Tag Archives: Troy Perkins

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

Advertisements

Defending By Numbers

Football, at it’s core, is a really simple game. So simple that the key to winning football matches can be easily summed up in two points:

1 – Score more goals than the other team.

2 – See point 1.

But that simplicity masks the complexity that makes football such an addictive sport. Yes, the goal is to outscore the opponents, but there is almost no end to the ways you can set a team up to do that, with the Kevin Keegan at Newcastle, “we’ll beat you 4-3” approach and the George Graham school that looks to grind out 1-0s at either pole.

As the game has become more athletic and technical, teams are increasingly looking to sports science and performance analysis to give themselves some kind of advantage. This move towards a more analytical approach can be seen in the increasing investment in such areas by top clubs around the world. MLS will be rolling out the adidas miCoach system to all clubs in 2013, while OPTA and ProZone continue to carve out a lucrative niche in statistical analysis. Caleb Porter is an avowed disciple of this more modern, analytical approach and the Timbers recently announced the hiring of a performance analyst as they seek to find that edge that will turn hard-fought draws into a well-deserved wins.
Football isn’t a game that lends itself readily to statistical analysis in the way that, for example, baseball does. There are few equivalents of the 1-on-1, pitcher vs batter, battles that baseball throws up as 22 players on a 8500 sq yard pitch for over 90 minutes simply throws up too many variables to be distilled succinctly into a neat column of easily digestible figures.

Yet, such a study isn’t an entirely fruitless endeavor. Mining the numbers can still throw some light into the darkness, even though it always pays to remember that it isn’t an exact science, and much remains for individual interpretation of the numbers.

Soccer Analytics is growing, with sites such as Zonal Marking, Soccer By The Numbers and Soccer Analysts good examples in this field.

While I don’t think that analytics gives all the answers, I do believe it can, and should, be part of the discussion we have as it has much to inform our “gut” reaction. There have been plenty of times when I’ve come away from a match thinking that this player or that has had a stinker, then when I look at the numbers, they seem to tell a different story. By taking both and playing them off each other, and seeing what each can tell you about the other, you can come closer to the “truth” of it, if such thing is even possible in football.

So, accepting that finding answers in soccer analytics is more complex than simply drawing up a table and seeing who ranks top, let’s see what the numbers can tell us about how and why teams do that most crucial of things – score goals.

Well, actually, before doing that let’s take a detour by first of all looking at the problem from the other side – stopping the other team scoring.

The Upgrade Revisited

In my previous post I took a look at the Timbers goalkeepers as I tried to judge whether the front office had called their “upgrade” right. Such an approach was never going give a definitive answer, but the figures certainly seemed to suggest that Donovan Ricketts had delivered some performance improvements over Troy Perkins, though Perkins’ figures would subsequently rocket in Montreal and cast a shadow over Ricketts’.

There are too many intangibles to definitively call one way or the other. The change in style from John Spencer to Gavin Wilkinson, the fact the figures don’t take into account the quality of chances, or a goalkeeper’s distribution and communication with the defence in front of him. Respective ability of cross balls, or quickness off the line, or agility, or, well, the list goes on.

A good point was raised in the comments of that article by “Thunderbear” (I assume that’s his/her surname and not their first name) that “Perkins was traded just after Spencer was fired and after a couple of miserable team performances like the 5-0 loss in Dallas and the whipping in Utah that really affected Perkins’ statistics”.

In the five matches Perkins played under Wilkinson, the team shipped 13 goals. In the previous 17 starts, Perkins conceded 22. That’s quite a jump, I’m sure you’ll agree. The drop in shot stopping after Spencer left is really quite stark – the overall figure drops from 70.8% to 47.8%, with an In-Box Save rate (IBSv%) of 38.5% for those five games.

Even expunging those games from Perkins’ record, there is never more than a few percentage points between his save percentages and those of Ricketts in Portland, suggesting again that, at worst, the front office broke even (on the pitch at least, the salary debate is a whole other issue).

TimbersGK

There is unlikely to be any single reason why Perkins numbers dipped so badly in these few games. The removal of a head coach is bound to unsettle some, and the change in formation and playing style wouldn’t have helped, in the short term at least.

Yet Perkins faced the same number of shots per game, with slightly more coming as In-Box Shots (IBSh) than Long Range (LRSh), but not a great leap. Certainly not in the order that might go someway to explaining why the goals just rained in.

This brings us to the part of the discussion that was missing in the previous post – the defence.

Analyzing The Defence

Analyzing defensive performance, and measuring the difference between a “good” defence and a “bad” defence is more difficult than it may seem at first glance. The bottom-line metric for any defence is the goals against column, and on that measure you could confidently, and correctly, declare that in 2012 Sporting Kansas City had a good defence, while Toronto FC had a bad one.

But it’s not that simple. Perhaps a defence was let down by poor protection from their midfield. Luck is a factor too, as in the defender who pulls off a great last-ditch sliding tackle, only to see the ball richochet off a teammate and into the path of another attacker for an easy goal, or the player who never scores hitting that one-in-a-million screamer into the top corner from 35 yards. There’s tactical issues – was the coach leaving his defenders exposed by pushing on his full-backs, or playing too wide or narrow?

However, given that a defence is ultimately there to prevent goals being conceded, it’s against that baseline they must be measured.

Taking the clearances, blocks, interceptions, recoveries and fouls as examples of “defensive action” we can see if there is any relation between how busy (and where) a team is defensively effects the number of goals they concede. Note, I haven’t included tackles as I’m not really happy with how OPTA measure them in terms on tackles won/lost, and I’d have to go through every game to judge for myself whether it was a “good” tackle or not, and then there’s the old truism that the best defenders finish the game without grass stains on their shorts because they never need to go to ground in the first place. So, yes, it’s not a comprehensive tally of every Defensive Action, by any means.

There is also the issue of defensive distribution of the ball, which is something I hope to return to in future, but for now let’s set it aside and judge a “good” defence purely on stopping the other team getting on the scoreboard.

DARecvsGA

As you can see, broadly speaking the more Defensive Actions (DfAc) a team performs, the less likely they are to concede goals, though it’s by no means definitive, especially with only 19 data points to work with. Still, it does seem to point towards some link between the two factors.

If you take Recoveries out of the equation, then the trend is more pronounced.

DAvsGA

Backing up this link is that of the six best defences in terms of goals against (Kansas City, Seattle, Real Salt Lake, Chicago, Vancouver, Houston), three occupy spots in the top five of most Defensive Actions (minus Recoveries) – Chicago (4th GA / 3rd DfAc), Seattle (2nd / 1st), Vancouver (4th / 5th).

DefAct

The big anomaly is Kansas City who are 18th in terms of DA, but are 1st in goals against. Kansas City had a high proportion of their DfAc in the back four (71.41% against the league-wide average of 66%) and, interestingly, they were 3rd in terms of fouls committed with, again, a higher than average proportion of these fouls being committed in defence (37.1% vs 30.8%). This would suggest a lot of pressing and a no-nonsense, physical approach to winning the ball back. This is largely due to keeping shots against to a minimum. No team conceded fewer shots than Sporting, and they were also good at keeping teams at distance with only 47.3% of shots conceded coming from within their own box – only Vancouver have a better record in this regard with a 46% IB:LR balance.

Those that do get through are met by a keeper in Jimmy Nielsen who performs above average in all areas of shot-stopping.

GKranks

This perfect combination of tight defence and excellent shot-stopper combined to produce the fewest goals conceded in the regular season in 2012.

The Difference Makers

Sean Johnson of Chicago Fire actually posted very similar figures to Nielsen, yet whereas Nielsen let in 27 in 34 starts, the leakier Fire defence meant that Johnson conceded 38 in 31 starts as his goal was peppered by 40% more shots than Nielsen’s. So, the value of a tight defence is clear.

Yet Chicago “worked harder” in defence, with vastly more Defensive Actions than Kansas City. Where the teams also differed markedly, and perhaps this gives us an insight into the wild swing in shots against, is in possession of the ball.

