Alexander the Trade

After 30 appearances in Timbers green, Eric Alexander is the latest player to find himself packing his bags and moving on after being traded to New York in exchange for allocation money.

Trading for or with allocation money has become a feature of the Timbers’ dealings this offseason as Caleb Porter reshapes his team. Given the veil of secrecy that MLS have thrown up around allocation money it’s virtually impossible to tell what value the club are getting for players like Alexander, or Brunner, or Robbie Findley but clearly the front office feel they would rather have the lucre than the player who led the club in assists through 2012.

And I can’t say I’m surprised, nor am I outraged by the move.

With the trading of Alexander, and the cutting of Franck Songo’o, the club have ditched the two leading assist providers from last year which, when taken with the departure of leading scorer Kris Boyd, would make it seem like Torontoeqsue levels of facepalmery are unfolding in the Rose City.

Neither Boyd nor Songo’o fit the new aesthetic and, while Alexander’s style was a better fit, I never felt that he was a guy who was going to make a starting spot his own under Porter.

Alexander was a generally tidy and composed player, which made him a stand out in 2012 where these were two features we seemed to perpetually lack in midfield. He provided a creative presence from central midfield that we lacked in Jack Jewsbury or Diego Chara.

When Darlington Nagbe moved back into that central midfield role, it essentially pushed Alexander further out of the team. He would have appearances in wide midfield, but this never looked like a position that suited him.

Coming into 2013, those features Alexander brought to the team are now being brought by others. Diego Valeri is the creative player, while Will Johnson brings a steadying and composed presence to the centre. Nagbe continues to develop, and we still have Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury, neither of whom are particular flashy on the ball, but both of whom can keep it moving.

Put simply Alexander was, at best, fifth in line for one of the two or three spots in midfield. Breaking it down further, I’d put Will Johnson and Diego Chara, potentially even Darlington Nagbe, ahead of him in central midfield. There’s also Rodney Wallace, who showed last year that he could play there, and Jack Jewsbury in the mix. In attacking midfield he’s behind Diego Valeri, Nagbe and, judging by his involvement in the team so far, Kalif Alhassan. We’ve also seen Alhassan played deeper in central midfield during the preseason in Tucson which was a pretty big sign that Porter was looking beyond Alexander for other options there.

Alexander provided six assists in 2012, but two of those were secondary (the pass to the guy who made the assist) and another couple were simple passes to Nagbe, who then did all the hard work on his own before scoring. That’s not to denigrate, or belittle, what Alexander did for the club but just to underline that looking at a bunch of numbers on a webpage doesn’t tell the whole story.

As I said, I thought Alexander was a good player, and I’d have liked to see him get more of a chance last season to show what he can bring to the table, and earn that roster spot for 2013. That he was never really given that chance – he played 125 minutes of the last 9 games of 2012 – is pretty telling.

John Spencer, the guy who traded for him, never really seemed to find a place for him in the his starting XI. He was an after-thought for much of Gavin Wilkinson’s interim spell. Now Caleb Porter has clearly felt he wasn’t going to be commanding a starting spot any time soon either. That’s three coaches – for all you may pick faults in each – who have looked at Eric Alexander and thought of him as a squad player, at best.

I think that part of the problem was that, while Alexander was, and is, undoubtedly a good player, I never felt he was a game changer, or someone that really imposed himself on matches.

In an ideal world, you probably keep an Eric Alexander on the roster as a decent back-up. In a far-from-ideal-world, where you have work within the constraints of a salary cap and roster size limit, hard choices have to be taken and that means the guys on the outer margins are going to the be the first to get excised to balance the numbers.

Also, from the point of view of Alexander himself, it’s a good move for him. As fans, we selfishly want to hoard all the best players for ourselves even if a guy has little chance of breaking the first XI anytime soon. As a player, he wants to play and, if his chances were as limited in Portland as I think they were, it’s good for him to get a move out and a chance to earn a spot elsewhere.

