Budding Thorns

The reserve squad for the Portland Thorns FC played a preseason friendly last night at Merlo Field, the home pitch for the Portland Pilots.  The result – a 2-1 win for the visitors – was almost immaterial.  The internationals never even dressed out; there was obviously no intention to field the side we’re going to see in about three weeks.  The plan (and the successful result) was to provide a test for the college-product Thorns.

My bride and I took a pleasant walk through our North Portland neighborhood to join the crowd – and the match drew almost 5,000 people to the pretty green-and-purple stadium just west of Willamette Boulevard – that watched the teams test each other.  While the following are just snapshots of the state of the Thorns, I did get a sense of how the junior members of the team are shaping;

1.  The overall level of play was not too disparate.  This wasn’t a college squad overmatched by a team of pros; it was a good college team against a team of college all stars.  While nobody in purple was of the quality of, say, Allie Long or Nikki Washington, nobody in the gray-and-red Thorns practice strip was that much better than Kaila Cameli or Nichole Downing.

2.  The Thorns reserves either had some early pre-season rust to buff off or weren’t used to playing without the internationals (and given that the latter had only reported several weeks ago it was probably the former).  The team came out looking pawky and out of synch, especially in back.  The Pilots had several good counters early that resulted in the early goal.  This was, in part, because the Thorns played an exceptionally high backline and were caught ballwatching several times.

3.  The Thorns still need to work on their defensive nous and communication among their defenders and between their midfield, defenders, and goalkeeper.  Even in the 88th minute giveaways in midfield and poor marking allowed a Pilot counter that had goalkeeper Roxanne Barker isolated on an charging Pilot forward who just couldn’t gain control in time to shoot on frame.  I’m sure Parlow-Cone will have some words with the defenders on Monday.

4.  Speaking of goalkeepers, the Thorns might want to keep an eye on Nichole Downing.  The Pilots keeper – only a sophomore, too! – was terrific, making several point-blank saves and keeping the scoreline close.  If she continues to improve she will be a great pick for some NWSL team in a year or two.

5.  Allie Long is the real deal.  Her goal – a 22-yard rocket – was lovely, and she was a continuous menace to the Pilots defense that otherwise handled the Thorns attack fairly decently.

6.  Overall the Thorns look…well, something rather like this year’s Timbers.  Possession football with some intelligent movement off the ball and (after a bit of sorting-out) some precise passing.  A defense that consistently pushes up the pitch and, as a result, is vulnerable to the quick counter.  Solid but not brilliant keeping.

The crowd sounded evenly divided between Thorn and Pilot supporters, and both seemed well-pleased with the teams’ performance.  The Purple Passions (or whatever the University of Portland supporters group calls itself) provided a local counterpoint to the small Thorns Alliance contingent and some unintentional comedy – for all that they had the drums that the Thorns supporters didn’t they clearly haven’t worked up their own chants; Timbers Army veterans got a smile from hearing “Portland Boys We Are Hear” coming from the far end of the pitch for a change.

The Thorns seem to be absorbing the culture of their brother club; the team trotted down to the West End and applauded their supporters as Merlo emptied out.

Two weeks until the Thorns’ first match and the buds appear ready to open.

After Seattle: Tactical Adjustments, Rodney Wallace and Defending Cascadia

I wish I’d been there. But instead I was in the front room of my apartment watching the game. I miss the chanting. I miss the excitement. I miss my friends. I miss the TA. But there is one advantage to watching at home…  you get to see the whole game. Let’s be honest, by a show of hands – OK so your probably in your underwear sitting in bed or something but you can at least nod along appreciatively- who has missed an important incident at a game because they were: tetrising, looking at their capo, talking with their neighbour, distracted by an incident in the crowd, had their view obstructed by a flag, scarf or other such object. We all have. It’s fantastic and much better than sitting at home watching a stream. But that’s what I have to do. I also may have lost any competitive analysis advantage I gained by the fact that it was 3am and I was sleepy. So if these are inaccurate please take your concerns up with someone who cares, like Kevin.

Here are a few quick points that I noticed in the game. Some positive, some not so positive.

1. Caleb Porter. Did you see that John “4-4-2” Spencer??? That’s called a tactical adjustment! Good job Caleb. Now in order to highlight why the tactical adjustment I need to say something complimentary about Seattle. It hurts to say this but Seattle are a good team. They’ve qualified for the playoffs every year since 2009. They are hard to play anywhere, but especially at clink. Porter saw that and made a tactical adjustment from the rough 4-3-3 we’ve been playing. This is something that very rarely happened under Spencer or Gavin. Porter has now shown he is not afraid to adjust tactics in game and for tougher matches. Until Portland becomes a dominant MLS force this is a very wise move. In this game the adjustment was semi successful. Jewsbury added a lot of support to the defence and was a big help in coping with Seattle’s potent attack. There were some not so positive things but we’ll talk about that a bit later. I’m just excited to see a manager willing to try new things and adjust to teams!

2. Rodney Wallace. There are certain things that elevate your status among supporters. Scoring against rivals is one of them. Scoring a late leveling goals is a big one. Do it twice… well in my book that’s pretty instant legendary status. Forever. Nothing Wallace does on the pitch takes away the fact. Only thing that can take it away is something really bad happen off the field (e.g. Gavin Wilkinson, Andrew F’in Gregor etc.). I’d also like to publicly say that I always liked Rodney Wallace, even when you didn’t. He is actually my second favourite Rodney Wallace ever. Sunday morning he became my favourite Rodney Wallace ever. I think Rod become a bit of a scapegoat for a team that was in general poor, particularly down the flank. But I think he has attributes that will continue to serve the team well.

3. Andrew Jean Baptiste. He literally looked like he was going to get shredded to pieces by Eddy Johnson for the first half hour or so. He did on the goal (by no means the only person at fault here). Again when he was deservedly booked for hauling Johnson down.  But he responded impressively with maturity beyond his years. On a yellow card, facing a prolific and pacey attack AJB handled it with class and was a key part of an impressive second half defensive display from Portland. There was one highly impressive piece of work when Johnson was trying to connect with a through ball. He’d gotten the wrong side of AJB and was potentially one on one with Ricketts. AJB did everything that could be considered legal to keep Johnson out. Really making his presence felt physically, but without giving the ref any reason to give a pk. Of course Johnson tried to claim that penalty, but to no avail. It was really an impressive recovery from a poor start by Jean Baptiste. Of course, his night ended spectacularly with a beautiful assist for Wallace.

