There are only 50 pulse-quickening days to go until the MLS All-Star Game, though I'm sure I’d don’t need to tell you that because you're already counting the days down yourself in fevered anticipation.
Or you could’ve just filed that little nugget of information to the back of your mind where it could be carefully disposed of until the official site and blogpack try to convince you that you care, you really, really care about this game. Vote! Vote now! Care!
I’m sure MLS do well financially from the engagement or else we wouldn’t be subjected to this carnival every year, even after factoring in costs to stage and to pay a team from Europe to travel over and attract sponsors. A big play will be made about selling the MLS brand abroad, and we’ll hear all kinds of talk about “markets”, “exposure” and “profile”; you know, the kinda stuff that really get a soccer fan’s juices flowing.
By the way, this is the same organisation that seeks to “protect” the Cascadia Cup trademark. Just saying.
But, from admittedly limited experience, I can tell you that in the UK, no-one cares beyond ” played a pre-season friendly today in America.” That situation is changing a bit as MLS slowly increases its profile abroad and I’m sure there will be those in MLS HQ who point to the All Star Game as a key part of that growth, but that’s equine manure.
MLS players making an impression in decent leagues abroad is increasing the profile as a place where you can actually buy talent, rather than send players who’s talents are waning.
The fans are doing it too by adding some literal noise and color to proceedings and getting the attention of international press.
The All-Star Game is a sideshow. MLS pats itself on the back for putting on their big boy soccer league pants while a bunch of superstars go about running off a summer spent on a beach in Dubai and people pay to attend this spectacle because this is just what the league does. A weird holdover from the days when the game here both helped and hampered in itself by modeling aspects on other US sports rather than other soccer leagues.
So, yeah, I’m not a fan of it, and the announcement of the opening of the ballot (VOTE! OR THE PUPPY GETS IT!) has left my twitter stream alternating from actively not caring to using the vote as a chance to weaken other sides because of course you’d schedule all this for the middle of the fucking week.
Given it’s squeezed into the schedule and could have a direct effect on the play-off race, I don’t see why we need to persist with a show-piece game in the first place. The big European teams will be here playing MLS sides anyway.
But if we do need some kind of event to drum up interest in the “package”, then why not thinking out of the box and, I’m not entirely unserious when I say this, why not hold a six-a-side tournament.
It’s a game that many fans will be familiar from playing in or attending, as well as non MLS fans. It’s quick, throws up lots of action in short bursts (that allow for commercial breaks), and will guarantee goals.
I remember from growing up that there was a similar competition held in Scotland called the Tennents Sixes. The top clubs would gather for a weekend and play a round-robin knockout tournament.
I loved it, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that a significant part of the reason I wanted to see Kilmarnock get promoted was that they would be eligible for the Sixes.
The tournament died due to increasing worries about injuries, as well as Tennents being an brand of lager and that kind of thing being frowned upon on TV. It’s never been revived, outside of a popular Masters tournament for old club legends, and I don’t think for a second MLS would actually entertain the idea, but I know which one I’d be watching every second of.
Still, I guess I better go vote for non-Timbers players because I don’t want our guys getting hurt in order to puff up Don Garber’s ego any further. Yay, All-Star Game.
A few quick thoughts on the Portland Timbers 3-2 win over Sporting Kansas City.
1) Man oh man, it’s good to be a Timbers fan right now, isn’t it? Each and every week, it seems we prove something new. This time, we proved we can win on the road. And not against some chumps, either. This was against one of the best teams in the league. And we didn’t steal those 3 points. We earned them. We were the better team.
Absolutely amazing, isn’t it? Such a change from last year. We’re no longer the loveable losers. We’re contenders, now. Legitimate contenders.
2) In last week’s column, I was a grumpy old man, up in arms over the team’s late-game bunkering. Since then, enough people have argued against me, trying to teach me something about soccer, that I’m starting to question myself. Yes, maybe our “bunkering” is really just the other team getting desperate and throwing numbers forward. Maybe our boys are doing the best they can, surviving the onslaught. I may be willing to concede this point. Maybe.
But there were still a few times against KC that I thought the Bunker Monster had returned. Not as bad as at San Jose, but still, it felt a little bunker-ish. I’ve got one more thought on this matter and then I’ll move on: Frederic Piquionne is an excellent late-game sub, especially if we’ve got the lead and our defense is under siege. He’s a big target and he’s outstanding 1v1. When the other team’s sending everything forward and our defense is just trying to clear the ball out of danger, Freddy gets on the end of those deep, desperate clearances, then has the strength and skill to hold onto that ball a good long while. Heck, he even gets close to a few shots on goal. The other team has to give him a little attention, which means a little less pressure on our tired, besieged, late-game defense. I’m not sure we should be starting Piquionne, not when he’s this valuable as an end-of-game sub.
3) Since I’m talking about Piquionne, let’s do some quick hits on a few other players.
Diego Valeri – He sees things other players just don’t. It’s like he’s playing in slow-motion or something. Smooth as silk.
Ryan Johnson – I love his work rate, I love his first-goal header, and I want to marry his second-goal assist.
Darlington Nagbe – Could his goal have been any cooler? That pass was slightly behind him and he somehow throws his feet backwards to tap it in. Backwards!
Rodney Wallace – When the guy brings it, he brings it in a big way. Huge shot from distance. Fabulous goal while being crunched forward and behind. Tons of energy.
Diego Chara – He’s short, he’s hard, he’s got a yellow card, and he’s tied for the league lead in assists. Who’da thunk it?
4) So let’s talk about the improvements we’re seeing from so many players. The guy next to me at the bar was talking about how everyone looks “so much smarter” this year. I agree completely. But why? Have they really learned so much more from Caleb Porter and his possession-based style? Or did they already know all this, they just didn’t have a chance to show it? I imagine it’s a little of both, really. But whatever the reason, we Timbers fans are the beneficiaries. This is a team that is fun to watch. The style of play is so much more attractive. Even better, when we win, it doesn’t feel lucky. We’ve become a team that should win.
5) Now, I’m gonna say something a little dangerous here, so please don’t freak out, but I think we have to give some credit to general manager Gavin Wilkinson. Yes, yes, we may not like him much, but we have to acknowledge what he’s done.
Our current success didn’t begin on opening day. It didn’t even begin when Caleb Porter finally left Akron and landed at PDX. No, our team started changing almost as soon as we fired John Spencer mid-season. From that point on, everything Wilkinson did was about building a “Porterball” team. Caleb Porter, still coaching at Akron, was able to watch our games, analyze the tape, and tell Wilkinson what kind of changes needed to happen and what sort of players he needed. Gavin could have fought him, but he didn’t. Instead, he broke down the old and built up the new. I am perfectly prepared to give Caleb Porter most of the credit. He’s the architect. But he couldn’t have done it without a lot of front office help. Thanks, Gavin.