Every trade is a risk. You could trade someone on and see them blossom, and it makes you look foolish, and the fans will make sure you know all about it. Equally, you could be beset by injuries and suddenly moving that fifth-choice guy on doesn’t look like such a good move anymore. But if we all spent our lives preparing for the worst case scenario, you’d never get out of bed in the morning.

In this case, while I’m sad to see Alexander go, I think it’s a risk worth taking. We don’t know what the club have in mind for the allocation money, so it would be silly to rush to condemn them as only time will tell whether they made the right move.

Thanks Eric, and all the best.

Roster Talk

Ahead of the first round of the Re-Entry Draft, which to my Scottish ears still sounds a euphemism for something that belongs in Roger’s Profanisaurus, the Timbers have announced the re-signing of 3 players, as well as the exercising of the option on a further 8.

It puts to bed the appearance of a Mr Rodney Wallace Esq on the original list put up by MLS. Whatever shape the supposed negotiations took, we won’t know the details for some time, the end result is that Wallace is at least signed on for 2013, though the roster is a pretty nebulous thing at this stage, and things may, and most likely will, change.

The current roster now looks something like this.

Players who were under contract for 2013

# Pos Player Name Age Country
21 M Diego Chara 26 Colombia
9 F Kris Boyd 29 Scotland
D Michael Harrington 26 USA
12 D David Horst 27 USA
35 D Andrew Jean-Baptiste 20 USA
8 M Franck Songo'o 25 Cameroon
13 D/M Jack Jewsbury 31 USA
M Will Johnson 25 Canada
24 F Sebastián Rincón 18 Colombia
33 D Hanyer Mosquera 25 Colombia
1 GK Donovan Ricketts 35 Jamaica
6 M/F Darlington Nagbe 22 Liberia


Players re-signing, or having options exercised, for 2013.

# Pos Player Name Age Country
17 M Eric Alexander 24 USA
11 M Kalif Alhassan 22 Ghana
23 GK Joe Bendik 23 USA
98 D Mamadou "Futty" Danso 29 The Gambia
19 F Bright Dike 25 USA
90 GK Jake Gleeson 22 New Zealand
18 D Ryan Kawulok 22 USA
27 D Chris Taylor 23 USA
22 D/M Rodney Wallace 24 Costa Rica
7 M Sal Zizzo 25 USA
16 M/F Brent Richards 22 USA


That leaves three of the current squad, as listed on the official site, currently unspoken for.

# Pos Player Name Age Country
10 F Danny Mwanga 21 DR Congo
20 F Jose Adolfo Valencia 20 Colombia
2 F Mike Fucito 26 USA


The big stand-out there is Danny Mwanga. It would be foolish to read too much into his omission – as it was with Wallace and the Re-Entry Draft (sorry, it just amuses me every time I write that) – for the press release today, but if what Chris Rifer suggested on timbersarmy.org about Danny’s salary increasing is true then it may be worth just keeping an eye on all the same.

Speaking of the Re-Entry Draft, WVHooligan has a look at a few decent options to consider.

MLS have released an updated list of eligible players, if you want to take a look. Obviously, Rodney Wallace’s name is no longer there and, oddly, neither is Steve Purdy’s.

And while I’m on drafts, Stumptown Footy have suggested a trio of midfielders that the Portland Timbers could go for in the SuperDraft in January.

By the way, just as an aside, I’m no longer as convinced as I was that Kris Boyd isn’t back in 2013. Just a hunch.


Andrew Wiebe at MajorLeagueSoccerSoccerDotCom took a longer look at the Timbers deal to acquire the homegrown rights of Bryan Gallego. It’s certainly an interesting move. I don’t know that we should heap all the credit on Porter’s shoulders.

Gavin Wilkinson has taken a few knocks, on this site especially, but this deal seems to me to be a collaboration between Wilkinson and Porter, rather than the work of one or the other and so Gavin deserves some of the kudos too, assuming that Gallego actually makes it to the big leagues eventually etc.

