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…

Silver Lining

385 days later, and at the 17th time of asking, the Timbers finally won a road match again, and few wins have mattered as much in the club’s short MLS existence as this one. The 1-0 victory in Vancouver, mirroring the scoreline of their last trip to British Columbia a year ago, was enough to ensure that the Cascadia Cup would be returning to Portland with the vocal Timbers Army, who had out-sung their strangely subdued rival fans in a sold-out BC Place.

The listless performance of the home fans mirrored that of the team. In truth, this does not look like a team that should be anywhere near the playoffs and, yet, thanks to Seattle’s victory against FC Dallas, that is exactly where they are.

Perhaps it was nerves on both sides that led to a very disjointed opening. At one point there seemed to be more fouls than completed passes, and the ball racked up the air miles as it was booted from back-to-front and back again. Eventually though, a football match threatened to break out as the timbers began to find a little more possession in the Whitecaps half, but neither keeper was being worked particularly, for the most part…

Gavin Wilkinson had taken a risky decision to play his best available players in an important match, bringing Steven Smith and Kosuke Kimura back into the starting line-up. Hanyer Mosquera also returned to the defence, giving the back four a much more settled look. Five of the team that started the Timbers’ last win in Canuckistan are no longer at the club, with only Nagbe, Chara and Zizzo starting last season’s result in Vancouver, giving some sense of the changes that have been wrought in the past twelve months.

Despite picking up a yellow card early on for a foul on Camilo, Mosquera highlighted what the Timbers had missed in his absence with an assured performance. The Colombian would be forced off with injury early in the second half, replaced by Eric Brunner, and I was worried that the enforced change at the back may just unsettle the defence, but I needn’t be so concerned.

By the time Mosquera went off, the Timbers already had the lead when Jack Jewsbury fired home a screamer from distance shortly before half-time.

From early on it seemed like a match that would be decided one way or the other by a defensive howler or a piece of magic from nowhere as both sides toiled. Fortunately for the Timbers, it was the latter. Indeed, early on in the first half there was a moment where Steven Smith didn’t catch a simple clearance right and forced Ricketts into a point blank save. On another night, that goes in and the Timbers crumble to another dispiriting road defeat. Not tonight, though. Not tonight.

In truth, there’s little to talk about in terms of the match itself. Songo’o played in the hole behind Dike for much of the game, and was subbed out for Rodney Wallace midway through the second half, presumably to counter the pace and athleticism of Whitecaps subs Dane Richards and Darren Mattocks.

Like the change at the back, the introduction of Rodney Wallace has, in the past, been a harbinger of late-game heartbreak, but the game felt so comfortable at this point that even this change didn’t cause the merest flutter for me.

Truth is, the Whitecaps could be out there still, playing against no-one, and they would’ve conspired to find some way not to score. I’d expected a whirlwind start to the second half by the Whitecaps, but instead it was no more than a moderate breeze.

Camilo looked like their most dangerous player, niggling and putting the central defenders out of their comfort zone and off-balance. It’s the kind of performance that can drive opposing fans, and players, crazy but his role, it seemed to me, was to wreak havoc and hope that a Kenny Miller or Barry Robson could profit and find space. Once he, finally and deservedly, was booked in the second half it robbed his game of that dimension and he drifted out of the game, to be subbed off shortly after.

From there, the entire Whitecaps game petered out to nothing. Rarely have the Timbers had it so easy, particularly on the road, and though I’ve talked about how poor Vancouver have been, some measure of credit must go to the Timbers defence for their work. Horst and Mosquera, and latterly Brunner, dealt with anything that came their way and even the late addition of Darren Mattocks and flailing limbs, failed to knock them off their stride.

After a nervy start, Steven Smith settled in to a reasonable game, even if it’s not one he’ll be putting on his highlight reel. Kimura had a couple of typically Kimuran moments as he was caught on his heels, or beaten to the ball, but even he never looked like he was under so much pressure that he was going to crack.

The Timbers had a couple of chances to seal the deal with breakaways, but as was typical of the match in general, there seemed to be little conviction or composure about them.

Whereas in the past we’ve seen the Timbers go away and play well for long spells, only to have it all crumble to dust late on, tonight we saw them put in a gritty performance that ground out the win they needed.

