perlaza and Kris Boyd led the line, with the Scot in particular relishing the battle against Aurélien Collin, who he had faced before in Scotland when Collin was part of the single worst team I have ever seen in the SPL, Gretna. (Honestly – eye-gougingly, breaking out in hives just remembering, dreadful.)

Given the height and physical presence on the Kansas City attack, it’s little wonder that most of their threat came, as Phil Collins once said, in the air tonight but here Eric Brunner and Hanyer Mosquera did very well. Though they didn’t win every header, they were alert to the second phase and, with help from Steve Purdy and Mike Chabala, were able to clear the danger. Sporting thrive on the chaos they can cause in the box, often scoring scrappy goals from rebounds, but they rarely got much of a sniff in the Timbers box and that’s a credit to the defensive organisation of Spencer’s team.

But the defensive side of the Timbers game wasn’t just about winning second balls and hoofing it clear, they also did a fantastic job in nullifying the threat that Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic offer down the flanks. I was worried when I saw the Nagbe was playing out left as his natural inclination to attack could’ve left Chabala wide open to an overlapping Myers run, but Nagbe did fantastically well in keeping Myers out of the game with defensive covering.

Nagbe was also able to force Myers onto the back foot, pinning him back into his own half for much of the game. So much of Sporting’s play is about exploiting the flanks to work the ball across for their big target-men strikers, but Myers wasn’t nearly as effective at this as he has been in the past.

In previous trips to the West Coast, Myers has proven to be a useful attacking outlet, but up against Nagbe and Chabala, he didn’t get many touches of the ball in the final third.

A poor night was compounded for Myers when he headed home the only goal of the match, right in front of the massed ranks of the Timber Army. A hopeful floated cross from Boyd seemed to be going nowhere in particular until Myers nodded past his own keeper at the back post, under a challenge from his own team-mate. Whether it’s an own goal, or a thirty yard screamer into the top corner, all goals count the same and it put the Timbers on their way to an important victory.

The move that led to the goal was started by Diego Chara sweeping up a loose ball. Chara revelled in a role that allowed him to go both ways, rather than just staying back. He was up and down the field all night, even switching flanks at times with Nagbe so that he covered just about every inch of the field in the course of 90 all-action minutes.

There was some confusion over Chara when he was signed. Was he an attacking midfielder, or a defensive one? The truth is I think he’s neither, and yet both at the same time. He’s the guy who’ll nip at heels in defence, win the ball back, and then give and go. He has a great engine, as was shown in a great chance right at the start of the second half.

This was counter-attacking football straight out the text book. The passing was crisp and direct, and the off-the-ball running timed to perfection. Sinovic’s attempt to play the high pressing game backfired on him as Chara simply outpaced him. This running is an aspect of his game we don’t see often enough given he’s usually played in a holding role, but he is deceptively quick – covering a good fifty-sixty yards in six seconds – before delivering a, forgive me, slide rule pass that Boyd got on the end of and probably should’ve done better with.

Chara's defensive work
Chara played his wide role very well, even though it’s clearly not his natural position. This versatility is a great asset for the team. He often ranged in field, as you’d expect, and it’s here that he won most of his tackle and turnovers. He was able to do this, and abandon the flank thanks, in part, to the excellent work of Perlaza.

I got a bit of stick for my defence of Perlaza a while ago – though many more agreed with me, at least on some points, which is always nice to see – but I thought he was magnificent here once more. If anyone did have criticisms about Perlaza before, it was generally along the lines that he does a lot of (often pointless) running but with very little end product, and poor link up play. His link-up play against Sporting was beyond reproach and if he’d been a bit greedier, and willing to stick out his left foot, he could’ve scored from Chara’s pass in the breakaway.

A goal would’ve been fine reward for his performance but even without that tangible reward, his running kept the Kansas City back line wary, and that was a crucial cog in the Timbers defensive strategy. The best defence begins at the front.

And in a quirky little statistic that I like to throw out on twitter from time to time, Perlaza has now started in 12 of Timbers’ 13 MLS wins – the most of any player on the roster, and has a win rate of 40%, compared to the Timbers own 31.7%. Funny, that.

Perlaza's heat map
Collin was given the unenviable task of marshalling Boyd – a fascinating duel within a duel there that would probably have resulted in a marginal points victory to Boyd – which left Besler to pick up Perlaza, except Perlaza often pulled out wide right leaving Besler with little to do. The man-marking of Boyd seems to be an emerging trend this year, and having someone with the mobility of Perlaza is ideal to exploit this close attention on his strike partner.

