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
Part 2: Everyday Magic
Part 3: Defensive Axis
Part 4: Endurance
Part 5: Maximum Impact
Goal 50. Eric Brunner vs Chicago Fire
20th May 2012
When is a defender not a defender? Is it when he’s scoring goals, or when’s he failing to prevent them? Taking a look at Portland’s rocky relationship with ‘the big guy at the back’, and what a defender means to them then and now.
Eric Brunner fired home from four yards after a corner by Franck Songo’o was headed back by Hanyer Mosquera and flicked on by Kris Boyd.
It was Brunner’s first goal of the season, and put Portland on the road to a 2-1 victory, helping put a run of four defeats in five games well behind them.
Brunner’s goal against Chicago was his fourth, and final, goal for the Timbers before leaving the club at the end of the 2012, just as Songo’o, Mosquera and Boyd did too.
It was also his first goal scored with his foot for the club. His first ever goal grabbed all three points against his old club, Columbus Crew, after a quick corner. He rubbed salt into LA’s wounds with the third in a 3-0 win, again from a corner, and his last goal of 2011 got the Timbers all the points against Chivas USA. Yes, with a header from a corner.
The common factor in all of Eric Brunner’s goals is that they came from set plays, which shouldn’t be that much of a surprise when you think that it’s on corners and free-kicks that the big guys can get forward.
With a concussion sustained in the net match, Brunner’s career with the Timbers effectively ended and with his passing went what had been one of the team’s key scoring threats.
Jack Jewsbury’s exceptional set piece delivery in 2011 was the defining feature of the season, and it was from his boot that the ball was delivered towards the likes of Brunner, Futty Danso and Kevin Goldthwaite (via the head of, uh, Eric Brunner).
Given this bounty, you can’t really blame Spencer for doubling down on set piece or crossed goals. In 2011, 10 of the Timbers’ 40 goals were scored by defenders (25%), compared to 6 of 45 (13.5%), which is the league average. Almost double what the rest of the league were averaging.
2012 saw Spencer bring in Mosquera, an imposing presence; a heavyweight Futty. Danso scored three in 2011, including the last goal of the year against Real Salt Lake, so it would stand to reason that Mosquera would score more. Fast forward to now and neither guy has scored for the Timbers, but only one of them is still in Portland, and it’s not the “upgrade”.
That year saw only four goals from defenders, which meant that our tally matched the league average of around 11-12%.
No goals from defenders this season, yet, but that could be due to the upheaval in defence and the fact that the team have attacking players now with aerial threat that’s been missing at times, along with the ability to cross a ball.
The goals from defence, in proportional terms at least, were replaced from midfield but you have to account for the six fewer goals the Timbers scored in 2012 which would point to an over-reliance on set-play situations as a part of the plan which suffered through poorer delivery from Jewsbury and Songo’o, as well as weak crossing from the likes of Mike Chabala and whoever else got stuck at full-back.
With no goals from defence this year, the Timbers have seen the goals previously scored by the likes of Futty Danso off a corner kick, scored by Ben Zemanski on a late run forward or Will Johnson after attacking pressure draws a penalty. It’s a different kind of attack, an while we’ll still see balls lofted in for people to attack, this side are more concerned about it being as part of live play than from a dead ball an that changes the emphasis to attack.
That’s not to say we’ve given up on defenders pitching in as a team with Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Futty Danso and Pa Modou Kah on the roster will inevitably score some along the way as the Timbers attack increases pressure, drawing free-kicks and corners.
The fact is, while it’s good to get the big guys up and throw the ball into the mix, the defenders aren’t primarily there score goals, and the move for Mosquera was as much about plugging the defence as beefing the attack.
A clean sheet is the most valuable asset in soccer. More so than a goal, I think. A goal could mean anything, really. It could be the last minute winner, or the 1 in a 5-1 thrashing. A clean sheet has actual value. In fact, if you were to discount consolation goals and goals that weren’t result critical (ie goal #3 in a 2-1 win), only 27 of the Timbers 40 goals in 2011 actually mattered. So, only a 2 in a 3 chance that a goal will mean anything, whereas every single clean sheet your team get is worth, at the very least, one point. Guaranteed.
Obviously it’s not as cut and dried as that as every goal matters as they change the game, but it’s serves to underline the point that the teams that top the league are generally built on solid foundations at the back. It’s something that I think is often overlooked by teams who concentrate on the headline figure who’ll put the ball in the net. The Timbers certainly did this, going big on Cooper and Boyd, but it was only after John Spencer left that they made a move that seemed curious at the time – signing Donovan Ricketts in exchange for Troy Perkins.
That trade left a bitter taste in the mouth that has been steadily washed away by the taste of Ricketts’ [this metaphor got away from me and it’s probably best it remains unpublished]. The fact his contract has been renewed only weeks after his 36th birthday is testament to what he’s done this season behind a defence that has been in a seemingly constant state of flux. The Timbers paid more for someone who looked older, and played olderer but it worked. It was the right call.
