Accentuate The Positive

Sunday night saw the Timbers battle to a 2-1 victory against Chicago Fire, a victory that ended a run of three matches without a win and over 7 hours without a Timbers player scoring a goal. It’s also the third match in a row that the Timbers have been unbeaten at home and kept a 100% record against the Fire intact.

With Jack Jewsbury out thanks to injury, it meant a start at right back for Mike Chabala. Futty Danso was a doubt for the match after his late game injury in the Houston match, but the MLS disciplinary committee took the decision out of the clubs hands by banning the Gambian for accidentally bumping the back Caleb Carr’s neck with his arm. If only Futty had kicked him square in the face instead as that doesn’t draw any sanctions, apparently.

Eric Brunner returned to his spot in the centre of defence, and those two enforced changes apart, it was the same team that drew in Texas that would face the Fire.

Again, what looked like 4-4-2 on paper played much more like a 4-1-3-1-1 as Palmer sat deeper, and Nagbe frequently dropped off the front line.

The Timbers knew their new-found defensive solidity would be tested against the speed and interplay of the Fire attack, but once more the team proved (largely) equal to the task.

Kris Boyd, for so long an isolated and frustrated figure against Houston, was much more involved this time round, and his early header from a Chabala throw-in produced a great stop from the Chicago keeper.

Indeed, it was from dead ball situations that the Timbers carved out their best chances on goal. The opening strike came from a corner, headed back across goal from Mosquera and skited into the path of Eric Brunner by Boyd, for the defender to score.

Relief was palpable as the long goal drought ended, but some things never seem to change, and after missing a couple of half chances, some sloppy defensive play allowed the Fire equalise.

While some measure of credit has to go to Pappa for the pass, the fact is it was another goal lost where the Timbers were undone as much by themselves as anyone else. Smith sclaffed his clearance, but all was still not lost had Palmer not gone to sleep and allowed Anibaba to get the space he needed to finish well.

There’s also the issue of three Timbers players huddled right in front of goal, which none of them awake to the through pass either. This is just poor alertness and concentration.

The team had almost come a cropper just prior to the goal when a corner was cleared to the edge of the box, before being worked back into to Pardo who was unmarked right in front of goal.

Fortunately for the Timbers, Troy Perkins came to the rescue once more, but if the chance had been a defensive wake-up call, it was one the Timbers failed to heed minutes later.

I thought Palmer had a decent game last week, but I can’t say the same here. While he wasn’t bad by any means, he is prone to lapses in concentration like the above and he seemed to drift out of the game as it went on.

In the second half he was a largely peripheral figure as he failed to impose himself on the game in the way that, for example, Diego Chara did, and does on a regular basis.

It will be interesting to see what John Spencer does when Jack Jewsbury is fit once more (presumably next week). Will Jack come in (as I assume he will) for Chabala or Palmer? My suspicion is that Chabala will sit, with Jack in again at right back.

There really is not much between Jack and Chabala at right back. Both have similar pass success rates, with Chabala perhaps a little more likely to get the ball forward than Jack. The two big differences I can pick between the two are that Chabala is a smarter full back than Jack, and his intensity is greater.

The reason I say Chabala is smarter is that I always feel he has a better understanding with the man in front of him than Jewsbury does. Despite the coach’s insistance that full back is the “easiest position to play” – something Jonathan Wilson might disagree with – the fact is that it’s not that simple – just ask Lovel Palmer, Jeremy Hall or Rodney Wallace. Chabala fits in much more naturally in the role, and his instinct of when to step up, or drop back is much more honed than Jewsbury’s, who often seemed to need that extra half-second or so to think about what he should be doing.

Chabala’s intensity was exmplemified by the little tête-à-tête with Nyarko just before half time. Chabala brings much more of a terrier mentality to the role than Jewsbury’s more measured, hands-off approach.

Both of these factors give Chabala a much stronger presence in the role than Jewsbury’s had so far. Spencer has already stated that when fit, Jewsbury will play which could, perhaps should, put Palmer’s place under threat.

If Jack’s place in the team truly is inviolate, then it would make sense to at least fit him in in his natural position, and a role he’s shown himself more comfortable in. We wouldn’t want square pegs in round holes, would we?

Of course, given the team’s victory this week, perhaps Spencer will bench the club captain and stick with the same XI, which would also be tough on Futty Danso who had started to form a formidable partnership with Mosquera, only to see Brunner slip back into the role and score.

