Tag Archives: sal zizzo

The Zizzo Experiment

Damn the Timbers determination to make sure that we couldn’t simply bask in the afterglow of a 4-0 win, trading a 26 year old Nigerian prospect for a 22 year old Argentine one in the days following. Continue reading The Zizzo Experiment

Six Degrees: Blowout

blowout

1) I feel safe calling Friday night’s 4-2 loss our ugliest game of the year. It’s the first game we lost by more than one goal. I’m not sure if a two-goal loss qualifies as a “blowout,” but that’s certainly what this felt like. It felt like Real Salt Lake did whatever the hell they wanted, and we couldn’t do a thing to stop them.

No surprise, I’ve had a black cloud of gloom following me ever since, but I knew I had to shake it off and bang out this column, so, in an effort to raise my spirits, I did a little research. I checked out last season’s schedule and compared it to this one.

Let me list this year’s “blowout losses.”

    8/30 – RSL 4-2

Now, let me list last year’s “blowout losses.”

    4/14 – LA 3-1
    4/28 – Montreal 2-0
    6/30 – Col 3-0
    7/7 – RSL 3-0
    7/14 – LA 5-3
    7/21 – Dallas 5-0 (ouch!)
    9/5 – Col 3-0
    10/7 – Sea 3-0

Also, last year’s team lost to Chivas three times. Chivas. Three. Times.

Well, I’m suddenly feeling much better about our current struggles. How about you?

2) The TV color man gave an astonishing little factoid Friday night, one that I have since confirmed by looking at lineups from previous games. The fact: since the start of July, Will Johnson and Diego Chara have played together a total of FORTY-FIVE MINUTES. It was the first half at Philly.

Another quick look at the schedule tells us this: on July 1st, our record was 7 wins, 1 loss, and 9 draws. Since then, with the Johnson/Chara partnership in tatters, we’ve got 2 wins, 4 losses, and 3 draws.

There are a thousand variables in our team’s current form and it’s fun to analyze and re-analyze all of them, trying to figure out what’s wrong. But maybe – just maybe – it all comes down to this simple fact: when Will Johnson and Diego Chara play together, we kick ass. When they don’t, we suck.

I’d love it if this was all that was wrong with the Timbers. I have a simple mind. I like simple answers.

3) Having a simple mind, as I watched the game, I didn’t fully understand what I was seeing. Or rather, I knew WHAT it was – a complete domination – I just didn’t understand WHY. Why was RSL making us look like a high school team? When RSL had the ball, they did whatever they wanted. When we had it, everything was a struggle. On the other side of the ball, our defense was in a constant state of frantic, overwhelmed recovery. I’m not sure RSL’s back line broke a sweat.

Fortunately, this website has a writer whose mind ISN’T so simple. If you haven’t read Kevin Alexander’s article yet, do so now – here’s the link – because he breaks it down in a systematic way, putting into words and pictures the steaming pile of feces that was Friday night’s game.

All of it makes me wonder if Caleb Porter and his staff might be switching things up a bit too much lately. Sure, they’ve had to plug in a non-stop stream of replacements, but that doesn’t explain how lost our attackers looked last night. Do we need our core group of attackers – Valeri, Nagbe, Wallace, and Ryan Johnson – to go through some remedial instruction? Or do they simply need Will Johnson and Diego Chara tag-teaming it behind them? Is the recent addition of Alvas Powell causing things to go awry on the right side? Hard to say, but I hope we can figure things out, because our offense looks awful. Friday night’s two goals were both fairly flukey and, beyond them, we didn’t threaten at all.

4) Watching Friday night’s referee, Baldomero Toledo, I was reminded of an old expression about schoolteachers. “If one kid fails a test, it’s the kid’s fault. If fifteen kids fail the test, it’s the teacher’s fault.”

In this situation, I’d say, if one player gets booked, it’s the player’s fault. If EVERY player gets booked, it’s the referee’s fault.

It got so bad last night, it seemed like Toledo was carding people just because he didn’t know what else to do. If there was a situation on the field, and he didn’t know exactly what happened, but he was pretty sure SOMETHING happened, he’d just hand out a couple bookings. I mean, somebody must have done something, right?

The best moment of the night was when Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Joao Plata shook hands and Toledo immediately gave them yellows. I’m pretty sure he carded them for shaking hands. Which he should, of course. We can’t have a bunch of hand-shakers running around out there, ruining our game.

5) A few very quick player notes.

Darlington Nagbe – Dear Lord, man. That goal was SICK.

Donovan Ricketts – You still look a little stiff, but there was nothing you could do about those first couple of goals. They were so perfectly placed, they grazed the post.

Sal Zizzo – When Train’s rocket blast didn’t go in, I automatically assumed it was just more bad luck for the Timbers. Thanks for stepping up and sinking that rebound. It’s good to have you back.

Javier Morales (RSL) – Your little bicycle kick was cool and all, but honestly, man, there wasn’t a Timber within 15 feet of you. You could’ve set up a lawn chair and had drinks, you were so open.

6) Okay, I’m gonna end this column with some extremely questionable advice for Caleb Porter. Our next two games are Toronto at home and Chivas away. We can beat these teams with our reserve squad, so I say we rest EVERYBODY. Give the regulars a couple weeks off. Let Nagbe and Valeri go off to their Fortress of Solitude, or wherever it is they go, so they can recharge their superpowers. Send Will Johnson and Diego Chara to Vegas, so they can plan out some kind of “buddy movie” over blackjack and all-you-can-eat buffets. Let Donovan Ricketts spend the next two weeks in the trainer’s room, slowly moving back and forth from the hot tub to the massage table, reggae on the stereo and a Red Stripe beer in his gigantic hand.

Then when Colorado comes to the house of pane on 9/20, we’ll be healthy, we’ll be rested, we’ll have Horst and Dike on the bench, and we’ll be ready to start an end-of-the-year winning streak.

I’m a simple man, so I’ll cling to this simple belief: put Will Johnson and Diego Chara on the field together and we cannot be stopped.

Timbers 100: Part Four – Endurance

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 61. Sal Zizzo vs Toronto FC

15th August 2012

Banner 100 7

Hodophobia, fear of travel, is something Timbers fans would be familiar with after one wearying disappointment after another on the road. For Sal Zizzo the toughest journey he’s faced so far has been from the bench to the field.


Watch The Goal Here

Steven Smith’s corner was met by David Horst at the back post. The ball fell into the path of Zizzo, who took a couple of stabs at getting the ball home.

It remains Zizzo’s sole goal in over 60 MLS appearances, but he made up for a lack of goals with four assists in the latter half of the season in his most productive spell in Portland.


121 days, 718 minutes of play, had elapsed between the Timbers last road goal and Sal Zizzo poking the ball over the line in Toronto.

Kris Boyd had been the last Portland player to enjoy scoring on foreign soil, way back in April when he put the Timbers 1-0 up on LA.

Zizzo and Boyd’s goals were the only times that year that the Timbers had taken the lead in eleven road games, and the ten previous to Toronto had seen the Timbers draw two and lose eight. Nagbe’s equalizer against Dallas was the only other goal the Timbers had scored on the road in 2012.

