Tag Archives: San Jose Earthquakes

Timbers: Damn the Flow

Damn the flow


Seventy-nine minutes into the match, Darlington Nagbe was fouled by Steven Lenhart. Nothing surprising there as only David Ferrera and Javier Morales have been fouled more often than Nagbe this season, and the five fouls suffered by the Timbers attacker in this game took him past the 46 fouls he’d suffered in the whole of 2012. He’s basically getting kicked at twice the rate which reflects the Timbers greater attacking presence and his role within it.

San Jose’s 18 fouls committed sets a season high, and it’s the first time since March 2012 that the Earthquakes have been in such an ugly mood, which is saying something for a team with Steven Lenhart among their number.

Lenhart DefenceSpeaking of Lenhart, it’s kinda interesting, I think, to note that the striker committed three fouls in the match, all in the last fifteen minutes. And yet none of them were in his one half as San Jose pressed high and we struggled to break them down despite piling on the pressure. The foul on Nagbe, with him going back to his own goal, came three minutes before the Timbers were back in the game, but they blew their chance to grab a point late on, having surrendered two cheap goals after the break.

The first came from the penalty spot, so we can just chalk that one up to bad luck, because refs aren’t infallible you know, right?

Ach, you know what, I’ve watched it and gone from dubious but plausible, to a dive, to a Bale-like “searching for contact” move and it just underlines how hard all this is to do on the fly for one official. In this case the assistant had a ton of bodies between him and the ball and the ref’s view meant he was reliant on reading the body language of the players and direction of the ball to judge.

I know if it’s Nagbe going down there in exactly the same way, I’m screaming for the penalty. In this case we were on the wrong end of a call, but for all we pin this on the ref, the most interesting thing for me is that we were the architects of our own downfall.

SanJoseGoal1

A simple giveaway by Jack Jewsbury puts us on the back foot, and perhaps Chara nips Salinas in the heels whereas Zemanski seems to stumble and ease the pressure on the San Jose player, but the end result is we take our our fate and put it right in the hands of the referee in front of a home crowd.

That it came as something of a shock that the Timbers conceded the next goal is a testament to the spirit in the team this year, but it too came with a stink of poor officiating on it. Was Lenhart offside? Sure looks likes it in the freeze frame, but once again if we’d done our job it would’ve never been an issue in the first place.

SanJose Goal2The free kick sees the Timbers line-up in a row of five, with three active San Jose attackers and one passive. Theoretically, we’ve got a man spare with a 6’ 4” Jamaican as a last reserve, so all looks good until Jack Jewsbury gets drawn into the melee for the ball leaving Lenhart all alone at the back.

Both of these injustices were easily avoided by our own actions, so yeah, blame the refs, but that’s not going to help sort out the underlying problems that the officiating masks.

Our defense has generally been good this season, but that’s not to say it’s not being stretched on a weekly basis. A lot of our defensive success can be put down to Ricketts rolling back the years, but with Jewsbury at least partly culpable in the loss of both goals this week it shows what can happen when even a single part of that defensive wall starts to chip away.

The giveaways are unusual for Jewsbury, who is one of the team’s better performers in terms of passing accuracy.

Timbers San Jose Passing AccuracyOver the last two games only Ben Zemanski and Darlington Nagbe have shown greater accuracy than Jewsbury, but not all mispasses are equal as Jack has shown already. It’s a thin line for the likes of Jewsbury and his counterpart on the left, or the right, Michael Harrington to walk as they have to be able to judge when to push the play forward or keep it circulating.

Both of these guys have been among the busiest players on the team over the past two games, receiving successful passes for teammates over 60 times each. Nagbe and Valeri lead the way in this regard and by using these passing stats we can build up a map of the Timbers play against Philadelphia and San Jose so we can see how things changed.


Balancing the Attack

Passing Maps Combined

These pictures use the players average position over the match, and the wider the lines, the more passes between those players. This passing map shows us the primary avenues of play in the Timbers team by highlighting those players that exchanged the most passes.

What is noticeable is that the Timbers “network” was much more widespread against San Jose. Ryan Johnson is an isolated figure against Philadelphia, and his lack of involvement down that side is a stark contrast to the work of Rodney Wallace against San Jose. Welcome back, Rodney.

Wallace added a left side to the attack that stopped us playing in little triangles far from goal, but Ryan Johnson was only marginally more connected this time despite playing through the middle from the start.

The only two players with whom he shared more than seven passes were Donovan Ricketts and Michael Harrington, which tells you that Johnson wasn’t getting involved with his feet and this was leaving a big hole in the middle in te first half.

You can see by the positions of the subs that came on (the lighter green) that the Timbers were in attack mode from the bench, with Piquionne in particular adding a lot to the attack. In his half hour stint against the Quakes, Piquionne logged five shots.

A couple of moments aside, it was another Ryan Johnson performance that gave me some trouble remembering that guy who scored all those goals against San Jose in preseason, and who looked like the ideal spearhead of Porter’s attack. His recent form isn’t great.

After Johnson started 12 of the first 13 games, with four goals for his efforts, Frederic Piquionne commanded his place for the next few. Johnson has started the past four games, scoring in the comeback win against LA, but failing to complete a full 90 mins, with only 5 shots in all that time. By contrast, over the same four games The FP has had 8 shots at goal, or one every 19 minutes to Johnson’s 57 minutes. But then, for all Piquionne is getting shots off he’s generally wayward or blocked with only 2 of 8 shots on target compared to Johnson’s 3 of 5. So, yeah.


Creative Minds

Returning to the passing stats above for a moment though, the ball found its way to Nagbe and Valeri most often which you would certainly expect in an attacking team.

Nagbe Valeri combined passes last 30 mins SJThe duo traded 17 passes over the last match, a figure only topped by the 20 passes between Nagbe and Jewsbury, and the 18 between Harrington and Will Johnson, yet it was only in the last 30 minutes of the match against the Quakes that we really saw the partnership become effective.

A triangle of attacking play, with the apex pointed towards the San Jose goal reflected the pressing of the Timbers having given up the lead and being spurred into more direct action. This kind of play was in stark contrast to the play we’d seen from them previously.

Nagbe  Valeri comparison

Against Philly we saw neither player put significant passes into the box, but against San Jose, and largely in that last half hour as we saw earlier, suddenly Valeri began putting the ball into the most dangerous part of the pitch and Nagbe was there to profit from one such ball forward.

TimbersGoal

These kind of passes from Valeri come with a big reward at a high risk, with perhaps no greater example than Valeri’s flicked pass for Will Johnson in the first half. You know, there’s a part of me that’s annoyed with Will Johnson for missing that because that pass deserved a goal at the other end of it.

There’s a good reason why his teammates give him the ball so often despite his seeming wastefulness, and it’s not just because Coach Porter told them to. They know what he can do and you put up with the odd bad pass or misread signal here to there if you can get to the gold like these (near) assists.

Meanwhile, if you look at Nagbe’s 90% success rate, a lot of those passes are sideways with very few penetrating passes. True, a larger part of his game is built on driving with the ball at his feet for forward movement than is Valeri’s, but it was only when he began buzzing around the edge of the box that i was reminded of what i’d missed in his recent run of mature, reliable performances – the danger he brings to the attack.

The goal was his 6th of the season, but his 1st in over a month. Coming as it did, only three minutes after Lenhart had fouled him in his own half, the goal was the perfect response by Nagbe and put the side on the road to almost claiming a point, had Piquionne only picked a yard either side of Jon Busch for his late header.

