Tag Archives: Montreal Impact

Best Laid Plans

Valencia’s miss wasn’t part of the script. It wasn’t supposed to happen like that. It was meant to flash off his boot, beyond the despairing Troy Perkins and into the roof of the net, setting off a riot of noise and smoke in the massed ranks of the Timbers Army only yards away.

That was what should’ve happened.

What did happen was Trencito’s tame effort was easily saved by a grateful Perkins, and moments later the referee’s whistle signaled the end of a very fruitful week in Cascadia for Montreal Impact, and left the Timbers with a sole point to show for an opening home double header.

There was another storyline-in-waiting out there late night. The stage seemed set upon Perkins’ return for him to outshine Donovan Ricketts, and I’m sure there were at least a couple of people in the organization who feared that happening more than anyone.

Despite hearing a few folks on the way home expressing sadness or anger at having traded Perkins for Ricketts, the fact is that Ricketts actually had a pretty good game. He came up big a couple of crucial moments, and he had no chance with the two goals Montreal scored.

The first goal, a looping overhead by Camara after the Timbers failed to clear a set piece, was simply a very good (or very lucky) strike that rendered Ricketts a spectator. The second goal came from such short range that there was little but hope to get lucky that Ricketts could do.

The match ended 2-1 in favour of the visitors, who have to be credited with a display that was as resolute and disciplined in defence as you’re likely to see in MLS.

Nevertheless, it’s another game where the Timbers have dominated possession and territory but lost the opening goal, fallen behind by two and been left chasing the game.

I had a sense going into the game that the first goal would decide this match. Scoring first is always a good thing to do, but given the way this game was set-up, I felt that here it would be decisive.

The reason for that was that both teams fit together like puzzle pieces. One one hand you have the attacking, possession-based Timbers, on the other the defensive, counter-attacking Impact.

Had Portland gotten the first goal it could’ve drawn the Impact out of their 4-1-4-1 shell, allowing Portland to pick holes in their defence.

The first goal, when it did come off the boot of Camara, meant Montreal were able to focus on getting numbers behind the ball and letting Portland push on further, with the hope of springing a quick counter for a second goal.

That goal came an hour in when Will Johnson gave up possession on a poor pass in midfield.

montreal2goal

The pass from Bernier was very well weighted, but the move highlighted a couple of issues for the Timbers last night.

The Easiest Position

Caleb Porter clearly wants to see his full-backs pushed on and contributing to keeping an attack going, even if they’re not necessarily the guys we’re looking to to hit the byline and get the cross in. This is especially true with Michael Harrington who is hampered by being a naturally right-footed player playing on the left side.

This limits Harrington’s options in those final twenty yards to the byline, inevitably forcing him inside to his right foot to whip it to the back post.

Ryan Miller is at least on his natural side, and plays an attacking game, but on a night when his touch and passing seemed to be off, he becomes more of a liability than an asset.

passingaccuracyMiller wasn’t the only guy to see his pass accuracy dip from last week, but his was the sharpest fall. 21.4% fewer passes reached their man, and each of Miller’s defensive colleagues also saw their numbers dip.

Andrew Jean-Baptiste continues to impress on the defensive side, developing into a very promising defender, but his on-the-ball work still needs a bit of refinement. Despite getting some minutes last season, he’s still got a lot to learn, and picking when to go long is one of those things that will come from more work on the training ground and more game minutes. For me, there’s still a few too many “Spencerballs” lofted forward in a seemingly indiscriminate way.

To return to the outside backs, Porter likes to see them pushed on and involved at the best of times, even moreso when the team are chasing a goal as in Montreal’s second goal.

It’s a high-wire act as you have to balance the defence and attack, and be especially wary when facing a team that is built to counter-attack. The cheap giveaway by Johnson caught Harrington and Miller up the field, giving the Impact a 4-on-2 against Silvestre and Jean-Baptiste.

The ball takes Silvestre out of the centre, and with no-one else getting back in time, the finish is a pretty routine one for Felipe.

Montreal Win The Battle

The other issue I think the goal above reflects is the change in system that Porter implemented at half-time. I wrote in my post on the New York game that Porter had made several tweaks at half-time that brought out the best in his team, leading to a stirring comeback. He was busy again this week, with more marked changes.

formationchange

The above shows the average positions for each player during the first half, and the first 25 minutes of the second.

