Tag Archives: MLS

Cascadi-argh

The problem with watching an M Night Shyamalan movie, apart from watching an M Night Shyamalan movie, is that you spend most of your time waiting for the twist – the shattering reveal that turns everything you just watched on it’s head. Shyamalan, after the huge success of The Sixth Sense (SPOILER ALERT: Simon is Hans Gruber’s brother), became “the twist guy”.

The Timbers have their own twist; their own little gimmick. They lose late goals. A fuckofa lot. And it’s getting every bit as head-smackingly tedious as Shyamalan’s third-act revelations did.

Despite John Spencer’s post-match insistence that losing so many late goals is “not a massive problem“ this season alone has seen the team lose 7 goals in the last 10 minutes of matches, while they haven’t scored a goal in that period. As Mike Donovan tweeted, in the last 20 minutes of home MLS matches, the Timbers have been outscored 4-18.

I really hope Spencer was simply trying to bat away negatives to put a positive spin on the match because if he really doesn’t think those figures represent a massive problem then I think we have the answer as to whether Spencer has lost it

While the loss of yet another routinely sickening late goal may not have been a surprise, Spencer did pull a couple of rabbits out of the hat in his team selection.

I can’t say I was surprised to see Jewsbury back in at right-back, even though I thought Chabala had done enough against Chicago to keep his place. The shock was that Chabala didn’t even make the subs bench either. I can only assume it was a late knock (there were no injuries listed on the Friday before the match) because I can’t fathom any other reason why Chabala wouldn’t even make it to the bench.

The midfield was where the big shake up came, as only Diego Chara retained his starting place there. Songo’o and Wallace were replaced by Kalif Alhassan and Eric Alexander. Lovel Palmer dropped to the bench to facilitate a move into midfield for Darlington Nagbe, whose striking role alongside Kris Boyd was filled by Jorge Perlaza.

Despite my pre-match hope that we might see the team line-up in a 4-3-3 formation, it instead was much closer to the 4-4-2 diamond formation that the team had played earlier in the season, with Nagbe at the point.

It was an attacking set-up, and it looked like it would pay dividends early on as the play was much more fluid and connected that it had been in recent weeks. There were noticeably fewer hit-and-hope punts up the pitch, and much more quick passing and interplay.

If there is a criticism to be levelled at Troy Perkins – so often the Timbers hero in recent weeks – it’s that his distribution is often poor, but this week was much improved.

Though he had less to do this week than he had against the Fire, he still played the ball out short more often, with less recourse to the long ball. It’s a personal thing, but I much prefer to see the keeper look for that short throw or pass that retains possession and allows the team to build from the back than the lazy punt. The long ball has it’s place – to launch a quick counter, taking advantage of opponents that have overloaded the attack – but it’s seemingly the default setting for many keepers and it’s more often than not a waste of possession.

Perkins mirrored the play of his team-mates, which focussed much more on building the play through passing and movement. In this kind of system, Diego Chara’s role is crucial in the transition from defence to attack and vice versa. His passing is often underrated by some as he’s not one to attempt the “Hollywood pass” very often, but he keeps the play circulating with an excellent 90+% success rate.

His defensive play was characteristically strong, covering the area in front of his defence with steely determination. For a small guy, he’s deceptively strong as many bigger players have found out to their cost.

He was joined in midfield by Alexander and Alhassan. Alexander’s recall was a welcome sight, even though he was nominally the left midfielder, rather than playing through the centre where he seems more at home. At times it looked like he was a little over keen to impress having been given the chance.

Alhassan started after a good showing in a midweek friendly against Valencia. There are many similarities between Alhassan and Songo’o in that they’re both clearly skilful, flair players but equally both prone to trying to do a bit too much on their own. Both can frustrate when they try a flick, or try to beat a man when the easy pass is on to a wide-open team-mate but that’s the price you pay for the times when it does come off for them.

Not everyone agreed with me that Nagbe has been looking a little low in energy and confidence lately, but I hoped his drop into an attacking midfield role would reinvigorate him, and he did show little flashes of the player that can get fans on the edge of their seats.

At times he was playing as an orthodox central midfielder, but he adjusted admirably well. It’s good to see him more involved in play, and running at opponents again.

As the resident Jorge Perlaza apologist, it should be no surprise to read that I thought he had a good game. He worked tirelessly and got involved in play in a way that Nagbe doesn’t when he’s asked to partner Boyd.

Though he’s unquestionably a frustrating figure – his finishing can be wildly erratic at times – his ball retention is good and he is a good link between midfield and attack in terms of his running and ability to hold up the ball and feed it to onrushing midfielders, much like his countryman Chara fulfils the role in linking defence and midfield.

He also created a good chance for Nagbe early in the second half with a good run down the right and first time cross into the path of Nagbe who got under the ball and sent it sailing over the bar, as well as a couple of chances for himself. With the addition of Fucito to the squad, there’s even more pressure of Perlaza to perform when he’s given the chance, and I’d hope his strong showing against the Whitecaps is a sign that he’s taken the challenge on board and raised his game.