I have my issues with the way OPTA measure possession, but as a metric of “ball control” it can be generally relied upon. It’s still a poor measure of which team is “better”, and terrible in terms of predicting outcomes – 17 of the 19 teams posted higher average possession rates in matches they lost than those they won – but it can tell us which team was controlling the ball, even if it can’t say where and how they were doing it.

poss

Kansas City posted the 5th highest possession rate at 52.1%, while Chicago were 17th on 46.8%. This would seem to indicate that Sporting operated with a “keep ball” philosophy, seeking to minimise the opposition’s time on the ball. Chicago on the other hand worked best when they could spring fast attacks, giving up possession and, it would seem, inviting teams onto them, leading to an increase in shots and goals against. Only Vancouver and Toronto saw less of the ball than the Fire in 2012.

By taking Kansas City’s high possession and their high foul rate and defensive work mentioned previously, you can start to build up a blueprint for why the Sporting defence was so effective. They choked other teams of possession, and created a high number of chances (though they were actually very wasteful in converting these chances, but we’ll come to that in a future post), but when they did lose the ball, they were efficient, yet physical, in their attempts to win it back. Through this pressing and harrying they limited shots against to the minimum, but had one of the league’s best goalkeepers to take care of what did get through.

This all serves to underline how difficult it is to apply analytics to soccer in a straightforward, “the numbers don’t lie” manner. It requires a more holistic approach where a number of factors and measures can be combined and torn apart to indicate towards conclusions.

As we saw with Johnson and Nielsen, the value of a good defence cannot be under-estimated. If you were to take an “average keeper” and put him behind the Kansas City and Toronto defences, you would expect to see a difference of 20-22 goals per season, from around 29 goals to 51. Yet both keepers would perform identically.

This is all very simplicity, and ignores many of the intangibles that I’ve talked about already, but it can at least give us an idea of the importance of a good defence.

If we were to flip it around and take an “average defence” and put it in front of two keepers at either end of the scale in shot-stopping the swing would be in the order of 15-18 goals per season, from 36 to 52 goals against.

The difference between best defence & best keeper and worst/worst would be from 25 goals to 63. In actuality Kansas City conceded 27; Toronto FC conceded 62.

Looking at the other end of the table, Toronto bottomed out in both goals against and DA. As I said in the previous article on Timbers keepers, Milos Kocic actually performed reasonably well – marginally better than Ricketts across all of 2012 – but when your team allows more shots at goal than all but 2 teams in 2012, you’re going to struggle to keep them out. Indeed, even the heroic Nielsen would’ve expected to concede upwards of 40 goals when faced with the barrage Kocic did.

The two clubs that allowed more shots than Toronto were Chivas USA and Columbus Crew, however Andy Gruenebaum posted numbers than ran Nielson close in shot-stopping whereas Dan Kennedy’s were good, rather than great. Gruenebaum conceded 13 fewer than Kennedy. A very valuable keeper!

The other factor is that Chivas conceded the highest proportion of IBsh:LRSh (55.5%). Given the importance of preventing IBSh – teams are almost 4 times as likely to score in the box than out of it – each percentage point increase in IBSh:LRSh represents something in the order of an increase of 1% in goals against.

To Portland

Portland were 17th in GA, and their IBSh:LRSh rate of 52%, above average, gives some idea of their problems in 2012. Despite putting in a lot of “defensive work” – they rank 8th in DA – and being “midtable” in terms of total shots against, where they really struggled was in preventing teams getting shots on target.

There would be little surprise to Timbers fans to learn that Portland were one of only 6 clubs to commit over 50% of their fouls in midfield, with Diego Chara the main culprit. Of those six clubs, only DC had a goals against record that ranked in the Top 10. Instinct may tell us that committing a foul in defence, on the edge of the box, may be more dangerous than committing a foul in midfield, but to score from 20 yards out direct from a free kick requires great skill. It is why, to me, someone like David Beckham is so feted – merely decent-to-good in most areas, where he excels is in those kind of dead ball situations.

In fact, the three goals against records in the league were from team that committed a higher than average proportion of their fouls in defence.

From 35 or 40 yards, the dynamic changes. A team can then throw forward their big guys, and a decent delivery, rather than pin-point in the case of getting a ball up-and-over or round a wall in limited space, can be good enough for someone to get on the end of it, and serve up a great opportunity to score.

There are certainly cases where the foul is preferable, and a team would rather take their chances defending a set play, but in general terms, giving away so many opportunities for a team to put the ball into the box to be attacked by numbers cannot be a good thing.

Blocking, pressuring, or generally employing sound defence can go a long way to making it difficult for the opposition to get a shot on frame. Only Colorado Rapids were worse than the Timbers at keeping opponents off target, but Matt Pickens did a better job than Perkins/Ricketts in keeping shots out and so the Rapids conceded 6 fewer over the season.

ShotsAg

Even though the Timbers took a similar number of shots as they conceded, when you compare the accuracy rates you start to get a good idea of the Timbers problems in 2012 – 36.5% of shots against called the Timbers keeper into action but only 31.1% of the Timbers’ shots were on frame. The figures are even worse in the crucial IBSh category – 41.9% to 32.7%.

Given how long this post is already though, I’ll return to the attacking sphere in a future post.

In terms of possession, as you saw in the chart above, the Timbers came in 13th with an average of 47.85%. Under Spencer that figure was 45.38%, which would’ve dropped them to 17th. It rose to 50.16% when Wilkinson took over – around LA Galaxy level of ball control.

So what you had in Portland was a team that didn’t really control the ball particularly well, and didn’t do a good job of preventing opponents from getting shots on frame. The goalies performed adequately, but when your defence is leaking chance after chance, adequate simply isn’t going to be enough.

Conclusion

Well, the conclusion is that it’s difficult, nay, foolhardy to draw firm conclusions from data alone! There needs to a be a dialogue between the figures and what we see on the pitch with our own eyes. That instinct for what you’re seeing is a valuable commodity.

By drawing from both wells, we can draw a couple of fairly obvious conclusions off the bat. A good defence makes a big difference. A good goalkeeper also makes a difference, though perhaps not as much as the guys in front of him. A case could be made for seeking value in goal, while ensuring that the big bucks are reserved for shoring up the backline. In Kocic the Timbers have value at the back, but it remains to be seen whether investments in the defence and midfield will bring about marked improvements. It’s here that the leaps forward will have to be made if the Timbers are to progress in 2013.

The mid-season change wasn’t ideal. For whatever reason, it really seemed to throw off the defence and Troy Perkins, but the ship was steadied somewhat by the arrival of Donovan Ricketts. However, as a whole, the team underperformed. They let too many shots in, and from crucial areas, to expect much more than the 3rd worst defensive record.

A “better” keeper may have helped somewhat, but the key factors were repeated breakdowns in defence and midfield. There was a 71% drop between DA on the back four and DA in midfield, where in 4 of the 6 most miserly defences the drop was less than 60%, suggesting the better defences defended more as a whole rather than two distinct groups. This disjointed approach to defence led directly to a disappointing, but predictable, outcome. There is also the issue of too many fouls being committed in midfield, inviting teams to throw the ball into the box and put our defence to the test. A test the Timbers defence ultimately failed.

I’d expect to see a more cohesive approach to defence under Caleb Porter. We’re starting to see that in preseason, as the team look to press high and in numbers. I think the signing of Ryan Johnson is particularly significant in this regard as no forward player was more defensively active than Johnson was in 2012. He’s there to do more than just score goals or provide assists. The more I look at the numbers, the more his signing seems like it could be potentially the single most significant move the Front Office have made in the offseason.

Denying teams space in and around the box will be key as neither Kocic nor Ricketts have shown themselves to be especially proficient at short range.

I’d also expect to see the team climb the possession table. It is noticeable that, of the top six possession teams in 2012, five made it to the post season. Possession of the ball doesn’t guarantee goals, but the old adage that the other team can’t score if they don’t have the ball seems to hold true. Porter will seek to do more than simply keep the ball though, he’ll seek to use it with purpose in attack, and it’s to the attack that I’ll look in a future post.

The Upgrade

With preseason right around the corner, Timbers fans can finally start to look forward to some football to fill the time instead of (or more likely, as well as) internet drama and trademark disputes.