As well as securing some silverware, the 3 points also ensured that Portland wouldn’t be finishing bottom of the Western Conference. It leaves little to play for in the San Jose match next week but, with it being the final home match, I would hope it won’t be your typical end of season affair and the team take the chance to sign off on a crazy year with a victory against the Supporter’s Shield winners.

Rather than end on a “it shouldn’t be allowed to paper over the cracks” note – we’ve got a long off-season to come for all that! – I’d prefer to salute the fans. Not just those that made the trip to Vancouver, but those that have remained loyal throughout a trying year. The dedication and passion of the fans has been one inspiring constant as the on-field product has veered sharply from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous.

I’d also like to thank John Spencer for his part. The victory against Seattle went a long way to delivering the cup and though I felt he was floundering (apologies) by the end of his reign, without his hard work at the start of the year there would’ve been no light at the end of the tunnel.

Many sore heads will be nursed this morning, but the fans can now say that 2012 has not been for nothing. The thing is, even if it had, they would still be back come First Kick 2013 but through good times and bad, they have stayed the course, and they have earned the right to savour this.

#RCTID
Now and Forever

Monkey Jesus

With the Cascadia Cup up for grabs, 1500 Timbers fans made the trip up the I-5 into enemy territory with hopes high that they would be returning to the Rose City with silverware. A draw would’ve been enough to secure the title. In the end those same fans would make the return trip having seen their side lose 3-0 in front of an (official, if not actual) 66,452 crowd. Closer to 66,500 if you include the Timbers playing and coaching staff, who spent much of their time spectating.

The absence of Hanyer Mosquera from the back line, as well as the return of Diego Chara to midfield, forced our Gavin Wilkinson to make changes.

Now, you and I in our n00bishness may think that if you’re missing a crucial piece from your defence in such a big match, that would seek to make sure you keep changes to a minimum at the back, right? WRONG! What you do is change the full-backs and goalkeeper too so that you have change 80% of the back line. That is the right thing to do.

And the attack that has hardly been striking fear into defences? Well, you make no changes there and you most certainly do not, under any circumstances, start your team’s leading assist provider. That would be the actions of a madman.

So, into defence came Futty Danso, Lovel Palmer and Rodney Wallace. I got up at 1:55am for the game. I checked twitter and saw the line-up at 1:58am. The temptation to go back to bed at 1:59am was strong. It wasn’t so much that I feared the worst as I expected it.

Wallace’s spot in midfield was taken by the returning Chara, with the rest of the midfield and attack as it was for the 1-1 draw with DC United last week.

Not to blow my own trumpet, but after doing a bit of research on Seattle and watching a few games – those are hours I will never get back – I’d identified what I thought were pretty obvious patterns to the Seattle attack.

1 – They would look to overload the right with Rosales/Evans, Tiffert and Johansson. As such we would need a left-back who could make the right choices, as well as having a left midfielder who would track back and help out.

2 – They lacked a left-footed player on the left side, and Gonzales doesn’t get forward nearly as much as Johansson, so we had to expect that they would look to come inside and ping the ball diagonally to the back post for Montero or Johnson to attack.

3 – Johnson’s aerial threat meant that there was no way we would win every duel, so we had to make sure that the players were alive to the second ball and that we won that.

Given all that, here was the line-up I’d have gone with – Bendik/Ricketts; Kimura, Horst, Futty/Brunner, Smith; Jewsbury, Chara, Alexander; Nagbe, Mwanga, Songo’o

My reasoning? As I said, I felt continuity (as far as possible) at the back was crucial, though I wouldn’t be adverse to Jewsbury starting ahead of Kimura (with Nagbe back to midfield and Zizzo starting).

My thinking is that, since Seattle offer less threat down their left, Kimura – who I don’t particularly rate highly, but still think is better than Palmer – could be given a set of simple instructions of “keep tight, don’t let them come inside and stay on your feet”. Ditto if Jewsbury subs in there.

