Tag Archives: Steven Smith

Timbers 100: Part Three – Defensive Axis

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 50. Eric Brunner vs Chicago Fire

20th May 2012

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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.


Watch The Goal Here

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).

100 Def Head GoalsEven though the Timbers recorded fewer corner kicks than the league average, they scored nine headed goals which doesn’t count goals scored with the the foot, like Brunner’s last hurrah.

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%.

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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.

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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.

100 Goal Agg TimeThe Timbers are winning the second half for the first time in MLS after it being their Achilles Heel through ‘11 and ‘12.

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.

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Goal 53. Kris Boyd vs Seattle Sounders

24th June 2012

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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.


Watch The Goal Here

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.

100 Foreign PlayersThough 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.

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Forward the Foundation

After a slow start, the much-promised Rostergeddon got into full swing on a day that would’ve reminded many fans of English football of Transfer Deadline day. All it needed was Harry Redknapp in his car telling a reporter that David Horst was a “great lad, great lad, really like ‘im.”

What we got was five players on the way out (with another whose status is up in the air), two players coming in (and another potential) and a Breaking Bad-esque pile of allocation cash.

Chris already did a great job of going over the wheeling and dealing in his post, so I’ll keep my thoughts on the deals “brief”.

The first deal confirmed was that of Kosuke Kimura to the New York Notcosmos. Kimura had staggered around the right-back position like a punchdrunk boxer for much of his time in Portland. Whether that’s due to his own deficincies or coming into a team with no real direction, that’s up to you to decide, but whatever the reasons, the move was one that was always likely to happen.

Kimura, who also found time to fit in an unsuccessful trial in Poland since the season ended, was joined by a second-round draft pick to New York, with the Timbers getting the homegrown rights to Bryan Gallego, a centreback who just so happens plays his college soccer for Akron Zips. You may have heard of them.

Given Porter’s background and experience of the college game, no-one will have a clearer idea of who he wants in the SuperDraft, so it’s interesting to me that he’s given up a draft pick to make this deal work. Of course, there’s a long way to go before the draft, plenty of time to wheel and deal for other picks, but the acquisition of Gallego’s homegrown rights is illuminating for a couple of reasons, I think.

Here’s a player Porter has worked closely within Akron, and it seems rates highly enough to give up a draft pick to get him. Being a homegrown player, Gallego wouldn’t have been eligible for the SuperDraft (as is my understanding, which could be way wrong), so is this a roundabout way to “draft” a guy Porter really wanted? Whether Gallego steps up this year (he’ll be 20 in March so, without getting into my pet peeve about youth development in the States, it’s not that crazy an idea) or he’s one for 2014, it also points towards a change in philosophy at the back for the Timbers.

It’d be fair to say that we’ve had a lot of guys with heart and spirit, but who are limited in technical ability. That won’t fly under the system Porter favours where the defenders have to be comfortable on the ball and able to play an intelligent, possession-based game. Clearly, Gallego already knows what Porter wants from his defenders, and Porter likes what he sees from Gallego.

Next came the news of Eric Brunner going to Houston. A sad one, but not unexpected. I’d written about the potential of Brunner’s leaving and while I leaned towards him staying (I thought Danso would be first to go) the news of his departure didn’t surprise me.

Brunner’s injury really took the wind out of the defender’s sails. He had a good 2011, and looked set to form a partnership with Mosquera at the back, but in his enforced absence he was usurped by David Horst.

With Horst holding down the position, Mosquera a lock and Jean-Baptiste hungry to push on in 2013, Brunner found himself squeezed out. A fine servant to the club in his time in Portland, Eric leaves with the best wishes on the Timbers faithful.

Michael Harrington’s arrival was the next announcement. The last time we picked up a former Kansas City starter who’d found himself relegated to the bench, it worked out pretty well! Harrington will give us options at both left and right back, and seems like a very solid addition to the squad.

Next up was the departure of Steve Purdy and Lovel Palmer. Purdy had been unable to really cement a place in the team since the move up to MLS. I liked what little I saw of him, but given his sporadic appearances in the team, it was of little surprise to see the option on him declined.

Lovel Palmer. I’d written about how I couldn’t see a future for him in Portland. I’ve been critical of him in the past, and justified in (much of) it, so I can’t say I’ll miss having him on the team but, nevertheless, I’m sure he gave his all. It just wasn’t good enough, consistently enough. Fare thee well.

Steven Smith was next to go, announcing it himself on twitter. This was one where I thought “oh no” at the time, but the more I thought about it, and the more I read about it, the more it made cold hard sense. Talk is that Smith would’ve needed DP wages to stay, and with Spencer going (and Boyd likely to go), there was little to hold Smith here on a personal level. There will be no shortage of offers back “home”.

The “final” announcement was that of the signing of Will Johnson from RSL. The Canadian international has been an important part of the RSL midfield over the past few years, and it’ll be interesting to see where he fits in in 2013. There are times we’ve lacked a bit of bite and spark in the middle, and Johnson will provide both of these in spades.

The MLS released the Re-Entry Draft list shortly afterwards. It would be worth keeping an eye on as the Timbers have the #3 pick and the draft is a good way to fill out the squad and/or pick up pieces that can be traded on later.

It certainly raised a few eyebrows among Timbers fans when Rodney Wallace’s name appeared on it.

It’s important to note that the club and player have a couple more days to thrash out a deal that would see Wallace stay, and Merritt’s omission of Rodney from his “so long and thanks for all the fish” tweet would suggest the intention is to work something out. The talk is that the Timbers want to negotiate Wallace’s salary down. I’m not his biggest fan, but he is a decent squad player. He’s just not worth the money he’s currently pulling, in my opinion.

All in all, a pretty good day for the Timbers. Too early to make definitive judgements, of course, but it’s a start to Porter’s reign that fills me with cruel, cruel optimism!

Five out, two in and a complete revamp of the defence is underway. Given that so much of Akron’s play under Porter was built from the back, it makes sense that the gaffer would start his own rebuilding there.

Onwards and upwards.

#RCTID

Couver Up

The Timbers took command of the Cascadia Cup standings with a deserved 2-1 victory at home to Vancouver Whitecaps, setting themselves up for a huge match against Seattle in a couple of weeks – as if that particular tie needed any more hype.