4. Lack of Shape. This was the hiccup in Caleb’s plan. For much of the night the midfield seemed a little shapeless. Other than Jack playing deep. Valeri continually drifted to his natural central role, this often forced Chara or Johnson out wider. Neither of them looked comfortable out there, so in turn they would drift back in. Thus, we didn’t really have any width. Nagbe provided some, but ultimately he is a right footed player playing on the left with the intention of drifting in and playing through balls or taking shots (PLEASE SHOOT MOAR NAGBE!). Width, of course, isn’t the be all and end all of football games. But it is a huge help in opening up space and creating chances. Creativity and passing have improved on the Timbers this year but we are still going to have difficulty in passing the ball through teams without using and creating space out wide. In turn that width will actually create more space in the middle. It’s also were our one goal against Seattle came; a cross from the brilliant winger Andrew Jean-Baptiste.

5. Freddy “Hernandez” Piquionne. Of course it was a small debut for the big man from West Ham (please note the West Ham is pronounced West ‘aam … it’s a cockney thing). But I was impressed with a few things. First, he is big and he knows what to do with it. He won several aerial challenges I don’t think any other Timber would have won. Second, his assurance on the ball. He was calm in possession always. I see this as a key sign of a player that has been there and done that. It’s a great attribute to be able to bring into the game. He didn’t look like he was going to let up the league and he may not be a huge headline setter but I believe Freddy has a few key things to bring to this Timbers setup. Sometimes off the bench and maybe sometimes from the start.

6. Staying in the fight. Again. It happened. Conceded first again and thought for a draw. 3 games in which we’ve been behind, twice by two goals and we’ve never looked down. It’s like the opposite of 2011. It’s brilliant.

7. Defend Cascadia. Well an away draw is a pretty good way to start the defence of the cup. The circumstances of it were of course brilliant. But in reality if we win our home Cascadia matches and draw away we will be in a great chance of retaining. If we can win at home and pick up one away win we will contain. And it is our house, in the middle of BC.

Believe

I made my first road trip last weekend, as one of the Timbers Army that marched (or more accurately, bussed) deep into darkest, fishiest Mordor, past the Black Gates of Tacoma to face a team that have done the seemingly impossible by getting rid of Fredy Montero and still managing to be even more unlikeable this year than last.

Though a little bemused by, or completely unaware of, the local orcish tribe who seemed so taken by the notion of fire that they were burning scarves just so as to gaze into the hypnotic flames. Their fervor can be the only explanation for why they were so quiet during the match, since even their own fellow customers complained of not being able to enjoy their Groupon-ed Entertainment Experience™ in their customarily gentle corporate lull.

The biggest noise from the home crowd came when Eddie Johnson scored, though even then the hubbub wasn’t enough to remind Eddie that they were present as the striker chose to celebrate in front of the traveling fans, most of whom could only see him on the Jumbotron from their acoustically-beneficial position in the clouds.

Despite the second half taking the shape of one of those all-too familiar “been here, done that, sacked the coach” situations where the Timbers would limp out with a moral victory, a metric thus far unaccounted for by short-sighted MLS administrators, but no points on the road, and a loss against them.

With time running out, and home customers by this point more anxious about beating traffic than their greatest rivals, a ball was thrown into the box by future US defender (the needless hype starts here, cos that’s always healthy) Andrew Jean-Baptiste, and Rodney Wallace rose unmarked at the near post to send the remaining customers into a mild sulk.

Away fans celebrated with gentlemanly handshakes and backslaps, and threw their hats into the air with a raucous cheer (or lost their shit entirely, one of the two), and the Army left having seen the team earn a point, kicking a dent in Sigi Schmid’s assertion that this year was Seattle’s turn to win the Cascadia Cup because they have two of the three derby games at home.

I’m sure I’ll get round to watching the game again soon, and probably writing a thing or two on the game and what we’ve seen from Porter’s Timbers so far. There are two weeks to fill till the next game, after all! When standing in a crowd of drunk lunatics (and I mean that in the very fondest sense) it’s sort of difficult to really follow the game in any great depth, so it’ll have to wait for now.

It was clearly also difficult for the Jumbotron to follow what was going on, with the Timbers new signing “Hernandez” coming on late in the game, cunningly disguised as Freddy Piquionne.

As an aside, I assume the Jumbotron has gained or will inevitably gain sentience like Skynet and will soon see what has been obvious to fans around the country since their club invented football, that the Sounders fan base is worthless and compel them to commit mass suicide as part of the turgid half-time “entertainment”.

That Jean-Baptiste and Wallace had combined to both earn, and make, a big point on the road got me thinking of when the two last shared the park last season. Early season injuries had put Jean-Baptiste in, and Wallace had started Spencer’s second season as first choice left back. Almost exactly a year ago the Timbers led 1-0, thanks to a Boyd goal, at home to Chivas USA when Wallace was subbed out at half-time. They lost 2-1, not because Wallace was subbed out or that Mike Chabala came on, but because Fucking 2012™, that’s why.

That match and the one that followed in LA, where Boyd scored one of the best goals of his career only to see it ruled out because Fucking 2012™, were the blows that knocked much of the early season optimism, and remaining belief in coach Spencer, out of fans

The Costa Rican international was a big part of Spencer’s vision for football in Soccer City, such that he willingly gave up Dax McCarty and allocation money to get him. The small group of players that played more minutes in 2011 than Wallace makes for interesting reading: Brunner, Jewsbury, Perkins, Cooper, Chara, Alhassan, Perlaza and Futty. Four those are gone, and only two took the field against Seattle.

Despite being a big part of Spencer’s plans, though the signing of Mike Chabala indicated that at least someone had their doubts about Rodney at left-back, Wallace played 700 fewer minutes in 2012, dropping behind the likes of Smith, Songo’o, Alexander, Palmer and the midseason experiment in catastrophe failing to trump likeability, Kimura.

He’s made sub appearances in all three of the Timbers matches this season, and a goal makes a compelling case to give him a chance to earn a bigger place in Caleb Porter’s PTFC 2.0. It would be a big turnaround for a guy whose name was often followed by “and Palmer” by fans as a prime example of the clubs very visible failure to get the best out of the full-back position, and in finding value in players with MLS experience.

For every Jack Jewsbury or Eric Brunner there’s a Lovel Palmer, Kenny Cooper, Eric Alexander or Adam Moffat. Troy Perkins – can the Timbers even claim to have gotten the best of the him now that he seems to be more solid behind a couple of old Italians?

Yet, clearly (or at least I hope) John Spencer and Gavin Wilkinson had an overarching vision for this group of players. It got me thinking about what kind of team we’d be watching if all those guys had clicked in 2011.

