Thorns FC: Good news, bad news

I always hate it when the person telling you this asks: “Which one do you want first?”Haney visa

I’ll give you the good news: that’s Amandine Henry there on the left and that’s her U.S. visa in her hand.

That’s right; out long-awaited defensive midfielder is arriving in Portland most quick smart.

To clear a roster spot for Henry Kendall Johnson has been moved to the DL; she’s listed as “not medically cleared” on the 6/10 list.  That clears up who’s going to get shifted to make room.

(Selfishly – since for all that I hammered on her pretty hard here last week – I was fairly sure that if the Front Office decided to waive someone (or trade someone for draft picks/international slots) that Mana Shim would pick the black marble.  I’m glad she didn’t.  But, still…c’mon, Mana.  We need to see some Marta from you, girlfriend.)

My next question is; how are the Thorns going to look this coming Friday?

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Thorns FC: Drawn and quartered

A road point is almost as good as a win, isn’t that the conventional wisdom?  Play to win at home, draw on the road?

Dunn-Sonnett 5-7-16

The problem is that sometimes you lose things when you can only manage a road point. Sometimes you lose a little confidence.  Sometimes you lose the chance to gain ground on a dangerous opponent.

Last Saturday the Portland Thorns lost their captain.

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Thorns FC: Playing for ourselves

I’ve been downstate all week so I missed both posting about the Thorns’ hapless 1-nil road loss to Sky Blue last weekend and the hardly-unexpected eviction from the 2015 playoffs the followed yesterday through what sounds like a listless scoreless draw between playoff contenders Washington and Kansas City. In their third year of existence Thorns FC will end their season with the regular season with a match here Sunday and a final road match against the also-on-the-outside-looking-in Western New York Flash.

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Alhassan’s Creed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

[Sorry, this illuminating graphic is gone.]

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.

The 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.

[Sorry, this illuminating graphic is gone.]

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.

[Sorry, this illuminating graphic is gone.]

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.

[Sorry, this illuminating graphic is gone.]

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.

[Sorry, this illuminating graphic is gone.]

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.

The Pragmatist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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