The Strange Case of Ian Hogg

With the new head coach now set to arrive within weeks, the most pressing question on my mind is how well the Timbers general manager will work to field a side capable of performing better under Caleb Porter than it did for John Spencer, or for Gavin himself, for that matter.

Most of you who have read my earlier posts know that I am skeptical of Gavin Wilkinson as an evaluator and selector of playing talent. The recent release of the young defender from New Zealand does nothing to reassure me that working with a new coach will change that.

Many of you may not even remember Ian Hogg. He was signed from the Auckland FC club on August 8, and in his roughly thirteen weeks as a Timber he never stepped out on the Jeld-Wen pitch as part of the Big Side, never logged a minute in a Portland jersey playing in an MLS match. His league vita is a blank.

His playing time was limited to the last two reserve matches; 71 minutes in the 4-nil loss to the Galaxy reserves away and then the full 90 against the Seattle reserves here. He provided a speculative cross into the box that was deflected and resulted in Richard’s goal against the Sounders.

And that was that. Hogg was waived (with Renken and Braun) on November 19th.

My sole sighting of the man was in the Seattle reserve match. I recall that he played a decent game, and appeared to be capable of playing a solid backup to Steven Smith at left back. He showed a similar knack for getting caught upfield on occasion, but he had decent wheels enough to scramble back into position. He could go forward as well, and provided service into the 18 that was at least no worse than what we saw from our starters at LB and better than some; sorry, Chabala.

So his odd little tenure with the Timbers leaves me with more questions than answers about Gavin’s man-management skills.

If you recall, early August 2012 was perhaps the worst of a bad, bad place the Timbers had been for the preceding month. Late July had been a disaster after John Spencer’s sacking, culminating in the meltdown that was Dallas away. The Portland defense had shipped 15 goals over the preceding 7 matches and the dark star that was right back was never darker – Kosuke Kimura had a VERY bad July, though you could observe that the remainder of his 2012 wasn’t that much brighter.

The club had just apparently concluded that its defensive woes would be solved by swapping keepers with Montreal, a move that infuriated many fans, and though Donovan Ricketts had yet to play a minute for Portland the frustration and anger of a season in tatters was boiling over.

The problems that had plagued the team since 2011 – the lack of a quality attacking/distributing midfielder and the cohesion of the backline (especially at right back) – had never seemed greater. But the one place that had been a similar defensive problem earlier in the season, left back, was actually looking better.

Steven Smith’s play in May and June was frankly awful. It didn’t help that he had nobody in front of him willing to track back on defense at that point; it took the early substitution against Colorado to convince Franck Songo’o that defending was part of his brief. But by early August Smith’s play was visibly improving. The need for a quality right back was still painful in early August; the need for an immediate upgrade at left back?

Not so much.

The timing of Hogg’s release is almost as peculiar as his signing. Accepting that premise that Mike Chabala was never going to be a useful substitute and a decent backup was needed, what had changed between August and November to make Hogg superfluous?

There was and is still no obvious replacement for Smith. Kawulok and Taylor seem to be primarily right backs and Jean-Baptiste a centerback, and we’ve seen the horrors that emerge from putting either Wallace or Palmer in the backline. Cam Vickers has been slotted in back occasionally but is listed as a forward/midfielder with the U-23s.

There seems to be no urgency to sign a replacement left back; mind you, this may be a matter of “early days yet” with the new head coach, but the prospect of the incoming Porter does not seem to have stopped the Timbers’ Front Office from bringing in either players or assistant coaches during the waning days of the 2012 season.

So what was the point of signing Hogg if never to play him? Why not play him somewhere – right back could hardly have been worse? Why sign him instead of bringing him on as a trialist? Why not keep him over the winter and see if he fits with Porter’s scheme for 2013? At least superficially he seems like a “Porter” sort of player; young, relatively speedy, with a decent tactical instinct for the opportune pass as well as a fairly competent defender. Why then release him and not, say, Chris Taylor, if you’re going to boot defenders who don’t play for you?

When he was signed Gavin said “Ian is a young, talented left back with good athleticism and a desire to succeed, we have signed him through the remainder of the season and look forward to closely evaluating him as we move to next season.” What happened? One has to assume that Hogg failed his evaluation, but why? Who did he lose out to? What were his failings, and where were they shown?

I have had more than one occasion to rub my head over a Gavin move, ranging from signings and releases to starting elevens. The strange case of Ian Hogg just reminds me once again why the man who seems like a bluff Kiwi sort of fella is to me a soccer riddle wrapped in an enigma inside a conundrum crafted into a beer cozy for a can of Steinlager, and I sure hope Coach Porter is better at figuring him out than I am.