Couver Up

The Timbers took command of the Cascadia Cup standings with a deserved 2-1 victory at home to Vancouver Whitecaps, setting themselves up for a huge match against Seattle in a couple of weeks – as if that particular tie needed any more hype.

I suspected that Kimura would miss the match after he tickled Tim Cahill’s elbow with his nose last week, but to my surprise and relief he was named in the Starting XI. Relief as I’d psyched myself up for a Lovel Palmer master class at full-back this week, and that would be avoided.

The only change made by Gavin Wilkinson was an enforced one, with Eric Alexander coming in for Diego Chara. I wasn’t surprised to see Dike retain his place as it would be hard to drop a guy who scored the previous week. Kris Boyd warmed the bench once more.

In truth, there wasn’t much between the teams in the early stages with the Timbers showing some patience in retaining the ball that was so often lacking in Spencer’s team. There was always a sense under Spenny that if the team put more than three or four passes together and hadn’t made it to the edge of the opposition box, the ball would be launched forward in desperation.

It was Donovan Ricketts’ first home match as a Timber, and he gave the Timbers Army a taste of what he could do with a fantastic long throw early on that put Franck Songo’o in.

It’s certainly different from what we’d become used to with Troy Perkins, whose big failing was often his distribution. In truth though, despite some blockbuster throws and kicks, Ricketts could do with changing it up now and then as he seemed to rely too often on the long ball out.

Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that in this department at least, the move to bring in the Jamaican does represent an “upgrade”, even if I remain resolutely unconvinced that’s he’s any better a shot stopper or defensive organiser than Perkins.

It was through quick breaks that the Timbers tended to get most joy in attack, though Songo’o was having one of those games where he wasn’t as effective as he has been in the past. Down the right we have Sal Zizzo who gives a lot of pace and width, but down the left Songo’o seemed more intent on coming inside rather than testing the Vancouver full-backs.

As Nagbe looks up having gotten the ball in deep midfield, I’d be wanting Songo’o to pull on the shoulder of his man and go wide to stretch the play, but instead he runs straight down the middle where the Whitecaps have DeMerit covering.

Even with the ball at his feet, he’d invariably narrow the attack.

I don’t doubt Songo’o has bags of talent, but at times he seems to lack the instinct to play the role he’s been given. It’s like he wants to beat players at all costs, even if that means running right towards a mass of defenders instead of pulling off towards space and letting the rest of the team find gaps to exploit.

This break came only a couple of minutes before the Timbers opened the scoring, and the way the team used width is a nice contrast.

Dike’s pulling DeMerit out of position is key to this whole passage of play, and you can see how stretched the Vancouver defence is by his run out wide. Compare that to how narrow Songo’o allowed them to get in his breakaway chance.

Using the width, even in a shoe box like Jeld-Wen Field, isn’t just about getting it to the wingers so that they can swing cross after cross into the box – it’s also about creating space in the centre and that’s what you saw in the goal. The Timbers found themselves with players in space in a dangerous area, and instead of a mass of four or five defenders in their way, there were two.

It was still a fantastic touch by Nagbe to take two players out of the game, and a lovely finish, but the work of Dike shouldn’t be underestimated in helping engineer the chance in the first place.

Dike had had an earlier chance when he made a good front-to-back post move to get between DeMerit and the fullback for a header from a fantastic Smith cross, but he hit the post. In truth, I didn’t think Dike had an especially great game, but he worked hard and he’s a presence up top that the opposition can’t ignore.

Vancouver lined up without a Dike figure in attack, going with a more mobile and fluid front line that looked to pull the Timbers defence around to create space for balls into feet. To the Timbers credit, they didn’t allow this to happen and stuck to their jobs, apart from one moment in the first half.

Miller’s move was key in this move as the the Timbers were pretty well matched up across the back and in midfield. By dropping off though he gave Vancouver a man extra against Jewsbury, and forced Horst to follow him out lest the ball go into his feet.

However Horst’s move left space for the attacker to move into and Vancouver created a shooting chance. I don’t want to give Horst too much of a kicking here as I understand why he felt he had to match Miller. It was exactly the kind of move I feared we’d see from Vancouver, but fortunately this was really the only time they were able to make the Timbers defence do their bidding.

However, Horst certainly didn’t cover himself in glory with the Vancouver goal, which came after a disputed corner kick in the dying seconds of the first half.

Again, I can see why he was covering across (though I don’t think he had to) but he completely switched off and was caught on his heels when the ball was cleared when his first instinct should’ve been to push out. By dallying he gave Miller an easy chance to open his MLS account.

The problem with Horst, as I see it, is he’s 95% of a decent, workable MLS defender. But that 5% represents a lack of concentration and poor decision making that seems to manifest itself in a mistake at least once a game. And when you’re the last man, making a mistake can often be fatal.

There were shades of the New York match as the Timbers through away a lead in the dying moments of the half, with help from questionable officiating, and there can’t have been many fans who didn’t have at least a momentary panic that we’d seen how this story ends before.

Losing such a controversial goal at such a horrible time would’ve at least made Wilkinson’s team talk pretty easy, as I don’t doubt the team were fired up by a sense of injustice. Aside from the way the goal came about, there was also the sense that we deserved the lead on merit any way.

The second half followed much the same pattern as the first. There’s not a great deal between these clubs, but the Timbers probably edged it.

Songo’o continued to delight on one hand, and frustrate on the other.

There’s no doubt that Songo’o is a skilful player, but he’d benefit at times from getting his head up and taking the easy way out rather than over-complicating things. But I guess, if he was the complete package he wouldn’t be ex-Barcelona, let alone ex-Portsmouth.

He’d soon delight the Timbers faithful with the 2nd, and decisive, goal from a free kick. He did well to get the ball up, over the wall and back down but Joe Cannon had an absolute howler. The Vancouver keeper somehow endeavoured to let the ball squirm through his grasp and into the net.

Having to chase the game, the Whitecaps threw on Mattocks and switched from a 4-2-3-1 to more of a 4-4-2, with one holding midfielder instead of the two they had previously. I thought that perhaps , with a bit of daring, the Timbers could’ve pushed someone in midfield a little further forward and look to hurt Vancouver here, but we never did.

Mattocks wouldn’t have any great impact on the game, though he did have on David Horst’s face when a clumsy jump for the ball saw him lead his arms. He got a red card, though I felt a yellow would’ve been warranted, but in truth the Timbers looked pretty comfortable playing against 11 – one good chance for the Whitecaps aside when Steven Smith was called upon to head the ball off the line.

Smith, after a shaky spell a while ago, seems to be settling a bit more and looking much more assured at left-back. He and Kimura both had solid games, and it’s telling that Vancouver were able to get very little joy down the wings.

Another player who impressed me greatly was Eric Alexander. Much of what was good about the Timbers going forward would invariably go through Alexander at some point, and he stepped into the Chara role with aplomb. I’ve never really take much note of his defensive work in the past, but I thought he was quietly effective in this aspect of the game and helped out when needed. Chances are that he’ll sit out the next game when Chara returns which is a shame, but if you’re going to have problems it’s much better to have too many good players to fit into the midfield than not enough.

Jewsbury was also efficient in his role. Given the way that Vancouver’s forward line were all over the place it would’ve been easy for him to get pulled around and taken out of position but he stuck to his role and did the unglamorous work of keeping it tight at the back and quickly passing the ball on to his more attack-minded team mates to take forward.

The whistle was met with a mixture of relief and joy. It’s Wilkinson’s first win as interim head coach, and if rumours about Caleb Porter’s imminent appointment prove to be true, it may be his only win. I don’t know a great deal about Porter, though I’ll be doing a fair bit of reading if it does pan out, but he certainly did all right according to Football Manager 2012!

Porter was, of course, Nagbe’s coach at Akron and if it’s true that the new man has been consulted for some time on team matters, it’s quite interesting to note how Darlington’s performances have really picked up in the last few weeks. Coincidence? Probably, but still… If anyone is going to get the best from him, you’d have to think the guy who made his a star at college level has a pretty good shot.

Overall, I thought we deserved the win, though I actually felt the team played better for long spells against Toronto and New York. But against Vancouver we put together a much more complete performance across (most of) the 90 and breaking the long run without a win will hopefully give the team the impetus to kick on and end the season on a hopeful note for next year.

I posted a couple of graphics on twitter that show how the team aren’t actually that far off repeating our 2011 record.

The main difference is that we’ve really struggled to keep clean sheets this year. We actually kept as many clean sheets on the road in 2011 as we have done in the entire 2012 season thus far – 3. As long as we keep making elementary mistakes at the back it’s hard to see that situation improving, so the incoming coach certainly has a job on his hands whipping them into shape.

Colorado Rapids, fresh from a spanking in San Jose, are next up at Jeld-Wen at the end of the week. A victory against the Rapids would see the Timbers overhaul them in the table and, if results go our way, possibly even Chivas too.

It’s been a funny old year.

#RCTID


[post_ender]

Largely Fictitious

The Timbers served up another one of those games that’ll take a couple of years off the lifespan of every fan who witnessed it as they lost for the 18th time in 29 road trips. But this was so much more than just another routine road loss.

This game had the Timbers racing into an improbable, yet richly deserved, two goal lead before blowing it all, losing 3-2, amidst some cosmically awful refereeing, missed chances and an epic post-game twitter meltdown from the club owner.