So we return to where we started, Timbers on the receiving end of some tough play and poor officiating but able to take heart, I think, from the fact that we don’t need to blame this result on these factors because we can blame ourselves.

Seriously, go with me, how great is it to feel like we lost today because we blew it, not the ref? Had Johnson tucked that chance away, or Jewsbury not slacked off for a fraction of a second (twice), or Freddie picked a corner, we’re looking at a very different result and that’s all down to us putting ourselves in the position to have these chances at all.

Last year we weren’t putting ourselves in a position to blow it by not putting away these chances, so the losses felt very different. This won’t be shrugged off as just bad luck or a bad day at the office because every game is a lesson at this stage on the team’s redevelopment but neither will it be overly dwelt upon because there’s too much work still to be done.


A Good Trend

Our passing and chance creation improved dramatically against San Jose and this is encouraging, but what is less so is the lack of goals from recognised goal getters. Piquionne’s touch was good and Johnson’s got a good eye for goal even if he’s finding him starved of the ball when everyone is feasting around him, but neither of them are scoring.

Three goals in four games for the Timbers isn’t good enough. The strikers have contributed to two goals in that time – Johnson’s strike against LA and Piquionne’s assist for Nagbe against San Jose this week.

If not these two, who? Dike is still some time away, so that leaves Valencia? While it would be nice to see Trencito let loose from the start, aside from a late cameo against Vancouver last May where he scored and had three shots in thirteen minutes of action, he’s rarely been used as an attacking threat, and despite over an hour of play over the past four matches, he’s failed to take a single shot at goal.

Throwing him into a Cascadia Cup match, against a team two points behind us in the table, would be a big risk and games like this call upon an old head.

Zemanski subbed for Chara, and there was very much a sense that it was a subbing with the Colombian’s place on hold for now. Zemanski did well, neat and tidy on the ball and, as the passing maps above show, matching Chara’s performance in many respects.

Chara could return as early as next week, so you’d expect him to start which leaves the question of Jewsbury’s role. He was at fault for both goals, but is generally a positive part of the team. Ryan Miller, and potentially even Ben Zemanski, are candidates to take over if the run of games is getting to Jack. These guys bring something different to the team, but having run with this backline for bit, perhaps Porter will refer to stick with what’s worked in the psat and trust that he and his team can work on the errors that were made that we can actually do something about now.


Kah, the original playmaker

One thing that came out of the research for this post was how important Pa Modou Kah is to the Timbers. Only Jewsbury can join the exclusive club of players who have received the ball more often than Kah, along with Valeri and Nagbe. These four were the only players to be consistently involved in over 20% of the team’s successful passing moves in both the last two matches, highlighting Kah’s role as a defensive playmaker, every bit as influential in his own way as Diego Valeri at the other end.

His most regular links were with Jean-Baptiste and Harrington, which makes sense, and he was often a source of balls into midfield or even straight to his attacker counterpart. He linked up with Nagbe against Philly, and found Valeri more often against San Jose.

In the absence of Silvestre, Kah has stepped into the defensive playmaker role, setting the tempo and dictating the angle of the next probe at the defence. It comes without the glory of Valeri’s position, but is a large part of why the team is able to keep its shape without resorting to long ball football.

It also comes with a high degree of risk as Kah found out a while ago and Jewsbury did tonight where all your good work can be undone by a couple of mad moments. Kah recovered from his stumble to put in assured performances lately, so we’ll see if Jewsbury can bounce back, though after being roasted by Danny Cruz it’s hard to shake the feeling that it might be time for Jack to rest those legs up in anticipation of a potentially longer-than-we’re-used-to season.

Defeats are never easy to take, but lessons will be learnt from this one and actions put in place so that we don’t make those mistakes again, I’m sure. We’ll stumble again, that’s certain, but it’s the picking ourselves back up that matters.


Decisive

No one likes to lose but I get the sense that defeat is literally painful to Caleb Porter, as in he’ll be spending his Sunday racked in agonizing stomach cramps all because the Universe dared to fuck with His Divine Plan. The Whitecaps will fancy their chances of taking something considering the Timbers poor run, but the match gives the home side the chance to equal their record of 5 straight wins in front of the Army – a record set when Jeld-Wen first opened – as well as putting some distance on our rivals and putting yet another tough July behind us.

What is it about that month that the Timbers don’t like? 4 points from 4 games this season is better than 3 points in 6 games last year and the 4 points in 5 of 2011, but it’s still slim pickings. The bright side is that 3 of those 4 games this season were on the road, which means the Timbers are about to embark of a run of three straight home matches.

Caleb Porter won’t be thinking (on the record) beyond Vancouver, of course, but past them lie FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake; every one a potential playoff rival.

If July was tough, August is downright crucial. Those three matches are followed by trips to Seattle and RSL in a month that will cast a long shadow over the Timbers campaign one way or another.

It’s not a time we want an attack floundering or a defence showing cracks, but no one said football was fair. It’s tough waters ahead, but a win against Vancouver puts the Timbers on the right foot to build momentum towards the playoffs.

Six Degrees: Happy!

happy


In the wake of a very disheartening 2-1 loss at San Jose, I’ve decided to ignore all these negative thoughts coursing through my tiny little brain and instead focus only on the positive. I’m going to put on my rose-colored glasses (they’re actually closer to fuscia than rose…) and see if I can bang out this column without saying a single negative thing.

Warning: in this effort to buck up my spirits, I may be a little heavy-handed with the exclamation points. And, God help me, I might even throw in some smiley faces or something. I’ll try not to, but things happen, you know?

1) Guess who has the fewest losses in MLS? Your Portland Timbers, that’s who! We’re heading into August with only three losses. Three! I feel safe saying that NO ONE predicted that at the beginning of the year. Despite Saturday’s loss, we’re still right on target for the playoffs and we’ve got a very good shot at the Supporter’s Shield. This is a good team. Good teams lose a few games and then come back strong. Our boys will be alright.

2) We created a LOT of great chances and that’s something to celebrate. Twenty shots Saturday, which is our season-high for a road game. If not for the woodwork and some outstanding saves by San Jose jedi knight Jon Busch, we score 4, maybe 5 goals. And, as always, we showed tons of heart once we fell behind. Sure, I wish we could summon that kind of passion from the opening minute, but those are negative thoughts, so I’m ignoring them completely. Instead, I’ll just think happy thoughts about us turning up the volume for long stretches of the 2nd half. San Jose was lucky to survive.

3) And how about the goal we did score? Lovely. Just lovely. Nice flow from Valeri to Piquionne, who makes a gorgeous heel pass to Nagbe, who puts it away like the seasoned vet he has become. (I love gorgeous heel passes. Why can’t we have a game where we’re only allowed to make heel passes. Every other way of kicking the ball is off-limits. Even the goalie would have to heel-kick it. Sure, we’d probably lose, but think of the aesthetics.)

Also, congratulations, Darlington, on your sixth goal of the year. That ties your career high, you know. Now, what do say we go for double figures? A very safe bet, I think.

4) I’m enjoying this positive thinking so much, I’m not even going to limit it to players. Let’s talk about that great red card by the ref! San Jose’s Marvin Chavez gets a yellow, and then, mere seconds later, with a sulky look on his face, he kicks the dead ball away from Valeri. Boom! Here’s your 2nd yellow, sir! And a red! Enjoy your shower!

