Tag Archives: Rodney Wallace

Six Degrees: Maestro

C.I. DeMann is back with his final regular season Six Degrees, looking back at a 5-0 romp against Chivas, and a season that no-one would’ve predicted (except, perhaps, a certain head coach with big brass balls).


With this wonderful regular season finally over, I’m feeling the need to reflect. So I’m gonna start this column with a very quick game recap, then we’ll head down memory lane.

Continue reading Six Degrees: Maestro

Six Degrees: Charge!

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Last week, we lost by two goals and I called it a blowout. It certainly felt like one. We were dominated by Salt Lake from start to finish. This week, we won by four goals. So is it another blowout? Continue reading Six Degrees: Charge!

Timbers 100: Part Five – Maximum Impact

Frederic Piquionne scored the Timbers’ hundredth MLS goal, 814 days after Kenny Cooper scored their first. In a five-part series, I’ll use those goals to talk about the Timbers as they were and how we got to where we are.

Part 1: Island of Misfit Toys

Kenny Cooper and Eddie Johnson

Part 2: Everyday Magic

Jorge Perlaza and Darlington Nagbe

Part 3: Defensive Axis

Eric Brunner and Kris Boyd

Part 4: Endurance

Sal Zizzo and Bright Dike

Part 5: Maximum Impact

Rodney Wallace and Frederic Piquionne


Goal 88. Rodney Wallace vs Sporting Kansas City

27th April 2013

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A change of style was expected when the Timbers appointed a new head coach, but the individual impact Porter has had on the players both new and old has been the most refreshing change of all.


Watch The Goal Here

The Timbers pounced upon a loose pass by Sporting Kansas City, with Diego Chara showing physical strength and presence of mind to play the ball into the path of Rodney Wallace.

Wallace slots the ball coolly past the keeper, notching his second for the season and the Timbers third on the night. It would prove to be the winner, and the first time the Timbers had scored three on the road.


Rodney Wallace’s goal against Kansas City was the crucial third in a 3-2 win, just as it was his goal that proved to be enough for Portland to hang on to against Dallas in early 2011 when a late breakdown threatened to see a three goal advantage wiped out entirely..

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His impact in games, especially when it comes to scoring goals, is second to none on the Timbers roster. He just has a knack of scoring important goals, with every single goal of his “earning” points in someway.

Compare and contrast that record with Kris Boyd. The Scot scored a bunch of goals against LA – his three is second only to Landon Donovan’s four in matches between the clubs – which is nice, except that each and every one of them end up being consolation goals, despite putting his time 1-0 up twice.

After this goal Wallace would add winners against Chivas USA and DC United with his next two goals, and diversified into assists by having a hand in all three of the Timbers goals against Colorado in their last match before this little mid-season break.

Over the first two seasons Wallace had struggled to put together a consistent run by confounding the previous coaches very rigid round-hole tactical system. In defence, Wallace always looked more comfortable in attack than when defending,but when played as a winger, it was his defensive cover and pressing that impressed more than his wing play.

His role, as he’s come to define it, didn’t exist then, so Wallace was destined to fall between two stools. With his new role that covers a much larger territory than Spencer’s tight lines, Wallace has finally found a role that rewards his lightning ability to change the speed of play and defensive reading of the game without relying on him to be the last line of defence or forcing him to play in a box.

Nevertheless, Wallace had to play his way into the team having started 2013 on the bench.

100 Wallace Start Sub TableIn the 177 minutes Wallace had played coming off the bench, the Timbers have scored four times, with all of them coming this season in under 80 minutes of late game “Wallace Time”. He scored one himself, a late, late equalizer against Seattle, and notched an assist against Dallas.

Wallace’s importance to the team was underlined when he missed three games due to international duties, a situation Merritt Paulson bemoaned on twitter.

A tough run of games admittedly, with trips to Chicago and LA and visit from Dallas but, despite racking up five points, the Timbers rarely looked as fluid as they had done with Wallace in the team. Wallace saw his minutes limited in 2012, his standing among the fans drop, and a spot on the bench waiting for him in 2013, and he fought back with the kind of spirit that Caleb Porter has instilled through-out the team. This joie du foot is underlined by the fortunes of Jack Jewsbury this year.

Jewsbury’s move to right-back has reinvigorated the player and given him new purpose within the team, lending an experienced head to the defence and a steadying influence in the flanks. It’s hard to picture an XI without Jewsbury in it right now, though long term options are starting to pile up behind him at right-back at least.

Given the way he lost the captaincy it’s a credit to the man himself and the coaching team that Jewsbury hasn’t missed a step going into the XI, and has embraced the new without dishonoring the past – a tricky balancing act for a guy who was so inexorably linked to the old regime by talk of being “captain for life”.

Though money can, and does, skew things towards those who can pay the most, good coaching is still pretty easy to spot, and you can see it in abundance in Portland. Rodney Wallace didn’t suddenly become a great player, it just took great coach to bring it out of him.

And Jewsbury’s case is a great example of man management and smoothing over what could’ve been a delicate situation. Contrast that to publicly lambasting the club’s assist leader in an effort to get him to try harder.

All in all, it’s a marked difference for the days when players didn’t seem to know what the plan was on the field, and the atmosphere wasn’t great off it. As an aside, it’s a long held theory of mine that the time until a manager is sacked and a weight being lifted off a club is inversely proportional to the number of goal celebrations that make a point of including the manager. Just saying.

Motivating hungry players like Will Johnson or Diego Chara, or firing up Andrew Jean-Baptiste or Darlington Nagbe are fairly simple tasks compared to the job Porter has done in getting some fantastic contributions from some of the more experienced signings.

Frederic Piquionne, Pa Moudo Kah and Mikael Silvestre have a combined age of 101, but there’s no sense that any of the three are just here for the cash like a score of previous such signings to the league. Generally speaking buying guys the wrong side of 30 from the middle east isn’t the way to go about building a team founded on hard-work and technique, but Kah gives us just those traits and more and doesn’t seem to be lacking in hunger. Silvestre was a joke before coming to Portland, and provided a couple of punchlines in his debut, but pre-injury he’d become the the heartbeat of a defence that was giving up very little.

Piquionne, like Silvestre, hadn’t played a competitive (domestic league) game in over a year before joining the Timbers. It had been a 4-0 defeat for Doncaster in April 2012 which wouldn’t seem t bode well, but he has added an extra dimension to the attack since joining and looks to have the energy (for 60-70 minutes, at least) of a player 10 years his junior.

Soccer fans are well accustomed to the effects of the new manager bump, or the new star striker who scores in his debut before fading away as the season goes on. all of Perhaps this is Porter’s bump and the likes of Wallace or Piquionne will fade with the team as the season wears on, but I’m not so sure. There’s a different feeling about this season. Things are being done better, on and off the field, and this breeds a cautious optimism in even glass-half-empty Scots that this not a flash in the pan.

Not all are as impressed by the Timbers, or their unbeaten run, but we as fans are allowed to get a little carried away. The clouds around Jeld-Wen Field have lifted but with this being the Pacific Northwest and all, they are never too far away.

So, let’s all enjoy the sunshine in the meantime.

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Goal 100. Frederic Piquionne vs Colorado Rapids

23rd June 2013

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The future’s bright, the future’s green and gold. The Timbers have started 2013 beyond most fan’s wildest expectations, and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change anytime soon.


Watch The Goal Here

A quick free kick is taken by Will Johnson, who rolls the ball to Rodney Wallace. Wallace’s cross is attacked by Frederic Piquionne, whose header has too much on it for the Rapids keeper.

