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!

Bunked Off

Type the words “Football is a cruel game” into google and it’ll return around 19,100,000 results. Say the words to a Timbers fan and you’ll get one result – a weary sigh.

San Jose Earthquakes took their turn to deliver a swift kick to the balls with their late, late comeback to deny Portland their first road win of the year. Wondolowski’s injury time goal gave the home side a 2-2 draw and further cemented their reputation as a team that don’t know the meaning of the word “quit”.

Speaking of which, Gavin Wilkinson said in his post-match comments that San Jose “are a very talented team; they have a lot of self-belief and a tremendous coaching staff.”. Oh, to have other coaches say that about us now and then. Or, you know, once. Once would be nice.

After a draw against them, Wilkinson rang the changes. Injuries forced Chara and Ricketts to miss out, meaning a first start for Joe Bendik. I’d thought, pre-match, that we would see Wallace keep his spot at left-back after a good showing, with Alexander coming in for Chara, and I’d hoped we see Boyd given a start. One out of three ain’t bad…

Boyd did indeed start, but the surprise was that Wilkinson opted to abandon his 4-3-3 formation for a (broadly speaking) 4-4-2 with Danny Mwanga getting the start in attack. Wallace did indeed start, but in centre midfield, and Palmer took over the right back spot from Kosuke Kimura. Nagbe and Songo’o were tasked with giving the team width, and Steven Smith was restored to left back.

I was surprised to see the Timbers line up in a 4-4-2, especially as I’d done a quick bit of research that suggested to me that San Jose had faced some kind of 4-4-2 variant 17 times this season, and had won 12 of those matches. Meanwhile they’d faced a 4-5-1/4-3-3 12 times, and only won 6, losing 4.

Though, it should be said, that of the two 4-4-2’s to defeat San Jose this season, Portland are one of them. Perhaps lightning would strike twice.

Also, as an aside, I thought it was pretty curious that of the Earthquakes 5 defeats this season, 3 have come on trips to Cascadia, with Vancouver racking up a couple of them. Of their four trips to the north-west this season, they’ve only avoided defeat once – beating Seattle 1-0 back at the end of March. San Jose return north this weekend to beat Seattle, and then once more in October when the Timbers will host.

Back to the game.

San Jose rested Wondolowski and Alan Gordon, the club’s two top scorers, for the visit of the Timbers, but it didn’t stop them having a couple of efforts from distance that had Bendik scrambling and diving across the goal, only to go narrowly over or wide.

It took until the 12th minute before the Timbers had their first sniff of goal when Boyd bullied Beitashour to get his head on a Palmer long ball, but he sent it narrowly wide of Busch’s goal.

Boyd had started pretty well, looking eager to impress after his recent exile to the bench. The way he got to Palmer’s long pass was encouraging, but any hopes that the Scot would go on to silence his ever-so-vocal critics were extinguished when he left the field shortly after with a groin injury. It looks to me on the replay like an inadvertent knock on his inner knee/thigh from Beitashour caused Boyd to land off balance, and he seems to have tweaked something. A freak injury, and just the way his luck has been this year.

Bright Dike replaced Boyd, but the tide of play still flowed inexorably towards Bendik’s goal. Steven Lenhart had a good sight of goal with a header midway through the first half.

We’ve seen this kind of thing before, where a player can ghost into the space between defenders and get a free header. Had the ball been just a few inches lower, you’d fancy Lenhart to bury it, but the Timbers got away with it here.

I thought Mosquera’s actions were a bit odd in this move. He seems to just assume that the ball won’t come in first time and looks away to direct Rodney Wallace. By the time he decides to check where the ball is, he could’ve easily been caught on his heels and unable to react to the darting run by Lenhart.

Mosquera’s been something of a rock in an otherwise shaky back line this year, but it’d be fair to say he didn’t have his best night here. There have been a few times when Mosquera’s gone a-wandering out of defence this season, or switched off and been unable to react. I think he has all the tools to be a top defender but he needs to sharpen up his concentration a bit.

It looked like the Timbers would take a draw into the break, but almost out of nothing they took the lead through Danny Mwanga.

It was a nice bit of play between Dike, Mwanga and Wallace to work the chance for Danny to score, but I’d like to rewind the move a bit first.