Ben Zemanski made his Timbers debut, replacing Kalif Alhassan at half-time, as Porter sought to find a way through the massed ranks in blue.

It was more than a simple personnel change though, as it brought with it a change in formation. The previous 4-3-3, which takes more of a 4-2-3-1 shape, became a 4-1-2-2-1 with Zemanski dropping behind Will Johnson and Diego Chara and Diego Valeri vacating his central role for Alhassan’s previous station on the right.

Pre-game, I’d highlighted the midfield battle as being key to the game. Montreal, in the first half at least, won the battle and, by making the changes he did, Caleb Porter seems to have thought so too.

We’ve been here before, of course. There were times under John Spencer when the Timbers would seemingly roll into a match without giving the opposition’s tactics a second thought. This bloody-minded “let’s make them adjust to our tactics” approach is all well and good when you have the talent to pull it off, but when you have the roster of an, at best, mid-table team, then a bit of preparation and adjustment goes a long way.

Caleb Porter’s Timbers are a better technical squad than Spencer’s, and having run into a situation where his tactics weren’t working against an opponent that was doing it’s work well, Porter didn’t vacillate on making a change. He was decisive and made a bold choice to get Valeri out of the middle – and away from Bernier – and pit him against the (for Montreal’s defence) relatively inexperienced Jeb Brovsky, right under the noses of a riled-up Timbers Army.

The game was marked by the lack of space allowed by Montreal, and the attacking three of Nagbe-Valeri-Alhassan were stifled by it in the first half, where every halfway heavy touch, or marginally off-target pass was pounced upon by a blue shirt and cleared from danger.

The addition of Zemanski would also go someway to denying Montreal space to work in front of the Timbers defence, an area where Di Vaio, Felipe and Arnaud had gotten some joy in the first half.

Wary of quick counters, Silvestre and Jean-Baptiste played a fraction deeper to kill any space over the top. Where playing a little deeper had had a knock-on effect that seemed to throw the attack out of sync against New York, it worked here because Zemanski’s presence there kept it glued together.

However, by essentially ceding that central attacking midfield zone, the Timbers allowed Bernier a bit of freedom. Now, if you’re playing a team who have a “destroyer” in there, someone whose sole job is to win back the ball, you can make this move and take him out of the game because he has little to contribute to their attack.

Bernier is a little different. He can play. Credit to Montreal for staying disciplined, and Bernier for not getting carried away and abandoning his post – a luxury afforded by being a goal up – but that didn’t stop the player moving up when the opportunity arises, as it did when Will Johnson gave the ball away an hour in.

With Valeri in the middle, maybe Bernier still moves forward to play that pass, but with no-one there, there was no reason for him not to.

It’s perhaps telling that Porter’s next change saw him abandon this new shape in favour of how the Timbers started – Zemanski going to right back to replace the out-of-sorts Miller, Trencito taking over out right and Valeri returning to the centre.

Portland would eventually get their goal from Ryan Johnson, who caught Camara sleeping on a Ben Zemanski ball to the back post, and would come close to an equaliser, but it wasn’t to be.

Before all that though, Montreal had a chance to go 3-0 up, but were thwarted by Michael Harrington on the line.

Communication Breakdown

pooroffside

The chance above is a simple case of a defence out of sync. Entirely to be expected given the turnover there this off-season, but still annoying to see.

Silvestre steps up, leaving his man free. No-one else does. In a flash, Montreal have gone from having seven Timbers outfield players between the ball and goal, to a one-on-one against Ricketts.

The team are still seeking the right balance at the back, but Porter’s options are rather limited. For sure, the club have a lot of centre-backs on their roster, but I’d harbour doubts about Horst or Danso playing this kind of system, and Mosquera’s standing in the squad seems unclear, at best. That leaves Tucker-Gangnes, but Porter may be resistant to throwing the rookie into a system that is still being figured out.

Paying the Penalty

The Timbers continued their long streak without a penalty, having gone the entire 2012 campaign without getting a single spot kick, despite what many fans thought was a clear foul on Ryan Miller.

The incident happened shortly before half-time, and in waving it away, referee Edvin Jurisevic denied the Timbers a chance to go in at the break on level-terms.