The goal was the club’s 100th in MLS, and Piquionne’s first, though he already had already set a record with four in a single US Open Cup match.


There is something fitting in the 100th goal coming from one of the new guard. Will Johnson’s quick thinking caught Colorado out, as it would do again for the Timbers’ 2nd goal of the game. Ben Zemanski’s interception started off the lighting strike move that led to Ryan Johnson adding a third.

I’ve already written about squad depth and covered a lot of what I like about the club’s trade policy this year, so this part will be fairly short.

The word that applies most to what I see from Portland is “fun”. Fun on the pitch, fun off it. There have been times during the first couple of years that it would be easy to forget that the game can be pretty damn fun sometimes.

Winning helps, of course, but more than that it’s just the joy of watching a group of guys go out there and express themselves.

The team work hard to make it seem effortless at times, with the old guys buying into the new way of doing things and complementing the fresh blood.

Of course, there is no way of knowing where this story will go from here. My performance on the Prediction League only underlines that I’m not a guy to take tips from, and I don’t think there is anything a time traveller from the future could tell us about the rest of this season to come that would surprise a Portland Timbers fan.

Our little midseason break is over, and it’s back to real soccer again. Good feelings tend to only last as long as good results do, and in a way Porter has set a bar for himself that will be harder and harder to raise but that’s a challenge the man seems to relish, or else why would he leave his place at the top of the college soccer pyramid for a spot with a team that was trending downwards.

I don’t think a defeat or two will dampen the ardor of the Rose City faithful. There’s an understanding that everything must come to an end and there will be times when luck deserts the side or we’re just flat out bad.

That’s fine. We accept that. So long as we can see progress on and off it, and players on the field that honor the badge and have some damned fun doing it, the Timbers Army will always have the team’s back through good times and bad.

We can’t know the future, be it’s gonna be a whole lotta fun finding out what it holds for us.

Well, mostly.


Thanks for reading this series of posts. It’s taken a bit of time to put them together, and I hope you enjoyed at least something in there.

I won’t be posting as much on here for the next while. You probably noticed by output has been way done. There could be another move in the near future, and simply put, it’s time to get a job and put the hobbies on the backburner for a bit.

I’ll still post things here and there when I get the time, but for the next few months at least it’ll be left to our fantastic group of contributors to bring you the kind of coverage of the Portland Timbers and Portland Thorns that you’ve come to expect from the site.

Thanks again for swinging by, and if you’re new then please do stick around and see if the place is for you.

#RCTID

Timbers 100: Part Two – Everyday Magic

Frederic Piquionne scored the Timbers’ hundredth MLS goal, 814 days after Kenny Cooper scored their first. In a five-part series, I’ll use those goals to talk about the Timbers as they were and how we got to where we are.

Part 1: Island of Misfit Toys

Kenny Cooper and Eddie Johnson

Part 2: Everyday Magic

Jorge Perlaza and Darlington Nagbe

Part 3: Defensive Axis

Eric Brunner and Kris Boyd

Part 4: Endurance

Sal Zizzo and Bright Dike

Part 5: Maximum Impact

Rodney Wallace and Frederic Piquionne


Goal 32. Jorge Perlaza vs Vancouver Whitecaps

20th August 2011

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Jorge Perlaza scored the Timbers’ first home MLS goal, yet his time would not end happily in Portland. He was not the only victim of scant consideration being given to “the other guys”.


Watch The Goal Here

Jorge Perlaza was first to react to a loose ball in the box following a Jack Jewsbury free-kick, sweeping the ball home to fire the Timbers 2-0 up against their Cascadian rivals.

Perlaza’s goal would prove to be decisive in a 2-1 win that kicked off a late, ultimately doomed, run at reaching the playoffs after gaining only nine points over the fourteen previous games.


Jorge Perlaza’s place in Timbers history is secured by virtue of scoring the first MLS goal at Jeld-Wen Field. A fantastically timed run in behind the striker, a cool little cut-back and the nonchalant finish of a guy who does this kind of thing all the time. He followed it up with a second that was strikingly similar to his goal against Vancouver.

His goal against Vancouver, his sixth of the season, would be his last in MLS.

To see the way Perlaza harried and hurt the Fire defense on that wet April night, you would think that the Timbers had signed the Colombian Michael Owen (the young one). However, by the time the Timbers inaugural season was over he’d already begun to the look more like the Colombian Michael Owen (the old one) to many fans.

However, I will refrain from retreading my already well-documented appreciation of Perlaza here.

Jorge Perlaza’s role in the Timbers team was always going to be a tough one. 40 goals in over 200 appearances in Colombia didn’t seem to indicate that the Timbers were buying a goal machine, but that’s what Cooper and Boyd were for, right?

Perlaza’s job was never to be the main goalscorer. Sure, you’d want a few goals here and there, but his job was as a wingman for the the other striker.

Spencer’s focus on getting the best out of his big striker marginalized the role of the second striker, which ignored the fact that the best striking partnerships are just that, partnerships. Under Spencer it was all one-way, towards the big guy.

Problem was that rather than put guys who could play that role in the team Spencer puts guys in who kinda looked like they should be able to play that role, but really couldn’t or wouldn’t.

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When the goals dried up, it was easier to drop the other guy than admit your marquee striker is a bust because you don’t know how to get the best out of him. Spencer did drop Cooper for a spell, which didn’t change the team’s fortunes much, before it was Perlaza’s turn to ride the bench. After starting the first nineteen games of 2011, Perlaza wouldn’t put together another run of more than four starts in a row before leaving.

As Boyd misfired in 2012, it wasn’t until Spencer went that the Scot was dropped. The difference from the previous year was that dropping the underperforming striker coincided with a change in system away from a two-man attack to a more fluid three man attack. It seemed to take fresh eyes looking at the situation to recognize that the problem wasn’t necessarily with the personnel, but the roles that had been foisted upon them.

Much of the coverage of a team will center around the big names – the goalscoring striker, the creative playmaker or the defensive rock – which pushes the likes of Perlaza, and others, into the margin. Every successful team will have their fair share of these guys, the “oh, that guy” guys, the ones that provide the cohesion to the squad.

Perlaza’s defensive analog, in many ways, would be Diego Chara. Chara’s job was to protect the defence, putting his body on the line if he had to, and support his midfield partner, just as Perlaza’s (or Mwanga, Fucito or any of the other “second strikers”) job was to harry the opposing defence and support his striking partner.

Just as Perlaza was expected to play second fiddle to his partner, Chara found himself alongside the club captain and face of the franchise, whose stellar start to the year only put more emphasis on Chara sitting deep and covering. Despite being sold to fans as a “box to box” midfielder when he was signed, the Timbers never really saw that from him as he often effectively became a fifth defender.

This season the Timbers fans have seen Chara used to much greater effect thanks to Caleb Porter employing him as more of a Roy Keane type player than a Claude Makelele.

So long as Jewsbury was playing above himself, all was well in midfield and little thought was given to Chara. To his credit, Chara never seemed to complain or grumble about the role he’d been lumbered with, so that when the team’s form dipped, and Jewsbury’s regressed to the mean, the little Colombian just worked that bit harder.

Porter’s big change was to move these guys out of the shadows and into the spotlight with the rest of the team. The role of support striker is now split between two or three guys, with each having other responsibilities in both defence and attack. And rather have a designated holder in midfield, he moved towards a double-pivot in midfield between Chara and Will Johnson, which has freed both guys to remain active in both attacking and defensive phases.