And yet there are some people out there who think that soccer is boring. I pity those poor, poor bastards.

After the emotional wringer that was Toronto in midweek, Gavin Wilkinson opted for the same shape against New York but swapped in Songo’o and Dike for Wallace and Boyd.

The exclusion of the club’s top scorer was certainly a bold move by Wilkinson, though it was to pay dividends early on when it was Dike that put the Timbers 1-0 up.

Dike is a popular guy among Timbers fans after his USL exploits, and it’s great to see him finding a place in the team after his first year was badly hampered by injury. When he was sent on load to LA Blues earlier this year I honestly thought that was the end of Bright Dike as a Portland Timber, but he’s fought his way back into the reckoning very nicely.

What I loved about the goal though wasn’t necessarily the finish, it was the build up play. Against Toronto the team seemed determined to slow the pace as they crossed into the opposing half, but there was none of that hesitancy here.

New York had been served a warning only minutes prior when the Timbers broke out from a corner.

A better touch from Dike, or more willingness and composure to put his foot on the ball and get his head up and perhaps something could’ve come of the break, but it served the Red Bulls notice of what the Timbers intentions were – they were going to sit in and look to spring out down the flanks.

Roy Miller, at left back for New York, had the sort of game that reminds you that the full-back position for the Timbers could be worse. He was terrible. Time and again he was caught out of position and Zizzo had him in his back pocket for all the 36 minutes he graced Red Bull Arena with his presence.

It was by mugging Miller that Zizzo was able to set in motion the flowing move that led to the Timbers 2nd goal.

I get the feeling that in earlier games, Songo’o either throws a hopeful ball from wide into Dike, or looks to lay it back to Smith, but here he cuts in to great effect and draws the defenders towards him. Rather than his usual tact of then trying to beat them, he lays it off to Zizzo and he rolls it past Miller and into the path of Nagbe who made a devastating run from deep that every Timbers fan would love to see more of.

Zizzo’s role in both goals was a delight too. He menaced the New York back line, looking like a real threat every time he got the ball. He was crafty and composed and by far the team’s most effective player early on.

Having been at fault in both Timbers goal, Roy Miller’s game came to a premature end as he was replaced by Kenny Cooper.

As all thoughts turned to making it to half-time with the two-goal lead in tact, the Timbers began to sink back as New York pushed on to grab something before the break. There was almost a sense of inevitability when Cooper scored the goal they’d sought, and that it would come from some suspect defensive work.

Songo’o put in a better defensive shift that I’ve seen from him, but the one time he fell asleep it cost the team a goal, though David Horst needs to have a strong word with himself. At no point does he seem concerned by the presence of Cooper, and it was such a sloppy goal to lose. And at the worst possible time.

With their shape totally lost, the Timbers task was simply a case of grimly hanging on for a few minutes, but they allowed McCarty time to get a shot off, which was blocked by David Horst, only for the rebound to be lashed home by Tim Cahill.

And there is nothing more to say about that goal.

Oh, except that referee Jason Anno is an Olympic grade halfwit.

Anno blew his whistle, presumably for a handball from Horst – though the angle is hard to tell – before Cahill took his shot, but then decided to allow the goal to stand. He can claim he played advantage till he’s blue in the face, but the fact is he blew his whistle before the goal was scored and therefore the goal shouldn’t have stood. It’s his own fault for not taking a second to see if an advantage occurred before spasmodically whistling like the last pillhead at a rave.

After the match he claimed, sorry, he lied that he blew the whistle “when the ball entered the goal.” No, you didn’t Jason. I have a functioning set of eyes and ears, and the senses to wield them, and I clearly heard the whistle before Cahill shot.

Now unless there’s some kind of weird time dilation effect in Red Bull Arena, there’s no getting away from that fact. The whistle went first. Science agrees with me. Let’s say that Anno is 30m from the sideline, so it would take a little under 0.1 of a second – or a third of a blink of an eye – for the sound of the ref’s whistle to reach the sideline mics. By comparison, it would take a tad over 100 microseconds for the light from Cahill striking the ball to reach the camera – roughly 1/10000th of the time it took the sound to carry.

Even if you allow for the camera to be further back, in order for Anno’s interpretation to be correct, there must have been some inexplicable warping of light speed that caused it to slow to that of an admittedly sprightly cheetah, while the speed of sound remained constant.

QED, Anno is full of shit.

That’s not me talking, that’s science, bitches.

It was a sickening way to end a half that had promised so much, but there had been enough evidence in the first half to suggest that the Timbers could still come out with all 3 points.

The second half served up good chances for both sides. Ricketts came up big with a double save, while the Timbers continued to carve open the Red Bull defence. Nagbe had a good chance from the edge of the box, but he didn’t get it far enough away from Gaudette to beat the keeper.

Chara served one up for Zizzo shortly after with a really delightful through-ball.

Chara’s role further up the field certainly sacrifices a bit defensively, but when you see him split open the defence like that it’s hard to argue with playing him in a more advanced role.

The wee Colombian got the next crack at Gaudette when Nagbe, who looked reinvigorated in the first half, set him clear.

Again the Timbers failed to apply the finish that the set-up deserved. There was no Boyd to blame for the misses this time, and indeed the club’s top scorer would remain on the bench as Wilkinson looked to Fucito to replace the gassed Bright Dike with less than 20 minutes to go.

Kimura had earlier been replaced by Lovel Palmer when Tim Cahill’s macho charisma caused the Japanese fullback to dive face first into the turf, breaking his nose and giving himself concussion. Or the snidey little Aussie shitehawk elbowed him in the face. Who can tell?

The third change would see the club’s assist leader also left on the shelf when Rodney Wallace replaced Franck Songo’o as the Cameroonian faded out of the game.

With all three subs made, the Timbers promptly shot themselves in the foot and gave up another soft goal.

A sickening end to a roller-coaster game. How often will the Timbers give up free headers in and around their six yard box. I like David Horst, but I fear he’s simply not commanding enough to warrant a place in the team.

As for the subs, the Timbers were desperately unlucky in losing a goal as soon as the third change was made, meaning there was no way to push for an equaliser (though we still did have a good chance at the death, to be fair). However, the Wallace ? Songo’o change smacked of a team that was settling for the draw, and when you do that you risk getting sucker-punched spark out.

The Palmer change was understandable. The only other (keep the same system) change available would’ve been to put on Alexander and slot Jewsbury back into RB. It would’ve meant putting Chara into defensive midfield. Maybe that was the call to make. If I’m being honest though, in Wilkinson’s position I make the same change and I’m no great fan of Palmer.

Dike going off wasn’t a shock – he looked tired. Fucito coming on was. I think the idea was that Fucito’s energy would stretch a tired NY defence, but having faced the physical presence of Dike I can’t help but think the Bulls defence heaved a sigh of relief when they saw Fucito coming on.

For me, if you wanted to keep the tempo up, the ideal change would’ve been to bring Mwanga on, but he wasn’t in the 18. Boyd languished.

With the final change Songo’o had faded too (shock) but bringing on Wallace wasn’t the move I’d have made. Fucito could’ve easily gone out left and Boyd up top, or even Alexander on and out left (or Nagbe going there) which would’ve, in my opinion, offered more of an offensive presence. In the end, Wallace Marcelin’ed his closers role.

There were certainly some positives to be taken. There was some tidy attacking play, and with better finishing we’d be looking at a comfortable road win at a ground no team have come to and won this year. The chances the Timbers created were very good. There was a post earlier in the week that ranked various stats in an attempt to “shed some light” on why Spencer was fired, and the differences in the team under Wilkinson but such an “analysis” was flawed in that it didn’t take into account things like the type and quality of chance created – anyone can spank it from 30 yards, some may even have it saved easily by the keeper for that all-important “shot on target” – and finding any great significance in possession is like mining Pauly Shore’s IMDb for Oscar winners – you’re onto a loser before you even start. The over-importance of “possession” is the great lie TV has sold the football-watching public. Just a quick scan revealed that the six matches ending in a win this week, precisely 50% of the winning teams won the “possession battle”. The whole debate about possession is for another time though.

And hey, maybe Merritt does actually place an inordinate value on such things, in which case the likely start of Palmer next week (Chara is suspended and Kimura likely out) should have him prepping his special plastic underpants in anticipation.

In the end, we didn’t finish our chances well, while we continue to exhibit weakness at the back and it was this that told in the end. The ref’s appalling showing certainly sticks in the craw – would’ve changed the game, etc, so on and so forth – but he wasn’t the reason for the bad defending.

Merritt’s post-match meltdown saw him rail against fans calling for Wilkinson to go. I believe he referred to the #GWOut crowd as “idiots” and “morons” who would “line up to kiss gavin’s ass” when “we win a cup”. The Gettysburg Address, it was not. Oh, and Gavin is “not going anywhere” in case you were wondering if there were consequences to haphazard team building and a terrible track record in trades, so there’s that.

I’ll leave it to others to rake over the coals of Paulson’s trademark twitter trainwreck.

So we end a road series that saw the Timbers score 4 times, and yet earn only a single point. There are some positives to take, but still the Timbers look soft at the back. Next up is a return to Portland, and the visit of Vancouver in a big Cascadia Cup match.