Both teams had lined up with two guys in the “engine room”. Portland had Jewsbury and Wallace, San Jose had Baca and Cronin. Here we see Baca and Cronin been attracted across to where the ball is, leaving Wallace alone in the centre. Jewsbury gets in to intercept a loose pass and touches it off to Nagbe. By this point, both San Jose central midfielders are over by the wing.

How often have we seen this happen to the Timbers midfield, where it allows itself to be pulled out of shape?

The ball works it’s way back to Palmer at right-back.

Here you see that Dawkins has come back to cover Wallace, but Dawkins is an attacker. Wallace has a ton of real estate in front of him as Baca and Cronin are way out of position.

Palmer’s long ball is met by the head of Dike.

Mwanga is on to the flick, and he lays it off to Wallace who has rushed forward in support, all on his own. He displays a deftness of touch in rolling it back into the path of Mwanga, and the striker keeps his head to slot home and give the Timbers the lead.

Up until this point I’d been pretty critical of Mwanga and Wallace. Mwanga had struggled to get himself involved in the game, while Wallace at times didn’t seem to display any measure of tactical discipline as he seemed a bit too keen to hare around and try and get on the ball.

Credit where it is due, though. Wallace held his position well without being dragged across, and attacked the space well. Mwanga worked the one-two and kept his head when it mattered.

I fully expected an onslaught from San Jose in the second half, and just hoped we could keep it shut down for the first 10-15 minutes. Indeed, San Jose stepped up the pressure, and Portland struggled to keep the ball out of their own half.

There are few teams who make harder work of defending a lead than Portland Timbers. At a time when the match was screaming out for someone, anyone, in Rose City Red to get a foot on the ball and calm the match down, we resorted to the age-old sit deep, hit in long strategy. Indeed, it seemed like Gavin had misplaced his Bumper Book of Kickball Tactics (pop-up edition) and had instead been reading from Great Military Strategies of the Italian Army as the defence retreated deeper and deeper and deep …

… and then Franck Songo’o picked up the ball midway in his own half, went gambolling forward like a child on his first visit to Disneyland, beat two men and laid it off for Danny Mwanga to smash it in from distance. 2-0. Two. Nil.

The goal couldn’t have come further against the run of play had Danny been wearing a Dick Turpin mask, but nevertheless the Timbers held a 2 goal lead with a little under half-an-hour to play. If ever there was an unlikely time for a team to notch their first road win, it would at the ground of the league leaders, and yet that’s what it looked like the Timbers were, improbably enough, about to do.

Wondolowski and Gordon were thrown on by Frank Yallop in an attempt to rescue the situation. Wilkinson made no changes. I really thought that, the goal aside, the Timbers really needed someone in the middle who could hold onto the ball. I’d expected to see Alexander come on around the hour mark, and I reckoned it would be Songo’o to make way, with Wallace covering out left. Alexander had shown he could do the defensive side of the job when he’d understudied for Chara earlier this season, and he’s one of the few players on the team who looks truly comfortable on the ball.

But no.

The tide kept coming in, and there was a sense of inevitability when it finally subsumed the Timbers defence.

Wondolowski scored it, finally beating Bendik who had, up until that point, be Gandalfian in his determination to let nothing pass.

The goal highlighted, for me, the problem the Timbers faced. The defence was sinking deeper and deeper, practically camping out on the edge of our own box, which opened up space between defence and midfield. I felt, from very early on, that we missed having Jewsbury doing the role he’s been quietly effective in these past few matches in screening the defence. Even more so as the pressure piled through-out the second half. While the long ball caught us out to an extent, the amount of space between the two lines here is pretty shocking. You can’t open up a space like that and not expect teams like San Jose to exploit it.

The second half was becoming an exercise in frustration. For so long now Wilkinson has spoken about the importance of possession, and yet here, when possession would really matter, we abandoned it. We gave the ball away, again and again and invited the best team in the league to press higher and higher up the pitch.

The annoying thing was we’d already shown in the first half that we were capable of actually playing a bit of football.

This 21-pass sequence ranged from side to side, any showed some nice movement and touches. Although it died when Mwanga was robbed of the ball, it was hugely encouraging to me at the time as it displayed a patience and coolness that I felt we’d need.

