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.

Finn’s Five: Now The Real Work Begins, Part Two

Yesterday we looked at five questions the Timbers have to answer as the season begins, and today we’ll look at the five things that excite me about the 2013 Timbers.

1) The Valeri/Nagbe/Alhassan (or Valencia) trio.

We saw mouth watering glimpses of football this pre-season that I’ve never seen in 13 years watching the Timbers play. Moar please!

2) Will Johnson leading our midfield.

Jack Jewbsury is a hell of a nice guy but we should have traded him the minute he became an all-star in 2011. He was playing above his capabilities (and a simple look at his 7 year journeyman career in KC could confirm this) and the past year and half of back passes has been tough to watch. I’m excited to have a captain and midfield presence with some bite and on-field leadership.

3) El Trencito.

He’s going to be one of the breakout stars of MLS in 2013. The most exciting thing about him other than his footballing ability is he’s clearly bought into Porter’s system on both sides of the ball.

4) Watching our “Kids” grow.

It’s going to be fun (and painful at times) to watch our younger players blossom. Nagbe, DTG, Baptiste, Alhassan, Valencia are all going to get real minutes this year. For all the talk in the first two MLS seasons about committing to a youth project, the truth is that when the chips were down Spencer and GW went with lesser talented veterans. If the pre-season is any indication, Porter is going to actually walk the talk in this regard.

5) The Porter System.

Games will not be boring this year. We are going to lose some bizarre ones and our GAA is not going to be pretty but we are also going to have 3 and 4 and 5 goal wins. Hang on folks!

Finn’s Five: Now The Real Work Begins, Part One

I’m going to cheat a bit this week and break up my Finn’s Five into two categories. The first five today are the 5 biggest outstanding questions I see as the season begins. Tomorrow, I’ll highlight the 5 best things we have going for us heading into Sunday’s match against the Red Bulls

1) Is our midfield big enough?

Kalif, Johnson, Chara, Valeri . While they have mental and physical toughness, and Will Johnson and Chara play bigger than they are, the simple fact is we have a small midfield. In the match against AIK the more physical and imposing Europa League players definitely won the physical battle in midfield. How will those four fare over a tough 34 game MLS schedule?

2) Who is our central starting pair and will they be able to handle the high line Porter’s system demands?

DTG and Andre Jean Baptiste acquitted themselves well in the preseason, especially when you consider they’ve only just started shaving on a daily basis, but they cannot be the answer over a 34 match season. I think our moves at central defense are far from over and don’t be surprised to see Futty, Horst AND Mosquera all gone by the summer. The test of our central defense starts this Sunday with a guy you may have heard of, Henry, coming to town.

3) Who plays if Valeri gets hurt?

Mwanga failed to flatter in his stint there. We watched Nagbe flounder all last year trying to be a #10 and the RodWall effort vs Dallas was cringeworthy. It’s not those three guys fault, they aren’t remotely in Valeri’s league and they aren’t #10’s. The only person on the roster right now capable of defense splitting passes in the Valeri model is Alhassan. He had a great pre-season but his consistency remains a serious concern.

4) Are our new outside backs really an upgrade?

I’m far from convinced theanswer to this question is “yes”.

5) Is Ryan Johnson really a #9 and can he produce over a season?

Nothing in
Ryan Johnson’s background suggests he is a double digit goal scorer in MLS. Like our central defenders I would not be surprised to see the Timbers make a mid-season push for a real forward*.

*Not that I’m always comparing the Timbers to the team from the fishing village up north (hat tip to 5MTKO for that moniker) but is there a #9 on our team that even remotely compares to their rumored acquisition of Obafemi Martins?

Check back tomorrow for what makes me excited for 2013.

Finn’s Five: DON’T PANIC

An entirely new team from Sunday took the field for the Timbers and frankly it showed in a choppy, disjointed loss.

1) The System – Porters intense, ball control system that had us all buzzing from Sunday was nowhere to be seen last night. Our reserves either couldn’t or wouldn’t put it into practice. Worrying but it’s early days.