The strength of Portland at home during their debut season, including one run of five straight wins and another of four, only threw their road form into even sharper focus. Only 12 of the team’s 42 points (29%) were earned on the road in 2011, and that dropped to 7 in 34 (21%) in 2012.

Neither Boyd nor Zizzo’s goals would count towards the Timbers first road win on 2012, and it’s a curious stat that of Boyd’s 7 goals, 5 were to put the Timbers 1-0 up, and the Timbers lost 3, drew 1 and won only once.

100 Road Games

Getting the first goal is often crucial, on the road arguably more so, and the Timbers haven’t been able to consistently do so. Their overall tally stands at 41-39 in favour of the opposition, but their away record is poor, going behind in almost two-thirds of games.

100 Road PerformanceGiven their poor record in scoring first away from home, and a consistent inability to get points from those games, it’s little wonder that the Timbers were among the poorest road teams over 2011 and 2012, performing well below average.

By way of comparison, home form was reasonably good with the Timbers getting the first punch in more often than not, and converting those 1-0 leads into a minimum of 2 points a time.

100 Home Games

A number of lost leads in 2012 cost the Timbers crucial points, but a back of an envelope calculation shows that even if they’d only performed only averagely well on the road that year they would’ve earned 10 more points and nudged Vancouver out of the playoffs.

Five wins in 43 matches is nowhere near good enough, and it’s a telling that four of those wins involved the team keeping a clean sheet on the road, something the Timbers have only managed seven times in total.

Two of those shut-outs have come in the Timbers last three trips, and Porter’s side have yet to taste defeat on the road as part of a run that stretches back to a 1-0 win in Vancouver.

Jack Jewsbury’s ripper of a strike won the Cascadia Cup for Portland and gave Gavin Wilkinson a positive note to leave center stage on.

Sal Zizzo played in that match too, and he came to be one of the defining figures of that strange period between head coaches which is not something you’d expect of a guy who made the most appearances off the bench in 2011 with 16. He still managed 4th with 8 in 2012, but 11 of his 12 starts came under Wilkinson and he struck up a very fruitful relationship with Bright Dike.

Between the two of them we got a glimpse into a facet of Porter’s gameplan that many hadn’t given much consideration to before he arrived, which was his direct game. It’s easy to get caught up in talk about possession and quick passing, and forget that the best teams know when and how to do things “the easy way”.

Dike’s ability to bully defenders and be a target man allowed the team to fully exploit the natural width that Zizzo gives you, which they did to some effect. Frederic Piquionne plays the same way when the team break quickly, able to offer an aerial threat if a cross comes in but adds a better close control and awareness than Dike which is perhaps what let the attack down at times.

Given the resources at his disposal, Wilkinson did the best he could in putting out a team that fit the blueprint agreed with Porter. Clearly there was no way the Timbers could play then as we do now, as there was no Valeri figure back then to corkscrew the attack around, but they could take a look at players within the context of one facet of Timbers 2.0 and use that as a base to judge who stayed and who went.

Zizzo’s impact clearly did enough to earn him a spot ahead of Eric Alexander or Franck Songo’o, but we saw him used as a wing back at times which seems to have been an acknowledgement that while Zizzo did well executing this kind of gameplan, that wasn’t the Porter’s Plan A. You could see how a pacy wing-back with the ability to swing in a ball to the head of your big striker could be a real benefit to any team, especially one built to very exacting specifications Porter and Wilkinson had in mind.

Dike and Zizzo have seen their chances to play their way into Porter’s Plan A hampered by injury, and both have seen other guys come in and own their role.

Zizzo, in particular, has the toughest route into the XI. Nagbe, Wallace, Valeri, Alhassan and Valencia are his competition in attack, and Jewsbury, Harrington and Miller bar his path in defence.

He’s been here before though, as has Dike, and I wouldn’t put it past another Zizzo-Dike combination on the scoresheet before 2013 is played out.

100 join fix

Goal 74. Bright Dike vs San Jose Earthquakes

27th October 2012

bounceback

From matches in front of a few hundred people in Southern California to the brink of Africa Cup of Nations glory in South Africa, via the Pacific Northwest, Bright Dike’s story is one of being the right man at the right time. Has his time run out already?


Watch The Goal Here

Eric Alexander gets a foot in to deflect the ball towards Bright Dike in the San Jose box. The striker’s first shot is saved, but he finds the net with his second and fires the Timbers level in a largely meaningless end of season game.

It was Dike’s fifth goal in under 900 minutes, and it was fitting that it was he who scored the goal that brought down a year that promised bright things for the soon-to-be Nigerian international.


Timbers fans attentions were diverted from round the clock, 24-hour Porterwatch for a time after the curtain fell on the 2012 season by Bright Dike’s improbable run at making the Nigeria squad for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.

A debut against Venezuela in Florida was followed by a goal against Catalunya that makes up for its shady existence as far as the official FIFA records are concerned with being a goal against a defence with freaking Pique and Puyol in it. Three touches and it’s in.

He didn’t make the squad in the end, and Nigeria didn’t seem to miss him on the way to winning the cup, but that was the least of his worries after injury forced him to miss preseason.

A bitter blow for a guy that had been forced onto the sidelines while money was thrown at players to do the very thing that Dike showed he could do under Gavin Wilkinson – score goals.

They weren’t always pretty, as his very first MLS goal shows, but Dike’s sheer athleticism was a thing of beauty on its own at times too.

It was exactly the kind of dynamism that was missing in the previous custodians of the “number nine” role. Sure, a case could be made that both guys were and are better than Dike, but that doesn’t change the fact that Dike did more in those last few months of 2012 to remind Timbers fans what a striker was than his highly paid teammates.

There’s a reason why Dike’s name has been verbicized by Timbers fans and why to be Diked doesn’t mean to be beaten by a sublime piece of skill, but no-one has ever pretended Dike is something that he’s not.

The same can’t be said about Kris Boyd, though it’s perhaps not the Scot’s fault. He’s never made any secret of the fact that he’s a penalty box striker, and that’s what he likes to do best. In his own way he is every bit as limited as Bright Dike in that they both have a fairly narrow skillset that are geared towards one particular style of play. For Boyd, it was looking to get on the end of passes in the box while Dike went out to earn his name, and score goals along the way.

As it happens, Dike’s style fits Porter Swiss Army attack because it works, given the right circumstances. As poor and disjointed the Timbers were in 2012, even moreso after Spencer’s sacking, Dike found the net five times in under 900 minutes.

100 Striker MPG

His first came in the match after Zizzo’s goal, when he put the Timbers 1-0 in New York, off a Zizzo assist.

It wasn’t long before he had number two, scoring the only goal against Colorado before the consolation against RSL, and equalizers against DC United and San Jose.

As Dike was rounding off 2012 it seemed like a long time since Kris Boyd had last scored, grabbing two in a 5-3 loss to LA in July.

The writing was already on the wall by the time for Boyd. Spencer was gone and there was no getting away from his penalty miss against Cal FC no matter how many journalists you refuse to speak to. Player and club mutually fell out of love with each other, and Boyd spent most of the tail end of 2012 on the bench after having his starting spot Diked from him.