Even though you might expect a San Jose side chasing the game to put a bit more pressure of the ball than they did in the 6th minute, it’s nonetheless striking how little we even attempted to knock the ball around and slow the game down. Instead, we got caught up in San Jose’s manic energy, and played the game at their pace, rushing things and resorting to desperate football.

You can see the marked difference in approach in the tackling graphs.

It’s little wonder we were unable to give the defence any kind of a breather when we resorted so often to hoofing it clear.

With the rest of the game played out almost exclusively in the Timbers half, Wilkinson signalled his intent by sending on Eric Brunner for Danny Mwanga with a few minutes to go. The bus was being parked.

Part of the problem for the Timbers was that, aside from the often aimless long balls, we didn’t have an effective point man up top to chase things down, or provide a target. We lacked someone to hold the ball up and give the defence some relief. Any time the ball did go in Dike’s vicinity, it seemed to either bounce off him or past him. I though Mwanga’s better movement might’ve been more use late on, but it wasn’t to be.

The final sucker punch came in stoppage time when a lofted ball into the box was turned home by Wondolowski. There were some who claimed offside, but he was definitely onside when the pass was made, and the touch came from a Timbers player so he couldn’t be offside from that.

In a way, if we were to lose a 2nd goal I’m kinda glad it wasn’t offside. I don’t think I could take the injustice on top of everything else!

After the bitter disappointment that greeted the final whistle, I was left with conflicting emotions. In all honesty, stripping away emotional attachment, we had no right to win that game. Even getting out with a draw was something of an upset. So, in a way, the fact we took a couple of chances really well, and were able to snatch a point is a strange kind of positive.

But you can get away from the fact that we threw away a 2-0 lead, whether it was undeserved or not.We only have ourselves to blame with the way we approached the second half. We essentially gave up even trying to match San Jose in the hopes that we could bunker in and ride out the storm.

And once more, another game passes where Gavin seems unable to read a match and make a proactive change. I was far from the only one screaming out for a change before San Jose’s first. The writing was not only on the wall, it was fucking chiselled there. We weren’t exactly lambs to the slaughter, but we did bring some mint sauce with us. It was, you felt, only a matter of when San Jose would score, despite the heroics of Bendik and Horst’s goal line gymnastics.

But we had to wait till it was 2-1 and San Jose had their tails up before we made a change. Like-for-like saw Palmer replaced by Kimura, before the Brunner change. I get what Wilkinson was doing, throwing another body in defence to match up to San Jose’s three strikers, but the game was crying out for another midfielder to start pushing back before the ball was on top of us. Maybe even, and this is pretty far out there, actually trying to keep the ball and slow it down and frustrate San Jose.

I think the worst thing about the result is that I didn’t meet the equalising goal with an anguished, Darth Vader-esque “NOOOOOOOO!” but rather I slumped back in my chair, ruefully shook my head and muttered “well, there it is.” No shock. No surprise. I’ve been conditioned to expect disappointment.

A point on the road, against a team that had won 6 of their last 7 home matches – scoring 22 in the process isn’t a bad result, but the manner of it – the grindingly predictable capitulation – leaves a sour taste.

The Timbers will stay on the road for their next match, paying a visit to Real Salt Lake. The last time we went there it was John Spencer’s last match, a 3-0 loss. What I’d give to watch that match with Spenny alongside…

#RCTID


[post_ender]

180 Minutes

Well, that was quite a weekend, wasn’t it?

The second leg of the bizarre three-legged I-5 Corridor Derby (the Cascadia Tripod?) concluded Sunday with the Timbers Reserves holding off the Sounders Reserves for a 3-2 win. The Big Sides, however, played to a 1-1 draw the day before so the issue of Whose Cup will be decided – unfortunately for the Timbers, whose record abroad resembles Italy’s; the army, not the team – in Seattle and Vancouver in October.

I went to both matches, the first with hope and trepidation, the second with a lovely lassitude and pure curiosity (would we see the fabled “Trencito”? We did, more of which in a bit) and my son, who at nine considers a pretzel, cotton candy, and orange soda to provide enough atmosphere to make the reserves at Jeld-Wen Field to be just like watching Brazil.

At any rate, my observations of the matches – in order of date but in other no particular order.