For me, it looks like a penalty. There’s not a great deal in it, but it certainly seems like the Montreal player instigates contact with no real attempt to play the ball. Ryan Miller perhaps goes down a little too easily, but the referee doesn’t seem to have thought he’d dived since he didn’t book him, so he must’ve read the contact was fair.

He wasn’t (or was he?) helped by his assistant, who should’ve had a good view of the incident, and neither was he helped by being so far behind the play.

refereeposition

The referee starts running when he is about 13 yards behind the ball. It takes approximately 4.1 seconds from here till Miller is bundled over.

Going by the general fitness test standards for a professional referee (sustained running at around 4.5 yards/sec, and sprinting at 6.6 y/s). Let’s be generous and say that Jurisevic is one of the faster, fitter refs, meaning that you would expect him to travel between 23 and 35 yards from his starting spot until contact is made in the box. This would leave him, at best, a good 25 yards behind play, on the “blind side” of any push.

Running Out Of Time

Caleb Porter and this team are not going to be judged on these first few matches, but the longer that the same old mistakes are made, the tougher it becomes to keep a long-term focus on the project.

Porter has shown a willingness to change it up, and adjust as the game is flowing to find an advantage for his team which is a definite step forward. Some of the passing is nice to see, and there are times when the attack really clicks, and it become a joy to watch. There are some positives, for sure, but the worry is that despite shaking up the defence, we’re still making the same mistakes.

Montreal also posed the question of what Porter would do when a team set-up with the sole purpose of letting his team have the ball fifty yards from goal, then killing the game when they got anywhere near the box. In that regard, I might give Porter a C, maybe even a B-. He made a bold stroke to change the game, and got caught out by a loose pass in midfield, and then changed back and came within a swing of the boot from grabbing a last-gasp draw.

Having given the lesson, other teams will have noted how Montreal managed to do what the much more expensively assembled New York couldn’t, and muzzled Portland’s attack for much of the game.

In what seems like some kind of wooden spoon play-off, both the sides that Montreal beat will face each other next week, but it’s no wooden spoon at stake, it’s the Cascadia Cup.

Portland travel to face Seattle next week knowing that there would be no better time to record Caleb Porter’s first MLS win. Seattle have the distraction of Champion’s League football before then, but there’s little doubt that the Timbers will face a massive test in the kind of game that gets remembered.

RCTID

Five quick comments on the Timbers/Impact match

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.

 

Beating Montreal

Montreal Impact started the season with their first win on the west coast in three attempts, defeating Seattle Sounders 1-0 thanks to a first half Davy Arnuad goal. It was a result built upon solid defensive foundations and the ability to break at speed. Despite having only 40% possession, Montreal still got 5 shots on target to Seattle’s 3.

Given the result in Mordor, I see no reason why Montreal wouldn’t take a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy into this game. So, I’d expect them to line-up in the same 4-1-4-1 shape they deployed last week with Patrice Bernier playing as the holding midfielder.

Know Thy Enemy

mont4141form

There is a strong veteran spine to the Impact team, from Perkins in goal, through the Italian duo of Nesta and Ferrari, Bernier and Arnaud in mdfield, and Di Vaio leading the line. Those six players alone have nearly 90 seasons worth of professional football between them, often at the very highest level.

Since adding Perkins last year the Impact have looked much more assured in defence, going from conceding an average of 1.48 goals per game to 0.89. A goalkeeper does much more than simply stop shots – he organises the defence, and it’s from the keeper that defenders take confidence. A back four that worries about the guy behind them is more likely to play with a “fear factor”, as we saw during the early part of last season when Montreal were leaking soft goals and making elementary errors in defence. They’ve conceded only 3 goals in their last 5 MLS matches, and lost 3 in 4 on their way to victory at the Walt Disney World Soccer Pro Classic (really rolls off the tongue, that one), so they are very much coming in to this season as they ended last year. If there was a key word to describe this Montreal team it would be “stability” and the central three of Perkins, Nesta and Ferrari are largely responsible for bringing that to the defence.

They are aided at full-back by Brovsky and Camara. Brovsky is a no-nosense, hard working outside back and Camara, while he doesn’t have the pedigree of some of his European teammates, is as solid defesnively, but is a little more inclined to get forward. Yet, neither are particularly attacking full-backs and will be there primarily to lend presence on the back-line than an attacking outlet.