Perlaza’s shift to wider areas had the effect of keeping Sinovic in check and with Convey having a pretty poor game and his replacement, Teal Bunbury, not being a natural wide man, it cut Kansas City off from their own left flank.

The sterling work out wide forced Kansas City to try and play through the centre, where the Timbers had numbers in their favour. They were reduced to looking to long range efforts or set plays for their best chances, and the Timbers did a good job of defending these – again dominating the second ball and forcing it clear of the danger area before a Sporting player could pounce.

As I wrote about in the preview, exploiting the space behind Myers and Sinovic was going to be the key that unlocked the Kansas City defence, and that’s what Chara saw with his run round the outside of Sinovic for the earlier chance. It was a route the Timbers tried to take a number of times and with a bit of luck, could’ve profited from.

A look at the Timbers passing from their own half just shows how often they would look for the direct ball out of defence in an attempt to spring a quick counter on Sporting.

What should also be noted is these weren’t simply hit-and-hopes or wild clearances. You can clearly see the targeting of the passes towards the wide areas.

I’ve given John Spencer some stick over the last few weeks, and I maintain every word was warranted, but tonight he played a perfect game. He set his team up to cancel out the threats of Kansas City, got some outstanding performances from his players, and had a clear counter-punching strategy that was effective.

It was a strategy that gave a lot of possession of the ball to Kansas City, but in all honesty possession is overrated. It’s actually a very poor indicator of victory. The assumed correlation of possession and goals scored is one of the great myths of football. It’s not how long you have the ball, or how many passes you string together, it’s where you do it that counts and the Timbers were all about denying Sporting access to those areas, whilst looking to go direct in exploiting them in return.

Jack Jewsbury’s got a bit of stick here too, but I thought he was much improved. Perhaps having Palmer behind him gave him the confidence to play a little more freely, but whatever it was, he looked like a player with a weight off his shoulders.

One result doesn’t make a season – Timbers are still bottom of the Western Conference – but it has stopped a slide that was threatening to effectively end Timbers play-off hopes before we’d even hit May. With a match against Montreal Impact next week, this is a great chance for the team to turn the momentum round and start climbing the table again.

It was also pleasing to see the team do everything I hoped they would do…

Okay, I got the minute wrong, and the body part, but close enough!

Oh, and in terms of Man of the Match, it’s Chara for me. The team as a whole played well, so it’s difficult picking one out, but I loved Chara’s industry and guile.


It’s only one win, a scrappy three points thanks to an own goal, but there’s heart back in the Rose City, and if they can build upon this, it could be looked back on as the catalyst for a famous year for Cascadia’s finest.

You cannot stop us.

The Song Remains The Same

What the multitude cannot comprehend is how victory may be produced for them out of the enemy’s own tactics.

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Another week, another match, another limp home defeat as the Timbers once again heroically snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. And yet, it had all started so well.

The Timbers had looked confident and comfortable on the ball early on, knocking it about with ease, probing for weakness in the two banks of Chivas players that looked set upon a game plan of frustrate, frustrate, frustrate, and then break on the counter. Kris Boyd was gifted a goal so easy that he had time to plan where he was going to put his log slice before tucking it away. Optimism was high. Portland had dominated possession and shots on goal! They’d scored first! In the first half and everything! It all looked so rosy in the Rose City.

Portland had lined up with the same diamond formation that had come so agonisingly close to beating Royal Salt Lake the previous week, but with a shuffle in personnel. Perlaza was dropped (can’t say I’m surprised even if I disagreed), Nagbe went up top alongside Boyd, with Songo’o and Alexander wide. The eyebrow raising change, for me at least, was seeing Jack Jewsbury at the point of the diamond, fulfilling the role of attacking midfielder. I can’t say I’ve ever thought of Jewsbury as that kind of player, but I guess John Spencer will point to the 1-0 lead at half-time and say it worked. Diego Chara was given the job of manning the engine room on his own, like a Colombian Scotty.

And then it all went wrong.

Two changes by Chivas USA at half-time would change the complexion of the match. First, on came Ryan Smith to play down the left-wing. It would pay dividends almost immediately.

The temptation is to go hard on Palmer for this, but that neglects the fact that it was also some good wing play from Smith. Palmer shouldn’t have tried to square up, and certainly shouldn’t have left the door wide open for Smith to get down the outside. Once Smith got a sniff he went past Palmer and swung over a beautiful cross. It was a huge warning sign.