Saturday, 15 SEP 12 POR 1 – 1 SEA

I hoped that the first team would run out with a) energy and b) a tactical plan to carve into the poorly-dressed visitors from the Emerald City.

The first? Yes, and more than yes. The team hustled for the full 90, and showed impressive energy and spark.

The second? Mmmm…not so much.

The problem was that Sigi Schmidt showed his metal as a rotund student of the beautiful game. He’d clearly watched the films and recognized that Portland really has no go-forward options in central midfield other than Darlington Nagbe. Shut down Nagbe and the Timbers are back in SpencerWorld, running up the touchlines. And the pie-gobbling rascal had planned for that too; he knew that if you fronted Franck Songo’o he would turn inside where you could force him to make a poor pass. And Sal Zizzo just had to be smothered. So he set Gonzales to just obstruct Zizzo’s runs long enough for a midfielder to track back and help out. He used his central midfield to harass Nagbe all match. And, sure enough, Franck kept turning the ball into the traffic jam inside and getting his pocket picked.

And I think that he, and the rest of the league, has figured out Dike. The man just doesn’t have a good touch; if you throw a body at him he will cough up the ball, or lay it off, or take a forced, poor shot. Without anyone else to help out up front that was pretty much that.

The backline woes continued, but in something of a minor key. Kimura was beaten soundly by Zakuani several times, but Rodney Wallace played perhaps his best match as a Timber in two seasons (including scoring the equalizer…). He pretty much neutralized Zakuani on the left side, Mosquera and Horst did enough to throttle Johnson, and so, with Alonso and Nagbe wrestling to a draw the only weapon the intruders had as Montero. Sadly for the Green and White Faithful he fired his looping bullet just after Ricketts had gone off (with what appeared to be an arm injury – the very thing I worried about when we traded Troy for him; the fragility of that arm…) and caught a jumped-past-Jake-Gleeson-on-the-keeper-depth-chart-for-some-reason-I-don’t-quite-get Joe Bendik off his line for the initial goal.

Taken altogether I’d have to say that it was a deserved result for both sides. With a passing sneer at the man in the middle, again, honestly, MLS, how bad does the boy Salazar have to be to get assigned to the U-12 development league? His calls really didn’t benefit either side (other than the Chara foul, which I didn’t see as quite as automatically-PK-worthy as many, but your mileage may vary on that question) but it went a long way towards making the match as ragged and ugly as it was for long stretches.

Other than that, I think that Coach Porter needs to look hard at a couple of issues.

1. Communication. I loved the energy and the hustle Saturday. I hated the looking-like-we-played-together-just-the-past-week. How many times did Dike play a through ball to Zizzo…who wasn’t running for it? Three times? Four? Or the “Franck-Songo’o-square-pass-to-nobody”? Hanyer Mosquera marking space while pointing to a nearby unmarked Sounder? I agree we have individual talent out there. I’m not sure why the coaching staff seems unable to make it play as a team.

2. Throw-ins. Are we the worst team in MLS West with throw-ins? It sure seems like it. The secret to gaining possession from the Timbers seems to be to force them to boot it into touch and then wait for the throw; the Timbers will stand there marked into oblivion and then throw it right to you. This doesn’t seem like a difficult play – why do we seem to have such difficulty with it?

The one other thing I wanted to see Saturday was a coaching staff with a tactical plan to attack Seattle; instead it seemed like Gavin (or Sean, or whothehellever is marking the chalkboard now) didn’t really have a notion of where they could find an advantageous matchup. I want to think that these guys can figure out a way to go to the House of Astroturf and stonewall the Sounders for 90 minutes and the away draw.

Seems possible. Let’s see if we can actually DO it, though…

Sunday, 16 SEP 12 POR 3 – 2 SEA

More than 8,000 people showed up for a meaningless reserve match on a lovely sunny Sunday.

Think about that for a moment.

Are we “Soccer City USA”? I think we might be.

The Sunday match was an odd affair, with Portland running out with a side full of unused starters before giving way to the bench players, trialists, and the youngsters. Seattle, on the other hand, fielded mostly their regular team bench until late in the match. The difference showed immediately, as Portland scored an improbable three goals inside fifteen minutes.

