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The Core

The Core


After a 1-0 victory against Douchey Clint & the Cunt Bunch, the Timbers moved to within 180 minutes of filling the temporary Cascadia Cup-shaped hole in the trophy room with a Supporters Shield. The win wasn’t a swashbuckling display of their superiority over The Team That Don Bought, but was marked out as another tough win ground out, at times, in a manner that’s coming to define “Porterball” as much as any of the stylish attacking football that we do still see in fits and starts deep into October, which is no mean feat when you play with this intensity on dreaded turf.

Just as well the pitch is so small here – saves energy for these late season runs. Nice out-of-the-shoebox- thinking, guys.

Despite only scoring once in four of the last five matches, the Timbers have defied the odds by winning three of those and drawing the other, because we don’t do losing anymore it seems. The last four matches have seen changes to the starting XI made in the case of injury or international duty, with Porter putting a lot of faith in a small core of trusted players. This is a marked difference from the team of last season, which should come as no surprise given how that year played out.

30 players have played over 50% of MLS minutes for the Timbers in their respective seasons, and they’re pretty evenly distributed across the years, with 10 in 2011, 9 in 2012 and 11 this year so far.

Players Minutes 111213

The real differences start to reveal themselves as you look at who the teams relied on most by setting the bar a bit higher, to 75% of minutes across the whole year. This gives you an idea of the team’s “core”. When you looked at this number, you noticed a big shift to 6-3-6 players across the respective seasons.

There is a chicken-and-egg scenario at play here: do teams do poorly because of inconsistent selection, or is selection inconsistent because of poor play? Probably a bit of both, on balance, with each feeding the other in a viscous cycle. Nevertheless, that the majority of teams that reach the playoffs do so while relying on a core of 6-7 consistent performers while the sides down the bottom tend to have only 2 or 3 regulars.

Timbers XI

This year is the first that you could theoretically pick a “best XI”, or at least, “most available XI”, and if you wanted to stretch it further then the bench would consist of (in order from most minutes to least) Alhassan, Danso, Zemanski, Piquionne, Silvestre (yes, still), Valencia and Kocic (since we need a keeper). That’s a pretty deep bench, just a shame we’ve never had it.

On paper, the numbers of the 2011 and 2013 squads are similar: 6 “core” players made up of a solid keeper, defender, two hard-working midfielders and a couple of attacking players. So why did Spencer fail in ‘11 doing the same thing with his team as Porter in ‘13?

Well, putting aside how they did things differently on the pitch, we can look at the “best” team from the first year and see what it tells us.

Timbers XI 2011

Chara quickly, and rightly so, establishes himself as a fixture in the team, a constant across all seasons, joined by Jewsbury for the first two, and Will for the latest. Brunner and Perkins at the back were pretty solid, as it goes, but the problems arise when you look at who we were relying on in attack.

Kenny Cooper flopped and Alhassan hadn’t yet developed beyond the idea of what a good player should be. That’s not an attack that instills fear in the hearts of of opposing defence. Of the rest, Perlaza didn’t score enough, Wallace was at least forty yards too deep, and Nagbe was sparking into life here and there, but lacked guidance on the pitch at times and could disappear from games. The balance wasn’t right from the start with too much placed on a big name striker returning to the league after some years in Europe (what could go wrong there?), and a bunch of players who were new to MLS.

Timbers XI 2013

This year’s team is a pretty good XI, actually. I wouldn’t mind seeing that one take the field anytime soon. Harrington is the first fullback to feature in over 75% of minutes, and if he sees another 25 minutes over the last two games, he’ll blow past Eric Brunners single year record for minutes played (2795). There’s a good chance Ricketts and Nagbe will also pass Brunner’s total this year.

Looking at the “core” attack this year it’s potential player of the year Diego Valeri and a much more comfortable and assured Darlington Nagbe. Never underestimate the value of timing, something Caleb Porter would understand from having to build teams with a high turnover and range of ability, and he’s walked into a job with a bunch of young players like Nagbe and Alhassan as well as Valencia and Jean-Baptiste all hitting that point where they are maturing into the footballers we hoped they could be as well as an owner and front office that were eager to set two years of effort right whatever it took. Take nothing away from the work he’s done with these guys, but a keen eye for talent and squad building such as himself would’ve known there was a potential bounty to harvest in Portland if he managed it right, and you can see more and more why he waited for the right job, and why a struggling Portland ticked the right boxes, before stepping up to MLS.

As much as this season was shaping up to be the the Year of the Centre Back, with defenders dropping like flies, the fact is that here we sit with two games between the Timbers and the Supporters Shield, and the last thing on most people’s minds is the horror show in defence. Four clean sheets in the last six, with each one hard fought for and Donovan Ricketts taking the lion-in-zion’s share of plaudits for a string of saves that pretty much raise a middle digit at medical science, given the sense that the big man is, at times, only just held together by the collective intake of breath of the North End late in games these days.

No, in fact 2012 was the year where it all went wrong at the back, and that was despite signing Hanyer Mosquera to solve our problems.

Timbers XI 2012

2012 sees no defenders at all register over 75% of minutes, with Brunner going down with a long injury and nipping a potential partnership with Mosquera in the bud. Also, never underestimate the value of luck in this game, and 2012 saw the Timbers in short supply of it.

Despite seemingly being the guy to mould a stout defence around, Mosquera failed to hit the 75% mark (68%) and though Perkins would’ve got over that mark if he’d, you know, still been here by the end of the year, it’s telling that no defenders saw consistent time that year. Luck played its part, and key injuries certainly didn’t help matters, but bad planning was also a factor as the Timbers failed to build on the previous year’s pretty solid foundation. Cooper aside, 2011 hadn’t gone that terribly, and we nearly did make the playoffs in the end, but when it came to building on what he had, Spencer opted to raize it all and start again, albeit with the same blueprints.

It was Gus Vant’s Psycho, a worthless shot-for-shot remake, only with Kris Boyd cast in the lead as Kenny Cooper, with support from Franck Songo’o as Kalif Alhassan and Steven Smith as company for the million dollar striker. Things duly failed again, and we all know how that turned out.

It could’ve been different. It didn’t have to fail. Boyd is better than Cooper, by a margin, and Songo’o took a holiday at trained at Barcelona, so possessed some decent skills. And I’d’ve taken Smith at left back in February this year if you’d offered him, but Harrington is pretty nifty so I’m happy all the same.

Timbers XI 2012 B

Valeri has been a standout for the Timbers this year, to the surprise of pretty much no-one, and the role of creative midfielder is one fans and writers have been calling out for from day one of MLS Timbers, but was left unfulfilled till Caleb Porter finally brought 21st century soccer to Portland. Eric Alexander could’ve been that guy, but he never fit in here at all, and no-one else was ever really given the job beyond a game here or there, and it left Boyd exposed. Partners came and went, never giving the Scot a chance to build the rapport he needed, and when his own form suffered, his coach responded by lumping more responsibility on him, never once thinking to help his star player by adjusting to play to his strengths. Boyd was never a runner, so it made no sense for Spencer to play a game that stretched play and left penalty-box strikers like Boyd isolated, but that’s what he played, emphasising the wings over players in the centre who could feed the striker balls to feet.

Spencer also failed to solve the right back problem, which was the one position absent on 2011’s “best XI”. Porter has seen to this in both short term – with Jewsbury – and long – with, potentially, Powell – with the likes of Zizzo and Miller in reserve; either guy would’ve improved previous year’s teams, but are mostly kicking their heels this year.

Postseason is imminent. We’ve talked about this moment, and a few of us have probably planned our lives around potential match days, but this is when shit gets real. The coaches and staff all know this, as plenty of them have been over the course at various levels. Carrying momentum in results into the postseason, especially this kind of gritty, hard-to-beat rhythm the Timbers have going right now, is key to going long in the cut-throat knock-out competition that MLS thinks is the best way to crown the year’s best team but even more importantly, Porter knows his team.

Guys like Maxi Urruti have come in and given the team a fresh impetus in attack, and Porter has rested Jean-Baptiste over the run-in to give playing time to the more seasoned Futty Danso, but for the most part his XI is pretty settled. This kind of consistency gives the players a confidence in each other that has been sorely lacking over previous years, and it’s that sense that is providing a platform for Porter’s team to succeed.

Who knows what the team would look like if Portland hadn’t been beset with injuries, but I sense that running with a big squad is not a part of Porter’s agenda and we would be seeing similar playing time numbers all the same. The postseason will ask further questions of the Timbers depth and ability to think on their feet, but so long as Porter has his “core” there’s a sense that he will still find a way to keep it fresh, and to make it work.

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The Outsiders

Nine games into 2013, and so far the Timbers have started four different players at right back, as well as two guys at left back, neither of whom are natural left backs. Crisis, right?

This mirrors, somewhat, the situation in the centre of defence where calamity has piled upon catastrophe and confusion to leave the club in a situation where Donovan Ricketts, a man who seemingly runs the risk of straining a shoulder brushing his teeth, as the one constant figure on the back line. We’re screwed, yeah?

In past years this defensive crisis would have been the point as which Timbers fans buckled in for another bumpy ride, but this year the team are on a seven game unbeaten run, with three clean sheets in the last five games.

So how has Porter got his defence working despite the fact that all common sense is telling us that it shouldn’t?

The coach got a rude awakening in the first couple of matches, losing five goals and gaining a single point from two home games.

MON Harrington LBIn those early couple of games the Timbers played with their full-backs as auxilliary wingers. Both Michael Harrington and Ryan Miller were upgrades of what the team had there before, but both ran into familiar problems in trying to play such an attacking system against teams, Montreal especially, who are happy to sit in and hit on the counter.

NY Miller RBNew England’s game plan was very similar to Montreal’s, but they left with only a point. Progress, but learning how to deal with these kind of ‘we’ll sit here, break us down if you can’ teams will become an increasing factor for Porter’s team as their reputation grows as a team to be respected and feared.

Percentage of passes made in opposing half
Percentage of passes made in opposing half

Porter had his full backs play a little more conservatively after the opening couple of games, replacing Miller with Zemanski in the starting line-up and reining Harrington back a little.

This system served them well over the next couple of games and, following a tweak that saw Jewsbury replace Zemanski, they picked up a couple of home wins and clean sheets. This despite those four games seeing four different centre-back pairings start.

This stability was coming at the cost of attacking incision. There was plenty of pressure, sure, and certainly a chance or two, definitely, but most of it was reliant on someone producing a bit of something special to spark the attack into life and you can only rely on that so often. The introduction of Rodney Wallace against Houston added a,for some,surprising source of this attacking“x factor”.

Where Valeri is the maestro, looking to conduct delicate symphonies with the ball, Wallace is the rocker who kicks the door down and just does his thing without a care. His direct running, and ability to dovetail nicely with Valeri, Nagbe and Johnson, causes nightmares for defences when he’s on form, and he gives the team someone is attack who will happily attack round the outside as well as coming in.

Nagbe doesn’t really offer this on the right side, as he is much more at home cutting into the middle. Ryan Johnson and Diego Valeri have popped up there on occasion, but you’d prefer both to do their work in the middle the park.

RBRetreat

Neither Zemanski or Jewsbury offered as much of an attacking presence down the right as Miller had. The sacrifice was worth it for the sake of adding some defensive stability as Jewsbury’s extra body at the back helped mask problems in the middle.

However, as the team emerged from an impressive four point double header against San Jose, Caleb Porter faced up to the problem down the wings. The previous four games, while bringing in eight points, had seen the team record their four lowest shot tallies of the season so far.