Some of the most headline grabbing play this year has been from guys who played in the roles that were a seeming afterthought under Spencer. Will Johnson is the club’s top scorer, and suddenly Chara is hot news to the wider MLSosphere. Valeri, Nagbe and Wallace have been among the goals and assists, and the other greatly marginalized role under Spencer, the full-back, is being nursed back to health after a couple of years of neglect and misuse.

100 Marcelin CloserThe lack of attention given to marginal or specific roles hurt the team. James Marcelin, for instance, was was often used as a “closer” late in the game, which seems perfectly fine until you consider that he wasn’t actually that good a player. Defensively, he looked have the attributes you’d want, but given the ball he quickly showed why he’s currently without a club.

I honestly thought we’d seen the end of Jack Jewsbury, Portland Timber, this year. And yet, he’s emerged as one of the team’s most vital players. Jewsbury has played at left and right back, as well as in midfield, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pop up elsewhere as and when Porter needs spots filled.

By turning players whose roles were disposable under the old regime into integral components in his XI, Porter has found that the best way to unlock the potential of your star players is to pay close attention to the guys around them.

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Goal 46. Darlington Nagbe vs Real Salt Lake

31st March 2012

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A game can be turned on its head in a second, with a single swipe of a boot. No Timbers player provided a greater example of just such a game changing presence than Darlington Nagbe.


Watch The Goal Here

When Eric Alexander lofted the ball into Darlington Nagbe’s path there didn’t seem to be much on for the attacker, but having already pulled the Timbers level, he seemed to be on a one man mission to drag his team to victory.

One controlling touch with his knee, a swing of his right boot saw Nagbe slice the ball away from the despairing keeper and into net for 2-1. It was a strike even his own teammates had to applaud.


When Darlington Nagbe put the Timbers ahead against Real Salt Lake, a lead they would lose with two last gasp RSL goals, it was only his fourth goal of his MLS career and yet the nature of it was not a surprise.

Only his second ever goal, a header to make it 3-0 against New England, was ordinary. His first, though…

To win the Goal of the Year award in your first season is good, to do it with your first professional goal is just showing off.

Despite a resume of one absurd goal after another, just check out his latest MLS goal, it would be fair to say that over the first couple of seasons, Nagbe seemed unable to find a “home” on the pitch. His quality has never been in doubt, but there are times it’s seemed like he was never going to truly fulfill his potential.

A list of the five youngest Timbers goalscorers.
A list of the five youngest Timbers goalscorers.

The reunion with Caleb Porter, his old college coach at Akron, seems to have settled Nagbe down a bit and the word I find myself using most when describing Nagbe’s play this year is mature.

As the club’s first SuperDraft pick, there was a weight of expectation on the youngster’s shoulders, especially as a Hermann Trophy winner in his last year in Akron. Unsurprisingly, as a rookie, his form was anything but consistent, but there were flashes here and there of the kind of player the Timbers could have on their hands.

More progress was expected from Nagbe in his second year, and with his brace against RSL added to an equaliser against Dallas a couple of weeks earlier, it seemed that Nagbe had truly arrived at last.

However, he wouldn’t score another MLS goal for John Spencer and it would be August before Nagbe got his name on the scoresheet again as he round out 2012 playing deeper in midfield.

2013 has seen him reborn as a wide attacker in a fluid system that rewards those moments when Nagbe does something otherly, but doesn’t rely on them when Plan A fails. Diego Valeri’s presence takes much of the weight to be, to repurpose a Jose Mourinho catchphrase, “the special one” off Nagbe’s shoulders and the released burden, along with more focused on-field directions, has allowed Nagbe to finally grow into his role as a guy who can couple a good team ethic with moments of individual brilliance. The addition of Diego Valeri to the squad plugged what had been a glaring hole in the team to armchair managers everywhere; he was a playmaker.

It’s seem quaint to think that there was a time I was passionately in favor of Eric Alexander being given a shot as a playmaker, or at the very least an attacking midfielder. That’s not a slight on Alexander, who I think is a perfectly decent MLS midfielder, it’s just, Valeri.

The Argentine brought experience to the role, and we’ve seen the roles around it adapt to bring out of the best in him. If he’s getting marked too tight in the center, Nagbe can come inside to disrupt things or give Valeri some breathing room. A stark difference to players being thrown into specific roles and expected to do well because, on paper, they should. It didn’t take Valeri long to announce his arrival on the scene, and he’s also making a habit of scoring easy-on-the-eyes goals.

Rodney Wallace has emerged as the third head of the Timbers very own Cerberus in 2013, though given the fluid nature of the attack with midfielders pushing on from deep and strikers pulling wide, a perhaps more fitting mythological reference for the Timbers attack would be a Hydra, where attempts to shut one player out of the game will only give another two the space and time to hurt you just as bad.

100 Goals and AssistsGiven the way Wallace was played at left-back, or moved around the midfield, it’s little surprise that his goal scoring/creating contributions were sporadic at best over the first two years. This year, played in a more advanced role, Wallace has had a great impact on the side since breaking into the starting XI.

With, essentially, a goal a game created or scored by Rodney Wallace this season, it’s little wonder that the Costa Rican has very quickly become one of our key players.

In pushing his way into the line up, Wallace has displaced the player that many thought would be the creative playmaker on the squad coming into 2011.

There are none on the Timbers roster more mercurial than Kalif Alhassan. The Ghanaian midfielder’s best run in the Timbers side came in that debut season, when he notched five assists in a run of eighteen straight starts. 2012 got off to the best possible start for Alhassan, with a start, an assist and another assist a goal in a the 3-1 win against the Union. It’s still his only MLS goal for the Timbers as efforts to repeat his screamer against Puerto Rico in 2010 haven’t been successful, as yet.

Despite his undoubted ability and skill – there are times I doubt even Kalif Alhassan knows what Kalif Alhassan is going to do next, let alone the defenders – he’s been unable to pin down a starting spot since that first year. Injuries hampered him in 2012 and 2013 has seen him take a back seat to Wallace and Nagbe, with Valencia and Zizzo pushing to go past him too.

The rawness and inconsistency – a world beater one game, totally anonymous the next – that we saw in both Nagbe and Alhassan is still front and center with Kalif. Potntial and talent will carry you so far, and buy you so much credit, but there’s always a clock ticking in the background and if Alhassan can’t crack the team or show that he’s matured as Nagbe has.

100 Nagbe Alhassan

His numbers, when he’s on the field, are pretty good but 6 starts in 17 isn’t the figure one of the most promising players in MLS only ywo years ago should be hitting.

The problem with getting consistency from someone like Alhassan is that to do that you’re likely to sand off some of the rough edges that make the player special in the first place. Nagbe is a great example of an “instinctual” player – almost all of his great moments happen in a flash, with seemingly no time to think about it. There have been times when he’s had too much time to think and picked the wrong choice, but he’s shown a readiness to learn from it, and from someone like Diego Valeri.

To describe the likes of Valeri or Nagbe, Alhassan or Wallace as a “playmaker”, while technically accurate, would do a disservice to the fact that it’s the interaction between everyone that makes the play.

The Timbers have often seemed to lean heavily on one or two players to make things happen, and it would seem to be the case this year as well, but it’s an illusion. The reality is that the threat can, and will, come from anywhere.

We are all playmakers now.

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Six Degrees: Vampire Weekend

Compared to last week, this game was refreshingly free of both the inane and the absurd, so I think there will be a lot less comedy from me. Which is a shame, since my soccer analysis can be both inane and absurd. I’ll give it a try anyway.

1) I wouldn’t call this the prettiest game we’ve ever played, but we still won, 2-0, didn’t we? Part of that is because DC United sucks. But it’s also because we’re a very good team, and very good teams win the ugly ones.