One huge factor was the play of Alexander and Alhassan in midfield. In particular the second goal was created by a lovely sliderule pass from Alhassan to Boyd who then chipped Ford in an almost Cantonaesque fashion. Lovely piece of work. The new left back, Ian Hogg, also contributed with a good run that led to the first goal by Mike Fucito.

Kris Boyd…he’s a Sounders killer. Why didn’t we sub him in Saturday..?

Hogg looked decent at left back, making several studly blocks on crosses that should have swelled Gavin’s little Kiwi heart; the man is hard, no error. Several other of the Timbers reserves showed well, including Cam Vickers and young Mitch North, who was thrown into the fire when Jake Gleeson got cleated in the right hand (Are you SURE you want to trade away Troy Perkins, Gav’…never mind…).

Charles Renken came on after halftime and helped settle the midfield defensively.

Brent Richards is looking much tougher on defense that he did at the beginning of the season. He scored a lovely goal, turning on a loose ball in the box and settling it before lashing a rocket past Ford. He also has a terrific throw (remember where I was bitching about throw-ins? This kid should take every one, and anytime we get a throw inside 18 yards of the opponent’s goal he’s almost as good as a corner!) and he can still outjump pretty much anyone else on the pitch. Lots of good stuff there.

Still, the typical Timbers lack-of-communication-and-coordination issues surfaced as the team let off the pressure in the second half and the Sounders’ midfield began to exploit the space between the Boys’ midfield and backline to claw two goals back. And the backline itself looked like a rat-scramble at times. Eric Brunner, while showing why he is so badly missed with the first team, also showed that he’s not really match fit yet, and Futty played his typical 95% steady 5% WTF!? match.

Sigh.

The Little Train?

Clearly the man Valencia has potential. He’s big, for one thing, and he looks comfortable with the ball at his feet. He wants to score, and shows some ability to put the shots where he wants them. He had a brief outing, and his last and only for the season unless everything goes sideways for the Big Side. But he looks like he’s a promising piece of lumber in the overstocked Timbers Forwards Woodshed.

Two matches, two days; one fraught with the tensions of this season, the other, perhaps, a hint of sunnier days ahead.

All that was no matter to my little man who skipped happily, full of soccer and candy and sunshine as we walked back to the car after the match on Sunday. I envied him a little; he has no worries for cups and coaches and coming seasons; when the Timbers win all is good and right with the world, and he can skip along without the cares of those of us who have peered into the abyss at the heart of the game and see it peer back with the face of Freddie Montero.

But, never despair – Onward, Rose City!

Filed by John Lawes


[post_ender]

The Defence Rests

After a win last weekend that gave hope – albeit of the remote kind – that the Timbers could make the play-offs, the team did their level best to extinguish those flames in the return fixture against Colorado Rapids as the old road woes returned.

Even though I had my doubts about the home performance against the Rapids, I understood why Wilkinson lined up the same XI again. The team has been pretty settled of late, and while they were getting results it’s hard to argue against sticking with the same formula.

However, the Timbers started slowly and within the first minute the Rapids had hit the post and Timbers fans settled in for the now-familiar bumpy ride.

That initial chances came when Kimura misread a long ball and got caught out. Not the first time Kimura had misjudged things, and won’t be the last. It’s a startling statistic to think that Kimura has played in 11 or the Timbers 27 matches this season (39.3% of total game minutes), yet has been on the pitch as the team has lost 24 of the 46 goals it’s shipped (52.2% of goals lost). It’s a chicken and egg situation – is the defence so much worse because Kimura is there, or did Kimura come in as the defence was already slipping bearing in mind he played under John Spencer only once and so has been here through the shocking run of results under Wilkinson.

I like the Japanese full-back (going forward, mostly) but this is a game he’ll want to forget. A terrible return to his old stomping ground.

The Timbers went 1-0 down early on when Kimura tried to clear the ball with an odd head flick that did nothing but set up the Rapids attacker. With less than 10 minutes played ,the tone had been well and truly set. Indeed, there was a marked difference to how the Timbers approached the first 10 of the home match, compared to here.

In the first match, we were able to get the wingers involved in the final third early on, whereas here we spent much of our time going from side to side with very little forward penetration. It was possession that just kind meandered nowhere in particular.

Any time the Timbers did get into a position to attack the Rapids rearguard, the final ball was invariably lacking in quality.