Much of the speculation among fans has centered on who will form the midfield, and who will lead the attack under our new head coach, Caleb Porter, but a more intriguing question may be who will be between the sticks.

The front office won few fans last year when they moved Troy Perkins to Montreal in exchange for Donovan Ricketts. It was, on the face of it, a strange decision and was compounded by the rather unfortunate framing of the move as an “upgrade”. While, clearly, no club would make such a big move without thinking they would benefit from it, the perceived slap in the face to a firm fans favourite and loyal servant rankled with some, and still does for many.

So before we look at who may be first choice in 2013, it may be worth looking back at the move and seeing if the Timbers really did call it right.

The Figures

I’m going to throw a lot of figures and terms at you, so if you’re not a fan of soccer analytics, it’s probably best you skip this post. If you want to hang around, then let me frame some of what follows.

The MLS site gives figures for goalkeepers, in terms of shots and saves, but I’ve always felt it was rather clumsy. In that system a 40 yard daisycutter carries the same weight as a point black volley, so I’ve gone back through the data and sorted it into In-Box chances and Long Range chance. I’ve also discarded own goals as these are largely outwith the goalkeepers control and such freak occurrences shouldn’t be used to judge a keepers effectiveness, in my opinion.

From doing this one fact leapt out: a team is 4 times as likely to score from an In-Box chance than a Long Range one. Of shots of target, 40% of In-Box chances resulted in a goal, as opposed to 13% from distance; of total shots, 16% of In-Box shots were scored, 4% of Long Range shots.

This confirms to me my suspicion that the basic figures provided on the official site are flawed. Two keepers could maintain an identical save percentage, but the keeper with the greater In-Box save percentage would be of much greater value than the guy who stops everything from 30 yards.

When I talk about “shots faced”, what I mean are shots on target – ie, shots that make the keeper work. Some teams have better block percentages than others, or are better are pressuring teams into missing the target, but these are more measures of defensive strength than goalkeeping ability, and I may come back to these in a future article.

So, ground set, lets move on.

The Trade

The Timbers conceded fewer goals with Ricketts in goal, dropping from 1.68 goals against per game (GaPG) to 1.58 GaPG (a difference of around 3 goals across a whole season) and this is borne out by looking at both keepers save percentages.

porperkrick

In each metric Ricketts outperforms his predecessor, and the difference in In-Box Saves (IBSv) jumps out the most – from 50.9% with Perkins to 60.7% with Ricketts. Given the importance of IBSv as stated above, this should lead to a marked difference, but the improvement, or “upgrade” if you will, was worth only 3 fewer goals conceded per season. Why?

Well, there was actually very little between the keepers in “bottom line terms”, as both conceded a goal from a shot in the box every 70 minutes or so (70.6 for Ricketts, 69.1 for Perkins – less than 1 goal difference across a season) and the reason for that was the Timbers actually allowed more In-Box Shots (IBSh) late in the season.

inboxshotsThe 10% improvement in IBSv was offset by the 20% increase in IBSh. There’s unlikely to be one single reason for the increase in chances, but the change of system and a new goalkeeper (who the defenders weren’t familiar with) could reasonably have contributed.

Despite this increase in IBSh against, the Timbers actually allowed fewer shots in total at goal with 44% fewer Long Range Shots (LRSh) against. There’s little surprise here as moving from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3/4-5-1 would give the team an extra body in midfield to block and pressurize players on the edge of the box.

anshotsfaced

Though Ricketts faced more shots in Portland than he did in Montreal, it was still a good deal fewer than Perkins faced. Perkins meanwhile had to face more shots in Montreal, though it would be pretty much on a par with his figures as a Timber.

As shown above, Ricketts brought an increase in shots saved to Portland. The same was also true of Troy Perkins in Montreal.

monperkrick

Again we see improvements in every metric, and much more markedly so than with Ricketts at Portland. The overall save percentage leapt from 61.4% to 81.4%, with IBSv rising from 50% to 71.4%. So, even though Perkins was facing more shots, he was delivering an overall improvement, contributing to a drop from 1.72 GaPG, to 0.89 GaPG, and 4 shut-outs in his 9 matches. Across a whole season, only Sporting Kansas City would’ve had a better defense than that with 0.79 GaPG.

Both clubs can certainly make a case that they got the best of the deal. From a Timbers perspective, the numbers certainly seem to indicate that the club were better off with Ricketts, but one would have to questions whether the modest improvements with a veteran keeper on a higher salary represent good value.

Enter Kocic

The Timbers went out and added Milos Kocic to the roster in the off-season. The Serbian keeper comes to Portland from Toronto which, if you were to just look at the goals against column, wouldn’t be very encouraging as Toronto were one of only 2 clubs to have a worse defensive record than the Cascadia Cup™ Champions. In fact, Toronto were rock bottom, shipping 62 goals, with Kocic picking 47 of those out of his net in only 27 starts.

Yet, things could’ve been much worse for Toronto if not for Kocic.

saveperkocperkrick

Kocic actually performable reasonably, if not spectacularly, well. In terms of LRSv, he performed about average for the league, maintaining a 86.4% save ratio. His IBSv was pretty similar to Ricketts’ overall ratio (52.4% for Kocic, 53.3% for Ricketts). Considering his salary is a fraction of that of Ricketts or Perkins, then it certainly seems like Kocic is a solid pick-up and someone who could, on performance, legitimately challenge Ricketts for the starting spot.

In trading away Perkins, the Timbers traded someone who had been on a run of 51 consecutive MLS starts after missing the start of the 2011 through injury. In that time Perkins missed 23 minutes after taking a boot to the face, in Montreal of all places. He’s since gone on to stretch that run to 60 consecutive starts, and if you look at the keepers who’ve had long careers, they tend to be the durable guys. I have my doubts about Ricketts’ durability.

I’d suspect, given Ricketts’ hefty salary, that the Jamaican will start the season as first choice, but I have no doubt that Kocic will get his chance at some point. At 35 years old, there’s a sense that Ricketts is increasingly prone to injuries and strains. While it’s true than most keepers can play on deep into their 30s and even 40s, once the niggling injuries start to bite, it’s usually a sure sign that the end is near. Though they may not need the cardiovascular fitness of a midfield dynamo, the goalkeeper position is high impact and takes it’s own unique toll on the body.

Dan?

Another name that pops up now and then among Timbers fans is that of Dan Kennedy. Chivas USA have made a lot of noise about building an overtly Mexican identity and the Californian-born Kennedy doesn’t fit that aesthetic. Rumours have swirled practically all off-season about a potential move for Kennedy, and it’s easy to see why he would be such a prized asset for most clubs.

Chivas were the second of the two clubs to concede more than the Timbers in 2012, but once more you would say that things could’ve been much worse for The Other LA Team FC.

saveperkenkocperkrick

Kennedy maintained a 57.8% IBSv ratio and a 84.8% LRSv ratio – both very respectable numbers. He was badly let down by a defense that allowed 102 IBSh on target. To put that into perspective, it’s 3.2 per game compared to 3.1 for Kocic, and 2.8 for Ricketts and Perkins. That difference between Ricketts and Kennedy would result in around 14 more IBSh per season, or 5 goals (based on average scoring rates). Essentially, even if Kennedy performed as well as his peers, he’d still be expected to concede at least 5 more goals over a season thanks to an abysmal Chivas USA defense.

Kennedy’s 2012 guaranteed salary was $100,000 less than Ricketts’, which would make him an absolute bargain, especially with Kocic in reserve. However, last time I checked Donovan Ricketts’ Mexican credentials were even more tenuous than Kennedy’s, so any trade would be unlikely at best, rendering a potential deal to get Kennedy reliant on putting Ricketts elsewhere.

Conclusion

It’s galling to see Perkins’ figures improve so markedly on leaving Portland. It could be because he found himself behind a better defense in Montreal, or he was fired up by the way he was pushed out the door by the Timbers, or 9 games aren’t enough to draw any serious conclusions. Also, given the narrow focus of this analysis – ignoring defensive performance for one – it can only give a glimpse at the answer, if there even is one.