It wasn’t as simple as getting Jewsbury to attack, or even bringing back Ryan Miller, because the positive effect Jack had on the defence seems to outweigh any supposed benefit you’d get from Miller over Jewsbury in attack, or asking Jack to do something un-Jack like attack.

The change Porter made seems so obvious in hindsight, but before that…


Defence

Michael Harrington had shown in those early couple of matches that he could play as an attacking, over-lapping full-back without neglecting his defensive duties. This is important as much of Portland’s plan is predicating on keeping the ball, yes, but also on winning it back quickly. In “Statement of the Obvious of the Week’, the Timbers do best when the opposition don’t have the ball.

Passes refers to Number of Pass Attemtpts in one half
Passes refers to Number of Pass Attemtpts in one half

The match against New York saw the visitors record 199 passes in the first half, but that half exists only as a nightmare where Silvestre forgot where or who he was for 45 minutes, so if you exclude it from the record, opponents that have fewer than 200 passes have scored once in over 300 minutes (the second half vs Montreal). The flipside being that we concede a goal a game in games where the opponents can average over 200 passes per half.

Both Jewsbury and Harrington made a big difference on defence. Despite playing the MLS Cup finalists and the Supporters Shield winners over three games, the Timbers restricted their opponents to an average of 192 passes per half, compared to the 203 over the first four matches.

Even as the Timbers dropped their own pace, going from 6.5 passes per minute across the first two matches to 5.3 in the next two, the fact they were able to starve the opposition of the ball was key to‘fixing’ the defence, and they did this by forcing the other team to misplace their passes, dropping their success rate from 72% in games one to four to 66% in the three games, leading up to Kansas City.

Porter wouldn’t want to sacrifice those defensive gains on a gamble that‘everything was all right now’. Despite Futty and Silvestre being due to start their third match in a row together, equalling the record of Jean-Baptiste and Silvestre, the coach wasn’t about to fall into the trap that a few good results meant that everything was fine back there.

Harrington had been an unsung hero over the season so far, overshadowed by bigger and flashier stories like that of Diego Valeri, or Ryan Johnson, or Will Johnson or Donovan ‘Save of the Week’ Ricketts, despite having all the hallmarks of a patented Portland disaster at left-back. A guy not playing in his natural position, on a back line that was in flux and coming off a season where it had set new standards for ineptitude. This shouldn’t work.

And yet it did, because, in a bold new strategy, the front office had gone out and signed someone good. Like, actually very compentent at kicking the football and running and such. It’s a revelation.

Still, there he was playing on the left when his natural position was on the right.

Porter’s idea was to switch him to the right, and put Jack on the left.


Attack

With Wallace in the side, the team didn’t need someone to go past him on the outside to lend width to attack, which keeps the opposing defence stretched across the field. We saw less of Harrington the wing-back and the lack of attacking thrust from Jewsbury down the right was hurting the attack in that it allowed teams to play tighter, negating space to our creative players in the centre.

The switch of full-backs allowed Porter to take the leash (somewhat) off Harrington, freeing him to attack more, while Jewsbury sat in on the left. On a single game basis against the Wizards, the strategy made sense – it put the more solid Jewsbury against Myers, while Harrington’s attacking threat might put the shackles on Zusi.

The team lost two goals, having lost one in the previous three matches, but they emerged from Kansas City with three points, becoming the first West Coast team to do so in their new stadium. Harrington gave a little more in attack, and Jewsbury did what Jewsbury does, only he did at on the left.

HarJewLB

The switch from Harrington to Jewsbury on the left was pretty seamless, with Jack adding a little more passing stability, upping the success rate from Harrington’s average of 79.7% to 85.2%, with the biggest jump being passes from within his own half (74.9% to 83.3%).

HarLBRBatt

The difference is on the other side, where we’ve seen someone more akin to the guy who started the season on the offensive, and that has helped the attack, without sacrificing defence because Jack’s got it covered.

New England was a frustrating match. The Timbers took more shots than any other match this season, but failed to score for the first time in 2013. The chances were there to win it, but poor finishing, good goalkeeping and bad luck combined to thwart the Timbers, while avoiding scares at the back too. We lose than game to a sickening late goal last year, is all I’m saying.

Games like this are going to happen along the way. Nagbe had an off day with a couple of glaring misses and bad choices, while we struggled to get any consistent interplay between attackers going. It wasn’t helped by the full-backs posting their lowest figures in attacking – the two players combining for only 17.8% of play in the opposing half, thanks to a drop from Harrington from 67% attacking play (passes in opposing half) to 52%.

I’m inclined to put this last match down to a dash of ‘bad night at the office’ syndrome and New England offering a style that Caleb Porter hasn’t quite found the answer to. Yet. He will, I’m sure.

I like Harrington at right back. I like him, flat out, regardless of his passionate hatred of children and small, frail puppies, but I think he offers than little bit extra at right back. I’m not sure where the leaves the defence though. Jewsbury is going nowhere, especially with the loss of Mikael Silvestre, so what roles Ryan Miller, Ben Zemanski and Ryan Kawulok have in the short-term at least is hard to say. Zemanski can at least fill in in midfield, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Miller deployed in the ‘Wallace role’ on the right at some point, but it’s hard to put any of them before Harrington or Jewsbury. And then there’s Sal – Zizzo’s, inconclusive but mostly encouraging, try-outs as a right wing-back were not for shits and giggles.

Besides, we’ve been given a pretty good lesson on the value of depth, and we’d be fools not to heed it, so let’s not take the fact we have guys who can’t get in the team as a bad thing.

The gaffer’s bold, and innovative, choice to fix the defence from the outside-in by bringing some stability to the full-back, Jewsbury adding an ‘old head’ to the back four, worked and the switch of Harrington to the right is the right step on the way to ironing out the kinks in attack.

Given the injury to Silvestre, I doubt the full-back position will see much change over the next few matches. We may see them switch back to counter a specific threat, or exploit a perceived weakness, but I like Harrington and Jewsbury watching the flanks.


Mo’ Problems

Now Caleb Porter has to fix the middle, having jerry-rigged it through the last couple of punishing matches. Pa Modou Kah, signed to play havoc with tweeters and bloggers who liked to abbreviate Alhassan’s name to #KAH as well as cover for the fact that we HAVE NO DEFENDERS, joins after a few years in the middle east. He’ll be 33 in July, and will cover for the 36-in-August Silvestre while he is out injured. At 22, you might have expected to see Dylan Tucker-Gangnes in there by now, certainly in leagues around the world, but still wet behind the ears from college he seems to be one for further down the line. The potential for four of the back five to be over-30 against FC Dallas is pretty high.

In setting a foundation to put the team in contention for the play-offs, Porter has turned to experience, and it’s those experienced players that have been among his best performers. Ricketts, Jewsbury, Silvestre and Harrington have all stepped up this year and, just as Porter’s tactical malleability is putting lie to the notion that the Timbers would be playing like a knock-off Barcelona every week, he is showing that he is much more than guy who only gets the best out of kids.

The Timbers have one home match in the next five, with two trips to Eastern Conference teams and a visit to Dallas to face a team with five win and four clean sheets in five home matches this season.

Porter’s team have already taken big strides this year, but getting a return from their trip to Texas may be his biggest step yet. Any result is likely to be built upon shutting their opponent down, but grabbing the all-important goal will rely on guys like Harrington and Jewsbury striking the right balance between defence and attack.

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

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

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

New Coaches

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tactical Changes

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

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

HOUsilvestredefence

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

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

HOUValeriNagbe

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

HOUValeriShot

F-ing the P-word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clashing Styles

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

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

Old Heads

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

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

HOUinexpdefence

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

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

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

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

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

Comfort Zone

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

houpressadv

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

HOUWallacechance

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

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

More Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#RCTID

Balance: Timbers seek balance in 2-2 draw with Rapids

Four games into the 2013 season and the Timbers have been behind by two goals in three of them, coming back to snatch a couple of points from the jaws of defeat.

The Timbers have also been behind by a couple of goals on their previous three trips to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, and had shown none of the determination to get back into the game that Caleb Porter’s team did this time around. Rather than go to the customary 3-0 defeat, the Timbers rallied to draw 2-2 thanks to two goals from Will Johnson.

There’s something to be said for that kind of resilience. I’m not sure we’d get it in previous season, and I certainly don’t think we’d get the tactical changes by Caleb Porter that have, mostly, worked to turn a match around in Portland’s favour.

But, there’s also something to be said for not gifting teams a couple of goals head start before trying to reel them in. The Timbers have been schizophrenic this season, with two almost entirely different sides seemingly starting and finishing the games.

To underline the disparity, if points were awarded for winning individual halves the Timbers would have zero from all the first halves, and a goal difference of 1-6, but would have won three and drawn one of the second halves, outscoring the opposition 6-2.

Losing five goals in the opening two matches, winning only one point from a home doubleheader, seems to have chastened Porter somewhat. The return to fitness of Jack Jewsbury has allowed the coach to adopt a strategy that stays true to his fundamental beliefs in ball retention and tactical flexibility while looking add a bit more defensive protection by playing the club captain as a deep lying midfielder.

Jewsbury played his part in the Timbers’ draw in Seattle, so his inclusion against Colorado came as little surprise. It seemed to make perfect sense in terms of Porter’s strategy in playing at altitude. Keeping the ball, and making the Rapids players hustle after it was a part of it, and the team played a little deeper and pressed less, presumably to conserve energy.

Chara Johnson Pressing

The problem was that we never really made Colorado work all that hard without the ball. Part of the reason was that our passing was so poor at times we simply gave them the ball back, and let them control the tempo of the game.

passes per minuteKeeping the Passes Per Minute up would’ve worked the Rapids defence and midfield hard, and the Timbers had the likes of Alhassan, Trencito and Piquionne on the bench to go after tired legs late on.

The two halves against Colorado see the Timbers record their lowest PPM this season. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the passing accuracy against the Rapids was also at an all time low. Colorado never managed a PPM of over 5 either, as the game was played at a much slower tempo than either of the home matches this season.

While much of the Timbers’ passing woes were self-inflicted, the Rapids also did a good job of pressing the Timbers backline. Porter quickly had to adjust the way the team brought the ball out of defence.

ricketts

Clearly, after seeing the pressure the Rapids were putting on in the first ten minutes, the signal went out to Ricketts to go long. A subsequent attempt to play out from the back also led to the opening goal for the Rapids in 17 minutes.

Colorado Goal 1

It’s easy to criticise Jewsbury here because he’s the guy who’s nearest, but not near enough, to the shot from Powers, so the initial question is “why didn’t he close the shot down?” Chara lending himself to harrying after the ball in the corner left Jewsbury with two players to keep an eye on, and he does what he can to close the shot down but it was a helluva strike. Do this play over again and Jewsbury gets a block in, or the ball is ballooned over the bar.

I don’t even think it’s Chara’s fault. He was doing his job in a system that asked him to be something different from moment to moment. Played in the middle with Will Johnson and Jack Jewsbury, the way the team were set up with attackin width from Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri, Chara also had to cover across to the right-side as Valeri doesn’t bring a great defensive game to an unfamiliar position on the right flank.

He was doing that there, looking to help turn the ball over in a dangerous area. The problem is that despite recognising the need to add some defensive steel to the team, Porter hasn’t yet found the right blend.