Why was it so ugly? Well, from what Coach Porter’s saying, the loss of Diego Valeri required us to play a more direct style, with less possession, more punting, and a slightly uglier aesthetic. If you look at the statistics, you’ll see that DC had a higher percentage of possession, more total passes, and more shots. Fortunately for us, every time DC got the ball in front of the net, they blew it, spraying shots at everything except the goal. We were lucky. If we give up those kind of opportunities to a good team, we lose.

2) Possibly we gave up so many chances because we had a new guy in the back four. Pa Modou Kah is certainly a lot more experienced than 20-year old Andrew Jean-Baptiste, but he’s also only been on the team a week and a half. He’ll be better next game.

But what about that next game? What happens when Futty Danso comes back from his red card? Does Kah stay in? Personally, I think he should. Jean-Baptiste makes me a little nervous, always wrestling with guys back there. He seems like a penalty kick waiting to happen.

And I like the idea Kah and Futty back there together. This whole “Great Wall of Gambia” thing we’ve got going on is fascinating. But I will admit, there are questions. For starters, who’s in charge, Futty or Kah? More importantly, will they have theme music and costumes? I think they should wear vampire teeth. And yes, I’m completely serious. Think of the intimidation factor. The opposing team will hear rumors that we’ve got two big tall Gambians back there, but they won’t know what to expect. How could they? Does anyone know what happens when you play two Gambian centerbacks side-by-side? Maybe they grow vampire teeth. I say we give it a try. (Editor’s Note: I love African football)

3) Three words. Rodney Freakin’ Wallace. The guy’s a machine, isn’t he? Non-stop energy, from start to finish. I saw him rockin’ it on the left side, the right side, forward, back, middle. He’s everywhere. You know how much I love Diego Chara, right? Well, everything Chara does for our defense, RFW is doing for our offense. And how about that goal, eh? An absolute laser right between the goalie and the near post. That’s a world-class strike, right there. Does MLS give an award for Most Improved Player, because if so, they might as well start inscribing the trophy right now.

4) Also fabulous: Darlington Nagbe. For years we’ve been begging him to be more aggressive. Well, Valeri’s absence Saturday must have flipped that switch, because Nags came out firing. I love it when he’s got the ball at his feet and decides to pin his ears back and run straight at the defense. He’s a blur. His aggressive play and shots from distance really opened things up for the rest of the team. The question now is whether this sort of energy will continue once Valeri’s back on the field. And should it? There’s a side of me that wonders if perhaps everything we saw versus DC was a one-time thing.

5) Case in point: we started the game with two strikers – Ryan Johnson and Frederic Piquionne. You’d expect them to be the scorers, right? Except they weren’t. In this weird, direct offense we had Saturday, the scorers became the playmakers and the playmakers became the scorers.

RFW’s goal? That happened because Freddy Piquionne got the ball, held it for a few seconds, let the defense rush out to stop him, then flipped a nice little pass to the suddenly wide-open Wallace. One missile strike later, we’re up 1-0.

Nagbe’s goal? Similar, except this time it was Ryan Johnson holding the ball, pulling the defense to him, then lofting it forward. Nags fights off not one, not two, but three DC defenders, then sends it through the keepers legs.

I’m starting to wonder if there really is no single, definable offense that we can call “Porterball.” Caleb Porter seems to mix it up just a bit for every single game. And when we face Chicago, with Valeri back on the pitch, I’m sure that, once again, we’ll see something new.

6) So, we lost to Montreal way back in early March. Since then, 11 straight games without a loss. When does it end?

Probably not against Chicago. It’s a road game, yes, but Chicago’s really not that good.

After that, we host Dallas, who only have the best record in the league. Still, it’s at home. I say the streak’s safe for that one.

It’s the next week when I think we finally lose. We visit the LA Galaxy on June 19th and, lemme tell ya, they could not have looked better this Sunday night, destroying Seattle 4-0. They dominated every aspect of the game. Offense, defense, set pieces, possession. They looked like the best team in the league. So if our streak has to end – and it does – then I think it’s against LA.

But until then, let’s enjoy ourselves, right? I saw some heavy legs against DC, so I think we’re having our week off at just the right time. Take it easy, boys. Spend these next two weeks getting healthy, then come back against Chicago tanned, rested, and ready to go.

And please, please, PLEASE bring your vampire teeth.

A Tale of Three Cities

As they did two weeks ago, the two clubs sharing the initials PTFC went 2-o against the respective opponents this weekend.  This weekend the two matches shared more than just the results.

The Portland Timbers fought out a 2-nil win against D.C. United in Washington, while up in Tukwila Thorns FC eked out a 1-nil win against the Seattle Reign.  In both games the Portland clubs looked less than dominating.  In both games, though, the Portland clubs looked very much the way competent soccer teams look; doing what they needed to scratch out a win even when not quite playing their A games.

The Timbers’ win at DC is well covered by the Stumptown Footy crew, and (I hope) that Kevin will have his usual piercing analysis to bear on what was for much of the match a scrappy and – at times – downright scary business.  The seasonal loss of Silvestre is still being felt in back and the temporary loss of Valeri was a problem in midfield.  For all that the new centerback Kah had a solid match the backline looked adrift at times and the midfield was unable or unwilling to help out much.  Against a better team the Timbers might have fared much worse.

But.  The point is that the Boys didn’t fare worse.

One reason is that Rodney Wallace must have heard every word we said about him last season and resolved to make us eat Every.  Single.  One.

Num num, Rodney.  You’re having a Comeback Season to date, and I am happily chewing away.

One other was Darlington Nagbe, who had a terrific match and channeled his Inner Trencito on the goal, a lovely bit of calm skillcraft that impressed me more every time I watched the replay.

The entire side managed to play well enough to turn back a D.C. side that is a rather sad remnant of the glory years of the Nineties.  This is a team in horrible disarray, and having watched our own team break down in similar circumstances last season I have nothing but pity for them.

So long as we can still beat them.

The other PTFC opponent, the Seattle Reign, is perhaps even worse off than United.  Stuck at the bottom of the table with no wins and only a single point, the Reign had the misfortune Saturday to be the better of the two sides for much of the match and certainly the first half and to have come away with absolutely nothing.

Perhaps because of her form the preceding two matches Nikki Washington was dropped from the side that ran out at Starfire on Saturday, Angie Kerr getting the start in her place.  Otherwise Thorns FC played somewhat similarly to the style that had worked against the other Washington club, the Spirit, the preceding weekend; lots of play through the middle of the pitch with Christine Sinclair freed from her trequartista role to do more direct attacking.

However it was the Reign that had the better chances in the first half.  The Portland midfield still hasn’t really found a way to keep possession when pressed, and the Reign could easily have gone ahead in the 62nd minute, when Liz Bogus put a hard diving header on frame that LeBlanc did well to palm away – only to deflect the ball out to Seattle’s  Noyola, whose well-struck shot was likewise saved.  Seattle worked the ball into Portland’s 18 again within a minute and had three rapid-fire shots blocked, any one of which might have gotten past LeBlanc.

On the other end Thorns FC wasn’t able to work the ball into any sort of dangerous position; Solo, playing in goal for the first time this season, made only two saves.  Of Sinclair’s six shots only one was on goal.  This futility was a combination of Portland’s inability or unwillingness to spread the defense and Seattle’s tight marking and opportunistic defending, and the match looked headed for a scoreless draw and Seattle’s second point when one of perhaps the softest penalties I’ve seen in twenty years of watching soccer gave Sinclair a simple sidefoot tap-in for the away points.  Solo contributed to the moment with the mawkish display of time-wasting she put on before taking her line for the PK, her most notable effort of the match.