Bernier played as the holding midfielder against Seattle, in a role he’d been used in during preseason by new head coach Marco Schällibaum. Last year Bernier had topped the Impact’s goalscoring charts so it may seem strange to turn him into a defensive midfielder, but Bernier has shown an aptitude for it, and Schällibaum has thus far shown a preference for a 4-5-1 set-up, over the 4-4-2 the Impact used for much of 2012.

Putting Bernier in the defensive role allows Schällibaum to play Arnaud and Felipe ahead of him, with two wingers adding width behind Di Vaio up top. It was Di Vaio, Arnaud and Felipe who combined for Montreal’s winner up north, with the latter scooping the ball over the Seattle defence for Arnaud to finish with aplomb.

Montreal had a relatively quiet off-season on the trade front, but they have added to their Italian contingent with the veteran (of course) winger Andrea Pisanu. Pisanu plays on the right, which saw Mapp played in left midfield against Seattle, though his underwhelming showing may open the door for Nyassi to start against Portland.

Di Vaio brings a wealth of experience with him, from time in the top flights of Italy, France and Spain as well as at international level. Di Vaio is one of those strikers who thrives by playing on the shoulder of the defender, and though he has the ability to drop off and get involved in the build-up play, he’s truly comes alive in and around the 18 yards box.

Key Battles

The Elephant in the Room

Defence. It would be crazy to write off the defence after a crazy 45 minutes against New York, but it does have to be addressed. Whereas Montreal have looked pretty steady and assured through preseason play, and into the match against Seattle, the Timbers preseason has been characterized by a failure to grab the all-important first goal.

While the defence looked a lot better after the break, New York were still able to fashion good chances on the counter as Portland pushed to grab an equaliser. We can expect to see Montreal play in a similarly compact way, and looking to break from the back at speed. Look at their goal against Seattle for a prime example of the kind of speed and movement you can expect. Given that Montreal are more of a counter-attacking team by design, as opposed to New York who adopted the role under pressure from Portland, this makes them especially dangerous and behooves the Timbers to give the backline some serious thought.

Losing the first goal is never a good idea, but losing the first goal against a team that is expressly set-up to keep it tight and counter-punch could be fatal.

I don’t anticipate any changes in defence, and the presence of Mikael Silvestre on the backline may be crucial in ensuring that Di Vaio doesn’t take advantage of Jean-Baptiste’s lack of experience. Though I expect Montreal sit deep, it’s important that Portland don’t fall into the trap of over-committing, and the full-backs will have to be especially conscious of this. Patience is the watchword.

Di Vaio will look to play off the shoulder of the defence, though he is currently averaging around 3 offside decisions a game, perhaps reflecting his relative lack of pace and desire to get a “head start”. However, he’ll also drop off and look to link up play, and so communication between defence and midfield has to be clear and consistent. Working a good “trap” could be a good way to kill any direct Montreal counters before they really get going, but being aware of the movement of Arnaud, Di Vaio and Felipe and tracking these guys is arguably more important.

Given these pace issues, together with Montreal’s compact shape and lack of attacking, over-lapping full-backs, I would expect to see the Timbers play with a higher line than they started with against New York, with Chara or Johnson taking a defensive cover role to cut out anything before it reaches Di Vaio or Felipe.

Of course, given the way the New York game unfolded, it would be easy to err on the side of caution and play a little deeper to nullify the threat from long balls over the top, but that just opens up the space for Felipe and Arnaud to move forward and work the ball to Di Vaio’s feet, or out to the wide men.

Tag Team

The battle in midfield between Bernier and Arnuad on one side and Diego Chara and Will Johnson in the other could be the key for the Timbers in unlocking Montreal and getting a back line that, while solid, lacks pace.

While Montreal play with wingers, or wide midfielders, most of their creative threat is concentrated in the middle, and both Bernier and Arnaud will look to get forward if the opportunity arises. The presence of Diego Valeri may force Montreal to keep someone back to mark him, and Valeri also has a job to do to harry Bernier, if he plays in defensive midfield again, when he’s on the ball and try and force errors.

Pressing the Attack

To compensate for a lack of speed in defence, the Impact tend to play deeper and rely on their “old heads” to use their football intelligence to intercept and recover the ball before they ever have to resort to chasing or tackling.