I don’t know whether that second yellow was for “time-wasting,” “encroachment,” or just “being a douchebag.” Either way, great card, ref! Zero crap taken!

5) Let’s dish out some positive thoughts about the players.

Donovan Ricketts. As always, you gave us some heavenly saves. And congratulations on not breaking Steven Lenhart’s jaw after his goal-celebration dance. Very few of us have that kind of patience. You set a fine example for the kids.

Diego Valeri. 3rd place on the MLS assists board, sir. And if I’m not mistaken, you’re no longer on loan, are you? I look forward to many more years of silky passes and bizarre goal celebrations.

Micheal Harrington. Great night’s work, Mikey Mo’ Money. Loved that cross to Ryan Johnson. Also, your hair’s been especially impressive lately. So blonde. So bouncy.

Diego Chara. You’ve never looked so good, my man. Games like this really strengthen your case for Timbers MVP.

6) And finally, In Caleb We Trust.

All season, Coach has been keeping the highs low. Now he’ll get to keep the lows high. Monday morning, the team will put all this San Jose nonsense behind them and start getting ready for Saturday’s visit from Vancouver. And how can we not be excited? It’s the Cascadia Cup, baby!

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but around here, we play to win trophies, and these next two games both involve silverware. We’ve already got the Cascadia Cup. I say we keep it another year. So far, we’ve gotten draws at both Vancouver and Seattle. Now we’re gonna start getting some wins at home. Not draws. Wins. And once we tighten our grip on THAT cup, we’re gonna head to Salt Lake and take the next step toward the US Open cup.

Vancouver? Real Salt Lake? I may be thinking positively today, but I don’t see how you can feel anything but fear, because the Timbers got their noses bloodied this weekend and we’ll need to take our frustrations out on someone. I feel positively sorry for you.

Six Degrees: Dropping Points

A few quick thoughts on Portland’s 1-1 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes.


1) Yes, you read that previous sentence correctly.

Some ties feel like wins, some feel like losses; when you hold the lead for the last thirty minutes and then give up a goal in extra time, well, that’s a tie that feels like a swift kick to the naughty bits.

The awful thing is, last year’s game at San Jose was almost the exact same thing. Remember it? We had the lead, we go into a defensive bunker for the last 30 minutes, then Wondolowski scores two late goals to tie it.

This year, it was another 30 minutes of bunkering, followed by a 92nd minute goal from some rookie named Jahn. Three points suddenly turned into one, and me, gasping on the floor, holding my man parts.

So I’m sorry if I’m in a bit of a snit right now. Maybe by the end of the column, I’ll have some happy thoughts to drop on you, but for now, I’m just gonna sit here with an ice pack in my lap and bitch for awhile.


2) Okay, I know it’s a bit sacrilegious to question Caleb Porter, but I’m gonna do it anyway.

Coach, I blame the last-second goal entirely on you. You love to talk about how we’re an attacking team, a team that maintains possession, a team that keeps pressure on the other side, and I love everything about this. So why have we gone into a defensive bunker the last two games?

When we got the lead against Houston we kept attacking, but for two straight weeks against San Jose, we’ve gotten the lead and then just turtled. San Jose came at us like a blitzkrieg over and over again.

And when we did manage to get the ball back, we didn’t hold it and slowly make our way up field, wasting time, tiring them out. No, we just kicked it deep and hoped for the best.

I blame you for this, Coach. You know a hell of a lot more about soccer than I do, but I still think I’m right. Please don’t make this a habit. This is a recipe for disaster.


3) But even before we went into bunker mode, our offense was still pretty shaky, wouldn’t you guys agree? Our worst possession rate of the year, I think. Very few good shots. Is San Jose’s defense this good? Because in both games, we felt lucky to score. Will Johnson’s free kick goal last week seemed lucky. Same for Valeri’s sweet one-timer this week. Aside from those two shots, how many chances did San Jose give us? Not many. Why is this?

The optimistic view: San Jose’s just really good. The pessimistic view: the league has figured us out.

Please don’t let it be the latter.


4) Okay, I’m gonna do something a little risky here and say nice things about two very annoying people. Wondolowski and Lenhart.

Yeah, I know I’m supposed to hate these guys, and I’ll admit, they are very hate-able, but I can’t help admiring them a bit. Lenhart’s an annoying little turd, but he’s amazing in the air, isn’t he? He got his head on everything. And, I hate to say it, but there’s something about Wondo I’ve always liked. He’s always in the right spot, he’s always finding loose balls and turning them into shots on goal.

Both these guys remind me of Will Johnson. You hate them on the other team, but you’d love them on yours.

And now that I’ve said something good about Lenhart, I need to go take a shower.


5) And now, a few of our guys.

Diego Valeri – Great goal, amigo. It’s good to have you back. But what the hell were you doing during that goal celebration? Brushing the dandruff out of your hair? Bizarre…

Diego Chara – You are still a wonder to behold. Do you ever get tired? Do you have a little stash of espresso beans hidden in your waistband? Are you even human? Whatever it is you’re doing, keep it up. You’re an absolute beast out there.

Michael Harrington – Wow, Surferboy, you’ve been pretty much perfect the entire year, but not last night! First you lose track of Wondo in the box, requiring Ricketts to make a beauty save, then later you pass the ball directly to Garza, who’s got an open lane straight for the goal. Thank God he tripped himself up. Those are two shoulda-been goals for San Jose, gift-wrapped by you, Mike. You’ve been great so far this season. Let’s hope last night was the only egg you’ll lay.

Donovan Ricketts – Man of the Match, by a very large margin. Those were some beautiful, game-saving stops, my man. You may look old and creaky, but without you, we’d have given up 3 or 4 goals, simple as that. And I can’t blame you for the one goal allowed. It was practically a penalty kick, the guy was so open.


6) And finally, let’s think some happy thoughts. (Semi-happy, at least.)

Sure, it was a swift-kick-to-the-balls sort of tie, but we still got a point on the road, didn’t we? In fact, we’re undefeated on the road. Amazing! After three road games this season, we have three points. Know how long it took us to get three road points last year? Eleven games. Eleven. So, yeah, I’d say we’re a different team this year.

Another stat for you: you know how many teams in MLS have only one loss? Four. Montreal, Dallas, LA, and your Portland Timbers. Not too shabby.

And now we head to Kansas City, to play one of the best teams in the league. A team with a really tight defense. I wish I had some optimism for you right now, but instead, I think I’ll just put it on the record that I will be very happy with a tie.

Just please don’t kick me in the man-bits again. That’s all I ask.

Timbers 1, Quakes 0: Duelling Sanjo(se)s

This will be shorter than usual, thanks to time constraints, but there should be a longer one looking back over the full 180 minutes against San Jose. C.I. DeMann did a good job hitting the main points in his Six Degrees article. Besides which, MLS Live is still blacked out here, so I can’t sit down and re-watch it. There’s a few points I’d like to expand on that aren’t covered by the highlights, so they’ll have to wait.

Following the win last week, confidence was high going into the game. San Jose have still to beat the Timbers in MLS, and the Timbers stretched that record for at least another week with a 1-0 win.

Others have written more eloquently about the whole Alan Gordon farrago so I’ll just link to my favourite take on the matter by Roberto at 5mTKO, and I’d prefer to write about football than the wankers LARPing as 1980s style hooligans.