Palmer’s best asset is his attacking and getting up and down the line. He’s never been brilliant defensively, but the change to bring on Smith put the focus squarely on Palmer. Palmer was forced to play deeper and deeper by Smith, and it neutered much of Portland’s play down the right flank. The picture below shows Palmer’s passing in the first-half (left) and second half (right)

I said at the time that something had to be done to protect Palmer. He’s simply not a good enough defender to be left in 1v1 situations against a fast, skilful winger. There’s only going to be one winner of that contest, and he ain’t wearing green. My call at the time was to put Chara out right so he would sit in front of Palmer, with Nagbe dropping back into his more natural trequarista role in the spaces behind the strikers. Chara has the pace and defensive nous to get up and down the line in front of Palmer, and give him some back-up when the ball came to Smith. As it was, injury forced Songo’o off, Alhassan came on and Palmer was left cruelly exposed.

The other change I mentioned that turned the game in Chivas’ favour was a subtle switch in midfield. In the first half, Chivas had adopted a 4-5-1 formation, with Minda sitting deep and one of LaBrocca or Zemanski getting forward from the middle. an attacking sense. At half time the Chivas head coach, Robin Fraser (an ex-teammate of Spencer’s at Colorado, coincidentally) gave BOTH LaBrocca and Zemanski license to get forward, exposing the weakness in the Timbers diamond formation. It put Chivas on the front foot, and put the Timbers under greater pressure nearer their own 18 yard line.

The central two of Zemanski and LaBrocca would bomb forward when Chivas had the ball, giving them a 2-on-1 advantage against Diego Chara as Jewsbury was left high up the park. Smith gave Chivas some attacking width that stretched the Timbers back line. Giving the outnumbering in the centre, there was a tendency for the Timbers wide players to drift inside to make up the numbers, leaving the wingers free in acres of space to take on the full-backs.

It was a smart move by Fraser. He’d identified that Jewsbury was too far up the field to be a defensive presence, and Minda would always be there to snuff out any nascent attacking threat from the Timbers captain, so he freed up his central midfielders to make their presence felt in the Timbers half.

This change in style came to horrible fruition in the second goal as the breaking midfielders both played a part in the goal – one setting Smith up for the cross, the other getting on the end of it.

Palmer is going to take a lot of the blame for both goals – and rightly so, in some cases – but he wasn’t helped here by the way the Timbers were arranged on the field by Spencer. At times the midfield was, quite frankly, a shambles with seemingly no-one entirely sure what they were supposed to be doing. Jewsbury in particular looked like someone who’d wandered in off the street and hadn’t a clue where he was.

It’s Diego Chara I feel really sorry for. Again he was all industry and efficiency (an 86% successful pass rate), but in the second half he was left wide open.

In the first half Chara was able to close down the ball in the centre of pitch, but in the second he was doing his work on the Timbers 18 yard line. Part of this was that the Timbers as a whole were pushed back by a resurgent Chivas, but it was also because he was left with two men to mark and it’s only natural that the tendency is to drop off and block off space, rather than close down and tackle when you’re faced with two guys running at you.

So another game where the Timbers are unable to make the right change at the right time.

What lessons have been learned?

Jack Jewsbury is no more an attacking midfielder than I am the Dragon King of Bhutan. He was rarely effective, and the team seemed to succeed in spite of him in the first half, rather than because. In his defence, it was always going to be difficult for someone to flourish in that role given the way Chivas were determined on sitting deep and narrow, but a good attacking midfielder at least imposes himself upon the opposition and Jewsbury simply didn’t do that. I’m pretty sure Osvaldo Minda could walk past Jack in the corridor and not recognise him.

The wider question of whether Jewsbury should be in the team at all is one many fans are debating. Yes, he’s the captain, and yes, he had a great year for (much) of last season, but does that buy him a role in the team of here and now? I’m not so sure. John Spencer seems determined to shoe-horn Jack and Chara into the same midfield, regardless of how it affects the shape and mobility of the team. The fact is that Diego Chara can do everything Jack Jewsbury can do, and do it better. Time to bench Jack, in my opinion. Though, I’ll be happy to scoff humble pie if he pulls a man of the match performance next week against LA cos, y’know, he ain’t getting dropped whatever fans say.

Darlington Nagbe has huge, undoubted, potential but he needs space to grow. He doesn’t have the physicality to knock MLS defenders off him, and he works best when he gets the ball to feet and is able to get his head up and run at them instead. He’s wasted up top.