Flawed though the method of working out goals that count is, if you were to carry it on to 2012, you’d find only 23 of the 34 goals counted which pretty much mirrors season one. 2013 though sees 21 of 28 having a direct effect on the result, a rise to 75%.
The reason behind this jump is the Timbers much improved clean sheet record which has seen them register 8 clean sheets in half a season, compared to 9 and 5 through the whole of 2011 and 2012. Of the 9 shut-outs in 2011, the Timbers won 8, giving it a value of 2.8 points. That dropped to 2.2 in 2012, but is back up to 2.5 this season.
Despite great value from their shut-outs in 2011, the flip side is that the Timbers were shut-out themselves too often, meaning of the 9 times Portland failed to score, they lost 8. As with so much of that first year team, it was either the sublime or the ridiculous.
2012 saw the Timbers fail to net 12 times, earning 2 points. With half the season gone, the Timbers have failed to score twice in 2013 but they’ve drawn both these ties. When you can still get points on the rare occasions you don’t score, then it’s going to be that much tougher for others to slow you down.
The Timbers are making their goals count, and have put to rest one of the team’s great weaknesses under previous management; the late game collapse.
The figures can paint the story of the years. 2011 saw the Timbers start games slowly, but go into the break with a fighting chance before falling just short as the second half wore. 2012 was never good enough; chances are, whenever you tuned in, the Timbers were losing. 2013 has seen some slow starts, but big comebacks and a couple of blow-out wins, judging by that ridiculous second half score.
Brunner wasn’t the only big casualty at the back.
The fact that the Timbers have the third best defence on 0.94 goals per game defies conventional wisdom when you look at the way that Caleb Porter has had to adapt it to account for a laundry list of injuries.
Keeping this figure below 1.00, guaranteeing those cleans sheets, is what gives the team it’s forward momentum up the table. It’s not unreasonable to think that other teams are going to start finding answers to the questions Porter has posed them in attack so far, so keeping it closed down at the back becomes ever more important, especially moving into the offseason.
Whether Caleb Porter can keep all the balls in the air remains to be seen, but with the season halfway gone, you’d have to say he’s doing a pretty fucking good job so far.
Goal 53. Kris Boyd vs Seattle Sounders
24th June 2012
There are no sure things in football, and the transfer market provides no greater example of this. A team is only as good as its ability to recognize talent, something that few in Portland seemed to possess, until now.
Steven Smith and Franck Songo’o combined down the left, before the Scot fired a low cross into the path of Kris Boyd to put Portland 1-0 against their great rivals.
The Timbers would go on to record a win, with David Horst scoring the important second goal. The three points helped the team on their way to Cascadia Cup glory, salvaging something from a year of miserable soccer.
Kris Boyd was a gamble. A million dollar gamble. When you put those kinda wagers on, you run the risk of losing fingers if it doesn’t come off for you so perhaps John Spencer is lucky to have just lost his job.
Truth is that Spencer’s gamble wasn’t on Boyd alone, but on leveraging his knowledge of and contacts within the English and Scottish leagues to put together a side to succeed half the world away.
Boyd was joined by Steven Smith, ex-Rangers teammate, with Franck Songo’o picked up after a spell bouncing around England and Spain, and they were linked with many more British-based players as Spencer sought out the familiar.
This little clique was not the only georgraphical grouping in the team. Five Colombian players – Diego Chara, Hanyer Mosquera and Jorge Perlaza, Jose Valencia and Sebastian Rincon – all started the 2012 season in Portland, though only three remain this year.
And then there is New Zealand, that footballing powerhouse. Jake Gleeson looked like the future of the team at one point, but looks less so today now that he’s, at best, third choice. Cameron Knowles is an ex-Timbers player and current-Timbers defensive coach, a job title akin to Chief Deckchair Arranger on the Titanic at times. And then there’s Ian Hogg, whose existence is only marginally better attested to than Sasquatch.
These were the three wells the Timbers dug in 2011 and 2012, and they kept going back to them long after they came up dry. A failure to recognise the problem saw a whole bunch of guys deemed surplus to requirements before Caleb Porter set foot in Portland.
Boyd, Songo’o, Smith, Mosquera, Perlaza, Hogg. They all flopped to a greater or lesser degree and have been swept away so that Caleb Porter could start with a fresh slate.
In one sense, looking for value in Colombia makes sense. The league there isn’t rich, but is good enough to be of a standard to produce good MLS players while not so good that it’s as yet on the radar of most of European powers, driving up the price and shallowing the talent pool available to the rest.
In 2012, there were 30 Colombians in MLS, ranking them just behind USA in representation. This year it is down to 20, with the likes of Fredy Montero and Juan Pablo Angel joining Mosquera and Perlaza in leaving the league.