6) Maybe the biggest thing I love about this year’s team are the intangibles. Let’s count them off: We’ve got leadership, both from the coach and from the captains. We’ve got a united locker room. We’ve got young players making strides. We’ve got cagey veterans, showing them the way. We’ve got an over-arching philosophy, and we stick to it. We can adjust tactics, whether it’s week-to-week or half-to-half. We’re even-keeled. We’re scrappy. We never, ever give up.
A few weeks ago, I predicted playoffs for this team and got a little guff about it. “Playoffs?” they said. “So soon? I’ll be happy with just improving.”
Well, I’m making the same prediction now, folks, and I don’t see how anyone can argue against me. Barring a major slew of injuries, this team is going to the playoffs. And I don’t they’re sneaking in, either. I think they’re a top-3 seed.
With our new coach, new system, and new players, everyone thought we’d have a rough time of it early. We’d take our lumps, slowly improve, and then start climbing out of the cellar. By the end of the year, maybe we’d be a mid-table team.
Well, here it is, people. We’ve taken our lumps, yes. We’ve slowly improved, yes. But we’re not in the cellar. We’ve got the sixth best record in the league. And we just beat KC on the road.
You’re not rooting for a loveable loser anymore, Portland. You’re rooting for a contender.
The Portland Timbers got two second-half goals from forward Ryan Johnson and overcame two devastating first-half injuries to get their first victory under Caleb Porter; a 2-0 shutout victory over the Houston Dynamo on a cold, rainy night at JELD-WEN Field on Saturday.
Here’s three quick thoughts regarding last night’s impressive victory:
* Trust in Porter’s plan
Last night’s lineup announcement certainly raised some eyebrows and had Twitter buzzing (Rodney Wallace getting the start as a forward/wing player and Jack Jewsbury at right back), but in the end it was really quite a brilliant coaching decision. Over the last few matches, I’ve sided with the recent school of thought regarding the idea that Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara should not be on the pitch together. I’m happy to admit that I was wrong, although I will state that if they are going to play together, last night’s lineup is the only way to do it.
The moral of the story is that Timbers supporters (including myself) may just need to be patient and trust in Porter’s plan.
* Rodney Wallace
I’ve been on the Rodney Wallace “Bandwagon” with Mike Donovan and a few others for awhile now. My only caveat to being a part of the RWB is that I was only on the RWB when Wallace wasn’t playing left back, where I think he is not at his best. Wallace began to turn the corner as a player as he started getting quality minutes for the Costa Rican national team. His rise coincided and possibly was jumpstarted by his winning goal against the United States national team back in September of 2011. With increasing call ups and opportunities, Wallace has shown he can be a positive contributor either as a sub or a starter. Last night, we saw a Rodney Wallace brimming with confidence and he shined. Credit to Porter for putting Wallace in the position to do so.
* A benchmark victory
After last night’s victory, Portland Timbers supporters are finding themselves in some very new territory. The Timbers have a positive goal differential (that’s never happened this late into a season since joining MLS). They saw a team playing with confidence and showing a very strong resolve and character in overcoming two brutal and discouraging first half injuries. They saw the Timbers play with absolute dominance in the second half and was probably the best 45 minutes I’ve ever seen this club play. They saw the Timbers control possession and create multiple scoring opportunities. They saw an opposing club wilt under the weight of being trapped in their defensive half for lengthy periods of time. Hopefully this is the first of many more wins, but I think this is a match which may be looked upon as a benchmark. Obviously it’s early, but it’s hard not to be optimistic; yet another new and uncommon feeling for Timbers supporters.
Timbers head coach Caleb Porter Thoughts on the win: “It feels good winning our first of hopefully many, proud of the guys. They had a bit of adversity in the first half, but as the half went on we just got rolling. The guys that came into the game did a great job.”
On unlocking the Dynamo defense in the second half “We shifted Darlington Nagbe in his role, and we put Kalif [Alhassan] on and I thought those two guys played fantastic, and really everybody. I thought it was a comprehensive performance on both sides of the ball. It really looked like what we want our identity to be. Tonight I think you saw what could happen when we get up on teams. They had a hard time getting on the ball because we kept attacking and kept moving the ball. It’s important to get results for the players to realize what they’re capable of doing. This was a big step in the right direction, this was that breakthrough that I was looking for. It is one thing to know you’re playing well and know you’re a good team, but to get three points, that reinforces it.”
On the performance of Ryan Johnson “He was very good. This team is predicated on working hard; running, pressing. He’s a workman-like player and he did that tonight. He worked them hard running, pressing, and making things happen – he played well.”
On the play of the Timbers backline “It was very good, and it wasn’t just the backs that were tremendous. I thought Jack Jewsbury did an unbelievable job. He played like I’d hoped he would; smart positionally, balancing our team out. He’s a mature player, and you could see that tonight. Mikael Silvestre was class tonight, he won a lot of air balls in that second half. Michael Harrington has been very consistent. Again, it wasn’t just them, it was the entire team. The pressure that we put on when we got going was relentless.”
The Portland Timbers failed to mount a comeback for the second straight week, falling to the Montreal Impact 2-1 last night at Jeld Wen Field in Portland.
Here’s five quick takeaways from last night’s match.
* Focusing on the positives
While I’d prefer the Timbers to actually get a lead in a match, the fact the team has shown some heart and resolve to mount comebacks these first two matches is already markedly different than what has been shown since the club’s entry into MLS. This and the fact that the team is infinitely more dangerous and entertaining to watch is helping keep me a bit grounded despite the fact the club has only garnered one point after the first two matches at home.
* Donovan Ricketts
Listen, I still don’t think Ricketts is the #upgrade the Timbers front office and coaching staff thinks he is, but I saw a lot of tweets blaming Ricketts for the loss and that’s just not the case. In a nutshell, turnovers in poor positions, some epic ball-watching and failure to track back all led to the Timbers’ demise. I’ll have to watch the replay but if I remember correctly, I thought Andrew Jean Baptiste might have been at fault on one goal and Michael Harrington and Will Johnson were both in no-man’s land on the second Impact goal. Mikael Silvestre seemed to be caught in no-man’s land much of the night but that’s a different thing altogether. Again, Ricketts actually came up with some huge saves last night and the score might have been worse. Still, I’d love to see Milos Kocic get a shot when he’s healthy but Caleb Porter has been quite open about the fact that Ricketts is his guy.
* Diego Chara
Has Chara been the Timbers best overall player over the first two matches? Maybe. While Diego Valeri and Will Johnson have been grabbing most of the attention, Chara has been pretty spectacular. Last night, his beautiful switching cross to Zemanski led to Ryan Johnson’s goal in the 80th minute. It’s worth noting that the addition of Will Johnson has definitely had an incredible impact on Chara’s play.
* Andrew Jean-Baptiste
I’m very excited about the potential for Jean-Baptiste. Remember, he’s only 20 years old (he turns 21 in June) and while he still makes mistakes, he is extremely gifted and is only going to get better.