Everyone all the backline is comfortable on the ball and, having been brought up in the Italian system, if you give Nesta and Ferrari time, they can stroke it around very easily or look to launch a quick counter up to Pisanu, Mapp, Nyassi or Di Vaio. However, they can be pressed into errors as experience and ability will only cover you so far when you start to lose that vital split-second of foot speed.

montpressseattle

There was an example early on where Seattle almost profited from putting the Impact defence under pressure. Perkins’ big criticism at Portland was his poor distribution of the ball, and it’s interesting to see that at Montreal he plays more short passes or throws out to defenders, presumably to counter the fact that his kicking isn’t great.

By pressing the backline, Seattle force Ferrari back to Perkins (1), Perkins returns it to Ferrari (2) and Ferrari looks up the line for Brovsky (3) who is pressured into a mistake, from which Seattle almost score. It’s in these situations that Portland’s pressing game could really bear fruit.

montpressdiag

Similar to the Seattle chance, should Montreal try and play from the back, Portland are well set-up to press them back and force an error or turnover. With Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan (presuming the same starting line-up at Sunday) pressing the two centre-backs and goalkeeper and Diego Valeri keeping a close eye on Bernier, the Timbers can force Montreal down the channels, or into going long.

Having forced Montreal outwide, more pressing by the full-back and close marking by the midfield and attack limit their options, with (in this example) Nagbe and Johnson moving into place should the ball be given up to execute a quick one-or-two pass attack.

With Montreal likely to set up with two tight banks of 4, and Bernier sandwiched between harrying and pressing, it may be difficult for Portland to play their way through while still being mindful of keeping it tight in defence. Pressing deep in the Montreal half can force a turnover that does away with the need for Valeri or Nagbe to pull a rabbit from a hat, though a bit of magic from either wouldn’t go amiss!

(It’s Just Like) Starting Over

So, how do the Portland Timbers line up? I would expect the same starting 11 from last week, but would not be surprised to see Alhassan rested in favour of someone who might give a little more “bite” to the pressing.

Freddie Piquionne is still waiting on a visa to join up with the team, so I would expect Ryan Johnson to continue as the #9 though he would be prefect to play out wide in a game like this as he brings a strong defensive ethic to his attacking instincts. I expect Porter will stick with what he knows, and what’s worked so far, than risk throwing Trencito in for a start at centre forward this early in the season.

I don’t expect a flurry of goals in this one. I do expect some nervy moments, some tension and frustration, but with a bit of patience and concentration I see no reason why the Timbers shouldn’t win this one. The first goal, if there is one, is vital and it’s here that the Timbers have to believe that the first half against New York really was the exception, and rely on the defence keeping the Impact out.

Look Ahead: Home Sweet Home

Whoever takes the field for the Timbers in the home opener, it’ll be a very different team to that which saw out 2012 in front a battle-weary Timbers Army. I expect only 4 players will remain in the starting team from then: Donovan Ricketts, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe. Of the other 11, 3 are gone, 2 are injured and Danny Mwanga and Sal Zizzo are unlikely to start.

Mikael Silvestre will, depending on fitness levels, start. Considering the lack of game time, and even training that the 35 year old has missed, that seems like a risk, but perhaps reflects Caleb Porter ‘playing safe’ with the established international defender partnering a much less experienced Jean-Baptiste or Dylan Tucker-Gangnes, rather than the two rookies who started together against AIK.

If Silvestre plays, Jean-Baptiste would start as Mosquera and Horst are still injured, and Danso seems to be about as welcome in the starting team as a fart in a spacesuit. © Billy Connolly


newyork

vs New York Red Bulls

Sun 3 Mar, 16:30

The Timbers kick off their third season on Sunday, facing New York Red Bulls. It’ll be the second time Thierry Henry has played at Jeld-Wen, with his debut in 2011 ending in a red card after a goal in a 3-3 draw that was also my first ever live match at Jeld-Wen, which I attended through a fog of jet-lag and as such I remember next to nothing of.

New York are one of a group of clubs that have most shaken up their rosters this offseason and, like Portland, they enter 2013 with a new head coach, Mike Petke.

Petke became the 7th head coach still under 40 in MLS this year, reflecting a trend towards a younger head coach/manager as compared to other top flights around the world.