In Ricketts, as unpopular as it may be to say in some circles, the numbers suggest the Timbers did indeed get an upgrade. I can’t speak to what Ricketts also brings to the locker room, but in on-pitch terms, there was an improvement.

Kocic had a torrid 2012 in Toronto, eventually losing losing his spot in the team, and will undoubtedly want to prove himself. The figures suggest he’s a capable keeper and though I suspect he may have to be patient in waiting his chance, I think it will come. Last year saw Joe Bendik get a short run in the team, and I thought he performed reasonably well, but as soon as Ricketts was fit, Bendik was out. I’d hope that Porter has the constitution to sit the high earner if the guy in place is doing the job.

I would be shocked, but delighted, if Dan Kennedy ended up on the Timbers roster in 2013. If Chivas USA truly are determined to attain some kind of relevance by out-clusterfucking Toronto, then someone will pick up a very solid keeper, but I don’t think it’ll be the Timbers.

Troy Story

After 51 appearances, and almost two years in Portland, Troy Perkins is a Timber no more. In a move that took everyone by surprise the first choice keeper was traded to playoff chasing Montreal Impact in exchange for their goalie, Donovan Ricketts.

And to think I had wondered what we were going to do to occupy ourselves in the long stretch before the El Cuchara de Madera Clasico in Toronto next week.

I took me a while to parse what had actually happened here. Had we really just shipped out one of the few guys on the roster to emerge out of a FUBAR 2012 season with a reputation relatively unscathed?

Yes. Yes, we did.

So, what is going on here?

Well, in Ricketts the Timbers have acquired the 2010 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. The ex-Galaxy man is still held in high regard by many Beckham FC fans, though few Impact fans seem to be mourning his loss.

I’ll be honest in that I haven’t been watching a great deal of Montreal this season, so I’ll leave it to others who are more capable of really analysing what the Timbers have got here. Being in the UK for much of the season, the only non-Timbers matches I really get a chance to see are those broadcast here by ESPN, and those are predominantly LA or New York games.

Perhaps Ricketts struggles this year can be attributed to a poor defence in front of him. 7 of the 39 goals he’s conceded this year have come from penalties, which suggests all is not well in front of him. So, it’s just as well he’s coming to a team where we’ve got the defence absolutely locked down and water tight.

Oh, sheeeeeeeeeeet.

Montreal are willing to pick up some of the more expensive Rickett’s salary for the next two years, so the Timbers effectively pay the same as they had for Perkins and don’t take a hit, in that sense at least, for it. I’ll admit that the MLS salary rules are something I’ll likely never properly understand, but when I see a team chasing the playoffs paying us to take their keeper of their hands, I have to wonder if this really is the “upgrade” that Gavin Wilkinson claims it is.

The more I hear from Wilkinson, the more I wish he’d keep his mouth shut.

Reading the news of the official site one line stood out to me.

Troy has been an important player for us, but we as a coaching staff saw this as an opportunity to improve the position, while optimizing our budget numbers in 2012 and 2013.

“Improve the position”. Is there really any need for that line to be there? What is it with this club and the need to take a shot at players who’ve left?

Maybe I’m nitpicking and, okay, it’s not the “professional expectations” and “non soccer reasons” of the Marcelin cut, but for me it betrays a lack of class and decency from the front office.

Would it be so hard to say something like this instead?

Troy has been an important player for us, but we as a coaching staff saw this as an opportunity to get another experienced, quality goalkeeper in, while optimizing our budget numbers in 2012 and 2013, with a view to developing our young goalkeepers who are the long term future of the club.

I get that you want to put a positive spin on the move, but it’s entirely possible to talk up Ricketts as the great saviour without having to stamp down Perkins down in the process with snidey little digs.

Wilkinson went on to reaffirm his opinion that Ricketts was the better keeper with his “ It’s an upgrade, in all honesty” comment. I don’t see why he can’t talk positively about Rickett’s attributes without framing it in terms of Troy Perkins’ supposed deficiencies, regardless of whether you actually think this is an upgrade or not.

For the record, I don’t. I think at best it’s a sideways move, and at worst we’ve just signed a keeper on the downhill part of his career.

This is a guy, Perkins, who took a boot to the face for the this club, and anyone with half a brain in their head could see has bailed this team out on countless occasions. Show the guy a bit of fucking respect at least.

Even if you do genuinely believe you’ve got a better keeper in, why have you got to betray such a lack of class in addressing it. It’s the “professional expectations” and “non soccer reasons” of the Marcelin cut all over again.

Of course, why I should expect any different from a guy who gave us “I’m not throwing anyone under the bus, but…” comments after he guided his team to a 5-0 loss in Dallas, I don’t know.

As well as the needlessly petty tone taken in talking about Perkins’ contribution to the Timbers, it’s the timing of this move that bothers me.

Following on from the hiring of an “assistant” before we’d even appointed a new head coach – I guess whoever we get had better just accept the staff he’s given and get on with it – we’re now trading away crucial members of our first team.

What is pretty clear is that this is a move all about getting Jake Gleeson installed in the starting XI. The 22 year old Kiwi got a chance last season when Troy Perkins was injured, and I thought he did fairly well and I wouldn’t have minded at all if he’d been allowed to keep his place. I’m a big believer that if you get a chance and do well, you deserve to play regardless of who you’re keeping out of the team.

But Wilkinson’s own words betray the fact that even he doesn’t think Gleeson is quite ready yet.

We are bringing [Ricketts] in to do a job and we are also thinking that that is a better environment for Jake Gleeson to develop in. [He] accepts that he’s a mentor for [Gleeson and Bendik], that one day one of those two is going to surpass where he is.

So we’ve essentially traded out one of the club’s few genuine top players, someone just coming into his prime years, for a stop-gap veteran?

Clearly Gleeson isn’t quite ready to step up yet, or we wouldn’t be signing a “mentor” for him. I’m sure he will be a great keeper in time. I don’t see why we don’t ride out this year and let the new head coach, whoever he or she may be, make the call on who they think is the best keeper for the club. If they agree Gleeson is the future, and the future is now, then we have one of the league’s top goalkeepers, with years ahead of him still, to offer as leverage in a trade for a player in a position where we are weak like, say, defence. Or midfield. Or attack.

I get the impression that Troy was unwilling to sit out so that Gleeson could get some game time, though give the way he’s carried himself with supreme professionalism and dignity through-out his time here, I’ve also doubt that had he been benched, he’d have done it without throwing the toys of out the pram. I mean, not being happy at all, but not feeling the need to unsettle everyone else over it.

Also, I’m not sure signing someone who is willing to sit out is a good thing, you know? That hardly speaks of a guy in his prime, confident in his abilities to be a top keeper any more. Maybe Ricketts himself has recognised he’s lost a bit of sharpness and accepts that this is going to be his role, and as long as he gets some game time in front a good crowd, he’s happy with that. Maybe he’s got one eye on moving into coaching, and this is a good bridge towards that. Only Donovan Ricketts would know.

So instead of keeping Perkins and letting Gleeson battle him for the right to take over as number one, we get a 35 year old who’ll likely see out the next couple of years, as I don’t think there’s any way Ricketts is here beyond 2013 when Montreal stop supplementing his salary. If all goes well, Ricketts rides the bench for much of next year as Gleeson takes over. Of course, as Wilkinson says, “35, for a goalkeeper, is not old” and he’s right – Brad Friedel is still doing it arguably the toughest league in the world, past 40 – but the flip side is that we seem hell bent on rushing through a 22 year old. If 35 isn’t old, is 22 a bit young?

The debate can rage on about the merits or otherwise of this trade, but after all is said and done Troy Perkins has gone and Donovan Ricketts is a Timber now. I wish Troy all the best, except when Montreal face Portland (which fortunately won’t be this year) but Donovan is our man now and he’s gets 100% backing.

I doubt this isn’t the end of it. I’ve suspected for a while that we won’t see Kris Boyd back next year, for one. He’s seen the guy who brought him here fired, and has been hung out to dry in a system that doesn’t work for him – seriously, if you sign Kris Boyd for DP money, you know what you’re getting so you build the team around playing to his strengths, you don’t just plug him into what was currently there and hope for the best because, shock, that isn’t going to work. If I was a Championship club and I’m looking to push on in January, I’d fancy taking a punt of him. I doubt Wilkinson would put up a big fight to keep Spenny’s guy in Portland.