Kris Boyd got back on the scoresheet again after a poacher’s goal in 67 minutes when Jewsbury’s erratic cross was palmed away the Whitecaps keeper right into the area Boyd had staked out at the back post. It was a typically opportunistic bit of finishing from the Scot as he got himself in the right place at the right time.

Boyd is the kind of striker that does his best work off the second ball, where he has the strikers instinct to attack the area the ball is going to be. This was a prime example of this where skill and luck put him in the right place to hook the ball home. Too often though the Timbers are looking for him to win the first ball in the air, and this isn’t his strong suit especially against big guys like Jay DeMerit, who only minutes before the goal has clattered clumsily into Kalif in what looked like a stonewall penalty, but was waved away by both referee and his assistant.

Despite indirectly supplying the assist for Boyd’s goal, I thought Jewsbury’s crossing had been poor all night. I wouldn’t be surprised if Whitecaps defenders were drawing lots as to who would close down Jewsbury’s crosses, as to be the first man to a Jewsbury cross is to more-often-than-not get hit.

With Alhassan ahead of you, it’s a tricky job as his defensive work isn’t his strong suit. Jewsbury coped well in the defensive sense, but again I felt he offered little in attack.

The lead would last less than 20 minutes before a routine long ball was poorly defending, and Darren Mattocks, on the pitch for all of a minute, was able to breeze into the box and thunder the ball past Perkins.

The defending had been generally good, but here they switched off at the back, and were punsihed. Mosquera allowed Hassli to get the run on him, and Horst failed to cover the space behind his partner which gave Mattocks the time he needed to blow past Horst’s weak challenge.

It was a sickening end to a match that the Timbers will feel they deserved three points from.

It’s not just the late goals being lost that are a worry, it’s the inability to hold a lead. On 8 occasions this season the Timbers have taken the lead, but they’ve only held onto it 3 times. Of the 5 times the Timbers have lost the lead in a game, they’ve then gone on to lose 3 – the horrible run of RSL, Chivas and LA. In short – the Timbers are as likely to lose a match as win it when they go ahead! (3 wins, 3 losses, 1 draw – yes, that’s only 7, they took the lead twice against Chicago)

In a weird coincidence, the figures are mirrored when they go behind. 8 times they’ve slipped behind, and only 3 times they’ve found an equaliser – Philly (W), Dallas (D) and RSL (L).

The seeming inability to turn around a game when the momentum turns against the team is troubling.

Recent weeks have brought around better defensive performances, and for long spells of the game against the Whitecaps, there was much to be happy about the attacking play. A bit more luck or composure in front of goal and the Timbers could’ve been comfortable.

It wasn’t to be, and it’s another 2 points dropped – doubly galling as it’s against both a local and conference rival. It’s all very well complaining about the refereeing – and the Alhassan decision was especially poor – but as Mike Perron tweeted, “nothing takes a referee out of a game like finishing chances.” So very true. As long as the match is precarious, you’re always one defensive lapse from undoing all your good work.

Of course, if you’d watched the highlights on the MLS site, you might be wondering “what chances?” and “what (non) penalty?”. Thankfully the MLS site haven’t included the penalty shout in their “highlights” package. You want to see Steven Smith get a yellow card? Oh, you better believe that’s a highlight. You want to see a contentious decision that the officials clearly got wrong? Not a highlight. Neither are a number of decent chances at goal or passages of play.

I really hope whoever it was that compiles the highlights had a hot date last night to explain such a slap-dash and lazy job.

There’s often so much more that I’d like to illustrate and show through screengrab and the like but, as I don’t have MLS Live, I’m limited in what I can illustrate here by what MLS choose to put into their highlights. This match is probably one of their worst efforts yet – hence the lack of pics. I’d have loved to have written more about Perlaza, for instance, but there was next to nothing for me to do so in the highlights. Hopefully I’d get MLS Live soon, but for now I’ll just make do.

I do feel that progress is being made. The defence – a couple of weak moments aside – looks solid and didn’t look any weaker for having one less defensive midfielder in the team. In attack, with the reintroduction of Alhassan and seeing Nagbe played in his more natural position, there are encouraging signs for the future.

There’s a break in MLS action for the Timbers until the middle of next month, with a visit to LA to play Beckham FC. Before then the Timbers kick-off their US Open Cup campaign with the visit of Cal FC in midweek. The promise of a CONCACAF Champions League place for the cup winners should be all the incentive needed for the club to take the competition, and their amateur opponents, seriously.

There’s no doubt the fans already do.

#RCTID

Soccervision

It’s long been accepted wisdom, in the UK at least, that Americans don’t get football, and most likely won’t ever get it. They’d much rather watch hillbillies drive round in circles for hours on end, or padded freaks of nature crash into each other than enjoy the sport that the rest of the world recognises as the beautiful game.

It wasn’t for for the likes of them.

Except that in my brief stay over here it’s already clear that there is a growing proportion of American sports fans that are turning on to football. Literally.

This past weekend saw every single match on the closing day of the Premier League season screened live across Fox’s network of sports channels and ESPN, in an event called “Survival Sunday”.