So, on to the football. Well it’s another win, which is always welcome, and it pushes the Timbers up to 3rd in the table, which is nice even if it doesn’t mean much this early on. The actual game, well, it was a bit of a slog, especially in comparison to the Houston match. It might not seem that way to glance at the stats, where you would see the Timbers’ highest possession figure of the season and that they had outshot the Earthquakes by 11-6.

A second glance though starts to hint at the problems the Timbers had. In terms of shots on target, San Jose had the upper hand by 3-2, and, perhaps most crucially, they won the “duels”, erm, duel by 55%-45%. The reason this figure has, in my opinion, a particular influence on the Timbers in this match was that Caleb Porter’s game plan seemed to be predicated on winning the majority of those battles.

First off, what is a duel? Well, Mr Opta defines a duel as a “50-50 contest between two players of opposing sides in the match”, so you’re two big guys going to head the same ball, or the 50/50 challenge on the ground.

Secondly, why did the fact the Timbers lost these battles by 71-54 matter so much when the Timbers are a passing team, who look to (and usually do) control possession?

Well, as Porter himself has said in interviews, the Timbers aren’t one thing. There is, really, no such thing as Porterball. The game plan will change from week to week, and while some aspects will remain constant, the whole demeanour of play can change dramatically depending on circumstance.

Against San Jose the Timbers were a long ball team, more often than you might expect. The most marked example of this change in attacking philosophy is in the distribution of Donovan Ricketts.

SJrickettspng

Ricketts’ figures were broadly the same from Houston to San Jose: he went long (ie, over the halfway line) 63.6% of the time against Houston, 68% against San Jose; recorded passes went from 22 to 25, and overall success rose from 54.6% to 56%. Not much to write home about, but when you compare the two side-by-side it’s pretty cleat that Ricketts went longer against San Jose, and more of those balls were aimed directly down the middle, rather than trying to get it to the wide attackers.

There’s are three main reasons why Porter might’ve wanted the keeper to go direct. Reason 1, he perceived an aerial weakness in the heart of the San Jose defence. Reason deux, he wanted to take the weight off Futty Danso, whose ball skills might not be the greatest. Reason III, he just wanted to change it up and catch San Jose off guard.

To be fair to Futty, despite my pre-match concerns that he was the weak link at the back by some margin, he put in a decent showing. Got caught out a couple of times, but never panicked and his distribution was actually pretty decent – he had the same number of passes as Silvestre (47), but was successful with one more (41-40).

That Ricketts’ rockets hit their target more often against San Jose than against Houston (35.3% to 28.6%) didn’t translate into goal scoring chances. If you were to look at Ryan Johnson’s figures in that zone where Ricketts’ was mortering, he had 1 successful flick-on and 4 that were unsuccessful. So, even when Johnson was winning the ball, the Timbers weren’t really profiting from “going long”.

Winning the aerial duel is only half the battle though, as oftimes winning the second ball is more important. To get a sense of how the Timbers did in this regard we can look at “Recoveries”, defined by Mr Opta as “where a player wins back the ball when it has gone loose or where the ball has been played directly to him”.

SJrecoveries

For comparisons sake I’ve also included the same data from the Houston match. It should be pretty obvious that the Timbers weren’t winning enough of these loose balls in the San Jose half, so even if Johnson’s challenge was enough to put a defender off-balance, it mattered naught because the Timbers weren’t picking up the “second ball”.

Darlington Nagbe played long spells of the game as a second striker, but failing profit from the quick ball forward simply left him too far forward to really get involved. It was only when he dropped off that he seemed to come alive.

This failure to get the attacking players involved as much left us looking a bit like a paper tiger at time. All very impressive when you’re sweeping the ball around, but lacking any real bite. The possession the Timbers did have didn’t really force San Jose to exert themselves greatly to close down, which rendered much of the Timbers play impotent. If we’d been really working them, and making them hustle, even if we weren’t creating clear cut chances there and then you’d at least feel that it would pay off late in the game, but I never got the sense that San Jose were having to work particularly hard.

SJinvolve

As you can see in this chart, the Timbers managed to get 3 attacking players – Johnson, Nagbe and Wallace – involved more than most against Houston, but in this last match only Wallace remains, and he had more of a defensive onus on him with Wondolowski playing on the right of the San Jose midfield/attack.

SJdefacts

What we also saw was less of the high pressing we’ve seen from Porter’s team. This may have been part of the overall attacking strategy in that it was designed to allow San Jose to play a little further forward, hopefully opening up the space in behind for Nagbe to profit from a Johnson flick-on. It never happened, and by the time the Timbers did get the goal it was very difficult to change tack and go for the jugular as they did against the Dynamo, instead looking to bunker down during an, at times, nervy last few minutes against nine men and a hobbit.

I doubt we’ll see the same strategy next week from Porter’s boys. We may see more of a return to the high-press, fast-pass style, or Porter may yet have more rabbits to pull out of the hat.

Yet, despite it not quite working as he’d have liked, Porter still ended the night with another “W” on his record. At this stage, it’s good to see us winning without playing particularly well for long stretches of the game. With a makeshift defence and the team’s most creative player not in the 18, Porter’s boys found some way to get through it and beat last year’s Supporters Shield winners while limiting them to their fewest shots at goal since the opening day of 2012.

That’s not bad going. Not bad, at all.

Six Degrees: The Flip Side

A few quick thoughts on Portland’s 1-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes.

1) Two game winning streak. Third place in the Western Conference. These are all good things, right? So why am I feeling so uncertain? Last week, after we pounded Houston, I was over the moon. This week, I don’t know what I am. But I’m pretty sure it ain’t good.

You know what I think it is? It’s the way we won. We won it ugly. Against Houston, we looked like a juggernaut. This week, against San Jose, we looked like a heavyweight boxer who just won by a split decision. Our face is all puffy, one eye is swollen shut, and we may have some cracked ribs. We won, but we didn’t look all that good doing it.

So here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna get all these negative thoughts out of my system early, then I’ll spend my last few points bringing back the optimism. Maybe by the end of this column, I’ll have talked myself back into a good mood.

But first, a couple slices of bad…

2) Man, we couldn’t buy a shot on goal, could we? We had tons of possession, we were constantly in their half of the field, but we just couldn’t make their goalie sweat. Hell, Donovan Ricketts was the one making all the saves. Why couldn’t we bother their guy?

Possibly, they just have a good defense. It felt like a brick wall most of the night, especially after they went down a man.

Possibly, it was slick turf. It seemed like there were a lot of passes last night that were just a little too long. Just past someone’s foot, just shy of being turned into a shot on goal. I’ve heard people suggest the field was fast, but I really don’t know. Maybe our passes were just off.

Whatever the reason — and maybe Kevin can give us more insight — the attacking third was a little frustrating to me. Lots of almost-shots, but not enough of the real thing.

3) The last ten minutes drove me absolutely insane. What the hell, boys? We finally get a goal and you decide to bunker? We’re a man up and you decide to go all Spencerball 2.0 on us? Kick it deep? Hope for the best? Horrible. I hated it. I was so anxious at the end, when the ref finally blew his whistle, I couldn’t even enjoy the win. I felt like that battered and bruised heavyweight, just happy to have survived.