To accommodate Jewsbury in the centre, we’ve sacrificed Valeri out wide. He’s played there for a bit against Montreal and Seattle already, and not really shown his best side in the role. The quandary for Porter is that Valeri’s ability makes it tempting to rely on him too much, and that to do so would make the team too one-dimensional and risk teams developing strategies solely to “deal” with Valeri. So we want to find ways to utilise his ability in ways and areas that make it much harder for opponents to adjust to, which makes sense, but as we do so we lose much of what he brings to the attack in the meantime, with no guarantee that Valeri will ever be suited to play the wide role in an attacking three.

There have been long spells in the past couple of games where you wouldn’t have known Valeri was on the pitch. In order to get involved in the play he has to come inside, and this leaves the team unbalanced down the right, pulling Chara across.

shotsIn the last match, this made it difficult for us to carve out decent chances at goal, in the first half especially. Since switching from the 4-2-3-1 to the 4-1-2-2-1, we’ve closed up the defence a bit but lost some attacking thrust. Though we picked up a bit in the second half against the Rapids, it was still only half the number of shots we got off in the second half of the New York match.

noattacking support

Part of the problem is that Valeri isn’t a natural striker, and 26 goals in over 170 games before coming to Portland suggest he’s not the guy to make those runs. He works best in the “hole”, making the passes that pick out those attacking runs, but we’ve been unable to get him there in the past couple of matches.

It leaves Caleb Porter a selection headache and that headache’s name is Jack Jewsbury.

Part of the reason I questioned Jewsbury’s spot in the team was that I couldn’t see any way to fit him in that didn’t hurt us in some way. I put him behind Will Johnson and Diego Chara for a spot, but that’s not to say he doesn’t add to the team when he’s selected – a passing accuracy of 85% against Colorado is way above the team average, so in terms of circulating the ball well, he does okay. And I don’t blame him for the first goal for the Rapids.

However, in the 135 minutes that Jewsbury has played in the last couple of games, the Timbers have scored one and conceded three. In the 45 minutes he’s been on the bench, the Timbers are two-zero.

Clearly that’s far too small a sample to conclude anything major, and those 45 minutes have been when the Timbers a chasing down a single goal deficit, so you’d expect some more attacking play – hence Jewsbury’s removal for more attacking options of the bench.

In correcting for over-balancing in attack in the first couple of games, it seems we’ve slipped a little too far the other way. The problem, as far as I can see it, is that in fitting Jewsbury into the midfield three, we’re inevitably going to lose some of our attacking threat by asking them to do jobs they’re not best suited for.

Valeri out wide on the right didn’t work. Porter adjusted, adopting a diamond formation. Chara went right, and Valeri came back into the centre. Though this seems better designed to accommodate Jewsbury and still play Valeri in his best position, it then asked Nagbe to play a role he’s not suited to.

We’ve seen Darlington used in a variety of positions as Spencer tried to figure out how best to use him. For me, Nagbe’s key area is that area left of centre, 30 yards from goal. That’s where you want to see Nagbe getting his head up, with the ball at his feet, and running at defenders. You don’t want him 50 yards from goal, linking up play, though he can do that, and I don’t think you want it spearheading the attack. As I said, he’s a guy I want running at players with the ball, not timing runs in behind them.

If anyone knows how to get the best out of Nagbe, it’ll be Caleb Porter. He’s put him out left thus far, asking him to make those diagonal runs at goal. Somewhat underrated is Nagbe’s defensive game – he works hard out wide, and his tracking back is night and day to that of the Timbers’ other mercurial wide attacker, Kalif Alhassan.

He’s not a striker though, and Piquionne isn’t here to watch Nagbe play that position ahead of him too often this season.

Valeri OptionsAs well as playing Nagbe out of position, the diamond doesn’t really offer Valeri as many options around him as the 4-2-3-1 does.

The diamond really limits your wide attacking options, and puts a lot on the full-backs to do the leg work. Ryan Johnson will also drift wide to add to the threat, but with the 4-2-3-1 the opposition have to deal with runs either side of the full-back and a mobile striker.

To be fair, it was from Johnson (Ryan) drifting out wide that the Timbers got back into the game, after a somewhat questionable penalty decision had put the Rapids up 2-0. Johnson (Ryan) crossed a sweet left-footed ball to the near post, where Johnson (Will) lost his man to head home.

A case could be made that the value of playing a designated sitter in Jewsbury is that it frees Will Johnson and Diego Chara to be a little more forward thinking and spontaneous, but I didn’t see enough of this from either player to compensate for losing the extra attacker to play Captain Jack.

The problem is that despite being there to add defensive steel to the team, as long as there are issues behind Jack, goals will be lost despite him.

David Horst started in place of Mikael Silvestre, the only change from the Seattle game. Horst’s game is a little different to Silvestre’s, and perhaps not as suited to the possession style Porter wanted, especially as the Rapids harried the backline.

silvestrehorst

The natural assumption to make would be that Horst is 3rd in line, and that Silvestre will resume duties alongside Andrew Jean-Baptiste. That makes sense as Jean-Baptiste has started the season fairly well, and has most to learn from playing alongside Silvestre. There are still moments where his relative rawness is all too apparent, such as the lead up to Colorado’s second goal.

Colorado Goal 2 AJB header

It’s a bit of rash play from a rookie defender, though I wonder if he does that with the Silvestre guiding him. The next time a similar ball comes across, I’m sure he makes the right choice. That’s part of the learning process, and it can be cruel at times but as long as they’re all new mistakes, and not the same ones over and over, then at least you’re learning from them.

Mosquera’s leave of absence puts a large question mark over his future, and Futty Danso looks to have fallen behind Dylan Tucker-Gangnes. I can’t help but bring to mind the scenes of David Brent in The Officfe specials, turning up at the old office uninvited when I think of Futty. *sadface*

So, a veteran, a couple of rookies and a host of guys who served time on one of the league’s worst defences last season. It’s not rich pickings, and finding the right balance and system that minimises our defensive deficiencies without also sacrificing our attacking verve isn’t going to be done in a few games.

Is Jack Jewsbury the answer? I’m not sure he is, but the fact is the Timbers return from two tricky road trips unbeaten. Can’t say that’s been the case too often. That we’re still doing things the hard way is concerning, though. It may be that until we settle on a back five, and they start to find a rhythm together, we’ll see more performances like this.

It comes as no real surprise though. I wrote before the season that I thought we’d see a more pragmatic approach from Porter early on. It was easy in those days to get carried away with videos from Akron and speculation about what Porter would bring to the Timbers.

As Caleb Porter himself has noted, it’s a results business at the end of the day. I don’t think the Timbers would be over the top in their expectations for this season given the scale of the turnover, but there’s no reason why they can’t find themselves in contention for being one of the five best of nine Western Conference teams.

These early months will see a lot of tinkering and experimentation to find the right balance, but if the Timbers are to reach the playoffs, they need to stay in contention through a very tough schedule. The next four matches see the Timbers play 2012 playoff teams. If the Timbers have grind out some wins through the next eight games or so, there’s no reason why they can’t push on as the schedule eases up through the run-in.

With two home matches coming up, Caleb Porter has the chance to spend that extra bit of time with the players on some issues. How Porter lines up will tell us a lot about how far along the coach himself feels the team are. We could see Jewsbury start, and give the diamond another go, or perhaps at the expense of Diego Chara who has been at about 85% of his old Chara-ness for me – still better than most, but just a little down of his usual standards. Perhaps we’ll see Alhassan recalled, or Piquionne start with Johnson going wide, and we revert to the 4-2-3-1.

I suspect what we’re seeing right now is the very reason Jack Jewsbury is still on the roster. He’s not the future of the team, and his presence is somewhat awkward is some respects, but he can help with the transition towards the team that the Timbers will be.

The Porter era was labeled “Timbers 2.0” by some, but really what he have right now is more a pre-release Alpha. Timbers 2.0 will actually be launched sometime during Q2 or Q3 of 2013.

It’d be nice to win, and damn entertaining, to win 4-3, but right now I’d take a scrappy 1-0 with the ball cannoning in off a defender’s knee as long as it represents a step towards a bright future without having to sacrifice results.

After Seattle: Tactical Adjustments, Rodney Wallace and Defending Cascadia

I wish I’d been there. But instead I was in the front room of my apartment watching the game. I miss the chanting. I miss the excitement. I miss my friends. I miss the TA. But there is one advantage to watching at home…  you get to see the whole game. Let’s be honest, by a show of hands – OK so your probably in your underwear sitting in bed or something but you can at least nod along appreciatively- who has missed an important incident at a game because they were: tetrising, looking at their capo, talking with their neighbour, distracted by an incident in the crowd, had their view obstructed by a flag, scarf or other such object. We all have. It’s fantastic and much better than sitting at home watching a stream. But that’s what I have to do. I also may have lost any competitive analysis advantage I gained by the fact that it was 3am and I was sleepy. So if these are inaccurate please take your concerns up with someone who cares, like Kevin.

Here are a few quick points that I noticed in the game. Some positive, some not so positive.

1. Caleb Porter. Did you see that John “4-4-2” Spencer??? That’s called a tactical adjustment! Good job Caleb. Now in order to highlight why the tactical adjustment I need to say something complimentary about Seattle. It hurts to say this but Seattle are a good team. They’ve qualified for the playoffs every year since 2009. They are hard to play anywhere, but especially at clink. Porter saw that and made a tactical adjustment from the rough 4-3-3 we’ve been playing. This is something that very rarely happened under Spencer or Gavin. Porter has now shown he is not afraid to adjust tactics in game and for tougher matches. Until Portland becomes a dominant MLS force this is a very wise move. In this game the adjustment was semi successful. Jewsbury added a lot of support to the defence and was a big help in coping with Seattle’s potent attack. There were some not so positive things but we’ll talk about that a bit later. I’m just excited to see a manager willing to try new things and adjust to teams!

2. Rodney Wallace. There are certain things that elevate your status among supporters. Scoring against rivals is one of them. Scoring a late leveling goals is a big one. Do it twice… well in my book that’s pretty instant legendary status. Forever. Nothing Wallace does on the pitch takes away the fact. Only thing that can take it away is something really bad happen off the field (e.g. Gavin Wilkinson, Andrew F’in Gregor etc.). I’d also like to publicly say that I always liked Rodney Wallace, even when you didn’t. He is actually my second favourite Rodney Wallace ever. Sunday morning he became my favourite Rodney Wallace ever. I think Rod become a bit of a scapegoat for a team that was in general poor, particularly down the flank. But I think he has attributes that will continue to serve the team well.

3. Andrew Jean Baptiste. He literally looked like he was going to get shredded to pieces by Eddy Johnson for the first half hour or so. He did on the goal (by no means the only person at fault here). Again when he was deservedly booked for hauling Johnson down.  But he responded impressively with maturity beyond his years. On a yellow card, facing a prolific and pacey attack AJB handled it with class and was a key part of an impressive second half defensive display from Portland. There was one highly impressive piece of work when Johnson was trying to connect with a through ball. He’d gotten the wrong side of AJB and was potentially one on one with Ricketts. AJB did everything that could be considered legal to keep Johnson out. Really making his presence felt physically, but without giving the ref any reason to give a pk. Of course Johnson tried to claim that penalty, but to no avail. It was really an impressive recovery from a poor start by Jean Baptiste. Of course, his night ended spectacularly with a beautiful assist for Wallace.