This unprecedented event follows strong ratings for matches, with ESPN recording over a million viewers for the recent Manchester derby, while competitions like the Champions League also consistently draw high ratings.

It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that most of these matches – the Champions League group stages in particular – will take place during weekday afternoons. Many Premier League matches kick off in early morning for West Coast based footy fans.

They’re not prime time events, yet the fans know what they want, and are willing to seek it out, and the television networks have taken note. Make no mistake, if football wasn’t a big draw, Fox wouldn’t give it a second glance, yet it even has a dedicated soccer channel.

The breadth of choice for the football fan in the States is staggering. Coming from a country where live coverage of much of the sport is in the iron grip of vastly overpriced subscription channels, it really is a breath of fresh air.

And it’s really not that surprising. The sport is growing in popularity all the time. It’s the most popular team sport for under 13s, and 60% of soccer players are under the age of 18. It’s this new generation of football fans that will continue the sport’s rapid growth, as their love affair with soccer blossoms.

The missing link is in the domestic game. Attendance at MLS matches continues to grow thanks in large part to some very smart expansions in recent years – the end of the 2011 season saw MLS rise to 3rd in average attendance at professional sports, behind NFL and MLB. Yet, the television ratings still disappoint. Only 70,000 tuned in to a recent New York vs New England match, and it’s a rare event that sees the ratings nudge towards 500,000.

It could be a snobbishness towards MLS, considering it an inferior product, that lies behind some of the ratings disparity. Perhaps it’s the (relative) lack of history or drama that the final day of the Premier League season threw up, or the major European competitions regularly do.

While MLS is clearly not on the level of a Premier League or La Liga in terms of overall quality, the football is improving all the time. It is, however, difficult to increase quality greatly when a career in soccer can’t yet offer the same financial rewards to those kids playing the game that other major American sports can.

The average salary of even the NHL is over $1.3 million, a figure only a select few can hope to earn playing Major League Soccer. The average salary of NBA players dwarves even that of an MLS teams entire salary cap. This bleeding of talent from the game lowers the pool available to MLS clubs, though they may hope to plug this leak with the development of youth academies that will funnel the best players to the top.

Growing the sport at the grassroots, and bringing through fresh, exciting local talent will help to turn eyes towards the league. Tapping urban areas for the kinds of players that are largely lost to soccer will also be key to increasing the sports broad appeal.

But it shouldn’t be an either-or situation for football fans in the States. MLS and European or South American football can happily co-exist and even compliment each other as anyone who has followed Clint Dempsey’s career from MLS to Premier League could testify.

There is still a resistance to soccer among many American sports fans, but there’s been a shift in recent years away from trying to court these casual fans to the game. This older generation are not the market that soccer is aiming for any more, and it’s allowed MLS in particular to be more focussed on delivering a strong product to those that already love the game, but haven’t yet fallen in love with the American flavour of soccer.

The outlets are certainly there as the big sports broadcasters in the States have all awoken over the past few years to the huge potential of football. Advertisers clearly see value in placing their ads during shows, and footballers such as Lionel Messi, Frank Lampard and Sergio Aguero are seen as viable ambassadors for brands like Pepsi across even non-soccer specific channels.

This summer will see every match of the European Championship broadcast by ESPN, with over 200 hours of coverage dedicated to the event, as well as the continued coverage of MLS who may hope for a ratings bump as a result.

More people are playing it. More people are going to matches. More people are tuning in.

It’s safe to say soccer is here, and it’s here to stay.

Viva la Fútbol

Portland Timbers 2 Real Salt Lake 3

Losing a match is always tough. Losing it in the last few minutes of a match is even tougher. Losing it from a winning position in those last few minutes…

It’s little wonder then that emotions ran high among Timbers fans in the aftermath of a spirit-crushing 3-2 loss to Real Salt Lake. Having clawed their back from a 1-0 half time deficit to lead 2-1, thanks to two routine wonder goals from Darlington “Yeah, I Just Did That” Nagbe, it looked like the Timbers were going to score three crucial points in a tough battle for the play-off’s in the Western Conference. But back came RSL with a sickening 1-2 at the death.

It’s natural for people to look for an explanation for such a dramatic turnaround. For some, it was the ref’s fault, though I can’t follow that logic myself. The ref, or his assistants, didn’t have a great game by any means, but they didn’t lose this match for Portland.

For me, the match was lost because of individual errors, both on field and off. Continue reading Portland Timbers 2 Real Salt Lake 3

Portland Timbers 3 Philadelphia Union 1

This isn’t a match report. You’ll find loads of those, written by guys much better at that than I could ever hope to be, at sites like Oregon Sports, Stumptown Footy or Timbers Insider, to name but three. This is just a place for me to post my random thoughts on the Timbers opening MLS match of 2012. Continue reading Portland Timbers 3 Philadelphia Union 1

Major League Soccer – The Past, Present and Future.

2012 is a landmark year for American soccer. It marks Major League Soccer’s 17th season since its inception in 1996 – equalling that of the glamorous North American Soccer League of Pele, Bobby Moore and George Best fame which ran from 1968 till it’s ignominious collapse in 1984. Continue reading Major League Soccer – The Past, Present and Future.