Remember my column last week, when I said how great it was to watch Portland play with a lead? How they put the pedal to the floor, hoping to win by 2 goals? Or 7? Or 35? Well, that sort of blood lust was completely absent this week. Instead, we turtled. We’ve got a man advantage, and yet it’s San Jose who’s dominating possession for the last 5-10 minutes? I was in the stands freaking out, having flashbacks to last year, when we’d give the game away in the waning moments. It was awful.

Am I the only one who saw this? Was I the only guy who was curled in a ball, sucking my thumb, desperate for the ref to have mercy and end the game?

I really hope Caleb Porter saw it. And I hope it never happens again. I can’t take the stress.

Okay, that’s it for the negative. Let’s bring the happy!

3) Hold me closer, Futty Danso! What a game, big fella! This time last week, when Horst went down for the year, everyone was in a state, wondering if we’d need to bring in another CB. And lemme tell you, people were not kind to Futty. “He’s useless,” they said. “Too old,” “not MLS quality,” “why do we even have him on the roster?”

I’d say all of you owe Mr. Danso a big apology. The man played a nearly perfect game. He was calm, not even the least intimidated by San Jose’s dirty, nasty forwards, and as usual, he won everything in the air. He even stayed within himself as a passer, content to swing it back and forth amongst the back four.

And while we’re on the subject, how about that back four? Two straight shutouts, baby! And we did it with both Horst and Jean-Baptiste going down with injury. This defense has found its identity. They are calm, they are patient, they are masters of maintaining possession. All those early-season hiccups are forgiven. We will not give up a goal the rest of the season. You heard me correctly! Not one single goal! We will set a world record for consecutive shutouts! (Hey, I’ve got to have at least one ridiculous statement in every column, right?)

4) I really can’t decide who to have my fan-crush on.

Should I have it on Diego Chara? The little guy is everywhere. Anytime San Jose got a little movement forward, who comes racing up to stop them? Diego. Sadly, he’ll miss next weekend’s game, but I still think we should honor him in song. He’s short! He’s hard! He’s got a yellow card! Di-ayyyyyyyy-go Chara!

Or perhaps Mikael Silvestre? He’s been nearly perfect the last few games. He’s got that defense running like a Swiss watch. His passing has laser precision. Plus, he got up in Alan Gordon’s face while his mouth was gushing blood. Oh, Mikael… you had me at “gushing blood.” You had me at “gushing blood.”

But then there’s Will Johnson. The goal was so beautiful, I’m not sure it needs comment here. Instead, I’ll focus on his feisty-ness. When he and Gordon were jawing back and forth? Absolutely priceless. And how about when Chara was on the ground, writhing in pain, but play continued? Johnson said, Hell with this, then kicked the ball so far out of bounds, I thought it was going to hit a trolley on 18th street. Then he races over to the ref and absolutely freaks out. And zing went the strings of my heart!

5) On the offensive side of things, it was a tough slog, and I’ll give a lot of the credit to the San Jose defense. They were tough. But there were still some nice bits from our guys.

As always, Ryan Johnson had a motor that wouldn’t stop. He’s an easy guy to root for and was oh-so-close to sending a few shots on target.

I thought Darlington Nagbe did a very nice job filling in for Diego Valeri. He completed 88% of his passes and had four of our seven shots, including one on goal.

Rodney Wallace and Kalif Alhassan were both solid, if not spectacular. I will say that a couple times in the first half, Nagbe, Alhassan, and Ryan Johnson had some quick-touch, give-and-go pass combinations that were just exquisite.

I hope we see Valeri back next week — partially because it will give San Jose something new to deal with — but if he’s not, our front four will be up to the task.

6) I think I’ll close by turning a negative into a positive. Remember how I compared our victory to a bruising heavyweight split decision? Well, sure, that’s stressful and ugly to watch, but the plain truth is, we won. We’ve proven a lot of things this young season, and Sunday night we proved we could win ugly.

Now it’s time to prove we can win on the road.

It Begins Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

TimbersGoal1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radio Gaga

The fifth stage of the Kübler-Ross model is acceptance.

I think that many of us who support the Green and White have reached that stage.

And, just as the model predicts, that stage can be very…peaceful.

I had a long workday yesterday and had already accepted that I would not be able to watch the away match. Sitting in the service truck reading the match thread at “Stumptown Footy” I searched into my heart for rage, bargaining, or depression and found only a sort of quiet, reflective peace.

Yes, the Boys were on the road against the best team in the league.

Yes, we would, barring miracles, walk off without a point.

But…would we see Kris Boyd back upfront? And what would the midfield look like? Would the team show the fight they have of late, or would this be visit to the Bad Place, a return to the dire form of Colorado away or…shudder…Dallas away? How would our boy Bendik do between the sticks? Could our defense hold the most prolific attack in the league to less than a brace?

By now you probably know what happened. If you were in a medically-induced coma, I’ll sum up by saying that by the 70th minute Portland had an improbable, no… impossible 2-nil lead.

Two-nil.

Over the Earthquakes.

In their house.

Of course it couldn’t last. The final 2-2 draw accurately reflected what happened on the pitch; a Portland team, or, rather, Danny Mwanga, was struck by lightning twice. And the best team in MLS played, well, like the best team in MLS and came back to equalize…but our Boys still hung on long enough for the point on the trot.

The match was brutal; referee Villareal and the other two Stooges lost control of the match about the same time I started listening to the radio broadcast, in the third minute. The post-whistle pushabout was entirely his fault and, again, points out how thin the pool of officiating talent is in MLS. I was trying to type a field report while listening to the radio podcast and was making heavy weather of it; the match sounded desperately confused, but what came through the earbuds clear as new glass was that Portland had nothing going forward (from what I could tell this was a combination of Rodney Wallace’s inability to match Diego Chara’s distribution – and that’s a rather deadly comparison for you, isn’t it, RodWall? – and with Nagbe out wide the 4-4-2 really does choke off Portland attacks) and that San Jose was just hammering Portland’s goal. Bendik was a monster in goal, and the defense was managing to scramble the ball clear, but it seemed just a matter of time before the first home goal.

And then, lightning.

A nice series of passes between Dike, Mwanga, and Wallace sprang Mwanga through for the goal, and the teams ran off at the half with Portland up 1-nil.

I have to admit; my field report may have been somewhat erratic after that.

By the time I rejoined the match I was driving home, and the early moments of the second half were more of the same; Portland bunkered up and San Jose bombing and strafing. Surely the home side would now slot home their two goals to win the match. I felt the sort of distant sadness you feel when you read about some faraway tragedy; sad, that, but look how hard the boys fought. What courage!

And then, lightning.

One thing I had been getting over the radio is Franck Songo’o. It sounded like he had been playing like a man on fire, and in the 62nd minute he went on a crazy, mazy run that ended in a donnerundblitzen Mwanga strike from distance.

Two-nil Portland.

The driver behind me must have thought I had found a stray hundred-dollar bill on the dashboard.

Surely, this couldn’t last.

It didn’t. San Jose, which had started the game with the attitude of Babe Ruth playing in a Babe Ruth League, had sat up early in the second period when the pesky visitors refused to give up a goal and die. Wondolowski had already been subbed in before the second Portland goal. Now Alan Gordon came on, and San Jose settled down to do some serious damage. Portland scrambled, and cleared, and scrambled some more. By the time I got home and turned the match on Wondo had already scored his first and the home side was still pressing. In added time the inevitable Timbers defensive mistake – this one an unintentional flick-on by Mosquera – led to Wondo’s second. Drawn match, and surely San Jose would press forward for the winner.

