Only-Some-Thorns FC: (and the NWSL Championship Match)

Like about 14,000 other people I went to my home ground to see two strangers fight over a piece of butt-ugly kitsch.  I had no idea what sort of attire was appropriate for watching two teams I don’t particularly like, so it’s fortunate that someone else thought of this.  It’s a roll of Kansas-City-blue paper towel with “Blue For A Day” spray-painted on one side and this on the other:

Disposable

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Thorns FC: Silly, pending

The Portland Thorns organization held a press conference today to inform the Thorns’ supporters and Portland at large that “…coach Paul Riley is out of contract and it is unclear whether he will be back next season.”

RileyWhich I could have told you when the final whistle blew in Rochester last Friday.  Sheesh.

The Thorns’ silly season is upon us, but the silly is on hold, apparently until sometime next month.  Until then the question of #RileyOut versus #RileyBackIn is unresolved.

I’ve gone back and forth on this for a long time and I have finally come down on the #RileyOut side.  Bear with me while I explain.

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Thorns FC: Collegiate

Thorns FC defeated the college-age women’s soccer players of the State of Arizona 15-0 on aggregate over the past weekend.

This is – in one sense – a good thing.  A year ago today the Thorns scratched out a meager 2-1 win over the University of Portland Pilots in their sole preseason match.  The team was without their national team players, in a hasty inaugural season’s training, and struggling with organizational and fitness issues that would soon appear on the pitch. Continue reading

Two Into One Won’t Go

I’m sure Caleb Porter would have been happy to ignore the issue of who would be the club captain after the last guy to guarantee that particular role to Jack Jewsbury was most recently spotted at a Blazers game, quite pointedly not being Caleb Porter.

As the extent of the changes to the roster and playing style became clear, it was hard to see what role Jewsbury, Captain Jack, still had. Will Johnson adds more to the midfield, and the signing of Valeri left Spencer’s unshakeable midfield duo of Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury in a monkey-knife fight for the final spot.

Fate intervened, with Jewsbury deux-ex machina-ed out with an injury in preseason that eased any immediate selection pressure, and the front office promptly set about adding more depth in midfield in Ben Zemanski and Michael Nanchoff who happened, by pure Seinfeldian coincidence, to have played for the Akron Zips under Caleb Porter. The continued trading right into February would squeeze the cap a little tighter, and so Porter’s seemingly no-more-than-feint admiration for Danny Mwanga, who only renegotiated his hefty salary in December, put the striker on the chopping block. Mwanga left, sending a SuperDraft pick to Portland into the bargain, and Frederic Piquionne joined on, I’m sure, more favourable terms for the Timbers.

With a battle to earn a spot on the field ahead of him, some raised the question of his suitability for the captaincy. The captain is the guy with the armband and Jack clearly can’t wear it if he’s not playing (or, at least, it’d be weird if he did). And the front office responded by telling everyone that Jack Jewsbury was still the captain, but Will Johnson was also the captain, but a different kind of captain because Jack is the “club captain” and Will is the captain captain. All clear?

It’s all completely unnecessary, only marginally less so than 1562 words on the subject would be, because it’s doesn’t matter. Not really. Why not just say, “Jewsbury is still captain and if Jack doesn’t start, then the decision is made based on who deserves the armband”? There’s no need for all this two captains bullshit.

If Jack’s your guy, Caleb (and Gavin, and Merritt and whoever), then he’s the captain. Period. It’s not a big deal. You’re not crowning new a pope here, it’s the captain of a soccer club.

Yes, it’s important within the fabric of the game. It does matter, on some level, as it serves two purposes; he’s the guy who leads the group in the dressing room, the guy who rallies the team despite of, or on behalf of, the guy in charge; and he’s also the bridge between the fans and the players, more significant perhaps as the days of a truly “local” XI are mostly gone at top clubs. He is “one of us” out there, leading the way on the front line.

Some people make a big deal of captaincies, like British journalists who preside over the candidates for the job like the jury of a medieval witch trial that’s been without a good dunking in a long, long time.

Really, it’s just another of these little deceptions and lies about the game that we allow ourselves to believe because it makes this game much more fun to follow, especially with a habit that is eating into the time we could be doing things like studying and getting a job because it turns out moving halfway round the world is exactly as cheap as I never thought it would be.