The direct football in that first season, with the rush of goals from Kenny Cooper negating the need for a costly experiment in importing goals from Scotland for 2012, would’ve only emboldened John Spencer to further build a team in the image of his particular Dr Frankenstein, Dominic Kinnear.

In a strange way, I’m sort of glad it didn’t work. Not that I like losing. I’m a very bad loser. I don’t even let my kids beat me at Candyland. But I have to say there were times that I didn’t really like watching the actual football over the past couple of years. I much prefer watching what we’ve seen thus far from Caleb Porter’s team. And it is his team as much of the house that Spencer built has been cast away.

The changes go beyond those of style or formation, or even all the new faces to get used to; the whole atmosphere is different. Different in good way. There’s a real sense that there’s some substance to the fan’s customary early-season optimism now, much of which comes from the new head coach.

Caleb Porter seems like more of a Portland Timbers head coach than John Spencer, who was a Portland Timbers head coach, if the emphasis makes sense to you. If it doesn’t, what I mean is I get the feeling that the reason things feel better is that Porter gets it.

He gets us.

And most importantly, he gets football.

John Spencer may get another chance to take charge of a team but it’s hard to shake the belief that he’s one that group of managers who make much better coaches. Believe me, as a Scot and a Killie fan, I’d have loved to see Spenny and Boydy light it up in 2012, but it wasn’t to be and though it’s very early for Porter, I’m impressed at the start he’s making in Portland.

The roster is flexible enough now, and deep in some areas, that the team can fluidly move in the 4-3-3 shape, going from 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-2-2-1 (sorry, numbers. I can’t help it) and back, or even morphing from 4-3-3 to a 2-up top diamond as the situation demands.

Aye, it would be nice to win a game or twenty. Two points from three games, and six goals conceded, doesn’t make for the greatest record though it did take Gavin Wilkinson six games to get two points, and his team conceded fifteen on the way. There are concerns, but it still doesn’t dampen the belief that we’re on the right path and that’s it’s surely only a matter of time before the Timbers are gearing up for cold November nights of post-season soccer under the floodlights.

But it may not be this year. There are still spots in the roster that need work, and it’s unlikely that Porter’s going to hit on the magic combination straight off the bat – how many “classic” teams were the very first starting XI put together by a head coach/manager? I’m going to bet very few, if any. There’s some tough time ahead, no doubt, but all we can ask if for more good times than bad.

And the Cup. The Cup stays. That is not up for negotiation.

In 2014 we’ll be a year further into Jean-Baptiste and Nagbe’s development, Jake Gleeson will have been mentored into a top MLS goalkeeper, Diego Valeri will have had a year to wrap his head around MLS refs and Caleb Porter would’ve thoroughly drunk Mike Petke’s milkshake.

In short, this is only the start. The open beta. Some guys will pass through like Silvestre and Piquionne but, unlike with Kris Boyd and Franck Songo’o, this transience is entirely part of the design and not a symptom of the problem.

Porter is blending experience with youth, and looking to get more out of established MLS players than his predecessor. Will Johnson, Michael Harrington and Ryan Johnson all look like solid acquisitions, and despite the whole captain/club captain thing there’s little doubt that Johnson is the guy that founds the new Timbers. He’s the lynchpin in midfield and though Valeri is the guy that drives the attack, Porter’s Timbers are much more in the image of Will Johnson than Diego Valeri. It presses, works hard, and looks to play tidy passes to control the game.

Guys like Wallace, or Alhassan; Nagbe or Chara; these players are throwbacks or carry-overs from the old regime, but now they all have the chance to stake their place in the Timbers’ future. For Wallace it’s been a fleeting glimpse, with only 22 minutes across the three games, but he’s given his chances of more minutes the world of good now. In the spirit of renewal, it seems only fair to give him a fresh start.

I’ve not been his biggest fan, and been pretty critical on occasion, but I always felt he gave reasonable value as a versatile squad player coming in off the bench. It may be the ultimately that is his role at the Timbers, but the change in philosophy could be what the player needed too.

I don’t want to get carried away too early, but last season we lose that game with, no doubt, the “28 year old” Sounders debutant scoring a late goal to set off more fireworks, a tactic designed to rouse the locals from their gentle slumber for a half-hearted round of applause and Jumbotron led chant/weak-ass flash mob dance moves. The TA leaves sickened, twitter turns blue and Merritt Paulson’s is a blur of tweet-and-delete popcorn fodder.

Rinse and repeat.

The comeback against New York, the near-comeback against an increasingly impressive looking Montreal, and now a point at the death in the Clink all speak to a new spirit in the team, so I’ll take these moments and hold on to them even as the defensive slips or failure to score first yet tug at me to start worrying because I truly think that it’ll get fixed.

Teams are already wary of the Timbers new style.The second half against New York sent out a signal, and while it’s too early to say whether Montreal played so defensively because of who they were playing or just because that’s just who they are, rarely do you see Seattle, at home, look so willing to just ride out a match at 1-0 with so long still to go.

Maybe it was fatigue having played midweek, because fuck knows 4 early-season games in 14 days is a horribly punishing schedule for professional athletes, or maybe it was because the Timbers simply aren’t going to accept defeat and controlled the game in the Sounders own backyard.

If we can only close the door at the back, we could turn these points into three. The Timbers now have a couple of weeks to work (mostly) together on the training field before they travel to play the Rapids in a couple of weeks. After that comes another two home games.

The trip to Colorado will be the fourth time the clubs have met at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. 1-3, 0-3, 0-3 reads the record of the first three games and having won and lost only 1-0 at Jeld-Wen, there does seem to be something about playing at altitude that didn’t agree with Spencer’s and Wilkinson’s teams. The next match is another test for Porter’s boys, but they can at least take comfort in the fact that it’s the only visit there on league business in 2013.

Houston Dynamo and a home/away double-header against San Jose Earthquakes follows and from there the Timbers have only 2 home matches in the next 7. By then the season will be 14 games old, and we’ll have a good idea how things are going to go in 2013.

By that stage Spencer had amassed 18 and 15 points in 2011 and 2012 respectively, and Wilkinson’s side had earned 11 points in the first 14 games of his interimship. It’s hard to put a figure on what the Timbers will have in 2013 by that stage as so much remains a work-in-progress, but anything in the Spencer range would put the team in a good positions down the stretch, where they have a run of three home matches in a row, and will play four of the last six at Jeld-Wen Field, all against Western Conference rivals.

The old football cliche is that it’s the hope the kills you, but it what makes the success all the more special when it finally does come. I was fortunate enough to see my local club, Kilmarnock, win two cups in my lifetime. This is a club that I can still recall playing in the lower leagues so I know how those fans who were TA before there even was a TA would feel to see their club lift some silverware.