* Some surprising statistics
It’s early, but these really help reinforce how different a team the Timbers are in 2013.
After two matches, Portland leads MLS in:
– Shot attempts (40)
– Shots on goal (16)
– Corner kicks (12)
Still, it’s time to start converting these chances, which seems awfully familiar to characteristics in past Timbers teams. However, I’m hopeful and optimistic that this team will get better.
Rumors are flying about the sort-of-announced partnership between MLS and USL that will integrate the MLS Reserves into the third division. This dovetails neatly with MLS commissioner Don Garber’s statements recently about MLS not getting enough value out of the Academy structure and the Reserve League, and their failure to properly develop the talent the league can access. Benefits abound on both side of the potential agreement: MLS gains an established outlet for developing their youth talent beyond a pathetic 10 game reserve schedule; USL-Pro gets free talented youth players and the ability to establish a regional format due to an increased west coast footprint, both features which increase financial stability for a notoriously unstable league.
It has become clear that a few main points have been agreed upon informally between the leagues, with some integration to begin in 2013 and full integration in 2014.
First, that MLS teams will have a USL-Pro affiliate (with the likely exception of Antigua Barracudas FC, who develop players for their own national team). MLS teams will provide up to five players to their third tier affiliate, at their discretion, with salaries paid by their home team.
Second, that MLS teams will be scheduling reserve games against USL-Pro teams in the coming season, with a formal schedule integration coming in following year. MLS teams without a local counterpart may field full division-three teams in 2014, in order to establish regional divisions in USL-Pro.
Given that there are more MLS teams than USL teams, it is unclear exactly how the west coast teams will be affiliated in 2013. It’s likely that initially west coast teams will be sending players to the southeast where there are four USL teams but zero MLS teams. USL covers the entire east coast but has only one team west of the Mississippi, with Phoenix and Sacramento set to debut in ’13 and ’14 respectively.
An interactive map of Div 2 and 3 attendances from 1996 to 2012
This isn’t ideal, of course, but it is likely that this partnership will induce many of the 70+ USL-PDL (fourth division – semi-pro) to make the jump up to the third tier. If making the jump includes 5 free youth stars, it is very doubtful may fourth division teams would resist. There are many clubs in the fourth tier on the west coast that could make the leap to the third with some marginal support. Cascadia teams not directly associated with MLS U-23 teams in the PDL include Victoria Highlanders, Kitsap Pumas, Washington Crossfire, North Sound SeaWolves FC, and Fraser Valley Mariners FC. Any three of these D-4 teams could step up and become D-3 MLS affiliates to Cascadian MLS partners.
One interesting note about this deal is the leapfrogging of the NASL (second division) in the arrangement with USL. It’s been made clear by NASL owners that they see themselves in a complementary position rather than a support structure relationship with MLS. This is quite an interesting but ambitious position to take given their recent instability, having been refused sanctioning as D-2 by the USSF as recently as 2011. It seems likely the NASL will remain an outlet for more permanent loan-type situations, but won’t be included in a the more fluid reserve league setup with USL.
There are clearly many variables that need to be worked out still, but it’s a promising future for the development of youth talent in MLS. Timbers fans will very likely see many more developmental players sent out to third division sides, like Bright Dike and Andrew Jean-Baptiste were sent to LA Blues in 2012. More games => more experience => increased development. Any arrangement that gets more real game time for developmental MLS players, while promoting and stabilizing a lower division, cannot be a negative for the league. We are sure to hear more concrete details about this arrangement in the future; I’ll be sure to keep you up to date.
Less than a week later, after a defeat to Real Salt Lake, Portland Timbers parted company with head coach John Spencer, and installed Gavin Wilkinson as interim coach in a move that was met with almost universal disapproval among the fans.
Over the following month the talk has grown ever more angry and militant, with talks of boycotts and protests common between both sets of supporters. And here I am stuck in the middle of both.
I grew up a fan of Killie. They are, were, my local team, so it was only natural that I’d end up on the terraces, and later crammed into the seats with legroom that suggests the club expected a crowd of Douglas Baders, at Rugby Park. My wife being Oregonian, and a move over there on the cards, supporting the Timbers was an obvious next step. What wasn’t so obvious was the way the club, and in particular the supporters, would draw me in so wholeheartedly to the point where, whisper it, the Timbers are the team I follow first and foremost now.
Nevertheless, I still keep my eye on Killie and try to stay in touch with what’s going on there. The calls for Johnston to go are nothing new. The Killie Trust, a supporters group, have for a long time set themselves up as wanting change at the top.
When Bobby Fleeting took over the club in the late 80’s, reshaping it into its modern form, he did so by waving a crest of popular support from fans. These were fans that were contemptuously described as “hotheads and bampots” by the old regime, led by Bob Lauchlan. Lauchlan had presided over the club’s bleakest period as the one-time champions slid from relevance and into part-time football and, for a mercifully brief period, the third tier of Scottish football.
Now the supposed benefactors and reformers are shadowy figures. Certain fan representatives claim to know who they are, and vouch for their credibility, but until they step forward and gather support around them, the calls for Johnston to go seem like little more than a futile gesture. Some supporters talk of a popular buy-out, led by a Trust, that could take over the club and hand it to the fans for control, but it’s hard to see that happening when the bank, crucially, are happy to have Johnston there.
There’s no getting away from the elephant in the room – debt. It currently stands around £9m ($14m), which is colossal for a club from a small industrial town in Ayrshire, with an average attendance of around 5,500 (of which around 3,000 are season ticket holders). The loss of so many jobs in the town, the biggest being the pull-out of Diageo who own the Johnnie Walker brand (Johnnie Walker being founded in the town, and the man himself being buried not 2 minutes from where I’m sat right now) has left the town as a whole is a depressed state.
The reasons for the debt are myriad. A decade a go, or so, many clubs is Scotland “chased the dream”, spending lots of money that came into the game through television deals. When that money dried up, a few faced the difficult reality of having run up debts they could no longer service. Killie had gone as far as to build a four star hotel next to Rugby Park, a legacy of ex-Chairman and hotelier Bill Costley.
Johnston arrived on the scene not through a love of the club, or even football in general. He’s a solicitor, and it was only through his connection with Jamie Moffat that he was given the share for a nominal fee of £1. Moffat himself had inherited the club from his late father, and massive Kilmarnock fan, Jim Moffat. The younger Moffat never inherited his father’s love for the club though, and always seemed to be eyeing the exits.
The suspicion held by many fans is that Johnston is a mere puppet of Moffat’s; a buffer to keep the bank happy. He brings no financial investment to the club and has displayed next to no business or marketing know-how in his time at the helm. Local businesses have been gradually alienated, and at a time when jobs are being lost in the town and the cost of football rises, he’s done nothing to arrest the slide in attendance, even following a League Cup win last season.
Instead, he continues to alienate the fans.