4. Lack of Shape. This was the hiccup in Caleb’s plan. For much of the night the midfield seemed a little shapeless. Other than Jack playing deep. Valeri continually drifted to his natural central role, this often forced Chara or Johnson out wider. Neither of them looked comfortable out there, so in turn they would drift back in. Thus, we didn’t really have any width. Nagbe provided some, but ultimately he is a right footed player playing on the left with the intention of drifting in and playing through balls or taking shots (PLEASE SHOOT MOAR NAGBE!). Width, of course, isn’t the be all and end all of football games. But it is a huge help in opening up space and creating chances. Creativity and passing have improved on the Timbers this year but we are still going to have difficulty in passing the ball through teams without using and creating space out wide. In turn that width will actually create more space in the middle. It’s also were our one goal against Seattle came; a cross from the brilliant winger Andrew Jean-Baptiste.

5. Freddy “Hernandez” Piquionne. Of course it was a small debut for the big man from West Ham (please note the West Ham is pronounced West ‘aam … it’s a cockney thing). But I was impressed with a few things. First, he is big and he knows what to do with it. He won several aerial challenges I don’t think any other Timber would have won. Second, his assurance on the ball. He was calm in possession always. I see this as a key sign of a player that has been there and done that. It’s a great attribute to be able to bring into the game. He didn’t look like he was going to let up the league and he may not be a huge headline setter but I believe Freddy has a few key things to bring to this Timbers setup. Sometimes off the bench and maybe sometimes from the start.

6. Staying in the fight. Again. It happened. Conceded first again and thought for a draw. 3 games in which we’ve been behind, twice by two goals and we’ve never looked down. It’s like the opposite of 2011. It’s brilliant.

7. Defend Cascadia. Well an away draw is a pretty good way to start the defence of the cup. The circumstances of it were of course brilliant. But in reality if we win our home Cascadia matches and draw away we will be in a great chance of retaining. If we can win at home and pick up one away win we will contain. And it is our house, in the middle of BC.

Believe

I made my first road trip last weekend, as one of the Timbers Army that marched (or more accurately, bussed) deep into darkest, fishiest Mordor, past the Black Gates of Tacoma to face a team that have done the seemingly impossible by getting rid of Fredy Montero and still managing to be even more unlikeable this year than last.

Though a little bemused by, or completely unaware of, the local orcish tribe who seemed so taken by the notion of fire that they were burning scarves just so as to gaze into the hypnotic flames. Their fervor can be the only explanation for why they were so quiet during the match, since even their own fellow customers complained of not being able to enjoy their Groupon-ed Entertainment Experience™ in their customarily gentle corporate lull.

The biggest noise from the home crowd came when Eddie Johnson scored, though even then the hubbub wasn’t enough to remind Eddie that they were present as the striker chose to celebrate in front of the traveling fans, most of whom could only see him on the Jumbotron from their acoustically-beneficial position in the clouds.

Despite the second half taking the shape of one of those all-too familiar “been here, done that, sacked the coach” situations where the Timbers would limp out with a moral victory, a metric thus far unaccounted for by short-sighted MLS administrators, but no points on the road, and a loss against them.

With time running out, and home customers by this point more anxious about beating traffic than their greatest rivals, a ball was thrown into the box by future US defender (the needless hype starts here, cos that’s always healthy) Andrew Jean-Baptiste, and Rodney Wallace rose unmarked at the near post to send the remaining customers into a mild sulk.

Away fans celebrated with gentlemanly handshakes and backslaps, and threw their hats into the air with a raucous cheer (or lost their shit entirely, one of the two), and the Army left having seen the team earn a point, kicking a dent in Sigi Schmid’s assertion that this year was Seattle’s turn to win the Cascadia Cup because they have two of the three derby games at home.

I’m sure I’ll get round to watching the game again soon, and probably writing a thing or two on the game and what we’ve seen from Porter’s Timbers so far. There are two weeks to fill till the next game, after all! When standing in a crowd of drunk lunatics (and I mean that in the very fondest sense) it’s sort of difficult to really follow the game in any great depth, so it’ll have to wait for now.

It was clearly also difficult for the Jumbotron to follow what was going on, with the Timbers new signing “Hernandez” coming on late in the game, cunningly disguised as Freddy Piquionne.

As an aside, I assume the Jumbotron has gained or will inevitably gain sentience like Skynet and will soon see what has been obvious to fans around the country since their club invented football, that the Sounders fan base is worthless and compel them to commit mass suicide as part of the turgid half-time “entertainment”.

That Jean-Baptiste and Wallace had combined to both earn, and make, a big point on the road got me thinking of when the two last shared the park last season. Early season injuries had put Jean-Baptiste in, and Wallace had started Spencer’s second season as first choice left back. Almost exactly a year ago the Timbers led 1-0, thanks to a Boyd goal, at home to Chivas USA when Wallace was subbed out at half-time. They lost 2-1, not because Wallace was subbed out or that Mike Chabala came on, but because Fucking 2012™, that’s why.

That match and the one that followed in LA, where Boyd scored one of the best goals of his career only to see it ruled out because Fucking 2012™, were the blows that knocked much of the early season optimism, and remaining belief in coach Spencer, out of fans

The Costa Rican international was a big part of Spencer’s vision for football in Soccer City, such that he willingly gave up Dax McCarty and allocation money to get him. The small group of players that played more minutes in 2011 than Wallace makes for interesting reading: Brunner, Jewsbury, Perkins, Cooper, Chara, Alhassan, Perlaza and Futty. Four those are gone, and only two took the field against Seattle.

Despite being a big part of Spencer’s plans, though the signing of Mike Chabala indicated that at least someone had their doubts about Rodney at left-back, Wallace played 700 fewer minutes in 2012, dropping behind the likes of Smith, Songo’o, Alexander, Palmer and the midseason experiment in catastrophe failing to trump likeability, Kimura.

He’s made sub appearances in all three of the Timbers matches this season, and a goal makes a compelling case to give him a chance to earn a bigger place in Caleb Porter’s PTFC 2.0. It would be a big turnaround for a guy whose name was often followed by “and Palmer” by fans as a prime example of the clubs very visible failure to get the best out of the full-back position, and in finding value in players with MLS experience.

For every Jack Jewsbury or Eric Brunner there’s a Lovel Palmer, Kenny Cooper, Eric Alexander or Adam Moffat. Troy Perkins – can the Timbers even claim to have gotten the best of the him now that he seems to be more solid behind a couple of old Italians?

Yet, clearly (or at least I hope) John Spencer and Gavin Wilkinson had an overarching vision for this group of players. It got me thinking about what kind of team we’d be watching if all those guys had clicked in 2011.

The direct football in that first season, with the rush of goals from Kenny Cooper negating the need for a costly experiment in importing goals from Scotland for 2012, would’ve only emboldened John Spencer to further build a team in the image of his particular Dr Frankenstein, Dominic Kinnear.

In a strange way, I’m sort of glad it didn’t work. Not that I like losing. I’m a very bad loser. I don’t even let my kids beat me at Candyland. But I have to say there were times that I didn’t really like watching the actual football over the past couple of years. I much prefer watching what we’ve seen thus far from Caleb Porter’s team. And it is his team as much of the house that Spencer built has been cast away.

The changes go beyond those of style or formation, or even all the new faces to get used to; the whole atmosphere is different. Different in good way. There’s a real sense that there’s some substance to the fan’s customary early-season optimism now, much of which comes from the new head coach.

Caleb Porter seems like more of a Portland Timbers head coach than John Spencer, who was a Portland Timbers head coach, if the emphasis makes sense to you. If it doesn’t, what I mean is I get the feeling that the reason things feel better is that Porter gets it.

He gets us.

And most importantly, he gets football.

John Spencer may get another chance to take charge of a team but it’s hard to shake the belief that he’s one that group of managers who make much better coaches. Believe me, as a Scot and a Killie fan, I’d have loved to see Spenny and Boydy light it up in 2012, but it wasn’t to be and though it’s very early for Porter, I’m impressed at the start he’s making in Portland.

The roster is flexible enough now, and deep in some areas, that the team can fluidly move in the 4-3-3 shape, going from 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-2-2-1 (sorry, numbers. I can’t help it) and back, or even morphing from 4-3-3 to a 2-up top diamond as the situation demands.

Aye, it would be nice to win a game or twenty. Two points from three games, and six goals conceded, doesn’t make for the greatest record though it did take Gavin Wilkinson six games to get two points, and his team conceded fifteen on the way. There are concerns, but it still doesn’t dampen the belief that we’re on the right path and that’s it’s surely only a matter of time before the Timbers are gearing up for cold November nights of post-season soccer under the floodlights.

But it may not be this year. There are still spots in the roster that need work, and it’s unlikely that Porter’s going to hit on the magic combination straight off the bat – how many “classic” teams were the very first starting XI put together by a head coach/manager? I’m going to bet very few, if any. There’s some tough time ahead, no doubt, but all we can ask if for more good times than bad.

And the Cup. The Cup stays. That is not up for negotiation.

In 2014 we’ll be a year further into Jean-Baptiste and Nagbe’s development, Jake Gleeson will have been mentored into a top MLS goalkeeper, Diego Valeri will have had a year to wrap his head around MLS refs and Caleb Porter would’ve thoroughly drunk Mike Petke’s milkshake.

In short, this is only the start. The open beta. Some guys will pass through like Silvestre and Piquionne but, unlike with Kris Boyd and Franck Songo’o, this transience is entirely part of the design and not a symptom of the problem.

Porter is blending experience with youth, and looking to get more out of established MLS players than his predecessor. Will Johnson, Michael Harrington and Ryan Johnson all look like solid acquisitions, and despite the whole captain/club captain thing there’s little doubt that Johnson is the guy that founds the new Timbers. He’s the lynchpin in midfield and though Valeri is the guy that drives the attack, Porter’s Timbers are much more in the image of Will Johnson than Diego Valeri. It presses, works hard, and looks to play tidy passes to control the game.

Guys like Wallace, or Alhassan; Nagbe or Chara; these players are throwbacks or carry-overs from the old regime, but now they all have the chance to stake their place in the Timbers’ future. For Wallace it’s been a fleeting glimpse, with only 22 minutes across the three games, but he’s given his chances of more minutes the world of good now. In the spirit of renewal, it seems only fair to give him a fresh start.

I’ve not been his biggest fan, and been pretty critical on occasion, but I always felt he gave reasonable value as a versatile squad player coming in off the bench. It may be the ultimately that is his role at the Timbers, but the change in philosophy could be what the player needed too.

I don’t want to get carried away too early, but last season we lose that game with, no doubt, the “28 year old” Sounders debutant scoring a late goal to set off more fireworks, a tactic designed to rouse the locals from their gentle slumber for a half-hearted round of applause and Jumbotron led chant/weak-ass flash mob dance moves. The TA leaves sickened, twitter turns blue and Merritt Paulson’s is a blur of tweet-and-delete popcorn fodder.

Rinse and repeat.

The comeback against New York, the near-comeback against an increasingly impressive looking Montreal, and now a point at the death in the Clink all speak to a new spirit in the team, so I’ll take these moments and hold on to them even as the defensive slips or failure to score first yet tug at me to start worrying because I truly think that it’ll get fixed.

Teams are already wary of the Timbers new style.The second half against New York sent out a signal, and while it’s too early to say whether Montreal played so defensively because of who they were playing or just because that’s just who they are, rarely do you see Seattle, at home, look so willing to just ride out a match at 1-0 with so long still to go.

