“Timbers road loss” are three words I’m getting sick of hearing, reading, saying or writing. A trip to face Real Salt Lake resulted in a pretty comprehensive 3-0 defeat for Portland – the second road defeat by the same scoreline in a row. Alvaro Saborio will grab the headlines for his hat-trick, but he’s a Real* player and I’m more interested in talking about the Timbers. RSL fans can talk their own team up.
As expected, Kosuke Kimura started, which meant Jack Jewsbury being relieved of half-a-brain duty at full back and back into his “best” position in midfield alongside the suspension-free Diego Chara. What I didn’t quite expect was that Lovel Palmer would be crashing the party like the metaphorical third wheel, or the literal player of limited ability.
In fact, if the @TimbersFC twitter squad announcement was to be believed, the team would be lining up in a 4-3-3 with Mwanga up top, flanked by Darlington Nagbe and Eric Alexander. I couldn’t see that happening. I’ve been watching Scotland slog around Eastern Europe, playing for draws against teams that weren’t even countries when I was born, and I saw the same look to this Timbers team.
An isolated attacker, left to fend for scraps and given the jobs of running the channels, holding up the play, chasing down lost causes, challenging for the ball.. oh, and something about a ball and a net. I forget what.
Alexander can now cross off another box in Square Hole Bingo as he was a nominal attacker here. In reality, and as I suspected after a seconds though, it was going to be much more a 4-5-1 than 4-3-3.
In fact, it generally shaped into a 4-1-4-1 with one of the three central midfielders sitting deep. I’d have preferred to see the more limited Palmer playing as the anchor man of the three, but instead it was Chara, presumably in an attempt to bring the ball out from the back instead of resorting to long balls at Mwanga, who was being matched by 2 Salt Lake defenders at all times.
Unsurprisingly, the Timbers gave up a lot of possession, and found it hard to bring midfield and attack together. Chances were fleeting and carried more of hope than expectation about them.
The flow of the play can, broadly, be followed here:
At no point are RSL put under the kosh as their pass success rate actually improve as the game goes on. After an initial “feeling out” spell, it doesn’t take long for RSL to recognise that the Timbers’, cough, 4-3-3 leaves the flanks open.
They seem to target Kimura early on, presumably looking to exploit the “new guy” and his unfamiliarity with his team mates. Kimura had a decent game though. He doesn’t look like a match winner, necessarily, but neither does he look like a match loser. So, onwards and upwards.
They almost exclusively play down the flanks in the second half, and eventually get joy from it, by exploiting the way Huey, Dewey and Louie in midfield were dropping deeper.
A fine finish, but a poor goal to lose for the Timbers, in my opinion. Given the way we were set up with three guys congesting the midfield, how did a Real** player get so much space and time to cross in for Saborio?
Some will point to the lack of Real passing through the middle and say that our three did their job, but it never felt like a sure fit for me and it failed us more than once in the match.
Besides which, RSL actually had more passes in that attacking midfield area against the Timbers central three, than they managed against Seattle.
When they stepped up a gear, there was always the threat, to me at least, that they could go right through the heart of the three musketeers, if they needed to. Rather than turning Salt Lake attacks to stone, the Timbers lined up with the Stygian Witches in midfield and found themselves unable to fathom what do when the opponents simply play around you.
Looking back at the big set of chalkboards, you can even see the Timbers start to mimic the way RSL were playing in the second half. Almost exclusively down the wings. We had three guys in the centre of the pitch who simply weren’t getting involved in the match to any real degree.
By the time Spencer perhaps began to recognise his team was ceding more territory to RSL, dropping the midfield right in front of the defence and with no outlet for the ball, the Timbers were 2-0 down.
The second goal, following on so quickly after the 1st, was a killer blow and put out any faint hopes that the Timbers would improbably come back.
If I wasn’t a Timbers fan I could almost laugh at the way Saborio jumps and down and waves for the quick ball over the top when he realises he’s one on one with Smith, and that he has the jump on him.
The third goal was a comedy of errors. First Jack Jewsbury gets comprehensively outjumped by Saborio, and then Diego Chara is sent off for handling the ball on the line. With the game as good as lost, it was one of those occaisions when Chara’s instincts betrayed him. A more calculating player lets it go past as 3-0 is as good as 2-0 *shrug*. Instead, Chara will miss the visit of LA Galaxy in the third match of the “Seriously? Again? Already?!” Cup this weekend.
By the way, glance back to those chalkboards and see how RSL kill a game off and close it out (admittedly against 10 men for a bit) and compare it to how the Timbers did against San Jose. Night and day.
With injuries hitting, it’s actually admirable to see Spencer try and change things up. His bunker-in-and-break-out ploy was, on paper, a decent, if hardly exciting, thought. The problem with a strategy like that only works as long as you’re not behind as it’s hard to play with that mentality and then have to chase a game late on.
Mosquera didn’t start, as I thought he might not given the way Spencer picks his XI-JJ. In the event, neither Futty nor Horst had particularly bad games. RSL are a good team, and good teams will punish you.
In a way, it’s not that much of a surprise that RSL won another home game. It’s certainly no surprise that the Timbers lost a road game. For 60 minutes, Spencer will say the Timbers strategy was working and it was only when the Timbers chased the game that the gap widened.
The fact is, as I see it, the Timbers didn’t hold off RSL for 60 minutes, they held on. We simply don’t possess the players to play this way and win more than the occasional fluke.
Mwanga didn’t provide the outlet the Timbers needed, and Nagbe and Alexander found it difficult to build the play. There was still a good chance when Chara led a breakaway, but his pass into the box was way ahead of Mwanga, who hadn’t made the run to the back post the Colombian expected.
Such is the nature of the way the Timbers played that failure to take what few chances were presented to them left them in an ever more precarious position.
Without that guy doing the donkey work up top, RSL were only going to get more and more of the ball, and they’re too good to not punish you eventually.
I get what Spencer was doing with Mwanga. He’s more mobile than Boyd, he’s big (if not exactly dominant aerially) and can play it on the deck too. It was a gamble – dropping the club’s leading scorer – but one I can respect, even though it didn’t come off in the end.
We were never able to join the dots in attack, and as a result we were ever more reliant on out defense performing above themselves. In the end, the quality of an attacker like Saborio told.
A game we were expected to lose, despite some hopeful coverage pre-game, and, given the way Spencer lined up his team, we lost the way you’d expect us to. Even so, it’s still hurts. The road form is trolling on a subcontinental level.
Our away form continues to be dismal. It can’t be coincidence still. Something in our prep or approach is lacking away from Jeld-Wen. Yes, the fans make great noise and support the team and I’m sure it lifts the players, but they shouldn’t need that kind of lift to perform at even at decent standard. And I don’t believe for a second it has quite the dramatic effect that the stats would seem to suggest. There has to be more to it than that, and if not then it’s time to get a group of players who can do their jobs without being roared on by a crowd that, pardon the cliche, deserves better.
With the home crowd behind them, the Timbers might be expected to do a bit better against LA, but they’ll have to do it without Chara. At least Jack is back where he’s needed, though, so, there’s that.
A win against Beckham FC would move the Timbers to within a point of them and, potentially, the play-off spots.
As bad as it’s been, there’s still hope. Just, maybe not a great deal of expectation.
* also works with a lower-case r
** again, as above