The move for Boyd was always a gamble and in the end the guy with a poor record outwith Scotland continued to have a poor record outwith Scotland. Having played few games since leaving Rangers, and with an aborted spell in Turkey behind him, Boyd had joined the Timbers as a player short of fitness and out of sync with his teammates.

Never one to make the list of a club’s fittest players in the first place, Boyd always looked a little short of sharpness and hustle that could’ve been the result a lessening of desire and focus as much as tired legs struggling to meet the demands of a league populated by proper athletes. We’ll never know.

Since his time in Portland, Boyd has returned to his old club in Kilmarnock, and scored at a moderate rate before seeing another coach who made a big deal about signing him sacked months after signing him. Where Boyd goes from here is a mystery, with Killie now under new management and with a war brewing with the fans over ownership of the club, and Rangers seemingly not on the cards.

In many ways, Dike is at a similar crossroads, but it’s one he’s been at many times before. Strikers have come and gone, failing to provide the answers the management sought, yet Dike endured on the sidelines until, with a change at the top, he got his chance to shine.

It’s hard to see a way past Johnson and Piquionne into the starting XI for Dike as it stands, with the Nigerian on the comeback trail, but that’s been said before and he’s still found his way to goal if he’s got to Dike someone to get there.

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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?

Only Four More To Go

This will be a (relatively) short one this week because I didn’t notice my VPN subscription had expired so I can’t rewatch on MLS Live, and I’ll save you my “MLS Live should be available in the UK anyway” rant for this week. Instead, I’ll be relying on the MLS highlights for the few pics I do use and cursing them for not carrying the passages of play I had noted and hoped to talk about. Extended highlights, anyone?

The Timbers made their second trip this season to the heart of Mormonia to face Real Salt Lake after snatching a draw from the jaws of victory against San Jose last time out. The first trip to Rio Tinto in 2012 ended in a 3-0 defeat, and gave owner Merritt Paulson the silver bullet he needed to end John Spencer’s reign of terror(ble football), ushering in a Golden Age of beautiful, free flowing, orgasmic football under our esteemed and benevolent overlord, Gavin Wilkinson.

This second visit also ended in defeat, and three goals scored, but at least this time the Timbers got one of them and, but for the width of the crossbar, they could’ve snatched an, in some ways undeserved, point on the road for the second match on the trot.

The Timbers midfield and defence struggled to come to terms with the movement of Salt Lake’s Fabian Espindola and Javier Morales. It was almost inevitable that it would be the movement of these two that would lead to Real’s first goal.

As Morales picks up the ball (1), the Timbers central midfield two of Wallace and Jewsbury are a little narrow giving space either side to the veteran Argentinian and Tony Beltran (both circled) who has pushed forward.

Espindola will drop off his marker, Horst, and slip into the space between defence and midfield. When he picks up the ball (2), he’s dropped between Wallace and Jewsbury and is then able to turn and run at the space. Morales makes a looping run round the outside and as the Timbers defence gets drawn towards the ball (3), Espindola has the awareness to flick it off to Morales. Jewsbury throws out an arm and tugs back Morales, preventing him getting a shot off or playing in Beltran on the overlap.

From the resulting free-kick, the Timbers make a mess of it. Wallace is positioned as the “runner” – the guy on the edge of the wall whose job it is to charge out and close down the ball the second a touch is taken (or, usually, just before it’s taken – how often do you see free kicks blocked by a guy 5 yards from the ball?).

Rather than charge out, he seems confused by Morales’ little backheel, hesitates and then does a pretty, but ineffective, pirouette. But that’s only part of it. The wall itself parts, allowing Espindola to drive the ball low between Mwanga and Mosquera and into the bottom corner.

Despite Real being the better team, the Timbers did have their chances, but were denied by a combination of good keeping from Rimando, or the final ball just not quite being good enough.

A failure to pick up Morales would once again lead to trouble for Portland later in the first half.

Again, the central two fail to follow Morales, giving him lots of space to work, and it’s his give and go, and then a run inside that leads to the free kick when Jewsbury leaves a foot hanging. There were calls of “dive” from some Timbers fans, but I don’t agree. It was a pretty clear foul, and a really lazy, half-arsed “tackle” from Jewsbury.

This time the wall weren’t to blame as Morales hit a fantastic free kick over the wall and beyond Joe Bendik.

Although both goals came from set plays, it was the Timbers inability to deal with good movement from the Real attack – Morales and Espindola in particular – that were the key. That and Jewsbury having a horror show, and a terrible effort at building a wall.

The second half saw a change from the Timbers with Bright Dike coming on for Steven Smith. Wallace dropped to left back and the team took up more of a 4-4-2 shape.

On the hour mark there was hope for Portland when a fantastic cross from Sal Zizzo was met by the head of Dike and he sent it beyond Rimando for 2-1.

Given this boost, Wilkinson did what any manager would do and took off a defender and put on a more attacking player to try and press for an equaliser.

Oh, did I say he took off a right back, and put Zizzo back there? That is the guy who’d just set up the goal, and wasn’t, isn’t, and most likely never will be, a right back. Meanwhile Jack “I’ve played right back” Jewsbury stayed central, even though we had literally just brought on a central midfielder in Eric Alexander.

Last week, I’d hoped we’d at least bring Alexander on, in order to help retain possession further up the field as we defended a lead. We showed what a good passer of the ball he was against Real, misplacing only 1 of his 15 attempts, making the decision to leave him on the bench against San Jose all the stranger.

With Zizzo at right back, a lot of our threat down the right was neutered, and Wilkinson would complete the job by hooking off Songo’o with a few minutes to go. His replacement, Kalif Alhassan, never really got involved – little surprise when you have all of 8 minutes to make an impact – and, in fact, failed to touch the ball in the final third.

There was, as I mentioned before, that chance for Dike that crashed off the bar. It was, as my wife pointed out, almost the San Jose match in reverse. Once more, it was from Zizzo’s cross and it makes the decision to push him further back all the more odd when you think that we effectively removed this weapon from our arsenal. Dike looked fired up for this after coming on, and the RSL defence didn’t look too sure of how to deal with him so it seemed like the ideal scenario to test them by throwing the ball into the area from wide and letting Dike do what he does best. But we decided not to do that.

I think the move to put Zizzo at right back may be a sign of the management losing faith in Kimura. Kimura came to the Timbers with a “won’t be missed that much on the field” sentiment from Rapids fans that suggested we weren’t exactly bringing in a game changer, but after the trouble the Timbers have had at full-back, someone who could at least do the basics would be a step forward.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anything from Kimura to suggest he’s good enough. His reading of the game is poor, and you won’t go poor by betting against him in 1v1s. He has tons of heart, and there’s no doubting he seems like a great guy, the kind that fans can identify with, but he’s a footballing liability too often. Perhaps there was an injury concern, fatigue issues, but it seems to me that it was a management who wanted to test Zizzo in the role, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is further experimentation at right back before the season is out.

Losing, With Style

Little has changed on the road for Portland since Spencer left. The record under Wilkinson is 2 draws and 5 defeats, compared to Spencer’s 2 draws and 6 defeats. We’re scoring more, which is nice, but conceding more, which isn’t.