Maybe it was fatigue having played midweek, because fuck knows 4 early-season games in 14 days is a horribly punishing schedule for professional athletes, or maybe it was because the Timbers simply aren’t going to accept defeat and controlled the game in the Sounders own backyard.

If we can only close the door at the back, we could turn these points into three. The Timbers now have a couple of weeks to work (mostly) together on the training field before they travel to play the Rapids in a couple of weeks. After that comes another two home games.

The trip to Colorado will be the fourth time the clubs have met at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. 1-3, 0-3, 0-3 reads the record of the first three games and having won and lost only 1-0 at Jeld-Wen, there does seem to be something about playing at altitude that didn’t agree with Spencer’s and Wilkinson’s teams. The next match is another test for Porter’s boys, but they can at least take comfort in the fact that it’s the only visit there on league business in 2013.

Houston Dynamo and a home/away double-header against San Jose Earthquakes follows and from there the Timbers have only 2 home matches in the next 7. By then the season will be 14 games old, and we’ll have a good idea how things are going to go in 2013.

By that stage Spencer had amassed 18 and 15 points in 2011 and 2012 respectively, and Wilkinson’s side had earned 11 points in the first 14 games of his interimship. It’s hard to put a figure on what the Timbers will have in 2013 by that stage as so much remains a work-in-progress, but anything in the Spencer range would put the team in a good positions down the stretch, where they have a run of three home matches in a row, and will play four of the last six at Jeld-Wen Field, all against Western Conference rivals.

The old football cliche is that it’s the hope the kills you, but it what makes the success all the more special when it finally does come. I was fortunate enough to see my local club, Kilmarnock, win two cups in my lifetime. This is a club that I can still recall playing in the lower leagues so I know how those fans who were TA before there even was a TA would feel to see their club lift some silverware.

My mood was best summed up by another fan on the bus home – “we got a draw that felt like a win”. The wins are coming.

We don’t just hope, we believe.

#RCTID

Best Laid Plans

Valencia’s miss wasn’t part of the script. It wasn’t supposed to happen like that. It was meant to flash off his boot, beyond the despairing Troy Perkins and into the roof of the net, setting off a riot of noise and smoke in the massed ranks of the Timbers Army only yards away.

That was what should’ve happened.

What did happen was Trencito’s tame effort was easily saved by a grateful Perkins, and moments later the referee’s whistle signaled the end of a very fruitful week in Cascadia for Montreal Impact, and left the Timbers with a sole point to show for an opening home double header.

There was another storyline-in-waiting out there late night. The stage seemed set upon Perkins’ return for him to outshine Donovan Ricketts, and I’m sure there were at least a couple of people in the organization who feared that happening more than anyone.

Despite hearing a few folks on the way home expressing sadness or anger at having traded Perkins for Ricketts, the fact is that Ricketts actually had a pretty good game. He came up big a couple of crucial moments, and he had no chance with the two goals Montreal scored.

The first goal, a looping overhead by Camara after the Timbers failed to clear a set piece, was simply a very good (or very lucky) strike that rendered Ricketts a spectator. The second goal came from such short range that there was little but hope to get lucky that Ricketts could do.

The match ended 2-1 in favour of the visitors, who have to be credited with a display that was as resolute and disciplined in defence as you’re likely to see in MLS.

Nevertheless, it’s another game where the Timbers have dominated possession and territory but lost the opening goal, fallen behind by two and been left chasing the game.

I had a sense going into the game that the first goal would decide this match. Scoring first is always a good thing to do, but given the way this game was set-up, I felt that here it would be decisive.

The reason for that was that both teams fit together like puzzle pieces. One one hand you have the attacking, possession-based Timbers, on the other the defensive, counter-attacking Impact.

Had Portland gotten the first goal it could’ve drawn the Impact out of their 4-1-4-1 shell, allowing Portland to pick holes in their defence.

The first goal, when it did come off the boot of Camara, meant Montreal were able to focus on getting numbers behind the ball and letting Portland push on further, with the hope of springing a quick counter for a second goal.

That goal came an hour in when Will Johnson gave up possession on a poor pass in midfield.

montreal2goal

The pass from Bernier was very well weighted, but the move highlighted a couple of issues for the Timbers last night.

The Easiest Position

Caleb Porter clearly wants to see his full-backs pushed on and contributing to keeping an attack going, even if they’re not necessarily the guys we’re looking to to hit the byline and get the cross in. This is especially true with Michael Harrington who is hampered by being a naturally right-footed player playing on the left side.

This limits Harrington’s options in those final twenty yards to the byline, inevitably forcing him inside to his right foot to whip it to the back post.

Ryan Miller is at least on his natural side, and plays an attacking game, but on a night when his touch and passing seemed to be off, he becomes more of a liability than an asset.

passingaccuracyMiller wasn’t the only guy to see his pass accuracy dip from last week, but his was the sharpest fall. 21.4% fewer passes reached their man, and each of Miller’s defensive colleagues also saw their numbers dip.

Andrew Jean-Baptiste continues to impress on the defensive side, developing into a very promising defender, but his on-the-ball work still needs a bit of refinement. Despite getting some minutes last season, he’s still got a lot to learn, and picking when to go long is one of those things that will come from more work on the training ground and more game minutes. For me, there’s still a few too many “Spencerballs” lofted forward in a seemingly indiscriminate way.

To return to the outside backs, Porter likes to see them pushed on and involved at the best of times, even moreso when the team are chasing a goal as in Montreal’s second goal.

It’s a high-wire act as you have to balance the defence and attack, and be especially wary when facing a team that is built to counter-attack. The cheap giveaway by Johnson caught Harrington and Miller up the field, giving the Impact a 4-on-2 against Silvestre and Jean-Baptiste.

The ball takes Silvestre out of the centre, and with no-one else getting back in time, the finish is a pretty routine one for Felipe.

Montreal Win The Battle

The other issue I think the goal above reflects is the change in system that Porter implemented at half-time. I wrote in my post on the New York game that Porter had made several tweaks at half-time that brought out the best in his team, leading to a stirring comeback. He was busy again this week, with more marked changes.

formationchange

The above shows the average positions for each player during the first half, and the first 25 minutes of the second.

Ben Zemanski made his Timbers debut, replacing Kalif Alhassan at half-time, as Porter sought to find a way through the massed ranks in blue.

It was more than a simple personnel change though, as it brought with it a change in formation. The previous 4-3-3, which takes more of a 4-2-3-1 shape, became a 4-1-2-2-1 with Zemanski dropping behind Will Johnson and Diego Chara and Diego Valeri vacating his central role for Alhassan’s previous station on the right.

Pre-game, I’d highlighted the midfield battle as being key to the game. Montreal, in the first half at least, won the battle and, by making the changes he did, Caleb Porter seems to have thought so too.

We’ve been here before, of course. There were times under John Spencer when the Timbers would seemingly roll into a match without giving the opposition’s tactics a second thought. This bloody-minded “let’s make them adjust to our tactics” approach is all well and good when you have the talent to pull it off, but when you have the roster of an, at best, mid-table team, then a bit of preparation and adjustment goes a long way.

Caleb Porter’s Timbers are a better technical squad than Spencer’s, and having run into a situation where his tactics weren’t working against an opponent that was doing it’s work well, Porter didn’t vacillate on making a change. He was decisive and made a bold choice to get Valeri out of the middle – and away from Bernier – and pit him against the (for Montreal’s defence) relatively inexperienced Jeb Brovsky, right under the noses of a riled-up Timbers Army.

The game was marked by the lack of space allowed by Montreal, and the attacking three of Nagbe-Valeri-Alhassan were stifled by it in the first half, where every halfway heavy touch, or marginally off-target pass was pounced upon by a blue shirt and cleared from danger.

The addition of Zemanski would also go someway to denying Montreal space to work in front of the Timbers defence, an area where Di Vaio, Felipe and Arnaud had gotten some joy in the first half.

Wary of quick counters, Silvestre and Jean-Baptiste played a fraction deeper to kill any space over the top. Where playing a little deeper had had a knock-on effect that seemed to throw the attack out of sync against New York, it worked here because Zemanski’s presence there kept it glued together.

However, by essentially ceding that central attacking midfield zone, the Timbers allowed Bernier a bit of freedom. Now, if you’re playing a team who have a “destroyer” in there, someone whose sole job is to win back the ball, you can make this move and take him out of the game because he has little to contribute to their attack.

Bernier is a little different. He can play. Credit to Montreal for staying disciplined, and Bernier for not getting carried away and abandoning his post – a luxury afforded by being a goal up – but that didn’t stop the player moving up when the opportunity arises, as it did when Will Johnson gave the ball away an hour in.

With Valeri in the middle, maybe Bernier still moves forward to play that pass, but with no-one there, there was no reason for him not to.

It’s perhaps telling that Porter’s next change saw him abandon this new shape in favour of how the Timbers started – Zemanski going to right back to replace the out-of-sorts Miller, Trencito taking over out right and Valeri returning to the centre.

Portland would eventually get their goal from Ryan Johnson, who caught Camara sleeping on a Ben Zemanski ball to the back post, and would come close to an equaliser, but it wasn’t to be.

Before all that though, Montreal had a chance to go 3-0 up, but were thwarted by Michael Harrington on the line.

Communication Breakdown

pooroffside

The chance above is a simple case of a defence out of sync. Entirely to be expected given the turnover there this off-season, but still annoying to see.

Silvestre steps up, leaving his man free. No-one else does. In a flash, Montreal have gone from having seven Timbers outfield players between the ball and goal, to a one-on-one against Ricketts.

The team are still seeking the right balance at the back, but Porter’s options are rather limited. For sure, the club have a lot of centre-backs on their roster, but I’d harbour doubts about Horst or Danso playing this kind of system, and Mosquera’s standing in the squad seems unclear, at best. That leaves Tucker-Gangnes, but Porter may be resistant to throwing the rookie into a system that is still being figured out.

Paying the Penalty

The Timbers continued their long streak without a penalty, having gone the entire 2012 campaign without getting a single spot kick, despite what many fans thought was a clear foul on Ryan Miller.

The incident happened shortly before half-time, and in waving it away, referee Edvin Jurisevic denied the Timbers a chance to go in at the break on level-terms.

For me, it looks like a penalty. There’s not a great deal in it, but it certainly seems like the Montreal player instigates contact with no real attempt to play the ball. Ryan Miller perhaps goes down a little too easily, but the referee doesn’t seem to have thought he’d dived since he didn’t book him, so he must’ve read the contact was fair.

He wasn’t (or was he?) helped by his assistant, who should’ve had a good view of the incident, and neither was he helped by being so far behind the play.

refereeposition

The referee starts running when he is about 13 yards behind the ball. It takes approximately 4.1 seconds from here till Miller is bundled over.

Going by the general fitness test standards for a professional referee (sustained running at around 4.5 yards/sec, and sprinting at 6.6 y/s). Let’s be generous and say that Jurisevic is one of the faster, fitter refs, meaning that you would expect him to travel between 23 and 35 yards from his starting spot until contact is made in the box. This would leave him, at best, a good 25 yards behind play, on the “blind side” of any push.

Running Out Of Time

Caleb Porter and this team are not going to be judged on these first few matches, but the longer that the same old mistakes are made, the tougher it becomes to keep a long-term focus on the project.

Porter has shown a willingness to change it up, and adjust as the game is flowing to find an advantage for his team which is a definite step forward. Some of the passing is nice to see, and there are times when the attack really clicks, and it become a joy to watch. There are some positives, for sure, but the worry is that despite shaking up the defence, we’re still making the same mistakes.