I suspected that Kimura would miss the match after he tickled Tim Cahill’s elbow with his nose last week, but to my surprise and relief he was named in the Starting XI. Relief as I’d psyched myself up for a Lovel Palmer master class at full-back this week, and that would be avoided.

The only change made by Gavin Wilkinson was an enforced one, with Eric Alexander coming in for Diego Chara. I wasn’t surprised to see Dike retain his place as it would be hard to drop a guy who scored the previous week. Kris Boyd warmed the bench once more.

In truth, there wasn’t much between the teams in the early stages with the Timbers showing some patience in retaining the ball that was so often lacking in Spencer’s team. There was always a sense under Spenny that if the team put more than three or four passes together and hadn’t made it to the edge of the opposition box, the ball would be launched forward in desperation.

It was Donovan Ricketts’ first home match as a Timber, and he gave the Timbers Army a taste of what he could do with a fantastic long throw early on that put Franck Songo’o in.

It’s certainly different from what we’d become used to with Troy Perkins, whose big failing was often his distribution. In truth though, despite some blockbuster throws and kicks, Ricketts could do with changing it up now and then as he seemed to rely too often on the long ball out.

Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that in this department at least, the move to bring in the Jamaican does represent an “upgrade”, even if I remain resolutely unconvinced that’s he’s any better a shot stopper or defensive organiser than Perkins.

It was through quick breaks that the Timbers tended to get most joy in attack, though Songo’o was having one of those games where he wasn’t as effective as he has been in the past. Down the right we have Sal Zizzo who gives a lot of pace and width, but down the left Songo’o seemed more intent on coming inside rather than testing the Vancouver full-backs.

As Nagbe looks up having gotten the ball in deep midfield, I’d be wanting Songo’o to pull on the shoulder of his man and go wide to stretch the play, but instead he runs straight down the middle where the Whitecaps have DeMerit covering.

Even with the ball at his feet, he’d invariably narrow the attack.

I don’t doubt Songo’o has bags of talent, but at times he seems to lack the instinct to play the role he’s been given. It’s like he wants to beat players at all costs, even if that means running right towards a mass of defenders instead of pulling off towards space and letting the rest of the team find gaps to exploit.

This break came only a couple of minutes before the Timbers opened the scoring, and the way the team used width is a nice contrast.

Dike’s pulling DeMerit out of position is key to this whole passage of play, and you can see how stretched the Vancouver defence is by his run out wide. Compare that to how narrow Songo’o allowed them to get in his breakaway chance.

Using the width, even in a shoe box like Jeld-Wen Field, isn’t just about getting it to the wingers so that they can swing cross after cross into the box – it’s also about creating space in the centre and that’s what you saw in the goal. The Timbers found themselves with players in space in a dangerous area, and instead of a mass of four or five defenders in their way, there were two.

It was still a fantastic touch by Nagbe to take two players out of the game, and a lovely finish, but the work of Dike shouldn’t be underestimated in helping engineer the chance in the first place.

Dike had had an earlier chance when he made a good front-to-back post move to get between DeMerit and the fullback for a header from a fantastic Smith cross, but he hit the post. In truth, I didn’t think Dike had an especially great game, but he worked hard and he’s a presence up top that the opposition can’t ignore.

Vancouver lined up without a Dike figure in attack, going with a more mobile and fluid front line that looked to pull the Timbers defence around to create space for balls into feet. To the Timbers credit, they didn’t allow this to happen and stuck to their jobs, apart from one moment in the first half.

Miller’s move was key in this move as the the Timbers were pretty well matched up across the back and in midfield. By dropping off though he gave Vancouver a man extra against Jewsbury, and forced Horst to follow him out lest the ball go into his feet.

However Horst’s move left space for the attacker to move into and Vancouver created a shooting chance. I don’t want to give Horst too much of a kicking here as I understand why he felt he had to match Miller. It was exactly the kind of move I feared we’d see from Vancouver, but fortunately this was really the only time they were able to make the Timbers defence do their bidding.

However, Horst certainly didn’t cover himself in glory with the Vancouver goal, which came after a disputed corner kick in the dying seconds of the first half.

Again, I can see why he was covering across (though I don’t think he had to) but he completely switched off and was caught on his heels when the ball was cleared when his first instinct should’ve been to push out. By dallying he gave Miller an easy chance to open his MLS account.

The problem with Horst, as I see it, is he’s 95% of a decent, workable MLS defender. But that 5% represents a lack of concentration and poor decision making that seems to manifest itself in a mistake at least once a game. And when you’re the last man, making a mistake can often be fatal.

There were shades of the New York match as the Timbers through away a lead in the dying moments of the half, with help from questionable officiating, and there can’t have been many fans who didn’t have at least a momentary panic that we’d seen how this story ends before.

Losing such a controversial goal at such a horrible time would’ve at least made Wilkinson’s team talk pretty easy, as I don’t doubt the team were fired up by a sense of injustice. Aside from the way the goal came about, there was also the sense that we deserved the lead on merit any way.

The second half followed much the same pattern as the first. There’s not a great deal between these clubs, but the Timbers probably edged it.

Songo’o continued to delight on one hand, and frustrate on the other.

There’s no doubt that Songo’o is a skilful player, but he’d benefit at times from getting his head up and taking the easy way out rather than over-complicating things. But I guess, if he was the complete package he wouldn’t be ex-Barcelona, let alone ex-Portsmouth.

He’d soon delight the Timbers faithful with the 2nd, and decisive, goal from a free kick. He did well to get the ball up, over the wall and back down but Joe Cannon had an absolute howler. The Vancouver keeper somehow endeavoured to let the ball squirm through his grasp and into the net.

Having to chase the game, the Whitecaps threw on Mattocks and switched from a 4-2-3-1 to more of a 4-4-2, with one holding midfielder instead of the two they had previously. I thought that perhaps , with a bit of daring, the Timbers could’ve pushed someone in midfield a little further forward and look to hurt Vancouver here, but we never did.

Mattocks wouldn’t have any great impact on the game, though he did have on David Horst’s face when a clumsy jump for the ball saw him lead his arms. He got a red card, though I felt a yellow would’ve been warranted, but in truth the Timbers looked pretty comfortable playing against 11 – one good chance for the Whitecaps aside when Steven Smith was called upon to head the ball off the line.