Again, a lot was made of possession post-match. “I think the possession stance of this team has changed dramatically from what they were,” said Gavin. It’s certainly true that we’re keeping the ball more since Spencer left – of Wilkinson’s 13 games, we’ve hit 50% or more 8 times, compared to 5 in 17 under Spencer – but of those 13 times we’ve been on top, we’ve won twice.

There may be something to Sigi Schmid’s “our league is a counter-attacking league” quote. Certainly, it seems that the team we have is built for that style of play, unsurprisingly since it was John Spencer that had a big hand in putting the pieces together. In fact, we win almost twice as often when we have less of the ball (29% to 15%) though it’s hard to separate on figures alone which games we’ve set out to counter-attack, and which we’ve simply been beaten back by a better team. Or been shit.

It certainly seems, from looking at the figures (as flawsed as that approach may be) that the team benefit from taking a counter-attacking approach most especially at home. In 18 matches where the Timbers have had equal-or-less possession than their opponents, they’ve lost once – the 3-2 defeat to, appropriately enough, Real Salt Lake earlier this season. Of those 18 matches, the Timbers have won 13. It’s a record worth almost 2.4 points-per-game, or to put it another way, better than any current home record in the league.

By way of contrast, when we’re “in control” of a match at home, that points ratio drops to 0.86, and we’ve won only 3 of 14. On the road, we lose a little over 50% of matches we have less possession in, which isn’t great, but of the 8 road games we’ve been seen more of the ball, we’ve lost 7 and drew only once (Toronto, 2-2).

I think those “philosophical” differences between Paulson and Spencer were, to a large degree, about this style of football. Perhaps seduced by seeing teams like Barcelona and Arsenal, Paulson has thought to himself “I want my team to play like that”. To which, and I’m speculating wildly here, John Spencer might’ve countered with, “not with this lot, you won’t.” Of course, things don’t simply work that way in football and there’s more to play that kind of football than just telling the players to pass it a bit more and play in a 4-3-3.

Clearly, given this new direction, there’s a method behind implementing the system now and getting players used to it, or simply seeing who can do it and who can’t. There was always going to be an adjustment period as players adapted. The issue is that it’s been shoehorned in when the season was still active. We weren’t so far off the play-offs when Spencer was told to pack his haggis and go, but by determining that the way the team played would have to change, and quickly, Wilkinson and Paulson effectively signed the death warrant of this season back in June, for all their public protestation otherwise.

Of course, if it leads to a stellar, or at least competitive, 2013 then the short term pain would be deemed worth it. Enter, Caleb Porter.

Porter has a big job in the off season in identifying those players who aren’t suited and getting them out, and bringing in players who can play “possession with purpose”. The way the current roster has been built has been almost magpie-like – picking up shiny pieces here and there with no real thought for how they fit together. That can’t continue if the Timbers hope to be successful. Signings have to made with the system in mind, rather than simply because he’s a good player and available, ala Kris Boyd. We’ve already seen how successful bringing players in and just plugging them into a system and hoping it works despite everything they (should) know about the player.

With four matches left of a dismal season, the Timbers get to stay in the Pacific Northwest for the remainder. DC United visit Jeld-Wen this weekend, and this followed by trips to Seattle and Vancouver as the team look to salvage a Cascadia Cup triumph from the wreckage of 2012. San Jose visit to round off the year.

#RCTID


[post_ender]

Largely Fictitious

The Timbers served up another one of those games that’ll take a couple of years off the lifespan of every fan who witnessed it as they lost for the 18th time in 29 road trips. But this was so much more than just another routine road loss.

This game had the Timbers racing into an improbable, yet richly deserved, two goal lead before blowing it all, losing 3-2, amidst some cosmically awful refereeing, missed chances and an epic post-game twitter meltdown from the club owner.

And yet there are some people out there who think that soccer is boring. I pity those poor, poor bastards.

After the emotional wringer that was Toronto in midweek, Gavin Wilkinson opted for the same shape against New York but swapped in Songo’o and Dike for Wallace and Boyd.

The exclusion of the club’s top scorer was certainly a bold move by Wilkinson, though it was to pay dividends early on when it was Dike that put the Timbers 1-0 up.

Dike is a popular guy among Timbers fans after his USL exploits, and it’s great to see him finding a place in the team after his first year was badly hampered by injury. When he was sent on load to LA Blues earlier this year I honestly thought that was the end of Bright Dike as a Portland Timber, but he’s fought his way back into the reckoning very nicely.

What I loved about the goal though wasn’t necessarily the finish, it was the build up play. Against Toronto the team seemed determined to slow the pace as they crossed into the opposing half, but there was none of that hesitancy here.

New York had been served a warning only minutes prior when the Timbers broke out from a corner.

A better touch from Dike, or more willingness and composure to put his foot on the ball and get his head up and perhaps something could’ve come of the break, but it served the Red Bulls notice of what the Timbers intentions were – they were going to sit in and look to spring out down the flanks.

Roy Miller, at left back for New York, had the sort of game that reminds you that the full-back position for the Timbers could be worse. He was terrible. Time and again he was caught out of position and Zizzo had him in his back pocket for all the 36 minutes he graced Red Bull Arena with his presence.

It was by mugging Miller that Zizzo was able to set in motion the flowing move that led to the Timbers 2nd goal.

I get the feeling that in earlier games, Songo’o either throws a hopeful ball from wide into Dike, or looks to lay it back to Smith, but here he cuts in to great effect and draws the defenders towards him. Rather than his usual tact of then trying to beat them, he lays it off to Zizzo and he rolls it past Miller and into the path of Nagbe who made a devastating run from deep that every Timbers fan would love to see more of.

Zizzo’s role in both goals was a delight too. He menaced the New York back line, looking like a real threat every time he got the ball. He was crafty and composed and by far the team’s most effective player early on.

Having been at fault in both Timbers goal, Roy Miller’s game came to a premature end as he was replaced by Kenny Cooper.

As all thoughts turned to making it to half-time with the two-goal lead in tact, the Timbers began to sink back as New York pushed on to grab something before the break. There was almost a sense of inevitability when Cooper scored the goal they’d sought, and that it would come from some suspect defensive work.

Songo’o put in a better defensive shift that I’ve seen from him, but the one time he fell asleep it cost the team a goal, though David Horst needs to have a strong word with himself. At no point does he seem concerned by the presence of Cooper, and it was such a sloppy goal to lose. And at the worst possible time.

With their shape totally lost, the Timbers task was simply a case of grimly hanging on for a few minutes, but they allowed McCarty time to get a shot off, which was blocked by David Horst, only for the rebound to be lashed home by Tim Cahill.

And there is nothing more to say about that goal.

Oh, except that referee Jason Anno is an Olympic grade halfwit.

Anno blew his whistle, presumably for a handball from Horst – though the angle is hard to tell – before Cahill took his shot, but then decided to allow the goal to stand. He can claim he played advantage till he’s blue in the face, but the fact is he blew his whistle before the goal was scored and therefore the goal shouldn’t have stood. It’s his own fault for not taking a second to see if an advantage occurred before spasmodically whistling like the last pillhead at a rave.

After the match he claimed, sorry, he lied that he blew the whistle “when the ball entered the goal.” No, you didn’t Jason. I have a functioning set of eyes and ears, and the senses to wield them, and I clearly heard the whistle before Cahill shot.