The Whitecaps have lost their last two, without scoring a goal, and are five away games without a win. It’s sure to be an interesting atmosphere, one way or another.

#RCTID

If you can’t support us when we draw or lose, don’t support us when we win.

– Bill Shankley

Wagons East

A little over 500 days since their MLS debut, and at only the 28th time of asking, the Timbers finally scored more than once in a single road game as they put two past a severely depleted Toronto FC side at a BMO Field with more wide open spaces than a Constable and Turner exhibition.

The 2-2 draw allows Portland to stretch their unbeaten streak to 2 matches (and in the context of this season, two matches without defeat definitely constitutes a streak) but they had to come from behind, again, to earn a point in a match they really could’ve and should’ve won.

Suspensions and injuries forced Gavin Wilkinson into a couple of changes, with Rodney Wallace and Sal Zizzo starting at left and right wing respectively. Just like John Spencer seemed determined to play a certain way, and would crowbar players into positions that didn’t suit them to fit the system, so Wilkinson seems wed to playing with a 4-3-3. It led to the situation where 4 of the Timbers 7 subs were out and out attackers – Mwanga, Fucito, Dike and Richards.

Long spells of the first half brought to mind the old saying about bald men fighting over a comb, as neither team seemed set to play to anything other than their positions as bottom scrapers in their respective conferences. It was every inch the Wooden Spoon Showdown it had been billed as as both teams seemed to have simply “not losing” foremost in their mind.

Domination of the early possession stats by Portland belies the fact that there wasn’t really any clear cut chances of note created, with the Timbers most dangerous looks coming from set plays. It was a combination of a set play and the kind of woeful defending that puts you bottom of the pile that gave the Timbers their opener after 20 minutes.

Sal Zizzo scored his first MLS goal in his 50th appearance when Toronto gave him the freedom of the six yard box to poke it home after David Horst’s header wasn’t cleared. It was less to do with rare good fortune for Portland than it was to do with the fact that Donovan Ricketts’ old team, Montreal Impact, are the only side to have conceded more than Toronto this year and bad defences make bad mistakes. That’s what they do.

They almost compounded it by doing exactly the same thing a few minutes later in letting Zizzo drift around the the six yard box unchecked. It didn’t fall for him this time, but it’s not hard to see why Toronto are where they are.

Having gotten their noses in front, the Timbers started to slide back towards their own goal as the half wore on. Toronto pushed on without ever really troubling Ricketts and it was hard to see how they would get back into the match without their two top scorers, unless Portland gave them a helping hand.

That helping hand came a little over 10 minutes into the second half when Eric Hassli levelled things up.

It’s a frustrating goal to lose because there were three points where the Timbers could’ve prevented the goal, and three seperate failures.

  • You have a 6’3 defender getting a free header. If ever someone is going to be an aerial target for a long ball, it’s the 6’3 guy, and yet it was left to Mosquera to make a late, and fruitless attempt to get to him. I’m not saying anyone has to beat him to the ball, but at least putting a challenge in makes it much more difficult.
  • If Rodney Wallace actually makes contact with the ball, it never reaches Silva.
  • Mosquera’s late dash to go for the first ball leaves him the wrong side of Hassli and he gives up on the ball where Hassli take a gamble on the rebound.

To Ricketts’ credit, he made a good save (nitpickers corner: he could’ve pushed it wider) but he was left helpless as Hassli followed up.

While I’m on Ricketts I’d like to say I thought he had a good debut. There were a couple of shaky moments, including late on when he came for a ball he was never going to get and then charged about the box like Rocky trying to catch the chicken, but other than that he looked fairly assured. His distribution was decent, especially when he kept it short. 88% of his clearances over the half way line went to opponents, but he was successful in finding a team-mate 89% of the time he kept it shorter.

It’s not Ricketts’ fault that Wilkinson traded Perkins for him and while there is still, rightly, anger above that move I don’t think it’s fair to the new guy to be constantly holding him up against Troy. It’s like dating a girl whose ex died in a car crash or something, and there’s no hope of ever living up to the myth that he has become. Not that Perkins is dead, but, still… Montreal…

Anyway, things got worse soon after the equaliser when Toronto doubled their tally, and again it was poor organisation and players being given too much space in and around the box.

Kimura, a man who get beaten more often than a Catholic in Larkhall, gets beaten too easily, but the damage had already been done in the middle where the defenders completely lost track of what it was they were supposed to be doing.

It looked like another case where the Timbers would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Part of the problem was that, for all the possession, there seemed a lack of urgency going into the final third.

Going with Wallace and Zizzo was a brave choice, though rather enforced by Songo’o being suspended and Alhassan picking up a knock. Neither have particularly stood as starters in the past.

The differing styles of both players led to a bit of imbalance in the attack. Zizzo is a winger, pure and simple, whereas Wallace is a left back being played at left midfield.

It’s a chicken and egg scenario with Wallace – was he attacking less because Toronto were playing more down their right, or were Toronto getting more job down their right because Wallace was attacking less?

In Wallace’s defence, I will say that having him in front of Steven Smith seem to give the Scot a bit more protection than having the mercurial Songo’o at left wing.

It seems to be a trade-off: you either get the attacking verve of Songo’o, but leave Smith exposed to 1-on-1’s which he’s shown little aptitude for or you get the more defensive Wallace who’ll track back and cover Smith, but offer next to nothing down the wing.

It may just have been the strategy for this match as there were a couple of instances where we had a potential break on, only to put the brakes on and slow it right down in the final third.

Both wide players had gilt-edged chances to attack the corners, and both cut inside. The Zizzo one especially had my head in my hands as it was the sort of opportunity you would dream of as a winger, but instead he allowed Toronto to get lots of bodies back behind the ball.

When he finally did put together some quick, incisive play in the opponents half it resulted in a goal that ranks up there as one of the very best the Timbers have scored in MLS.

With Toronto players clustered around for the throw-in, Nagbe had the confidence to stay out wide and not be dragged in. The quick passing between Fucito-Smith-Boyd-Alexander-Smith was the sort of things that coaches love to see and it tore a hole in the Canuck back line. Smith then had the presence of mind to look up and pick out Nagbe, all on his own at the back post.

The addition of Alexander in midfield, as well as Fucito up top (and pushing Nagbe further up the pitch) revitalised the Timbers attack. The partnership of Fucito and Boyd nearly paid dividends earlier when Fucito broke the offside trap and laid it on to Boyd but the Scot couldn’t beat the boot of Kocic in the Toronto goal.

Boyd came in for his customary criticism on twitter, nothing unusual in that. What was unusual was that Diego Chara also took a bit of stick.

It was far from Chara’s best game, that’s for sure. He still hustled, he was still all action, but his normally reliable passing was just that little bit off. This match was his “Cars 2” – objectively not that bad, but compared to the rest of his work, pretty poor. He pays the price for having set the bar so high, but I think he’s allowed a game or two when he plays down to everyone else’s bar.

Objectively, throwing away a goal lead against a team that are already bottom of their conference before they’re then shorn of a good number of starters is a bad result. Looking at the run of games left you have to wonder if there will be a better chance for the Timbers to record their first away win of the season.

However, in the context of the last couple of months, it is encouraging to see the team fight back and equalise late on again. We’re no longer a team that stops playing after 70 minutes. Instead we kinda take a wee nap for 20 minutes after the half but, hey, unbeaten streak, remember?

The Timbers stay on the east coast for a match against the New Jersey Red Bulls this weekend. The Bulls haven’t lost a home league match this year, winning 8 of the 11 and shutting out the visitors in the last 3.

So that’s a definite Timbers win, then. It’s just what we do.

#RCTID

Crackerjack

The drought is over, the losing streak has ended. The Timbers battled back from a goal down to equalise late on against 10 men FC Dallas and earn a point, their first in a month. It was a result that went some way to laying the ghosts of the recent 5-0 defeat to rest.

With a tricky trip to the East Coast looming it was important that the team gave themselves at least some hope for the rest of the season, and they’ll be somewhat satisfied by the way they were able to come back to earn a point from a losing position for the first time since the last visit from Dallas, way back in March.

Gavin Wilkinson set his team up in the now-familiar 4-3-3, with Boyd up top flanked by Songo’o and Richards. A midfield trio of Chara, Jewsbury and Nagbe were in front of the back-line of Smith, Horst, Mosquera and Kimura, with Perkins in goal.

Nagbe had taken a good share of the attention going into the match. I’d written about him, and then there was an article in The Columbian where the man himself said he’d like to “score a little bit more”.

It’s little wonder that Nagbe isn’t scoring as often when you see where he was playing against Dallas, as his heat map on the right is pretty indistinguishable from that of Diego Chara, aside from the Colombian’s customary greater work rate and involvement.

Nagbe is being asked to play deeper than we were used to from his first year and the start of this, and it’s taking some time for him to acclimatise to his new role. I still that he’s playing a bit within himself for whatever reason, but that’s probably just me nitpicking, as I tend to do.

Still, it was a tidy enough performance, and he had one good crack from distance that went close though he, like the rest of the team, took a while to get going in the match.

Diego Chara was once more playing in a slightly advanced role, with Jack Jewsbury sitting deep. I like Chara in this role. He’s every bit as chippy and industrious as he is when he plays in defensive midfield, but with the added advantage that when he does nick the ball from an opponents, he’s doing it much nearer their goal than his own.