My mood was best summed up by another fan on the bus home – “we got a draw that felt like a win”. The wins are coming.

We don’t just hope, we believe.

#RCTID

Best Laid Plans

Valencia’s miss wasn’t part of the script. It wasn’t supposed to happen like that. It was meant to flash off his boot, beyond the despairing Troy Perkins and into the roof of the net, setting off a riot of noise and smoke in the massed ranks of the Timbers Army only yards away.

That was what should’ve happened.

What did happen was Trencito’s tame effort was easily saved by a grateful Perkins, and moments later the referee’s whistle signaled the end of a very fruitful week in Cascadia for Montreal Impact, and left the Timbers with a sole point to show for an opening home double header.

There was another storyline-in-waiting out there late night. The stage seemed set upon Perkins’ return for him to outshine Donovan Ricketts, and I’m sure there were at least a couple of people in the organization who feared that happening more than anyone.

Despite hearing a few folks on the way home expressing sadness or anger at having traded Perkins for Ricketts, the fact is that Ricketts actually had a pretty good game. He came up big a couple of crucial moments, and he had no chance with the two goals Montreal scored.

The first goal, a looping overhead by Camara after the Timbers failed to clear a set piece, was simply a very good (or very lucky) strike that rendered Ricketts a spectator. The second goal came from such short range that there was little but hope to get lucky that Ricketts could do.

The match ended 2-1 in favour of the visitors, who have to be credited with a display that was as resolute and disciplined in defence as you’re likely to see in MLS.

Nevertheless, it’s another game where the Timbers have dominated possession and territory but lost the opening goal, fallen behind by two and been left chasing the game.

I had a sense going into the game that the first goal would decide this match. Scoring first is always a good thing to do, but given the way this game was set-up, I felt that here it would be decisive.

The reason for that was that both teams fit together like puzzle pieces. One one hand you have the attacking, possession-based Timbers, on the other the defensive, counter-attacking Impact.

Had Portland gotten the first goal it could’ve drawn the Impact out of their 4-1-4-1 shell, allowing Portland to pick holes in their defence.

The first goal, when it did come off the boot of Camara, meant Montreal were able to focus on getting numbers behind the ball and letting Portland push on further, with the hope of springing a quick counter for a second goal.

That goal came an hour in when Will Johnson gave up possession on a poor pass in midfield.

The pass from Bernier was very well weighted, but the move highlighted a couple of issues for the Timbers last night.

The Easiest Position

Caleb Porter clearly wants to see his full-backs pushed on and contributing to keeping an attack going, even if they’re not necessarily the guys we’re looking to to hit the byline and get the cross in. This is especially true with Michael Harrington who is hampered by being a naturally right-footed player playing on the left side.

This limits Harrington’s options in those final twenty yards to the byline, inevitably forcing him inside to his right foot to whip it to the back post.

Ryan Miller is at least on his natural side, and plays an attacking game, but on a night when his touch and passing seemed to be off, he becomes more of a liability than an asset.

Miller wasn’t the only guy to see his pass accuracy dip from last week, but his was the sharpest fall. 21.4% fewer passes reached their man, and each of Miller’s defensive colleagues also saw their numbers dip.

Andrew Jean-Baptiste continues to impress on the defensive side, developing into a very promising defender, but his on-the-ball work still needs a bit of refinement. Despite getting some minutes last season, he’s still got a lot to learn, and picking when to go long is one of those things that will come from more work on the training ground and more game minutes. For me, there’s still a few too many “Spencerballs” lofted forward in a seemingly indiscriminate way.

To return to the outside backs, Porter likes to see them pushed on and involved at the best of times, even moreso when the team are chasing a goal as in Montreal’s second goal.

It’s a high-wire act as you have to balance the defence and attack, and be especially wary when facing a team that is built to counter-attack. The cheap giveaway by Johnson caught Harrington and Miller up the field, giving the Impact a 4-on-2 against Silvestre and Jean-Baptiste.

The ball takes Silvestre out of the centre, and with no-one else getting back in time, the finish is a pretty routine one for Felipe.

Montreal Win The Battle

The other issue I think the goal above reflects is the change in system that Porter implemented at half-time. I wrote in my post on the New York game that Porter had made several tweaks at half-time that brought out the best in his team, leading to a stirring comeback. He was busy again this week, with more marked changes.

The above shows the average positions for each player during the first half, and the first 25 minutes of the second.

Ben Zemanski made his Timbers debut, replacing Kalif Alhassan at half-time, as Porter sought to find a way through the massed ranks in blue.

It was more than a simple personnel change though, as it brought with it a change in formation. The previous 4-3-3, which takes more of a 4-2-3-1 shape, became a 4-1-2-2-1 with Zemanski dropping behind Will Johnson and Diego Chara and Diego Valeri vacating his central role for Alhassan’s previous station on the right.

Pre-game, I’d highlighted the midfield battle as being key to the game. Montreal, in the first half at least, won the battle and, by making the changes he did, Caleb Porter seems to have thought so too.

We’ve been here before, of course. There were times under John Spencer when the Timbers would seemingly roll into a match without giving the opposition’s tactics a second thought. This bloody-minded “let’s make them adjust to our tactics” approach is all well and good when you have the talent to pull it off, but when you have the roster of an, at best, mid-table team, then a bit of preparation and adjustment goes a long way.

Caleb Porter’s Timbers are a better technical squad than Spencer’s, and having run into a situation where his tactics weren’t working against an opponent that was doing it’s work well, Porter didn’t vacillate on making a change. He was decisive and made a bold choice to get Valeri out of the middle – and away from Bernier – and pit him against the (for Montreal’s defence) relatively inexperienced Jeb Brovsky, right under the noses of a riled-up Timbers Army.

The game was marked by the lack of space allowed by Montreal, and the attacking three of Nagbe-Valeri-Alhassan were stifled by it in the first half, where every halfway heavy touch, or marginally off-target pass was pounced upon by a blue shirt and cleared from danger.

The addition of Zemanski would also go someway to denying Montreal space to work in front of the Timbers defence, an area where Di Vaio, Felipe and Arnaud had gotten some joy in the first half.

Wary of quick counters, Silvestre and Jean-Baptiste played a fraction deeper to kill any space over the top. Where playing a little deeper had had a knock-on effect that seemed to throw the attack out of sync against New York, it worked here because Zemanski’s presence there kept it glued together.

However, by essentially ceding that central attacking midfield zone, the Timbers allowed Bernier a bit of freedom. Now, if you’re playing a team who have a “destroyer” in there, someone whose sole job is to win back the ball, you can make this move and take him out of the game because he has little to contribute to their attack.