Now unless there’s some kind of weird time dilation effect in Red Bull Arena, there’s no getting away from that fact. The whistle went first. Science agrees with me. Let’s say that Anno is 30m from the sideline, so it would take a little under 0.1 of a second – or a third of a blink of an eye – for the sound of the ref’s whistle to reach the sideline mics. By comparison, it would take a tad over 100 microseconds for the light from Cahill striking the ball to reach the camera – roughly 1/10000th of the time it took the sound to carry.

Even if you allow for the camera to be further back, in order for Anno’s interpretation to be correct, there must have been some inexplicable warping of light speed that caused it to slow to that of an admittedly sprightly cheetah, while the speed of sound remained constant.

QED, Anno is full of shit.

That’s not me talking, that’s science, bitches.

It was a sickening way to end a half that had promised so much, but there had been enough evidence in the first half to suggest that the Timbers could still come out with all 3 points.

The second half served up good chances for both sides. Ricketts came up big with a double save, while the Timbers continued to carve open the Red Bull defence. Nagbe had a good chance from the edge of the box, but he didn’t get it far enough away from Gaudette to beat the keeper.

Chara served one up for Zizzo shortly after with a really delightful through-ball.

Chara’s role further up the field certainly sacrifices a bit defensively, but when you see him split open the defence like that it’s hard to argue with playing him in a more advanced role.

The wee Colombian got the next crack at Gaudette when Nagbe, who looked reinvigorated in the first half, set him clear.

Again the Timbers failed to apply the finish that the set-up deserved. There was no Boyd to blame for the misses this time, and indeed the club’s top scorer would remain on the bench as Wilkinson looked to Fucito to replace the gassed Bright Dike with less than 20 minutes to go.

Kimura had earlier been replaced by Lovel Palmer when Tim Cahill’s macho charisma caused the Japanese fullback to dive face first into the turf, breaking his nose and giving himself concussion. Or the snidey little Aussie shitehawk elbowed him in the face. Who can tell?

The third change would see the club’s assist leader also left on the shelf when Rodney Wallace replaced Franck Songo’o as the Cameroonian faded out of the game.

With all three subs made, the Timbers promptly shot themselves in the foot and gave up another soft goal.

A sickening end to a roller-coaster game. How often will the Timbers give up free headers in and around their six yard box. I like David Horst, but I fear he’s simply not commanding enough to warrant a place in the team.

As for the subs, the Timbers were desperately unlucky in losing a goal as soon as the third change was made, meaning there was no way to push for an equaliser (though we still did have a good chance at the death, to be fair). However, the Wallace ? Songo’o change smacked of a team that was settling for the draw, and when you do that you risk getting sucker-punched spark out.

The Palmer change was understandable. The only other (keep the same system) change available would’ve been to put on Alexander and slot Jewsbury back into RB. It would’ve meant putting Chara into defensive midfield. Maybe that was the call to make. If I’m being honest though, in Wilkinson’s position I make the same change and I’m no great fan of Palmer.

Dike going off wasn’t a shock – he looked tired. Fucito coming on was. I think the idea was that Fucito’s energy would stretch a tired NY defence, but having faced the physical presence of Dike I can’t help but think the Bulls defence heaved a sigh of relief when they saw Fucito coming on.

For me, if you wanted to keep the tempo up, the ideal change would’ve been to bring Mwanga on, but he wasn’t in the 18. Boyd languished.

With the final change Songo’o had faded too (shock) but bringing on Wallace wasn’t the move I’d have made. Fucito could’ve easily gone out left and Boyd up top, or even Alexander on and out left (or Nagbe going there) which would’ve, in my opinion, offered more of an offensive presence. In the end, Wallace Marcelin’ed his closers role.

There were certainly some positives to be taken. There was some tidy attacking play, and with better finishing we’d be looking at a comfortable road win at a ground no team have come to and won this year. The chances the Timbers created were very good. There was a post earlier in the week that ranked various stats in an attempt to “shed some light” on why Spencer was fired, and the differences in the team under Wilkinson but such an “analysis” was flawed in that it didn’t take into account things like the type and quality of chance created – anyone can spank it from 30 yards, some may even have it saved easily by the keeper for that all-important “shot on target” – and finding any great significance in possession is like mining Pauly Shore’s IMDb for Oscar winners – you’re onto a loser before you even start. The over-importance of “possession” is the great lie TV has sold the football-watching public. Just a quick scan revealed that the six matches ending in a win this week, precisely 50% of the winning teams won the “possession battle”. The whole debate about possession is for another time though.

And hey, maybe Merritt does actually place an inordinate value on such things, in which case the likely start of Palmer next week (Chara is suspended and Kimura likely out) should have him prepping his special plastic underpants in anticipation.

In the end, we didn’t finish our chances well, while we continue to exhibit weakness at the back and it was this that told in the end. The ref’s appalling showing certainly sticks in the craw – would’ve changed the game, etc, so on and so forth – but he wasn’t the reason for the bad defending.

Merritt’s post-match meltdown saw him rail against fans calling for Wilkinson to go. I believe he referred to the #GWOut crowd as “idiots” and “morons” who would “line up to kiss gavin’s ass” when “we win a cup”. The Gettysburg Address, it was not. Oh, and Gavin is “not going anywhere” in case you were wondering if there were consequences to haphazard team building and a terrible track record in trades, so there’s that.

I’ll leave it to others to rake over the coals of Paulson’s trademark twitter trainwreck.

So we end a road series that saw the Timbers score 4 times, and yet earn only a single point. There are some positives to take, but still the Timbers look soft at the back. Next up is a return to Portland, and the visit of Vancouver in a big Cascadia Cup match.

The Whitecaps have lost their last two, without scoring a goal, and are five away games without a win. It’s sure to be an interesting atmosphere, one way or another.

#RCTID

If you can’t support us when we draw or lose, don’t support us when we win.

– Bill Shankley

Wagons East

A little over 500 days since their MLS debut, and at only the 28th time of asking, the Timbers finally scored more than once in a single road game as they put two past a severely depleted Toronto FC side at a BMO Field with more wide open spaces than a Constable and Turner exhibition.

The 2-2 draw allows Portland to stretch their unbeaten streak to 2 matches (and in the context of this season, two matches without defeat definitely constitutes a streak) but they had to come from behind, again, to earn a point in a match they really could’ve and should’ve won.

Suspensions and injuries forced Gavin Wilkinson into a couple of changes, with Rodney Wallace and Sal Zizzo starting at left and right wing respectively. Just like John Spencer seemed determined to play a certain way, and would crowbar players into positions that didn’t suit them to fit the system, so Wilkinson seems wed to playing with a 4-3-3. It led to the situation where 4 of the Timbers 7 subs were out and out attackers – Mwanga, Fucito, Dike and Richards.

Long spells of the first half brought to mind the old saying about bald men fighting over a comb, as neither team seemed set to play to anything other than their positions as bottom scrapers in their respective conferences. It was every inch the Wooden Spoon Showdown it had been billed as as both teams seemed to have simply “not losing” foremost in their mind.

