Tag Archives: Preseason

Budding Thorns

The reserve squad for the Portland Thorns FC played a preseason friendly last night at Merlo Field, the home pitch for the Portland Pilots.  The result – a 2-1 win for the visitors – was almost immaterial.  The internationals never even dressed out; there was obviously no intention to field the side we’re going to see in about three weeks.  The plan (and the successful result) was to provide a test for the college-product Thorns.

My bride and I took a pleasant walk through our North Portland neighborhood to join the crowd – and the match drew almost 5,000 people to the pretty green-and-purple stadium just west of Willamette Boulevard – that watched the teams test each other.  While the following are just snapshots of the state of the Thorns, I did get a sense of how the junior members of the team are shaping;

Downing UPO 3-29-131.  The overall level of play was not too disparate.  This wasn’t a college squad overmatched by a team of pros; it was a good college team against a team of college all stars.  While nobody in purple was of the quality of, say, Allie Long or Nikki Washington, nobody in the gray-and-red Thorns practice strip was that much better than Kaila Cameli or Nichole Downing.

2.  The Thorns reserves either had some early pre-season rust to buff off or weren’t used to playing without the internationals (and given that the latter had only reported several weeks ago it was probably the former).  The team came out looking pawky and out of synch, especially in back.  The Pilots had several good counters early that resulted in the early goal.  This was, in part, because the Thorns played an exceptionally high backline and were caught ballwatching several times.

3.  The Thorns still need to work on their defensive nous and communication among their defenders and between their midfield, defenders, and goalkeeper.  Even in the 88th minute giveaways in midfield and poor marking allowed a Pilot counter that had goalkeeper Roxanne Barker isolated on an charging Pilot forward who just couldn’t gain control in time to shoot on frame.  I’m sure Parlow-Cone will have some words with the defenders on Monday.

4.  Speaking of goalkeepers, the Thorns might want to keep an eye on Nichole Downing.  The Pilots keeper – only a sophomore, too! – was terrific, making several point-blank saves and keeping the scoreline close.  If she continues to improve she will be a great pick for some NWSL team in a year or two.

Kerr UP 3-29-135.  Allie Long is the real deal.  Her goal – a 22-yard rocket – was lovely, and she was a continuous menace to the Pilots defense that otherwise handled the Thorns attack fairly decently.

6.  Overall the Thorns look…well, something rather like this year’s Timbers.  Possession football with some intelligent movement off the ball and (after a bit of sorting-out) some precise passing.  A defense that consistently pushes up the pitch and, as a result, is vulnerable to the quick counter.  Solid but not brilliant keeping.

The crowd sounded evenly divided between Thorn and Pilot supporters, and both seemed well-pleased with the teams’ performance.  The Purple Passions (or whatever the University of Portland supporters group calls itself) provided a local counterpoint to the small Thorns Alliance contingent and some unintentional comedy – for all that they had the drums that the Thorns supporters didn’t they clearly haven’t worked up their own chants; Timbers Army veterans got a smile from hearing “Portland Boys We Are Hear” coming from the far end of the pitch for a change.

The Thorns seem to be absorbing the culture of their brother club; the team trotted down to the West End and applauded their supporters as Merlo emptied out.

Two weeks until the Thorns’ first match and the buds appear ready to open.

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Finn’s Five: Now The Real Work Begins, Part One

I’m going to cheat a bit this week and break up my Finn’s Five into two categories. The first five today are the 5 biggest outstanding questions I see as the season begins. Tomorrow, I’ll highlight the 5 best things we have going for us heading into Sunday’s match against the Red Bulls

1) Is our midfield big enough?

Kalif, Johnson, Chara, Valeri . While they have mental and physical toughness, and Will Johnson and Chara play bigger than they are, the simple fact is we have a small midfield. In the match against AIK the more physical and imposing Europa League players definitely won the physical battle in midfield. How will those four fare over a tough 34 game MLS schedule?

2) Who is our central starting pair and will they be able to handle the high line Porter’s system demands?

DTG and Andre Jean Baptiste acquitted themselves well in the preseason, especially when you consider they’ve only just started shaving on a daily basis, but they cannot be the answer over a 34 match season. I think our moves at central defense are far from over and don’t be surprised to see Futty, Horst AND Mosquera all gone by the summer. The test of our central defense starts this Sunday with a guy you may have heard of, Henry, coming to town.

3) Who plays if Valeri gets hurt?

Mwanga failed to flatter in his stint there. We watched Nagbe flounder all last year trying to be a #10 and the RodWall effort vs Dallas was cringeworthy. It’s not those three guys fault, they aren’t remotely in Valeri’s league and they aren’t #10’s. The only person on the roster right now capable of defense splitting passes in the Valeri model is Alhassan. He had a great pre-season but his consistency remains a serious concern.