Bernier is a little different. He can play. Credit to Montreal for staying disciplined, and Bernier for not getting carried away and abandoning his post – a luxury afforded by being a goal up – but that didn’t stop the player moving up when the opportunity arises, as it did when Will Johnson gave the ball away an hour in.

With Valeri in the middle, maybe Bernier still moves forward to play that pass, but with no-one there, there was no reason for him not to.

It’s perhaps telling that Porter’s next change saw him abandon this new shape in favour of how the Timbers started – Zemanski going to right back to replace the out-of-sorts Miller, Trencito taking over out right and Valeri returning to the centre.

Portland would eventually get their goal from Ryan Johnson, who caught Camara sleeping on a Ben Zemanski ball to the back post, and would come close to an equaliser, but it wasn’t to be.

Before all that though, Montreal had a chance to go 3-0 up, but were thwarted by Michael Harrington on the line.

Communication Breakdown

The chance above is a simple case of a defence out of sync. Entirely to be expected given the turnover there this off-season, but still annoying to see.

Silvestre steps up, leaving his man free. No-one else does. In a flash, Montreal have gone from having seven Timbers outfield players between the ball and goal, to a one-on-one against Ricketts.

The team are still seeking the right balance at the back, but Porter’s options are rather limited. For sure, the club have a lot of centre-backs on their roster, but I’d harbour doubts about Horst or Danso playing this kind of system, and Mosquera’s standing in the squad seems unclear, at best. That leaves Tucker-Gangnes, but Porter may be resistant to throwing the rookie into a system that is still being figured out.

Paying the Penalty

The Timbers continued their long streak without a penalty, having gone the entire 2012 campaign without getting a single spot kick, despite what many fans thought was a clear foul on Ryan Miller.

The incident happened shortly before half-time, and in waving it away, referee Edvin Jurisevic denied the Timbers a chance to go in at the break on level-terms.

For me, it looks like a penalty. There’s not a great deal in it, but it certainly seems like the Montreal player instigates contact with no real attempt to play the ball. Ryan Miller perhaps goes down a little too easily, but the referee doesn’t seem to have thought he’d dived since he didn’t book him, so he must’ve read the contact was fair.

He wasn’t (or was he?) helped by his assistant, who should’ve had a good view of the incident, and neither was he helped by being so far behind the play.

The referee starts running when he is about 13 yards behind the ball. It takes approximately 4.1 seconds from here till Miller is bundled over.

Going by the general fitness test standards for a professional referee (sustained running at around 4.5 yards/sec, and sprinting at 6.6 y/s). Let’s be generous and say that Jurisevic is one of the faster, fitter refs, meaning that you would expect him to travel between 23 and 35 yards from his starting spot until contact is made in the box. This would leave him, at best, a good 25 yards behind play, on the “blind side” of any push.

Running Out Of Time

Caleb Porter and this team are not going to be judged on these first few matches, but the longer that the same old mistakes are made, the tougher it becomes to keep a long-term focus on the project.

Porter has shown a willingness to change it up, and adjust as the game is flowing to find an advantage for his team which is a definite step forward. Some of the passing is nice to see, and there are times when the attack really clicks, and it become a joy to watch. There are some positives, for sure, but the worry is that despite shaking up the defence, we’re still making the same mistakes.

Montreal also posed the question of what Porter would do when a team set-up with the sole purpose of letting his team have the ball fifty yards from goal, then killing the game when they got anywhere near the box. In that regard, I might give Porter a C, maybe even a B-. He made a bold stroke to change the game, and got caught out by a loose pass in midfield, and then changed back and came within a swing of the boot from grabbing a last-gasp draw.

Having given the lesson, other teams will have noted how Montreal managed to do what the much more expensively assembled New York couldn’t, and muzzled Portland’s attack for much of the game.

In what seems like some kind of wooden spoon play-off, both the sides that Montreal beat will face each other next week, but it’s no wooden spoon at stake, it’s the Cascadia Cup.

Portland travel to face Seattle next week knowing that there would be no better time to record Caleb Porter’s first MLS win. Seattle have the distraction of Champion’s League football before then, but there’s little doubt that the Timbers will face a massive test in the kind of game that gets remembered.

RCTID

Five quick comments on the Timbers/Impact match

The Portland Timbers failed to mount a comeback for the second straight week, falling to the Montreal Impact 2-1 last night at Jeld Wen Field in Portland.

Here’s five quick takeaways from last night’s match.

* Focusing on the positives

While I’d prefer the Timbers to actually get a lead in a match, the fact the team has shown some heart and resolve to mount comebacks these first two matches is already markedly different than what has been shown since the club’s entry into MLS. This and the fact that the team is infinitely more dangerous and entertaining to watch is helping keep me a bit grounded despite the fact the club has only garnered one point after the first two matches at home.

* Donovan Ricketts

Listen, I still don’t think Ricketts is the #upgrade the Timbers front office and coaching staff thinks he is, but I saw a lot of tweets blaming Ricketts for the loss and that’s just not the case. In a nutshell, turnovers in poor positions, some epic ball-watching and failure to track back all led to the Timbers’ demise. I’ll have to watch the replay but if I remember correctly, I thought Andrew Jean Baptiste might have been at fault on one goal and Michael Harrington and Will Johnson were both in no-man’s land on the second Impact goal. Mikael Silvestre seemed to  be caught in no-man’s land much of the night but that’s a different thing altogether. Again, Ricketts actually came up with some huge saves last night and the score might have been worse. Still, I’d love to see Milos Kocic get a shot when he’s healthy but Caleb Porter has been quite open about the fact that Ricketts is his guy.

* Diego Chara

Has Chara been the Timbers best overall player over the first two matches? Maybe. While Diego Valeri and Will Johnson have been grabbing most of the attention, Chara has been pretty spectacular. Last night, his beautiful switching cross to Zemanski led to Ryan Johnson’s goal in the 80th minute. It’s worth noting that the addition of Will Johnson has definitely had an incredible impact on Chara’s play.

* Andrew Jean-Baptiste

I’m very excited about the potential for Jean-Baptiste. Remember, he’s only 20 years old (he turns 21 in June) and while he still makes mistakes, he is extremely gifted and is only going to get better.

* Some surprising statistics

It’s early, but these really help reinforce how different a team the Timbers are in 2013.

After two matches, Portland leads MLS in:
– Shot attempts (40)
– Shots on goal (16)
– Corner kicks (12)

Still, it’s time to start converting these chances, which seems awfully familiar to characteristics in past Timbers teams. However, I’m hopeful and optimistic that this team will get better.