The most logical way this deal works, in my mind, is the trade of Kimura to New York for allocation money is worked out by the front offices. Porter would give his approval that Kimura isn’t part of his plans, so go ahead with the deal and, oh, by the way, this kid I’ve worked with, I really rate him, he’s in New York’s academy system, could we fit him into the deal somehow? Phone calls go back and forth, the club get the nod from the league, and a deal is worked out to add Gallego in, with the Timbers writing off money due as part of the Cooper deal.

Or it goes the other way, with the move for Gallego coming first and fitting Kimura in to bring some allocation money back to Portland, for reasons as yet unknown.

Just my conjecture, but it’s what makes sense to me rather than one guy doing it all. Good communication between Porter and the front office is essential if he is to have any chance of putting out a successful team.

I still have deep reservations about Gavin’s ability to guide the ship, but I’m not an ideologue or anti-GW zealot, by any means. Perhaps because I wasn’t there at the time he was butting heads with a large sections of the fans, I don’t have the same visceral reaction to the man than some have, but I just try to call it as I see it. And I simply haven’t liked what I’ve seen so far. At all. But if he can turn it around, and give Porter the backing he needs to make a success of it, then I’ve no problem in giving him credit for the job. I was a big fan of John Spencer, but when it reached the point where I thought he was doing more harm than good, I said so. I’m a rationalist – I respond to reason and evidence, so equally, if we see the same problems repeating, then I make no apologises for “yet another anti-GW article, #yawn”.


MLSSoccer.com have done their review of the year for the Portland Timbers. Interesting choice to give Best Newcomer to Kris Boyd. Personally, I’d have gone for Hanyer Mosquera or Steven Smith. As for the MVP nod towards Chara, I’d agree with that. Other players have hit higher heights than Diego, but no-one has been as consistently good. Again, an honourable mention to Mosquera.

It’s an interesting read, with some OPTA and tactical stuff thrown in there, but I’ll be glad when we can start talking Previews rather than Reviews. I’m reading for 2012 to be done already.

Interregnum

As you can see, the site has had a bit of a makeover. To mark our more explicitly Timbers-centric nature, the site has ditched the old grey/red scheme for green/white. I hope you like it.


So… what to write about?

Well, we’re stuck in that strange hinterland between the season ending (play-off, what?) and “silly season” kicking off in earnest. Three players were waived – Freddie Braun, Charles Renken and Ian Hogg, only one of whom saw any first team action this season (Braun). The case could be made that there were perhaps more players deserving of being waived than Braun, but fact is that over two years (and two head coaches, with, presumably, the input of the third) he’s not done enough to be anything other than the “oh, we need 18 players do we? okay then, him” guy.

The cutting of Ian Hogg was a bit odd. Just months after spending six weeks on trial with second division Swedish side Umeå FC and failing to get a contract – a side that would go on to finish rock bottom of the league, by the way, and beat a hasty retreat back to the Third Division whence they came – he pitched up in Portland. As I said at the time, the step-up from the semi-pro ranks of football in Hobbit country to professional football is big enough, let alone the fact that even seasoned pros can find a move to the athletic and high-impact MLS requires some adjustment time, that I thought the chances of him seeing any time this year was virtually nil, but it seems that he didn’t even do enough in training to suggest that he would make an impact next year. Strange, as we’re not exactly blessed in the full-back position and Hogg’s still pretty young, but chalk another one up for Gavin’s famed scouting network.

After waiving three, and picking up no-one in the thrill-a-minute Waiver Draft, we now await the other foot dropping. Merritt Paulson has already tweeted that the Timbers have “been active on player front”, but any trades won’t be announced till after the final of the MLS Cup on 1st December. So, the question marks over Boyd, Palmer, Alexander and Wallace, to name but four, will remain for at least a few more days. Paulson also said that “moves aren’t made in a vacuum”, and since a vacuum could be loosely defined as a space utterly devoid of atmosphere, I think we can rule out any dealings with New England.