4) Are our new outside backs really an upgrade?

I’m far from convinced theanswer to this question is “yes”.

5) Is Ryan Johnson really a #9 and can he produce over a season?

Nothing in
Ryan Johnson’s background suggests he is a double digit goal scorer in MLS. Like our central defenders I would not be surprised to see the Timbers make a mid-season push for a real forward*.

*Not that I’m always comparing the Timbers to the team from the fishing village up north (hat tip to 5MTKO for that moniker) but is there a #9 on our team that even remotely compares to their rumored acquisition of Obafemi Martins?

Check back tomorrow for what makes me excited for 2013.

Alhassan’s Creed

Kalif Alhassan has emerged as the story of preseason for me, in a playing sense at least. It’s hugely encouraging to see the likes of Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Dylan Tucker-Gangnes being given ample playing time, and a hat-trick against San Jose was a perfect way for Ryan Johnson to take his first bow before the Timbers Army. Michael Harrington, Will Johnson, Ryan Miller and Diego Valeri have come in and look to have improved the team in key areas.

I don’t think Ryan Johnson or Valeri have made the biggest splash this preseason. With Valeri I think it’s because my sense of relief that he’s as good as we dared hope has overshadowed the fact that he’s been really pretty good. Having gone so long without a creative attacking midfielder, I was worried that when we did finally sign one, he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, live up to two largely miserable seasons’ worth of pent-up expectation, but there are signs enough that Valeri will, though any verdict in that regard could only be taken in the winter, and certainly not before a competitive ball is kicked.

Alhassan has been a source of frustration thus far in his MLS career. The flashes of undoubted talent we’ve seen from the Ghanaian only serve to underline the myriad times when he’s seemed too lightweight and utterly inconsequential to the outcome of a match. His 2012 season was beset by injuries, and I wondered whether his presence on the roster was going to be one indulgence too far for the Timbers.

As it was the similar, in both style and effectiveness, Franck Songo’o who wouldn’t be returning to Portland, not even, it would seem, to the visiting locker room. A victim of increased demands, and a perceived lack of value for that not insubstantial outlay, Songo’o has gone and, with his untidy departure, Alhassan had one more obstacle to playing time cleared away.

Alhassan was promoted from the presumably lesser regarded “second half team” in Tuscon, just in time to help the Timbers to victory against Seattle in the third match. He was still in the starting XI when the Timbers played their first home game of the preseason, providing a pin point cross for Ryan Johnson’s first goal, reminiscent of another cross almost a year ago that served to introduce Kris Boyd to the Timbers faithful.

He sat out the second match against FC Dallas, as a largely second string team lost by a single goal, but played the full 90 against AIK in a line-up that will, with a couple of tweaks, likely be the team that takes the field in front a full house against New York on Sunday.

2013 is a big season for Alhassan. His raw talent has got him this far, but if he wants to develop into a top-flight player, he has to start showing more consistency into both fitness and form. In his favour, he’s still only 22, something that can easily be forgotten as his status as one of the few who span the USL and MLS eras, albeit briefly, would seem to mark him out as one of the old guard.

This offseason has seen Porter concentrate on bringing in experienced, established players, filling the vacuum left by an outgoing of the largely disappointing and under-used. There are still prospects in the side to look out for. Tucker-Gangnes looks like one who has all the tools to make it at this level, especially if he can glean as much as he can from the top-level experience of Mikael Silvestre while they share a pitch. Darlington Nagbe continues to promise so much, and if he can find a groove with his old coach Caleb Porter, it could prove very beneficial to the Timbers play-off hopes. Jean-Baptiste, Steven Evans, Jose Adolfo Valencia; all can probably look forward to more game time in 2013 with which to flourish.

Alhassan joins this group of young players who will seek to benefit from working with coach Porter, with early signs that Kalif is currently best placed to make early strides towards fulfilling his potential in a system that makes more sense of Alhassan’s talents than any other has thus far.

He often found himself stuck out on the flanks under John Spencer. It’s a move that makes sense as Kalif can cross as well as, if not better than, anyone at the club and his close control allows him to escape from positions that other players couldn’t. Yet, he never really fit out there, peripheral in every respect, and lacking the desire to put in the required defensive shift he often left the poor sap behind him cruelly exposed.

When he did drift inside, as he was predisposed to do, it unbalanced a team that was built on a “traditional” British style, that expected things in as direct and functional a manner as possible. The “get it wide, throw it into the box” approach of 2011 and much of 2012 simply wasn’t suited to a roaming wide midfielder, so rather than be the guy the club could depend upon to provide a touch of magic in the final third when needed, racking up both assists and goals, both he and Songo’o more often became the place where attacks went to die, running themselves into dead ends, and trying too hard to do too much alone.