Up top, Dike was having a hard time getting involved in the play, often having to come deep to get a touch. His running, which had been an asset in previous matches, wasn’t up to the standard here as he seemed to make the wrong choice more often than not.

He tries to run in behind the defender, which is admirable, but you can see quite clearly that Dike would have to thread the ball through the eye of a needle to get it to him. The better decision would’ve been to offer himself up for a ball to feet, and link the play, or to go the other way and try to create a space for Nagbe to drive towards.

Toiling in attack, the Timbers were looking decidedly shaky at the back. Kimura looked rattled after the initial five minutes, and never seemed to recover (how he made it full-time, let alone half time, I can’t explain other than Wilkinson really didn’t trust Kawulok) while the midfield were allowing the Rapids too much room to put passes together.

The Rapids 2nd goal was a fine example of the midfield failing to do it’s defensive work.

At each point along, you can see how much space the Rapids players have to pass or cross. Songo’o perhaps should’ve got across to close the cross down a bit sooner after Smith was dragged away by the intelligent outside run. Kimura lets his man get away from him, and neither of the defenders is quick enough to react to the rebound.

The second half followed much the same formula as the first. Wilkinson decided against any changes at half-time as presumably he was loving the possession, a fact he brought up in a post-match interview as a source of pride as we’d kept the Rapids to only 50.6% of the play instead of the 60% they had when we last visited. I’m sure the Rapids were crying into the pillows that night as they lost that crucial 9.4% of possession that meant they could only equal the 3-0 scoreline, while restricting us to fewer shots on target, stats fans.

In a way, beating Colorado in Portland may have been the worst thing that could’ve happened as it lulled the team into a false sense of security. I felt we were very fortunate to get a win out of them, and said on twitter before the match that my fear was that the Rapids wouldn’t miss the kind of chances they did last week again.

Still, I’m sure that the coaching staff would take that on board and change it up for this match. Nope? Still, they’d definitely change it at half-time when we were 2-0 down and toiling badly. Right?

The change did finally come midway through the second half when the Ghost of John Spencer made a like-for-like change in throwing on Kris Boyd for the ineffectual Bright Dike. Dike had missed a glorious chance earlier when he blazed a deep cross from Zizzo high over the bar. It was the first time we’d really managed to work that ball down the channel inside the full-back, with Zizzo – the team’s best, and some might say only, performer on the night – scampering to reach Kimura’s pass at the byline.

On another night, Dike would’ve blazed the ball into the night and fans would’ve been raving about his performance once again, but such are the margins a striker works with that he misses it and is hauled off soon after.

Boyd had a cameo role in the Timbers best chance of the night.

It was well worked, and came out of nothing, right up until the finish from Chara who showed why he’s more the guy you want giving the ball to the goalscorer, than trying to be one. Had that gone in, it might’ve set up an exciting end to the match, but it didn’t. Wilkinson as good as threw up his hands and gave up, chucking on every striker who happened to cross his eye line in some mad scientist attempt to conjure up a goal without seemingly having any idea how that would happen.

The Rapids nabbed a third when a deep corner saw Jewsbury lose his man, the ball was nodded back across and Kimura was bullied out of the way, with Castrillon’s header slipping through Ricketts.

Another frustrating night and the play-off dream is as dead as the look in Michele Bachman’s cold, shark-like eyes. In attack we were lifeless and flaccid – Franck Songo’o was largely anonymous and Nagbe struggled to make his presence felt through the centre – and in defence, well, there is no defence.

Kimura had a shocker, that’s for sure, but none of the defensive line really emerge with much credit from a bad night at the office. The breakdown of this defence was, for me, summed up in one little moment in the second half.

This little passage of play is indicative of the kind of sloppy errors we’re making the back, time and again. What David Horst hopes to achieve here, I’m at a loss to explain. Presumably he wants Smith to follow Akpan so he can, what, close the ball down or go mark Castrillon? But closing down the ball is Jewsbury’s job, and Smith has enough on his plate with Horst having a brainstorm beside him. As it is, Horst kind meanders into space, does nothing, and the ball is simply knocked in behind him, leading to a good chance to score.

The lack of communication is shocking at times, and here we have a defender who doesn’t really seem to know what he’s doing. And this breakdown from a back four that have played together more than any of the other 20-plus configurations we’ve seen this season.