Of course, our new glorious leader Caleb Porter will be in town soon, after seeing his Akron Zips fall in the 3rd Round of the NCAA Championship. There was some irony in noting that, just as a missed penalty against Cal FC was cited by a highly-respected Timbers journalist and preeminent historian as a cause for the end of John Spencer’s reign, Porter’s time at Akron was brought to a close by a missed penalty, this time in a 5-4 shootout loss to Creighton.

It’s a shame that Porter couldn’t end his time in Akron with another championship, especially as his team were on a 15 game winning run before dropping out, but that’s football for you. He’s certainly left a great impression on the program at Akron, and with the fans who honoured his departure with a #ThanksCaleb hashtag on twitter.

Beyond that, the SuperDraft will be taking place in January, where the Timbers have the #3 pick. Top Drawer Soccer have already carried out a Mock Draft, projecting Mikey Lopez to the Timbers, and they’ve also listed the top prospects by position. For someone who approaches the whole draft/college system with the all the bemusement of a Victorian time-traveller being handed an iPad, TDS site has been an invaluable resource.

Andrew Jean-Baptiste was the Timbers’ first round pick last year, and while he didn’t get much of a look-in, primarily used as injury cover, he’s a player I’d like to see more of in 2013. Between Mosquera, Jean-Baptiste, Horst, Danso and Brunner, the Timbers have plenty of centre-back cover, and I suspect Danso will go as I was a little surprised he wasn’t waived, to be brutally honest, but wouldn’t be at all surprised if Brunner was one of the trades-waiting-to-formally-be-announced, though that would mean finding another club looking to take on a guy who missed a lot of last year through injury.

Darlington Nagbe, the Timbers first pick in 2011, reunites with his former coach next year, and we all hope that this is what help Nagbe take that next step, and fulfil some of his undoubted potential Word That Shall Not Be Spoken.

Even though we’re playing the waiting game, things aren’t exactly quiet for the Timbers. Bright Dike made his international debut for Nigeria in a 3-1 victory against Venezuela. While it would be fair to say that Nigerian football has been at a low ebb for the past couple of years – a dismal showing in the 2010 World Cup was followed by the President, the fantastically named Goodluck Jonathan, getting involved and pulling the country out of international competition (later reversed when FIFA started to lace up their ass-kicking boots, and things all got a bit messy) and then the two-times Cup of Nations winners failing to make the 2012 competition – they’ve made it to the 2013 Cup of Nations, and there is still such an aura around the nation that they’ll likely be among the favourites to win it, with Dike hoping to be there.

US Soccer announced a new 8 team professional Women’s League, and that the Timbers would be operating a franchise. Supposedly the team can’t actually use the Timbers name, so we await news on that, but hopefully this new league will have better luck than previous efforts to run a pro women’s league have had. I’m sure the Timbers Army will get out in numbers to support their team.


And yeah, so, that’s about it for now. As I said at the top, I hope you like the new look and I hope the site can have a bit more range to its coverage this year. If you want to write for us, just get in touch. It’s really simple. We’d love to get folks who could keep everyone up to speed with the latest goings on at U23 and youth soccer, or even if you want to keep us posted on grassroots and local soccer.

Thanks for stopping by in 2012, and I hope to see you all back in 2013.

#RCTID

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

John Spencer: Taking The High Road

John Spencer’s term as head coach of the Portland Timbers came to an emotional end on Monday as the Scot paid the price for a poor season. Andrew Brawley penned a good piece on the reaction to the firing that everyone should check out.

Truth is there was little-to-no surprise about the move. Some disappointment, for sure, even some relief, but no shock. The writing was on the wall on Sunday when it was revealed that Monday’s training was closed to media, and sure enough, Merritt Paulson had taken the difficult decision to relieve Spencer of his duties.

John Spencer will forever be a part of Timbers history as their first ever MLS coach, and he gave the fans some great moments to remember. There’s no doubting his passion or drive to succeed, and I’m sure this won’t be his one and only foray into management, though he might be better serving the rest of his apprenticeship away from the glare of a top league where mistakes and deficiencies aren’t quite so conspicuous.

And it was those mistakes and deficiences that ultimately cost Spencer his job. I’d written in the past about how I thought he was starting to lose control and focus under the pressure that the Timbers’ stuttering second season had put him under.