Halfway around the world, Gavin Wilkinson is held in much the same regard by Timbers fans. Wilkinson’s reign at the Timbers falls in the “before my time” bracket, so I tend to be guided by those that were around to experience it. The anonymous article posted here drew a lot of attention, but off-site communication with other fans suggest that it’s merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Gavin’s poor relations with fans and players.
Yet, in the one relationship that matters, Wilkinson seems to have his back covered by Merritt Paulson, the club owner. Paulson’s clearly not a stupid guy, but neither was he a “soccer guy” before he got in the Timbers business, and it seems that from very early on Wilkinson has cannily positioned himself as Paulson’s go-to soccer guru.
It’s a relationship that many fans have likened to that of Wormtongue and Theoden from The Lord of the Rings. For me it’s almost like a case of Stockholm Syndrome, where Wilkinson has Paulson convinced that not only is he the right man for the job, but that’s he’s worth riding roughshod over players and fans alike for.
The trade of two popular players this week in Troy Perkins and Mike Chabala gave Wilkinson a chance to indulge in one of his favourite sports: having a little dig at departing players. He claimed that Donovan Ricketts was an “upgrade” over Perkins, a rather classless statement to make as it’s perfectly possible to talk up your new player without having to frame it in reference to the guy who has gone after giving you fantastic service.
It’s something that the club, rather than drop the “upgrade” tack and learn some lessons about PR from what has been somewhat of a clusterfuck, have doubled down on. Paulson himself tweeted “Troy has meant a lot but he’s not Petr Cech. People making him something he’s not” which is a strange assertion as a) no-one ever claimed he was and b) neither is Ricketts. It’s utterly irrelevant to the point.
Perkins weighed in with a rather telling statement to reporters in Montreal, “He’s said some things in the past about guys who had left the club, and that’s him.” Ex-Timbers players have expressed strong opinions on Wilkinson in the past, and it seems that it’s not something that’s going to stop any time soon.
Timbers fans face, I fear, a long and hard fight to remove Wilkinson for a position that he has dug himself into so effectively. When the owner is willing to go toe-to-toe with fans on social media to defend his ginger-haired beau, even as Wilkinson is having to tear up the team that he helped build as he presides over a disaster run of results and performances with all the public grace and charm of a rattlesnake, it’s hard to see how the fans can effect positive change.
Paulson himself weighed in with what was perhaps his “hotheads and bampots” moment when he reacted to the outraged masses on twitter by calling the medium a “cesspool of vitriol” (I would link to these tweets, but Merritt is notorious for deleting them). Now that may be true. Certainly, the British diver Tom Daley felt the full impact that the immediacy and relative anonymity that twitter offers recently. But just because the fans anger is now being directed in a more forthright manner, straight to the owner’s inbox where in the past letters would be screened, and Paulson himself has a itchy twitter finger doesn’t mean that had twitter not been invented the fan’s dissatisfaction with recent events wouldn’t have been manifested in other ways, and may still yet.
Michael Johnstone may not have been, and some would argue he still isn’t, a football fan when he took over, but he certainly seems to enjoy the trappings of being an SPL chairman now. If there’s an opportunity to get his face in front of a camera, Johnston will be there, and in the days after his abstention in the July 4th vote he was elected to the SPL board.
With no figurehead for the hotheads and bampots to rally round, I suspect any attempts to force Johnston out will come to nothing. So long as Johnston wants to stay in the limelight, the bank are happy for him to be there and the fans lack a Fleeting-type character to rally round, all the banners and flags in the world aren’t going to change a thing.
In Portland, it’s difficult to see how the fans will force Wilkinson out so long as Paulson is his Patty Hearst. Clearly Merritt must see something in Wilkinson that convinces him he is the man to guide the Timbers forward, but the failure to transmit this to the fans and get them on board is another failure of communication. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to see any cohesion or direction in the way the Timbers have gone about their first two years in MLS.
But it seems that as bad as it gets, one man remains untouchable in the eye of the storm. The supposedly imminent announcement of a new head coach may take some of the heat off Wilkinson, though I doubt the fans are going to completely forget about the Kiwi as, I suspect, they had better set their expectations to “underwhelmed” in regards to that appointment. I just don’t see how any top coach is going to want to work in this environment, though I’d love to be proven wrong.
What the future holds for both clubs is hard to see at this point. It would be nice, as a fan, to get back to thinking exclusively about what’s happening on the field again. That is why we love the game after all, right?
Maybe I’m some kind of jinx?! That’s the price for having me support a club. At least the Perkins trade took the heat off me as the guy who killed Timbers careers dead. Now I’m the guy who brings an omnishambles of a front office/boardroom to the table.
Whatever happens, one thing is sure. The fans will endure it. Owners and chairmen come and go, as do coaches and managers; the one constant are the fans. They are the beating heart of any club.
Hotheads and bampots they may be, but without them the club is nothing.
The road trip, that staple of modern American cinema, has held little in the way of romance or wonder for the Portland Timbers. Disappointment, anguish and frustration have characterised the journeys away from downtown PDX.
The team has desperately struggled to find any form other than awful, and the figures make for pretty uncomfortable reading. Of their 28 MLS matches at home the Timbers have won 14, yet of their 27 away matches they’ve returned to the Pacific Northwest with all three points on only two occasions, and have had nothing more to show for their travels than a fresh stack of air miles no fewer than 17 times.
Such are the depths the team have sunk to on the road that the recent 5-0 defeat to FC Dallas – a result that was humiliating enough in isolation – saw them go 697 minutes since their last goal away from home, setting a league record as wretched as it is unwanted in the process.
The travails on the road are all the more stark when compared to a reasonably decent home record. JELD-WEN has been somewhat of a fortress where the Timbers won their first five home matches in their debut season last year. Though they’ve obviously not been able to maintain that deep into their second year, the record at home is still okay where it is distinctly mid-table form in the West.
The reasons from this great disparity in form has vexed many around the club. The club’s Jekyll and Hyde nature may be explained by some as the result of a boost at home by the fanatical and rambunctious support of the Timbers Army. The Army gather in the North End, making a cacophony of noise from an hour before the whistle until long after the players have departed the field.
With such support comes a degree of pressure, which the players have addressed, but does it really gives the Timbers such a distinct home advantage as to explain the vastly divergent returns home and away?
Certainly, opposing teams have oft spoken of how unique the atmosphere generated by the Timbers Army is, within the context of MLS. However, all evidence points to their being no direct “home advantage” effect. Many academic studies have been conducted to look into the issue, with most agreeing that the size and volume of the crowd have no discernible effect on the end result. The myth of the “twelfth man”, while appealing to our romantic nature and sense of tribal belonging, is little more than that – a myth.