Smith, after a shaky spell a while ago, seems to be settling a bit more and looking much more assured at left-back. He and Kimura both had solid games, and it’s telling that Vancouver were able to get very little joy down the wings.

Another player who impressed me greatly was Eric Alexander. Much of what was good about the Timbers going forward would invariably go through Alexander at some point, and he stepped into the Chara role with aplomb. I’ve never really take much note of his defensive work in the past, but I thought he was quietly effective in this aspect of the game and helped out when needed. Chances are that he’ll sit out the next game when Chara returns which is a shame, but if you’re going to have problems it’s much better to have too many good players to fit into the midfield than not enough.

Jewsbury was also efficient in his role. Given the way that Vancouver’s forward line were all over the place it would’ve been easy for him to get pulled around and taken out of position but he stuck to his role and did the unglamorous work of keeping it tight at the back and quickly passing the ball on to his more attack-minded team mates to take forward.

The whistle was met with a mixture of relief and joy. It’s Wilkinson’s first win as interim head coach, and if rumours about Caleb Porter’s imminent appointment prove to be true, it may be his only win. I don’t know a great deal about Porter, though I’ll be doing a fair bit of reading if it does pan out, but he certainly did all right according to Football Manager 2012!

Porter was, of course, Nagbe’s coach at Akron and if it’s true that the new man has been consulted for some time on team matters, it’s quite interesting to note how Darlington’s performances have really picked up in the last few weeks. Coincidence? Probably, but still… If anyone is going to get the best from him, you’d have to think the guy who made his a star at college level has a pretty good shot.

Overall, I thought we deserved the win, though I actually felt the team played better for long spells against Toronto and New York. But against Vancouver we put together a much more complete performance across (most of) the 90 and breaking the long run without a win will hopefully give the team the impetus to kick on and end the season on a hopeful note for next year.

I posted a couple of graphics on twitter that show how the team aren’t actually that far off repeating our 2011 record.

The main difference is that we’ve really struggled to keep clean sheets this year. We actually kept as many clean sheets on the road in 2011 as we have done in the entire 2012 season thus far – 3. As long as we keep making elementary mistakes at the back it’s hard to see that situation improving, so the incoming coach certainly has a job on his hands whipping them into shape.

Colorado Rapids, fresh from a spanking in San Jose, are next up at Jeld-Wen at the end of the week. A victory against the Rapids would see the Timbers overhaul them in the table and, if results go our way, possibly even Chivas too.

It’s been a funny old year.

#RCTID


[post_ender]

Goats 1, Donkeys 0

No-one said being a Timbers fan would be easy.

There were some positives to take from the 5-3 defeat to LA Galaxy at the weekend, but panning for gold in the 1-0 loss at Chivas USA would be as futile as searching for signs of intelligent life in YouTube comments. The Timbers served up a performance so leaden that it could be considered a danger to public health.

It was the kind of showing that would get football stopped.

It’s strange to think that a 1-0 defeat on the road was somehow worse than losing 5 goals at home, and yet that’s the overriding feeling I have after enduring 90 minutes of ball-numbing suffering.

Gavin Wilkinson made a couple of changes to the team from the weekend, with Futty in for Horst and Chara for Palmer. Apart from that, it was business as usual with the team playing in a 4-2-3-1 again. Though, at times it seemed more like a 4-4-1-1 or plain ol’ 4-4-2 to me.

I had hoped, after showing up better in the middle during the second half, that Eric Alexander would start alongside Chara, but Jewsbury, who seemingly knows all the secrets, continues to hold on to a place with a death grip.

My own hope, before the match, was a Chara/Alexander two behind a three of Songo’o, Alhassan and Nagbe – though I wouldn’t have been adverse to Nagbe sitting and Richards starting. The team, as announced, just seem a bit too defensive for my liking against a team that had drawn a blank in three of their last four MLS matches and managed only 11 goals in 17.

It’s not like packing the team with defensive players did anything to help 0]”>the situation against Real Salt Lake.

The game itself was pretty even in the opening stages. The 1pm kick-off time saw a bunch of local kids groups given tickets to attend, lending the match a “Chuck E Cheese at lunch time” atmosphere, made all the more grating by the addition of no-one’s favourite football fad, the vuvuzela.

It was hard not to recall the infamous Estonia vs Scotland match from 1996, when a dispute over floodlights led to the surreal situation where Scotland kicked off against no opponents, in front of no home fans. Only one team turning up and no fans? Hello Home Depot Center, 2012.

Ryan Smith, who had tormented the Timbers defence like a wasp in the car the last time the teams met, started this time, matching up against his namesake, Steven Smith. Rather than purely to annoy me by forcing me to specify which Smith I’m talking about, it seems like the move was a deliberate attempt to exploit Steven Smith’s ever-more apparent defensive weaknesses.

When Steven Smith had come to Portland earlier this year, I’d sounded a hopeful note. I remember him from his time at Rangers, where he had burst onto the scene and looked every inch the future Scotland stalwart. Injuries hit, and took a toll out of the player, such that he ended up kicking around the lower English leagues before being picked up by the Timbers.

The player I remembered from his Rangers days was an explosive wing-back with a good crossing boot. I expected the injuries to take a half-yard or so off his pace, but I thought his defensive awareness and crossing ability would, at least, remain.

It’s getting harder to hold onto that belief as week after week Smith has been found lacking in a number of areas. His crossing has been haphazard – I’m being kind – and he seems to have compensated for losing a bit of pace by developing a penchant for going to ground early and diving into tackles.

Ryan Smith certainly came out the best in this particular duel, and it was by beating Steven Smith that the Chivas man was able to set-up the only goal of the match early on.

Smith had a poor game, no doubt, but he wasn’t alone in this as every defender would, if they’re being honest, hold their hands to having had an off day.

Futty could, and probably should, have done a bit better in getting close to Smith and shutting the winger out, but the moment that Smith was able to get square on, there was only ever going to be one winner there.

I like Futty – and Horst too – but it’s becoming ever more apparent what the team miss by not having Brunner, for all his own faults, on the backline.