The move here came to nothing, which was a shame, but had Boyd made that run across the defender, who knows what could’ve come out of it as the Timbers had numbers getting forward and Dallas had been caught out.

Ah, Boyd. Aye, I guess we have to talk about my fellow Ayrshireman. He came in for some stick on twitter – again – as he was isolated up top and never really got involved. The graphic on the right is everything Boyd did during the match, and it doesn’t make for pleasant viewing. I can’t jump onboard with those that are kicking Boyd as there was next-to-nothing coming his way, but I do feel that what we’re seeing now is what fans of Rangers and Scotland have seen in the past when those sides have played with one guy up top – Boyd is not that kind of player.

The heat wouldn’t have helped, that’s for sure, but the fact is Boyd isn’t mobile enough to play in the role that Wilkinson has assigned him. If you can get players around him and supporting him, it can work, but we never really did that in this match, and he was a peripheral figure.

Without a Perlaza, or even a Mwanga, running off him, creating space and giving him someone to work with, it’s hard to see how we’ll ever see the best of Boyd. It’s perhaps becoming apparent how much of a “Spencer signing” Boyd was as he’s singularly unsuited to the system that Wilkinson seems wed to, of having a lone figurehead up front.

I’m not saying Boyd is entirely blameless, but neither is it all on him. Just ask Kenny Cooper what a difference playing a system that works for you can make.

With Boyd having little to do, and Richards having a marginal impact out right, it was left to Franck Songo’o to provide most of the Timbers’ attacking impetus. Though he wasn’t quite on the rampant form he’s shown in the past, he was still by far the team’s most active player going forward, and looked most likely to find a way through the Dallas defence.

As usual he wasn’t your typical winger, though he did manage to whip a couple of good crosses round the outside, but he would often go roaming infield. It’s quite interesting to compare his approach to that of Brek Shea, the Dallas left winger.

Shea plays much more as a traditional winger, as you can see. He gave Kimura a tough time during the match, with an early warning shot fired across the bow of the Japanese fullback early on in the first half.

Meanwhile, Songo’o was tending to come inside more often as the game wore on, to the point that at times it seemed like he was playing the role I thought would suit him in a “Christmas Tree” formation.

There’s still a tendency for Songo’o to try and beat players where the better, and more simple, option is to pass it off, but in a midfield that has sorely lacked any kind of creativity for along stretches this year it’s nice to see someone who’s willing to try and magic something up.

The first half came to and end, and it was all pretty even, The match, understandably, lacked some intensity as both sides sought to conserve their energy as Portland sweltered with temperatures in the 90s, or the 30s if you’re of a civilized bent.

Any hope that the Timbers would come out and look to put Dallas under pressure for the first 10-15 minutes of the second half quickly went the way of John Spencer’s Big Bumper Book of Football Tactics book deal when the visitors put themselves ahead.

The goal was the archetypal Timbers goals to concede – a simple pass inside the full back and runner through the middle who isn’t picked up. Those playing along with the Timbers drinking game might want to retire if they value their liver at all.

AS much as Kimura got caught out by the ball, he at least made an effort to get back and put a block in. What Horst was doing letting Sealy run away from him, I can’t explain. It’s Defending 101 – stay goal side. Or at least close enough to put pressure on the player.

Horst is a player I like, but for me he’s simply not good enough defensively. Little elementary mistakes are made far too often, and it hurts the team.

A goal down, and things looked bleak for the Timbers, but referee Ricardo Salazar threw them a lifeline just a minute later when he sent off Zach Loyd for a second bookable offence.

Richards and Boyd were taken off shortly after, with Bright Dike and Danny Mwanga entering the fray but still the Timbers struggled to find a way to break down the 10 men. Dike had a good chance when he got one on one with Kevin Hartman after a cheap giveaway by Dallas, but his shot was saved.

Portland seemed destined to go goalless once more when Hartman made a great save from Mwanga in the 78th minute, but the Timbers kept plugging away and from the same passage of play they forced a corner, and would eventually find a route past the Dallas keeper from there.

There’s really no reason for me to post that pic as there’s no great analysis to be made of the goal, but damnit it’s been so long since we scored that I had to do it! Besides which, it was a cracking finish from Jack. The captain had a pretty tidy game, all told. He did what he had to do defensively, and didn’t seem nearly as wasteful in possession as he has been in recent weeks. I’m not his biggest fan, but an in-form Jewsbury is an asset to the team.

By this point the Timbers had fully committed to attack, going 3 at the back, whilst Dallas had brought on ex-Timber and non soccer enthusiast James Marcelin in an attempt to close the match out. I thought the momentum would carry the Timbers forward to snatch an unlikely win, but they still struggle to create opportunities in open play, and it was Dallas who had a good chance to take all three points.

I’ve given Kimura a lot of slack as he’s settled into a new team at a difficult time, but he’s now played 6 times for the Timbers and he continues to make the same mistakes. I like his general play – and he’s certainly the best option we have at right back, which says more about the roster than anything – but he’s turned around far too easily for my liking. I don’t recall seeing a lot of him from his time at the Rapids, so I don’t know if this is just an aspect of his play or whether it’s down to the system he’s being asked to play in with the Timbers.

So, the match petered out to a 1-1 draw that seemed to suit both parties. FC Dallas, on reflection, will probably be the happier team having played 40 minutes a man down.

I can’t agree with Gavin Wilkinson’s post-match assessment that “we deserved to win it”. Sure, you can point to shot stats (21-8 attempts on goal in favour of the Timbers, 7-3 shots on target) but there’s a marked difference in the kind of shots they were.

As you can see, Dallas were able to get all their shots off within the box, whereas the Timbers were, on the whole, taking pops from distance.

Even the possession stat of 57-23 in the Timbers favour is skewed by the Dallas sending off. Prior to that possession was pretty much 50-50 with the game being played in the Dallas half 51.7% of the time. After the sending off possession jumped to 66-34, with 61.8% of play coming in the Dallas half.

In saying that though, neither did we deserve to lose the match, though we can certainly fray the nerves and test the patience of all but the most serene/comatose of fans. There were times when you’d never have guessed that Dallas were a man short, and we still lack that killer final ball to unlock defences.

I don’t want to sound too negative a note after a hard-fought draw, but I feel that the result merely papers over the cracks. The problems are still there. The cold hard fact is that we’ve picked up 1 point from a possible 15 since John Spencer was sacked and we haven’t kept a clean sheet since the middle of May.

At the other end you have to go back to Mwanga’s lovely counter attack goal against San Jose for the last time Timbers created a goal that didn’t come from the first or second phase of a set play. That’s over 600 minutes without a goal in open play.

In defence we still lack solidity and focus, with mistakes being made and punished on a game-by-game basis. Perhaps the return of Eric Brunner will lend the back-line some steel, but it’s probably unwise to heap too much expectation on his shoulders alone.

It’s a week and a bit before the Timbers play again, and it’s a big one. Without an away win all season – and having lost 8 of the last 9 – Wilkinson takes his troops to Toronto to face a team that have lost only 1 of their past 6 matches at BMO Field.

Portland’s point against Dallas has lifted them above Toronto in the race to avoid the wooden spoon, and they’ll be hoping to put some clear air between them as well as hauling in the sides above them. The playoffs – barring some kind of clichéd Hollywood miracle – are gone, but there’s still a chance for the club to add some respectability to a season that’s been memorable thus far for all the wrong reasons.

#RCTID


The thoughts of this blog, and every soccer fan I’m sure, go out to the family and colleagues of Kirk Urso, a Columbus Crew player, who died on Sunday morning at the tragically young age of 22.

Intolerable Cruelty

In shock news, the Timbers suffered another defeat, their fifth on the spin, this time following a smash-and-grab win from Chivas USA, the only goal of the game coming midway through the second half.

The scoreline mirrored that of the recent match, though at least the performance was better here. Just a shame you don’t get points for that. No to get wins you need to score – something the Timbers haven’t done in 290 minutes of play – and it also helps to keep a clean sheets or so – it’s now 11 consecutive matches the Timbers have conceded in since a 0-0 draw with Houston in mid May.

Gavin Wilkinson made six changes from the team that collectively shat the bed against Dallas. Out went Chabala (gone from the 18 altogether), Danso, Alhassan, Fucito, Alexander and Mwanga and in came Smith, Horst, Richards, Boyd, Jewsbury and Nagbe.

I suspected they would line up in a 4-2-3-1 again, but I was a little surprised to see how far up the field Chara was playing. Jewsbury had the holding role, and that freed the Colombian foul merchant up to go forward and support the attack.

Songo’o and Richards played out wide, with Nagbe tucked in behind – and running beyond – Boyd in the striking role.

From early on it was clear that Songo’o was in the mood for this one, and he ryansmithed the Chivas defence time and again in the first half. He was at the heart of pretty much everything positive about the Timbers attack, and is virtually unplayable when he’s in this sort of form. Which is to say, occasionally.

Boyd had a couple of decent sights at goal – one chance he beautifully engineered with a deft flick, and another he completely fluffed. Such is life as a striker – the margin between hero and villain is often vanishingly small.

Playing up top can be a cruel position to play. Mistakes are amplified. A missed chance falls under much greater scrutiny than a midfielder’s misplaced pass that leads to nothing. No player is more derided than the striker that misses a chance that is “easier to score”, yet even the greatest strikers will miss a few of them along the way.