Against Sky Blue a Thorns side playing this poorly might have lost 3-nil.  Against Kansas City we might have seen no better than a draw.  Against hapless Seattle the team played well enough, just well enough to win with the help of an atrocious make-up call (the referee had missed a painfully obvious Seattle handball earlier) and that was enough.

I have a lot of sympathy for the Seattle Reign supporters.  The “Queen’s Guard” is suffering through a worse version of what the Timbers Army suffered last season.  They, and the Barra Brava supporters of D.C. United, could probably sit on the ground and share some sad tales of the deaths of queens and former MLS kings.  Their cities are suffering the worst of soccer times.

And ours, perhaps shockingly, certainly delightfully, is enjoying the best of soccer times; two teams having seasons of hope, two teams having – so far – seasons of Light.  And its noisiest authorities – the Timbers Army and the Rose City Riveters – happily insist on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

There may be defeats and disappointments ahead, perhaps, but sufficient to the day will be the evil thereof; onward, Rose City!

The Four Axemen

As the dust settled on a convincing 3-0 victory, four players more than most would have had an extra reason to want to bask in the moment.

Rodney Wallace, the confounder of low expectation; Darlington Nagbe, maturing with every match; Jack Jewsbury, essential now more than ever, without the armband; and Diego Chara, no longer our little secret.

No other players had logged so many minutes in a Timbers kit as these four before 2013 kicked off, clocking a combined 18,000 minutes of football for Portland.

Their combined start against Chivas USA was their 25th, stretching back to a 1-0 win against San Jose in April 2011. In fact, all four of the Timbers wins in 2013 so far have come in the six matches the four have started together. In those six games, the Timbers have earned 14 of their 18 points.

It’s a sign of Porter’s exemplary use of experience to alleviate the turnover of the past ten months or so. Under John Spencer, the club very much placed themselves out there as a young club, that would work harder than everyone else. The average age of players bears this out, in that first year at least: the Timbers average age was 24.9 against a league wide average of 25.6, and a play-off average of 25.8.

On first glance the Timbers 2012 average age of 26.8 would seem to indicate that they had taken care of any issues with inexperience, but that includes the signing of Donovan Ricketts (post-Spencer) and ignores one crucial factor – the marquee signings of Kris Boyd, Hanyer Mosquera, Steven Smith and Franck Songo’o were all very impressive, but the one thing they shared in common was having never played a minute in MLS.

In 2011, the players that took the field for Portland averaged 31 MLS appearances, pre-Timbers. By 2012, even allowing for players having built some experience the previous year, that figure had risen only to 39.9 appearances before their first appearance in a Timbers kit. Take out Ricketts and Kimura, and that figure drops to 35.

The four guys mentioned above brought experience at a reasonable level in Europe and South America, but all would take time to adjust to soccer in the states. That carries an efficiency cost, and when you’re taking hits in key areas like attack, and central defence, you’re going to run into problems.

None of these guys will feature under Caleb Porter, but that doesn’t mean that Porter has shied away from buying in experience from abroad, the difference being that in Mikael Silvestre, Diego Valeri and Frederic Piquionne we have guys with French and Argentine caps, as opposed to Scottish and Cameroonian.

The experience of playing in the best leagues compensates for some of that footballing culture shock as you generally don’t build up long careers in the best leagues without having to work well in various different styles and formations.

Rather than back up his building of Scots-Colombian axis in the north west with established MLS campaigners, Spencer made a mess of it.

Jack Jewsbury and Troy Perkins stand apart in this regard, as two guys who brought a ton of MLS games, 294 between them, to the team and made them count. Neither of the next three guys with most MLS games in 2011 would be still on the roster in 2012 – Cooper, Goldthwaite and Brown.

2012 saw him bring in three guys who’d kicked a ball in MLS before suiting up for us: Eric Alexander, Danny Mwanga and Mike Fucito. I’d say that was three clean swing-and-misses.

Those guys had a pre-Portland total of 130 MLS games, and combined for 54 in 2012, only 24 of which were starts. All have gone for 2013.

Caleb Porter, while doing much the same as Spencer before him in that half of the guys making debuts for the club are also making their MLS debuts, has added some quality MLS experience.

For Kevin Goldthwaite, Eric Alexander and Mike Fucito, read Michael Harrington, Will Johnson, and Ryan Johnson. Porter’s three had 421 MLS appearances between them, and have have all featured in every match so far, giving freedom to guys like Diego Valeri to adjust and settle in, and bringing out the best in Rodney Wallace and Darlington Nagbe.

Rodney Wallace

Wallace has been the story of the season so far for Portland. In a way, his story has often mirrored that of the club. He started the first 19 matches in 2011, but only 3 of the last 15 as the club’s early optimism ended in what looks in hindsight like the final couple of hurdles, but in reality was killed in a horrible run from May to July.

His 2012 was disrupted by injury, never quite getting started before hitting another bump in the road, just like the team as a whole.

Thus far in 2013 he’s started in the sidelines, and forced himself into the limelight just as the team has really started blossoming into something potentially very special.

If he can stay fit, and continue his good work then there’s no reason why this can’t be a breakthrough year for Wallace. He came into the season 6th in the Timbers All-Time minutes played, and has overtaken Brunner into 5th, but is still 1500 minutes behind Nagbe in 3rd. There’s no reason for him to see that gap widen as Porter seems to have found the ideal role to get the best out of him on both sides of the ball.

Wallace ZoneHe never convinced me at full-back or as a winger, but Porter has him playing out of a zone, rather than with a defined role. Zonal attacking, if you like. This allows him to go outside or in, or switch sides with Nagbe, all safe in the knowledge that at least one of Harrington (or Jewsbury), Will Johnson or Chara will have his back.

Playing with the brakes off, which isn’t to say he neglects his defensive duties as he’s one of the teams most effective players in closing down.

The main axis of Timbers defensive actions, running from Wallace to Jewsbury
The main axis of Timbers defensive actions, running from Wallace to Jewsbury

Wallace isn’t the only player Porter has taken the brakes off. Darlington Nagbe, while still frustrating, is showing signs of maturing.

Darlington Nagbe

Nagbe crossed over 5000 minutes for the Timbers this year, and into 3rd overall ahead of Troy Perkins and has started 42 of the Timbers’ last 45 games, so even though he will be only 23 in July, he’s already a key part of the team and has a wealth of experience under his belt.

With Wallace on the bench, Nagbe started the season on the left, cutting in onto his natural right foot but he’s shifted to the right side to make room for Wallace.

This move gives the Timbers guys in wide attacking roles who have more options of what to do going forward. With Nagbe on the left, 99% of the time he’s going to cut inside, and defenders will know that and expect it. Wallace can go round the outside as well as cut inside, forcing defenders to hesitate or wait for the attacker to make the first move – a great advantage to quick guys with lightning feet like Wallace and Nagbe.

Nagbe will still naturally comes inside more, but this means he can exploit any space created by opponents putting someone on Valeri, who’ll pop up on either flank throughout the game, or by the movement of Ryan Johnson up front.

Getting the best out of Nagbe was a puzzle that stumped John Spencer. We saw him played all over midfield and attack, rarely settling on one role before being move to plug another hole somewhere else. The problem wasn’t so much that Spencer was a bad coach who couldn’t find Nagbe’s role within the team, as it was that Spencer was a poor team builder who didn’t put the bodies around Nagbe that would allow him to naturally find his role.

Nagbe, more than most, benefits from being able to play without having to think about it too much. Under Spencer he was put under the constraints of a narrowly defined position, and it asked Nagbe to do more thinking than playing.