For example, there’s the fact that it’s actually pretty boring, most of the time. Right? It is. Well, sometimes, at least.

So, who wears an armband doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. The leader in the locker room is still the leader. The captaincy is just a symbol, and one that wouldn’t be diminished by just letting Will Johnson wear it during game days that Jack isn’t playing in, of course. Just generally not wasting time doing something when nothing needed doing.

Will Johnson, I assume, didn’t get the captaincy because his name was drawn out of hat. He’s the guy that Porter sees as being the leader of the squad, which has, it’s worth pointing out, changed greatly from the one that Jack Jewsbury had built a long relationship with. This is, as much as it’s still a dream life for most fans, just another workforce, clocking in every day, doing their jobs and undergoing regular public evaluation. That, as well a coaching change, would naturally give the group a different chemistry, and if Will’s the man to lead Timbers 2.0 into game one, then he wears the armband. Easy.

But if Jack’s back, whenever that may be, then everyone lines up behind him. Doesn’t changed the routine, if it’s working, in the dressing room, so everyone’s listening to the same voice, and Jack adds a wealth of his own experience to the mix. Win, win?

There might be something about seeing “the captain” starting on the bench, or sitting out entirely when fit, that doesn’t feel right for something, but the twenty-two on the field are what matter, and if Will passes on the armband to Jewsbury when if he comes on alongside, it’s a nice show of respect to a guy who’s done a lot for this club, on and off the pitch, and is responsible for at least one of the Top 5, maybe even Top 3, favourite MLS memories for just about every Timbers fan. Sure, he may not be the guy you build the club’s playing future around, but even if history doesn’t win you a place in the team, it does grant you a certain position within the club where that guy can still, and will still be the captain, even if the leader on the park is the guy the fans are chanting for now.

It’s all a silly fudge. While concerning yourself with this, even for a minute if that’s all it took to sketch out this David Brent-ian solution, you weren’t doing something duh-obvious like naming the annual preseason tournament. Jack’s the captain, Will’s doing it now, big deal, next question.

I guess marketing concerns and the league’s seeming need to constantly attempt to artificially generate buzz with like whatever this Fashion Week thing is, it means that any opportunity for a ceremonial press release/news story should never be passed up, so blah-blah whatever something. Oh, and they do this all the time overseas, so it’s no big deal, bro, I don’t even know why we brought it up.

It’s just so silly to me, coming from a UK culture, because the captaincy is, like the papacy, usually only something you give up when the big man upstairs, or wherever it is Gavin nests, decides that you’re time is up. And I don’t mean to insinuate that Jack Jewsbury lives in a castle with 40 nuns now.

While this doesn’t feel like a full on NC-17 stripping, being more of the PG-13 where you might have caught a flash of sideboob level, it does feel like a bit of put down, a subconscious sidelining of a player taking a reasonably big bite out of a tight salary. I mean, if both guys are in the team, who wears the all-important armband? If Jack, then why bother with this fudge, and make an issue of Jewsbury’s status at all? If Will, then man-up and say Will is your guy and stop pussyfooting around it.

The captain over here in Scotland, or I should say over there now, if he’s the kind of guy who’s led the club through thick and thin, would bleed (insert club colours) and is beloved by the fans, he stays the captain even if they’re out the team whether through injury or simply being a guy with maybe a couple of top-flight years left in him as a squad guy.

That may or may not be relevant in Jewsbury’s case. He might think he’s got another 5 years of 30+ start seasons in him. Or maybe, at 32 by the season’s end – and believe, as someone mere months younger than Mr Jewsbury, I’m very conscious not to say he’s too over the hill – maybe by then he’s looking beyond playing. Jack has worked closely with Curt Onalfo, John Spencer, Gavin Wilkinson and, now, Caleb Porter -all guys with experience of playing MLS (or some level in the US), none of them were big “stars”, and all turned to coaching in their mid-thirties (injury accelerating Porter’s progress by a few years). It would be hard to not see the pattern and where Jewsbury may be influenced in taking the next couple of years.