Those fans calling for Wilkinson to go had best buckle down because if this move says anything to me it’s that Gavin is going nowhere. He’s already building his team for next year.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

#RCTIUpgrade

Intolerable Cruelty

In shock news, the Timbers suffered another defeat, their fifth on the spin, this time following a smash-and-grab win from Chivas USA, the only goal of the game coming midway through the second half.

The scoreline mirrored that of the recent match, though at least the performance was better here. Just a shame you don’t get points for that. No to get wins you need to score – something the Timbers haven’t done in 290 minutes of play – and it also helps to keep a clean sheets or so – it’s now 11 consecutive matches the Timbers have conceded in since a 0-0 draw with Houston in mid May.

Gavin Wilkinson made six changes from the team that collectively shat the bed against Dallas. Out went Chabala (gone from the 18 altogether), Danso, Alhassan, Fucito, Alexander and Mwanga and in came Smith, Horst, Richards, Boyd, Jewsbury and Nagbe.

I suspected they would line up in a 4-2-3-1 again, but I was a little surprised to see how far up the field Chara was playing. Jewsbury had the holding role, and that freed the Colombian foul merchant up to go forward and support the attack.

Songo’o and Richards played out wide, with Nagbe tucked in behind – and running beyond – Boyd in the striking role.

From early on it was clear that Songo’o was in the mood for this one, and he ryansmithed the Chivas defence time and again in the first half. He was at the heart of pretty much everything positive about the Timbers attack, and is virtually unplayable when he’s in this sort of form. Which is to say, occasionally.

Boyd had a couple of decent sights at goal – one chance he beautifully engineered with a deft flick, and another he completely fluffed. Such is life as a striker – the margin between hero and villain is often vanishingly small.

Playing up top can be a cruel position to play. Mistakes are amplified. A missed chance falls under much greater scrutiny than a midfielder’s misplaced pass that leads to nothing. No player is more derided than the striker that misses a chance that is “easier to score”, yet even the greatest strikers will miss a few of them along the way.

I’d rather have a striker get ten chances and miss them all than not get any at all. Course, I’d much rather he put at least one of those away, but we’ve all had bad days/nights at the office and this was one of these for the striker.

The only position, in my opinion, that is crueller than that of striker in terms of the difference a single mistake can make is that of goalkeeper, and we’ll get to that soon enough…

Brent Richards made his first start for the Timbers in MLS, and he was hugely impressive in the first half too. He added a bustle and energy that the Timbers attack has oft lacked this year, and he displays as much contempt for the fundamental laws of gravity as John Terry does for decorum and sportsmanship.

His aerial abilities certainly seemed to catch Chivas out early on, and the home grown player got a lot of joy from long, high balls punted in his general direction. He also added a threat from throw-in’s with a Rory Delap-esque long throws.

As well as what he could offer the club going forward, he also displayed a focus and willingness to work in defence that helped Kosuke Kimura at right back.

As much as I like Alhassan, I’ve always had big reservations about his defensive work, among other things. Though Chivas offered little in attack, I do feel that Kimura had a much more assured match here than he’s had in a while in no small part to the security afforded him by Richards’ work ahead of him.

Fans have been calling for a while for some of the young guys to be given a chance to shine, and it’s pleasing to see Richards not only given that chance, but grasp it both hands, take it home to meet his parents and buy a nice three-bedroom house in the ‘burbs.

In his more advanced role Diego Chara also impressed in the first 45. He had a hand in a couple of good chances, and it was his pass that set Boyd off down the right in a counter-attack that had echoes of Mwanga’s goal against San Jose.

Such chances to break on Chivas would be few and far between given their plan to defend in depth, both numerically and geographically.

The Timbers faced a team with one plan in mind: keep it tight, and hope to nick a goal. From very early on it was clear that this was not a team that would come here and look to exploit a Timbers defence that had just shipped five goals to a distinctly average FC Dallas the previous week.

Half an hour in and Chivas were already defending in numbers and bunkering in. It’s a strategy that has served them fairly well, with four of their six wins prior to this match coming in 1-0 results. The other two were also one-goal victories, both 2-1. This isn’t a team that tends to blow out their opponents, nor do they get steamrollered having conceded more than 1 goal in only 4 of their previous 19 MLS match this year.

Having done so well in the first half, there seemed to be a slight drop-off in intensity in the second. The formation that had come as close to a 4-3-3 as we’ve seen from the Timbers this year in the first half took on more of a 4-1-4-1 shape in second.

Jewsbury still sat deep, but Chara didn’t have the same attacking focus that he’d had in the first half.

Richards, who’d had such a fine first half, also lost a bit of pep to his game in the second. Chivas seemed to wise up to the threat of Richards in the air, even as the Timbers continued to dementedly plough that particular furrow, and he didn’t quite have the same joy as he had in the first.

On the opposite flank, Songo’o tired and had less impact than he had before the break. The Cameroonian has had his share of injury problems, but he continues to struggle to find full match fitness, and it was a visibly tiring Songo’o who gave Chivas the chance the led to the only goal of the game.

All the Timbers good work in the first half was wiped out by a needless foul, poor defensive marking and a goalkeeping error.

You have to feel sorry for keepers sometimes. The slightest misjudgement and there’s a good chance they’ll cost the team a goal. Perkins has been one of the Timbers best, most consistent, players this year, but he has to take his share of the blame for this one.

Once in front, there was never any doubt that Chivas would look to park the bus and keep what they had. The Timbers failed to find a way through – Boyd missed a couple, and Nagbe joined the party with a couple of his own.

There was certainly a lot more positives to take from this match than there has been in the last few games. I don’t often agree with Wilkinson, but he’s right when he says that football is a “cruel, cruel sport at times”.

The Timbers continue to find frustration in attack, while they find that every mistake gets punished pitilessly.

I thought the tactics, in the first half certainly, were good and we got good performances out key players. What worries me is the drop-off in the second – something that’s happened too often to be mere coincidence.

Robbie Earle speculated in the commentary that Sean McAuley was doing much of the touchline coaching to give the players a “different voice” to react to, with Wilkinson saying his piece at half time. If the reaction from the players after the break is any indication, Wilkinson might want to consider getting a motivator like Mitt Romney in next time.

The Jekyll and Hyde nature of the team is annoying, but at least the drop-off wasn’t as dramatic as it has been in the past. And, hey, for a team that had lost so many late goals this season, only 2 of the last 15 have come in the last quarter hour, so that’s something. Right?

Of course, those 15 goals have been conceded in the last 5 games. That’s also something… *shudder*

I want to strike a positive note, as I did feel we played some good football at times, but we leave ourselves at the mercy of a single, silly mistake at the back when we fail to put the ball in the net. And if there’s one thing that you can count on with this team, it’s that they’ll make a mistake at the back at some point. Today it was Perkins, on another day it’s Kimura, or Smith. It’s a wonder we have any toes left considering the number of times we’ve shot ourselves in the foot.

Chivas recorded their third win over the Timbers this season with this result. You know what you’ll get from Chivas. They play pretty much the same way in most matches, and that strategy never really changed for Chivas as the match wore on.

Though Chivas has the edge in possession before the goal (53%-47%), the Timbers made almost half of their passes in the Chivas half, with only 39% of Chivas passes coming in the Timbers half. After the goal, the Timbers dominate possession (79%-21%), and have much more of the play in the Chivas half, but fail to take what chances come their way.

Like a dealer who gives a hit of the good stuff to hook you, so the Timbers give flashes of what they could be, reeling you in and making you believe, before sucker punching you square in the babymaker.

And yet, we’ll be back again for the next game, and what’s more we’ll have hope that next time it’ll be different.

Despite the scoreline in the last meeting, the Timbers are more than capable of beating Dallas next week. Unfortunately, they’re also more than capable of beating themselves.

The team have a week before they have a chance to avenge that 5-0 defeat in front of a Timbers Army that have been starved of reasons to be cheerful lately.

It’s a cruel game indeed.