 

Beating Montreal

Montreal Impact started the season with their first win on the west coast in three attempts, defeating Seattle Sounders 1-0 thanks to a first half Davy Arnuad goal. It was a result built upon solid defensive foundations and the ability to break at speed. Despite having only 40% possession, Montreal still got 5 shots on target to Seattle’s 3.

Given the result in Mordor, I see no reason why Montreal wouldn’t take a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy into this game. So, I’d expect them to line-up in the same 4-1-4-1 shape they deployed last week with Patrice Bernier playing as the holding midfielder.

Know Thy Enemy

There is a strong veteran spine to the Impact team, from Perkins in goal, through the Italian duo of Nesta and Ferrari, Bernier and Arnaud in mdfield, and Di Vaio leading the line. Those six players alone have nearly 90 seasons worth of professional football between them, often at the very highest level.

Since adding Perkins last year the Impact have looked much more assured in defence, going from conceding an average of 1.48 goals per game to 0.89. A goalkeeper does much more than simply stop shots – he organises the defence, and it’s from the keeper that defenders take confidence. A back four that worries about the guy behind them is more likely to play with a “fear factor”, as we saw during the early part of last season when Montreal were leaking soft goals and making elementary errors in defence. They’ve conceded only 3 goals in their last 5 MLS matches, and lost 3 in 4 on their way to victory at the Walt Disney World Soccer Pro Classic (really rolls off the tongue, that one), so they are very much coming in to this season as they ended last year. If there was a key word to describe this Montreal team it would be “stability” and the central three of Perkins, Nesta and Ferrari are largely responsible for bringing that to the defence.

They are aided at full-back by Brovsky and Camara. Brovsky is a no-nosense, hard working outside back and Camara, while he doesn’t have the pedigree of some of his European teammates, is as solid defesnively, but is a little more inclined to get forward. Yet, neither are particularly attacking full-backs and will be there primarily to lend presence on the back-line than an attacking outlet.

Bernier played as the holding midfielder against Seattle, in a role he’d been used in during preseason by new head coach Marco Schällibaum. Last year Bernier had topped the Impact’s goalscoring charts so it may seem strange to turn him into a defensive midfielder, but Bernier has shown an aptitude for it, and Schällibaum has thus far shown a preference for a 4-5-1 set-up, over the 4-4-2 the Impact used for much of 2012.

Putting Bernier in the defensive role allows Schällibaum to play Arnaud and Felipe ahead of him, with two wingers adding width behind Di Vaio up top. It was Di Vaio, Arnaud and Felipe who combined for Montreal’s winner up north, with the latter scooping the ball over the Seattle defence for Arnaud to finish with aplomb.

Montreal had a relatively quiet off-season on the trade front, but they have added to their Italian contingent with the veteran (of course) winger Andrea Pisanu. Pisanu plays on the right, which saw Mapp played in left midfield against Seattle, though his underwhelming showing may open the door for Nyassi to start against Portland.

Di Vaio brings a wealth of experience with him, from time in the top flights of Italy, France and Spain as well as at international level. Di Vaio is one of those strikers who thrives by playing on the shoulder of the defender, and though he has the ability to drop off and get involved in the build-up play, he’s truly comes alive in and around the 18 yards box.

Key Battles

The Elephant in the Room

Defence. It would be crazy to write off the defence after a crazy 45 minutes against New York, but it does have to be addressed. Whereas Montreal have looked pretty steady and assured through preseason play, and into the match against Seattle, the Timbers preseason has been characterized by a failure to grab the all-important first goal.

While the defence looked a lot better after the break, New York were still able to fashion good chances on the counter as Portland pushed to grab an equaliser. We can expect to see Montreal play in a similarly compact way, and looking to break from the back at speed. Look at their goal against Seattle for a prime example of the kind of speed and movement you can expect. Given that Montreal are more of a counter-attacking team by design, as opposed to New York who adopted the role under pressure from Portland, this makes them especially dangerous and behooves the Timbers to give the backline some serious thought.

Losing the first goal is never a good idea, but losing the first goal against a team that is expressly set-up to keep it tight and counter-punch could be fatal.

I don’t anticipate any changes in defence, and the presence of Mikael Silvestre on the backline may be crucial in ensuring that Di Vaio doesn’t take advantage of Jean-Baptiste’s lack of experience. Though I expect Montreal sit deep, it’s important that Portland don’t fall into the trap of over-committing, and the full-backs will have to be especially conscious of this. Patience is the watchword.

Di Vaio will look to play off the shoulder of the defence, though he is currently averaging around 3 offside decisions a game, perhaps reflecting his relative lack of pace and desire to get a “head start”. However, he’ll also drop off and look to link up play, and so communication between defence and midfield has to be clear and consistent. Working a good “trap” could be a good way to kill any direct Montreal counters before they really get going, but being aware of the movement of Arnaud, Di Vaio and Felipe and tracking these guys is arguably more important.

Given these pace issues, together with Montreal’s compact shape and lack of attacking, over-lapping full-backs, I would expect to see the Timbers play with a higher line than they started with against New York, with Chara or Johnson taking a defensive cover role to cut out anything before it reaches Di Vaio or Felipe.

Of course, given the way the New York game unfolded, it would be easy to err on the side of caution and play a little deeper to nullify the threat from long balls over the top, but that just opens up the space for Felipe and Arnaud to move forward and work the ball to Di Vaio’s feet, or out to the wide men.

Tag Team

The battle in midfield between Bernier and Arnuad on one side and Diego Chara and Will Johnson in the other could be the key for the Timbers in unlocking Montreal and getting a back line that, while solid, lacks pace.

While Montreal play with wingers, or wide midfielders, most of their creative threat is concentrated in the middle, and both Bernier and Arnaud will look to get forward if the opportunity arises. The presence of Diego Valeri may force Montreal to keep someone back to mark him, and Valeri also has a job to do to harry Bernier, if he plays in defensive midfield again, when he’s on the ball and try and force errors.

Pressing the Attack

To compensate for a lack of speed in defence, the Impact tend to play deeper and rely on their “old heads” to use their football intelligence to intercept and recover the ball before they ever have to resort to chasing or tackling.

Everyone all the backline is comfortable on the ball and, having been brought up in the Italian system, if you give Nesta and Ferrari time, they can stroke it around very easily or look to launch a quick counter up to Pisanu, Mapp, Nyassi or Di Vaio. However, they can be pressed into errors as experience and ability will only cover you so far when you start to lose that vital split-second of foot speed.