Fans get that, I think. Jack’s not the hero to some that a two-year captain and scorer of important goals may expect, albeit without the vitriol aimed a previous club captain who’s hung around Portland when he not scouting in the South Pacific, but he’s the guy who’s been the face of the side since joining MLS. I don’t think everything done by Spencer was wrong and while I questioned Jewsbury’s place in the team when he wasn’t playing so well that doesn’t mean Jewsbury isn’t the right guy to still be the captain and figurehead for the players.

One Team, One Town, One Army, Two Captains.

One of these is not like the other.

The Anti-Merritt

Yes, I got into the press conference. No, I don’t know if they’ll ever let me in again. No, I’m not terribly worried about it. No, I won’t stop whining about not having an actual press credential. No, there was no spiced IPA.

Okay, here’s the nitty-gritty.

You can get quotes elsewhere. Try Stumptown Footy. The entire thing is posted on the net. Watch for yourself if you’ve got a spare 45 minutes. My notes are terrible. From me, you get something else.

You get me wanting desperately to fall in love with Caleb Porter. And you get me faltering.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked his honesty. I like his slow, careful speech pattern. I liked a lot of the things he had to say.

But a spark plug he ain’t. I don’t think we’ll be getting a clever Alaska Airlines commercial or any snarky soundbites out of him anytime soon.

I’ll trade that for a team that wins games. While Porter hit all the appropriate buzzwords (consistency and continuity and a half dozen others in the same vein), he also offered a starkly realistic view of where the Timbers are headed. And I didn’t like that view. I don’t like realism.

I’ve gotten so used to the rah-rah that Merritt gives us that I don’t really know how to react to Porter’s much more grounded approach to the coming season. It made me… sad. It made me feel lonely and grey and left me wishing for something other than what he’d given us. But he was right about everything. Everything.

Okay, one quote.

I’m realistic. I’m not naive. I don’t believe that we’re 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.

I know what he’s saying. I get where he’s coming from. I feel for him. I feel kind of like he’s been invited over for dinner, a really great dinner, and arrives to find a bowl of Grapenuts and a host who spends the entire evening apologizing for the mess.

I keep returning to the build up to last season. So much potential, so much expectation, so much anticipation. I didn’t get any of those same butterflies sitting in that room today.

That comes later, right? When Dike starts breaking people in the preseason, maybe? I don’t know.

I still remain semi-hopeful about the coming season, but without the excitement I’ve felt about the last two seasons. If all else fails (and after such a dreary introduction, I fully expect a fair few hashmarks in the fail column), I know that in a few weeks I’ll be back at JWF with my Timbers family and I won’t have to suffer alone.

O Captain, My Captain

In what has been a busy week for the Timbers, what with trades and new team name unveiling going on, Ives “Soccer By” Galarcep broke the rumour that the Timbers were looking to tie down the signing of Norwegian-born, US-capped midfielder Mikkel “Morning Star” Diskerud.

The move makes a lot of sense in the wake of the club’s manoeuvring up the Allocation Order, or the “Because Why Not Make Things More Complicated Than They Have To Be? Order”, as I believe it was originally called. They are now second only to Toronto and one would suspect that part of the trade with TFC included a gentleman’s agreement on the issue of the Canadian side passing should “Mix” leave Rosenborg, while one of the Toronto executives dropped a paint can and another swung round with a large plank of wood to smack him on the back of the head in the slapstick fashion that I imagine Toronto officials live every day.

With Will Johnson, Diego Chara, Eric Alexander and Darlington Nagbe all in consideration already for the, as most assume, three midfield spots that Porter will seek to fill (though I suspect Nagbe will be played further forward, perhaps as an inverted winger/forward), throwing Diskerud into the mix (pun count: 1) leaves one glaring question…

What about Captain Jack?

Jack Jewsbury leads the club into so many categories – goals, assists, minutes, starts, even shots. You name it, chances are Jewsbury holds the record (record/disk, eh, i’m claiming it – pun count: 2).

It should come as no surprise given that only Darlington Nagbe played more minutes than Jewsbury in 2012, but the passing matrix recently released on MLSSoccer.com, and analysed by the Stumptown Footy guys, also showed that no player had made more passes than Jewsbury. I don’t doubt a similar matrix for 2011 would give the same results.

You would think, adding all this up, that there would be much gnashing of teeth and grumbling of tweets over the increasingly distinct possibility that the club captain may be getting spun (spin, another record/disk one, pun count: 3) out of the frame, and yet there’s not.