#RCTID

Clowns to the left, Jokers to the right

In a flurry of misguided optimism I had written in midweek about how I thought the Timbers could, should, and would, beat LA this weekend. In the end it was another disappointing road trip as the team succumbed to defeat to a poor LA Galaxy.

There was no surprise to see Danny Mwanga start alongside Kris Boyd in attack, and the rest of the squad was as predictable, save for the inclusion of Franck Songo’o at left midfield.

The match started with some end to end play, and the Timbers were looking dangerous in attack for the first time in a long time. With Nagbe playing high up the pitch, and Alhassan and Songo’o supporting from midfield, it certainly had an attacking look.

The Galaxy had gone with a 4-3-3 that became a 4-5-1 in defence. The central three of Beckham, Juninho and Sarvas seemed to take a while to work out their roles in the system, and this early confusion was exploited by Nagbe who was finding spaces between defence and midfield.

I wrote in my preview article about how early crosses to the back post could be effective in exploiting the Galaxy’s aerial weakness at the back, yet this was the one time we effectively got the ball into the box.

In fact, the level of crossing in the game for the Timbers was poor.

Five attempted crosses from the left all game, only one successful – and even that didn’t get into the box! All season we’ve been whiffing crosses in for big defenders to head clear with ease and when we finally play a team that can be truly hurt by height, we scale it back.

It’s little surprise that we were so absent down the flanks when your “wingers” are Alhassan and Songo’o. I worried that Songo’o out wide would hurt or wing play, and so it proved.

You can look at that pic and, sure, you can try and tell me that Songo’o is a winger, but I don’t believe you. I know he was sold as that but Spencer’s spiel that he has “never played in there probably in his career” looks kind of hollow when you engage your eyeballs and actually watch where Songo’o is playing. He is not a winger.

Sure, he might stand out wide when the Timbers don’t have the ball, but as soon as they get it, he drifts inside. Maybe it’s a tactical thing, and that’s what he’s been told to do, but even so I’ve never once see him display that winger’s instinct to take a player on round the outside and whip a cross in.

And before anyone points out false or reverse wingers, or guys such as Ribery and Robben, or even Messi, who have played outwide, only to come infield, there’s a big difference between what these guys can do from there than what Songo’o does. To be fair to Alhassan, while he is often guilty of the same ineffectual meandering infield, right into traffic, he at least stuck to the flanks a bit more.

I honestly think some people are getting blinded by the whole Barcelona thing. La Masia is a footballing factory – it goes through scores of kids, and only a select few every make it anywhere.

I think Songo’o is a talented player. He has skills. I just don’t know where he fits in in this time. It’s certainly not out wide.

With our wide midfielders narrowing the attack, it made Portland’s play predictable.

Get it wide, work it inside, run out of space, get it wide again. Repeat until the ball is knocked out of play or lost to the opposition.

While it paid off early on, and Boyd in particular had a good chance after some encouraging linking with Mwanga as well as Songo’o’s headed chance, the Galaxy quickly got wise to the ploy and started sitting Juninho or Sarvas alongside Beckham at the back of the midfield three and shut the play down.

I don’t profess to be a footballing mastermind. I’m just a fan with a blog. I’ve never played the game beyond schools level, and I’ve certainly never coached or managed outside of the Football Manager series of games.

Yet even I could see this was dangerous.



I don’t post these to show off, or brag about how clever I am (much). I take no satisfaction from it, but if I, a humble fan, could spot the potential for disaster by leaving the midfield so short, why in the name of Steve Guttenberg’s Left Testicle couldn’t the coaching staff? This is their job. They get paid to do this shit.

Sure enough, minutes after my last tweet, this happened.

This was the build up that led to the corner, that led to the Galaxy scoring the only goal of the game.

I really pity Diego Chara here. He would’ve had every right to be absolutely fuming with the coaching staff after this match. Time and again he was left so outnumbered in the middle I half expected Burt Young to emerge out of the dugout, urging the Colombian to “hit the one in the middle”.

Nagbe clearly had an attacking brief, and it shows in this defensive breakdown for the two players. To Chara’s credit, he did a good job, hamstrung though he was, and was a constant presence shutting down space and thwarting Galaxy attacks.

After an inital good showing, Nagbe again drifted out the match as it wore on. I wrote a while ago that I’d been concerned that Nagbe was slumping, whether through exhaustion or a loss of confidence, and looked in need of a rest.

Even the very best young players will hit a point where they need to be taken out of the team to allow them to recharge the batteries. Nagbe is only a second year pro, and there’s been a lot of expectation heaped upon his shoulders.

At times, Nagbe is contributing very little. The team, as a whole, are carrying more passengers than a Japanese bullet train, and they’re not all on the pitch.

Again, we had another game where the Timbers failed to adjust to the opposition they faced. Make no mistake – this LA team were poor. They didn’t outplay us. They simply had a strategy that worked, and one that we failed to even acknowledge, or so it seemed.

I can absolutely appreciate the team going out to attack and we saw that for much of the first half, but the thing is, if you don’t then score, you’d sure as shit better have a plan to defend as well. When we found our attacking play being stifled as the game wore on, we didn’t adjust. As the Galaxy began to exert control of the centre of the pitch, we didn’t adjust.

If this seems familiar, it’s because we’ve seen this movie before.

The changes finally came after the goal. Boyd – who missed that early chance and had another long range effort cleared, but is looking ever more anxious and frustrated in front of goal – went off, as did Alhassan and Songo’o, but by then the Galaxy were able to close down the match by sheer weight of numbers.

The parallels between Boyd and Kenny Cooper are concerning. Both are good strikers, solid goalscorers, and yet their time in the Pacific Northwest has been marked by bad luck, poor service and, at times, an apparent loss of confidence in front of goal.

I should address the goal as well, I suppose, as complaints about the refereeing were prevalent on twitter after the match.

While they certainly excelled themselves with some calls that betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of the offside rule, on the goal I see no problems, to be honest.

To get on my hobby horse for a moment – goalies get far too much protection as it is. The slightest glancing touch of a keeper is invariably called a foul on him, and it’s gone way beyond ridiculous. An attacker should have as much right to fairly challenge a goalkeeper as he does a defender.

That said, I can see nothing wrong with the goal. Donovan gets himself into a dangerous area, and some were arguing he was obstructing Perkins. I think he had as much right to move toward the ball, and get himself in a dangerous area, as Perkins did to try and clear it – which, by the way, I don’t think he was getting near in any case.

If Perkins had expended as much energy in playing to the whistle as he did in waving his arms around, he might have got more a hand to the ball.

It’s very much a subjective thing though. Some will see obstruction, some won’t. This ref didn’t. It wasn’t an egregious call by any means.

And Portland didn’t lose this match because a ref didn’t cover Perkins in cotton wool. They lost because they did what they always do.

I mean, who needs a Plan B when Plan A is working so well, huh?

Next up, Seattle. Yeah.

#rctid

Trading Places

Portland Timbers recently attempted to kick start their ailing season by bringing Danny Mwanga in from Philadelphia in exchange for Jorge Perlaza. General Manager Gavin Wilkinson indicated that they would be seeking to improve key areas over the next few weeks, so it’s highly likely that the trading is far from over.

Timbers fans hoping to see the team take a step forward this year have been bitterly disappointed by a number of sub-par performances, culminating in a humiliating loss to Cal FC in the US Open Cup.

As the front office look to strengthen their squad over the next few weeks in the hope of kick-starting a playoff push, it seems an apposite time to review their preview dealings in the transfer market.

The system of trades in MLS, while familiar to American sports fan, can seem Byzantine in it’s complexity to outsiders, and that is without wading into the murky waters of Allocation Money.

Regardless, by looking over six of the highest profile trade moves, and addressing the clubs policy in general, can we get an idea of where the club is heading and whether fans have reason to believe that a second year with no playoff soccer can be avoided?

Let’s see…

[learn_more caption=”McCarty / Wallace”]

Dax McCarty was already a veteran of almost 100 MLS matches with FC Dallas, and still only 23, when taken as the Timbers’ first pick in the expansion draft that greeted the clubs arrival in Major League Soccer.