And then…

Well, no. The lightning didn’t strike this time. But Franck took off again, ran the length of the pitch, dished to Dike in alone on the keeper and…

Bright booted it wide.

And that was that.

I finished my tinned soup, kissed my sleeping wife, and climbed into bed.

Acceptance.

It’s not always a bad thing.

Some random observations from the match:

The Kris Boyd Story is turning into a rather sad tale. The guy finally gets another crack at the starting XI and pulls a groin in fifteen minutes? That’s not funny, or even farce. I really feel for the guy, and hope he gets some more minutes on the road. Why the hell not.

I think Bright needs to sit for a couple of matches while Gav’ tries out another striker. The final miss was it for me; a top-flight striker has GOT to be able to finish that and get the late-match winner. Improbably this season’s Sad Sack Timbers had a chance to win, for the first time on the road this season, at the league leaders, and our front man couldn’t seal the deal. In my opinion, that says we need to see what Fucito, or Richards – or Boyd – can do alongside Mwanga.

Franck Songo’o is a beast when he’s on his game. If he could play every match like he played last night he would be Lionel Messi. Of course, if If he could play every match like he played last night he wouldn’t be playing for us.

I loved you as a player, Knowles, but your defense is a mess. In my opinion the single biggest, most difficult task Coach Porter faces is organizing this goatscrew of a backline. Individual defenders had a great match – Steve Horst’s goal-line clearance saved us going down early. Smith had a solid game, as did Mosquera until injury time. But the unit – AS A UNIT – is a disorganized mess. Even the late substitution of Eric Brunner (welcome back, Eric!) didn’t help. Too many players spend too much time running around looking like they have no idea where they should be or what they should do. The second San Jose goal was a perfect summation of that; a tight pack of four red jerseys were sitting in front of Wondo – who wasn’t offsides when the ball was played in – and Mosquera’s header provided him perfect service. Awful. We have a number of decent defenders but as a unit, we play like the Maryknoll Seminary for Young Ladies U-12 Development Team. Oranize, boy! Keep your shape! Communicate! Mark! This is “Defending 101”, and you can do it, you’re just panicking and not trying.

Accepting is not the same as surrendering. We still have five matches left, and that’s plenty of time to start the organization and good play we’re going to see next season.

Onward, Rose City!

Bunked Off

Type the words “Football is a cruel game” into google and it’ll return around 19,100,000 results. Say the words to a Timbers fan and you’ll get one result – a weary sigh.

San Jose Earthquakes took their turn to deliver a swift kick to the balls with their late, late comeback to deny Portland their first road win of the year. Wondolowski’s injury time goal gave the home side a 2-2 draw and further cemented their reputation as a team that don’t know the meaning of the word “quit”.

Speaking of which, Gavin Wilkinson said in his post-match comments that San Jose “are a very talented team; they have a lot of self-belief and a tremendous coaching staff.”. Oh, to have other coaches say that about us now and then. Or, you know, once. Once would be nice.

After a draw against them, Wilkinson rang the changes. Injuries forced Chara and Ricketts to miss out, meaning a first start for Joe Bendik. I’d thought, pre-match, that we would see Wallace keep his spot at left-back after a good showing, with Alexander coming in for Chara, and I’d hoped we see Boyd given a start. One out of three ain’t bad…

Boyd did indeed start, but the surprise was that Wilkinson opted to abandon his 4-3-3 formation for a (broadly speaking) 4-4-2 with Danny Mwanga getting the start in attack. Wallace did indeed start, but in centre midfield, and Palmer took over the right back spot from Kosuke Kimura. Nagbe and Songo’o were tasked with giving the team width, and Steven Smith was restored to left back.

I was surprised to see the Timbers line up in a 4-4-2, especially as I’d done a quick bit of research that suggested to me that San Jose had faced some kind of 4-4-2 variant 17 times this season, and had won 12 of those matches. Meanwhile they’d faced a 4-5-1/4-3-3 12 times, and only won 6, losing 4.

Though, it should be said, that of the two 4-4-2’s to defeat San Jose this season, Portland are one of them. Perhaps lightning would strike twice.

Also, as an aside, I thought it was pretty curious that of the Earthquakes 5 defeats this season, 3 have come on trips to Cascadia, with Vancouver racking up a couple of them. Of their four trips to the north-west this season, they’ve only avoided defeat once – beating Seattle 1-0 back at the end of March. San Jose return north this weekend to beat Seattle, and then once more in October when the Timbers will host.

Back to the game.

San Jose rested Wondolowski and Alan Gordon, the club’s two top scorers, for the visit of the Timbers, but it didn’t stop them having a couple of efforts from distance that had Bendik scrambling and diving across the goal, only to go narrowly over or wide.

It took until the 12th minute before the Timbers had their first sniff of goal when Boyd bullied Beitashour to get his head on a Palmer long ball, but he sent it narrowly wide of Busch’s goal.

Boyd had started pretty well, looking eager to impress after his recent exile to the bench. The way he got to Palmer’s long pass was encouraging, but any hopes that the Scot would go on to silence his ever-so-vocal critics were extinguished when he left the field shortly after with a groin injury. It looks to me on the replay like an inadvertent knock on his inner knee/thigh from Beitashour caused Boyd to land off balance, and he seems to have tweaked something. A freak injury, and just the way his luck has been this year.

Bright Dike replaced Boyd, but the tide of play still flowed inexorably towards Bendik’s goal. Steven Lenhart had a good sight of goal with a header midway through the first half.

We’ve seen this kind of thing before, where a player can ghost into the space between defenders and get a free header. Had the ball been just a few inches lower, you’d fancy Lenhart to bury it, but the Timbers got away with it here.

I thought Mosquera’s actions were a bit odd in this move. He seems to just assume that the ball won’t come in first time and looks away to direct Rodney Wallace. By the time he decides to check where the ball is, he could’ve easily been caught on his heels and unable to react to the darting run by Lenhart.

Mosquera’s been something of a rock in an otherwise shaky back line this year, but it’d be fair to say he didn’t have his best night here. There have been a few times when Mosquera’s gone a-wandering out of defence this season, or switched off and been unable to react. I think he has all the tools to be a top defender but he needs to sharpen up his concentration a bit.

It looked like the Timbers would take a draw into the break, but almost out of nothing they took the lead through Danny Mwanga.

It was a nice bit of play between Dike, Mwanga and Wallace to work the chance for Danny to score, but I’d like to rewind the move a bit first.

Both teams had lined up with two guys in the “engine room”. Portland had Jewsbury and Wallace, San Jose had Baca and Cronin. Here we see Baca and Cronin been attracted across to where the ball is, leaving Wallace alone in the centre. Jewsbury gets in to intercept a loose pass and touches it off to Nagbe. By this point, both San Jose central midfielders are over by the wing.

How often have we seen this happen to the Timbers midfield, where it allows itself to be pulled out of shape?

The ball works it’s way back to Palmer at right-back.

Here you see that Dawkins has come back to cover Wallace, but Dawkins is an attacker. Wallace has a ton of real estate in front of him as Baca and Cronin are way out of position.

Palmer’s long ball is met by the head of Dike.

Mwanga is on to the flick, and he lays it off to Wallace who has rushed forward in support, all on his own. He displays a deftness of touch in rolling it back into the path of Mwanga, and the striker keeps his head to slot home and give the Timbers the lead.