If we play with Nagbe, I’d play him a little off the wing rather than as a winger. Here I’d want Nagbe to look for space and, in the process, either pull Gonzalez narrow (opening up space for the overlap of Kimura/Jewsbury) or force Alonso to drop in and mark him, opening up space for Songo’o to come inside from the left, with support from Alexander (and Smith on the outside).

Mwanga is up top because I felt it would be pointless to play long ball football as the Seattle central defence would eat that up all night long. Rather, playing Mwanga would emphasise movement and passing over physicality or “lumping it into the mixer”.

The help out Smith on the left, since Songo’o isn’t the greatest defender in the world, Alexander would be given the job of playing left of centre, and to shuttle across to back up the Scot. He’s shown, when he subbed for Chara earlier this year, that he can play this disciplined, defensive role if asked to, and between the three – Smith, Alexander and Songo’o – I feel we’d have the numbers to match up and nullify much of Seattle’s threat.

That’s what I’d have done.

What Gavin did was put Wallace in at left-back. The reasoning seems to be it was because Wallace is more “athletic” than Smith. I’d back that line of thinking if the game was only one part of a heptathlon, but it isn’t, it’s the main event and you just put someone on the back line whose best attributes sure as hell aren’t his defensive ones. Wallace has looked decent in the last few matches playing in midfield, where his lapses in concentration aren’t directly punished by having an opponent go clean through on goal.

Maybe Gavin thought Wallace’s “athleticism” would get him forward, and push Seattle back and win the battle down the flank that way. Well, that worked a fucking treat, eh? Because, as you know, that slovenly Smith never gets up and down the line.

The decision to drop Smith was a strange one – references to a Wilkinson quote “player health” abound on twitter, but at the time of writing they aren’t being reported. Smith has a case for being the Timbers most improved player over the past few weeks. He had a really rocky spell earlier in the season, but as his fitness has improved and he’s become more attuned to the league, he’s settling in very nicely.

Now, I’ve nothing against Wallace. I think he’s perfectly functional (if a tad overpaid) as a squad player, questionable as a starter and downright objectionable as a defender. You almost can’t get mad at the guy whose known to make mistakes when he makes mistakes, instead you should direct that ire at the guy who put him in what I felt was the key position on the field to make those mistakes.

The first goal came about as, surprise, Seattle overloaded that flank.

Rosales, Tiffert and Johansson are all out there on the right. Wallace is trying to marshal Tiffert, while keeping an eye on Rosales, as Johansson bursts forward. Songo’o fails to track his man.

The Seattle midfield has narrowed, negating the Timbers 3v2 advantage in the middle, as Zizzo stays out wide. The ball forward by Alonso is missed by a diving Wallace, and Johansson runs on to it. His pass into the centre is aimed towards Montero, but Danso gets there first and directs it past a helpless Ricketts.

Fucking. Textbook. Elementary. Football.

The second goal followed soon after as the Timbers were in disarray. That is, more disarray than is usual.

Here we have Danso following Montero out of defence (a). Tiffert (d) will slot into the space left by Danso (d) as the ball goes left to Evans. Now, there’s only place Evans wants to go here, and it’s inside (c). Palmer’s job here is to get tight, and force Evans onto his weaker left foot, and down the side (b). Instead, Lovel stands off Evans (e), letting him get his head up and measure the cross to Johnson, who is making a customary back post run (f) to finish the move, and the Timbers hopes of a result here, off.

Taking a leaf from the seemingly half-arsed way Wilkinson prepared the team for this match, I’m not even going to bother going over the 3rd goal in any detail, except to say we failed to win the second ball when Johnson got a flick-on because Wallace was asleep at the back post, which was fine cos he was only marking Fredy Montero. Equally, I’ll give the substitutions as much thought and consideration as Wilkinson seemingly did. There, done.

Sure, there were chances for Portland. Songo’o had a couple of sites of goal, Wallace had a free header from a corner, Dike had a sniff, as did Nagbe. Nothing that would overly worry Gspurring, the Sounders keeper.

I went to bed last night, knowing that I would wake up to gold from Wilkinson and the Unsackable One didn’t disappoint.

Those two [David Horst and Futty Danso] haven’t played together an awful lot.

