Tag Archives: Mike Chabala

Another Fiasco in Frisco

I’m not mad, I’m disappointed.

In their first year in MLS, the Timbers went to Dallas in summer and lost 4-0. That remained their heaviest defeat as an MLS club until this week when they went one worse and lost 5-0. It was the first time Dallas had scored 5 since they beat LA 6-3 in 2009 and the first time they’d won by more than three goals since the Timbers visited last June.

The result leaves the Timbers rooted to the bottom in the West, and bottom overall on goal difference. Of the 35 goals they’ve conceded, 14 have come in the last four matches. The Timbers also set records for the longest a team has gone without scoring a goal away from home. It’s now seven full games since Kris Boyd scored against LA, and an aggregate score in that time of 0-15.

So, is everyone feeling happy? Let’s get on with the game…

The team that Gavin Wilkinson selected to put an end to that run saw Boyd benched, and a return to the 4-4-2. Alexander moved centrally, to play the top of the diamond as Nagbe also sat out. Mwanga and Fucito were up top, while Smith was replaced by Chabala at left-back . Songo’o and Alhassan were the wingers.

It was, on paper, an attacking set-up. Two mobile strikers to stretch the Dallas defence, and exploit any spaces. Alexander pulling the strings in midfield, with the creativity of Songo’o and Alhassan out wide.

In reality, it was a different matter.

The tone was set from early on. The Timbers sat off, seemingly looking to conserve energy in the sapping heat, but all it did was hand the impetus to the hosts. Dallas dominated play from the first whistle, and wouldn’t give up control until the final whistle mercifully brought an end to a contest that as one-sided as you’re likely to see.

The battle was quickly won, and lost, in the wide areas. There seemed to be no understanding between Chabala and Songo’o down the left or Kimura and Alhassan down the right.

When the ball got forward into attacking wide areas, there was no support for the full-backs time and again.

It may be that Wilkinson had told his fullbacks to sit deeper to counter the threat offered by Dallas’ full-backs, but rather than snuff out a Dallas threat, all it did was neuter our own.

Even on the few occaisions that a full-back did get forward for the Timbers, they would find themselves isolated.

It’s a wonder I don’t have a bruise on my forehead from the number of head smackings I give myself as the Timbers continue to make the same basic errors. Neither Songo’o or Alhassan are guys who are going to go round a defender and hit the byline, yet we persist with playing them out wide.

Fine, then we need to get our full-backs up to provide that wide out-ball, except we either have the ball dribbled or passed inside, and lost, or the run is so late, or the pass too slow, that rather than having a 2-on-1 out wide, it’s 2-on-2 or even 2-on-3.

To see how it’s done properly , just watch Dallas.

That’s how you do it. It wasn’t just a one-off, it was consistent. Quick, crisp and effective. Compare to the ponderous and plodding play of Portland. It’s men and boys.

With the way Dallas would push on their full-backs, it should’ve created chances for Portland to hit them down the flanks on the break, but again we were just too slow. We seem unable to put some quick passes together in transitioning from defense to attack. You can almost hear the gears crunching as we try to.

The one time we did turn it over quickly, a long ball forward was robbed from the defender by Fucito and his shot was deflected off the post. It was 0-0 at the time, and while it may have changed the matches had it gone it, I have little confidence that it would’ve halted the tide of the match which was washing all over the Timbers defence.

It very quickly became evident that Wilkinson’s attempt to play Alexander as an attacking midfielder was leaving Diego Chara exposed in deep. Not for the first time this season. And not for the first time, we did nothing to remedy a glaring problem.

As Dallas worked the flanks well, they were able to overload the middle and create chance after chance, and it was only a matter of time until they broke through.

It was also little surprise to see all of the Dallas goals exploiting our full-back weaknesses, and three in particular playing on our inability to defend in wide areas.

On the first, Kimura was marking a man in the centre of the field, leaving acres out wide. He then did that annoying thing of jumping back first to block the ball. Mosquera was unfortunate to turn it home.

The second saw Chabala go off on an adventure into midfield, and Songo’o resolutely fail to bother his arse to cover for his full-back.

The fourth was that classic thing the Timbers do of giving the ball away cheaply and leaving the full-back with his arse in the breeze. Jewsbury, who had started on the bench, gave the ball away and Dallas always looked likely to score.

The third and fifth goals won’t be featured on Mike Chabala’s highlight reel should he find himself seeking a new club at some point. On both occasions Jackson breezed past him so easily I had to rewind and double check he really was there at all.

It was a defensive horror show, and the full-back area continues to be a problem.

It was, of course, yet another shuffle at the back with Chabala coming in. The lack of consistency at the back is certainly a contributing factor to our defensive woes. Probably the best defense I’ve seen was the famous Arsenal back four of Adams, Bould, Dixon and Winterburn. These were guys who played together every week, knew each others games inside out and played not as four individuals, but as one collective unit. They were formidable.

To be fair, the continued absence of Brunner perhaps prevents the Timbers from picking their first choice central pairing, but the continued switching of Horst and Futty alongside Mosquera doesn’t build stability. Nor do the woes at the full-back area.