Where there may be some influence exerted by home crowds is over officials. Studies have shown that there is indeed a tendency for referees to show a slight bias towards the home team. A large mass of supporters, shouting with one voice, can subconsciously influence the referee’s decision making in favour of their team in marginal calls. To be perfectly frank however, it’s hard to discern whether this “referee bias” has any greater effect than good old fashioned poor officiating, which is as rife in MLS as collective amnesia regarding support levels in USL is amongst Seattle’s loyal customers.
There are, though, examples where it does seem that the home crowd has had a direct influence on the play. In a match earlier this year against Chivas USA, a routine cross ball was spilled by Dan Kennedy, the Chivas keeper, into the path of Kris Boyd, who rolled it into the net. This apparent lack of communication between goalkeeper and defender happened right in front of the massed legion of the Timbers Army, and it’s not much of a stretch to think that the noise coming from them made communication difficult, leading to the mistake.
Another aspect that may, in some small part, explain some of the disparity in the team’s form is the field itself. At only 70 yards wide, the pitch at JELD-WEN only just meets the standards laid down by FIFA as acceptable for international matches. To put it into some context, Wembley Stadium is 75 yards wide and Barcelona’s Camp Nou is 74 yards. The relatively small size of the pitch in Portland has drawn criticism from a few quarters, notably Chicago Fire defender Dan Gargan, who called it a “shoe box” following Chicago’s defeat there in May.
While it’s debatable whether the field size hands the Timbers any real advantage at home – I tend to think it gets overblown a bit – it could be a factor in the team’s road woes. There has been a tendency for the club to be exposed down their flanks, with many goals coming from play that has begun out wide, and taken advantage of space between defenders. Perhaps those extra few yards are opening up gaps that aren’t there at home, or perhaps it’s because the full back position is one the Timbers have struggled to adequately fill since joining MLS last year. Six of one…
The thing is that the Timbers don’t seem to concede significantly more goals on the road (46 away, 38 at home), so the problem more likely lies at the other end. Of the 59 goals they’ve scored the Timbers have found the net a grand total of 12 times on the road, and have yet to score more than once in any single road match.
Thierry Henry, when addressing his relatively poor start to Arsenal’s first season at The Emirates, made an interesting point about lacking the visual cues he had built up at Highbury in the new ground. You can see how being able to tell with a single cue in his peripheral vision that he’s 25 yards from goal, and slightly off centre, could make a crucial split-second difference to a striker who has a hulking great defender breathing down his neck.
But, let’s be honest, it’s doubtful that Kris Boyd, for example, has built up such a wealth of instinctual knowledge in his time in their few months in Portland that Henry had in seven years at Highbury, so it’s seems the problems may be more psychological than anything. The team can seem defeated before a ball is even kicked, and when they go a goal behind it’s generally the end of the match as a sporting contest. The poor road form has become a vicious cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom, and one that is hard to break in a league that is already one of, if not the most arduous for travelling teams.
It’s easy to forget just how vast the continental United States are. It crosses four time zones, and local derbies are measured in the hundreds of miles, the LA “SuperClasico” between Chivas and David Beckham’s Galaxy excepted.
The longest single trip in the league is when San Jose Earthquakes visit New England Revolution (or vice versa), and covers a distance, one way, of around 2680 miles. To put that figure into some perspective, that would be the equivalent of Liverpool travelling to play in Baghdad.
With this in mind, it’s little surprise to see that Major League Soccer clubs tend to perform more strongly at home than clubs in other big leagues. In 2011 MLS teams, on average, picked up 62.2% of their total points tally at home (Home Reliance, HR) and the figure is currently up to 64.6%. Last season in England, Germany and Italy the figures we 57.9%, 59.1% and 61.6% respectively. In a league of comparable geographical size, Brazil’s Serie A, the figure jumps to 63.5%. There does seem to be some correlation between the distances travelled and “home advantage”, though even in Brazil there is a clustering of teams round a few large urban centres – something lacking in MLS where the general rule of thumb is one city, one team.
Rooting out the cause of the terrible away form is something that the Timbers current interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson, and his eventual successor, will have to do if the club are to be in any way successful. Last year they had a 71.4% HR, a figure only beaten by fellow expansion side Vancouver Whitecaps (82.1%). This season the Timbers have seen it jump to 90% while the Whitecaps has already almost match their home tally of last year while more than doubling success away from home.
Curiously, the team second to the Timbers in terms of reliance on home form is Montreal Impact, this years expansion club, with 86.7%. Perhaps there is something to supporters having a positive effect of their team when everything is still fresh and new; something that naturally diminishes over time. Teams in the East, like Montreal, do tend to struggle a little bit more away from home (66.4% HR in the East, 62.7% in the West).
So, while Vancouver have improved their away form and are looking good to reach the play-offs, the Timbers continue to toil. Had they performed “on average” away from home, Portland could expect to have 8 more points (based on home form), which would tuck them in behind LA in the race for the playoffs. Instead, they face a fight with Toronto FC in a race to avoid the wooden spoon.
For a club where the mascot chainsaws slabs of wood for every goal the team score, there would be some dark irony in that particular “achievement”.
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?
[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
[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.
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
[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.
[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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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…
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.
What do you think? Have the Timbers trade dealings worked for you, or not?
LA Galaxy host Portland Timbers for the second time this season with neither team in sparkling form, though the Timbers can at least point to an unbeaten month of May after 3 draws and the win against Chicago. LA’s form has been little short of catastrophic, with only 1 win in the 8 MLS matches since they defeated the Timbers 3-1 in April. They’ve lost the last three, as well as losing to Carolina Railhawks in the US Open Cup.
Bah, the Open Cup…
How the Timbers react to their defeat to Cal FC will be one of the big questions hanging over the side. The sour taste that the defeat left in the mouths of fans has lingered, and both players and fans will be looking for a palate cleansing victory this weekend.
The Timbers have every right to feel that this is a very winnable match. They aren’t facing the same team that swept to an MLS Cup triumph last year. This LA will have lost Robbie Keane to international duty, are nursing a long injury list and have Mike Magee and Michael Stephens suspended as well as Landon Donovan publicly expressing his ennui. Also is not well at Beckham FC, and Bruce Arena has had to fend off talk of dressing room unrest.
This will force the Galaxy into a number of changes in line-up, with Keane, Buddle and Cristman all likely to miss out. Chad Barrett has started the last couple of matches with Edson Buddle, so it would seem likely he would lead the line against Portland, with the veteran ex-Sounder Pat Noonan also an option, though he has only started one of his nine appearances this season. Jack McBean, only 17, is an option but unlikely to be start. If Juninho makes it, I’d expect a front three of Nakazawa, Barrett and Donovan – assuming he’s fit to go after a raft of international matches – to start, with Beckham behind and Juninho and Sarvas providing the steel in midfield.
A big key point for LA will be whether Juninho makes it. Juninho is very much the heart of the engine room for the Galaxy, and his absence is usually sorely felt. His box-to-box, all action hustle allows Beckham to play a more advanced central role where his long passing and shooting can be more effective.