Yet McCarty would only be a Timber for as long as it took to make a deal with DC United to exchange the midfielder for the Costa Rican left-back Rodney Wallace.

Despite his youth and being an important part of the Dallas midfield an abundance of players there, as well as the emergence of Eric Alexander, led Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman to leave McCarty unprotected.

In trading away the US international the Timbers lost a hard-working, combative midfielder, who allied grit with a finesse that delivered 17 assists in his time at Dallas.

On the face of it, the move for Wallace made some logical sense. In building a team from scratch they had also moved for left-back Anthony Wallace as their fourth pick, but had traded him right back to Colorado Rapids in return for allocation money. It left the team with no left-back on their nascent roster, and that role is traditionally one where it is difficult to find quality.

Rodney Wallace, himself a first round pick for DC in the 2009 SuperDraft, already had a couple of years of MLS experience under his belt. He’d also played in the same University of Maryland side as Jeremy Hall, who’d joined the Timbers a couple of days previously, which was something that Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson thought would be “a tremendous benefit” to the team.

In the end, there are few fans who would consider Wallace to have been a benefit to the team. A couple of goals and assists in his first year failed to mask the fact that Wallace has never really set the heather on fire at Portland due to displays that are only consistent in their inconsistency. He never looked comfortable at left back, seemingly better suited to midfield, and yet, when moved to midfield, he looked lost.

He now finds himself behind Steven Smith in the pecking order, and could even be considered third choice for left back behind Mike Chabala. With a substantial cap hit of $110,000 it wouldn’t surprise if he was one of the pieces that the Timbers were looking to move out to freshen up the squad, as they did with his ex-college team mate Jeremy Hall.

McCarty on the other hand would only spend a few months at DC before being traded to New York Red Bulls in exchange for Dwayne De Rosario, where he’s become an anchor in midfield.

While there may have been some sense in the trade at the time, it’s hard for Timbers fans to not to look back on it with hindsight and wince.

 

Verdict: Qualified Failure

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Cronin / Perkins”]

After a fantastic year in the Timbers final USL season in 2010, goalkeeper Steve Cronin was one of the first four players announced as members of the MLS squad.

The stats for that final year certainly indicate that his step-up to the big league was a no-brainer – a 42.86% shutout rate and 114.5 minutes per goal conceded.

However, almost before the ink the dry Cronin had been traded to DC United in exchange for another keeper, Troy Perkins. If the McCarty/Wallace deal was an error on the part of the front office then this trade was nothing short of a masterstroke.

2011 would be Cronin’s second bite at MLS after spells at San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy before dropping to USL. His final year in MLS, 2008 with the Galaxy, saw Cronin play 22 matches and ship 44 goals. Admittedly, it was a difficult year all round for LA but a rate of 2 goals lost per game is not good.

Despite this, DC saw enough in Cronin to grab him for cover. It signalled a premature end to Perkins second spell in the capitol.

A spell in Norway with Vålerenga broke up Perkins’ time at DC. From 2004 to 2007 he made 77 regular season appearances, conceding 97 goals, and won the Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2006.

Signing Perkins was a risk for Portland, though as his return in 2010 was less than glorious. He shipped 37 goals in only 22 appearances, making the 2006 and 2007 seasons seem a long time ago. There was no guarantee he could be that keeper again.

The gamble paid off in fine style as Perkins was a rock at the back for the Timbers in an often difficult debut season. He played 29 times, losing 38 goals, and posted a shutout rate of over 30% for the first time in his career.

2012 has seen Perkins improve further, getting back to his very best form.

2005’s figures are skewed by Perkins having played only two matches that year.

A regular contender for Save of the Week, Perkins has been the saviour of the Timbers on a myriad of occasions.

Cronin, on the other hand, make a couple of sub appearances for DC in 2011, and lost 4 goals to mirror his 2008 MLS season. He was released at the end of the year, and has since left the game to become a State Farm agent.

 

Verdict: Undoubted Success

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Moffat / Chabala & Palmer”]

Adam Moffat clocked a grand total of 239 days with the Timbers, four substitute appearances and a sum of 100 game minutes before being traded away to Houston Dynamo for two defensive players, Mike Chabala and Lovel Palmer.

It was another move, like the McCarty deal, that made some sense in the context of the time. Jeremy Hall wasn’t doing enough to justify his place in the team at right back, and on the other flank Rodney Wallace was frustrating all and sundry.

Palmer and Chabala would bolster the squad at right and left back respectively and give, as Wilkinson explained, “more depth at the back and more options.”

The industrious Moffat had found himself unable to break into the side thanks to the coach’s preference for Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara in the middle.

A tough-tackling defensive midfielder, the Scot brought aggression and passion to the pitch, but also knew what to do with the ball when we got it with a good range of passing.

He’d been Portland’s third pick in the expansion draft after coming to the States in 2007 and establishing himself at Columbus Crew despite a serious knee injury early on.

In trading Moffat away, along with a chunk of allocation money, the Timbers bolstered their defence with two experienced players.

Chabala had already played for the Timbers in 2006, when loaned out by the Dynamo. Though much of his time in Houston was on the periphery of the team, 2010 saw him clock up a career high 22 starts. 2011 had seen him return to the fringes, and he had only 2 starts under his belt before being moved on.

Palmer had been a regular for the Dynamo since moving there in 2010 from his native Jamaica. Able to play at full back or defensive midfield, it was in the former role he would establish himself at Portland.

It would be fair to say he’s not won a great deal of admirers among Timbers fans who have wearied of his wayward distribution and ball control. Coach Spencer moved him into midfield this year, and that switch coincided with a marked improvement in defence albeit with a sense that Palmer in midfield carries the cost of curtailing the club’s creativity in attack.

Meanwhile, Moffat no-nonsense style has proved a hit with fans in Houston. He would return to haunt Portland with a screamer from distance when the clubs met a couple of months after the move.

I can’t help but ruefully shake my head when I see Palmer play the role for Portland that Moffat excels in with Houston and think that, even in a 2-for-1 deal, we got the shitty end of the stick.

 

Verdict: Failure. But only just.

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Hall / Alexander”]

As already mentioned, Jeremy Hall had joined the Timbers from New York Red Bulls before the expansion draft, making him the first MLS trade the club had made.

Hall had been in New york since being drafted in the first-round in 2009. A strong debut season boded well for the athletic right-back, but his form tailed off and he found his opportunities limited in his second year.

Though he was quickly installed as first choice for the Timbers, he was a frustrating player to watch. He had fantastic pace, and a willingness to break forward at every opportunity, delivering three assists and getting nine shots at goal – impressive numbers for a full back.

The problem was his willingness to get forward at EVERY opportunity. He was often caught out of position and seemed to lack the defensive awareness his position demanded.

His relatively large salary – around $129,000 – made it difficult to justify so much money being spent of a player who clearly wasn’t living up to expectations. The writing was on the wall with acquisition of Lovel Palmer to play in the same position.

Hall’s time as a Timber came to an end in August when he was traded to FC Dallas for Eric Alexander.

Alexander had been a factor in McCarty being unprotected in the expansion draft, so it was somewhat of a surprise to find Schellas Hyndman willing to let him go, even with the deal sweetened by Portland picking up some of Hall’s salary for the rest of the year.

No-one was more surprised than Alexander himself, but Hyndman’s reasoned that the signing of Daniel Cruz in midfield left them overstocked in that area yet light in defence.

In Alexander the Timbers gained a hard-working, versatile midfielder who carried a salary of less than half that of Hall’s.

Eric has struggled to pin down a starting place for Portland since the move, and has fallen foul of Coach Spencer’s high standards but, despite this, he remains fairly popular with fans, thanks in no small part to his play this season.

Despite being 10th in terms of playing time, he leads the club in assists, and is third for shots taken (591 mins, 3 assists, 13 shots).

Hall, on the other hand, had a torrid time at Dallas. He failed to win over the fans, and even Hyndman later expressed regret about the move.

To be fair, he carried an injury during his time at Dallas which limited his mobility before being traded to Toronto FC where he promptly got injured in preseason. Having only recently returned to action, he played a part in Toronto’s first league win of the season.