2) Trencito – Porter singled him out for praise and rightfully so. It’s not just the work he does on the ball. His dedication to high up the field defensive pressure deserves recognition.

3) Mwanga – Oh Danny. Boy, I want him to succeed but last night he was very poor. Weak on the ball and lazy in defense. Look at the goal again. Danny could have and should have closed Perez down.

4) The midfield pairing of Wallace and Zemanski – No thanks. Nuff said.

5) The Zizzo right back experiment – Intrigued. Would like to see more of it. We know he can run the channel with the best of them, the question is can he defend?

It Begins Again

The Timbers returned home after some bounce games in Tucson, and found the Timbers Army ready and waiting for some actual football after a long, and at times, tumultuous offseason.

The San Jose Earthquakes were the visitors in the first round of matches in the Portland Timbers Preseason Tournament – a name so dull that not even Don Garber would want to trademark it.

The game itself ended in a 3-3 draw. San Jose scored a penalty after a handball by Jean-Baptiste, got an easy second from a free header off a free kick, and scored a third off a rebound from a Ricketts save after a weak turnover of possession in their own defensive third. So, much as it was in defence.

For certain, there is still a lot of work to be done in shoring things up at the back, but for now I’d like to talk about the other end, because it was there that I saw many reasons to be optimistic about 2013. I’m sure I’ll return to the defence at some point…

Ryan Johnson scored a hat-trick, which is a pretty good way to go about endearing yourself to the home faithful. Diego Valeri had a hand in the latter two goals, providing lovely assists for Johnson to get through on goal and finish with consummate ease. A lot of pixels have been spent bemoaning the fact that the Timbers have lacked a creative “number 10” type in their roster, but it looks like Valeri is exactly that kind of player.

The first goal is the one that stands out to me, though. If ever there was a passage of play that typifies what Caleb Porter is bringing to Portland, it was then.

The quick passing and intelligent movement of the midfield served to open up space down the San Jose left, and the Timbers were ruthless in exploiting it. It begins before Nagbe has even touched the ball.

Harrington cushions the header down to Nagbe on the left side of the Timbers midfield. Towards the end of last season we saw Nagbe play more centrally, and it seemed to stifle him a little. Nagbe works best when he can pick up in space and drive forward, but we also saw last season with Songo’o the problems that a wide player coming inside can cause when all they’re doing is running into traffic.

In this instance, Diego Chara makes a clever little diversionary run forward. San Jose were set up pretty well, with two players holding the middle, but Chara’s move forces their #4 to follow him, and leave a space for Nagbe to run into. With San Jose short-handed in midfield now, it draws their wide #10 inside to match up, freeing space in front of Ryan Miller.

Nagbe has options for the pass, with Will Johnson holding and Kalif Alhassan forward. Diego Valeri also makes himself available for the pass, as he continually does. Part of the Timbers problems last season were there were too many players who would disappear, or hide, for too long. Songo’o, Alexander, Boyd – all players I liked, but all were guys who would drift in and out of matches. It stunted the Timbers attack all too often, leaving us with nowhere to go and panic was never far from setting in. That shit just won’t fly under Porter.

The next three passes are all one touch. Nagbe to Alhassan, back to Johnson, out to Miller. As easy as one-two-three, the Timbers have pulled the San Jose midfield around and opened up space out wide.

There’s no steadying touch, or thought of looking for the long, hopeful ball forward from Miller. Alhassan has made the move forward, and the man who should’ve been tracking him from midfield has given up on the job. This means that when the first time ball comes forward from Miller, one of the San Jose central defenders is forced to come across to match the run.

Ryan Johnson comes to life as the ball enters the attacking third. With a gap opening up at the near post, all it needs is for Alhassan is to deliver the ball into that area. Johnson times the run to perfection, going from back to front and sending a deft header looping beyond the reach of the keeper into the far side of the net.

What you can see from the overview is that much of the Timbers off the ball movement was heading from right to left, opening up the space they needed to execute a quick series of passes left to right. It’s like a boxer dropping his shoulder to entice an opponent in before dropping him with the hook he never saw coming.