On the pitch, Spencer didn’t show the development or improvement that myself and many other fans had hoped to see. The team failed to find another way to play beyond the old-school kick-and-rush tactics. Even Barcelona, arguably the greatest club side ever, have had to adapt or die, and we’re no Barcelona to rely on a Messi or Xavi to conjure something up.

Even when he did adopt a 0]”>4-3-3 against Real, it was in such a defensive and negative way that the only question in the match was how long the Timbers could hold out. It’d be easy to look back at that game now and see an ultimatum from Paulson delivered to Spencer that drove him to play in such a manner, but truth is I don’t think this was a decision reached over a result or two, especially against one of the league’s leading teams.

Indeed, Paulson made reference to “philosophical differences” in his statement, and that would seem to suggest that the problem wasn’t necessarily that the Timbers were losing (yet, bizarrely, were still within touching distance of the playoffs), but rather it was the way we were losing. The Timbers lost ugly, drew ugly and won ugly, a few exceptions aside.

There may have been a case to stick with John Spencer if there’d been signs that the team were trying to play good football, and players were developing, with young guys coming through. I don’t think either of these three points were being addressed.

The football belongs in another age. Spencer talks a good game, and it’s easy to get swept up with him, but the fact is that either the players didn’t do what he said, or he couldn’t figure out how to implement it. In trying to repeat what Dominic Kinnear has at Houston, where Spencer was assistant, he found out that Kinnear is actually pretty good at what he does. I’d thought Spencer perhaps needed an experienced guiding hand alongside him, but he never got it.

I’m not sure the young guys on the roster will be in mourning for long, either. While Nagbe has been a regular starter for the team, he’s the only player under 22 in the top ten of minutes played. Alhassan might have figured in that group had he not been injured for most of the season.

There’s actually a lot of experience in that top ten, with five bringing previous MLS experience to the table and many having played at international level. It’s not the “young guns” that some would have you believe. I don’t attend the U’23 games or Reserve matches, but those that do assure me that there are excellent prospects coming through.

The problem is that Spencer seemed unwilling to give them a chance, except when given no option as with Jean-Baptiste earlier in the year. When there was a crisis at right-back, Spencer didn’t turn to youth, he gave the job to a 31 year old midfielder. As the goals have singularly failed to flow, the kids weren’t given a shot until youth was bought in by signing Mwanga from Philadelphia.

It seems to have become a vicious cycle – the team weren’t winning so Spencer doesn’t want to risk the kids – but there comes a point when the old heads simply aren’t cutting it. I’d rather have a 20 year old make a honest mistake but learn from it and improve, than have a veteran simply stink.

It’s hard to see how the guys Spencer has been giving a chance to have developed. Nagbe burst onto the scene, but as he’s been leaned on more and more he’s on a Mwanga-esque career trajectory. Alhassan is every bit as inconsistent and mercurial as he ever was. Alexander has gone from the fringes of the national team to the fringes of the Timbers XI.

He’s been over-reliant on trusted players, and this has hurt him. Fitting Jewsbury into any XI, no matter what, is a problem. What Jack did in his first year for this club will live long in the memories of every Timbers fan, but there’s no escaping the fact that his performances have been on a slippery slope for some time now. Yet, he always played. Palmer – a solid MLS player at Houston and a Jamaican international – is arguably the single most frustrating player on the roster, given his poor ball control and almost sisyphean approach to long-range shooting, yet he’s been one of Spencer’s most picked players.

I don’t want to beat Spencer up too much though. He’s gone, and I’d prefer to see him off with a shake of the hand for his work. He made mistakes, sure, but he made them honestly. I wish him all the best for the future, but this was a decision that had to be made, and it’s as well to make it now.

When it became clear that Spencer wasn’t going to turn the ship around, there was no sense in keeping him here till the end of the season. It’s hard seeing how results would improve significantly, and having a lame duck manager does no-one any good. Better to make the call early, and give the next guy a chance to plan ahead for next season without coming in at the end of the year and finding himself months behind every other MLS club in preparation.