Domination of the early possession stats by Portland belies the fact that there wasn’t really any clear cut chances of note created, with the Timbers most dangerous looks coming from set plays. It was a combination of a set play and the kind of woeful defending that puts you bottom of the pile that gave the Timbers their opener after 20 minutes.

Sal Zizzo scored his first MLS goal in his 50th appearance when Toronto gave him the freedom of the six yard box to poke it home after David Horst’s header wasn’t cleared. It was less to do with rare good fortune for Portland than it was to do with the fact that Donovan Ricketts’ old team, Montreal Impact, are the only side to have conceded more than Toronto this year and bad defences make bad mistakes. That’s what they do.

They almost compounded it by doing exactly the same thing a few minutes later in letting Zizzo drift around the the six yard box unchecked. It didn’t fall for him this time, but it’s not hard to see why Toronto are where they are.

Having gotten their noses in front, the Timbers started to slide back towards their own goal as the half wore on. Toronto pushed on without ever really troubling Ricketts and it was hard to see how they would get back into the match without their two top scorers, unless Portland gave them a helping hand.

That helping hand came a little over 10 minutes into the second half when Eric Hassli levelled things up.

It’s a frustrating goal to lose because there were three points where the Timbers could’ve prevented the goal, and three seperate failures.

  • You have a 6’3 defender getting a free header. If ever someone is going to be an aerial target for a long ball, it’s the 6’3 guy, and yet it was left to Mosquera to make a late, and fruitless attempt to get to him. I’m not saying anyone has to beat him to the ball, but at least putting a challenge in makes it much more difficult.
  • If Rodney Wallace actually makes contact with the ball, it never reaches Silva.
  • Mosquera’s late dash to go for the first ball leaves him the wrong side of Hassli and he gives up on the ball where Hassli take a gamble on the rebound.

To Ricketts’ credit, he made a good save (nitpickers corner: he could’ve pushed it wider) but he was left helpless as Hassli followed up.

While I’m on Ricketts I’d like to say I thought he had a good debut. There were a couple of shaky moments, including late on when he came for a ball he was never going to get and then charged about the box like Rocky trying to catch the chicken, but other than that he looked fairly assured. His distribution was decent, especially when he kept it short. 88% of his clearances over the half way line went to opponents, but he was successful in finding a team-mate 89% of the time he kept it shorter.

It’s not Ricketts’ fault that Wilkinson traded Perkins for him and while there is still, rightly, anger above that move I don’t think it’s fair to the new guy to be constantly holding him up against Troy. It’s like dating a girl whose ex died in a car crash or something, and there’s no hope of ever living up to the myth that he has become. Not that Perkins is dead, but, still… Montreal…

Anyway, things got worse soon after the equaliser when Toronto doubled their tally, and again it was poor organisation and players being given too much space in and around the box.

Kimura, a man who get beaten more often than a Catholic in Larkhall, gets beaten too easily, but the damage had already been done in the middle where the defenders completely lost track of what it was they were supposed to be doing.

It looked like another case where the Timbers would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Part of the problem was that, for all the possession, there seemed a lack of urgency going into the final third.

Going with Wallace and Zizzo was a brave choice, though rather enforced by Songo’o being suspended and Alhassan picking up a knock. Neither have particularly stood as starters in the past.

The differing styles of both players led to a bit of imbalance in the attack. Zizzo is a winger, pure and simple, whereas Wallace is a left back being played at left midfield.

It’s a chicken and egg scenario with Wallace – was he attacking less because Toronto were playing more down their right, or were Toronto getting more job down their right because Wallace was attacking less?

In Wallace’s defence, I will say that having him in front of Steven Smith seem to give the Scot a bit more protection than having the mercurial Songo’o at left wing.

It seems to be a trade-off: you either get the attacking verve of Songo’o, but leave Smith exposed to 1-on-1’s which he’s shown little aptitude for or you get the more defensive Wallace who’ll track back and cover Smith, but offer next to nothing down the wing.

It may just have been the strategy for this match as there were a couple of instances where we had a potential break on, only to put the brakes on and slow it right down in the final third.

Both wide players had gilt-edged chances to attack the corners, and both cut inside. The Zizzo one especially had my head in my hands as it was the sort of opportunity you would dream of as a winger, but instead he allowed Toronto to get lots of bodies back behind the ball.

When he finally did put together some quick, incisive play in the opponents half it resulted in a goal that ranks up there as one of the very best the Timbers have scored in MLS.

With Toronto players clustered around for the throw-in, Nagbe had the confidence to stay out wide and not be dragged in. The quick passing between Fucito-Smith-Boyd-Alexander-Smith was the sort of things that coaches love to see and it tore a hole in the Canuck back line. Smith then had the presence of mind to look up and pick out Nagbe, all on his own at the back post.

The addition of Alexander in midfield, as well as Fucito up top (and pushing Nagbe further up the pitch) revitalised the Timbers attack. The partnership of Fucito and Boyd nearly paid dividends earlier when Fucito broke the offside trap and laid it on to Boyd but the Scot couldn’t beat the boot of Kocic in the Toronto goal.

Boyd came in for his customary criticism on twitter, nothing unusual in that. What was unusual was that Diego Chara also took a bit of stick.

It was far from Chara’s best game, that’s for sure. He still hustled, he was still all action, but his normally reliable passing was just that little bit off. This match was his “Cars 2” – objectively not that bad, but compared to the rest of his work, pretty poor. He pays the price for having set the bar so high, but I think he’s allowed a game or two when he plays down to everyone else’s bar.

Objectively, throwing away a goal lead against a team that are already bottom of their conference before they’re then shorn of a good number of starters is a bad result. Looking at the run of games left you have to wonder if there will be a better chance for the Timbers to record their first away win of the season.

However, in the context of the last couple of months, it is encouraging to see the team fight back and equalise late on again. We’re no longer a team that stops playing after 70 minutes. Instead we kinda take a wee nap for 20 minutes after the half but, hey, unbeaten streak, remember?

The Timbers stay on the east coast for a match against the New Jersey Red Bulls this weekend. The Bulls haven’t lost a home league match this year, winning 8 of the 11 and shutting out the visitors in the last 3.

So that’s a definite Timbers win, then. It’s just what we do.

#RCTID

Accentuate The Positive

Sunday night saw the Timbers battle to a 2-1 victory against Chicago Fire, a victory that ended a run of three matches without a win and over 7 hours without a Timbers player scoring a goal. It’s also the third match in a row that the Timbers have been unbeaten at home and kept a 100% record against the Fire intact.

With Jack Jewsbury out thanks to injury, it meant a start at right back for Mike Chabala. Futty Danso was a doubt for the match after his late game injury in the Houston match, but the MLS disciplinary committee took the decision out of the clubs hands by banning the Gambian for accidentally bumping the back Caleb Carr’s neck with his arm. If only Futty had kicked him square in the face instead as that doesn’t draw any sanctions, apparently.

Eric Brunner returned to his spot in the centre of defence, and those two enforced changes apart, it was the same team that drew in Texas that would face the Fire.

Again, what looked like 4-4-2 on paper played much more like a 4-1-3-1-1 as Palmer sat deeper, and Nagbe frequently dropped off the front line.