I’d rather have a striker get ten chances and miss them all than not get any at all. Course, I’d much rather he put at least one of those away, but we’ve all had bad days/nights at the office and this was one of these for the striker.

The only position, in my opinion, that is crueller than that of striker in terms of the difference a single mistake can make is that of goalkeeper, and we’ll get to that soon enough…

Brent Richards made his first start for the Timbers in MLS, and he was hugely impressive in the first half too. He added a bustle and energy that the Timbers attack has oft lacked this year, and he displays as much contempt for the fundamental laws of gravity as John Terry does for decorum and sportsmanship.

His aerial abilities certainly seemed to catch Chivas out early on, and the home grown player got a lot of joy from long, high balls punted in his general direction. He also added a threat from throw-in’s with a Rory Delap-esque long throws.

As well as what he could offer the club going forward, he also displayed a focus and willingness to work in defence that helped Kosuke Kimura at right back.

As much as I like Alhassan, I’ve always had big reservations about his defensive work, among other things. Though Chivas offered little in attack, I do feel that Kimura had a much more assured match here than he’s had in a while in no small part to the security afforded him by Richards’ work ahead of him.

Fans have been calling for a while for some of the young guys to be given a chance to shine, and it’s pleasing to see Richards not only given that chance, but grasp it both hands, take it home to meet his parents and buy a nice three-bedroom house in the ‘burbs.

In his more advanced role Diego Chara also impressed in the first 45. He had a hand in a couple of good chances, and it was his pass that set Boyd off down the right in a counter-attack that had echoes of Mwanga’s goal against San Jose.

Such chances to break on Chivas would be few and far between given their plan to defend in depth, both numerically and geographically.

The Timbers faced a team with one plan in mind: keep it tight, and hope to nick a goal. From very early on it was clear that this was not a team that would come here and look to exploit a Timbers defence that had just shipped five goals to a distinctly average FC Dallas the previous week.

Half an hour in and Chivas were already defending in numbers and bunkering in. It’s a strategy that has served them fairly well, with four of their six wins prior to this match coming in 1-0 results. The other two were also one-goal victories, both 2-1. This isn’t a team that tends to blow out their opponents, nor do they get steamrollered having conceded more than 1 goal in only 4 of their previous 19 MLS match this year.

Having done so well in the first half, there seemed to be a slight drop-off in intensity in the second. The formation that had come as close to a 4-3-3 as we’ve seen from the Timbers this year in the first half took on more of a 4-1-4-1 shape in second.

Jewsbury still sat deep, but Chara didn’t have the same attacking focus that he’d had in the first half.

Richards, who’d had such a fine first half, also lost a bit of pep to his game in the second. Chivas seemed to wise up to the threat of Richards in the air, even as the Timbers continued to dementedly plough that particular furrow, and he didn’t quite have the same joy as he had in the first.

On the opposite flank, Songo’o tired and had less impact than he had before the break. The Cameroonian has had his share of injury problems, but he continues to struggle to find full match fitness, and it was a visibly tiring Songo’o who gave Chivas the chance the led to the only goal of the game.

All the Timbers good work in the first half was wiped out by a needless foul, poor defensive marking and a goalkeeping error.

You have to feel sorry for keepers sometimes. The slightest misjudgement and there’s a good chance they’ll cost the team a goal. Perkins has been one of the Timbers best, most consistent, players this year, but he has to take his share of the blame for this one.

Once in front, there was never any doubt that Chivas would look to park the bus and keep what they had. The Timbers failed to find a way through – Boyd missed a couple, and Nagbe joined the party with a couple of his own.

There was certainly a lot more positives to take from this match than there has been in the last few games. I don’t often agree with Wilkinson, but he’s right when he says that football is a “cruel, cruel sport at times”.

The Timbers continue to find frustration in attack, while they find that every mistake gets punished pitilessly.

I thought the tactics, in the first half certainly, were good and we got good performances out key players. What worries me is the drop-off in the second – something that’s happened too often to be mere coincidence.

Robbie Earle speculated in the commentary that Sean McAuley was doing much of the touchline coaching to give the players a “different voice” to react to, with Wilkinson saying his piece at half time. If the reaction from the players after the break is any indication, Wilkinson might want to consider getting a motivator like Mitt Romney in next time.

The Jekyll and Hyde nature of the team is annoying, but at least the drop-off wasn’t as dramatic as it has been in the past. And, hey, for a team that had lost so many late goals this season, only 2 of the last 15 have come in the last quarter hour, so that’s something. Right?

Of course, those 15 goals have been conceded in the last 5 games. That’s also something… *shudder*

I want to strike a positive note, as I did feel we played some good football at times, but we leave ourselves at the mercy of a single, silly mistake at the back when we fail to put the ball in the net. And if there’s one thing that you can count on with this team, it’s that they’ll make a mistake at the back at some point. Today it was Perkins, on another day it’s Kimura, or Smith. It’s a wonder we have any toes left considering the number of times we’ve shot ourselves in the foot.

Chivas recorded their third win over the Timbers this season with this result. You know what you’ll get from Chivas. They play pretty much the same way in most matches, and that strategy never really changed for Chivas as the match wore on.

Though Chivas has the edge in possession before the goal (53%-47%), the Timbers made almost half of their passes in the Chivas half, with only 39% of Chivas passes coming in the Timbers half. After the goal, the Timbers dominate possession (79%-21%), and have much more of the play in the Chivas half, but fail to take what chances come their way.

Like a dealer who gives a hit of the good stuff to hook you, so the Timbers give flashes of what they could be, reeling you in and making you believe, before sucker punching you square in the babymaker.

And yet, we’ll be back again for the next game, and what’s more we’ll have hope that next time it’ll be different.

Despite the scoreline in the last meeting, the Timbers are more than capable of beating Dallas next week. Unfortunately, they’re also more than capable of beating themselves.

The team have a week before they have a chance to avenge that 5-0 defeat in front of a Timbers Army that have been starved of reasons to be cheerful lately.

It’s a cruel game indeed.

#RCTID

Another Fiasco in Frisco

I’m not mad, I’m disappointed.

In their first year in MLS, the Timbers went to Dallas in summer and lost 4-0. That remained their heaviest defeat as an MLS club until this week when they went one worse and lost 5-0. It was the first time Dallas had scored 5 since they beat LA 6-3 in 2009 and the first time they’d won by more than three goals since the Timbers visited last June.

The result leaves the Timbers rooted to the bottom in the West, and bottom overall on goal difference. Of the 35 goals they’ve conceded, 14 have come in the last four matches. The Timbers also set records for the longest a team has gone without scoring a goal away from home. It’s now seven full games since Kris Boyd scored against LA, and an aggregate score in that time of 0-15.

So, is everyone feeling happy? Let’s get on with the game…

The team that Gavin Wilkinson selected to put an end to that run saw Boyd benched, and a return to the 4-4-2. Alexander moved centrally, to play the top of the diamond as Nagbe also sat out. Mwanga and Fucito were up top, while Smith was replaced by Chabala at left-back . Songo’o and Alhassan were the wingers.

It was, on paper, an attacking set-up. Two mobile strikers to stretch the Dallas defence, and exploit any spaces. Alexander pulling the strings in midfield, with the creativity of Songo’o and Alhassan out wide.

In reality, it was a different matter.

The tone was set from early on. The Timbers sat off, seemingly looking to conserve energy in the sapping heat, but all it did was hand the impetus to the hosts. Dallas dominated play from the first whistle, and wouldn’t give up control until the final whistle mercifully brought an end to a contest that as one-sided as you’re likely to see.

The battle was quickly won, and lost, in the wide areas. There seemed to be no understanding between Chabala and Songo’o down the left or Kimura and Alhassan down the right.

When the ball got forward into attacking wide areas, there was no support for the full-backs time and again.

It may be that Wilkinson had told his fullbacks to sit deeper to counter the threat offered by Dallas’ full-backs, but rather than snuff out a Dallas threat, all it did was neuter our own.

Even on the few occaisions that a full-back did get forward for the Timbers, they would find themselves isolated.

It’s a wonder I don’t have a bruise on my forehead from the number of head smackings I give myself as the Timbers continue to make the same basic errors. Neither Songo’o or Alhassan are guys who are going to go round a defender and hit the byline, yet we persist with playing them out wide.

Fine, then we need to get our full-backs up to provide that wide out-ball, except we either have the ball dribbled or passed inside, and lost, or the run is so late, or the pass too slow, that rather than having a 2-on-1 out wide, it’s 2-on-2 or even 2-on-3.

To see how it’s done properly , just watch Dallas.

That’s how you do it. It wasn’t just a one-off, it was consistent. Quick, crisp and effective. Compare to the ponderous and plodding play of Portland. It’s men and boys.

With the way Dallas would push on their full-backs, it should’ve created chances for Portland to hit them down the flanks on the break, but again we were just too slow. We seem unable to put some quick passes together in transitioning from defense to attack. You can almost hear the gears crunching as we try to.

The one time we did turn it over quickly, a long ball forward was robbed from the defender by Fucito and his shot was deflected off the post. It was 0-0 at the time, and while it may have changed the matches had it gone it, I have little confidence that it would’ve halted the tide of the match which was washing all over the Timbers defence.