At Killie there was a manager who was stuck-in-his-ways, and played old school football. He’d gone stale. When he left midway through the season, the club hired an interim manager to see it out. He kept the club up on the last day, but was cut from the same cloth as his predecessor. He went, in came a completely new managerial team, who brought with them a revolution in style and methods, and led the club up the table and to a cup win. I can only glean hope from the parallels with the Timbers.

Speaking of interim managers, Gavin Wilkinson, the general manager, will take over from Spencer until a permanent replacement is found. Who that man will be is going to keep the rumour mill going for a while. I suspect it’ll be a manager with top flight experience this time. I’m not sure MLS experience is a must, but it may be that Paulson will want to “play safe” with this appointment and get a guy in who has managed here before.

But back to Wilkinson… His new role wasn’t met with a great deal of enthusiasm. I’d asked a while ago for thoughts on Wilkinson, and it seems apposite to finish this by posting one of these now.

#RCTID


By John Lawes

Watched from the North End during Gavin’s tenure as coach during the last of the USL years – and that’s all; no closer connection then that of a supporter in the stands. So anything I can provide is purely subjective. That said –

Gavin always seemed fairly hands-off on matchday. He wasn’t a shouter, like Spencer, much less aggro. He seemed to have a similar problem with substitutions, tho; his subs often seemed to let in more trouble than they solved.
He seemed to get on well with certain players, and those guys would play – in my opinion – often well past their sell-by date. That seemed especially true of his forwards and attacking mids. He stuck with several strikers, both in terms of minutes and in his adjustment or lack of same to the way their skills/styles fit into his tactical setup, after it was fairly obvious that other coaches had figured them out and had developed tactics to counter them.
As for his tactics, they were…ummm…a bit on the crude side, IMO. He seemed to like to play pretty direct, hoof-it-up, Route 1 style football. We always figured that this was a Kiwi thing.

And in particular, he seemed to have little or no interest, or patience, for Latino players. I don’t recall any Hispanic player getting significant minutes or having any particular success during his tenure.

His single honor during his tenure was winning the league in 2009. But this is deceptive on two counts; first, because this being American soccer the actual “winning” the USL-1 meant nothing other than a first round bye (and then a speedy exit at the hands of our old enemies Vancouver), and, second, because even with the unbeaten streak Gav’s team fell apart at the wrong time. Going into September the team had four losses. Over the next four weeks the side managed to win two, draw one (the final match against Vancouver that, with the Timbers down 2-1 from the first leg, meant elimination), and lose five.

Overall, Gavin’s coaching seemed, well, like a decent club- or lower-division professional-level level; never particularly brilliant but typically never disastrous. Cautious would be the word I’d use. Befitting a former defender his backline was usually solid. His midfield and forwards, not so much. And the Timbers of Gavin’s time never seemed to be able to find a way to beat the teams they needed to beat. For all that his payroll was never immense Gav never seemed to find a way to use the attacking players he had to their best advantage; he tended to find a formula – a lineup or a tactic – and stick with it even after the results began to fade. He muled his striker Keita in 2009; the guy scored a league-high 14 goals in the first half of the season, but after July? Nada. The next year, the last USL year, Gav did the same thing with Ryan Pore; fed him the ball and enjoyed the results in the spring and early summer…but by August and September the guy wasn’t scoring – everyone else in the league had figured out how to put a body on him and mark him out of the match – and Gavin never adjusted. Sounds a little familiar?

The New Mwanga

The Timbers took advantage of an extended mid-season break to engineer a trade with fellow strugglers Philadelphia Union which saw Jorge Perlaza leave Portland, and a homecoming of sorts for Danny Mwanga, who made a similar trip to his old strike partner Sebastien Le Toux, who left in preseason, to the Pacific Northwest.