Despite Alexander’s lack of first team action even Dallas fans would agree that Portland got by far the better end of this trade.

 

Verdict: Success

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Cooper”]

Though strictly not a trade in the sense of the other deals in this list, it would be remiss of me not to address Kenny Cooper here.

Cooper joined the club from 1860 Munich with high hopes, and Wilkinson raving that the striker was “a great signing” who added experience and a goal scoring pedigree to the attack.

It’s hard to find fault with Wilkinson as Cooper had scored 40 times in 90 regular season matches for FC Dallas before joining 1860 Munich midway through the 2009 MLS season.

Though Cooper struggled to find form in Europe, Timbers fans were still excited by the prospect of him leading the line with over 40% predicting a goal haul in double figures in an online poll.

In the end Cooper never seemed at home in Portland, and would score only 8 times in 34 matches, marking his poorest year in MLS. Those figures get thrown into stark relief by Cooper’s 11 goals in 13 games since being traded to New York Red Bulls in exchange for a first-round 2013 draft pick.

Cooper’s shot accuracy also dipped to 38%, while it averaged 50% across all other years

The reasons for Cooper’s failure to find the net consistently at Portland are hard to pin down. He often seemed without a real purpose or clear idea of his role, and would drift ineffectually all over the pitch in search of the ball, disappearing out of matches like a namesake DB from the back of a Boeing 727.

Despite rare flashes of the potent finisher he could be, the overriding memory of Cooper as a Timber is one of frustration, fans and player alike.

Cooper’s travails are perhaps best encapsulated by an incident in a match against DC United where he had a meltdown from 12 yards. He missed twice from retaken penalties before Jewsbury stepped up to score, and would later be subbed. He was never quite the same player afterwards.

His resurgence at New York, which has seen him touted for international honours, has been a talking point among Timbers fans. Some point the finger at Spencer’s tactics as having doomed Cooper to fail, whilst others see the greater talents – Thierry Henry, Joel Lindepere and, ahem, Dax McCarty to name but three – around him in New York as the real answer.

Cooper’s year in Portland is an example of “right man, wrong place”. It underlines the fact that simply going out and buying the “best” isn’t always the right move if that player isn’t suited to how the club play, or vice versa.

The coaching staff never seemed to be able to bring out the best in Cooper and his role as totemic front man has been taken up this year by Kris Boyd, a striker who broke records back in his native Scotland.

Boyd currently has 4 goals in 12 matches.

 

Verdict: Kenny Flopping Cooper

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Perlaza / Mwanga”]

All of which brings us to the most recent trade. Jorge Perlaza, a polarizing and frustrating player at times, traded to Philadelphia Union for Danny Mwanga.

Clearly it’s too early to call on whether this is a good deal. Perlaza saw a little time towards the end of the Union’s defeat to DC United, though Perlaza did score in a friendly. Having been burnt on seemingly “good deals” before, most fans are wisely taking a wait-and-see approach.

Perlaza’s contribution to the cause was recognised by most Timbers fans, but few shed tears to see the Colombian leave, despite him scoring the first goal at JELD-WEN Field. A record of only 6 goals in 41 matches simply wasn’t enough.

I’ve written in the past about the value I think Perlaza brought to the team, but I can also recognise the sense in this trade. The team are struggling for goals – only Chivas USA have scored fewer in the Western Conference – and a fresh impetus up top may provide the spark they need.

In Mwanga, that spark is a 20 year old, 6’2” striker who hit the MLS at full speed in his first season, scoring seven times in his first 14 appearances. A refugee from DR Congo who had settled in Oregon, he had been drafted first by the Union in 2010.

It would certainly seem on that early evidence that Portland have got the better end of the deal, but the trade is not without its risks.

Since that early burst, Mwanga has found goals and game time under Piotr Nowak hard to come by. Niggling injuries have hampered him, and when he has played it’s often be out of position, or from the bench as Nowak focused on defence over attack.

The trade that saw Sebastien Le Toux join Vancouver Whitecaps this year meant Mwanga lost the one player he seemed to have an intuitive understanding with, and he’s cut a forlorn figure this year, with no goals in his 11 matches.

Worryingly for Timbers fans, if Mwanga’s early form for the Union was taken out of the equation his record is five goals in 47 appearances (526 minutes per goal) – one fewer goal than Perlaza, who’d played six fewer matches (440 minutes per goal).

The change in scenery may do both players the world of good. Certainly Mwanga has looked a lot happier since the trade, and has talked of his return to his “hometown”.

Perlaza’s situation is a little more difficult to read following Nowak’s recent departure, but given the chance he could yet shine away from Portland as Cooper has.

 

Verdict: Time will tell…

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Overall”]

It wouldn’t be fair to say the front office has outright failed in it’s transfer dealings, and neither has it been a roaring success. The truth is there’s been a mix of the good, the bad and the indifferent.

From the ten players selected in the expansion draft, only one has racked up any meaningful first team action – Eric Brunner. Six never kicked a ball for the club with four – McCarty, Wallace, Arturo Alvarez (to Real Salt Lake for a second-round draft pick) and Jordan Graye (to Houston for a fourth-round 2014 draft pick) – traded away and two – Robbie Findley and Jonathan Bornstein – who had left the league.

In terms of moves outwith MLS there’s been tendency to go for almost exclusively Colombian and Scottish targets. Colombians make up the largest non-American bloc in the league and the Timbers have played their part in pushing that number up.

Diego Chara has been a mainstay in the Timbers midfield, and is popular with with fans for his rambunctious style on the pitch. Jorge Perlaza wrote himself into the history books with the club’s first home MLS goal, if not the hearts of the support.

This year has seen three Colombians join – Jose Adolfo Valencia, Sebastián Rincón and Hanyer Mosquera.

Valencia is a huge prospect, but unlikely to see any game time until 2013 due to injury. Rincón is young and skillful, but hasn’t yet got his chance during his loan spell.

Of the three, Mosquera is the one that’s made the immediate impact. He’s a huge presence in the heart of defence and, if he can continue to improve, will undoubtedly prove himself one of the best centre-backs in the league.

Steven Smith joined Boyd, his ex-Rangers teammate, at the end of April following a spell in England. A bustling left-back, his signing has seemed to edge Wallace closer to the door. Rumours swirl linking Portland to a move to another ex-Rangers player, Kenny Miller, but are, as yet, unsubstantiated.

The move to sign Boyd was a big deal. Signed as a designated player, he represents a large financial undertaking. Goals haven’t exactly flowed as yet, and there are some fans who wonder if they will. I still have confidence that he’ll find his feet before too long.

The worry is that the Timbers are often limited in scope when it comes to transfer targets, and don’t seem to address the problems the squad clearly has.

The lack of a natural attacking midfielder has been glaring for some time, and the team still have problems at right back, where Jewsbury has been filling in.

If this article were to be written last year, getting Jewsbury from Kansas City would’ve been viewed a stunning success. Jewsbury had been a solid, if unspectacular, part of Kansas City’s midfield, but during those early months of 2011 he was transformed into a set-piece specialist and driving force behind the Timbers. He delivered eight assists and seven goals in 31 matches, defying all expectations of him.

However, 2012 has seen a regression to the mean. His overall play has slumped, yet there seems a reluctance from John Spencer to drop the man he installed as captain, preferring to fit him in at right back instead.

The recent move to sign Mike Fucito, another striker, from Montreal Impact also confuses me. Is another striker really what the team needs at this point? I’ve no doubt Fucito will give his all, and he’s certainly looked eager in the little game time he’s had so far, but what is the front office’s overall strategy here?

And that is my concern.

At times it seems like there’s no guiding principle as to how the Timbers are working their trades. My own sense is that John Spencer and Gavin Wilkinson seem to have different ideas on the kind of squad they want, and this is leading to there being “Spencer players” and “Wilkinson players” on the roster, with very little overlap in that particular Venn diagram.

The transfer window remains open for some time, and the season is young, so the Timbers can still turn it around and reach the play-offs. The next few weeks will be very interesting in Soccer City USA.

[/learn_more]

 

What do you think? Have the Timbers trade dealings worked for you, or not?

Sound off below.