It very quickly became evident that Wilkinson’s attempt to play Alexander as an attacking midfielder was leaving Diego Chara exposed in deep. Not for the first time this season. And not for the first time, we did nothing to remedy a glaring problem.

As Dallas worked the flanks well, they were able to overload the middle and create chance after chance, and it was only a matter of time until they broke through.

It was also little surprise to see all of the Dallas goals exploiting our full-back weaknesses, and three in particular playing on our inability to defend in wide areas.

On the first, Kimura was marking a man in the centre of the field, leaving acres out wide. He then did that annoying thing of jumping back first to block the ball. Mosquera was unfortunate to turn it home.

The second saw Chabala go off on an adventure into midfield, and Songo’o resolutely fail to bother his arse to cover for his full-back.

The fourth was that classic thing the Timbers do of giving the ball away cheaply and leaving the full-back with his arse in the breeze. Jewsbury, who had started on the bench, gave the ball away and Dallas always looked likely to score.

The third and fifth goals won’t be featured on Mike Chabala’s highlight reel should he find himself seeking a new club at some point. On both occasions Jackson breezed past him so easily I had to rewind and double check he really was there at all.

It was a defensive horror show, and the full-back area continues to be a problem.

It was, of course, yet another shuffle at the back with Chabala coming in. The lack of consistency at the back is certainly a contributing factor to our defensive woes. Probably the best defense I’ve seen was the famous Arsenal back four of Adams, Bould, Dixon and Winterburn. These were guys who played together every week, knew each others games inside out and played not as four individuals, but as one collective unit. They were formidable.

To be fair, the continued absence of Brunner perhaps prevents the Timbers from picking their first choice central pairing, but the continued switching of Horst and Futty alongside Mosquera doesn’t build stability. Nor do the woes at the full-back area.

Lack of communication, players not knowing or doing their job properly, poor positioning – all these are results of players not knowing who they’ll be playing beside from game to game.

Dallas were also able to use their defenders as a way to slow the game up and take a breather.

As you can see, Dallas were happy to play across the defense. It keeps the ball, gives the attacking players a chance to rest up, and it also lets the team probe for weakness in the Timbers defense. Look at the Timbers defence, and there is none of that. The difference is like those before and after pictures of a spider’s web when the spider is jacked up on caffeine. We’re nervous and jittery where Dallas are composed and confident.

It’s a symptom of the Timbers season. Hardly anyone wants to put a foot of the ball and work the play. It’s head down, kick it forward and run, and the tone is set at the back. Perkins continues to punt the ball hopefully up the field even though anyone who’s played in heat will tell you it’s much easier to conserve energy when you have the ball than when you’re chasing it. Look for a full-back to throw it to, or a central defender to drop off for a ball to feet. Pass the ball, even if you’re not always moving forward. Keep it, treasure it, and let the spaces open up in front of you, rather than hoping they will.

It’s just not good football. I said during the week on twitter that it’s little surprise we play USL football considering our entire backroom team is drawn from there. Just like a lower league team will upset the odds from time to time, so do we, but over the course of a season the results will even out and you’ll find yourself some way short of the quality needed. For all the work done to bring the old PGE Park up to MLS standards, we neglected to improve the personnel in the same way.

The fact it was the Timbers 3rd game in 8 days should have made possession of the football an even more pressing concern.

If the ninety minutes wasn’t dispiriting enough, Wilkinson’s post match comments won’t have improved anyone’s mood.

The tone of Gavin’s comments, despite his protestations that he wasn’t throwing anyone under the bus, were of someone throwing everyone under the bus before hopping on that same bus and telling the driver to step on it.

In short: “It was them, not me. Honest.”

It was hard not to see them being directed not towards the fans that had just seen the club they love humiliated and abused, but to Merritt Paulson in an attempt to convince the owner that he shouldn’t be culpable for having “people quit tonight”.

For all Gavin Wilkinson sought to shift the blame for the result onto the players – and the players do deserve criticism, as I’ve given too – he can’t, and shouldn’t be allowed to, weasel his way out of this one entirely.

Not only did he pick this team, and set the tactics, he signed these guys. I’ve never believed for a second that Wilkinson deferred entirely to a rookie manager in who the Timbers signed. And if he did, why are we paying him a wage if he’s just going to stand silently by and watch as a team is built in the most haphazard and poorly-planned manner?

The notion that Spencer signed all the duds is, quite frankly, bollocks. Wilkinson’s hands are dirty.

These are his players and if they’re not good enough, he’s not good enough. I don’t think sacking Spencer was a mistake, but it’s a job only half done. Spencer made many mistakes in his tactics, game management and approach, but he wasn’t alone in putting together a team that now prop up the rest of MLS.

I don’t buy the notion that bringing Spencer back would make things any better. The depths the club have fallen after he left doesn’t change the fact we were already scraping the barrel with him here. It’s a completely fresh start the club needs, with new eyes looking over everything and putting the club back on track.

I think we overachieved some in the first year. Players were a little bit complacent coming into their second year.

What in the holy fuck is this guy babbling about?

We overachieved by losing 14 of our 34 games? By having the second worst defence in the West? By winning two of our 17 road matches? Overachieved? Fuck off with that nonsense!

If our General Manager, the guy who is supposed to shape the “vision” for this club going forward, thinks that is overachievement then he had no place in MLS, never mind this club.

You may overachieve in a cup competition, and string a few results together and win a trophy, but you achieve exactly what you deserve over 34 matches. We’ve gone backwards this year and not because we did so well last year that players got complacent, but because management have failed in their duty.

You because complacent, Gavin. You’ve been here 12 years now. You’re comfortable, you’re part of the furniture. You’ve gotten lazy. You’re not good enough. You’re failing the Timbers, and if you have even a shred of good feeling towards this club, you’d do the right thing and admit the job is too big for you and go.

You may even find that fans have a bit of respect for you as a result. You got offered a nice job, and you took it. No-one would begrudge you that. You gave it your bes,t I don’t doubt, but your best isn’t nearly good enough. To hang onto your position now would be entirely selfish and destructive for this team.

You’re part of the problem, Gavin. Yes, the players have to take a large share of the blame for results, but I have zero confidence that you are the man to bring in better players. And the thought of you having input into the next manager at the club fills me with cold dread.

As I posted last week, I don’t expect title after title. I don’t support the Timbers for the glory. But this isn’t good enough. The fans remain loyal in their support, but they’re hurting. Ultimately, beyond singing themselves hoarse at every match, they can only watch as their club – THEIR club – is mismanaged.

You can blame everyone else for your failings, Gavin, but you don’t fool the fans.

One can only hope that the owner isn’t fooled either.

The Timbers have a week before their next proper match, when they host Chivas USA. It’s the return legs of this bizarre little midseason double-double-header, so a chance to avenge this defeat will follow the Chivas match.

#RCTID

Goats 1, Donkeys 0

No-one said being a Timbers fan would be easy.

There were some positives to take from the 5-3 defeat to LA Galaxy at the weekend, but panning for gold in the 1-0 loss at Chivas USA would be as futile as searching for signs of intelligent life in YouTube comments. The Timbers served up a performance so leaden that it could be considered a danger to public health.

It was the kind of showing that would get football stopped.

It’s strange to think that a 1-0 defeat on the road was somehow worse than losing 5 goals at home, and yet that’s the overriding feeling I have after enduring 90 minutes of ball-numbing suffering.

Gavin Wilkinson made a couple of changes to the team from the weekend, with Futty in for Horst and Chara for Palmer. Apart from that, it was business as usual with the team playing in a 4-2-3-1 again. Though, at times it seemed more like a 4-4-1-1 or plain ol’ 4-4-2 to me.

I had hoped, after showing up better in the middle during the second half, that Eric Alexander would start alongside Chara, but Jewsbury, who seemingly knows all the secrets, continues to hold on to a place with a death grip.

My own hope, before the match, was a Chara/Alexander two behind a three of Songo’o, Alhassan and Nagbe – though I wouldn’t have been adverse to Nagbe sitting and Richards starting. The team, as announced, just seem a bit too defensive for my liking against a team that had drawn a blank in three of their last four MLS matches and managed only 11 goals in 17.

It’s not like packing the team with defensive players did anything to help 0]”>the situation against Real Salt Lake.

The game itself was pretty even in the opening stages. The 1pm kick-off time saw a bunch of local kids groups given tickets to attend, lending the match a “Chuck E Cheese at lunch time” atmosphere, made all the more grating by the addition of no-one’s favourite football fad, the vuvuzela.

It was hard not to recall the infamous Estonia vs Scotland match from 1996, when a dispute over floodlights led to the surreal situation where Scotland kicked off against no opponents, in front of no home fans. Only one team turning up and no fans? Hello Home Depot Center, 2012.

Ryan Smith, who had tormented the Timbers defence like a wasp in the car the last time the teams met, started this time, matching up against his namesake, Steven Smith. Rather than purely to annoy me by forcing me to specify which Smith I’m talking about, it seems like the move was a deliberate attempt to exploit Steven Smith’s ever-more apparent defensive weaknesses.

When Steven Smith had come to Portland earlier this year, I’d sounded a hopeful note. I remember him from his time at Rangers, where he had burst onto the scene and looked every inch the future Scotland stalwart. Injuries hit, and took a toll out of the player, such that he ended up kicking around the lower English leagues before being picked up by the Timbers.