With a guy like that, you want him to go out and there and just let it happen. Know what you should be doing when the other guys have the bal, sure, but when we have it, you want him working on instinct. It’s no coincidence that if you were to list the top five Nagbe moments, they’d all be instances where he seemed to do things that surprised himself as much as anyone else. At the other end of the scale you’d have the bad misses, or the flubbed final passes that came when he’d be given too long to think about it.

With a solid base behind him, and the right group around him in attack, we’re starting to see a more confident looking Nagbe. Even in games where’s he’s not having a great night, he’s not hiding or letting his head drop.

Jack Jewsbury, similarly, didn’t let his head drop when the captaincy was given to Will Johnson and he started the year injured. His return to the XI had coincided with an upturn in the club’s fortunes.

Jack Jewsbury

Number one in minutes played, Jewsbury became the first player to reach 100 on-field hours for the Timbers. He also leads the club in all-time goals and assists, and has over 260 MLS appearances in total.

Making Jewsbury the captain made perfect sense in 2011. He was the guy with most league experience, while Perkins and Cooper were both coming back to the league after a spell in Europe.

A stellar first half of 2011 was followed by a less than stellar 2012, and I wasn’t the only one who wondered where Jack fit in this year. The debate was still going only a month ago.

The answer is wherever Caleb Porter needs him, be it midfield, full-back, or filling in at centre-back if needed. Despite the perception that Porter’s arrival would see the team look towards youth, in this early phases at least, the opposite has been true.

The average age has risen slightly from 26.8 to 27, with only two of the Timbers top ten in minutes played under 26 years old (Nagbe and Jean-Baptiste). The average age of that top ten is 28.4.

Porter knows the value of experience, and recognised a gold mine in Jewsbury. He’s shown himself adept on either side of the defence and his steady head on the back line has helped the team cope with a rotating cast of characters in the centre.

We saw a bit more attacking from him against Chivas, largely let down in the final third by his crossing as only one of his six attempts were successful, but his steady passing in the opponents half made up for. Discounting crosses, 9 of Jack’s 12 passes were successful.

Valeri Jewsbury

Getting the ball into Valeri’s feet is crucial to the Timbers, something Chivas tried to counter by putting a man on the Argentinian, and Jewsbury is good at doing just that. No surprise to see Valeri log so many actions close to Jewsbury’s busiest areas.

It made sense, and it forced the Timbers into more cross balls than was ideal, but it didn’t stop them from picking holes in the Chivas defence to lay the ball through as Chivas failed to compensate for the speed that Portland can play at, often turning defence into attack in seconds.

At the heart of this ability to transition so quickly is Diego Chara.

Diego Chara

Everyone knows about Chara’s defensive exploits, and there are probably a few guys who could show the physical evidence of it. But he’s more than an engine to gather yellow cards, he’s shown this season that if he’s given the chance, he can add value to the attack.

CharaBrk1

Every bit as solid a passer of the ball as Jewsbury, Chara hasn’t really had the chance to show what he can do in attack as he’s been seen as the defensive enforcer in midfield. Will Johnson and Chara are both able to play as the holding player or the going one, and as they play together more their reading of each other will only get better.

Chara finds himself, for maybe the first time in his MLS career, closer to the top of the assist table (joint 4th, or 2nd if you want it to sound even better) than the foul table (5th). He’s still putting in a great defensive shift every game, but he’s had some of the burden taken off him by Will Johnson alongside, and the way Porter expects everyone to contribute to defence.

The rest of the league are starting to take notice of Chara now, as much more than “that guy who fouls a lot”, and I’m sure there are a few Timbers fans who are only starting to realise just how good Chara can be as the guy who drives attacks from the back.

As with Nagbe it’s about more than simply getting the player to play “better”, it about putting guys around him that allow him to play more naturally, and we’re seeing that from Chara now.

These four guys will likely end 2013 as the top four in the Timbers all-time minutes played table. As it stands, Wallace needs only 700 minutes or so to pass Perkins.

For all Spencer’s mistakes, he actually had the core of a really good team all along, he just didn’t know how to use it. His loss is Porter’s gain as the new coach has been able to lean upon their collective experience as he sets about redefining what soccer means in the Soccer City.

Six Degrees – Blowout

A few quick thoughts on Portland’s 3-0 win over Chivas USA.

1) I gotta tell you, after all the ties we’ve been having, it was nice to see a blowout win. Our first blowout of the season. The team looked great, not tired at all, like they did against Dallas. Sure, Harrington was gassed there at the end – I’m glad he didn’t cost us a goal, because for awhile there, he couldn’t keep up with his man – but otherwise, we looked sharp and on the front foot. Maybe that’s a result of our boys sleeping in their own beds, or maybe Chivas just makes everybody look a little better.

2) Chivas really didn’t look very good, did they? Lots of grabbing and holding. Very few threats on offense. Too many threats on the Portland ball boys. Their goalie’s the only one who had an impressive day, and he’s not even their regular starter. Aside from him, Chivas bears no resemblance to the team that was 2nd in the conference earlier this year. They look like a team in free fall. I’ve been reading that their owner is to blame; that he’s not interested in fielding a winning team, either here in the US or with the original Mexican League team in Guadalajara. It might be time for MLS to step in and do something, for the good of the league. (Don’t ask me what should be done about DC United. They’re horrendous. Chivas would pound them.)

3) Speaking of playing on the front foot, did you see how high our line was? A few times, the entire back four was across the centerline. And how about Futty Danso and Jack Jewsbury? Both of them had genuinely dangerous chances on goal. Maybe Jack was playing more offensively because Harrington was tired, but that doesn’t explain Futty. I think Futty just had goal fever. Maybe he’s trying to cement his position as the Alpha Gambian before Pa Modou Kah shows up. (That’s gonna be fun, isn’t it? Having two Gambians at centerback. The Great Wall of Gambia!)

I guess as long as I’m talking about the team pushing forward, I should compliment Chivas’s back four on how many times they got Ryan Johnson offside. In fact, there were so many offsides called against us that when Valeri finally got his goal, no one sitting around me quite believed it was real. We were all cheering sort of half-heartedly, eyes on the sideline ref, waiting for his flag to go up.

4) I want to say three words to you. Just three words. Rodney Freakin’ Wallace. What is going on with this guy? He’s a changed man this season, isn’t he? I hear people calling him the best left winger in MLS and I think they might be right. He’s just a force these days. Huge energy all the time. Great passing, great scoring. He can play inside or out. He’s good with both feet. And his head. Last week, I declared Diego Chara to my Timbers MVP, but if we keep seeing this kind of play from Rodney Freakin’ Wallace, he could be collecting some hardware at the end of the season. (My MVP trophy is pretty impressive, too. It’s one of those old jelly jars with a Looney Tunes character on it. You know the ones? First-class all the way. I think I’ll give the winner either Bugs or Daffy.)

5) Right now, our offense is tied with Dallas for most goals per game, and if opposing defenses want to shut down our main threats, they’d better bring a lot of guys, because we have five, coun’t ’em, FIVE main threats. Ryan Johnson – 4 goals. Will Johnson – 4 goals. Nagbe, Valeri, and RFW – 3 goals each. And if the opposition has all those dudes covered, well, we’ve still got my boy Chara, who’s turning into a hell of an assist man. And then there’s Futty’s goal-scoring headbone. And Jack Jewsbury’s rocket shots from distance. Am I forgetting anyone? Oh, yeah, the subs! Piquionne and Alhassan looked great yesterday, didn’t they? (I especially liked Freddy’s gorgeous almost-assist to Will Johnson.) So, all in all, we’re a dangerous team, with many different threats. You might stop one, but it’ll be hard to stop them all.