Though very much in the twilight of his career, Beckham’s ability to spread the play around will keep the Timbers back line stretched. The flashes of old brilliance are coming at ever-increasing intervals these days, but the Timbers won’t need any reminding about what he can do if given time and space 30 yards from goal.
Having Juninho and Sarvas in the centre also takes away some of the defensive responsibility from the ageing underwear model, which is probably just as well as it’s certainly not his strong suit.
There was a sense that Marcelo Sarvas had been signed from LD Alajuelense to replace his countryman Juninho, before the Brazilian was signed on a third year-long loan deal the following month. Though his playing time has been limited, Sarvas has done reasonably well when given the chance in a Diego Chara-esque role.
Winning this midfield battle will be difficult. The Galaxy have a number of ways they can go – Beckham may play out wide in a 4-4-2, or they can put 3 in the middle in a 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 set up. Diego Chara’s ability to disrupt play is important, but whoever is alongside him will have to help out defensively to stop Chara being outnumbered by an onrushing Juninho, or Donovan/Nakazawa coming in from the flanks.
Though his form for LA has been below par Donovan remains a threat, coming in from wide or from deep with late runs, as the Timbers found out to their cost in the last match between the teams when he equalised just before half time. Given his talismanic status with the Galaxy, it’s unsurprising that he’s often given license to roam and this can make him difficult to track. He’ll also drop deep to pick up the ball and can, with a pass and move, set off quick attacking moves, as Colorado found out to their cost this season.
The Timbers’ new-found defensive solidity will be put to the test. They have lost only 2 goals in 4, and kept 3 clean sheets in the past 6, so there’s every reason for a degree of confidence even though Troy Perkins has had come up huge a number of times for the team. Concentration will be key, and it’s vital that Chara gets support in the midfield to help protect the defence.
Hanyer Mosquera has also proven himself to be an astute piece of business. The heart of the defence at this point is certainly Mosquera & A. N. Other. His robust style sets the tone at the back, but his tendency to come out of defence and ball chase can leave gaps – the kind of spaces that a Barrett or Donovan love to find.
In the Galaxy they’ll face a defence that have often shown the same levels of competence as Alexi Lalas does footballing insight. Without Omar Gonzales to marshal the backline, it’s been seat-of-the-pants time for Galaxy fans. Almost every goal can be attributed to an individual mistake, or poor defensive co-ordination.
Goalie Josh Saunders will likely be back for his first start since the 2-1 win against Colorado, having played in the reserve match against the Timbers at the start of the month. The 3 wins LA have this year have all come with Saunders between the sticks, but the goals against average hasn’t changed much – in fact, it’s been marginally lower without Saunders – 1.57 from 1.67, or a goal every ten games or so.
He’s likely to be behind a back four of Dunivant, Lopes, DeLaGarza and Franklin. AJ DeLaGarza formed a good understanding with Gonzales last season, but this year he’s had more partners than Newt Gingrich, and failed to find chemistry with any of them. It’s likely that ex-Chivas man David Junior Lopes will start against Portland, with Lopes and DeLaGarza playing together four times this season – the most of any Galaxy centre-back twosomes.
Something In The Air…
DeLaGarza’s lack of height – he’s only 5’9 – is also a problem that teams have sought to take advantage of. With that in mind, getting good delivery in from the flanks has proven very fruitful for opponents this season.
DeLaGarza isn’t at fault in the centre here, but he does allows his man too much space to get turned and get a cross in, and by putting it between defenders, Sene is given the relatively simple job of nodding the ball home. The lack of a dominant presence at the back such as Gonzales really shows in this area, as no-one takes it upon themselves to attack the ball.
Here Gaul doesn’t close down Rosales, preferring to concentrate on the outside runner, while Donovan shows a lackadaisical attitude to getting back. The cross from deep is well measured to miss out the 6’3 Lopes at the front post, and let Eddie Johnson go up against the smaller DeLaGarza.
The Back Post
Taking “the big man” out of the equation and isolating DeLaGarza or the fullbacks has been a recurring theme for the Galaxy.
Again, it’s a far post cross, and Kamara reads it better than Franklin for a simple header, and even if Franklin didn’t have a brainfart, you’d put money on Kamara beating him to the ball anyway.
Neither first choice full-back for the Galaxy have covered themselves in glory this season. Their attacking play has carried any great potency, and their defensive work has often left a lot to be desired. It’s almost as if it’s not that easy a position to play.
It may be a result of the loss of Gonzales’ influence and organisation, but whatever the cause for the dip in form, both full-backs are playing like players not entirely sure of their jobs and with little confidence in the rest of their defensive team mates. They’ve had real problems defending the channels, and a switched-on attacker can find himself in acres of space with a well-timed forward pass.
The biggest problem the Timbers have faced isn’t shutting out the opposition, it’s putting the ball in the net. They’ve netted only 4 times in the 6 matches since the loss to Galaxy, and half of those were own-goals.
Given the way that Spencer has relentlessly had the Timbers playing – direct from back to front, get it wide – it almost seems like the Galaxy’s weakness at full back, and soft centre, are tailor made for the Timbers to shine.
In a way, given the weakness out wide this is almost the perfect match for the running of Perlaza. His channel running would cause the full-backs headaches, allowing the outside players to get space for the cross. Mwanga though has that ability, combined with a bit more of a physical presence.
With Boyd and Mwanga both likely to start – and 6’1 and 6’2 respectively – the height is there to really challenge the Galaxy defence, providing the delivery is good. Too often the Timbers have been wasteful from wide areas, but have in Sal Zizzo and Kalif Alhassan two guys who can measure a cross. But they also have guys like Mike Chabala who has an almost vampiric fear of a good cross, preferring the hit and hope and fail method.
Though neither Boyd or Mwanga are particularly dominant in the air, both would fancy their chances against the fullbacks or DeLaGarza. Indeed, DeLaGarza’s weakness in the air is something the team and player himself are all too aware of.
There is a tendency for the defence to drop a little deeper to try and limit the effectiveness of long balls forward for big strikers to win flick-ons, but this leaves this exposed to cross balls into dangerous areas as players are able to attack the ball 6 yards from goal.
The temptation may be to pump the ball long and look to win the second ball on knock-downs against DeLaGarza from which could allow the Timbers to get good possession in dangerous areas and keep the attack moving, with the outside midfielders getting forward to offer through balls in the channels between centre and full backs or a pass out wide, but they may find themselves thwarted in this by the presence in those areas of Sarvas and/or Juninho.
Late Game Jitters
Whichever teams holds it’s late game nerve could well come out on top. In April it was the Galaxy who grabbed a couple of late goals for the win and Timbers fans are all to aware of the teams late game performance. There hasn’t been a record as abject as the Timbers in the last 20 minutes since Paris Hilton got delusions of musical adequacy.