Who picks the team, and who hasn’t been rotating the squad? Look, I get that defensive consistency is important (as I said earlier), but by my quick reckoning Wilkinson has set out the same back four in 7 of the last 9 matches. You can’t have it both ways – you’re either trying players out and seeing what you have, or you’re picking a settled team

They had a lot more mobility in the midfield. They had a lot more freedom and kept the ball moving. They caused problems.

We (supposedly) outnumbered them and yet you’d think Seattle had the extra midfielder. As I said before the game, quick movement of the ball was vital. We did none of that. Seattle did. They won.

(That’s what happens) when you’ve got mature players that understand the game and understand what is expected, and we had problems solving it.

A good coach is supposed to help players “understand the game” (hint: coach). A good coach is supposed to make sure that a player “understands what is expected”. A good coach is supposed to identify problems on the field, and solve it p- not just sit back and blame the players for not understanding. You see something going wrong – fix it! Change it if you have to. Shuffle players around. Relay instructions to the guys on the field. You see it happen all the time in matches all over the world. That’s your job.

Then there’s this…

I have no words.

In a big environment you want players to play well and sometimes when things aren’t going well, one or two players start hiding a little bit. That’s not a go at the players, it’s just the environment.

Just like you know when someone starts a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” it will be followed by the most egregiously racist statement, so “that’s not a go at the players” will, when utter by Gavin Wilkinson, inevitably be preceded by him having a go at the players. Have the courage of your convictions, Gavin. If you want to blame the players, do it. Rev that bus up, crank up the Whitesnake, run them over and back up if you feel like it. Don’t fob us off with crap about “the environment” because you fool no-one but yourself.

We learned a little tonight about certain individuals. It’s going to be an evaluation process through to the end of the year. It was important to see a few players in different positions so we could go into the offseason making the right decisions.

First off, players in different positions – what did we learn about Wallace and Palmer at full-back that we didn’t already know from the many times they’ve played full-back before? That they are as mediocre as everyone already knew? Well, good job Captain, sorry, General Manager Obvious in underlining that point on the biggest fucking stage of the year. I’m giving you the world’s slowest hand clap over here.

Second, and this maybe just my interpretation of what Wilkinson is saying, but it sounds to me that he thought this game was just another experiment. Another attempt to throw shit at the wall and see what sticks. He used the biggest game of the season – the chance to salvage something worthwhile from a Wynaldian trainwreck of a season, in the backyard of our greatest rivals no less (YES, THAT FUCKING GAME) – as an EXPERIMENT? Fuck off with your “it was the players fault” bullshit, if anything they were only taking their cue from you. 1500 fans paid hard cash in good faith to watch Wilkinson tinker with stuff to prove some vague point about players that he should not be allowed to wriggle out of responsibility for signing in the first place.

I wouldn’t put Wilkinson in charge of a McDonald’s franchise, let alone a Major League Soccer team.

Look, as much as it pains us to admit it, we all know Seattle are a better team, with a better head coach. If it wasn’t for the rivalry aspect, there would be no great embarrassment in going there and losing (though the manner of said defeat may be good cause). We know that. So the very least we expect is that the head coach, the general-fucking-manager, takes it seriously and approaches it in the proper manner.

You certainly don’t use it as an excuse to tinker with things. And if the front office did any work at all in scouting Seattle, it was either woefully produced or completely ignored by Wilkinson.

I was 100% on board with the idea of writing off the season, and using the time to see what we had for 2013, and what we needed to get. It made sense. But I don’t think we’ve got that, despite Wilkinson mentioning it whenever he gets a chance. What we’ve had, as far as I can see, is the same small group of players, sometimes playing in different roles, but generally playing in the very positions where we already know exactly what to expect from them. The fringe guys don’t seem to be getting a look in. Eric Alexander gets pity minutes here and there. Danny Mwanga can’t get a run of games together to build some consistency or confidence. Fucito is granted a farewell tour of Seattle (and, with any luck, top flight football) while Richards, Jean-Baptiste and Kawulok can’t get a look in. What are we supposed to be learning, exactly?