There was an example early on where Seattle almost profited from putting the Impact defence under pressure. Perkins’ big criticism at Portland was his poor distribution of the ball, and it’s interesting to see that at Montreal he plays more short passes or throws out to defenders, presumably to counter the fact that his kicking isn’t great.

By pressing the backline, Seattle force Ferrari back to Perkins (1), Perkins returns it to Ferrari (2) and Ferrari looks up the line for Brovsky (3) who is pressured into a mistake, from which Seattle almost score. It’s in these situations that Portland’s pressing game could really bear fruit.

Similar to the Seattle chance, should Montreal try and play from the back, Portland are well set-up to press them back and force an error or turnover. With Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan (presuming the same starting line-up at Sunday) pressing the two centre-backs and goalkeeper and Diego Valeri keeping a close eye on Bernier, the Timbers can force Montreal down the channels, or into going long.

Having forced Montreal outwide, more pressing by the full-back and close marking by the midfield and attack limit their options, with (in this example) Nagbe and Johnson moving into place should the ball be given up to execute a quick one-or-two pass attack.

With Montreal likely to set up with two tight banks of 4, and Bernier sandwiched between harrying and pressing, it may be difficult for Portland to play their way through while still being mindful of keeping it tight in defence. Pressing deep in the Montreal half can force a turnover that does away with the need for Valeri or Nagbe to pull a rabbit from a hat, though a bit of magic from either wouldn’t go amiss!

(It’s Just Like) Starting Over

So, how do the Portland Timbers line up? I would expect the same starting 11 from last week, but would not be surprised to see Alhassan rested in favour of someone who might give a little more “bite” to the pressing.

Freddie Piquionne is still waiting on a visa to join up with the team, so I would expect Ryan Johnson to continue as the #9 though he would be prefect to play out wide in a game like this as he brings a strong defensive ethic to his attacking instincts. I expect Porter will stick with what he knows, and what’s worked so far, than risk throwing Trencito in for a start at centre forward this early in the season.

I don’t expect a flurry of goals in this one. I do expect some nervy moments, some tension and frustration, but with a bit of patience and concentration I see no reason why the Timbers shouldn’t win this one. The first goal, if there is one, is vital and it’s here that the Timbers have to believe that the first half against New York really was the exception, and rely on the defence keeping the Impact out.

Never Say Die

When the whistle blew for half-time, it was met with mix of shell-shocked bemusement and anger. Bemusement, as the Portland Timbers had controlled so much of the game, with over 60% of possession, and yet it was New York who held the 3-1 advantage. Anger because they were the architects of their own downfall.

Despite that possession advantage, the visitors had gotten more shots on target and had made it count, helped by the fact that the Timbers defence, and Mikael Silvestre in particular, had had an absolute shocker.

Silvestre had been pitched straight into the starting line-up days after flying in from France to join up with his new teammates, and looked every bit as jet-lagged as you’d expect. The details of the cavalcade of calamity that unfolded in front of the Timbers Army in that first half will be better summed up by others, but suffice to say that, as passes went astray and runs went unnoticed, it seemed to me that this was a team that was crunching through the gears.

During that first half I felt a sense of nervousness and tension about the Timbers play, which is understandable with so many new faces on the field, as well as a new coach on the sideline. It’s not so far off being an expansion team again, and it’s against that measure that it may be best to judge these early months as there is clearly much that is still a work-in-progress.

The biggest problem I saw in the first half, aside from the defensive lapses, was the failure to bring the attacking players into the game. Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri never felt connected to the rest of the Timbers play for long spells.

Caleb Porter had a big job on his hands during the break at 3-1 down. Many coaches would’ve hooked Silvestre off but Porter stuck with his man, and Silvestre had the courage to put a torrid half behind him and face the music again.

Aside for the Silvestre issue, there was the fact that the tactics just weren’t quite working in the first half. Yes, they had seen more of the ball, but the truth was they weren’t really threatening New York with it. Yet it was not so broken that it needed a entirely new game plan. With a few tweaks to the system the Timbers were transformed in the second half. It was not a dramatic shift – it was the same players, playing broadly in the same shape – but it was enough to bring some bite to back up the Timbers’ first half bark.

I thought that if Silvestre played, the club may have to play a little deeper to compensate for the veteran’s relative lack of pace, and that seemed like the case in first half. And, individual errors aside, New York never really threatened too much in that first half, so on one level the deeper line worked.

Silvestre deserves some time to settle before leaping to judgment, and his improved second half showing seems to point to the first half as being aberrational. Silvestre’s distribution highlights what the Timbers have long been missing at the back – someone comfortable with the ball at his feet. I’d worry about playing him if the club were under the kosh, or faced with a pacey front line as I feel playing deeper to cover his lack of pace leaves the team a little too stretched out, but in matches like these, home games or matches where you would expect to be in control, he adds a lot to the backline.

Andrew Jean-Baptiste was the stand-out on the defence though. Thierry Henry was kept very quiet by the young defender, though there’s a tendency to put the blame on Henry for having a bad game than giving recognition to the guy who made life difficult for him. Jean-Baptiste still has a bit to learn when it comes to what to do with the ball, but he looks like someone Porter can build a defence around.

Both outside backs had solid, if unspectacular games, but I think Timbers fans will take that over what we’ve had for much of the last two years!

Where the deeper line hurt the team wasn’t on the defensive side, but was in stretching the space between defence/midfield and attack.

The issue with Darlington Nagbe is that you don’t, as a general rule, want Nagbe doing the bulk of his work 50 yards from goal. You want him picking it up 30 yards out and driving toward goal. The first half graph shows Nagbe doing a lot of work in deep midfield, but in the second half he was “off the leash” and playing a much more attacking game. It’s no surprise that both the Timbers second half goals benefited from Nagbe picking it up 30 yards or so from goal and running at defenders, as well as Diego Valeri’s preternatural ability to ghost unseen into spaces in key areas.

The problem in the first half was that Portland were struggling to get the ball to Valeri in the areas where he can do the most damage.

Valeri was doing much of his work on the right flank (unsuccessfully, one might add) as he sought to get involved. This was corrected in the second half, and we started to see Valeri getting on the ball centrally, where he could really hurt New York.

Porter was able to affect this change by pushing Nagbe on, which gave the New York midfield a new puzzle to solve, as well as closing up the defense and midfield behind him, allowing the team to play shorter, sharper passes and get the ball moving with some purpose and zip.

Will Johnson and Diego Chara were both terrier-like in the engine room, with Johnson looking every inch the natural captain. The two dovetailed beautifully, with one going and one staying as required, and it was one of the few times I’ve seen Chara play where I didn’t think he was taking the weight of covering his defence all upon his own shoulders as Johnson’s all-action presence beside him freed him up a little. Johnson and Chara complemented each other very well, and between them they ensured that Portland won the midfield battle. There will be few teams that are able to out-muscle or out-hustle Portland in midfield with these two players, that’s for sure.