Lack of communication, players not knowing or doing their job properly, poor positioning – all these are results of players not knowing who they’ll be playing beside from game to game.

Dallas were also able to use their defenders as a way to slow the game up and take a breather.

As you can see, Dallas were happy to play across the defense. It keeps the ball, gives the attacking players a chance to rest up, and it also lets the team probe for weakness in the Timbers defense. Look at the Timbers defence, and there is none of that. The difference is like those before and after pictures of a spider’s web when the spider is jacked up on caffeine. We’re nervous and jittery where Dallas are composed and confident.

It’s a symptom of the Timbers season. Hardly anyone wants to put a foot of the ball and work the play. It’s head down, kick it forward and run, and the tone is set at the back. Perkins continues to punt the ball hopefully up the field even though anyone who’s played in heat will tell you it’s much easier to conserve energy when you have the ball than when you’re chasing it. Look for a full-back to throw it to, or a central defender to drop off for a ball to feet. Pass the ball, even if you’re not always moving forward. Keep it, treasure it, and let the spaces open up in front of you, rather than hoping they will.

It’s just not good football. I said during the week on twitter that it’s little surprise we play USL football considering our entire backroom team is drawn from there. Just like a lower league team will upset the odds from time to time, so do we, but over the course of a season the results will even out and you’ll find yourself some way short of the quality needed. For all the work done to bring the old PGE Park up to MLS standards, we neglected to improve the personnel in the same way.

The fact it was the Timbers 3rd game in 8 days should have made possession of the football an even more pressing concern.

If the ninety minutes wasn’t dispiriting enough, Wilkinson’s post match comments won’t have improved anyone’s mood.

The tone of Gavin’s comments, despite his protestations that he wasn’t throwing anyone under the bus, were of someone throwing everyone under the bus before hopping on that same bus and telling the driver to step on it.

In short: “It was them, not me. Honest.”

It was hard not to see them being directed not towards the fans that had just seen the club they love humiliated and abused, but to Merritt Paulson in an attempt to convince the owner that he shouldn’t be culpable for having “people quit tonight”.

For all Gavin Wilkinson sought to shift the blame for the result onto the players – and the players do deserve criticism, as I’ve given too – he can’t, and shouldn’t be allowed to, weasel his way out of this one entirely.

Not only did he pick this team, and set the tactics, he signed these guys. I’ve never believed for a second that Wilkinson deferred entirely to a rookie manager in who the Timbers signed. And if he did, why are we paying him a wage if he’s just going to stand silently by and watch as a team is built in the most haphazard and poorly-planned manner?

The notion that Spencer signed all the duds is, quite frankly, bollocks. Wilkinson’s hands are dirty.

These are his players and if they’re not good enough, he’s not good enough. I don’t think sacking Spencer was a mistake, but it’s a job only half done. Spencer made many mistakes in his tactics, game management and approach, but he wasn’t alone in putting together a team that now prop up the rest of MLS.

I don’t buy the notion that bringing Spencer back would make things any better. The depths the club have fallen after he left doesn’t change the fact we were already scraping the barrel with him here. It’s a completely fresh start the club needs, with new eyes looking over everything and putting the club back on track.

I think we overachieved some in the first year. Players were a little bit complacent coming into their second year.

What in the holy fuck is this guy babbling about?

We overachieved by losing 14 of our 34 games? By having the second worst defence in the West? By winning two of our 17 road matches? Overachieved? Fuck off with that nonsense!

If our General Manager, the guy who is supposed to shape the “vision” for this club going forward, thinks that is overachievement then he had no place in MLS, never mind this club.

You may overachieve in a cup competition, and string a few results together and win a trophy, but you achieve exactly what you deserve over 34 matches. We’ve gone backwards this year and not because we did so well last year that players got complacent, but because management have failed in their duty.

You because complacent, Gavin. You’ve been here 12 years now. You’re comfortable, you’re part of the furniture. You’ve gotten lazy. You’re not good enough. You’re failing the Timbers, and if you have even a shred of good feeling towards this club, you’d do the right thing and admit the job is too big for you and go.

You may even find that fans have a bit of respect for you as a result. You got offered a nice job, and you took it. No-one would begrudge you that. You gave it your bes,t I don’t doubt, but your best isn’t nearly good enough. To hang onto your position now would be entirely selfish and destructive for this team.

You’re part of the problem, Gavin. Yes, the players have to take a large share of the blame for results, but I have zero confidence that you are the man to bring in better players. And the thought of you having input into the next manager at the club fills me with cold dread.

As I posted last week, I don’t expect title after title. I don’t support the Timbers for the glory. But this isn’t good enough. The fans remain loyal in their support, but they’re hurting. Ultimately, beyond singing themselves hoarse at every match, they can only watch as their club – THEIR club – is mismanaged.

You can blame everyone else for your failings, Gavin, but you don’t fool the fans.

One can only hope that the owner isn’t fooled either.

The Timbers have a week before their next proper match, when they host Chivas USA. It’s the return legs of this bizarre little midseason double-double-header, so a chance to avenge this defeat will follow the Chivas match.

#RCTID

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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

[/learn_more]

[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…

[/learn_more]

[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.

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.