2011 was certainly a banner year for Jack Jewsbury. Emerging from the doldrums of the Kansas City bench, he was installed as Timbers captain and quickly garnered a reputation as a set-piece specialist as he racked up assist after assist from dead balls.

He also ran Kenny Cooper close for top scorer, finding the net seven times – the same number of goals as he had in the four previous years with the Wizards.

To put Jack’s contribution in perspective, of the Timbers 40 MLS goals in 2011, Jewsbury was directly involved in 15 of them.

But even as 2011 wound to a close, following his inclusion in the MLS All-Star squad, there was a sense of diminishing returns from Jewsbury, and that seemed to be the case through much of 2012.

The numbers dropped – from 7 goals to 3 and 8 assists to 4 – as the team struggled. The blockbuster numbers of 2011 perhaps masked that, underneath it all, Jewsbury was, not to be rude (Diskerud, rude, okay, I’ll stop now, but still, pun count: 4), no more than a functional, workmanlike and honest midfielder, but not a game changer and as the club struggled, there was never the sense that Captain Jack was going to be the man to lead the team out of the dark.

There were moments of course, important goals at key times, but it never seem quite enough to justify the hefty salary and seemingly untouchable place in the team.

With the club seemingly intent on making big changes to how the club plays, his position within the team seems less and less secure. Indeed, John Spencer’s words before the 2012 season have never seemed so ominously prophetic for Jack.

Jack Jewsbury, as long as I’m here, will captain the Portland Timbers.

Say whatever you will about Spencer, but he wasn’t lying there!

The trade of Troy Perkins was a big indicator that the club would not shy away from making the Big Moves. Big enough that I felt the need to capitalise the words. No-one, regardless of how important you may be to the club, would be assured of a place on the roster, let alone in the starting XI.

Jewsbury turns 32 in 2013. He was paid a base salary of $180,000 in 2012. It’s hard to see who in MLS would take that burden on, regardless of how impressive the goals and assist numbers may look at a glance. Jewsbury chafed when he found starts hard to come by at Kansas City, so it’s doubtful he’d be all that happy at the thought of being a back-up where once he was a leader but he may have to suck it up under Porter’s regime. By all account, Jewsbury is a popular and highly-regarded guy in the dressing locker room, and if he were to make no secret of any upset or anger at such a demotion it would be interesting to read its effects on the squad’s harmony and ability to quick foster a sense of unity and togetherness that will be so crucial to Porter as he looks to mould almost a new team together in the full glare of fans and media.

Should it come to pass that Jewsbury time as a mainstay of the Timbers XI is over, then it raises the question of captainship.

The previous two popular suggestions for potential captains – Troy Perkins and Eric Brunner – have both left the club, so it’s a toss-up as to who could step in to the role if Jack were stripped of the armband. I threw the question out on twitter, and Horst seemed to be the most popular suggestion with other shouts for Will Johnson and Darlington Nagbe also getting a couple of tweets.

Of course, there’s no reason why the captain must play, and there’s a theory that the guy with the armband on the field holds little sway and that a club leader is a club leader regardless of his official status, but the symbolism seems to matter to some. With Jewsbury being moved on looking unlikely, there’s still a chance we’ll have at least one more year of Captain Jack, but given the tear-it-down-build-it-again approach Porter and Wilkinson seem to be taking to much of the Timbers roster, a new man being given the armband may be the perfect symbol for a new era in Portland.


Where does Jack fit in in 2013, and who do you feel should replace Jewsbury as captain, if he even needs replaced at all?

[cardoza_wp_poll id=2]

Identity Issues

It almost seems too easy to pile on General Manager–and widely maligned ginger super villain–Gavin Wilkinson after the abortive mess that was the Portland Timbers 2012 campaign. Most, if not every, PTFC supporter is well aware of Wilkinson’s past hits; from throwing his squad under the bus (a few times), to somewhat callously slagging off players on their way out of town. Unfortunately for Wilkinson, with each interview he grants, the hits keep on coming, usually in the form of anyone but Gavin Wilkinson being made responsible for the club’s substandard play.