And yet, despite that almost 10 hours of game time, as well as countless hours on the training pitch, they still play like they only just met in the tunnel before the match.

It seems that, with these four, Wilkinson has (for now) settled on his defence. Continuity is important, especially in a defence where split second timing can be crucial, in stepping forward to spring an offside trap for instance. The fact is though, for me, this defence looks no better now than in their first match together. The same mistakes kept being made, and by the same people.

Looking at the central pairing, there have been five configurations. Horst/Mosquera has been used most often (855 minutes) with Brunner/Mosquera 2nd on 519 minutes. Danso with Mosquera or Horst both log 360 minutes, and Brunner/Jean-Baptiste is on 336 minutes.

As you can see, Brunner/Mosquera has been the most steady central pairing, and one can only speculate as to how the season may have unfolded had Brunner remained injury free. As for the “worst” pairings.. Well, they share one common factor. David Horst.

I love his heart and passion, but I question his defensive “brain”. Too often he switches off, or makes the wrong choice and we’re not a team that are going to outscore opponents 4-3. We can’t afford liabilities at the back.

No doubt the injury to Brunner has forced the coaching team’s hand. Danso, it seems, has paid the price for his part in the 5-0 drubbing in Dallas, presumably because someone had to be punished for that. And yet, in his three matches with Mosquera, other than the Dallas debacle, he helped keep two clean sheets, with the defense leaking a single goal over 270 minutes of play. Again, taking that 5-0 result out of the records, when Danso was in the defence, the team lost a goal (on average) every 70 minutes – better than any other central defenders’ figures (Brunner 61, Jean-Baptiste 56, Mosquera 54, Horst 47).

A similar thing happened to Horst after the 5-3 loss to LA, but Danso hasn’t been able to find his way out from under the bus since Frisco as Horst holds on to his place in the team. With Brunner’s appearance on the bench, it would seem like Horst’s time is up any game now, but it’s still perplexing to me why Danso has paid such a high price for a bad game, while Horst is a continued source of anxiety in defence.

Meanwhile, Jean-Baptiste has returned from a loan spell and can’t get a look in. I liked how he shaped up earlier in the season. He’s raw, there’s no doubt, but he need to play to smooth those ragged edges down.

I worry that his time out may have mythologised Brunner’s talents, as there is a habit for fans to inflate the abilities of those that aren’t playing. Regardless, we need him back, as much for Hanyer Mosquera’s well-being as anything else!

I’m sure that, for all his credentials as an attack-minded coach, Caleb Porter will be making sorting out the defence a priority in the off season. Until we can be confident about what’s behind us, we can be sure in going forward.

The Timbers have a weekend off to mull this result over before picking themselves back up for the visit of the mob from up the road. Cascadia Cup glory beckons.

#RCTID


[post_ender]

Win Ugly

Timbers Starting Line-up:

Ricketts; Smith Mosquera Horst Kimura; Jewsbury Chara; Songoo Nagbe Zizzo; Dike

Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: I do not posses the technically ability to give you the stop motion pictures with graphics that Kevin expertly uses to point out the key moments in the match. I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to actually do that so I apologize in advance for the lack of graphical analysis you have become used to from Slide Rule Pass.

The game started with the Timbers in their now familiar (under Coach Wilkinson) 4-3-3 (it really is a 4-2-3-1) with Jewsbury sitting deep and Chara back from suspension roving in front of him. Nagbe once again slotted in his “trequarista” role that has seen him net 3 goals in the last 3 matches.

By now everyone knows what happened in the match so I will forgo a detailed match report.

In summary, the first half was a fairly even affair punctuated by two fine saves from Colorado’s Goalkeeper Matt Pickens and some chippy midfield play from both sides that saw Timbers defender Steven Smith carded for a challenge on Brian Mullan that caused Mullan to leave the match at half time.

The game sprung to life late in the first half with an excellent flowing counter-attack by the Timbers and in 4 passes from front to back the Timbers Army faithful were watching Bright Dike flip (literally) for joy after depositing his second goal in three matches. A minute later, Nagbe should have had his fourth in as many games but for once his control let him down after a sublime through ball from Songo’o.