While the Galaxy have also suffered late in matches, conceding over half their goals in the final 30 minutes, they also score a lot late on – 60% of the goals they’ve scored this year have come in the final 30.
Both teams have thrown away leads late in matches, so the mental toughness of both XI’s are likely to be tested here. The Galaxy’s poor home form, coupled with fans unrest, could work to the Timbers advantage if they can get themselves ahead and frustrate the hosts and turn the crowd against their heroes.
With Futty on international duty with The Gambia, and Eric Brunner a doubt, it looks like David Horst will partner Hanyer Mosquera at the back. Horst didn’t cover himself in glory at the Cal FC goal, but no-one really came out of that game with credit. Steven Smith is taking his time getting back, and with Wallace picking up a knock it might mean a start for Mike Chabala at left back, with Jewsbury likely to continue at right back.
Given the emphasis I’ve placed on getting good delivery in from wide areas, I am worried about having Chabala’s Comically Catastrophic Crossing Cavalcade down the wing, but I do like him matched against Landon Donovan or David Beckham as I feel his defensive game is much more his strength.
In midfield Diego Chara is a lock, hopefully at central midfield, though you can never be sure. Out wide there’s Sal Zizzo, Kalif Alhassan, Franck Songo’o and Eric Alexander all competing for a spot. Personally, I’d go with Alhassan and Zizzo, but Zizzo’s impact as a sub may be something Spencer wants to hold in reserve until later in the game. I worry that going with Alhassan and Songo’o out wide, given both these guys’ propensity for dribbling inside, could leave our distinctly-not-first-choice full backs exposed to a double team as Franklin and Dunivant are allowed to break forward without worry.
Nagbe will likely start in his midfield/attacker role with Mwanga and Boyd up top, though I wouldn’t be shocked to see Mwanga start from the bench, with Nagbe partnering Boyd and possibly Alexander in midfield with Chara. I wouldn’t be entirely happy, but not shocked either. Brent Richards did reasonably well when he came on against Cal FC, and has done well for the reserves this year, but I doubt we’ll see Spencer drop any of the “proven” players to give Richards a debut in the back yard of the Champions.
All this being said, I’m feeling pretty confident about Portland’s chances on Sunday. While the Timbers have their own concerns and players missing, there’s a sense that finally the important players are coming back into the team. That’s not the sense you get from LA, who have Keane missing, Donovan’s form slumping and Beckham not getting any younger.
It’s been far too long to make amends after the Open Cup débâcle, and I’m sure the players are itching to prove that result an aberration.
If the Timbers defence can stick to their task and stay focused, then the foundations are there for the win. The LA defence is nothing to be feared. Pressure applied to the flanks with strong, dynamic play from the strikers could kick open the doors. If Real Salt Lake can beat Chivas at the same ground the night before, Spencer’s boys will know a win will put them up into 6th, with the play-offs firmly in sight.
The old saying that rules are meant to be broken is usually used to justify some sort of misdemeanor or blatant cheating. I think we’d all agree that cheating is rampant throughout football and are fed up of seeing a player throw themselves to the ground in complete agony only to discover in a nicely presented slow motion replay that nobody touched him. Yet that old saying rings true in football.
Players often know that a foul will be called and yet will commit the act anyway because fouling is an important part of the game of football.
I am not talking about dangerous tackles. I stand firmly on the side of seeing them eliminated from the game even at the cost of making it less physical and losing certain kinds of tackles. But it has a place tactically and in the flow of the game.
Diego Chara, energetic midfielder to the Portland Timbers, is a master of such acts. It’s a well known statistic to Timbers fans that Chara committed the most fouls in the MLS last year. Despite this Timbers actually committed 3rd fewest fouls in the league. There are several reasons why Chara is a “foul master”. Firstly, he is a central midfielders and central midfielders tend to commit more fouls than any other position. Particularly those who are of a defensive disposition, which Chara is even if John Spencer doesn’t agree. Secondly, he does not stop running (well until the 80th minute at least). He covers an amazing amount of ground and thus is usually close to where the action is. Thirdly, he has a relatively good understanding of the value of the foul and discernment of when to commitment one and when not to.
The deliberate foul is, in a sense, an art. Of course it’s not artistic in the form that many other elements of the beautiful game are but it is also not as brutal and simplistic as one may think in simply watching it. A player has a split second to weigh up the potential risks and gains of said foul. This applies to a legitimate attempt to win a challenge too. You have to determine what are the risk of potential injury to both parties (most professional players don’t want to deliberately injure other players beyond, perhaps, a bruise or something else small), the chance of winning the ball (if indeed you are going for the ball), the chance of receiving either a yellow or a red card, the position of the free kick and chance of opposition scoring from said free kick. All of these are thought about and processed usually within a second then weighed against the reward, and there is always some reward to a foul that is committed intentionally. This can be one of several things, and for the purpose of this article I will separate the type of foul by these categories.
The Professional Foul Or, preventing a goalscoring opportunity or liklihood of an opportunity developing.
Professional fouls are deliberately imposed by an opposition player because of the risk of conceding a goal. Traditional definitions talk strictly of preventing goalscoring opportunities and insist on a professional foul being a red card offense but I think a slightly broader definition gives a better indicator of what they are.
I would define it as a foul committed to avoid a situation where the probability of a goalscoring opportunity is high. For example, where 4 players are advancing on a counter attack against 3 defenders or where a highly skilled individual player is advancing with a supporting attacker against 2 defenders. Using my definition of a professional foul it will almost always result in a yellow card and often a red card. Two examples immediately jump to mind from my years of watching football. The first of the classic last man professional foul. The second is from my broader definition.
The first occurred in a game at Old Trafford in the 1997/8 season. With four games left in the season Manchester United sit a top the premier league but under severe pressure from Arsenal. They are hosting a Newcastle United team languishing in mid table. The game was tied at 1-1 with just a few minutes left. Man United have the ball deep in the Newcastle half and Beckham’s cross is headed clear by Stuart Pearce and drops for Temuri Ketsbaia who manages to help it on to Rob Lee. Lee is inside his own half but there isn’t a single player between him and Manchester United goalkeeper Raimond Van Der Gaouw. He charges forward under pursuit from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who realises he won’t catch Lee in time and so chops him down about 10 yard outside the Manchester United penalty area. He gets up and already starts walking off the field even before the referee brandishes the red card. Solskjaer knew he was going to get sent off, but the reward was justifiable as Lee was likely to score and that was likely to result in a loss. It’s made all the more interesting by the fact that this is the only red card Solskjaer would receive in his whole career. He also only received 4 yellow cards, so this is not someone that can be accused of being a “dirty” player. It was a tactical foul for tactical reasons.