And so, with the first round of #Rostergeddon behind us, and the next round rapidly approaching, Wilkinson delivered another few gems in the form of two separate quotes on Monday:

“The general manager’s job is to get the pieces for the head coach to help the success of the organization, and it’s about the organization,” Wilkinson said. “And it’s also about giving Caleb the pieces he wants to work with, the pieces he thinks will contribute the way he sees them contributing.”

“We have enough athleticism, we have enough ability,” Wilkinson said. “What we want to fix is maybe the mental side of it and bring in mentally tough guys who have been in the league and succeeded in the league.”

Critics of the general manager will first point to the fact that by Gavin Wilkinson’s own standards, he has been an abject failure as a general manager. They will likely point out that the last two years have not done the organization any favors, particularly the way ‘upgrades’ and releases have been handled, and short of seeing the Cascadia Cup in the Fanladen, fans are very down on the club’s ability to perform in an MLS league that ranks somewhere towards the middle internationally.

But what I found particularly interesting about Wilkinson’s latest interview is how it plays into something I’ve been saying about the club since it’s ascendancy to MLS; it quite plainly does not have a footballing identity. While it ultimately falls on the players to play the game, it is the responsibility of management to set the direction of the club, which starts with the hiring of key staff and then make sure that staff does their jobs.

In the beginning, both Wilkinson and owner Meritt Paulson tried to sell us on a strategy of bringing in footballers with athletic prowess to make a team that could out-MLS everyone in MLS with hustle and and a pure athleticism that could produce some beautiful football and ultimately solid results. This seemed odd on its face given that the club had hired John Spencer, a manager who immediately implemented a 4-4-2 system, which classically relies on a solid back four that can defend and get up the pitch during an attack, coupled with a pair of central midfielders to support the back four and initiate the attack going the other way. Under Spencer, the team rarely found themselves being able to boast of success in either area. They were ostensibly a 4-4-2 team that couldn’t take leverage any the 4-4-2 formation’s advantages, due in great part to a bevy of personnel issues.


Attempting to spell out these personnel problems in each area of the pitch is difficult, due primarily to the fact that the personnel in each area of the pitch changed around so much, that John Spencer’s famous quip that he was fitting “square pegs going into round holes” became a talking point in its own right. However, it is fair to say that forwards were often more isolated than an ascetic monk on a hilltop, waiting for the inevitable long ball from a cartoonish rotation of unsuccessful left- and right-backs, all but nullifying the supposed athletic advantages the squad was meant to be built around. The midfield was toothless and unimaginative; often featuring two defensive-minded center-mids, with largely ineffective service sporadically coming from the wings. To use a very cheap analogy, it’s as if Merritt Paulson gave his GM the chassis of a Bugati Veyron and charged him with the task of sourcing parts and a competent driver, only to find what he saw as a Bugati running like a fucking Geo Metro with an increasingly befuddled toddler behind the wheel.

Looking from our tortured MLS past, to the somewhat unclear MLS future, that toddler, John Spencer, is but a distant memory in the minds of Timbers supporters and former Akron Zips coach Caleb Porter has been brought in to right the ship. The choice is interesting, inasmuch as it seems to be both an admission that past two years of football played at the club are to be forgotten, while still remaining well within the thus-far unsuccessful MO of owner Meritt Paulson, who is always after the next up-and-coming (read: unproven) talent to build his club around. The problem here is obvious, in a rush to obscure his lack of soccer knowledge and the FO’s gross  mismanagement, it seems that he has been watching Barcelona games on Fox Soccer, and now hopes to sell us on the idea that he’s going to build an MLS Barca here in Portland, without actually holding his people responsible for the success of that massive undertaking.

If you close your eyes, you can probably imagine Paulson yelling: “Just build me a fucking Veyron this time and let me know when you’re done, so that I can go for a ride. WEEEEEEEEEE!”

It is expected that Porter will institute a 4-3-3 system, one which is favored in the modern game by teams like Barca for its positivity, but which also places a much higher premium of player technique and creativity, especially in the midfield. When done poorly it can leave the back-line isolated and vulnerable to attack, something the Timbers were quite prone to under the more defensive 4-4-2 setup. Porter seems to be saying all the right things and his clubs at the college level have played some very attractive, and very successful football, but he’s not walking into a hand-picked group of players at PTFC. This is still a club with a fair amount of personnel issues all over the pitch. And so, it seems, the identity of Caleb Porter’s PTFC  will depend largely on the direction of Merritt Paulson’s “soccer guy,” Gavin Wilkinson. That last sentence isn’t one prone to give supporters of the club much hope. In fact, you may want to call your favorite Timbers supporter now to talk them off the ledge, if you haven’t done so already this off-season.