Mosquera is by far the Timbers’ best defender, but he came out second best in his own personal duel in the build up to the goal. His desire to push out of defence and close down can cause more problems that it solves sometimes.

Futty has to take a share of blame for turning his back on the man, but had Mosquera not been off ranging like Aragorn reborn, he wouldn’t have been trailing the Chivas runner. The cross ultimately didn’t come in so we weren’t punished for it, but it’s concerning when even your top man is making basic errors.

Kimura had a strange match against LA. His sloppiness in the tackle, and poor concentration, led to two of the LA goals, but he also popped up at the other end to score, so there’s that. He still looks like a guy who is adjusting to a new team, so it’d be unfair to lay into him too hard until he’s got a run of games under his belt.

I thought, in the goal, he had allowed himself to be attracted towards the ball, and by going so narrow left the space at the far post wide open. He at least made a valiant effort to get back, but too little, too late.

I like the guy’s athleticism, but he needs to tighten up his defensive work.

Again, we weren’t punished here, but Kimura was caught hanging around up field – he’d raced forward long before the ball came back to Chara. It’s tough for Kimura, and Smith, as given the way the Timbers were playing, with Alhassan and Alexander narrowing up top, the onus was on the fullbacks to get forward and provide the width.

It’s this delicate balance of knowing when to get forward, and when to cover, that makes the fullback role such a tricky one to play well. To be fair, if Chara doesn’t give the ball away sloppily (collector’s item, that one) there’s perhaps no problem for Kimura.

His defensive judgement though can lead to situations like late on where he completely misjudged the flight of a lofted ball and ended up almost gifting Chivas a gilt-edged chance.

The full-back area has been a constant problem for the Timbers. Having Kimura in at right-back is certainly better than having Jewsbury play make-believe there, but Smith isn’t really convincing that he’s an upgrade over Chabala or, whisper it, Wallace at this point. Chabala’s big weakness is his final pass/cross, but it’s not like Smith is putting the ball into dangerous areas from wide right now. Aside for a late forward ball to Kris Boyd that the striker nudged narrowly wide, I’m at a loss to recall any serviceable delivery from Smith.

Considering all three Timbers goals against LA came directly or indirectly from set-plays, it’s perhaps not that surprising that the team struggled to create much going forward.

The first half in particular was remarkable for the toothless nature of the Timbers attack. They at least stepped it up in the second half.

You can see pretty clearly that the Timbers were playing a bit further up field, and they created more chances as a result. There was the aforementioned Boyd chance, while Alexander had a couple of attempts screwing the best chance wide after a nice back heel lay-off from Jewsbury.

Smith had a chance in injury time when the ball pinballed around the box, before Sal Zizzo laid it off for the Scot to curl his effort just wide with his weaker right foot. It was one of those chances where you just wished it had fallen to his left boot, where he could’ve got a clearer shot away or laid it off to Jewsbury. Such are the fine margins of defeat.

Truth is, for all the gained territory and pops at goal, Chivas never look overly ruffled. They Fonzied their way through the second half, happy to soak up what pressure the Timbers tried to apply.

It was a pedestrian display from the boys in green. Even when they were supposedly chasing an equaliser, it never truly seemed like there was a real sense of urgency.

Given the Timbers road form, and manner of play, there was always the sense that when Chivas got their noses in front, the game was over, even after only 15 minutes. That is truly depressing. Where is the fight?

I had thought that perhaps a change in manager would signal a fresh approach to road games, but it’s not surprising that the same shit keeps happening when it’s basically the usual suspects.

Wilkinson took the defeat last week on his own shoulders, and he’s welcome to much of this one as well. He set out a team with very little attacking impetus. He left Boyd woefully isolated and provided little support to his wide defenders. And when it came time to roll the dice and try to find a way back into the game, he made subs that left me shaking my head.

First Nagbe went off for Songo’o. Fair enough, Nagbe was largely invisible, but it was hardly a change designed to throw bodies forward.

Ten minutes later, I was literally halfway through writing a tweet to the effect that I hoped to see Mwanga or Zizzo on to replace Jewsbury, with Alexander taking over Captain Marvel’s role when Wilkinson made a change. He brought on Zizzo, but Jewsbury stayed on the field and Alexander came off. Okay, fine. The third change saw Alhassan off for Mwanga, and by this point I’m at a loss to explain what the thinking was.

I can’t say Jewsbury was especially bad in this match, but he was pretty ineffectual. Story of his season. He’s rarely outright awful, but neither does he have an impact on the match. His inviolate place in the team seems to have heldover from John Spencer’s days, as has his captaincy.

I don’t expect the captain to be the best player, but I do expect a leader. Maybe the players themselves would disagree, but I don’t see a great deal of leadership from Jewsbury. He doesn’t seem to be a shouter, or a motivator, nor is he a guy that leads by example. He’s just out there, misplacing passes and looking every inch the MLS veteran on the down slope of his career.

I worry about Boyd, too. He cuts a frustrated figure more often than not. There were some giving him stick on twitter, but I don’t give that notion a shred of credence. It was interesting listening to his interview on John Strong’s Talk Timbers podcast, as he gave his thoughts on playing the 4-2-3-1.

I’m used to playing with someone up front, but as a formation it does work. Your role does change because you find yourself with two centre-halves most of the time […] and it’s important for the two wide men […] to get on the ball and create chances.

That’s the crux of the matter. Boyd needs those around him to do their jobs before he can even think of doing his. If he could conjure it all out of thin air on his own, he’d be playing at the Camp Nou and not in front of a bunch of bored kids at freaking Home Depot Center.

With the sacking of Spencer, the guy who brought him here, I’m coming more and more to fear that Boyd’s time in Portland will be one season, and done. Though he has never said as much, listening to his interview it’s clear that he’s bitterly disappointed with how things are going so far.

You can enjoy your life but when you’re not winning games it affects everything because you want to win games. I’ve won so much, and I’ve won so many games in my career. You get used to winning and when you’re not doing it, it’s not easy to come to terms with.

Where Do We Go From Here?

With Toronto’s win, the Timbers are now tied for last overall. There’s a seven point gap to LA on the edge of the play-off places, and I expect LA to climb a place or two before the season’s out. Vancouver are a further four points ahead of LA. That’s potentially 11 points to turnover in 15 games.