Montreal also posed the question of what Porter would do when a team set-up with the sole purpose of letting his team have the ball fifty yards from goal, then killing the game when they got anywhere near the box. In that regard, I might give Porter a C, maybe even a B-. He made a bold stroke to change the game, and got caught out by a loose pass in midfield, and then changed back and came within a swing of the boot from grabbing a last-gasp draw.

Having given the lesson, other teams will have noted how Montreal managed to do what the much more expensively assembled New York couldn’t, and muzzled Portland’s attack for much of the game.

In what seems like some kind of wooden spoon play-off, both the sides that Montreal beat will face each other next week, but it’s no wooden spoon at stake, it’s the Cascadia Cup.

Portland travel to face Seattle next week knowing that there would be no better time to record Caleb Porter’s first MLS win. Seattle have the distraction of Champion’s League football before then, but there’s little doubt that the Timbers will face a massive test in the kind of game that gets remembered.

RCTID

Alhassan’s Creed

Kalif Alhassan has emerged as the story of preseason for me, in a playing sense at least. It’s hugely encouraging to see the likes of Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Dylan Tucker-Gangnes being given ample playing time, and a hat-trick against San Jose was a perfect way for Ryan Johnson to take his first bow before the Timbers Army. Michael Harrington, Will Johnson, Ryan Miller and Diego Valeri have come in and look to have improved the team in key areas.

I don’t think Ryan Johnson or Valeri have made the biggest splash this preseason. With Valeri I think it’s because my sense of relief that he’s as good as we dared hope has overshadowed the fact that he’s been really pretty good. Having gone so long without a creative attacking midfielder, I was worried that when we did finally sign one, he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, live up to two largely miserable seasons’ worth of pent-up expectation, but there are signs enough that Valeri will, though any verdict in that regard could only be taken in the winter, and certainly not before a competitive ball is kicked.

Alhassan has been a source of frustration thus far in his MLS career. The flashes of undoubted talent we’ve seen from the Ghanaian only serve to underline the myriad times when he’s seemed too lightweight and utterly inconsequential to the outcome of a match. His 2012 season was beset by injuries, and I wondered whether his presence on the roster was going to be one indulgence too far for the Timbers.

As it was the similar, in both style and effectiveness, Franck Songo’o who wouldn’t be returning to Portland, not even, it would seem, to the visiting locker room. A victim of increased demands, and a perceived lack of value for that not insubstantial outlay, Songo’o has gone and, with his untidy departure, Alhassan had one more obstacle to playing time cleared away.

Alhassan was promoted from the presumably lesser regarded “second half team” in Tuscon, just in time to help the Timbers to victory against Seattle in the third match. He was still in the starting XI when the Timbers played their first home game of the preseason, providing a pin point cross for Ryan Johnson’s first goal, reminiscent of another cross almost a year ago that served to introduce Kris Boyd to the Timbers faithful.

He sat out the second match against FC Dallas, as a largely second string team lost by a single goal, but played the full 90 against AIK in a line-up that will, with a couple of tweaks, likely be the team that takes the field in front a full house against New York on Sunday.

2013 is a big season for Alhassan. His raw talent has got him this far, but if he wants to develop into a top-flight player, he has to start showing more consistency into both fitness and form. In his favour, he’s still only 22, something that can easily be forgotten as his status as one of the few who span the USL and MLS eras, albeit briefly, would seem to mark him out as one of the old guard.

This offseason has seen Porter concentrate on bringing in experienced, established players, filling the vacuum left by an outgoing of the largely disappointing and under-used. There are still prospects in the side to look out for. Tucker-Gangnes looks like one who has all the tools to make it at this level, especially if he can glean as much as he can from the top-level experience of Mikael Silvestre while they share a pitch. Darlington Nagbe continues to promise so much, and if he can find a groove with his old coach Caleb Porter, it could prove very beneficial to the Timbers play-off hopes. Jean-Baptiste, Steven Evans, Jose Adolfo Valencia; all can probably look forward to more game time in 2013 with which to flourish.

Alhassan joins this group of young players who will seek to benefit from working with coach Porter, with early signs that Kalif is currently best placed to make early strides towards fulfilling his potential in a system that makes more sense of Alhassan’s talents than any other has thus far.

He often found himself stuck out on the flanks under John Spencer. It’s a move that makes sense as Kalif can cross as well as, if not better than, anyone at the club and his close control allows him to escape from positions that other players couldn’t. Yet, he never really fit out there, peripheral in every respect, and lacking the desire to put in the required defensive shift he often left the poor sap behind him cruelly exposed.

When he did drift inside, as he was predisposed to do, it unbalanced a team that was built on a “traditional” British style, that expected things in as direct and functional a manner as possible. The “get it wide, throw it into the box” approach of 2011 and much of 2012 simply wasn’t suited to a roaming wide midfielder, so rather than be the guy the club could depend upon to provide a touch of magic in the final third when needed, racking up both assists and goals, both he and Songo’o more often became the place where attacks went to die, running themselves into dead ends, and trying too hard to do too much alone.

Though he’s been mostly played wide under Porter, the change is that his movement and roaming are now absolutely a part of the plan rather than counter to it, and integral to both his and the club’s success this season. Though it’s clear that Valeri will be expected to do much of the heavy lifting in the creative sense, it would be foolish to lay all our hopes at his feet as other teams would get wise to that very early on, and set about negating his influence by fair means or foul. The movement and spontaneity of Alhassan, and Nagbe for that matter, are crucial in giving opponent’s something else to think about, and keeping the Timbers attack from becoming too predictable and two-dimensional.

Alhassan stands a good chance of the being the only player who took the field in Portland’s first MLS match to line up at the start of their third season. The fact he’s shown such staying power despite never really holding down a first team spot for any great length of time shows that his ability is clearly held in high regard by the Timbers coaching staff, but now it’s time for Kalif to start rewarding that patience with tangible, on-field returns.

The Pragmatist

Once Arsenal is in possession of the ball, the right and left backs automatically become wingers. It’s almost like playing with two wingers on each side. That’s the way we’re going to encourage our guys to play –when we get the ball, get forward and attack. Attack in numbers and defend in numbers.

John Spencer promised to bring direct, attacking football to Portland when he was hired as the club’s first MLS head coach, and that is, for the most part, what the Timbers fans got.

It was certainly direct. The ball would be cycled from defence to attack in as few passes as was necessary (often only one).

The team were also pretty attacking, even if it was often toothless. The Timbers would get the ball forward quickly, run into a dead-end or give up possession tamely, and then be caught out of position at the back.

In a way, Spencer sowed the seeds for his own destruction. By emphasising a direct style, he was leaving his full-backs cruelly exposed, which in turn would stretch the space between centre-backs and leave the team vulnerable to breaking runs from midfield as well as being exposed down the flanks.

spenny

When Spencer would adopt a defensive posture, such as against Sporting Kansas City, the team showed they were capable of grinding out results against good teams, but at the expense of pretty much any attacking threat. Or attempts to play football. This ugly style didn’t really fit the pre-season promises of attacking, exciting football, but Spencer never seemed able to square-the-circle and find a way to combine his style with the players he had at his disposal, and balance defence and attack. It was either one or the other or, on occasion, neither.

After Spencer’s dismissal, Gavin Wilkinson stepped in and changed the side’s 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3, preparing the ground for Caleb Porter. Porter himself confirmed that he and Wilkinson had been in a constant dialogue even as the new coach was guiding his Akron Zips through the NCAA Championship.

The announcement of Porter’s hiring had some Timbers fans drooling at the prospect of “Timber-taka” after watching Akron’s “Death by 1000 passes” video, but Porter himself seemed keen to temper those who were expecting Cascadia’s answer to Barcelona to rock up when New York visit on March 3rd.

I am realistic, I’m not naive. I don’t think that we are just going to throw the ball out and play beautiful soccer and automatically pass the ball around and beat the New York Red Bulls on March 3rd.

There’s no doubt that Porter will seek to instill a change in the footballing culture of the Timbers, but in the short term I suspect we’ll be seeing a more pragmatic approach from the new coach.

They brought in a couple veteran guys like myself and Will Johnson, guys who have been around and been around successful teams and been in successful locker rooms and kind of know what it takes to win in this league. So it sounds to me like this year is all about bringing those pieces together and winning.”

Michael Harrington was signed from Sporting Kansas City, obstentibly to replace Steven Smith, who departed after becoming one of the Timbers most dependable and consistent players over the home stretch of 2012. After spending much of their first two years stumbling in a slapstick manner from one full-back catastrophe to another, there was something inevitable about the team finally seeming to lock down on of the positions at least, only for that player to up sticks and leave.

I don’t know a great deal about Harrington, but I haven’t heard many anticipating exciting wing play from him. Rodney Wallace seems, at times, to suffer from Jeremy Hall Syndrome, forgetting whether he’s a winger or a full-back. I thought he played his best football in the centre of midfield, but I don’t think there’s room for him there now, and I’m not sure he’s the guy to play as the left-sided attacker as that’s where I expect Nagbe to play next season.

Under Spencer, the full-backs were pushed on, acting like wingers as the team looked to get the ball in from wide positions, despite never signing an out-and-out targetman. To go back to the 1000 Passes video for a moment, the first thing you notice is, not surprisingly given the title, the number of passes being made by the Zips.

The attractive way they pass and move together is certainly eye catching, and you can see why it draws comparisons with Barcelona’s tiki-taka style, but what is more relevant to the Timbers is the way they use the possession to dominate the field.

They won’t simply content themselves with knocking it across the back a few times, as they seek to use possession to pin their opponents back into their own half. The old adage that you can’t concede a goal if the opposition can’t get the ball is true, and by keeping the ball the Zips are able to conserve their energy.

Domination of the field and conservation of energy were not the team’s forte under Spencer. The direct style Spenny wanted his team to play resulting in a side that eschewed possession for attacking thrust and ceded the ball to the opposition in over 70% of games.

The relentless athleticism also led to issue with late game collapses. As the system changed under Wilkinson, undoubtably in consultation with Porter, and there was less emphasis on the full-backs getting up and down the line, the number of late goals conceded started to drop. The hiring of a new fitness coach as well as an increased emphasis on modern alaytical techniques – something you never felt fit with Spencer’s up-and-at-them old school style – will, one would hope, allow the team to up the tempo without running out of gas in the final 15 minutes.

The role of the full-back is important under Porter’s possession-based system. With the team pushed on, the full-backs allow them to make the field as big as possible and stretching it to the sidelines. They aren’t the “almost-wingers” of Spencer, but still require sound technical ability and awareness as they’re an important part in circulating the ball and probing for space to get in behind the defence.

Providing you can get the right players in, this possession of the football acts as both defence and attack, and gives the full-backs a safety net to push forward. It would be fair to say that full-back isn’t the league’s strong point, so the hiring of Harrington, a player with bags of league experience, is a pretty solid get, if not exactly a reason to get the bunting out and rush down to get a new name on the back of your shirt.