It’s an interesting move by the Timbers front office. In retrospect it’s not hard to see that Perlaza was the obvious trade bait on the squad. He’s a guy who’s underappreciated by a large section of fans – so unlikely to cause uproar by being sent away – but clearly has enough about him for those within the game to value him highly. He’s experienced, tough, cheap, hard working and will fit right in at Philly, where he has a number of fellow countryman around him.

There’s always been a sense that Perlaza has never quite fitted in to John Spencer’s system, which seemed to be predicated on a staunch belief in the Big Guy/Little Guy front two pairing, with guys getting wide to rifle cross after cross into the box for them to feed off. Except that Perlaza was never going to be the “fox in the box” that Spencer was in his heyday, and so never really fit in. Perlaza often seemed to be the facilitator of attacking play, rather than the focus or the fulcrum.

I was, and still am, a big fan of his and having written a couple of articles highlighting his positive features I pretty much got tagged the Perlaza Guy on twitter. Yet, I only wrote those features as i felt Perlaza was being often unfairly criticised, and I appreciated what he brought to the team. Yet, for some, he didn’t score “enough” and was never going to win them round.

In bringing in Mwanga, the Timbers have traded one striker who doesn’t score, for another who is in a deep goalscoring slump. It’s now over 22 hours of MLS football since Danny Mwanga last found the back of the net. Almost 14 hours for Perlaza, for those that are keeping count. Though they have at least shaved 7 years off, and at no extra cost to the club.

This year has been something of a slog for the Congolese striker. Without Le Toux, who joined Vancouver, Mwanga has found chances few and far between. Only five shots in his nine appearances.

It’s a worrying dip in his production.

Last year saw Mwanga start fewer matches than he had in his debut season (from 50% of regular season games to 38%), but he saw more on-field minutes and he was taking more shots than ever, and getting more on target, yet he found the net less often. This year has seen fewer shots, lower accuracy and no goals.

In many ways, it makes this the ideal time to get Mwanga. There’s no doubting his, apologies in advance for invoking the “P word”, potential but it’s clearly not working out for him at Philadelphia and a change is best for both parties.

Despite this slump, many Union fans bemoaned the loss of the 20 year old, who was the club’s very first draft pick in 2010. A common complaint is that Mwanga suffered through Piotr Novak failing to allow the player a consistent run of games, and playing him out of position.

Timbers fans can feel free to go sit in a darkened room for a few minutes right now, having read that.

Because, you know, Mwanga now finds himself at a club that utilises players to their strengths and plays them where they’re most comfortable.

Yeah.

The worry is that Mwanga, much like Kris Boyd, is a big guy and the temptation is to think of him as a target man, which he isn’t. Sure, like Boyd, he’ll win his fair share of flick-ons, but expecting him to be a dominant presence in the air is only setting yourself up for disappointment and the player himself for a frustrating time.

Given Spencer’s love of the “direct game”, having two big guys up top does worry me that the temptation to rely on launched balls towards the opposing box will be overpowering. Mind you, given the dearth of attacking creative options in midfield – something fans have been crying out to be rectified – perhaps this is the club’s way of fixing the problem? Poor attacking play from midfield? No problem, we’ll just bypass them altogether.

It doesn’t have to be that way though as Mwanga and Boyd can compliment each other well. Whereas Boyd is very much the penalty box striker, Mwanga’s best work is outside the box. He’s big and strong and so can hold the ball up and bring others into play.

Having him in the same XI as Darlington Nagbe will be interesting as they play in a similar way, with Mwanga perhaps possessing a little more of the predatory instinct.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see Spencer line up with Nagbe and Mwanga both operating in the space behind Boyd. This is a position Mwanga has often played for the Union.

Nagbe’s running with the ball, and Mwanga’s ability to hold up and good close control could work well together. Mwanga’s not shy to try his luck from distance either as this picture plotting a number of shots from a random selection of matches shows.

Having the ability to test the keeper from distance can be an important attacking attribute for a team. A long-standing criticism of Barcelona was their lack of a good long-shooter meant that teams could bunker down and defend deep knowing that Barcelona lacked someone who was going to put it on frame from 25-30 yards.