My broader definition is highlighted by an incident from the 2002 World Cup. The semi-final between Germany and South Korea is tied at 0-0. Germany are in the ascendancy and but South Korea launch a counter. Suddenly there are 4 South Korean attackers bearing down on 2 German defenders with Lee Choon-soo dribbling the ball. 2 German midfielders are closely in pursuit. Lee cuts inside beating one man and is facing the last defender with the option to beat him or square the ball to waiting attackers on either side. Michael Ballack sticks out a leg from behind and brings down Lee promptly ending a very promising attack for Korea. He is booked by the ref, and despite his protests it’s a justifiable booking. It’s significant because it’s his second booking of the tournament and mean he’ll be suspended from the final should they reach it, which they did courtesy of a goal from Ballack himself. It’s plausible here that Ballack was going for the ball. But he knows going into it that it’s a low probability challenge and that the likelihood is he’s going to commit a foul and it’s going to be a booking. It cost him his place in the final but possibly got his team there.
The later incident represents the bread and butter of the deliberate fouls of a defensive midfielder. They must know when an attack is progressing that it’s very dangerous and know when it’s acceptable to end that attack with a risky tackle. It’s calculated risk as sometimes you might end a promising attack with one such challenge only to find the resulting free kick nominated for goal of the week or expect a yellow card only to find its colour is red.
Watching Diego Chara I often see him commit these kind of fouls and I daresay they have saved the Timbers from conceding a goal on some occasions. Often I find myself quietly thinking “good one Chara”.
One particularly special example from Diego occurred in the away game in Houston. Kandji was rapidly advancing towards the Portland goal and several Dynamo players were joining him in the attack. It was something akin to a 4 on 4 breakaway. Then up stepped Chara, all 5ft7 of him, and he completely levelled the 6ft4 Kandji. Inexplicably the referee waved play on and the game continued but this was definitely a foul and probably a bookable offense. I can only assume the ref believed the contact was a normal shoulder to shoulder challenge that is permissible in football.
I fully believe that Chara thought the foul would be called and maybe even expected a yellow card but committed the offense anyway knowing that the Houston attack was looking very dangerous. To me, it was a moment of beauty and intelligence from Chara. Firstly, to recognize the danger and secondly, to so promptly to put a stop to a huge and menacing striker. It makes me smile just thinking about how tough Chara is considering his size. Pound for pound I am not sure many can compete with the wee man.
The Breakup Or, disrupting the flow of the game and an opponent’s possession of the ball.
Football is a game that at its finest is free flowing and continuous. It’s one of the things that make it such a beautiful game. But sometimes you are in a situation as a player where you don’t want that to happen.
A great recent example of this was Chelsea’s performances against Barcelona. Branded as “anti football” by many people, Chelsea set out defensively with the intent of frustrating Barcelona and exploiting opportunities on the break. With a fairly large slab of luck it succeeded and we all know Chelsea went on, with another defensive luck ridden display, to win the Champions League.
A part of the game plan against Barca was to hound them and to break up their play (by either committing a foul, winning a tackle or forcing the ball out of play). It isn’t pretty to watch but sometimes it is necessary. Many teams have tried to outplay Barcelona and very, very few have succeeded in the last few years. The teams that have tried and failed consist of some that are much more talented than Chelsea. Chelsea knew that they couldn’t win playing that way. Whilst I deplore teams that use this as their primary way of playing football, against certain opposition in certain circumstances it is a necessity.
The breakup foul is a simple part of such a game plan. You commit a challenge that will draw a foul call from the referee simply to stop the flow of the game in that moment. It, assuming the opposition take a moment to take the free kick, gives players a chance to get back into position.
Of course this type of foul doesn’t need to be used as a tactical outlay for an entire game. It can simply be the decision that a player takes in a moment. This is one of the areas in which I see Chara excelling the most. He has a knack of knowing when it is wise to commit a simple foul to break up a play. He’s often getting cautioned (or warned about getting cautioned) for repetitive fouling because of this. It seems like half the time an opposition player gets the ball and the possibility of launching a quick attack is there, so is Chara hassling him. Sometimes his presence is enough, other times he can win the ball back legally. But sometimes he takes a quick tug on the shirt or sticks a leg in to commit a foul. This especially seems to happen when Timbers give away possession cheaply in midfield or in the opposition half. So often the possibility for a quick counter is denied because of Diego Chara and I appreciate it a lot.
The Aggregator Or, frustrating opposition players to limit their effectiveness.
This particular kind of foul can be frustrating to watch and if abused can be dangerous but it can also be very effective. It very much overlaps with the previous sections as often fouls which break up plays can be extremely frustrating.
That niggling pest of a player who will not get off your back and keeps fouling you. Everyone that plays regular has experienced this kind of player and it can be incredibly frustrating. More often than not for me, in my extremely amateur level of play, it’s because someone doesn’t know how to tackle very well. But at the professional level this is simply not the case (save for the occasional lazy attacker).
Most teams, particularly in a physical league like the MLS, have players like this. They are constantly frustrating opposition players in the hope of nullifying their threat in a game. Frequently it works and sometimes even with amazing players. In his first couple of years at Manchester United Christiano Ronaldo was often hounded out of games. He would get wound up by consistent fouling, perhaps make a mistake or two and then drift out of the game. Players saw a weakness in him and exploited in it. He learned to move beyond that, grew up and, well, the rest is history. Certainly these niggling, frustrating fouls are not pretty to watch. A line also has to be drawn here. Being overly physically aggressive to irritate people is dangerous. That line is frequently crossed by individual players, particularly in attempting to cope with players that are advanced far beyond their skill level and that has no place in the game. It’s why the powers that be have clamped down on challenges from behind, two footed tackles and the like.
But, in my opinion, this is where Diego Chara succeeds. He rarely puts in dangerous challenges or looks out of control. Yet he often frustrates opposition players with his persistent tackles and fouls and his physical presence. This is why you frequently see opposition players start to get angry with Chara, and why he often has a smile on his face as they do. He’s doing his job.
As a fan of this wonderful sport I have come to appreciate this element of football. Of course it will never hold the same place as a beautiful dribble, a passing move or those goals that we crave so much. But it can still be appreciated. Indeed, if we are to appreciate a player like Diego Chara fully for what he is worth than it must be appreciated. Not every player can play “sexy football”, as Ruud Gullit once called it. Not every game can be filled with glorious moments. So we must learn to appreciate these seemingly mundane elements of the game as then we will never grow tired of it and will enjoy the truly beautifully crafted moments all the more.
Diego Chara’s place in the Portland Timbers is invaluable. Although, he may not of lived up to his early billing as an “attacking midfielder” or the promise he showed with some most excellent displays last year he continues to produce performances that aid the Timbers tremendously. His continual running, tackling and intercepting ability coupled with the understanding of when fouls are needed is crucial in helping to frustrate opponents offense. Of course he also has a decent ability on the ball, is quick to assist in offense and good at starting up attacks (he frequently will make the pass to Nagbe or one of the Wingers in a position that they are able to launch an attack).
Of course Chara is not alone here. There are many players who have successfully mastered this domain and most football fans could learn to love them even more if they can appreciate the art of fouling.