Though he’s been mostly played wide under Porter, the change is that his movement and roaming are now absolutely a part of the plan rather than counter to it, and integral to both his and the club’s success this season. Though it’s clear that Valeri will be expected to do much of the heavy lifting in the creative sense, it would be foolish to lay all our hopes at his feet as other teams would get wise to that very early on, and set about negating his influence by fair means or foul. The movement and spontaneity of Alhassan, and Nagbe for that matter, are crucial in giving opponent’s something else to think about, and keeping the Timbers attack from becoming too predictable and two-dimensional.

Alhassan stands a good chance of the being the only player who took the field in Portland’s first MLS match to line up at the start of their third season. The fact he’s shown such staying power despite never really holding down a first team spot for any great length of time shows that his ability is clearly held in high regard by the Timbers coaching staff, but now it’s time for Kalif to start rewarding that patience with tangible, on-field returns.

Finn’s Five: DON’T PANIC

An entirely new team from Sunday took the field for the Timbers and frankly it showed in a choppy, disjointed loss.

1) The System – Porters intense, ball control system that had us all buzzing from Sunday was nowhere to be seen last night. Our reserves either couldn’t or wouldn’t put it into practice. Worrying but it’s early days.

2) Trencito – Porter singled him out for praise and rightfully so. It’s not just the work he does on the ball. His dedication to high up the field defensive pressure deserves recognition.

3) Mwanga – Oh Danny. Boy, I want him to succeed but last night he was very poor. Weak on the ball and lazy in defense. Look at the goal again. Danny could have and should have closed Perez down.

4) The midfield pairing of Wallace and Zemanski – No thanks. Nuff said.

5) The Zizzo right back experiment – Intrigued. Would like to see more of it. We know he can run the channel with the best of them, the question is can he defend?

It Begins Again

The Timbers returned home after some bounce games in Tucson, and found the Timbers Army ready and waiting for some actual football after a long, and at times, tumultuous offseason.

The San Jose Earthquakes were the visitors in the first round of matches in the Portland Timbers Preseason Tournament – a name so dull that not even Don Garber would want to trademark it.

The game itself ended in a 3-3 draw. San Jose scored a penalty after a handball by Jean-Baptiste, got an easy second from a free header off a free kick, and scored a third off a rebound from a Ricketts save after a weak turnover of possession in their own defensive third. So, much as it was in defence.

For certain, there is still a lot of work to be done in shoring things up at the back, but for now I’d like to talk about the other end, because it was there that I saw many reasons to be optimistic about 2013. I’m sure I’ll return to the defence at some point…

Ryan Johnson scored a hat-trick, which is a pretty good way to go about endearing yourself to the home faithful. Diego Valeri had a hand in the latter two goals, providing lovely assists for Johnson to get through on goal and finish with consummate ease. A lot of pixels have been spent bemoaning the fact that the Timbers have lacked a creative “number 10” type in their roster, but it looks like Valeri is exactly that kind of player.

The first goal is the one that stands out to me, though. If ever there was a passage of play that typifies what Caleb Porter is bringing to Portland, it was then.

TimbersGoal1

The quick passing and intelligent movement of the midfield served to open up space down the San Jose left, and the Timbers were ruthless in exploiting it. It begins before Nagbe has even touched the ball.

Harrington cushions the header down to Nagbe on the left side of the Timbers midfield. Towards the end of last season we saw Nagbe play more centrally, and it seemed to stifle him a little. Nagbe works best when he can pick up in space and drive forward, but we also saw last season with Songo’o the problems that a wide player coming inside can cause when all they’re doing is running into traffic.

In this instance, Diego Chara makes a clever little diversionary run forward. San Jose were set up pretty well, with two players holding the middle, but Chara’s move forces their #4 to follow him, and leave a space for Nagbe to run into. With San Jose short-handed in midfield now, it draws their wide #10 inside to match up, freeing space in front of Ryan Miller.

Nagbe has options for the pass, with Will Johnson holding and Kalif Alhassan forward. Diego Valeri also makes himself available for the pass, as he continually does. Part of the Timbers problems last season were there were too many players who would disappear, or hide, for too long. Songo’o, Alexander, Boyd – all players I liked, but all were guys who would drift in and out of matches. It stunted the Timbers attack all too often, leaving us with nowhere to go and panic was never far from setting in. That shit just won’t fly under Porter.

The next three passes are all one touch. Nagbe to Alhassan, back to Johnson, out to Miller. As easy as one-two-three, the Timbers have pulled the San Jose midfield around and opened up space out wide.