Of course, it’s one thing to play like that when you possess the technical ace card by being able to attract the hottest prospects, it’s another when you’re a team coming off of a 17th place finish, with the 3rd worst defensive record.

mlsdefence

Even though the league has seen a general trend towards more goals per game despite an increasing in defensive spending, when the figures are broken down to level of investment vs results you can see that there is a relationship between more spending and better defences.

investvddefv2

The above charts maps all the changes since 2008 for MLS clubs, going back the official salary info that gets released. What you see is that a team will generally spend more on defence from one year to the next 70% of the time, though most changes tend to be very minimal variations up or down, and that an increase in spending tends to see a reduction in the number of goals conceded.

defcolorbar

Obviously it’s much more complicated than more money = better, but I think it’s illustrative all the same. Sensible investment in keys areas will bring about an improvement, and a marked improved in defence will give the team, obviously, a better chance of turning 0 points into 1, and 1 point into 3. It only takes a second to score a goal, but you need to defend for the full 90 minutes.

The likelihood of your investment returning in terms of fewer goals being conceded increases as you spend more money on that area. It’s basic soccernomics, to steal a phrase.

In the signing of Harrington, I see a “safe” pick at left back and Merritt Paulson confirmed what everyone knew, that the Timbers weren’t done with the roster, or indeed, the defence.

Two areas where GW/CP still want to make additions: creative mid and right back. Goal is to have all spots filled by start of pre-season

The tweet that also seemed to confirm the rumour of Timbers interest in Mix Diskeruud, with talks apparently stalling a few days later and Diskerud now looking likely to stay in Norway, the flirtation with Portland looking more and more like an attempt to force Rosenborg’s hand in contract negotiations than a serious contemplation of a move to the States. Since then Diego Valeri has emerged as the man the Timbers want to pick up, with speculation being that he will be signed as a Designated Player.

I have to return to the full-back position though, as I feel that is the crucial area the Timbers need to get right this year. Hopefully Porter will find the special formula to fix it. The Timbers invested in defence last season, bringing in Steven Smith and Kosuke Kimura, as well as Hanyer Mosquera in the centre, but only one of those guys will, presumably, be playing in Timbers green in 2013.

I wouldn’t expect fireworks over Portland when the, hopefully first choice, guy they have for right-back lined up actually signs as I suspect it’ll be one of those “consistent and dependable” types, married to sound technical ability and tactical nous.

Though I’d worry about his pace against teams with quick wingers, Jack Jewsbury would do a decent job at right-back, I think. He filled in last year, and though I felt it robbed the team of a bit of width in the final third at times, the football under Porter wouldn’t necessarily place those same demands on him.

As I’ve said before, it’s hard to see a place for Jewsbury in the midfield, especially following the signing of Will Johnson.

There’s no doubt the talent on that roster is there, but talent is such a small part of winning in MLS games. It’s hardly even worth talking about. It’s more about teamwork and hard work and those kinds of things, those things get you results in MLS.

Will Johnson echoed his new team mate, emphasising hard work over talent. There’s no doubt that Porter’s style will require great athleticism as lots of movement on and off the ball are essential, and Johnson brings a more dynamic presence to the centre than Jewsbury.

boydy

Porter used the press conference to drop the biggest hint yet that Kris Boyd’s time as a Timber is as good as over. Though he wouldn’t say outright that Boyd was done, he did confirm what many have suspected that Boyd’s penalty box based style isn’t what Porter himself expects from his striker.

Kris Boyd is a player that I think will have a hard time playing in the way that we want to play. And that’s no knock on Kris. He would fit in a lot of different systems but, with what I want out of my strikers, it’s going to be difficult for him to offer what I’m looking for in that position.

In a way, I find this encouraging. Not because I don’t rate Boyd as I do, and still believe he has all the tools to be a big star in MLS should he decide to, and get the chance to, remain in the league; but because it represents a change in the way the Timbers are building their team. No more is about just getting the “best” players and making them fit into a system, as it seemed to be for the first couple of years, but rather it is about putting the system in place first, and get the “right” players for that system.

The door isn’t closed on Boyd, but with the emergence of Bright Dike, the stockpiling of strikers, and the imminent announcement of a new DP, it’s hard to see Boyd hanging around for long. There was talk out of Scotland about Boyd going back to Rangers, but in the short term that would seem unlikely. Rangers are labouring under a player registration ban until 31 August but, thanks to a quirk of the calendar, that day falls on a Saturday, which means the registration (and transfer) window will be extended to Mondays 2nd September meaning that Boyd’s old club would be able to register players for the upcoming 2013/14 season.

However, even if there was gas in the Rangers talk, that leaves 9 months where Boyd would either be being paid not to play – and at 29 one would imagine Boyd would want to maximise his playing time – or a potentially messy situation where Rangers would risk the wrath of FIFA and the SFA in playing Boyd as a trialist (trialists are allowed to play in league games in the Scottish lower leagues). The likelier outcome, given that a move with MLS is a more remote possibility, would be to loan Boyd back to the UK, say to a club like Nottingham Forest who have Boyd’s ex-manager, and oft-time suitor, Alex McLeish in charge, until the end of the season, putting the player in the shop window for a potential transfer or, failing that, writing off the last few months of his contract and allowing the player to find a new club back home in the summer. This would represent the least financial loss for the club, as opposed to simply buying out the whole year of his remaining contract. We shall see.

But anyway, let’s get back on track. With much of the work thus far being done on bolstering the defence and midfield, I think it’s pretty clear where the priorities of Porter and Wilkinson have lain this offseason.

Porters looking to put some 1-0’s on the board, and win games by simply not losing them first. That sounds obvious and dumb, but it’s something we’ve struggled to do as we’ve often been our own worst enemy. Shutting-out the opponent guarantees at least a point, and all it takes is one swing of the boot, or graze off the shoulder to turn that one into three.

2011 saw the Timbers keep nine clean sheets, six of which came at home, but 2012 had only five, three at home. As this map shows, the Timbers also struggled to score, going goalless twelve times in 2012, up from nine the year before.

In their three home clean-sheets of 2012, they won two by 1-0 (Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City) and drew the other against Columbus Crew. With a bit more defensive stability, even with meagre returns from another under-performing attack, the Timbers could reasonably expect to grind out a few 1-0’s along the way, and those extra few points could be what it takes to put a side in with a chance of glory, in a league where over half the sides qualify for the post-season.

I suspect his experiences with the USMNT may have just chastened college soccer’s rising star. Where once he rejected DC United, following the disappointment in failing to reach the Olympics and the resultant somewhat-backlash against the young coach, Porter has now decided that a club at a crossroads was the perfect fit, saying he was “uncomfortable being comfortable” in Akron.

Caleb Porter will, I’m sure, seek to bring more than defensive grind to Portland as the signing of Ryan Johnson and Diego Valeri speak volumes as to how Porter will look to utilise pace and craft to break through defences. Given the way the Timbers struggled in offence, closing the door at the back will only take you so far before the old attacking frustrations kick in. The Timbers have lacked a creative central midfielder thus far, with Alexander seemingly happier a little deeper, and most of the flair in the team is played out wide.

Porter expressed a desire to utilise Homegrown Players more going forward. With Brent Richards spending much of 2012 on the fringes of the team and Steven Evans announced as the club’s second Homegrown player, following a successful season with the U’23s and University of Portland, it’ll be interesting to see how and when these guys are fed into the starting XI.

While I don’t think the roster reconstruction is over, the addition of a right back and a creative midfielder seem like the last two big pieces of the puzzle. The are still questions over the attack – I love me some Dike, but I’m still not sold on him as a consistent starter – but I think it’ll be a case of one out before we get one in, as we’re carrying a lot of bodies in attack, and they can’t all play together, unless you want to turn the clock back to the early days of football when the 1-2-7 formation held sway.

I expect to see the team play possession-based, attack-minded football, but not naively so. Porter clearly has strong ideas on how the game should be played, but I don’t think he’s such an ideologue that he’ll seek to play in a way that leaves the team exposed at the back. Equally, I don’t think it’ll be exclusively 4-3-3 all the way. Barcelona can do that because they’re so much better than just about anyone else, but the Timbers aren’t. As Spencer found out to his cost, simply going out there and doing the same things every week doesn’t work so well in as league where parity rules. You need to adapt, or die.

As for how the team will shape in attack, and seek to better a record that saw only Chivas USA go more matches in 2012 without finding the opposition net, we’ll have to wait and see what the next few months bring, but I’m encouraged by the focused way that Porter and Wilkinson have been going about their business thus far.

As Kristen noted, Porter isn’t exactly one for Patton-esque stirring speeches – at least not in public, though by all accounts he has the ability to inspire players to go above and beyond – but I was encouraged by his press conference as he addressed many of the areas of concern, showing that he gets it. Learning from previous mistakes, both his own and those of others, is key to becoming a better person and a better coach, and Porter seems to have done that.

Of course, the proof will come when the season gets underway, but for now I’m pretty optimistic that the Timbers have turned the corner and are ready to start delivering some success to a fanbase that have endured two tough years, but keep on coming back and in greater numbers than before.

The Aesthetics

Football has no place within the much debated world of aesthetics.

Actually, this could be considered a faulty or incorrect statement. Let’s try it again.

Football exists very tenuously within the realm of aesthetics.

Books have been written about this, columns have been written about this, tomes by intelligent men and women exist on the ideals of football.

Where does the abstraction of the team fall between the idealistic vision of “The beautiful game” and the current vision of what it takes to win in MLS?

The vision currently is thus, while MLS has taken strides towards an existence within the realm of the 4-3-3, the tempo pass, the creative midfielder, it still exists within the proposal of the 4-4-2, or (providence forbid) the Catenaccio. While certainly not many, or really any teams in MLS play with a full sweeper behind the back four, overload one side (preferably the right) push up the field and attempt to cynically disrupt the offense to counter attack, there is a certain current methodology towards winning MLS cup.

The current back-to-back champions of MLS have indicated this with the almost Italian philosophies of Bruce Arena and LA Galaxy. Bruce sets up a star powered team to play on the counter attack, inviting pressure upon the Galaxy and dictating the game with a deep lying creative midfielder (now gone) to play the ball up the field to streaking forwards. There is a reason why seemingly the Galaxy play tight and then seem to open up the game with late goals. They invite play through the middle, to their defensive side and frustrate their opponents leading to their opposition pushing more players into the attack. Then the hammer blow comes down as the midfield and full-backs are caught up field with only a center-back left to protect.

There is also a reason (or few reasons) why Galaxy were poor at the beginning of the season and started to play well later. Many fans point towards Robbie Keane’s form in the second half of the season after returning from the Euro’s, almost as though he had flipped a “Give-A-Shit” button. However, one can merely look at the rock of stability in Omar Gonzalez and the solidifying of LA’s defense through the addition of the “Should have been 2011 MLS MVP” to the back line. With Juninho covering in the midfield and the fluctuation passion of a disinterested Landon Donovan, the 2012 Galaxy eventually morphed into a version of a team that was reminiscent of the 2011 Galaxy team in terms of effectiveness.

LA plays a bizarre version of possum as they press and retreat. As well, Bruce Arena doesn’t just stick with one particular style. Reacting against the opponent they will at times shorten the field by moving the back line up (as they did against Seattle to great effect) which makes the field much smaller to play within. This has the effect of increasing the need for “touch” players for the opposition, something which is lacking in a general sense within MLS. When shortening the field, the midfield and defense of LA is given a shorter path to pressure the ball, enabling them to spring the attack quicker into the opposition end. With quality in defense and counter-attack, the Galaxy used the not-so-great ball outlet of Christian Wilhelmsson who frequently ran the touchline as a pressure valve.

Now, this works when you have David Beckham receiving the ball and pinging passes to all-star players like Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. This move also fails more often than not when you have David Beckham receiving the ball and pinging passes to players like Chad Barrett and Adam Cristman.

