What Now?

Well.

That was pretty damn awful, wasn’t it?

Shy of sticking a finger in the eye of the Colossus of the North (who thought that a single win at CLink meant that they should be handed the Cascadia Cup and were shocked, shocked that the Whitecaps weren’t willing to help them out worth a lick) the past season was pretty much a washout.

We got our coach fired, went one match away from going winless on the road, and generally exposed the weaknesses and problems in the side that the Front Office had spent the past two years ostensibly building. Two days after the final match of the second MLS season we find ourselves back, if not where we started in 2011, at least no better off than we were at the beginning of 2012.

Ugh.

So the obvious question is: where can we go from here, and how do we get there?

We’ve got a new coach coming on board sometime in the winter, there will probably be some roster changes, and MLSTimbers v.3.0 will get a rollout sometime in the late winter. Obviously we can’t know much or do anything about this but speculate.

But speculate we can, so why not? That’s why we’re here.

First, let’s take a look what we have now.

Individually I want to suggest that the flaws in Gavin Wilkinson’s player selection can’t be better displayed than through a quick look at the present Timbers roster. In my biased opinion the current side is dominated by two kinds of players; the “consistent but limited” and the “limited by inconsistency”. We just flat out don’t have any players with consistent, genuinely game-breaking talent, the sort of marquee player that our rivals have in people like Wondolowski or Montero. Yeah, I hate those guys, too, but I can’t deny their quality. We just don’t have that and the record seems to show that we never will.

So what do we have, and what does that tell us about our Front Office’s tendencies to pick and choose players?

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The way I see it the Consistently Limited make up the bulk of the side.

With these guys you know what you’re going to see. They bring pretty much the same game every time they run on the pitch. It’s not that they can’t play, or that they’re hackers and goofs. They’re all at least substitute-grade MLS quality guys. But their game, that game we know we’ll see, is lacking in one way or another. These guys all have a shortcoming, or shortcomings, that put a limit on their ability to produce winning soccer in one way or another.

Starting from the back we have Ricketts, whose limitation seems to be primarily age and fragility that comes with a history of injury, and the Bendik/Gleeson binary star, limited merely by their inexperience – though Bendik seemed to be at least a solid journeyman during his limited stint this season.

On the backline we have Mosquera, limited by his judgement and inability to communicate with his linemates, and Kimura who is limited in so many aspects it’s hard to figure out where start. In midfield we have Wallace and Palmer, who are sort of the Mosquera and Kimura of the center of the pitch; the one makes constant errors of judgement while the other is simply a quandary; why is he doing this for a living and I’m not?

Diego Chara, whose effort and defensive sturdiness are unquestionable is limited by his inability to keep from getting called for fouling and his poor forward passing. Jack Jewsbury is simply not young enough and mobile enough anymore to have more than a moderate impact.

Up front Bright Dike is limited by his poor touch and sloppy finishing, while Kris Boyd is limited simply by his style of play; without good distribution and service from the midfield he is simply wasted up top.

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The Limitedly Inconsistent are a minority on the team, but an important one. With these guys you never know whether they’re going to bring their A-game, or whether that game is going to last the entire match. They show streaks of brilliance matched with random outbursts of mediocrity or outright blunders.

David Horst is the poster child for this group. A stand-up guy who anchors the backline for 89 minutes he will suddenly make a horribly mistimed lunge, or stab, or find a way to mark space, or do something that will gift the enemy a goal. You love to see him most of the time, and then tiny remainder you look away because it’s like a car accident unfolding on the Sunset Highway at rush hour.

In midfield Darlington Nagbe who to me is still something of an enigma labelled “potential”; will he be the Nagbe that passes accurately and can score a clinical goal, or the one that gets knocked off the ball and is marked out of the game mid-match? Kalif Alhassan is another skilled but unpredictable midfielder; you never know which Kalif will show up – will it be the one that can provide a lovely assist, or the one whose crosses float over the entire 18 like a shiny soap bubble? Some matches Sal Zizzo is a speedy winger and clinical crosser while others earn his nickname “Zig Zag Zizzo”, running aimlessly about and lofting random high balls into the blue. Franck Songo’o can provide brilliance in attack and sturdy defence but can also repeatedly dribble into trouble and wander about seemingly at random.

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Of the entire current side there’s one guy who I would say has grown into a solidly dependable player who is both consistent and relatively skilled; Steven Smith. A liability in the back at first his play in the last half of the season has progressed to where he’s among the best of our defenders – yes, a low bar but, still – and has shown promise going forward. Of the current group of starters he seems the best rounded and most skilled.

Of the remainder we don’t really have any solid indicators. Eric Alexander has shown signs of being in the second group but his minutes have been so limited as to make that pure speculation. Eric Brunner was a hell of a defender prior to his injuries but hasn’t been a standout in the short stints he’s played in the late season; hard to tell how well he will come back, if at all. Jean-Baptiste showed well against San Jose on Sunday, but he is one of the large group of young players we just haven’t seen enough of this season to really judge. Brent Richards has looked better tracking back than he did in his earlier outings but his play retains the erratic quality of a young player. And we’ve just seen way too little of guys like Hogg, Kawulok, Purdy, Fucito…

But in general, given what this group seems to tell us about Gavin’s – or Gavin and Merritt’s – weakness in assessing players we need to assume that these young players are likely to have similar weaknesses. This seems to be the Front Office’s style; they see either only the strengths of the consistent-but-limited players, or the “manic phase” of the skilled-but-inconsistent players while not noticing the weaknesses of the one and the depressive phase of the other.

And we need to assume that if this same group continues to pick the players for the incoming coach we are likely to see very similar sorts of players next season. Gavin’s record, in particular, goes back to the USL days and was very like this; Portland saw players like Mamadou Keita and Ryan Pore, inconsistent guys who could play but would tend to drift out of the match, or the season, or guys like Scot Thompson and Takayuki Suzuki; good solid players but just not the sort that got you to the league championship finals.

This is likely to be it; this is likely to be “who we are” until and if we get a new group in the executive suite.

So the question is; how do we go forward, how do the Timbers get better, with these sorts of players?

And that is the subject of the next post.