There’s no steadying touch, or thought of looking for the long, hopeful ball forward from Miller. Alhassan has made the move forward, and the man who should’ve been tracking him from midfield has given up on the job. This means that when the first time ball comes forward from Miller, one of the San Jose central defenders is forced to come across to match the run.

Ryan Johnson comes to life as the ball enters the attacking third. With a gap opening up at the near post, all it needs is for Alhassan is to deliver the ball into that area. Johnson times the run to perfection, going from back to front and sending a deft header looping beyond the reach of the keeper into the far side of the net.

What you can see from the overview is that much of the Timbers off the ball movement was heading from right to left, opening up the space they needed to execute a quick series of passes left to right. It’s like a boxer dropping his shoulder to entice an opponent in before dropping him with the hook he never saw coming.

For all the talk about possession, this is the essence of what Porter’s teams do. Yes, they’ll keep the ball, and work it across the pitch, playing nice little triangles and diagonals but, like a Chess Grandmaster, when they’ve maneuvered their opponents just where they want them, they’ll strike, and do so swiftly and with purpose.

Finn’s Five: There Are No Friendlies

The Timbers dominated in a 1-0 win today over The Price is Right FC that could have been a larger margin had the Timbers finishing been a little bit better. Lot to be happy with today, a few things to keep an eye on as we go forward.

Let’s get to the Five.

1) Was it nice to win? Yes, but perspective please. The first half featured 8 or 9 out of 11 probable Timbers starters vs a Sounders side with just 4 regulars and even fewer in the second half. What mattered was play of the Timbers and at times that was very good.

2) Width? How the outside midfield position is played greatly impacts Porter’s scheme. If you go back to the Colorado game I could count on one hand the number of overlapping runs by Miller and Harrington. In this match with Nagbe and Alhassan ostensibly lining up in the wide midfield position in the 4-2-3-1 system but doing anything but stay wide our two new outside defenders ran that open channel a lot during this match to very limited effectiveness. Endless overlapping crosses to a Dike covered by 3 defenders is not possession football.

3) Dike. Everything good and bad about Dike was encapsulated in one play in the 47th minute. Valeri plays a great ball over the top, Dike runs his ass off to get there, beats two central defenders and then… blasts the ball as hard as he can straight at the keeper when he could have simply slotted it home. I love his heart but I question his brain.

4) Silvestre. Today was his best day as a trialist and most of that was down to his passing. There’s a reason he played at some of the biggest clubs in the world. But I still maintain with the high-line defensive system Porter is playing, a guy with the turning speed of a cruise ship is going to do us a lot of harm over the course of the season.

5) Michael Nanchoff. Apart from be able to deliver a great set piece, I have been impressed with his play overall. Tidy, clean, doesn’t try to do too much. It didn’t work out in Vancouver but he went #8 in the draft for a reason and Porter is very familiar with him.

Oh and a final mention for Flounder Zach Scott – I have been watching this hack kick the hell out of Timbers since he welcomed Alan Gordon to his first professional game with a elbow to the head requiring stitches in 2004. It’s time Dike pulls a Dike on this clown.

Finn’s Five: Green Shoots in Tucson

Last year, when indisposed, I was fortunate enough to have Jeremy Wright step in and cover me with a fantastic recap of the victory against the Rapids. If you’ve been here before, and I assume you have, you’ll know that I have a tendency to be rather long-winded in my match reports so I’m happy to say that Jeremy has volunteered to contribute his own “quick hit” take of the matches in 2013, which will, I’m sure, provide a nice compliment to my own reports.

The first “Finn’s Five” of 2013 just so happens to cover another victory against the Rapids. Enjoy.


1) If today’s performance is any indicator our new DP Diego Valeri is a stud. Yes his goal was very pretty but look beyond that at the more subtle things he did especially in his positive “north-south” movement with or without the ball. Nagbe is gonna love playing with Valeri. We are going to love watching Nagbe play with Valeri.

2) The team has really bought into the Caleb Porter version of the Barca style “high pressure, high up the pitch, hunt the ball like a pack of wolves” system. I’m excited about this but there is a down side. If we are going to play this way than it means a high defensive line and I’m pretty damn sure not one of the four central defenders we have is up for it. We are going to get beat over the top a lot this year. Get used to it as the team adjusts and personnel are found wanting.

3) I noticed our outside midfielders far less than in the past two years watching this club in MLS. Trust me folks, this is a good thing.

4) I love me some Diego Chara but if he’s gonna stay on the pitch with Will Johnson and Valeri he’s gonna need to do more than be an engine that kicks the shit out of people and disrupts play. The quality level has risen in our midfield and thus expectations have as well.

5) El Trencito left me wanting more. A lot more. The power, the pace, the skill…