The play-offs are gone. Done. Forget about it.

For so long the Timbers had stayed in touch almost despite themselves, but this result finally put a pillow over the face of our faint hopes and mercy killed the fuck out of them. And I think this is a good thing.

The play-offs have been hanging around on the sidelines like a creepy uncle at a kid’s birthday party. The club has been unable to put them out of their mind, and it’s led to a conservative approach to team selection as we’ve “chased the dream”, or more accurately “sort of drunkenly staggered in the general direction of the dream with no real idea where we were going, or why we were going there”.

Truth is, even if every other team conspired to outdo our kamikaze tailspin and sneak us into the play-offs, it’d only prolong the misery that is the 2012 season.

Time to draw a line through it, forget about it and start planning for 2013. And that means it’s time to shake this team up.

Give the kids a chance.

I want to end 2012 with hopes of green shoots, rather than faced with the same old dead wood.

We’re already bottom. It’s hardly going to get worse, is it?

I also think we need to get someone in before the end of the year. By all means, be thorough, but we need a guy with top level experience to come in and shake this place up. It’s perhaps not surprising that when you build a staff that’s largely made up of USL alumni, you end up with a team that plays like a USL team. We’re too often tactically naive, and there are good players on this team who aren’t playing to their potential – that’s a coaching issue.

Next up is Dallas at the weekend. I may not have a match report up for that one as I’m flying back to the UK at the start of next week, which means I get to enjoy the pleasure of 3am kick-offs once more.

#RCTID

In case you missed the notice, and are wondering about the ads, click here for an explanation. Apologies.

Just Another Timbers Loss

The Timbers lost again, suffering their biggest defeat since going down 4-0 in Dallas a year ago but in some ways this 3-0 loss in Colorado was even more dispiriting.

In beating Seattle last week the Timbers had finally shown a spark of what John Spencer has been telling us their capable of, with some good wing play and incisive attacking. This week saw a return of the bad old Timbers and, you know what, it’s really fucking pissing me off.

Here’s a short, Scottish summation or my thoughts…

[learn_more caption=”The Short, Scots, version”]Aner fuckin loass. Goatae say, ah’m gettin mare th’n a wee bit fucked off wae this shite. It’s no the loassin that pisses me aff, it’s the fuckin wey we dae it. Thur’s nae fuckin heart tae this shower. Lose wan fuckin goal and it’s gemme o’or.

Spenny disnae seem tae huv a fuckin scooby whit he’s daein maist ae the time. It’s no workin? Nae both’r, ah’ll jist take wan cunt oot and pit aner yin oot tae dae the same fuckin hing that wisnae fuckin workin in the fucking first place, for fuck sake. It giy dis yir fuckin heid in.

Ah wannae hope fur the best against yon Urthquakes oan Tuesday nicht, but it’s kinna hard, ken whit ah mean? Ye cun oanly eat so much shite afore it comes back up, and ah’ve hud ma fill.

Will we win? Fucked if ah ken. We’ll miss wee Diego fur share, but it’d jist be lik the Timburs tae fuckin win like we did against yon Sportin mob a while ago.

Aner loass, and fuck, who kens? How long dis Spenny get? How long’s a piece a string? Ah don’t ken whit’s goan oan there. Tae bae hoanest, ah’ve kinna loast faith in the gaffer, ken? How’s he still in a joab efter Cal FC n aw that, fuck knows.

Hing is, ah’ll be back tae support’n the boiys the morra, giein it laldy. Thur’s nae skulking awa’. The hing aboot being a fan is yir eiweys there.

Rose City till ah die.[/learn_more]

Anyway… Where was I?

I said last week that I worried we’d go out there and just blindly repeat what worked before, and guess what? We only fucking did. Sure Zizzo came in to replace the injured Alhassan, but the plan was the same as last week.

Spencer is like the guy at the roulette table who won big on red once and is going to stick to that strategy because it clearly works even as he’s offering blow jobs in the fucking casino toilets for another ten bucks to throw away.

I mean, for fuck sake. I’m sick of this shit.

What annoyed so much me isn’t the losing, though no-one likes that, it’s the way we lost. Rolled over and let the Rapids tickle our bellies. It was so bad to watch that to take my mind off it, I spent much of the second half thinking up #timbersmovienames on twitter with other fans.

I don’t expect a team that’s going to buy it’s way to success, or win every week. I do expect a modicum of fucking effort and intelligence. I saw neither this week. I saw a spineless performance, led by a manager who, I’m beginning to suspect, never fucking had it in the first place to lose it.

We hear Spencer is a great coach, so who has improved under his guidance? So he’s a motivator, right? Except the team I saw wearing green on Saturday showed all the motivation of a hooker on her eighth john of the night – sure, she might make the right noises, but her heart’s clearly not in it.

And it’s not the fucking first time either. How often do we only get 45 minutes of effort of out this team? A shambolic, lazy first half followed by a rocket up the arse at half time, or a decent first half, then a snooze through the second? What. The. Fuck?

We didn’t even get that this week. Sure I could go through it with pics and graphs and all that shit, but why fucking bother? We were shit; a shambles. You know it, I know it, Colorado sure as fuck know it. HashtagRCTID does a good enough job of it, anyway.

Steven Smith had his worst game for the Timbers. He played like he was still on honeymoon. I can only assume that Brian Mullan has horrific B.O. cos Smith didn’t seem to want to get anywhere near him all game.

Last week he and Songo’o looked so effective and threatening down that flank, but they may as well have stayed in Portland. Both ended up being subbed – Songo’o in the first half, Smith in the second.

Smith looked gassed. Was it the heat and altitude? If so, why the fuck didn’t the team fly in earlier to prepare? If anyone should know about the problems with playing at the Rapids, it should be Spencer since he played there himself.

Another bad day at the office for Darlington Nagbe too. Where is the player who started the season? He looks a shadow of himself. Gone is the zip and verve, the daring and dramatic. In comes a player who looks tired, needs an extra touch and is off the pace. He’s repeatedly being caught in possession and even when he’s not, he doesn’t seem to have any clear idea what he’s hoping to achieve.

The role that Spencer has him playing in, at the tip of the diamond, should be the creative fulcrum for the attack. It’s a dead end right now.