The second half started as a tense, physical affair with little in the way of direct scoring chances until Jewsbury sent a rocket from 35 yards out that Pickens spectacularly saved. The Rapids pushed hard for an equalizer late on and in the 85th minute Omar Cummings really should have equalized on a open header but thankfully his effort slipped wide of Ricketts post.

Match Analysis

This is the type of match the Timbers would have lost or tied earlier this year.

Was it particularly pretty win? Nope. Were the Timbers out played for long stretches of the second half? Yes. Should the Rapids have scored in the 2nd half? Yes

But the Timbers did what it took to win and that is something we couldn’t have said earlier this year. Watching this match it is clear the difference in what Wilkinson is trying to do as opposed to Spencer. Under Spencer and his 4-4-2 system, the goal was to move possession through the midfield get it wide and then get to the byline for a cross.

What we see in this 4-2-3-1 under Wilkinson are two key changes:

1) The ball still gets sent wide but the wide player looks to cut back and look for an early ball into the middle around 30-40 yards to a Nagbe or Chara. Only then do they then take the ball to the byline.

2) Defenders are clearly under instructions to hit early long diagonal balls out of the back to the opposite side midfielder. When executed, this has the benefit of quickly changing the point of attack and opens the middle for players like Nagbe. When not executed well it leads to a counter attack for the opposing team.

Football/Soccer is a team sport. But it is often a collection of individual battles throughout the pitch that determine the result. Lets take a look at a few.

Martin Rivera vs Jack Jewsbury: Rivera is clearly the creative heart of the Rapids. And he found joy all night in the Timbers final third. Jewsbury tried his best but Rivera had his number all night. Advantage Rivera.

Conor Casey vs David Horst: There is nothing subtle about either of these guys. They are physical players who enjoy the battle. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Horst but assisted by Mosquera he won this battle and Casey was kept silent. Advantage Horst.

Darlington Nagbe vs Hendry Thomas: Did Nagbe score this match? Nope. But he was once again the most talented and dangerous Timber out there. He went head to head with Thomas who was starting his first match after coming over from Wigan and Nagbe had Thomas on his heels all night. Advantage Nagbe.

Sal Zizzo vs Tyson Wahl: Wahl is really really hoping his name is not on the starting team sheet Wednesday. That is how bad Zizzo owned him. Advantage Zizzo.

Finnegan’s Five:

1) Bright Dike: Okay this is going to be unpopular but Bright Dike really isn’t that good of a footballer. He’s a great guy who works his socks off and I badly want him to succeed…. but the quality just isn’t there folks. You can see why he is preferred to Boyd in Gavin’s system. This 4-2-3-1 requires a mobile forward who will make diagonal runs to drag central defenders out of the middle and open up room for Nagbe/Chara to fill that space. But his touch is abysmal and we can’t confuse hustle for playing intelligent football.

2) Frank Songo’o: Can you imagine how much MORE dominating Songo’o would be if he did more of what we saw in 1st half stoppage pass to Nagbe: get rid of the ball faster. Too many times Songo’o chooses to take that 3rd and 4th touch. Sure it’s dazzling and fun to watch him clown a defender but he needs to pass when his team mates are actually open.

3) Sal Zizzo: Fantastic night for Zizzo. He truly looks recovered from his knee surgery. I often times call Sal a poor man’s Theo Walcott. And like Theo, Sal struggles with consistency. If he can figure it out how to replicate Friday on the regular, we are going to be eating meatball subs from Zizzo’s FC for years to come.

4) Donovan Ricketts: If you want to know what a great goalkeeping performance looks like, re-watch Matt Pickens from Friday night. I’m thoroughly unimpressed with Ricketts. From the 5 unforced distribution errors to his slowness off his line to his penchant for “poster saves”. I had the fortune of playing goalkeeper through college and beyond so I watch keepers closely. My college keeper coach used to drill into us all the time: “The greatest goalkeepers rarely make spectacular saves”. What he meant by that is that 90% of goalkeeping is anticipation, footwork and positioning. Three things that were lacking in Ricketts performance Friday night. His absurd “diving” save in the 17th minute where he left his feet and palmed it right into the danger zone is a prime example of this.

5) Hanyer Mosquera: Mosquera is such a quietly efficient defender. It really takes re-watching a match to appreciate all that he does back there. One of the true bright spots in a tough season.


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