6) Now we get to the crazy-prediction part of this column, and remember you heard it here first: yesterday’s victory was the first of four straight wins. Not ties. Wins.

You think I’m nuts? Tell me how I’m wrong. We’re going on the road, sure, but we’re playing some very beatable teams. And, let’s be honest, with the way we’re playing, EVERY team is beatable. So I’m calling it now. We go to Vancouver next week: win. Then to DC against the worst team in the league: win. Then to Chicago: win. That’ll be four games, four wins, and 12 points.

And that’s when it gets a little tougher, because we’ll be facing first-place Dallas. Except we’ll be at home. And they might not be the first place team anymore. After four straight wins, it might be us.

Six Degrees: Kansas City

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.

Feels good, doesn’t it?

Timbers 2, Dynamo 0: Porter’s Perfect Plan Dismantles Dom’s Destroyers

It’s easy, in the warm afterglow of a 2-0 victory, to look back and think “of course the Timbers would do that“, but it never looked that obvious or simple going into the game against Houston. This really looked like a big test of Caleb Porter, coming hot on the heels of a tough trip to Colorado.

That game wasn’t pretty, but Porter has shown that even at this early stage he’s not afraid to change things up from week to week. After starting the same XI in the opening two home games, he’s made five line-up changes in the next three games, the same number John Spencer made in the first five games of 2011 and 2012. In the Scot’s first year he played the same line-up from game to game on two occasions, and two of his line-up changes were forced by injuries, so there was a sense that he was pretty settled on his ideal team and system early on. Porter’s changes post-loss to Montreal have been the clearest contrast to the “old ways” – he’s showing a willingness to adapt and change to find the right mix for that particular game. It didn’t work against Colorado, but it would work back at Jeld-Wen Field.

New Coaches

Thinking back to that debut season, game five was the Timbers’ second win of the season, beating Dallas 3-2. Things were looking good after a shaky start. In the next five games the Timbers would play a settled XI on three occasions, with the three players introduced to the starting XI being Troy Perkins, Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe. After ten games, the Timbers had a perfect home record, with five wins from five. The record wouldn’t last eleven games, and the Timbers would lose six of the next seven and kiss goodbye to the playoffs.

I don’t know that we’ll see such a settled selection from Porter. Certainly, the injuries in this match aren’t part of the plan and Horst’s in particular puts a real strain on the backline. I’m sure Tucker-Gangnes is a big part of Porter’s plan, but I don’t think it’s this soon as he seems the ideal candidate to do what Andrew Jean-Baptiste did last season and get a spell on loan before being thrown into the mix against experienced strikers. Does anyone think Futty Danso is the solution?

There’s still time till the end of the transfer window for the Timbers to add to the defence, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Timbers experiment there, even if just for a spell at the end of a (hopefully comfortably won) game. With confusion surrounding the long-term status of Hanyer Mosquera, the likelihood being that Mosquera is a Timber no more, perhaps getting another defender in was already part of the plan.

The Houston match already featured a change in the centre of defence, the second in two weeks. Silvestre returned to partner David Horst, but Porter’s big change was to introduce Rodney Wallace to the starting line-up, with Ben Zemanski sitting this one out. Jack Jewsbury dropped back into the right-back role he held for a spell last year – a run of matches that included victories against Seattle and San Jose. I had come to think that today would be a great opportunity to introduce Wallace to the first XI, but I had him replacing Diego Chara in the same 4-3-3 that been deployed since Jewsbury’s return to the team. My thoughts were that Wallace offered a little more in attack, something we needed to support the attacking three and I worried that Diego Chara would get drawn into a kicking match with the Dynamo midfield, and that that could lead to the Timbers putting themselves in trouble.

Shows why I write a blog and Caleb Porter coaches a Major League Soccer club. Porter kept Chara in the side, and the Colombian had the kind of game that alerted those outside the #RCTID bubble to just how good we already knew he was.

Rather than slot Wallace in alongside Will Johnson in midfield, Porter returned to the 4-2-3-1 with Wallace playing on the left and Darlington Nagbe going right. This brought Diego Valeri back into the centre where he could be more effective.

Tactical Changes

I was a little surprised to see the team return to this formation as it had caused the team problems in the opening couple of matches, leaving the team short in the middle and exposed on the flanks, but Porter countered this by playing an asymmetrical formation where the left was more your “traditional” wing, with a wing-back pushing up to support and overlap the attacking midfielder, and the right saw Nagbe given license to roam inside knowing that Jack Jewsbury would sit back and cover the space behind.

HOUearlyformation Jewsbury took his place in a back five that had a combined age of 155, with the return of Mikael Silvestre to the defence alongside David Horst. There can be few Timbers backlines that have carried such a wealth of experience, and it told throughout the match. The way the team were lined-up, it essentially took more of a 3-3-3-1 shape in possession, with the most experienced and best technical players on the outside of the three at the back

HOUsilvestredefence

The Dynamo made their intentions clear early on with a very physical approach. I’m sure this came as little surprise to the Timbers, and early on the team did well to get their passing rhythm going despite the close attentions of their opponents.

It was the interplay of Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe that gave me most hope in those early stages.

HOUValeriNagbe

Without a proper outside-right threat down that flank, it was up to Valeri and Nagbe to work it between them, with occaisional support from Chara or Jewsbury. The Timbers worked their first shot in the game in eight minutes from a move started by a pass from Nagbe to Valeri that also displayed the early tempo and rhythm the Timbers had to their passing and movement.

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F-ing the P-word

For all the expectation, or at least hope, that Porters arrival will see the start of a real blossoming of young talent, I think his greatest job in this first year will be in getting an improvement from guys who are running out of time to fulfill their potential. Rodney Wallace being a prime case in point. He’ll be 25 in June, but has thus far failed to hold down a position in the starting line-up. It’s been hard to see where Wallace’s best position is. Is he a left-back, or a winger, or is he a central midfielder? We’ve seen him play well, and we’ve seen him play not-so-well , in all these positions but he’s never really gone out and stamped himself upon a role on a consistent basis.

Porter’s answer, so far, is that Wallace is all of those things, and none of them. He can cover at any one of them, and do well, which makes him very valuable in a system where he’ll have to do them all, often in the course of a few minutes. One start, and four sub appearances are too soon to call whether Wallace will be one of the defining stories of 2013, but he certainly brings something new to the table. Including a functioning left foot. Are you taking notes, Mr Nagbe?

In the same bracket as Rodney Wallace are guys like Kalif Alhassan and, to an extent, David Horst. Kalif started the season in the line-up, but dropped out on the road. His return to the team here was in far from ideal circumstances, replacing Diego Valeri when his face got up-close and personal with Taylor’s elbow.

A quick word on that foul. Yes, it wasn’t nice and when someone has to go off with such an obvious injury of their face, you kinda assume that someone would have to be booked for that, but going by US Soccer’s guidance on the difference between reckless and careless tackles (one being deemed caution-worthy, the other not) you can see how the ref would see Taylor’s actions as careless than reckless. I’m inclined to agree, for what it’s worth, though it’s never nice to see one of your guys on the receiving end. Still, I wonder if there’s a Dynamo blog starting a campaign to get Taylor a red card?

Alhassan did well when he replaced Valeri, and it helped the team that the three behind Johnson all knew each other well already. I don’t doubt Alhassan’s ability, but getting consistency out of him would give the Timbers a potent threat across the attack.