When you play a team that are, and the league doesn’t lie, better than you, in their home ground, you adjust your tactics accordingly. You seek to nullify their strengths, and exploit their weakness. You don’t send out two full-backs who aren’t up the task and then resort to lumping the ball forward to Dike who had more success drawing blood from Seattle defenders than he had drawing saves from the Seattle keeper. That is just sloppy.

Gavin Wilkinson’s management of the squad post-Spencer puts me in mind of Cecilia Gimenez, the 81 year old amateur fresco artist from Spain. Both have sought to repair something that, while hardly a masterpiece in the first place, certainly needed a bit of work to bring out it’s best features but their cackhanded attempts have rendered the result a laughing stock. At least the Monkey Jesus is proving popular though, so Cecilia has that over Gavin.

Sure, he never wanted to be head coach and he’s only there to fill in before Caleb Porter gets to add his rut to the wall John Spencer presumably spent 18 months beating his head against. The thing is, I don’t think the guy who has watched Wallace and Palmer (sorry to keep picking on these two – they weren’t the only non-performers out there by any stretch) in training for weeks, months even, and still hasn’t recognised that neither of them are top flight full-backs should be in charge of scouting and signing players. It’d be like hiring Stevie Wonder as an interior decorator or Abu Hamza as a juggler.

Despite this result, the Timbers can still salvage the Cascadia Cup by beating Vancouver next week in the final road match of the season. Winning the trophy after this omnishambles, in our first road victory in our last road match, would be so Portland.

#RCTID

Only Four More To Go

This will be a (relatively) short one this week because I didn’t notice my VPN subscription had expired so I can’t rewatch on MLS Live, and I’ll save you my “MLS Live should be available in the UK anyway” rant for this week. Instead, I’ll be relying on the MLS highlights for the few pics I do use and cursing them for not carrying the passages of play I had noted and hoped to talk about. Extended highlights, anyone?

The Timbers made their second trip this season to the heart of Mormonia to face Real Salt Lake after snatching a draw from the jaws of victory against San Jose last time out. The first trip to Rio Tinto in 2012 ended in a 3-0 defeat, and gave owner Merritt Paulson the silver bullet he needed to end John Spencer’s reign of terror(ble football), ushering in a Golden Age of beautiful, free flowing, orgasmic football under our esteemed and benevolent overlord, Gavin Wilkinson.

This second visit also ended in defeat, and three goals scored, but at least this time the Timbers got one of them and, but for the width of the crossbar, they could’ve snatched an, in some ways undeserved, point on the road for the second match on the trot.

The Timbers midfield and defence struggled to come to terms with the movement of Salt Lake’s Fabian Espindola and Javier Morales. It was almost inevitable that it would be the movement of these two that would lead to Real’s first goal.

As Morales picks up the ball (1), the Timbers central midfield two of Wallace and Jewsbury are a little narrow giving space either side to the veteran Argentinian and Tony Beltran (both circled) who has pushed forward.

Espindola will drop off his marker, Horst, and slip into the space between defence and midfield. When he picks up the ball (2), he’s dropped between Wallace and Jewsbury and is then able to turn and run at the space. Morales makes a looping run round the outside and as the Timbers defence gets drawn towards the ball (3), Espindola has the awareness to flick it off to Morales. Jewsbury throws out an arm and tugs back Morales, preventing him getting a shot off or playing in Beltran on the overlap.

From the resulting free-kick, the Timbers make a mess of it. Wallace is positioned as the “runner” – the guy on the edge of the wall whose job it is to charge out and close down the ball the second a touch is taken (or, usually, just before it’s taken – how often do you see free kicks blocked by a guy 5 yards from the ball?).

Rather than charge out, he seems confused by Morales’ little backheel, hesitates and then does a pretty, but ineffective, pirouette. But that’s only part of it. The wall itself parts, allowing Espindola to drive the ball low between Mwanga and Mosquera and into the bottom corner.

Despite Real being the better team, the Timbers did have their chances, but were denied by a combination of good keeping from Rimando, or the final ball just not quite being good enough.

A failure to pick up Morales would once again lead to trouble for Portland later in the first half.

Again, the central two fail to follow Morales, giving him lots of space to work, and it’s his give and go, and then a run inside that leads to the free kick when Jewsbury leaves a foot hanging. There were calls of “dive” from some Timbers fans, but I don’t agree. It was a pretty clear foul, and a really lazy, half-arsed “tackle” from Jewsbury.