The way “Timbers insiders” will tell it now–in a revisionist history fitting of Stalin or George W. Bush apologists–John Spencer was basically in charge of personnel decisions, directing his boss to scrounge up the squad we saw the past two seasons. While it is reasonably to expect that Spencer most certainly had sway in the process, as any manager does, it seems incredibly unlikely that this was actually the case, particularly given the sense of exacerbation with which Spencer bemoaned the lack of solid options at key positions. But this revisionism, which smacks of desperation by the FO to deflect some of the ire seen in the North End towards the end of last season, brings up management issues that many fans have quite rightly questioned. Firstly, if Spencer was essentially in control of personnel decisions, what the fuck was Gavin Wilkinson doing the past two years? It certainly wasn’t his job, even as he has described it as recently as Monday. Secondly, if he hasn’t been capable of doing his job the past two seasons, why is he being given a third? I’ve yet to hear a decent explanation for this and I’m most certainly not holding my breath.

What’s staggering is, while it’s easy to get focused on personnel, Wilkinson’s history of general managerial incompetence, when it comes to shaping the identity of the club, spans well beyond player signings. When John Spencer was hired as the first manager of the MLS Timbers, it was based on his history and reputation as a highly respected coach in MLS under Houston Dynamo’s Dominic Kinnear. And while few could doubt Spencer’s energy, passion, and ability to work day-to-day with players, it was often that case that he looked pitifully out of depth on match-day, unable or unwilling to adjust to tactical changes and woefully off-base with substitutions. Things only got worse when Trevor James, an MLS veteran, left the bank at the end of the first season. Wilkinson’s answer was as simplistic as it was incomprehensible, he doubled down on USL-era coaches and perennial ‘parts of the problem’ Amos Magee and Adam James. The results were predictable as the club struggled once again to find an identity or any points on the road for that matter. The James departure and its aftermath may seem like a small event, but it was a clear opportunity for Paulson and the man he relies on for soccer related counsel to step in and assert some control over the situation, to bring someone in that could assist Spencer in bringing the team into his system before things got so out of hand that the club was dropping games to amateur teams in front of its fans to the tune of “Taps.”


But for 2013 at least, we are going to battle with Gavin Wilkinson at the helm, and what Gavin Wilkinson is saying is that he believes that PTFC is basically set-up to allow Caleb Porter to succeed. He would have us believe that it is not, as many fans have complained, a lack of quality on the pitch– or should we say the right kind of quality on the pitch–but rather a lack of mental toughness that has held this squad back to this point. This could very well mean that we won’t see a great deal more change to the roster ahead of the upcoming campaign, not even in key areas for a 4-3-3 formation, like the midfield.

Given Porter’s track record, particularly as the U-21 coach for the USMNT, it has to be said that short of changing his mind, this is the crux of the gamble Wilkinson is making with PTFC’s future.  As noted sports philosopher Shaquile O’Neal once said, “Don’t fake the funk on a nasty dunk;” either this team actually takes on the identity of a fluid, 4-3-3 style attacking Porter team–with the players we currently have (give or take a pair here and there)–or Porter could be forced to be the face of another season of disjointed, disappointing play as square pegs are unceremoniously and repeatedly jammed into round holes without even the courtesy of a lubricant.

For supporters, whose anxiety is sure to produce some positively epic SCUSA posts in the coming days, we can only sit back and wait to see what happens with the rest of #Rostergeddon before we decide just how much to freak the fuck out. With Gavin Wilkinson at the helm we may have to be resigned to the fact that as long as we have no solidified footballing identity and as long as failure is accepted at the highest levels of this club, this is what our normal is.


Admin note: Logan has asked that a line be edited from the piece as it seemed to be detracting from discussion of the actual thrust of the article. Let’s keep the conversation on what matters, please. Thanks.

Wanted?