Up until this point I’d been pretty critical of Mwanga and Wallace. Mwanga had struggled to get himself involved in the game, while Wallace at times didn’t seem to display any measure of tactical discipline as he seemed a bit too keen to hare around and try and get on the ball.

Credit where it is due, though. Wallace held his position well without being dragged across, and attacked the space well. Mwanga worked the one-two and kept his head when it mattered.

I fully expected an onslaught from San Jose in the second half, and just hoped we could keep it shut down for the first 10-15 minutes. Indeed, San Jose stepped up the pressure, and Portland struggled to keep the ball out of their own half.

There are few teams who make harder work of defending a lead than Portland Timbers. At a time when the match was screaming out for someone, anyone, in Rose City Red to get a foot on the ball and calm the match down, we resorted to the age-old sit deep, hit in long strategy. Indeed, it seemed like Gavin had misplaced his Bumper Book of Kickball Tactics (pop-up edition) and had instead been reading from Great Military Strategies of the Italian Army as the defence retreated deeper and deeper and deep …

… and then Franck Songo’o picked up the ball midway in his own half, went gambolling forward like a child on his first visit to Disneyland, beat two men and laid it off for Danny Mwanga to smash it in from distance. 2-0. Two. Nil.

The goal couldn’t have come further against the run of play had Danny been wearing a Dick Turpin mask, but nevertheless the Timbers held a 2 goal lead with a little under half-an-hour to play. If ever there was an unlikely time for a team to notch their first road win, it would at the ground of the league leaders, and yet that’s what it looked like the Timbers were, improbably enough, about to do.

Wondolowski and Gordon were thrown on by Frank Yallop in an attempt to rescue the situation. Wilkinson made no changes. I really thought that, the goal aside, the Timbers really needed someone in the middle who could hold onto the ball. I’d expected to see Alexander come on around the hour mark, and I reckoned it would be Songo’o to make way, with Wallace covering out left. Alexander had shown he could do the defensive side of the job when he’d understudied for Chara earlier this season, and he’s one of the few players on the team who looks truly comfortable on the ball.

But no.

The tide kept coming in, and there was a sense of inevitability when it finally subsumed the Timbers defence.

Wondolowski scored it, finally beating Bendik who had, up until that point, be Gandalfian in his determination to let nothing pass.

The goal highlighted, for me, the problem the Timbers faced. The defence was sinking deeper and deeper, practically camping out on the edge of our own box, which opened up space between defence and midfield. I felt, from very early on, that we missed having Jewsbury doing the role he’s been quietly effective in these past few matches in screening the defence. Even more so as the pressure piled through-out the second half. While the long ball caught us out to an extent, the amount of space between the two lines here is pretty shocking. You can’t open up a space like that and not expect teams like San Jose to exploit it.

The second half was becoming an exercise in frustration. For so long now Wilkinson has spoken about the importance of possession, and yet here, when possession would really matter, we abandoned it. We gave the ball away, again and again and invited the best team in the league to press higher and higher up the pitch.

The annoying thing was we’d already shown in the first half that we were capable of actually playing a bit of football.

This 21-pass sequence ranged from side to side, any showed some nice movement and touches. Although it died when Mwanga was robbed of the ball, it was hugely encouraging to me at the time as it displayed a patience and coolness that I felt we’d need.

Even though you might expect a San Jose side chasing the game to put a bit more pressure of the ball than they did in the 6th minute, it’s nonetheless striking how little we even attempted to knock the ball around and slow the game down. Instead, we got caught up in San Jose’s manic energy, and played the game at their pace, rushing things and resorting to desperate football.

You can see the marked difference in approach in the tackling graphs.

It’s little wonder we were unable to give the defence any kind of a breather when we resorted so often to hoofing it clear.

With the rest of the game played out almost exclusively in the Timbers half, Wilkinson signalled his intent by sending on Eric Brunner for Danny Mwanga with a few minutes to go. The bus was being parked.

Part of the problem for the Timbers was that, aside from the often aimless long balls, we didn’t have an effective point man up top to chase things down, or provide a target. We lacked someone to hold the ball up and give the defence some relief. Any time the ball did go in Dike’s vicinity, it seemed to either bounce off him or past him. I though Mwanga’s better movement might’ve been more use late on, but it wasn’t to be.

The final sucker punch came in stoppage time when a lofted ball into the box was turned home by Wondolowski. There were some who claimed offside, but he was definitely onside when the pass was made, and the touch came from a Timbers player so he couldn’t be offside from that.

In a way, if we were to lose a 2nd goal I’m kinda glad it wasn’t offside. I don’t think I could take the injustice on top of everything else!

After the bitter disappointment that greeted the final whistle, I was left with conflicting emotions. In all honesty, stripping away emotional attachment, we had no right to win that game. Even getting out with a draw was something of an upset. So, in a way, the fact we took a couple of chances really well, and were able to snatch a point is a strange kind of positive.

But you can get away from the fact that we threw away a 2-0 lead, whether it was undeserved or not.We only have ourselves to blame with the way we approached the second half. We essentially gave up even trying to match San Jose in the hopes that we could bunker in and ride out the storm.

And once more, another game passes where Gavin seems unable to read a match and make a proactive change. I was far from the only one screaming out for a change before San Jose’s first. The writing was not only on the wall, it was fucking chiselled there. We weren’t exactly lambs to the slaughter, but we did bring some mint sauce with us. It was, you felt, only a matter of when San Jose would score, despite the heroics of Bendik and Horst’s goal line gymnastics.

But we had to wait till it was 2-1 and San Jose had their tails up before we made a change. Like-for-like saw Palmer replaced by Kimura, before the Brunner change. I get what Wilkinson was doing, throwing another body in defence to match up to San Jose’s three strikers, but the game was crying out for another midfielder to start pushing back before the ball was on top of us. Maybe even, and this is pretty far out there, actually trying to keep the ball and slow it down and frustrate San Jose.

I think the worst thing about the result is that I didn’t meet the equalising goal with an anguished, Darth Vader-esque “NOOOOOOOO!” but rather I slumped back in my chair, ruefully shook my head and muttered “well, there it is.” No shock. No surprise. I’ve been conditioned to expect disappointment.

A point on the road, against a team that had won 6 of their last 7 home matches – scoring 22 in the process isn’t a bad result, but the manner of it – the grindingly predictable capitulation – leaves a sour taste.

The Timbers will stay on the road for their next match, paying a visit to Real Salt Lake. The last time we went there it was John Spencer’s last match, a 3-0 loss. What I’d give to watch that match with Spenny alongside…

#RCTID


[post_ender]

Timbers: Where Goonies Go To Die

The atmosphere around the Timbers this week is noticeably lighter than it was after the weekend. A victory, at home of course, against Conference leaders San Jose Earthquakes was followed by news that the team had traded for Colorado Rapids right-back Kosuke Kimura.

I don’t know a great deal about Kimura, so I won’t comment too much about it except to say that I can only hope we’ve found the right guy for a position that’s been a problem since day one which is strange for “one of the easiest positions to play if you’ve got half a brain.”

By the way, what does that say about the guys who haven’t exactly excelled themselves at full back for the Timbers?

Kimura will go straight into the team, which you would assume would see Jewsbury back into central midfield. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Nagbe pushed out wide again rather than rested, which is what I think would be the best thing for him and the team.