This time the wall weren’t to blame as Morales hit a fantastic free kick over the wall and beyond Joe Bendik.

Although both goals came from set plays, it was the Timbers inability to deal with good movement from the Real attack – Morales and Espindola in particular – that were the key. That and Jewsbury having a horror show, and a terrible effort at building a wall.

The second half saw a change from the Timbers with Bright Dike coming on for Steven Smith. Wallace dropped to left back and the team took up more of a 4-4-2 shape.

On the hour mark there was hope for Portland when a fantastic cross from Sal Zizzo was met by the head of Dike and he sent it beyond Rimando for 2-1.

Given this boost, Wilkinson did what any manager would do and took off a defender and put on a more attacking player to try and press for an equaliser.

Oh, did I say he took off a right back, and put Zizzo back there? That is the guy who’d just set up the goal, and wasn’t, isn’t, and most likely never will be, a right back. Meanwhile Jack “I’ve played right back” Jewsbury stayed central, even though we had literally just brought on a central midfielder in Eric Alexander.

Last week, I’d hoped we’d at least bring Alexander on, in order to help retain possession further up the field as we defended a lead. We showed what a good passer of the ball he was against Real, misplacing only 1 of his 15 attempts, making the decision to leave him on the bench against San Jose all the stranger.

With Zizzo at right back, a lot of our threat down the right was neutered, and Wilkinson would complete the job by hooking off Songo’o with a few minutes to go. His replacement, Kalif Alhassan, never really got involved – little surprise when you have all of 8 minutes to make an impact – and, in fact, failed to touch the ball in the final third.

There was, as I mentioned before, that chance for Dike that crashed off the bar. It was, as my wife pointed out, almost the San Jose match in reverse. Once more, it was from Zizzo’s cross and it makes the decision to push him further back all the more odd when you think that we effectively removed this weapon from our arsenal. Dike looked fired up for this after coming on, and the RSL defence didn’t look too sure of how to deal with him so it seemed like the ideal scenario to test them by throwing the ball into the area from wide and letting Dike do what he does best. But we decided not to do that.

I think the move to put Zizzo at right back may be a sign of the management losing faith in Kimura. Kimura came to the Timbers with a “won’t be missed that much on the field” sentiment from Rapids fans that suggested we weren’t exactly bringing in a game changer, but after the trouble the Timbers have had at full-back, someone who could at least do the basics would be a step forward.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anything from Kimura to suggest he’s good enough. His reading of the game is poor, and you won’t go poor by betting against him in 1v1s. He has tons of heart, and there’s no doubting he seems like a great guy, the kind that fans can identify with, but he’s a footballing liability too often. Perhaps there was an injury concern, fatigue issues, but it seems to me that it was a management who wanted to test Zizzo in the role, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is further experimentation at right back before the season is out.

Losing, With Style

Little has changed on the road for Portland since Spencer left. The record under Wilkinson is 2 draws and 5 defeats, compared to Spencer’s 2 draws and 6 defeats. We’re scoring more, which is nice, but conceding more, which isn’t.

Again, a lot was made of possession post-match. “I think the possession stance of this team has changed dramatically from what they were,” said Gavin. It’s certainly true that we’re keeping the ball more since Spencer left – of Wilkinson’s 13 games, we’ve hit 50% or more 8 times, compared to 5 in 17 under Spencer – but of those 13 times we’ve been on top, we’ve won twice.

There may be something to Sigi Schmid’s “our league is a counter-attacking league” quote. Certainly, it seems that the team we have is built for that style of play, unsurprisingly since it was John Spencer that had a big hand in putting the pieces together. In fact, we win almost twice as often when we have less of the ball (29% to 15%) though it’s hard to separate on figures alone which games we’ve set out to counter-attack, and which we’ve simply been beaten back by a better team. Or been shit.

It certainly seems, from looking at the figures (as flawsed as that approach may be) that the team benefit from taking a counter-attacking approach most especially at home. In 18 matches where the Timbers have had equal-or-less possession than their opponents, they’ve lost once – the 3-2 defeat to, appropriately enough, Real Salt Lake earlier this season. Of those 18 matches, the Timbers have won 13. It’s a record worth almost 2.4 points-per-game, or to put it another way, better than any current home record in the league.