With the team a goal down at home to their greatest rivals, Gavin Wilkinson must have at some point cast a glance across his bench in search of The One who could come on and change the game in Portland’s favour.

There he would’ve seen Kalif Alhassan, a mercurial winger on his way back to full fitness after a season that has defined stop-start; Eric Alexander, still the club’s leading assist provider, who had recently put in a great performance deputising for Diego Chara; Futty Danso, the big Gambian central defender who hasn’t kicked a ball for the first team since a 5-0 loss in Dallas; Mike Fucito, the ex-Sounders striker signed from Montreal; Danny Mwanga, a popular striker who had been traded to the club in exchange for Jorge Perlaza, who is now back in his native Colombia; and lastly, Kris Boyd.

Boyd was the marquee signing on the close season. A record breaking goal scorer, signed as a designated player to fill the gap left by Kenny Cooper, Boyd had joined when the club was still coached by John Spencer, and it’s not a stretch to speculate that Spencer was a big, if not the big, reason behind his decision to go to the Timbers.

He hit the ground running with a goal in his competitive debut against Philadelphia and would warm himself to the fans with his goal, and celebration, in the earlier match against the Sounders – a game the Timbers won.

But along the way there has been some rough sailing. A penalty miss against Cal FC saw Boyd cast as the villain to many, as well as some bad misses and a dip in confidence which led to his being dropped by Wilkinson once Spencer had been hustled out the door.

Confidence

Since his two goals in the 5-3 loss to LA Galaxy – Wilkinson’s first match in charge – it’s been a little over 400 minutes since Boyd last found the back of the net. There isn’t a striker who hasn’t gone through similar spells in their career. More than most positions the role of goal scorer is one that is founded, to a large degree, on confidence and once that takes a hit, it can take a while to get back on track.

“Instead of usually being composed and putting it in the back of the net, I’ve snatched at the last couple of chances. The chances have been there, it’s been bad finishing. It’s been bad finishing on my part.”

Boyd’s own words sum it succinctly. It’s the quandary a manager faces with a misfiring striker – do you stick with him and hope that a ball bounces his way and it sparks him back into goalscoring life, or drop him for the good of the team? If missing a couple of chances can kick a players self-belief down a notch, you can imagine that being dropped entirely isn’t likely to have him believe he can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Considering the season, in a competitive sense, is as good as over it’s pretty telling that Wilkinson dropped Boyd rather than let the highest paid player at the club play through a sticky spell. The suspicion is that Boyd was a “Spencer signing” and has no long-term place at the club under Wilkinson and Porter.

The Dike Factor

Certainly Wilkinson would point to the impact that Boyd’s replacement has had on the team. Bright Dike came back from a loan where LA Blues, where he’d scored a few goals – confidence – and found the net twice in his first three starts. Typical poacher’s efforts, both goals were scored in the box, as the result of fine work by Sal Zizzo to set up the chances.

Since a winning goal against Colorado though, it’s been a bit of a slog for Dike. He’s now 200 minutes since the last time he scored, though it was only the width of the post that denied him a winner against Seattle, and I’m not alone in sharing some doubts about Dike’s ability to lead the line as a first choice striker.

The received wisdom is that Dike is a better fit for the system than Boyd. As that system has changed, moving away from the 4-4-2 that Spencer played, so Boyd has seen himself pushed further to the periphery of Wilkinson’s brave new world.

The System

I had flagged up Boyd’s lack of suitability in a lone front man role as a concern when the Timbers signed him – urging that a good partner be found to play alongside him. Alas, the Timbers didn’t seem to know what they’d signed, or how to get the best out of him, and so he’s never really found the consistency that he had when he was focal point at Kilmarnock and Rangers.

However, where Boyd has struggled as the lone striker before is when he’s been on a team that has played on the backfoot. For Scotland, the formation is very much a 4-5-1, with the emphasis on the “5”. The midfield will sit deep, and Scotland will look to the lone guy up top to run into corner and chase lost causes all day in the hope that something breaks for him. That’s why Vancouver goal-machine Kenny Miller gets the nod more often than not, and why Boyd is no longer a part of the international setup.