Of course, I’m just a hopeless romantic who’d like to see us go to 3 at the back, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

The half brought another line-up change, with the largely ineffectual Franck Songo’o replaced by Sal Zizzo. Songo’o is a player I still haven’t got a handle on. He shows some really nice touches, and good tricks, but he still, for me, hasn’t offered enough final product. Step overs and jinks are all well and good, but if you end up getting robbed of possession or your final pass is weak, it’s all for nothing. I can’t shake the lingering sense than Franck Songo’o plays for Franck Songo’o first, and the Timbers second. I could be being harsh on him there though. Maybe it’s my ingrained Scottish suspicion of flashy players showing…

Zizzo’s bag of tricks is certainly a lot lighter but he offers a directness that the team were lacking. Songo’o will look to short, quick touches, bringing the ball inside and looking to beat a man or thread the ball through the eye of a needle; Zizzo will take one touch, knock it past his man and go round him in his bloody-minded desire to hit the byline and provide service to the strikers.

Zizzo’s introduction saw the whole flow of the Timbers play change.

Much of the Timbers first half play was focussed down the left hand side, where Rodney Wallace was putting in a much stronger shift than he had in the previous match. His defensive work was much more focussed and he and Smith are starting to build a good understanding down the flank.

With Kalif Alhassan on the bench, now is the time for Wallace to firmly stake his claim to the left midfield role, and while he could do with a better end result for his work, he won’t do his chances any harm if he can keep up this level of play.

With Zizzo on the pitch, the balance of play shifted to the right wing, and his direct running and pace caused the Fire backline all manner of headache.

In the first half, the four tackles down the Timbers right-wing were all successful, from a Fire perspective. The situation changed somewhat after the break as the foul count rose.

Given that I just wrote a blog where I was largely critical of Spencer, it’s only right that I give him the credit for his changes in this match. Recognising that the Timbers were playing much of the game in front of the Fire defence, his introduction of Zizzo gave them a ball in behind, and someone who would run at them and stretch that backline.

Jorge Perlaza came on for Nagbe later on, for much the same reason. Perlaza’s running and harrying would keep the Fire wary at a time when the Timbers were defending a lead when Logan Pause turned home Boyd’s flick from a Sal Zizzo corner shortly after the restart.

Nagbe has cut a lonely figure these past couple of weeks. He’s not getting involved in the way he was early in the season, and when he does have the ball he isn’t the same exciting presence. Where at the start of the season, he’d run at defenders, get them unbalanced and look to get a shot away, recently he’s been more reluctant to go for the jugular and is instead looking to pass it off.

It could be that’s what he’s been told to do, or that’s he’s just not comfortable in the role he’s being asked to play, but to me he’s looking a bit tired, or low in confidence. A rest may be the best thing for him – it’s only his second year in MLS and young players will blow hot and cold.

Perlaza showed great energy in his short spell on the pitch, and helped out in the late game defence with good tracking and harrying.

The way the field seemed to open up for the opposition would’ve had some Timbers fans chewing their nails down to the quick, but Perlaza did well to recognise the threat and get back to fill in and get a block in. But for a cynical foul on the breakaway, Zizzo would’ve been clean through as the wide man again showed what a valuable asset his pace could be.

Despite a great deal of late pressure, the Fire failed to really trouble Troy Perkins’ goal, and that was thanks to some more good defensive work from the Timbers.

Compared to the Houston match, you can see that the Timbers were pressing higher up the pitch. The backline has stepped up, and the second line had also moved further up the pitched. Especially encouraging is a third line half way up the pitch as the Timbers sought to press high and force the Fire into mistakes before they could even get into dangerous areas.

While the lack of open-play chances is still concerning, the Timbers still ground out a win here. When your attack isn’t quite hitting top gear, exploiting set plays is more important than ever. Delivery has improved – Songo’o and Zizzo delivered great corners that lead to both goals – and players are making runs and movements in the box with much more intent.

Players are starting to return to the fold from injury, with Zizzo having an impact in the last two matches from the bench, and Alhassan now making the bench. It would be interesting to see these two playing the wide roles in future, though Zizzo’s history with the club last year suggests that Spencer perhaps sees him more as an impact sub late in the game, using his pace and width to stretch and get in behind tiring defences. I can’t really argue with that, thought I do think that Zizzo has earned strong starting consideration at the very least.

It’s also nice to see the Timbers push back when challenged physically. There was a time when this team could be bullied by other teams, but there’s been a recent shift towards giving every bit as good as they get lately, and indeed it was the Fire players who spent most of the game falling dramatically to the turf in an attempt to hoodwink the referee, who was switched on enough to book a particularly egregious example late in the match.

It was also good to see Boyd more involved in the play as he seemed to have the measure of his opponents in the Fire defence. He had a hand in both goals for the Timbers, provided the cross for Chance Myers to score an own goal in the Sporting KC match, and scored the last open play goal against LA. Crucial, much?

Next up is Vancouver Whitecaps as the Timbers kick-off their Cascadia Cup campaign. The Whitecaps have a number of attacking dangers that it will be vital the Timbers defence have the measure of, but they’ve also shown defensive frailties that can be exploited.

Now off the foot of the Western Conference, the Timbers will hope to keep that momentum going. The football may not be pretty right now, but the points are nice.

#RCTID