The Timbers knew their new-found defensive solidity would be tested against the speed and interplay of the Fire attack, but once more the team proved (largely) equal to the task.

Kris Boyd, for so long an isolated and frustrated figure against Houston, was much more involved this time round, and his early header from a Chabala throw-in produced a great stop from the Chicago keeper.

Indeed, it was from dead ball situations that the Timbers carved out their best chances on goal. The opening strike came from a corner, headed back across goal from Mosquera and skited into the path of Eric Brunner by Boyd, for the defender to score.

Relief was palpable as the long goal drought ended, but some things never seem to change, and after missing a couple of half chances, some sloppy defensive play allowed the Fire equalise.

While some measure of credit has to go to Pappa for the pass, the fact is it was another goal lost where the Timbers were undone as much by themselves as anyone else. Smith sclaffed his clearance, but all was still not lost had Palmer not gone to sleep and allowed Anibaba to get the space he needed to finish well.

There’s also the issue of three Timbers players huddled right in front of goal, which none of them awake to the through pass either. This is just poor alertness and concentration.

The team had almost come a cropper just prior to the goal when a corner was cleared to the edge of the box, before being worked back into to Pardo who was unmarked right in front of goal.

Fortunately for the Timbers, Troy Perkins came to the rescue once more, but if the chance had been a defensive wake-up call, it was one the Timbers failed to heed minutes later.

I thought Palmer had a decent game last week, but I can’t say the same here. While he wasn’t bad by any means, he is prone to lapses in concentration like the above and he seemed to drift out of the game as it went on.

In the second half he was a largely peripheral figure as he failed to impose himself on the game in the way that, for example, Diego Chara did, and does on a regular basis.

It will be interesting to see what John Spencer does when Jack Jewsbury is fit once more (presumably next week). Will Jack come in (as I assume he will) for Chabala or Palmer? My suspicion is that Chabala will sit, with Jack in again at right back.

There really is not much between Jack and Chabala at right back. Both have similar pass success rates, with Chabala perhaps a little more likely to get the ball forward than Jack. The two big differences I can pick between the two are that Chabala is a smarter full back than Jack, and his intensity is greater.

The reason I say Chabala is smarter is that I always feel he has a better understanding with the man in front of him than Jewsbury does. Despite the coach’s insistance that full back is the “easiest position to play” – something Jonathan Wilson might disagree with – the fact is that it’s not that simple – just ask Lovel Palmer, Jeremy Hall or Rodney Wallace. Chabala fits in much more naturally in the role, and his instinct of when to step up, or drop back is much more honed than Jewsbury’s, who often seemed to need that extra half-second or so to think about what he should be doing.

Chabala’s intensity was exmplemified by the little tête-à-tête with Nyarko just before half time. Chabala brings much more of a terrier mentality to the role than Jewsbury’s more measured, hands-off approach.

Both of these factors give Chabala a much stronger presence in the role than Jewsbury’s had so far. Spencer has already stated that when fit, Jewsbury will play which could, perhaps should, put Palmer’s place under threat.

If Jack’s place in the team truly is inviolate, then it would make sense to at least fit him in in his natural position, and a role he’s shown himself more comfortable in. We wouldn’t want square pegs in round holes, would we?

Of course, given the team’s victory this week, perhaps Spencer will bench the club captain and stick with the same XI, which would also be tough on Futty Danso who had started to form a formidable partnership with Mosquera, only to see Brunner slip back into the role and score.

Of course, I’m just a hopeless romantic who’d like to see us go to 3 at the back, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

The half brought another line-up change, with the largely ineffectual Franck Songo’o replaced by Sal Zizzo. Songo’o is a player I still haven’t got a handle on. He shows some really nice touches, and good tricks, but he still, for me, hasn’t offered enough final product. Step overs and jinks are all well and good, but if you end up getting robbed of possession or your final pass is weak, it’s all for nothing. I can’t shake the lingering sense than Franck Songo’o plays for Franck Songo’o first, and the Timbers second. I could be being harsh on him there though. Maybe it’s my ingrained Scottish suspicion of flashy players showing…

Zizzo’s bag of tricks is certainly a lot lighter but he offers a directness that the team were lacking. Songo’o will look to short, quick touches, bringing the ball inside and looking to beat a man or thread the ball through the eye of a needle; Zizzo will take one touch, knock it past his man and go round him in his bloody-minded desire to hit the byline and provide service to the strikers.

Zizzo’s introduction saw the whole flow of the Timbers play change.

Much of the Timbers first half play was focussed down the left hand side, where Rodney Wallace was putting in a much stronger shift than he had in the previous match. His defensive work was much more focussed and he and Smith are starting to build a good understanding down the flank.

With Kalif Alhassan on the bench, now is the time for Wallace to firmly stake his claim to the left midfield role, and while he could do with a better end result for his work, he won’t do his chances any harm if he can keep up this level of play.

With Zizzo on the pitch, the balance of play shifted to the right wing, and his direct running and pace caused the Fire backline all manner of headache.

In the first half, the four tackles down the Timbers right-wing were all successful, from a Fire perspective. The situation changed somewhat after the break as the foul count rose.

Given that I just wrote a blog where I was largely critical of Spencer, it’s only right that I give him the credit for his changes in this match. Recognising that the Timbers were playing much of the game in front of the Fire defence, his introduction of Zizzo gave them a ball in behind, and someone who would run at them and stretch that backline.

Jorge Perlaza came on for Nagbe later on, for much the same reason. Perlaza’s running and harrying would keep the Fire wary at a time when the Timbers were defending a lead when Logan Pause turned home Boyd’s flick from a Sal Zizzo corner shortly after the restart.

Nagbe has cut a lonely figure these past couple of weeks. He’s not getting involved in the way he was early in the season, and when he does have the ball he isn’t the same exciting presence. Where at the start of the season, he’d run at defenders, get them unbalanced and look to get a shot away, recently he’s been more reluctant to go for the jugular and is instead looking to pass it off.

It could be that’s what he’s been told to do, or that’s he’s just not comfortable in the role he’s being asked to play, but to me he’s looking a bit tired, or low in confidence. A rest may be the best thing for him – it’s only his second year in MLS and young players will blow hot and cold.

Perlaza showed great energy in his short spell on the pitch, and helped out in the late game defence with good tracking and harrying.

The way the field seemed to open up for the opposition would’ve had some Timbers fans chewing their nails down to the quick, but Perlaza did well to recognise the threat and get back to fill in and get a block in. But for a cynical foul on the breakaway, Zizzo would’ve been clean through as the wide man again showed what a valuable asset his pace could be.

Despite a great deal of late pressure, the Fire failed to really trouble Troy Perkins’ goal, and that was thanks to some more good defensive work from the Timbers.

Compared to the Houston match, you can see that the Timbers were pressing higher up the pitch. The backline has stepped up, and the second line had also moved further up the pitched. Especially encouraging is a third line half way up the pitch as the Timbers sought to press high and force the Fire into mistakes before they could even get into dangerous areas.

While the lack of open-play chances is still concerning, the Timbers still ground out a win here. When your attack isn’t quite hitting top gear, exploiting set plays is more important than ever. Delivery has improved – Songo’o and Zizzo delivered great corners that lead to both goals – and players are making runs and movements in the box with much more intent.