Similarly, when Rangers were successful in Europe, it was built on a defensive model. The football was, all but the most blue-nosed would admit, absolutely fucking turgid to watch when Rangers made it all the way to the UEFA Cup final. It was once more a system built on having a lone man up top foraging for scraps. That’s not Boyd’s strength.

The way the Timbers have been playing of late has relied on the lone man up top, but it is a much more attacking, fluid style than that of Scotland or Rangers.

I’d make the strong case that both Dike’s goals would get scored whether it was Boyd or Bright on the pitch at the time. Dike made a good run, and showed good movement and composure to get into place, but he didn’t do anything you wouldn’t expect a decent striker to do. What made the goals, rather, was the build-up play, and it was this that was so often lacking in the early part of the season.

The case is made by some fans that the team play better because Boyd isn’t there. His presence is too great a distraction for those around him. I don’t really buy this line of thinking, firstly as I don’t think that his fellow professional are so in awe of him, and secondly because I think any upheaval in tactics and style is inevitably going to bring about a period of reconstruction and uncertainty in play.

You’d expect after five or six games of a new formation and philosophy that you would start to see the results on the field, and so it’s been the case. As players got used to their new roles and responsibilities, so the play has improved somewhat (in an attacking sense, at least). It’s Boyd’s bad luck that just as the team start to click into gear, he’s found himself on the outside looking in.

Take nothing away from Bright Dike. He’s done well, and I’m sure he’s a handful to play against. But really, is he really that much different from Kris Boyd?

The stats would back up their attacking similarities. Both take about the same number of shots per match – one every 30 minutes or so – though Boyd gets more on frame, 45% – 27% of Dike’s admittedly very small sample size (not a euphemism). Even minutes per goal, 216-267 in Dike’s favour, doesn’t flag up any glaring differences. Dike may show a greater willingness to chase shadows into corners, but I’d balance that by making a case that Boyd’s link-up play is generally better.

The Future…?

The clock ticked past 70 minutes and Wilkinson took another look across the bench. Danny Mwanga was the man chosen to go on and change the game. Boyd remained seated. He would stay there until the final whistle blew on a 1-1 draw that leaves the Cascadia Cup to be settled.

At this point it would be easy to start second guessing every decision Wilkinson makes. Did he bring Mwanga on because he thought Danny’s pace and energy would be the key to unlocking the Sounders, or did Porter want Danny to get some game time? Has Porter made it clear that Boyd won’t be a Timber come First Kick 2013, and so that’s why the Scot can’t buy a start right now? Does Wilkinson simply not like or rate Boyd, and so he’s choosing to leave him out?

Boyd’s ability as a goalscorer isn’t in doubt, at least with me. Mike Donovan tweeted during the match, asking if there was any current Timbers player who could do what Montero did, turning and getting a looping shot off as he did? The answer was pretty easy – Kris Boyd. I’ve seen him do it live for Killie, and then again for Rangers. A confident Boyd, given the ball into his feet around the box is easily capable of this. For all his other faults, he’s still a danger in and around the box. His goal against the Sounders reserves was as typical a Boyd goal as you’re likely to see.

Should his time in Portland come to an end sooner rather than later, as I expect it will, he’d make a great add for a number of other MLS sides, though my suspicion is that his future would more likely lie back in the UK.

Ultimately a striker will be judged on the goals he scores. That’s why Emile Heskey is largely a joke figure among fans while still maintaining the respect of the players he’s played with, and coaches he’s played under.

With Kris Boyd, I worry that he’ll leave Portland with the fans never having seen the best of him. I still think that he has another couple of years at the top in him, and I’d hoped that they would be with the Timbers, but like Cooper and Perlaza before him, he may pay the price for not being quite prolific enough.

Does he miss good chances? Yes, of course. If your goal is to find a striker who never misses, good luck with that Quixotic quest of yours.

The Timbers will visit San Jose Earthquakes and Real Salt Lake over the next week. Diego Chara will miss out due to injury, meaning a possible return to the XI for Eric Alexander. With Kalif Alhassan back on the fringes of the first team, and given how these two players more than any others have been able to get on Boyd’s wavelength, the next two matches may be the best possible time to give Boyd one last chance to prove his doubters wrong.

“It’s the manager’s decision. There’s nothing I can do except the next time I go on the pitch, prove that I’m good enough to play.”

#RCTID


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