Back to the game…

The visit of one of the league’s hottest teams, after a match where the Timbers failed to master even the basics, didn’t exactly inspire confidence. And yet, there was always the sense that winning this match was just something Portland would do, backed up by ridiculously daft stats about the team’s record when the moon was full. Don’t drink and Microsoft Excel, kids.

The hashtags quickly turned from #WhyWeLost to #WhyWeWillWin on twitter as the fans’ gallows humour turned to, at times self-deprecating, hope.

Tactically, not much changed in the team’s approach from the Rapids match to this one. John Spencer still had the team lined up in 4-4-2, with Lovel Palmer replacing Diego Chara. Nagbe seemed to play a but deeper, perhaps to compensate for the fact that Lovel Palmer is not Diego Chara.

While it was a better performance all round for Nagbe, his defensive work was probably the most marked.

He had a couple of good touches in attack, but still seems a yard or so of the pace. He looks like he’s missing a bit of sharpness, and he’s been leaned on pretty heavily for a second year pro.

It may be that Kimura’s signing will bring Jewsbury into midfield, and allow Nagbe to rest and recharge the batteries. Certainly, a Jewsbury/Chara midfield seems more up Spencer’s alley than a Chara/Alexander one, and Jewsbury’s move to full-back may be the reason why Nagbe hasn’t had a break yet.

Of course, the loser from Chara’s return will probably be Lovel Palmer. While Palmer wasn’t bad – he even managed to get a shot on target, which is probably a bad sign for those seeking portents of an impending apocalypse – there’s simply no getting round the face that he’s not Diego.

Apart from general work rate and presence, Palmer’s ball skills lag those of Chara. The most telling instance what 70 minutes in, with the Timbers up by 2, but being pressed back by rolling attacks from San Jose.

On getting the ball, there wasn’t even a moment’s thought of looking for an easy pass – right in front of him to Nagbe, who in turn had Songo’o just out of shot, but free, on the right flank – but rather he just got his head down and put his foot through the ball. Mwanga ends up giving away a foul in trying to chase down the ball.

While you can understand it on one level – he got the ball out of the “danger area” after all – it only hands possession right back to the opponents. It’s one of my pet hates. I’m not a tactics nazi who disdains long-ball football – though I’m not a big fan of it either – but it’s not a defensive strategy. It’s a sign of panic, and like a drop of blood in the water will only encourage the piranhas to attack even more, so launching the ball back at your opponents and drooping ever deeper will only bring them further upon you.

Nerves play a factor in this. A confident team rarely close out a match by punting the ball up the pitch but instead will look to kill the opponents momentum by retaining the ball and frustrating the team chasing the match.

Palmer’s play was indicative of the team as a whole as the match wore on, and it’s understandable that a team who had lost so many late goals would suffer from Squeaky Bum Syndrome against a team dubbed “The Goonies” for their reluctance to accept defeat. Nevertheless, I felt we really missed the often undervalued side of Chara’s game – his ability to keep it simple.

The difference between the two players is pretty apparent. Chara is all across the midfield, linking up play and keeping the ball moving. Palmer plays much more narrowly, and is more prone to resort to the long, hopeful ball.

Unsurprisingly, the goal did come for San Jose a couple of minutes later. Fortunately, the Timbers held on to record the win, but it wasn’t for the lack of effort on San Jose’s part. They’ll certainly feel that their second half efforts warranted at least a point from the match.

The first half had been pretty level, with very little between the teams in terms of passes, though San Jose were a bit more accurate (73%-67%). The second half though was a completely different beast.

The Timbers made almost 100 fewer passes in the second half, and dropped to 59% in accuracy. San Jose made a few more passes, and held their accuracy rate at 72%. The possession split went from around 50/50 in the first to somewhere near 35/65 in San Jose’s favour in the second.

No-one with even a passing acquaintance with either team would be surprised by those stats. The Timbers have an uncanny ability to throw games away late on, and San Jose have been free-scoring.

Alan Gordon’s strike was the only breach in the Timbers goal. The ex-Timber set up a heart-stopping final few minutes, but a Timbers defence led by David Horst refused to give way.

Though San Jose still made chances – Lenhart missed an absolute sitter earlier in the half – Horst marshaled the back line pretty well. It was a statement game for Horst who really stood out with some good tackling and presence at the back, and a threat from attacking set plays.

With Mosquera now free of suspension, it’ll be interesting to see if either of Horst or Futty are benched to make way. Given the way Spencer has tended to stick with what worked, I could conceivably see Mosquera riding the bench against Real Salt Lake at the weekend. Mosquera has been a totemic figure at the back for Portland this year though, so any decision to bench the Colombian had better be met with a solid defensive display on the pitch, or questions will inevitably be asked.

Moving further up the pitch, Franck Songo’o deserves a special mention. He was subbed out early against Colorado, and that must surely have stung. He responded with an imperious showing from a right-wing position where he tormented the Rapids back line.

He played a two key roles in the Timbers first goal – winning the ball and delivering the key final pass.

The interplay between Songo’o and Alexander got the team out of defence and over the halfway line, and the attacking instinct of Mwanga drove him past his marker to get the killer touch on a move that will be used in classrooms to demonstrate the concept of counter-attacking at speed. 90 yards, three men, three passes and a goal.

Songo’o also had a part in the Timbers’ second. His free kick from deep saw Futty challenge the keeper and the ball broke kindly for Jewsbury to poke home from close range. It was one of those goals where I expected the free kick to be called on Futty for having the temerity to fairly challenge the keeper, but in a rare MLS Referee With Common Sense moment, the goal stood.

The big worry now is that Songo’o’s participation ended with an injury. With Alhassan potentially still out, there’s no way that Spencer would want to having Songo’o out too. It leaves options out wide very limited as Rodney Wallace, who has filled in at left-wing, is still struggling with injury too, and Sal Zizzo has thus far failed to convince he is anything other than a late game sub to stretch tiring defenses.

It’s one reason why I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nagbe played wide, with a Jewsbury/Chara middle and Alexander on the other flank.

Eric Alexander also had a pretty good game on the left-wing, so I expect he’ll remain in a wide role, even if I feel he’s better suited to playing in the middle. He doesn’t seem entirely comfortable out wide, but the return of Jewsbury to contention in the middle leaves that area heavily congested, so it’s hard to see Eric getting much of a chance there.

The victory was just what the team and fans needed after the Colorado match. The team’s form at JELD-WEN is both a source of pride and frustration. Only RSL and Vancouver have picked up more home points than the Timbers in the Western Conference. Yet the team continues to show a Mr T like aversion to travel as only Dallas have fewer points on the road. If the Timbers could produce away form that even approached that of their home, they’d be sitting comfortably in the play-off positions.

Perhaps expecting a first away win of the season at RSL is a bit too much, but all Timbers fans will be hoping for at least some of the passion and verve that they show at home.

John Spencer faces a couple of selection headaches ahead of this weekend, and I worry that pulling Casablanca and setting out to “Play It Again, Sam*,” will come a cropper, but at least we can go into it with the afterglow of a victory behind us. I suspect that we’ll be setting out to play on the counter, with Jewsbury and Chara hunkering down in the middle. It’s not really made for exciting, free-flowing attacking football in the past, but as long as a play-off spot remains a possibility I suspect aesthetics will (continue to) be ignored in pursuit of points.

As a wise frog once said, “It’s not easy being green.

PTFC

* Yes, I know.