Players are starting to return to the fold from injury, with Zizzo having an impact in the last two matches from the bench, and Alhassan now making the bench. It would be interesting to see these two playing the wide roles in future, though Zizzo’s history with the club last year suggests that Spencer perhaps sees him more as an impact sub late in the game, using his pace and width to stretch and get in behind tiring defences. I can’t really argue with that, thought I do think that Zizzo has earned strong starting consideration at the very least.

It’s also nice to see the Timbers push back when challenged physically. There was a time when this team could be bullied by other teams, but there’s been a recent shift towards giving every bit as good as they get lately, and indeed it was the Fire players who spent most of the game falling dramatically to the turf in an attempt to hoodwink the referee, who was switched on enough to book a particularly egregious example late in the match.

It was also good to see Boyd more involved in the play as he seemed to have the measure of his opponents in the Fire defence. He had a hand in both goals for the Timbers, provided the cross for Chance Myers to score an own goal in the Sporting KC match, and scored the last open play goal against LA. Crucial, much?

Next up is Vancouver Whitecaps as the Timbers kick-off their Cascadia Cup campaign. The Whitecaps have a number of attacking dangers that it will be vital the Timbers defence have the measure of, but they’ve also shown defensive frailties that can be exploited.

Now off the foot of the Western Conference, the Timbers will hope to keep that momentum going. The football may not be pretty right now, but the points are nice.

#RCTID

D-Fens

The Timbers made their first visit to Houston Dynamo’s swanky new stadium, their second visit to Texas this year, and left the Lone Star State with another hard-earned point in their second goalless draw on the bounce.

John Spencer saw little to change in the line-up after the draw with Columbus – a match I attended after 12 hours in the air with a toddler and an infant, and as such have only the barest recollection of, but great thanks to Sheba for the tickets all the same – with Steven Smith coming back in to start at left back.

It meant Jewsbury continued at right back, and Palmer took up his new role as midfield enforcer with Nagbe and Boyd leading the line, and Songo’o and Wallace giving midfield width. Danso and Mosquera partnered at the back, hoping to build on a very promising beginning against the Crew.

Though it nominally looked like your typical Spencer 4-4-2, the reality was in took more of a 4-4-1-1 shape as Nagbe spent much of the game dropping deep to get the ball.

Whether accident or design, Nagbe’s ranging deep to get involved spoke to the isolation of the front line, and not for the first time.

It seems like the strategy over the past couple of matches has been to close the back door, and you could understand why – this was a team that had lost 13 goals in 8 matches prior to the Columbus match. And while you have to say it’s worked so far – two matches, no goals conceded – it has left the creative attacking players so detatched from play that they may as well take lawn chairs onto the pitch with them.

The defensive shape has to be praised though. For a team that has so often lacked defensive discipline, or shown a tendency for concentration levels to drop, the work the midfield and defence did to maintain order was, for the most part, excellent.

The lower screengrab highlights especially the good work done defensively to close down the space and hold their lines. You have two tight banks of four, no more than 30 yards from goal – it’s an intimidating sight for an attacking team to break down. Just ask Barcelona.

However, the flip side is that as good as those lines are defensively – where are the attackers? The gap between midfield and attack is more a chasm, and it’s one reason why it’s so difficult to get the ball to them effectively and build attacks.

The policy of dropping off and almost daring Houston to try and break them down is highlighted by the above shots, as well as this breakdown of where each team was tackling/intercepting play.

You can see at a glance how clustered these events are in and around the Portland box, and indeed the vast majoirity occur in the final 30 yards. It should also be noted how the play is being funnelled towards the centre.

Given that BBVA Compass Stadium has the same pitch width as Jeld-Wen Field of only 70 yards, it’s no surprise that the Timbers would look to narrow the play and really congest things in the centre.

Houston’s defensive play, as you can see, if more more spread out and they had a tendency to press higher up the pitch.

The Timbers’ defensive strategy worked for much of the game, with a few cutomary late chances given up as tiredness and injuries started to open up space. Danso was struggling laste on, but was unable to come off as all three subs had been used. One of those subs had been to replace Jewsbury with Chabala after Jack fell awkwardly in the first half. I don’t have the figures to hand, but I have a strong suspicion that Portland lead the way in enforced injury substiutions.

Palmer, often a lightning rod for criticism, did some good work covering at the back.

Palmer didn’t have a bad game at all – though someone needs to tell him that he doesn’t need to shoot everytime he has the ball within 40 yards of goal – but when alongside Chara in the centre it leaves the team very asnaemic in an attacking sense through the middle.

Chara was his usual self, buzzing around the midfield and getting stuck in, but neither he nor Palmer could offer the thrust through the middle that the team need.

Chara also seemed a little off the pace at times, which is unusual for him.

Palmer does his job well, but Chara is caught on his heels rather than being alive to the danger.

And again, he fail to match the runner, which forces Danso across and leads to a decent chance for the Dynamo.

On the whole though, the defence did their jobs well and I’m sure the second clean sheet in a row was greatly received by the coaching staff. Troy Perkins deserves big pats on the back for a couple of crucial one-on-one saves. Given he’s already wearing a mask, surely it’s not much of a leap to get him playing in a cape too. Superkeeper to the rescue.

The problem is at the other end. It’s now 427 minutes since a Timbers player last scored – at least, I don’t think we’ve signed Chance Myers yet – and that is a seriously long time to go without troubling Timber Joey to turn his chainsaw on.

To put that into context for a nerd like myself, you could watch the entire Star Wars trilogy (original, of course – no special editions) and still have time left over to get halfway through the Holiday Special, which coincidentally would probably leave you as depressed as watching your team fail to put the ball in the net in over 7 hours of play.

I mean, Bea Arthur, what the fu-

Sorry, back on topic. Given the isolation of the front line, it’s little surprise that good chances are as thin of the ground as Sounders fans pre-2009.

The introduction of Sal Zizzo after a lengthy lay-off gave the Timbers a bit of spark. He replaced Rodney Wallace on the hour after Wallace had had a poor match. He was wasteful in possession and generally looked like he wasn’t comfortable at all. I had held out hopes that Wallace would slot right in at left midfield as I felt his greatest weakness was his defending. I may have to revise that opinion as, on this evidence, his attacking isn’t so strong either.

Zizzo gave the team a bit of zip when he came on. In Zizzo the Timbers finally have someone who will take a player on, and go round the outside rather than look for a pass back. Nagbe and Songo’o are also good at taking defenders on, but these guys rely more on trickery to beat a man, whereas Zizzo will do it with good old fashioned pace, drive and strength.

Zizzo’s driving run leaves a defender in his wake, and he gets his head up to lay a nice pass off to Nagbe who doesn’t take the first time shot, and then can’t dig the ball out from under his feet in time.

In the end, a draw was probably the fairest result for both teams. The Timbers will hope to build on their defensive foundations, adding a bit attacking verve, as they look ahead to back-to-back home matches against Chicago and Vancouver.

It was interesting to note this on twitter after the match…

Strange for an owner that hates 0-0’s to have a team that has singularly failed to sign a truly creative midfielder.

But what do I know?

Till next time, #RCTID