This year the Timbers didn’t add to their Colombian collections, nor their Scots or Kiwis, as they cast their nets a bit wider. Silvestre and Piquionne had a history in the UK, but added experience at the top level in other countries, while the likes of Kah and Valeri have added cool heads where they’re needed in defence and attack.
This season has seen the Timbers use fewer American players than ever before, even when the team seemed to be composed of a Scots-Colombian confederation.
Though players like Dike and Purdy count a foreign players despite being born in the States, and Nagbe more likely has US caps in his future rather than Liberian, but it illustrates a consistent reliance in buying in talent, something that has only increased over the three seasons.
The African contingent, of which Nagbe and Dike can count themselves, has stayed steady, with an Umony being replaced by a Songo’o, which in turns is replaced by a Kah, who is counted as African for the purposes of this, and as homage to CI DeMann’s “Great Wall of Gambia”.
The biggest variation in South and Central America, where 2012 saw a big jump as the Timbers went big on Colombia; a bubble that seems to have popped with the 33% reduction in representation this year, caused by a whole bunch of MLS teams scouting the country for the same bargains. Diego Chara is the one South American to have played in all three seasons, and stands alongside Rodney Wallace and Jack Jewsbury as the best trade/expansion moves the Spencer/Wilkinson brain trust ever pulled off.
The European contingent has also undergone a big change. The 4 Europeans who played in ‘11 and ‘12 are all Brits – Moffat, Boyd, Smith and Eddie Johnson – but none of the 3 Euros in the 2013 roster are, being replaced by two Frenchmen (Silvestre and Piquionne – yes, I know, New Caledonia and Martinique.) and a Serb, Milos Kocic.
Despite bringing in more foreign players, Porter has added MLS experience in the likes of Will Johnson, Ryan Johnson, Kocic and Ricketts, but it does leave the places for “homegrown” talent at a premium.
Darlington Nagbe and Andrew Jean-Baptiste have featured as SuperDraft picks, with Brent Richards seeing time here and there. Beyond that a number of players orbited the first team but never made the pitch, like Chris Taylor or Ryan Kawulok.
It’s to be expected that only a few will ever make the grade. There’s a reason why the big clubs have yearly intakes that can field numerous teams through the age levels, and why tags like “ex-Barcelona youth” don’t mean a great deal on their own.
Dylan Tucker-Gangnes, their sole 2013 SuperDraft pick, and Bryan Gallego may yet have a future, and there are some in the U-23’s or reserves that could take the step up, but for now it’s hard to see the Timbers breaking their reliance on buying in talent.
The days of gambling on bringing in players with impressive resumes from abroad clearly aren’t gone, but we’re putting it on guys with impressive international experience rather than experience of toiling around the second or third tier of English football.
By no longer fishing in three same pools, only one of which has really given us any sort of meaningful return, and widening our vision to places like Scandinavia, the Timbers are finding more value and MLS-ready players. Diskerud, Miller and Kah are or have been playing there, and the latter looks like the proverbial rock at the back.
Just as Spencer inclined towards the UK and Europe as the place to get the best players, and Wilkinson shopped at home and where the rest of MLS were heading, so Porter’s “backyard” is the States. The Timbers took a few punches on the transfer front over the first couple of years, regularly coming out the arse end of one trade deal after another, but are finally starting to land a few haymakers in return.
The two Johnsons, and the Zemanski and Harrington deals are absolute steals. Criminal. Illegal in nineteen States. For the grand outlay of “a bunch of allocation cash” the Timbers have added thirteen goals and eight clean sheets. Even more importantly they’ve signed guys who can bridge a divide that had opened last season between the players and fans.
Will Johnson will likely never have to buy a beer in Portland for the rest of his life, while guys like Harrington are getting involved with the fans on twitter. The days of fans demanding jerseys from players are a thankfully distant memory.
There’s a connection to these guys that was never quite there with the likes of Boyd, Songo’o or Mosquera. We wanted to love Boyd, but dammit he just didn’t score enough. We’ll always have the Monstero Death Stare [Monstero was a typo, but I’m not fixing it]. And I wanted Songo’o and Mosquera to get it right because they both had the tools to be good players, but it just never quite fit.
A squad is a constantly evolving thing, and we’ll see the front office make further moves to improve and strengthen the side. Signing a Jamaican defender, Alvas Powell, was the team’s first move of the summer, so perhaps we’re replacing Wee Glesga with Little Kingston. Right now, we seem to be in a consolidation phases with the club getting a number of players tied down to longer contracts but that doesn’t mean that enquiries aren’t be made all the time.
The new regime’s record is pretty good, but as many previous managers have found to their cost, you’re often only as good as you’re last couple of deals.
John Spencer found that one out the hard way.