The player I remembered from his Rangers days was an explosive wing-back with a good crossing boot. I expected the injuries to take a half-yard or so off his pace, but I thought his defensive awareness and crossing ability would, at least, remain.

It’s getting harder to hold onto that belief as week after week Smith has been found lacking in a number of areas. His crossing has been haphazard – I’m being kind – and he seems to have compensated for losing a bit of pace by developing a penchant for going to ground early and diving into tackles.

Ryan Smith certainly came out the best in this particular duel, and it was by beating Steven Smith that the Chivas man was able to set-up the only goal of the match early on.

Smith had a poor game, no doubt, but he wasn’t alone in this as every defender would, if they’re being honest, hold their hands to having had an off day.

Futty could, and probably should, have done a bit better in getting close to Smith and shutting the winger out, but the moment that Smith was able to get square on, there was only ever going to be one winner there.

I like Futty – and Horst too – but it’s becoming ever more apparent what the team miss by not having Brunner, for all his own faults, on the backline.

Mosquera is by far the Timbers’ best defender, but he came out second best in his own personal duel in the build up to the goal. His desire to push out of defence and close down can cause more problems that it solves sometimes.

Futty has to take a share of blame for turning his back on the man, but had Mosquera not been off ranging like Aragorn reborn, he wouldn’t have been trailing the Chivas runner. The cross ultimately didn’t come in so we weren’t punished for it, but it’s concerning when even your top man is making basic errors.

Kimura had a strange match against LA. His sloppiness in the tackle, and poor concentration, led to two of the LA goals, but he also popped up at the other end to score, so there’s that. He still looks like a guy who is adjusting to a new team, so it’d be unfair to lay into him too hard until he’s got a run of games under his belt.

I thought, in the goal, he had allowed himself to be attracted towards the ball, and by going so narrow left the space at the far post wide open. He at least made a valiant effort to get back, but too little, too late.

I like the guy’s athleticism, but he needs to tighten up his defensive work.

Again, we weren’t punished here, but Kimura was caught hanging around up field – he’d raced forward long before the ball came back to Chara. It’s tough for Kimura, and Smith, as given the way the Timbers were playing, with Alhassan and Alexander narrowing up top, the onus was on the fullbacks to get forward and provide the width.

It’s this delicate balance of knowing when to get forward, and when to cover, that makes the fullback role such a tricky one to play well. To be fair, if Chara doesn’t give the ball away sloppily (collector’s item, that one) there’s perhaps no problem for Kimura.

His defensive judgement though can lead to situations like late on where he completely misjudged the flight of a lofted ball and ended up almost gifting Chivas a gilt-edged chance.

The full-back area has been a constant problem for the Timbers. Having Kimura in at right-back is certainly better than having Jewsbury play make-believe there, but Smith isn’t really convincing that he’s an upgrade over Chabala or, whisper it, Wallace at this point. Chabala’s big weakness is his final pass/cross, but it’s not like Smith is putting the ball into dangerous areas from wide right now. Aside for a late forward ball to Kris Boyd that the striker nudged narrowly wide, I’m at a loss to recall any serviceable delivery from Smith.

Considering all three Timbers goals against LA came directly or indirectly from set-plays, it’s perhaps not that surprising that the team struggled to create much going forward.

The first half in particular was remarkable for the toothless nature of the Timbers attack. They at least stepped it up in the second half.

You can see pretty clearly that the Timbers were playing a bit further up field, and they created more chances as a result. There was the aforementioned Boyd chance, while Alexander had a couple of attempts screwing the best chance wide after a nice back heel lay-off from Jewsbury.

Smith had a chance in injury time when the ball pinballed around the box, before Sal Zizzo laid it off for the Scot to curl his effort just wide with his weaker right foot. It was one of those chances where you just wished it had fallen to his left boot, where he could’ve got a clearer shot away or laid it off to Jewsbury. Such are the fine margins of defeat.

Truth is, for all the gained territory and pops at goal, Chivas never look overly ruffled. They Fonzied their way through the second half, happy to soak up what pressure the Timbers tried to apply.

It was a pedestrian display from the boys in green. Even when they were supposedly chasing an equaliser, it never truly seemed like there was a real sense of urgency.

Given the Timbers road form, and manner of play, there was always the sense that when Chivas got their noses in front, the game was over, even after only 15 minutes. That is truly depressing. Where is the fight?

I had thought that perhaps a change in manager would signal a fresh approach to road games, but it’s not surprising that the same shit keeps happening when it’s basically the usual suspects.

Wilkinson took the defeat last week on his own shoulders, and he’s welcome to much of this one as well. He set out a team with very little attacking impetus. He left Boyd woefully isolated and provided little support to his wide defenders. And when it came time to roll the dice and try to find a way back into the game, he made subs that left me shaking my head.

First Nagbe went off for Songo’o. Fair enough, Nagbe was largely invisible, but it was hardly a change designed to throw bodies forward.

Ten minutes later, I was literally halfway through writing a tweet to the effect that I hoped to see Mwanga or Zizzo on to replace Jewsbury, with Alexander taking over Captain Marvel’s role when Wilkinson made a change. He brought on Zizzo, but Jewsbury stayed on the field and Alexander came off. Okay, fine. The third change saw Alhassan off for Mwanga, and by this point I’m at a loss to explain what the thinking was.

I can’t say Jewsbury was especially bad in this match, but he was pretty ineffectual. Story of his season. He’s rarely outright awful, but neither does he have an impact on the match. His inviolate place in the team seems to have heldover from John Spencer’s days, as has his captaincy.

I don’t expect the captain to be the best player, but I do expect a leader. Maybe the players themselves would disagree, but I don’t see a great deal of leadership from Jewsbury. He doesn’t seem to be a shouter, or a motivator, nor is he a guy that leads by example. He’s just out there, misplacing passes and looking every inch the MLS veteran on the down slope of his career.

I worry about Boyd, too. He cuts a frustrated figure more often than not. There were some giving him stick on twitter, but I don’t give that notion a shred of credence. It was interesting listening to his interview on John Strong’s Talk Timbers podcast, as he gave his thoughts on playing the 4-2-3-1.

I’m used to playing with someone up front, but as a formation it does work. Your role does change because you find yourself with two centre-halves most of the time […] and it’s important for the two wide men […] to get on the ball and create chances.

That’s the crux of the matter. Boyd needs those around him to do their jobs before he can even think of doing his. If he could conjure it all out of thin air on his own, he’d be playing at the Camp Nou and not in front of a bunch of bored kids at freaking Home Depot Center.

With the sacking of Spencer, the guy who brought him here, I’m coming more and more to fear that Boyd’s time in Portland will be one season, and done. Though he has never said as much, listening to his interview it’s clear that he’s bitterly disappointed with how things are going so far.

You can enjoy your life but when you’re not winning games it affects everything because you want to win games. I’ve won so much, and I’ve won so many games in my career. You get used to winning and when you’re not doing it, it’s not easy to come to terms with.

Where Do We Go From Here?

With Toronto’s win, the Timbers are now tied for last overall. There’s a seven point gap to LA on the edge of the play-off places, and I expect LA to climb a place or two before the season’s out. Vancouver are a further four points ahead of LA. That’s potentially 11 points to turnover in 15 games.

The play-offs are gone. Done. Forget about it.

For so long the Timbers had stayed in touch almost despite themselves, but this result finally put a pillow over the face of our faint hopes and mercy killed the fuck out of them. And I think this is a good thing.

The play-offs have been hanging around on the sidelines like a creepy uncle at a kid’s birthday party. The club has been unable to put them out of their mind, and it’s led to a conservative approach to team selection as we’ve “chased the dream”, or more accurately “sort of drunkenly staggered in the general direction of the dream with no real idea where we were going, or why we were going there”.

Truth is, even if every other team conspired to outdo our kamikaze tailspin and sneak us into the play-offs, it’d only prolong the misery that is the 2012 season.

Time to draw a line through it, forget about it and start planning for 2013. And that means it’s time to shake this team up.

Give the kids a chance.

I want to end 2012 with hopes of green shoots, rather than faced with the same old dead wood.

We’re already bottom. It’s hardly going to get worse, is it?

I also think we need to get someone in before the end of the year. By all means, be thorough, but we need a guy with top level experience to come in and shake this place up. It’s perhaps not surprising that when you build a staff that’s largely made up of USL alumni, you end up with a team that plays like a USL team. We’re too often tactically naive, and there are good players on this team who aren’t playing to their potential – that’s a coaching issue.

Next up is Dallas at the weekend. I may not have a match report up for that one as I’m flying back to the UK at the start of next week, which means I get to enjoy the pleasure of 3am kick-offs once more.

#RCTID

In case you missed the notice, and are wondering about the ads, click here for an explanation. Apologies.

Tis But A Scratch

The Timbers were on the losing end of an eight-goal thriller with LA Galaxy in Gavin Wilkinson’s first match in charge since John Spencer was philosophically fired last week.

The defeat at JELD-WEN was the Timbers’ first MLS reverse since Chivas won 2-1 way back in April – and the five goals conceded were more than they had lost in the six matches between that match and this.