As you can see, both players were pressing in New York’s half early on, but it never felt focused. After the break both players played with a more deliberate strategy, still giving no quarter but adding some consistency to their pressing game. There’s more to pressing than simply haring after the ball all over the pitch, you have to press at the right time lest you leave a gap behind you and that’s what we saw more of in the second half.

As well as their defensive work, both guys are comfortable on the ball, and displayed some solid passing through-out the match. Both hit over 80% accuracy and they occupied two of the top three spots for players with most passes (Harrington being the other). In fact, 12 of the top 13 were Timbers players (taking in by passes per minute), once more underlining Portland’s dominance of the ball.

Having course corrected during the interval, the Timbers shot figures improved across the board in the second half, and once they had got the second it was only a matter of whether time would run out before they got the equaliser.

This never-say-die attitude was best summed after the Timbers had made it 3-3 when the ball was promptly fished out of the net and returned to the centre spot. To be fair, it was not entirely one-way traffic in the second half, and New York had chances to exploit space on the counter as Portland camped out in New York’s half, but I don’t think anyone could’ve complained about the result had the Timbers won the match in true Hollywood fashion with Ryan Johnson’s late overhead kick.

Possession figures weren’t much changed from the first half to the second, going from 60.6% to 65.5% with accuracy also rising by a single percentage point, yet the Timbers brought a greater purpose to the second half. The shot count rose, and the key players were able to influence the game where it matters.

It took 45 minutes for Portland to find their rhythm, but once they had it was all New York could do to hold on. They weren’t simply stroking the ball along the halfway line and racking up the numbers, they were playing the game in the New York half and that is reflected in the Timbers playing more passes in the opponent’s defensive third than any other club on opening weekend.

New York were hemmed in for long spells, looking to hit on the break. However, such was Portland’s territorial dominance that only Montreal made fewer passes in the opponent’s defensive third than New York.

There have been so many changes around the club this offseason that a few teething pains are to be expected. I don’t think Silvestre, five games into the season, makes the same mistakes as he did, and as the defence build up a better understanding of each other and their roles, someone like Olave isn’t going to go walkabout in the six yard box, completely unchecked by anyone in green.

As well as the fluid football, what was also encouraging to me was, even though it wasn’t quite working in the first half, Caleb Porter was able to tweak it and get a result. The fact that he and his players were still disappointed after their fight back speaks volumes.

The Timbers are here to win, and the rest of the league had better get used to it.

Welcome to Porterland.

RCTID

It never rains…

As you’ve probably already heard (if you were anywhere within ten blocks of SW 20th and Morrison) or seen (if you were just southeast of there, or watching on ESPN2), the Timbers drew the visiting New York Energy Drinks 3-3 tonight.

“Exciting” might not be quite the word I’m looking for.  “Frightening” might have been the word I’d have chosen at the half, with Portland down 3-1.  “Incredible” might have described the second half, where the Boys in Green pulled back two and came within a ball-width of a late winner on an improbably bicycle kick effort from Ryan Johnson.

Despite a tifo bursting with umbrellas and a big-little Morton Salt rain-or-shine-supporter we didn’t get our signature rain…but we got damn near everything else.

The Good:    Some lovely buildup, composed attack, and three well-taken goals.  Perhaps the best of the three came first, one of the most composedly delightful goals I have ever seen a Timber score, as early in the first period Diego Valeri ran onto a rough looping pass from Kalif Alhassan and, with Jámison Olave practically tickling his ribs coolly flicked it up to his chest and then chested it right down before him as Olave stood there giving him that look that you give the guy who cuts you off at the Vista off-ramp to the I-405.  The finish was almost a gimme, a simple poke past a charging Robles to level the match at 1-1.  Valeri also hit the second-half hammer that Robles could only push wide, and this time Darlington Nagbe was there to slot it away to pull the match back to 2-3.

And tonight the Timbers went down two goals, at home, and refused to lie down and die.  The team I watched tonight showed a fight and a toughness that I haven’t seen at this level of soccer.  Whatever else has happened between 2012 and tonight, the Timbers fought back for a point they had done their best to throw away, and that is a very good thing.

And for the first time in a long time, a Timbers coach made substitutions that affected the match, and in a good way.  Okay, I’ll admit that the whole Rodney Wallace thing had me a little worried.  But the RodWall was solid, and as he had in the Rectangular (or whatever the hell we should be calling the four-team “preseason tournament” other than the lame “Portland preseason tournament” thing we call it now…) Jose Valencia shook things up from the moment he took the pitch.  His ultimate moment came in the 83rd minute, when he controlled a rebound to the left of the six, looked at the Drinks’ defenders swarming around the near post, and calmly teed it up and off Olave for the equalizer.  A Timber scoring a come-back equalizer in the waning minutes?  Whoodathunkit?

The Bad and the Ugly:  Pretty much the entire first half that took place in back of midfield.    Mikael Silvestre will come in for some serious stick in the press tomorrow for his play, and well he should; he looked jet-lagged for 45 minutes and it was his errors (hard to say which one was the worst – was it the initial bounding back-pass to Ricketts that the big guy biffed for an easy tap-in, or was it the second, a ridiculous raised-leg poke at a bouncing ball that would have drawn hoots and whistles at the Bolshoi?) that led to the first two goals.

Ricketts looked…well, ricketty.  I keep waiting for the Ricketts who played against Mexico at the Azteca to show up wearing powder blue, but, again, his first half tonight showcased everything about him that shouts “dodgy keeper”; his fatal hesitation, his inability to field cleanly, and his poor communication with his defenders.  His sprawling and inadequate flop that fell somewhere short of Pearce’s cross (admittedly, Silvestre and Jean-Baptiste were loafing somewhere nearby) that let Olave put the Drinks 3-1 up less than half an hour into the match didn’t have anyone up in Section 109 making admiring comparisons between our keeper and Lev Yashin or Gordon Banks.

In the end, I can’t say I came away crushed.  Yes, we gave away two points at home.  Yes, we continued last season’s awful tradition of shipping soft goals.  Clearly we need to keep working on things at the back.  And I can’t say I’m sold on the man we’ve put between the sticks.

But the Boys never gave up.  They didn’t give in.  Their coach kept his head and used his substitutes well.  We weren’t gassed at 80 minutes and give up a late-match goal for the loss.  We didn’t win, no.  But, damn it, we refused to lose.

And as Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh might say, sometimes, it doesn’t rain.