Of course, Barcelona are good enough that they can still play through most teams, but the Timbers aren’t. Teams know they can press the flanks, and keep it tight and deep at the back and there’s often little we can do to counter it.

Good first touch and close control allows Mwanga to get away from his man and get a shot in.

Someone like Mwanga, who can sting the keeper’s gloves from 30 yards, will force defenders to close him down. That opens up space for a Boyd, Nagbe or Alhassan to wreak havoc. Often it’s just the threat of knowing what someone is capable of that will force the opposition to act in a way that can be exploited.

It’s like when you know someone on the other side is a free kick specialist. You’re going to be that little more cautious when tackling around your own box, and that momentary hesitation could be all a team needs to find a pass, or get a shot off that can hurt you.

To be brutally honest, that wasn’t something Perlaza offered. Teams knew Perlaza would run all day and stretch defences, but he wasn’t a dribbler or a guy who’s going to sling one at goal from 35 yards. Let him run down dead ends, force him back and shut off the space and he can be neutralised. He’s not going to offer that other dimension that Mwanga can.

It’s not just link-up play, or shooting from deep, that Mwanga brings to the table. He’s quick, and an intelligent player. He knows how to time his runs and if guys like Chara, Alexander and Alhassan can get on his wavelength all the better for the Timbers.

Only some good pressure applied by Wynne denies Mwanga a clean shot at goal here, but few defenders can match the Colorado man for pace.

Though he can play in that reserved attacking role, often his more effective, direct work comes when he plays up top. Though he’s actually a year younger than Nagbe, I’d hope there’s much Nagbe can pick up from Mwanga in how to play that position.

Good positional awareness and intelligence means he’ll give defenders a headache wherever he’s playing up top.

On his game, he’s an exceptionally difficult opponent to face. Let him drop off and he can get a shot in; go with him and he can spin you, or use his good close control to take you out the game with a touch or a pass. He’s a multi-dimensional option up front for a team that have often seemed entirely one-dimensional in its play.

The big issue with Mwanga is his current form and seeming lack of confidence.

A lack of starts and chemistry with his fellow attackers have seen his head drop. A confident striker in the grab above would have looked to get beyond the defender and get a shot away. A striker lacking in confidence will look to take the easy way out. There’s never any sense that Mwanga believes he can push the line and get in behind.

Getting Mwanga in his groove again will be key. He is no stranger to Portland, having settled there in 2006 after fleeing DR Congo, and playing college soccer for OSU Beavers. The move to Portland gets Mwanga out of a club situation that clearly wasn’t working, and into an environment he should be more comfortable with. This should help.

Getting him game time and building his understanding with Boyd and Nagbe will take time, but could reap rich rewards.

The big question fans will be asking though is will he bring goals. It would be easy to check out his highlight reel and declare Mwanga the answer to all Timbers problems but as any fan who has youtubed (is that even a verb? I guess I could google it) the club’s hot new signing to see videos that show he’s Pele reborn, only to find the reality is a numpty who can barely put one foot in front of another can tell you, it’s easy to cut together a player’s best bits and make him look, well, the best.

The Timbers have sorely lacked for them this season, but I think patience will be key with Mwanga. He’s a young lad still, and he’s had a torrid time over the past year or so. It’ll take time to get him firing again, but I’m optimistic about the prospect of a Mwanga/Boyd pairing.

I wish Perlaza all the best and hope he finds a happy home in Philadelphia, but he is the past now. Danny Mwanga is the future, and the future looks bright.

Kris Boyd, Portland Timber

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]ortland Timbers pulled off a signing coup by announcing the signing of Kris Boyd, a free agent after a transfer to Turkey went sour over unpaid wages. The striker had made his name at Kilmarnock and Rangers in the SPL, where he is the leagues all-time top scorer. A move to Middlesbrough didn’t work out for a variety of reasons – Gordon Strachan had raided the SPL for a host of players, and they failed to gel. Boyd’s form suffered, a new manager came in (Tony Mowbray) who didn’t rate Boyd and he soon found himself farmed out to Nottingham Forest. Continue reading