Yet Spencer keeps putting him in, and keeps playing the same way. Tactically, he’s a dinosaur. He’s a second year manager, and he already looks like he’s twenty years late to the party. The Timbers play like a mediocre British team from the early 90’s. It’s like the last twenty years of footballing innovations have completely passed him by.

Maybe it’s not surprising. Spencer was inculcated in that system throughout his playing career. 442 was king. MLS is beginning to show some innovation and moving towards a more modern, nuanced attitude towards tactical flexibility and playing style, and yet the Timbers are stuck in this kick-and-rush, blood-and-thunder time loop. We’re outdated.

It’s never been more clear than now, when Euro 2012 has served up some delightful, modern, football. Going back to watching the Timbers is like going to McDonalds after eating at a Gordon Ramsey restaurant.

He’s either too bloody-minded to recognise the fact that his “system” doesn’t fucking work, or doesn’t even realise. Neither of these are good things.

Or perhaps, this is the only way he can play with the guys he’s got? Maybe he’d love to go Full Bielsa on us, but he can’t. I doubt there’s much more to him than what we’ve seen, but who knows?

Sure, the team might lift their performance level now and then, and beat a poor Seattle (who seemed to have got MMA and MLS mixed up on the trip south), but we’ll inevitably regress to the mean.

Regardless, the same old faces will be in the XI. There are some decent young players in the roster – Jean-Baptiste, Richards, Rincon, Kawulok to name but four – but they can’t get a sniff of first team action.

On one hand, I can understand Spencer’s reticence. He knows it’s not going well, and he probably feels he can’t “risk” the kids for fear that they lose the match that costs him his job – though considering he’s survived the Cal FC debacle, the dire Galaxy showing, and this gutless shitfest, I suspect the only two things that’ll survive a nuclear holocaust are cockroaches, and John Spencer as head coach of the Portland Timbers.

The thing is, it’s not really a risk, is it? Neither Fucito – despite his great workrate, which I do admire – nor Mwanga have exactly hit the ground running. Even Boyd has looked a shadow of himself at times. Nagbe looks like he needs a break. Jewsbury isn’t a right back. Horst goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. Is Brunner ever going to be fit again? Palmer… Yeah.

Why not blood some of the young guys? At least they might care. And at this stage, I don’t think many Timbers fans are keeping play-off dates clear in their calenders, you know?

As I said, I don’t expect wins every week. If I was a gloryhunter, I’d have grown up supporting Rangers or Celtic, just up the road. Instead, I supported my local team, Kilmarnock, through bad times, allright times, more bad times, and a couple of good times.

So it is for all Timbers fans. This is our team, and we don’t expect the moon on a stick. All we want is a team that care enough to give 100% every single week, not just when the ESPN cameras are in town, and a manager who knows what he’s doing.

Tomorrow we play San Jose Earthquakes, and we’ll be missing the one outfield player who can hold his head up high week after week, Diego Chara. It’s no surprise the yellows have accumulated considering the way he plays – and the fact he’s often had to do that defensive job single-handedly – but it’s a huge blow to have him miss this match.

This is a team that are flying this year – they finished 2011 four points behind the Timbers, but already twenty points ahead this year and top the Western Conference. The Earthquakes come into the game on the back of a remarkable come-from-behind 4-3 win against LA Galaxy, so the omens aren’t good.

Do I think it’s time for Spencer to go? It’s getting harder and harder to justify supporting him. The whole “who’ll replace him, then?” argument is bullshit. Who’ll replace him? Who the fuck knows – that’s why you accept applications and select the best candidate.

I don’t know. I’m angry. I’m rapidly losing faith in Spenny. He’s showing nothing on the field, but I always held to the belief that he does good work on the training ground, and maybe all he needed was someone alongside to nudge him in the right direction, tactically. Now I’m not so sure about his off-field endeavours. This really doesn’t look like a team that’s busting a gut for their manager.

Knowing the Timbers, they’ll go and beat San Jose on Tuesday, with Palmer smashing one in from 30 yards*, and everything will be rosy – pardon the pun – again. I’ll get the “so what do you think now?” questions. Which would be fine. I really hope we do win.

My problem isn’t individual results – the Kansas City win didn’t spark our season, and neither is the Seattle win, as welcome as it was, good enough on it’s own. Equally, I went out of my way to play down the loss to Cal FC, and I’ve tried to find positives in every defeat. It’s getting harder though. The trend isn’t good.

We, the fans, will endure this and emerge stronger for it. The Army will be in full voice against San Jose, and will sing till the final whistle.

I can only hope that the team at least match that effort.

* Actually, as was pointed out on twitter, Palmer may be suspended still. I haven’t checked, but thinking about it, it was a straight red so he probably will be. In which case, Jewsbury? Yay…?

The Timbers Take Wing

Portland Timbers fans are still basking in the afterglow of a fine derby victory, and with the dust still settling I thought I’d look back at one of the aspects of the Timbers play that really encouraged me – the wings.

Alhassan put in another good shift down the right, backed up by Jewsbury, but here I’m going start with a focus on the left wing.

Franck Songo’o has frustrated me so far this year. There’s been flashes of skill here and there, but he’s been entirely inconsistent and at times has seemed to lack focus and purpose in the final third.

I’ve also doubted his winger credentials, especially in light of his performance against LA.

Songo’o tendency to drift infield really hurt the Timbers in that match. He was coming in off the wing, and running right into the most congested part of the pitch, with LA packing three men in the centre of midfield.

He showed much more discipline against Seattle, sticking to his role a lot better.

For me, it was Songo’o best game in Timbers green. I’m still not convinced he’s an out-and-out winger, but his display against Seattle showed that he can play that wide role effectively, especially when he has Steven Smith on his shoulder.

The reintroduction of Smith down the left flank was a massive boon to the team. Where Songo’o may drift infield, and narrow the attacking line, Smith will pop up out wide and force Seattle to leave gaps in the middle, or give the Scot a free run at the byline.

Songo’o and Smith would combine out left in the build up to the first goal, scored by Kris Boyd.

As well as the combination of Smith and Songo’o down the left, another very encouraging aspect of the play was the way that they switched play from flank to flank.