By way of contrast, when we’re “in control” of a match at home, that points ratio drops to 0.86, and we’ve won only 3 of 14. On the road, we lose a little over 50% of matches we have less possession in, which isn’t great, but of the 8 road games we’ve been seen more of the ball, we’ve lost 7 and drew only once (Toronto, 2-2).

I think those “philosophical” differences between Paulson and Spencer were, to a large degree, about this style of football. Perhaps seduced by seeing teams like Barcelona and Arsenal, Paulson has thought to himself “I want my team to play like that”. To which, and I’m speculating wildly here, John Spencer might’ve countered with, “not with this lot, you won’t.” Of course, things don’t simply work that way in football and there’s more to play that kind of football than just telling the players to pass it a bit more and play in a 4-3-3.

Clearly, given this new direction, there’s a method behind implementing the system now and getting players used to it, or simply seeing who can do it and who can’t. There was always going to be an adjustment period as players adapted. The issue is that it’s been shoehorned in when the season was still active. We weren’t so far off the play-offs when Spencer was told to pack his haggis and go, but by determining that the way the team played would have to change, and quickly, Wilkinson and Paulson effectively signed the death warrant of this season back in June, for all their public protestation otherwise.

Of course, if it leads to a stellar, or at least competitive, 2013 then the short term pain would be deemed worth it. Enter, Caleb Porter.

Porter has a big job in the off season in identifying those players who aren’t suited and getting them out, and bringing in players who can play “possession with purpose”. The way the current roster has been built has been almost magpie-like – picking up shiny pieces here and there with no real thought for how they fit together. That can’t continue if the Timbers hope to be successful. Signings have to made with the system in mind, rather than simply because he’s a good player and available, ala Kris Boyd. We’ve already seen how successful bringing players in and just plugging them into a system and hoping it works despite everything they (should) know about the player.

With four matches left of a dismal season, the Timbers get to stay in the Pacific Northwest for the remainder. DC United visit Jeld-Wen this weekend, and this followed by trips to Seattle and Vancouver as the team look to salvage a Cascadia Cup triumph from the wreckage of 2012. San Jose visit to round off the year.

#RCTID


[post_ender]

Radio Gaga

The fifth stage of the Kübler-Ross model is acceptance.

I think that many of us who support the Green and White have reached that stage.

And, just as the model predicts, that stage can be very…peaceful.

I had a long workday yesterday and had already accepted that I would not be able to watch the away match. Sitting in the service truck reading the match thread at “Stumptown Footy” I searched into my heart for rage, bargaining, or depression and found only a sort of quiet, reflective peace.

Yes, the Boys were on the road against the best team in the league.

Yes, we would, barring miracles, walk off without a point.

But…would we see Kris Boyd back upfront? And what would the midfield look like? Would the team show the fight they have of late, or would this be visit to the Bad Place, a return to the dire form of Colorado away or…shudder…Dallas away? How would our boy Bendik do between the sticks? Could our defense hold the most prolific attack in the league to less than a brace?

By now you probably know what happened. If you were in a medically-induced coma, I’ll sum up by saying that by the 70th minute Portland had an improbable, no… impossible 2-nil lead.

Two-nil.

Over the Earthquakes.

In their house.

Of course it couldn’t last. The final 2-2 draw accurately reflected what happened on the pitch; a Portland team, or, rather, Danny Mwanga, was struck by lightning twice. And the best team in MLS played, well, like the best team in MLS and came back to equalize…but our Boys still hung on long enough for the point on the trot.

The match was brutal; referee Villareal and the other two Stooges lost control of the match about the same time I started listening to the radio broadcast, in the third minute. The post-whistle pushabout was entirely his fault and, again, points out how thin the pool of officiating talent is in MLS. I was trying to type a field report while listening to the radio podcast and was making heavy weather of it; the match sounded desperately confused, but what came through the earbuds clear as new glass was that Portland had nothing going forward (from what I could tell this was a combination of Rodney Wallace’s inability to match Diego Chara’s distribution – and that’s a rather deadly comparison for you, isn’t it, RodWall? – and with Nagbe out wide the 4-4-2 really does choke off Portland attacks) and that San Jose was just hammering Portland’s goal. Bendik was a monster in goal, and the defense was managing to scramble the ball clear, but it seemed just a matter of time before the first home goal.