The average age of all current, permanent head coaches/managers in each top tier league, against the current average length of each manager's current employment
The average age of all current, permanent head coaches/managers in each top tier league, against the current average length of each manager’s current employment

Petke takes over a club he’s been long associated with, and one who have yet to really get a return for their investment in high-profile players.

Henry, Tim Cahill, Fabian Espindola and Juninho Pernambucano are all guys who would expect to be on a successful team in MLS, while Dax McCarty, Jamison Olave and Heath Pearce add defensive solidity.

There are a couple of familiar faces on the New York roster this year. Eric Alexander has featured for New York this offseason, but will struggle to hold off the returning Dax McCarty from the spot alongside Cahill in midfield. Another year of waiting in the wings for a chance to impress seems to await for Alexander.

Kosuke Kimura never really found a home in the Timbers defence, but he may well start for New York at right-back. Given his struggles last year, and what the Timbers coaching staff saw of him in training every day, it may be interesting to see whether Porter looks to exploit Kimura’s lack of positional awareness by playing Harrington with more scope to go forward and beyond Kimura. This would allow Nagbe to push inside and ask questions of the New York defence by picking up the ball with 30 yards to goal rather than 50.

New York went winless in the Desert Diamond Cup, losing three of four, and seem to be struggling to find the right mix under a rookie coach – sound familiar? – but the ability of their star players means that you write them off at your peril. I think this is a winnable game, but just as we can hurt New York, the worry remains that we still have a glass jaw when it comes to defence.

If Silvestre plays, I’d expect to see us play a little deeper than we otherwise might in a home opener. It may stretch us out, and New York have players who thrive on find space between the line, so much rests on the full-backs and central midfield two to step up and put in a real shift to be both solid in defence and the link to Valeri and the forward three.

The Timbers failed to score first in each of the pre-season tournament matches, but finding the net first here would really help settle the team down and allow them to concentrate on playing a patient passing game as opposed to trying to chase down another first goal against.


montreal

vs Montreal Impact

Sat 9 Mar, 19:30

Six days after facing New York, the Timbers Army will reassemble to welcome Montreal Impact, and to see 2-0 loss in Quebec last season avenged.

Troy Perkins will, if fit and selected, play in front of his old fans for the first time since a 1-1 draw against FC Dallas last August. Seems safe to bet that Perkins will receive a more favourable welcome than that for Mike Fucito

Montreal have also changed head coaches, with Marco Schällibaum giving up the glamour of life as a coaching instructor in Qatar and Mongolia to take his first head coaching job outside of Europe.

Schällibaum inherits a squad that has added to its experienced Italian core of Nesta, Ferrari and Di Vaio with the experienced winger, Andrea Pisanu.

For as bad as the Timbers were on the road last year, and they were bad, it’s worth noting that the Impact earned only 2 points more than Portland, and lost on both their 2012 trips to the West Coast.

Despite this poor away form Montreal would’ve been right in the play-off hunt until the end were it not for a late season collapse that saw them pick up only 3 points in the last 6 games. Improvements on the road are a priority this year and they can set the right tone early on as they begin the season with a Cascadia double header, opening up in Seattle before traveling down the I-5 towards fresh air.

In contrast to New York and Portland, the new coach hasn’t been busying himself building a new team so the roster remains largely unchanged, which means that they still rely heavily on the 36 year old knees of Macro Di Vaio not giving out at all.

Most likely Montreal would line up in a 4-5-1 with, fitness allowing, Di Vaio up top, Mapp and Pisanu wide, and Bernier, Arnaud, Felipe and Wallace fighting it out for the three central positions.

Once again, Montreal lack a bit of pace at the back, and it would be interesting to see what a dynamic front three of Nagbe, Trencito and Ryan Johnson could do against them, with Valeri providing the ammunition.

Chara and Will Johnson would have to match up, and push their opposite numbers on to the back foot and isolate Di Vaio, who is still capable of flashes of his old brilliance, but can be kept quiet by an organized and mobile defence.

Starting the season with 2 home matches gives Porters team a great chance to make put points on the board early on. Seattle, in Seattle, await after Montreal, so there is every imperative to hit the ground running before going in search of a debut MLS win in Groupon country.

Matter of Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P.T. F.C.

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.