For all the talk about possession, this is the essence of what Porter’s teams do. Yes, they’ll keep the ball, and work it across the pitch, playing nice little triangles and diagonals but, like a Chess Grandmaster, when they’ve maneuvered their opponents just where they want them, they’ll strike, and do so swiftly and with purpose.

Finn’s Five: There Are No Friendlies

The Timbers dominated in a 1-0 win today over The Price is Right FC that could have been a larger margin had the Timbers finishing been a little bit better. Lot to be happy with today, a few things to keep an eye on as we go forward.

Let’s get to the Five.

1) Was it nice to win? Yes, but perspective please. The first half featured 8 or 9 out of 11 probable Timbers starters vs a Sounders side with just 4 regulars and even fewer in the second half. What mattered was play of the Timbers and at times that was very good.

2) Width? How the outside midfield position is played greatly impacts Porter’s scheme. If you go back to the Colorado game I could count on one hand the number of overlapping runs by Miller and Harrington. In this match with Nagbe and Alhassan ostensibly lining up in the wide midfield position in the 4-2-3-1 system but doing anything but stay wide our two new outside defenders ran that open channel a lot during this match to very limited effectiveness. Endless overlapping crosses to a Dike covered by 3 defenders is not possession football.

3) Dike. Everything good and bad about Dike was encapsulated in one play in the 47th minute. Valeri plays a great ball over the top, Dike runs his ass off to get there, beats two central defenders and then… blasts the ball as hard as he can straight at the keeper when he could have simply slotted it home. I love his heart but I question his brain.

4) Silvestre. Today was his best day as a trialist and most of that was down to his passing. There’s a reason he played at some of the biggest clubs in the world. But I still maintain with the high-line defensive system Porter is playing, a guy with the turning speed of a cruise ship is going to do us a lot of harm over the course of the season.

5) Michael Nanchoff. Apart from be able to deliver a great set piece, I have been impressed with his play overall. Tidy, clean, doesn’t try to do too much. It didn’t work out in Vancouver but he went #8 in the draft for a reason and Porter is very familiar with him.

Oh and a final mention for Flounder Zach Scott – I have been watching this hack kick the hell out of Timbers since he welcomed Alan Gordon to his first professional game with a elbow to the head requiring stitches in 2004. It’s time Dike pulls a Dike on this clown.

Finn’s Five: Green Shoots in Tucson

Last year, when indisposed, I was fortunate enough to have Jeremy Wright step in and cover me with a fantastic recap of the victory against the Rapids. If you’ve been here before, and I assume you have, you’ll know that I have a tendency to be rather long-winded in my match reports so I’m happy to say that Jeremy has volunteered to contribute his own “quick hit” take of the matches in 2013, which will, I’m sure, provide a nice compliment to my own reports.

The first “Finn’s Five” of 2013 just so happens to cover another victory against the Rapids. Enjoy.


1) If today’s performance is any indicator our new DP Diego Valeri is a stud. Yes his goal was very pretty but look beyond that at the more subtle things he did especially in his positive “north-south” movement with or without the ball. Nagbe is gonna love playing with Valeri. We are going to love watching Nagbe play with Valeri.

2) The team has really bought into the Caleb Porter version of the Barca style “high pressure, high up the pitch, hunt the ball like a pack of wolves” system. I’m excited about this but there is a down side. If we are going to play this way than it means a high defensive line and I’m pretty damn sure not one of the four central defenders we have is up for it. We are going to get beat over the top a lot this year. Get used to it as the team adjusts and personnel are found wanting.

3) I noticed our outside midfielders far less than in the past two years watching this club in MLS. Trust me folks, this is a good thing.

4) I love me some Diego Chara but if he’s gonna stay on the pitch with Will Johnson and Valeri he’s gonna need to do more than be an engine that kicks the shit out of people and disrupts play. The quality level has risen in our midfield and thus expectations have as well.

5) El Trencito left me wanting more. A lot more. The power, the pace, the skill…