I feel for Horst as it looked like he had a chance to establish himself in the first team, but his injury means he’s now going to be out for months. If the Timbers do sign another defender, you wonder where that leaves Horst because I doubt Porter would want a mere stopgap signing. He’s 27 and has only started 35 MLS matches – of the 9 MLS veterans in the starting team, Horst had the fewest top level starts. There’s no reason why Horst couldn’t have another six or seven years in him, but it’s going to be tough for him losing so much time with a new head coach.

Probably the biggest example of a guy who’s potential has been touted, but needs to start cashing the cheques his early hype was writing is Darlington Nagbe. When Valeri exited proceedings, Nagbe moved into the central role. I had hoped to see Alhassan there as I think his ability to do something even he didn’t expect could be the key to unlock the Dynamo defence, but Nagbe seemed to take the added responsibility on his shoulders and did well in the role.

It was, by far, his most mature persformance for the Timbers. There have been better games, but today we saw a player step up a level and, after a rocky spell as Houston “harried” at the start of the second half, Nagbe settled into his role and didn’t look like the rookie who would try and force something to happen and disappear into his shell if it didn’t.

Clashing Styles

Despite a little wobble after the injury to Horst, after which the Dynamo forced a few set piece chances, the Timbers controlled the first half in terms of possession, in spite of some, ahem, forceful pressing by the Dynamo. I’m not opposed to physical play, it was pretty much the only play I had growing up watching Scottish football, pre-Sky TV, but there’s a line where physical can cross over into dangerous and it’s up to the ref to draw that line, and draw it early. I don’t think Ricardo Salazar did that, and it just emboldened Houston to keep it up to the point that I’m just happy we got through the second half without anyone else leaving significantly more broken than when they stepped on the field, routine potential Donovan Ricketts injury aside.

To the Timbers credit though, they stood up to the challenge. Not many clubs would’ve lost two starters, including the guy who was being billed as your playmaker, and come through to win by two goals. They did it by standing toe to toe with Houston when the game got scrappy, losing only 51% of duels, which helped limit Houston to only one shot on target.

Old Heads

The second half began with Portland controlling the tempo of the game, forcing Houston to defend on the edge of their own penalty box as they probed for a way through. The visitors were limited to one shot at goal from distance by the Ghost of Rosters Past, Adam Moffat, which skidded past Ricketts’ left hand post.

Defensively the team relied on the experience of Jewsbury and Silvestre to cover for Jean-Baptsite, who’d replaced Horst. AJB has a big future, but he’s still raw and as important as knowing when to put the young players in is to a coach’s ability to develop talent, so is knowing when to pull them for their own good, whether it’s to protect them, or keep their feet on the ground.

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Jean-Baptiste most likely has a run of games ahead of him now, and a chance to prove that he’s ready for a starting role now. I’m pleased to see his progression as I thought he was a talent in those first games last season and while he still has plenty of rough edges, he has tons of MLS and international experience around him now. I certainly hope he does it as I’d rather be answering the question of who replaces Silvestre in a year or so than still wondering whether Jean-Baptiste is ready.

Plan B: Just like Plan A, but with goals.

The Timbers created their first good chance early on when Nagbe worked a give-and-go with Wallace but tried awkwardly to wrap his right foot round a ball that was screaming out for a left foot to stroke it past the keeper. The run, and the instinct to get forward were great, but the finish was lacking, and probably underlines why he’s not a guy to lead the line as, despite being a scorer of spectacular goals, his best work goes in before the finish.

HOUgoal1passesThen, 53 minutes and 34 seconds into play, Kalif Alhassan battles to win back a ball in right midfield, near the halfway line. He’s knocks it all the way back to Ricketts. The keeper surveys his options before going wide left to Silvestre. Silvestre forward to Harrington on the touchline, and then back to the ex-Arsenal man. He goes cross-field to Jewsbury, and gets it back from the right-back before he knocks it forward to Harrington again. This time the left-back has time and space and picks a ball down the line to Wallace, who knocks it back to Harrington. The ball crosses the backline to Jewsbury via Jean-Baptiste and a quick give-and-return with Alhassan is the first time the ball has crossed the halfway line.

Jewsbury rolled it Jean-Baptiste, who passed it on to Silvestre, before the ball was returned back to Jewsbury. Like they had with Harrington down the left, they’d worked the ball around for a second look at the Houston flanks, this time working down their left. This time Jewsbury played it inside to Chara who, with a bit of luck, worked a give and go with Nagbe and then sent over a truly magnificent cross for Ryan Johnson to finish. Twenty passes across seventy seconds of possession with purpose, culminating in a fantastic cross and goal. Every Timbers player except Will Johnson touched the ball in the build-up and the cross a thing of beauty that no screencaps would suffice to describe. Just go watch it again. The whole move. Welcome to the 2013 Timbers, this should be fun.

Comfort Zone

With the lead for the first time this season, the Timbers went for the jugular. In the period between the two goals, the Timbers maintained a pass accuracy of 82% and had upped the tempo from 6 passes per minute before the first goal to 9.6 after it. There would be no attempt to bunker down on a one goal lead here.

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The Timbers still committed four players to the attack, confident that a back three with Harrington moving between attack and defence, and the Chara-Johnson partnership in the middle screening them would take care of any Dynamo threat.

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Wallace struck the bar with a blast from distance that would’ve been fine reward for his work before Ryan Johnson got his second of the night, and put the result, even so early, beyond any real doubt. That second goal came about when Nagbe won the ball, and worked a couple of passes with Alhassan before releasing Johnson free of the offside trap. Johnson finished it like a 20 goal a season striker, and Caleb Porter could breathe a little more easily.

Houston had a bit more possession after the 2nd goal, but they never really threatened Ricketts’ goal, and it was Portland who went closest to scoring the game’s third when Nagbe went close after a fine pass by Alhassan put him in.

More Questions

The second half performance from Portland is as good as I can remember from the Kings of Cascadia. They were assured and focused, and determined not to be out-fought in ways that they precisely haven’t been in the last couple of years.

The fact it came with Valeri is all the more remarkable. Where the team looked a little rattled and off the boil in the minutes after Horst’s injury, the injury to Valeri seems to have galvanised the team into even greater efforts.

A number of guys came into the team, or into new roles, and gave good accounts of themselves. Jewsbury was the calm head at the right-back that we knew he would be, and his lack of pace was never really exposed as the defence put in their best shift of the season by far. Where this leaves Zemanski and Miller in the short-term at least is in the air, though we can’t even be sure that Porter will play the same system against San Jose, despite it working here. We’ve seen Spencer fall into that trap in the past, and I’m sure Porter won’t want to make the same mistakes.

Nagbe grew into the “number ten” role as the game went on, and while I’m sure Valeri still heads the queue in that particular position, Darlington sent out a message loud and clear that he can step up and fulfill that function really well. Alhassan’s showing after coming on was the kind of performance you want to shake out of Kalif more often.

Wallace was my man of the match. There wasn’t much in it, but I felt that he added a lot to both sides of the ball in a role that asked him to wear a lot of different hats. He was given a chance in this game, and he snatched it up with both hands. Let’s see if he can build on this.

Porter goes into the next double-header against San Jose with two very different selection headaches. One on hand, the sudden lack of depth at centre back is a big concern, perhaps not on a game-to-game basis, but the risk of disaster is ever present. On the other, he has a lot of guys playing well and pushing for spots on the team.

Spencer’s Timbers peaked between April and May of 2011, and would never really hit those heights again. Porter’s job will be to make sure his team peak in October and November, and performances like this lead me to believe that we are certainly on the right path.

Believe beyond reason was the mantra of last year. Believe with reason is my mantra for this.

#RCTID