Houston themselves play within the realm of a 4-4-2, and play with a sense of positional discipline that would make Roy Hodgson pleasure himself repeatedly. They are underrated in the league within the realm of movement, fluidity and passing as they do attempt to play the ball. Paramount for Houston, though, is defensive rigidity, responsibility and ability. They play tough through the middle of the field, hitting anything that moves with slight shoulders, grabs and challenging headers. This kind of defensive presence through the midfield often leads to ugly games as typically teams within MLS are more than happy to mix it up physically.

What all this brings us to is the amazing challenge that Caleb Porter has taken on in Portland. He steps into a world that currently revolves around “two-banks-of-four” Houston Dynamo and “Catenaccio light” LA Galaxy.

Certainly there has been some success within the league with teams that attempt to play the ball “see: Real Salt Lake and Miami Fusion”. However, even Real Salt Lake hasn’t had unmitigated success playing the pass and move game within the confines of MLS. Their win within MLS cup came during their transition to playing on-the-ground/passing football and came two years after Jason Kreis was put in charge to change the direction of the new team.

Throughout 2012, Timbers fans were able to see the truly varied approaches of multiple head coaches at their position. With the start of the 2012 season, they were able to see more of a wing approach. While lip service was given to portray the team attempting to play through the middle of the field, the team typically still pushed the ball out to the wings and attempted to dump the ball into the box. Quite often this lead to immediate turn overs and midfielders/wing players getting caught up field with the immediate destruction of the full-backs happening. When build up play happened with the full-backs overlapping up the field and playing balls with the outside midfield players near the corner of the penalty area, the impact was that the Timbers typically took one too many touches, got caught in possession and then the full-backs and outside midfield were caught up field.

Quite often this would lead to break outs in the Timbers defensive end with players like Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury attempting to break up plays with fouls, or getting bypassed on the way to the back line.

With a lack of defensive integrity at the back, John Spencer attempted to fix this problem by limiting the amount of times that his full-backs or midfielders got caught up field. Without a true midfielder capable of delivering the ball through the middle of the field, the Timbers would often sit back and try to “not get beaten”. The problem with this is that not only did this kill the offense, but the 2012 Timbers were not talented enough at full-back and center-back to play a defensive shell game. Games would vacillate between defensive slog fests where eventually Portland would be beaten by the mental defensive mistake that always seemed to happen, and offensively open games where the Timbers couldn’t sustain leads.

This ultimate nadir of this tactical confusion was the Timbers 1-0 loss to amateur team Cal FC in the US Open Cup. Portland created a mind-boggling 37 shots with 15 shots on goal and 0 goals (including a missed PK). Out of those 15 shots on goal, there were really none that challenged the keeper. There was so little confidence in the team finishing their shots that they could have played for 500 minutes in a row and probably not scored a goal. At that point the Timbers had managed to neuter the confidence of offense AND have a defensive catastrophe… at home…. to an amateur team filled with valets and dishwashers.

Certainly John Spencer wasn’t a one trick pony, but it seemed that his train of thought in adaptation and recognizing trends was simply not fast enough at the time. When he attempted to play Lovel Palmer at defensive midfield to man-mark against Kansas City the experiment worked (although in a method of nihilistic frustration as the Timbers rarely threatened and won the game on an own goal). However, he then extrapolated that this formation and deployment would work in the next game against a Montreal side that had no intention of playing the same method into the Timbers hands. This resulted in a 2-0 loss on the road with more offensive ineptness.

With John Spencer sacked and in the rear view, Gavin Wilkinson took over as head coach of the Timbers. While fans that watched his coaching style before bet on the inevitable return of the long ball tactics he used during the USL days of the team, the real tactics he used were a bit different. Wilkinson (in conjunction of the hire of Caleb Porter) took the shackles off the full-backs and asked them and the midfield to attempt to attack. This, in combination of the poor defensive form, the lack of ability of players in the midfield to play defense, and the inevitable confusion that happens with a coaching change lead to some terrible performances by the Timbers. There were suggestions that Wilkinson was attempting to implement the changes that Porter would envision in 2013, there were suggestions that the team was getting shadow coached by Sean Mcauley. Either way, the team’s defense was routinely exposed in the early going of Wilkinson’s tenure leading to a number of truly horrific games.

As time elapsed, the new defense and offensive scheme coalesced into a slightly more congealed attack and defense. Mind you this congealed presence DID NOT improve the Timbers ability to win, score goals, and prevent goals. The performances of Steven Smith became more composed down the left side, and even though the right back position remained a sieve the entirety of the year, the Timbers found themselves ready to play for the right to lift the Cascadia Cup against their hated rivals, the Seattle Sounders.

They imploded instead.

On the road, Wilkinson started two full-backs (Lovel Palmer and Rodney Wallace) that were largely relegated to bench and reserve appearances as they both had proven over the course of the season their lack of the basic ability to play in defense. As well, Wilkinson started a fourth choice Center-back (Futty Danso). These choices were supposedly to increase the athleticism in the team and replace a nebulous injury (athleticism a trait that Wilkinson has frequently touted as important to him and to Porters new offense). The Timbers were absolutely destroyed on the road and thrashed like a limp rag as the defense and midfield were unable to contain, press or even think on the ball.

Somehow, despite this loss, the Timbers were still able to play for the Cascadia Cup….. again on the road… This time the game to win was against Vancouver.

And this is where any kind of beautiful aesthetics went out the window completely.

Wilkinson set out a side with a game plan to play cynical, aggressive, pressing football with a long ball emphasis that would have made Charles Reep proud (Reep was one of the foremost English proponents of long ball play). Wilkinson restored the three players in the defense with their progenitors and had his defensive line push up as high as possible. This was not to have the intent of playing the pressing and drop game that teams like Barcelona implement (in which Barcelona press up high in order to decrease the space available to the opposing players and the size of the field, and then upon possession of the ball they drop deep in order to expand the field to give their players the ability pass freely around a large space) he did this in order to destroy the flow of the game.

The Whitecaps didn’t possess the ability (or, at the very least, decided against it) to play the ball on the ground and break the defensive line. The first 15 minutes of the game showed the kind of football that would have made Ronaldinho cry in shame. The ball barely even noticed the grass as it logged more frequent flier miles than an airplane. The Timbers had no real intent of keeping possession; they merely attempted to push up on the opposing Whitecaps players, disrupted their game and then kick the ball up to the front as fast as possible. The goal for the Timbers came about from some of the scant amount of decent play, as the deadlock was broken by a wonder strike late. Nine times out of ten that game finishes 0-0.

Tactically the game plan was a simplistic master stroke. For the un-invested fan the game was a giant pile of shit.

The problem here for Porter is that the method of press, kick and rush worked and does work. Granted this was against a slumping opponent who was suffering from their own offensive identity problem. However, MLS is still in the development phase in terms of players and (as well) in terms of tactics.

Porter’s Akron teams, as well as his ill-fated US U-23 team, attempted to build the offense from the back and prioritize the connection of the back four to the midfield. He attempts to play the game with two ball handling center-backs (the impetus of the attack) and 8 midfielders. The idea is that with possession and quality control you minimize the amount of time that the opposition can have to attack your own defense. His Akron team would pass the ball around in their own end with the free ease of a team on the training ground. The left back would push up, interchange positions with the midfield, then exchange the ball in rolling triangles between them and the center-back as the ball would make it over to the center-backs, the keeper, the right back, the midfield and then back across to the left back again.

The issue here is the ethos and rigidity with which Porter and, to a certain extent, Merritt Paulson see the game. The downfall of Porter with the U-23 Olympic team was the inability to adapt tactically to a situation or team in which a difference from his preferred tiki-taka style was needed.

The premier trophy in MLS has now been won and contested via counter attacking defensive first style and defensively rigid two banks of four style for the last two years. One can look at the 2012 San Jose Earthquakes in terms of a current MLS style of offensive execution. When implementing the towers of (either/or/and) Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart, San Jose operate within the realm of the big man/smaller man, goal poaching, defensive stability, somebody hit somebody, physical play that exists within MLS. Kansas City operated with such a pressing style within MLS that it leads to questions about the playability of their style. They use such physicality in their pressing and play that it became a question of “what is a foul and what isn’t a foul” towards the end of the year. Their style was such that it could be influenced heavily by the appointment of referees who have their own particular way of viewing physical interaction and the way in which players play. These philosophies worked (for the most part) as Kansas City, with their high octane press and disrupt style, only gave up 27 goals on the year (lowest in MLS); and San Jose, with their disrupt in the box and service to goal poaching striker formula, scored 72 goals (highest in MLS) on the year. Certainly one could look at LA’s Goals Against number from this season as very high, but you must remember that prior to the return of Omar Gonzalez and the refocus of the team to their defensive responsibilities that the defense was a sieve. Colorado, as well, won a MLS cup with a rugged defense, a big man up top and a direct style.

It is within this scope of “what works in MLS” that we see what John Spencer was heading towards. His attempted focus on wing play, physicality, playing to a big man, defensive rigidity would and should have worked. Spencer’s major problem was the quality of the players obtained by and for him. With unwise trades and acquisitions Spencer and Wilkinson traded players they could have used for players that weakened the defense and midfield significantly. Spencer’s philosophies are those philosophies that work for Dominic Kinear. The difference is that Kinear has consistently picked the right players (sometimes at the DIRECT expense of the Timbers) and Spencer did not.

Which brings us to a major problem for Porter, that is… the Players.

This is a league in which defensive work rate, athleticism and gritty hard nose play are en vogue. MLS teams typically don’t possess the financial ability, the scouting or the stature to lure technically skilled players to the league. Those that have been brought over haven’t always worked out, for a number of reasons. As well, many technical players may not want to play in a league that is currently dominated by very physical play. What Porter was able to obtain at Akron is not going to be readily available within the ranks of professionalism. With Akron, Porter was one of the (if not THE top) alpha dogs in college soccer. His prestige alone made it easier to pitch the ideal of playing fluid football to blue chip prospects with technical flair.

With the Timbers, Porter will have to operate with a manager and owner overseeing his every move, a salary cap, and teams like Los Angeles who are more than willing to unload a couple million dollars towards available players who have never heard of Caleb Porter, Akron, and Portland. His navigation of player acquisition, his ability to work with youth prospects and find diamonds with inexpensive players will be key to his ability to implement some kind of fluid football. As well, his ability to translate his requests to Gavin Wilkinson will be one of the key components that will determine his success and failure. If Wilkinson is unable to obtain the talent that Porter requires, if he decides to imprint his own ideals on the player selection, or simply if he scouts poorly… Porter may find the seas enormously difficult during his tenure as coach.

It is a cop out to say that time will tell, but that is the trope to use here. Important milestones for Timbers fans will be the acquisition or discovery of authentic and useful full-backs that are comfortable with the ball and proficient (at least one of the two) in attack. As well, another milestone will be the acquisition of an attacking midfielder. The Timbers desperately need a player that can control the ball, the tempo of the offense and provide service. The 2012 Portland Timbers starting lineup simply does not have the technical ability or poise to play with Porter’s system. It remains up to Caleb Porter, Gavin Wilkinson and Merritt Paulson to find these players. As well it remains to be seen if MLS is at a time in which stylistic possession with the players available under a strict salary cap can defeat counter attacking or negative-branded tactics.

As for now…. All that Timbers fans can do is wait and see.