Does Kris Boyd train with the rest of the team? I ask because it seems to me that the plan seems to be to hit it long towards him, hoping he’ll win the aerial battle. That’s not his game! Go watch his goals on YouTube – yes, he scores a few with his head, including one for the Timbers, but the vast majority are with his boot. I’m struggling to recall the last time he had a decent ball to feet in a dangerous area. It’s like no-one has noticed he’s not really that good at the whole “big target man” thing! He’s a penalty box striker who just happens to have the physique of a target man. We’re making the same mistakes as last year with Kenny Cooper.

Which brings us to John Spencer and the Timbers front office. I don’t want to be reactionary fan here, calling for sackings just because we lost. In fact, I’m not calling for sackings at all – I think Spencer is, on balance, doing a decent job and having stability is crucial for the club to grow. However, all is far for perfect. He’s been unable to set-up a team to get the best out of Kenny Cooper last season, and it seems to be the same with Boyd this year so far. At times it seems players are getting picked on the basis of reputation or standing within the squad than ability or form. And there’s a worrying tendency for matches to get away from him.

The fact is he either didn’t see how the game had shifted in the second half, did see but couldn’t figure out how to turn it back in his team’s favour, or saw it change but just did nothing to fix it.

The lack of quality at full-back is becoming a running, and increasingly unfunny, joke. I know this isn’t Football Manager, where you can tap in a few numbers and throw up a list of 50 suitable candidates, but for the position to be left as the team’s consistent weak point for over a year now is infuriating. A couple of trades for MLS journeymen here and there isn’t really cutting it.

Next week sees a trip to play LA Galaxy. LA have had a shocking start to the year and it’s tough to tell whether the Timbers will be facing a side hurting and eager to prove people wrong with a dominant performance, or a team playing poorly with morale at an all-time low. Either way, Timbers have to up their game. There is a break-out 90 minutes in this team just waiting to come out. We’ve seen flashes of it here and there. Someone in this league is going to be on the end of a real beating for the Timbers. Let’s make it Beckham FC. RCTID.

So, what could’ve been done differently?

The fact is, Robin Fraser out-thought and outmanoeuvred John Spencer. His changes – bringing on Smith, getting his midfield forward quicker – forced Portland on to the back foot and they simply didn’t react. Smith was left to go 1v1 with Palmer all game long as Alhassan simply isn’t the guy you want trying to track back down the wings. He naturally drifts in field at the best of times, and that’s what happened here. And Chara was left exposed in the second half by Spencer’s refusal to drop Jewsbury back.

Perhaps going flat 4-4-2 would’ve shut down Chivas in the middle, though you’d still need someone out wide who could do the defensive work to help Palmer. Unless, you remove Palmer from the equation and bring on Purdy.

The risk if that Smith still gets past Purdy, who hasn’t started for Timbers in a long time. Only Spencer would know if Purdy was up to coming into a match like this to do a shut-out job on Ryan Smith, and I can only assume he didn’t think he was.

During the second half, I’d gone on twitter to say I thought Perlaza should come on, so Chara could go out to the right side and give cover to Palmer. Let’s assume I’m in charge, if I make that change, how does the team shape up then?

A 442/433 asymmetrical formation, with Chara sat deep right to give cover to Palmer, whilst at the same time no neglecting his duties in the centre. Jewsbury drops back to match up with Chivas, with Alexander coming inside (another potential change could be Alhassan for Alexander or Nagbe). Perlaza would play off and around Boyd up top, with Nagbe providing wide cover in defence and a threat coming in from wide in attack.

Maybe it wouldn’t have worked. We’ll never know, it’s just one smug fan’s idea. Instead Spencer stuck rigidly to Plan A and the game just drifted away from Portland like a smoke from a flare.

It’s concerning that for the second week in a row Spencer has failed to make the right call at the right time. He made, only my opinion of course, the completely wrong substitutions at every turn last week, and here he failed to react whatsoever to a change in dynamic on the pitch.

A good manager can send out a team with a decent game plan and have them execute it. A great manager can adapt that plan and alter it when problems arise. The seeds for Portland’s defeat were sown in their own tactics. A diamond can work well against a team playing 4-4-2, but when a team drops an striker off the front and double teams on the man at the base of the diamond, it can be exploited, giving the team crucial space and possession of the ball in the most dangerous area of the pitch.

Someone hasn’t been reading their Sun Tzu.