And then, lightning.

A nice series of passes between Dike, Mwanga, and Wallace sprang Mwanga through for the goal, and the teams ran off at the half with Portland up 1-nil.

I have to admit; my field report may have been somewhat erratic after that.

By the time I rejoined the match I was driving home, and the early moments of the second half were more of the same; Portland bunkered up and San Jose bombing and strafing. Surely the home side would now slot home their two goals to win the match. I felt the sort of distant sadness you feel when you read about some faraway tragedy; sad, that, but look how hard the boys fought. What courage!

And then, lightning.

One thing I had been getting over the radio is Franck Songo’o. It sounded like he had been playing like a man on fire, and in the 62nd minute he went on a crazy, mazy run that ended in a donnerundblitzen Mwanga strike from distance.

Two-nil Portland.

The driver behind me must have thought I had found a stray hundred-dollar bill on the dashboard.

Surely, this couldn’t last.

It didn’t. San Jose, which had started the game with the attitude of Babe Ruth playing in a Babe Ruth League, had sat up early in the second period when the pesky visitors refused to give up a goal and die. Wondolowski had already been subbed in before the second Portland goal. Now Alan Gordon came on, and San Jose settled down to do some serious damage. Portland scrambled, and cleared, and scrambled some more. By the time I got home and turned the match on Wondo had already scored his first and the home side was still pressing. In added time the inevitable Timbers defensive mistake – this one an unintentional flick-on by Mosquera – led to Wondo’s second. Drawn match, and surely San Jose would press forward for the winner.

And then…

Well, no. The lightning didn’t strike this time. But Franck took off again, ran the length of the pitch, dished to Dike in alone on the keeper and…

Bright booted it wide.

And that was that.

I finished my tinned soup, kissed my sleeping wife, and climbed into bed.

Acceptance.

It’s not always a bad thing.

Some random observations from the match:

The Kris Boyd Story is turning into a rather sad tale. The guy finally gets another crack at the starting XI and pulls a groin in fifteen minutes? That’s not funny, or even farce. I really feel for the guy, and hope he gets some more minutes on the road. Why the hell not.

I think Bright needs to sit for a couple of matches while Gav’ tries out another striker. The final miss was it for me; a top-flight striker has GOT to be able to finish that and get the late-match winner. Improbably this season’s Sad Sack Timbers had a chance to win, for the first time on the road this season, at the league leaders, and our front man couldn’t seal the deal. In my opinion, that says we need to see what Fucito, or Richards – or Boyd – can do alongside Mwanga.

Franck Songo’o is a beast when he’s on his game. If he could play every match like he played last night he would be Lionel Messi. Of course, if If he could play every match like he played last night he wouldn’t be playing for us.

I loved you as a player, Knowles, but your defense is a mess. In my opinion the single biggest, most difficult task Coach Porter faces is organizing this goatscrew of a backline. Individual defenders had a great match – Steve Horst’s goal-line clearance saved us going down early. Smith had a solid game, as did Mosquera until injury time. But the unit – AS A UNIT – is a disorganized mess. Even the late substitution of Eric Brunner (welcome back, Eric!) didn’t help. Too many players spend too much time running around looking like they have no idea where they should be or what they should do. The second San Jose goal was a perfect summation of that; a tight pack of four red jerseys were sitting in front of Wondo – who wasn’t offsides when the ball was played in – and Mosquera’s header provided him perfect service. Awful. We have a number of decent defenders but as a unit, we play like the Maryknoll Seminary for Young Ladies U-12 Development Team. Oranize, boy! Keep your shape! Communicate! Mark! This is “Defending 101”, and you can do it, you’re just panicking and not trying.

Accepting is not the same as surrendering. We still have five matches left, and that’s plenty of time to start the organization and good play we’re going to see next season.

Onward, Rose City!