Wilkinson didn’t stray far for Spencer’s formula in his team selection. Boyd started, which was nice in a he’s-involved-in-virtually-every-goal-we-score kind of way. Chara’s suspension meant a place in midfield for Palmer and Jewsbury, with Alexander and Alhassan on the flanks. Mosquera returned to the starting XI, with Futty the man to sit out.

The one difference was this wouldn’t be the usual 4-4-2. Wilkinson lined his team up in a 4-2-3-1, with Nagbe tucked in behind Boyd. The truth is that the formation was a bit more fluid than some digits on a screen would suggest.

The night started so well as a crisp Alhassan cross was put beyond Saunders by Boyd after only a few minutes.

Having spent so often bemoaning the way the Timbers have failed to play to the Scot’s strengths, it was nice to finally see someone give him the kind of ball that he thrives on. And it was no surprise to see it was Alhassan.

Alhassan seems to be one of the few players who is on Boyd’s wavelength, and keeping Kalif fit – as well as instilling at least some semblance of discipline to his play – has to be a priority for Wilkinson and whoever takes over the top job in the long-term.

In retrospect, it’s easy to look back and see that there was something odd in the air. I mean, really, a Timbers goal in the south end?! As a wise scientist once said, “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!”

Buoyed by the early goal, some of the Timbers play was nice to watch. There seemed to be a noticeable drop in the number of long hopeful balls up the field, and much more pass-and-move play, with the ball staying on the deck.

However, a crazy ten minute spell midway through the first half saw all the encouraging early play undone in brutal fashion.

The Galaxy’s fightback was triggered by some of that mercurial ill-discipline from Alhassan as well as, in my opinion, some presciently poor defensive work from Lovel Palmer.

First off, there was no reason for Alhassan to dribble the ball around in that area – Palmer was wide open for an easy pass. Secondly, as soon as the ball was lost, just when you’d want your defensive midfielder to come alive, Palmer went to sleep.

Palmer’s almost preternatural ability to do the wrong thing at the wrong time is fast becoming a joke that even Daniel Tosh wouldn’t touch as being just too tasteless.

The thing is, I don’t think Palmer is necessarily a terrible technical player. You don’t get this far, and achieve what he has in the game, if you can’t master the basics. Sure, he’s not the best passer in the world and his long-range shooting fetish borders on the obscene.

What Palmer lacks, in my opinion, is the ability to make the right decision at crucial moments, and that’s pretty damned key if your responsibility is to protect the defence.

The ability to take in what’s going on around you, extrapolating that information and making the right decision – all within a split second – is one of the skills that is hardest, arguably impossible, to teach. You can teach a player to pass or shoot. You can hone his ability to cross a ball, or play to game plan. Teaching a player to think faster, and better, is much more difficult to do.

John Terry would be an example of a player who, for me, lacks this ability but his other abilities allow him to, more often than not, make a last-ditch recovery to salvage the situation. The late sliding tackle that is so beloved by fans and producers of slow-motion highlight reels is the action of a defender who has made a poor decision. The old adage is true – the best defenders will finish the match with barely a stain on their kit.

Palmer doesn’t have Terry’s ability to recover a bad situation, and his poor decision-making renders him a defensive liability. Lovel Palmer is a ticking time bomb of Fail.

In the Jimenez chance we saw Palmer marshaling a space rather than the man. For the Galaxy equaliser he changed it up.

For sure, it was a good finish from Mrs Cruise, but I’d think more of it if he’d done it with a guy on his shoulder and nipping at his heels. The fact is, for the second time this season, he was given all the time in the world, right in front of goal, and he punished us.

Palmer dropping off to shadow Donovan gave Beckham the breathing space he needed. Only Alexander – eventually – woke up to the danger, and by then it was too late.

Some more awareness from Palmer – or if you’re being kind to Palmer, a shout from Mosquera that he had Donovan covered – and Beckham doesn’t get thee shot away.

Yes, that should read Donovan instead of Keane. The perils of text in pics.

Honestly, at this point, I’m at a loss to explain what Palmer brings to the team. The fact that he only lasted to half-time may suggest that Wilkinson was asking himself the same question.

He displays poor defensive awareness, time and again, and offers next-to-nothing going forward. He just… is.

As Palmer’s moment in the spotlight passed, it was time for Kosuke Kimura to step forward.

A foul by Kimura gave the Galaxy a free-kick in dangerous territory. Beckham stepped forward and duly put the ball in the exact spot that just about everyone expected him to.

I actually had the thought, one that’s occurred to me in the past, that it might actually be a good idea for the Timbers to set up without a wall in this situation.

As you can see, Beckham puts the ball low and near the right hand post (X marks the spot) – right in the spot that most fans would’ve predicted him to aim for. It gives Perkins a good 13 ft or so to cover – and the wall gives him 10 fewer yards to respond, especially as the Galaxy players (ringed) crowd the end of the wall right in front of Perkins.

So, why not say “screw the wall”? Perkins could take up a more central position and he’d have a better sight of the ball from the moment it leaves Beckham’s foot.

It clearly couldn’t be a regular strategy as teams would quickly figure us out as the guys who don’t line up a wall and adjust accordingly – lining up a wall of their own for example, but I doubt no wall is a situation teams prepare for, and the confusion it sows may just be enough to prevent the Galaxy taking the lead.

I fully expect to be called a madman for this idea, by the way.

Kimura’s crazy spell continued when he switched off at a throw-in and allowed Stephens to get in behind him. A clumsy tackle in the box gave the Galaxy a penalty, and Donovan duly dispatched it.

It became 4-1 when Smith played a lazy pass which was cut-out by Beckham. Donovan was sent scampering down the right, where he blew past Horst and slid it on for Keane to tap home between Mosquera and Kimura.

Kimura wasn’t done though. A trademark Boyd free-kick – head down, hit it hard – was spilled by Saunders and the new man got his first goal for the Timbers to make it 4-2 before the break.

As the game slipped away from the Timbers, so the 4-2-3-1 seemed to go out the window. Nagbe began to play more as a striker, albeit deeper-lying than Boyd. By the time the second half rolled round, we were back in 4-4-2 territory.

Richards replaced Palmer, who was presumably sent into a quiet room to think about what he’d done tonight. This meant Alexander was shifted inside, and he looked happier there.

Though his play was generally pretty tidy, and he worked well with Smith, he lacked the attacking punch that Alhassan had down the right side. It gave the team a lop-sided feel.

Moving into the middle allowed Alexander to be more involved in linking play. In the second half he made only eight fewer passes than Palmer and Jewsbury combined in the first.

The team’s traded goals in the second period after Donovan and Nagbe had missed good chances one-on-one. Nagbe’s came about from a tremendous throw from Perkins, whose general distribution continues to frustrate. Great pace put Darlington in, but he lacked the killer touch to finish the move and put the Timbers within a goal of the visitors.

Keane would eventually put LA up 5-2 when Smith was drawn out of defence, and Franklin beat Richards to the ball over the top before laying it on a plate for the boyhood Galaxy fan. Boyd cut out the middle man later when he put another free kick past Saunders to make it 5-3.

Unfortunately, the Timbers were unable to find the goal that would set up a grandstand finish but few would forget this match in a hurry. Shown nationwide on NBC Sports, the game was a great advert for the kind of entertaining football MLS can serve up, even if it would give defensive coaches nightmares.

It’s a bittersweet result. On one hand, there was a lot of fight in the team. Boyd served up two goals, and played a key role in the other. He did his job. He scored. Strikers are often “streaky”, so getting a brace under his belt may just spur the club’s top scorer on further.

For spells, in the first half especially, the football was good to watch. There was some good interplay, movement and purpose about the way the Timbers crossed the field – a long way from the panicky, hit-and-hope football that defined much of the late Spencer period, even after they’d gone down 4-1.

There wasn’t really a great deal between the clubs. Both had porous defences that gave up chances to the opposition, but the Galaxy had a bit more nous and cutting-edge about them in attack. Despite the two defensive midfielders in the first half, I also felt that overall the Galaxy had the upper hand in the midfield battle, though there was little between the two in the second half.

In some respects, losing to a better team is to be expected. In Donovan, Keane and Beckham, the Galaxy have access to talents beyond those of the Timbers. The only way to beat a better team is to either get lucky, work even harder, or both. The Timbers certainly worked hard, but ultimately gave themselves too much to do. Luck wasn’t really as much of a factor as numerous individual mistakes and poor choices at the back were.

They way the side kept their heads up and kept plugging away is a world away from the same team that has rolled over in recent weeks.

However, the defence. Just not good enough. It’s not the first time that a player has simply blown past a comically-bad Horst tackle, and probably won’t be the last.

Smith’s crossing was as poor as I can remember it. It’s all the more frustrating as Smith is capable of so much better.. Kimura had that crazy spell in the first half, and clearly there’s a bit more work to be done in integrating him into the team.


Chivas await for the Timbers, and though Portland find themselves bottom of the Western Conference (2nd bottom overall), a win against their hosts could propel them, improbably, back into the play-off hunt. It’s not hard to think of the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the Timbers refuse to give up, no matter how devastating the blows they receive.

Over the next four proper matches, the Timbers will play two game series against both Chivas and Dallas – two sides also struggling in the West.

Make or break time.

#RCTID

EDIT:

rhamje raised the point in the comments below that he felt Keane’s 2nd goal, LA’s 5th, was offside. I didnb’t think it was at the time, so I went back and checked, and had it confirmed. Definitely onside.