Too often we’ve seen the Timbers work the ball down the channels, run into trouble and simply cede possession to the other team, but against Seattle we saw them switch play from one side to another with real purpose.

Here we see the team winning the ball deep, getting it forward quickly down the right and then working it across the pitch, right in front of the Seattle defence. Unfortunately the pass into the box is a poor one, but notice Smith once more making himself available down the line – finding himself level with the ball at both the start and finish of the move.

Another example of this crisp passing across the pitch to stretch the Seattle defence begins with Smith and Songo’o wide left and ends, via Nagbe and an onrushing Jewsbury, with Alhassan in wide right.

Alhassan’s dinked shot/cross (who knows with this guy) drops just wide of the post, but agains you see the team moving the ball with poise and precision.

This kind of crossfield passing is only possible with willing runners from fullback positions and hard-working guys in the middle who make themselves available for the ball, and move it on crisply.

No-one sums that role up better than Diego Chara.

This was probably my favourite passage of play, even though it didn’t come to anything in the end. I simply love Chara’s work here. He’s the first on the scene to take the ball from Smith, and then at every stage of the move, he’s always available to take the ball back. He doesn’t do anything flashy or highlight-reel worthy – his passing is simple and measured – but this kind of play in the middle is what allows the team to move the ball across the field at pace and keep the opposition moving, allowing the Timbers to probe for weakness.

Even when he does lose the ball, he’s straight onto it and wins it right back.

Someone like Chara is essential as the Timbers don’t have a passer like Beckham, who thinks nothing of launching a 50 yard crossfield pass. Instead, the Timbers looked to rely on quick, short passes and runs to work the ball across, with only one crossfield pass attempted (not including set pieces).

Once more it was the Smith/Songo’o combination down the left that combined to forge a great chance for Danny Mwanga to write himself into Timbers folklore by scoring against Seattle with his first touch at Jeld-Wen Field.

The team has oft been criticised for being predictable in the way they play. They’ll be direct, they’ll try and get it wide and cross it in. Teams have capitalized on this and neutralised the flanks, driving the team infield and into trouble as we’ve often lacked the short, quick passing game needed to carve open a team through the middle.

We finally saw a glimpse of that game plan clicking into place against Seattle. Smith has already made himself indispensable at left back, and Jewsbury is solid enough at right back – thought I still think that’s an area that needs to be strengthened with real quality.

Given this team’s tendency to find something that works one week, and blindly try to replicate it the next week without thought for the change of opposition I still worry that we seem to lack a Plan B.

It’ll be interesting to see who replaces Alhassan in the next match. Jewsbury isn’t the willing runner that Smith is round the outside, so isn’t going to cover for a player who drifts inside as well as the Scot, and that could leave the team lopsided and forced down dead ends. It may be that Zizzo’s time has come.

Matter of Heart

Last week, John Spencer and his coaching team deserved the plaudits they got for pulling a tactical rabbit out of the hat in adjusting his team’s set-up to counteract the strengths of a till-then unbeaten Sporting Kansas City team. With Lovel Palmer plugged into a defensive midfield role, and a disciplined performance from everyone around him, the Timbers were able to neutralise much of the threat posed by Kansas City, and snatched an unlikely victory thanks to an own goal off a Kris Boyd cross.

I gave Spencer’s team selection a lot of praise last week, and I feel it was warranted. It wasn’t a pretty game, or a pretty performance but the team stepped up with arguably their best showing of the season so far, albeit one of the backs-to-the-wall variety. Going forward to this weeks match against Montreal Impact – the second bottom side in MLS this season, with only Toronto worse off, and I’m not sure at this point if Toronto aren’t some kind of grand prank being played on MLS – there was every reason to be hopeful that the Timbers could build on the Sporting result with another win, and at the same time see off an East Coast hoodoo that had seen the Timbers cross 3 time zones seven times, winning none and losing four.

What the Timbers fans got for their optimism was a disorganised, disinterested and bitterly disappointing performance that showed less heart than Tin Man repeatedly punching an orphan in the face. It wasn’t just the lack of desire though that cost the Timbers – they simply weren’t good enough from back-to-front.

In hindsight, the worst thing that could’ve happened last week may have actually been winning the match!

It would be folly to think that the Timbers won last week on organisation alone. They got a huge slice of luck in the own goal, and needed Perkins to make saves at crucial times. There’s an argument that Timbers made their own luck that night, but nevertheless, trying to pull off the same thing twice was always going to be pushing it.

And yet, that’s what the Timbers tried to do.

Steven Smith, the treatment table bothering ex-Rangers left back, replaced Mike Chabala at left back, but other than that change, all was as it was against Kansas City. The thinking seemed to be that since this strategy worked last week and beat the best team in the league, it was bound to do well against one of the the worst teams, right? Because that’s exactly how football works!

Yet, shockingly enough, the strategy that seemed so tailor made for countering a very specific style of football from Sporting didn’t fit against the Impact. Like the laziest kind of lounge magician, Spencer thought he could go one table over and pull off the same trick twice.

Palmer, asked to play the same deep lying role that he had the previous week often looked lost and unsure of just who or what he was supposed to be picking up. For all he was officially given a zonal marking role last week, as Spencer claimed, he just so happened to be marking a zone that contained Graham Zusi more often than not. Montreal didn’t have a Zusi. They don’t play that way. Their strengths are in their wide players and neither Felipe (who was my player of the match, for the record, with a fantastic range of passing on show) nor Warner are your archetypal attacking midfielders. So Palmer was left marking a zone with often no-one in it, and without that clearly defined opponent, he floated around without any sense of effectiveness.

Here Montreal were able to find space on the edge of the Timbers box as Palmer was sucked towards the back line, leaving his “zone” unprotected. Shades of Beckham in the LA match – also a match where Palmer had been parachuted in to play a holding role with seemingly no clearly defined instructions. Warner isn’t Beckham though, and his attempt to “Messi” his way through the mass of Timbers defenders was snuffed out.

It was very much a shot across the bow for the Timbers.

Palmer’s deep role can be seen even more clearly when the average positions of players are taken, using the heat maps on the MLS site as a guide.

It’s hard to be precise with this, obviously, but it shows that Palmer was often playing so deep that he could’ve been a third centre back. What is also noticeable if the way that the Montreal attack skews towards the Timbers left back area. Smith tried to play an attacking game, which saw him pushing up the field. This is fine – I wanted the Timbers to take the front foot and try to force Montreal back, but as you can see from the positions of the Montreal right back and right winger, they weren’t overly concerned with covering back, indicating that Montreal felt pretty comfortable dealing with the Timbers’ attack.

What was also concerning was Smith’s sometimes lackadaisical attitude to getting back, as was seen in the second Montreal goal.

At no point does Smith either seem alert to the danger, or show any real urgency to get back on terms with his man, or at least put pressure on him. The play began with a long ball out from the Impact keeper, and long before Sinisa Ubiparipovic became a threat there was time for Smith to get back. Credit must go to the final pass from Montreal which cut out defence and goalie, though a case could be made for Bendik staying on his line rather than trying to palm it out.

Smith, making an instant debut after his release by League One side Preston North End, looked like a man short of match sharpness. His last appearance for Preston was at the start of March, where he was subbed off after an hour of a 3-0 defeat to Colchester. Prior to that his last game time had been back in January. It showed.

Chabala found himself sitting this one out which strikes me as somewhat unfair. Chabala had put in a sterling effort against Kansas City, and while he may not be the greatest attacking full back around, he does offer a lot of bite and work-rate in defence.

You can see clearly the difference in tackles and interceptions between the two players. Yes, you might expect Chabala to be a bit busier given he was facing the best team in the league, but it’s still an illuminating picture. Smith’s focus seemed to be in attack, with less focus on getting back and covering. He was also prone to going to ground readily, which on a couple of occasions gave Impact players the chance to simply take a touch past him.

It would be ridiculous to write off a player based on one match, especially a debut but I still think Chabala has every right to be pissed off that he was overlooked. One of my criticisms of Spencer has been that it often seems he picks players based on his opinion of them, rather than how they’re actually playing. I’m sure he rates Smith highly, and I’m also sure Smith will go on to be a good left back for Portland given time, but throwing him into a match so soon, especially when Chabala had, in my opinion, earned that spot, sends out all the wrong signals to players. Players should earn the jersey, not just expect it.

Where’s the incentive to knuckle down and work harder to earn a spot in the team if certain players are going to get picked regardless? I can only imagine how dispiriting it must be for these guys to see their fine work one week rewarded with a spot on the bench the next.

It was also be silly to blame the defeat on one man. Smith bears the greatest culpability for the second Montreal goal, as I see it, but he didn’t lose this game for Portland. There were very few bright spots through-out the team, or on the bench. Again Spencer seems to have picked a team and tactic without any thought to the opposition. I can understand the call to “keep a winning team together”, but this wasn’t a team that played Sporting Kansas City off the park and swashbuckled their way to a well-deserved victory. This was a team that knuckled down, bunkered and got a bit lucky on the break. This was NOT the team for Montreal.

Even the great sides will change it up depending on opposition, and this Timbers team isn’t a great side.

With Palmer so deep, Jewsbury was given so much ground to cover as he was expected to get up and down the pitch. To his credit, he had a great chance in the first half thanks to a classic box-to-box run.

It had shades of the breakaway chance against Kansas City last week, where Chara fed in Boyd. But here, as then, the chance wasn’t taken as Jewsbury’s shot didn’t really carry much threat behind it, and Ricketts will be able to make a YouTube highlights reel worthy clip out of his theatrical save.

But even here you can see how deep both Palmer and Jewsbury were sinking in defence. There are three Montreal players and the ENTIRE Timbers defence and midfield behind the ball in the top left panel. This time, the Timbers broke well, and Jewsbury got forward, but too often there was a loose pass or a long ball out of defence that only invited the pressure back on.

The strategy of “keep it tight” was pretty clear as the Timbers repeatedly tried to defend in bulk, but it essentially cedes ground to the opposition, and as a result the midfield battle was one that Montreal pretty comprehensively won.

The above shows the passing and shooting of the central midfield pairings of both teams. What should be pretty clear is that the Montreal two are both more involved and operating higher up the pitch than the Timbers pair.

The problem with playing on the back-foot, looking to soak up pressure, defend in depth and break, is that it, by design, invites pressure. I wouldn’t say the Timbers parked the bus as Chelsea did against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals, but they had a tendency to drop off and give up space to the Impact whether through design or poor application. It worked against Kansas, but against the Impact the Timbers luck ran out.

There was a huge slice of bad luck in the two injuries the Timbers picked up. Purdy’s head knock forced him out early on, and Troy Perkins took a boot to the face as Nyassi went in stupidly high on a ball he was never going to win.

The handball decision given against Smith for Montreal’s opener was also bad luck on the Timbers part as it didn’t seem he had “handled the ball deliberately”, as per the Laws of the Game.

But luck, as well as poor officiating or a terrible playing surface, don’t excuse what was simply a terrible match from the guys in Rose City Red, and even though Lovel Palmer and Steven Smith have been singled out here, I also don’t think these two lost this match between them. It took an entire team to play this badly.

Another match passes where the Timbers clearly had the wrong strategy, but nothing was done to rectify it. There’s some mitigation in that two injuries forced the Timbers to make changes they wouldn’t have, given the choice, but the fact remains that it was clear the Timbers weren’t at the races in the first half, and the change, when it did finally come an hour in, was little more than a “deckchairs on the Titanic” style shuffle. Nothing was done to alter the shape or strategy. Perkins’ head injury put paid to any hopes that Spencer might throw the dice as the game wore on.

If Spencer expects a pat on the back for the way he set out the team last week, he has to except a large slice of blame for this week. I cannot explain how he thought taking what seemed to be a one-off, bespoke strategy and thinking it would simply work again against a completely different set of players was ever going to work. At best it was tactically naive, at worst it was downright bad management.

Had the Timbers got a point, which seemed to be the game plan, or even snatched three, they’d had better been leaving Montreal on horseback wearing Dick Turpin masks. It would’ve been nothing short of daylight robbery.

Football can be a cruel mistress at times, but it can also be unerringly fair too. This week the Timbers got what they deserved – nothing.

Next week sees Columbus Crew visit Jeld-Wen Field, and the Timbers Army will be expecting much more from their side. It’s not like things can get much worse… right?

P.T. F.C.