O Captain, My Captain

In what has been a busy week for the Timbers, what with trades and new team name unveiling going on, Ives “Soccer By” Galarcep broke the rumour that the Timbers were looking to tie down the signing of Norwegian-born, US-capped midfielder Mikkel “Morning Star” Diskerud.

The move makes a lot of sense in the wake of the club’s manoeuvring up the Allocation Order, or the “Because Why Not Make Things More Complicated Than They Have To Be? Order”, as I believe it was originally called. They are now second only to Toronto and one would suspect that part of the trade with TFC included a gentleman’s agreement on the issue of the Canadian side passing should “Mix” leave Rosenborg, while one of the Toronto executives dropped a paint can and another swung round with a large plank of wood to smack him on the back of the head in the slapstick fashion that I imagine Toronto officials live every day.

With Will Johnson, Diego Chara, Eric Alexander and Darlington Nagbe all in consideration already for the, as most assume, three midfield spots that Porter will seek to fill (though I suspect Nagbe will be played further forward, perhaps as an inverted winger/forward), throwing Diskerud into the mix (pun count: 1) leaves one glaring question…

What about Captain Jack?

Jack Jewsbury leads the club into so many categories – goals, assists, minutes, starts, even shots. You name it, chances are Jewsbury holds the record (record/disk, eh, i’m claiming it – pun count: 2).

It should come as no surprise given that only Darlington Nagbe played more minutes than Jewsbury in 2012, but the passing matrix recently released on MLSSoccer.com, and analysed by the Stumptown Footy guys, also showed that no player had made more passes than Jewsbury. I don’t doubt a similar matrix for 2011 would give the same results.

You would think, adding all this up, that there would be much gnashing of teeth and grumbling of tweets over the increasingly distinct possibility that the club captain may be getting spun (spin, another record/disk one, pun count: 3) out of the frame, and yet there’s not.

2011 was certainly a banner year for Jack Jewsbury. Emerging from the doldrums of the Kansas City bench, he was installed as Timbers captain and quickly garnered a reputation as a set-piece specialist as he racked up assist after assist from dead balls.

He also ran Kenny Cooper close for top scorer, finding the net seven times – the same number of goals as he had in the four previous years with the Wizards.

To put Jack’s contribution in perspective, of the Timbers 40 MLS goals in 2011, Jewsbury was directly involved in 15 of them.

But even as 2011 wound to a close, following his inclusion in the MLS All-Star squad, there was a sense of diminishing returns from Jewsbury, and that seemed to be the case through much of 2012.

The numbers dropped – from 7 goals to 3 and 8 assists to 4 – as the team struggled. The blockbuster numbers of 2011 perhaps masked that, underneath it all, Jewsbury was, not to be rude (Diskerud, rude, okay, I’ll stop now, but still, pun count: 4), no more than a functional, workmanlike and honest midfielder, but not a game changer and as the club struggled, there was never the sense that Captain Jack was going to be the man to lead the team out of the dark.

There were moments of course, important goals at key times, but it never seem quite enough to justify the hefty salary and seemingly untouchable place in the team.

With the club seemingly intent on making big changes to how the club plays, his position within the team seems less and less secure. Indeed, John Spencer’s words before the 2012 season have never seemed so ominously prophetic for Jack.

Jack Jewsbury, as long as I’m here, will captain the Portland Timbers.

Say whatever you will about Spencer, but he wasn’t lying there!

The trade of Troy Perkins was a big indicator that the club would not shy away from making the Big Moves. Big enough that I felt the need to capitalise the words. No-one, regardless of how important you may be to the club, would be assured of a place on the roster, let alone in the starting XI.

Jewsbury turns 32 in 2013. He was paid a base salary of $180,000 in 2012. It’s hard to see who in MLS would take that burden on, regardless of how impressive the goals and assist numbers may look at a glance. Jewsbury chafed when he found starts hard to come by at Kansas City, so it’s doubtful he’d be all that happy at the thought of being a back-up where once he was a leader but he may have to suck it up under Porter’s regime. By all account, Jewsbury is a popular and highly-regarded guy in the dressing locker room, and if he were to make no secret of any upset or anger at such a demotion it would be interesting to read its effects on the squad’s harmony and ability to quick foster a sense of unity and togetherness that will be so crucial to Porter as he looks to mould almost a new team together in the full glare of fans and media.

Should it come to pass that Jewsbury time as a mainstay of the Timbers XI is over, then it raises the question of captainship.

The previous two popular suggestions for potential captains – Troy Perkins and Eric Brunner – have both left the club, so it’s a toss-up as to who could step in to the role if Jack were stripped of the armband. I threw the question out on twitter, and Horst seemed to be the most popular suggestion with other shouts for Will Johnson and Darlington Nagbe also getting a couple of tweets.

Of course, there’s no reason why the captain must play, and there’s a theory that the guy with the armband on the field holds little sway and that a club leader is a club leader regardless of his official status, but the symbolism seems to matter to some. With Jewsbury being moved on looking unlikely, there’s still a chance we’ll have at least one more year of Captain Jack, but given the tear-it-down-build-it-again approach Porter and Wilkinson seem to be taking to much of the Timbers roster, a new man being given the armband may be the perfect symbol for a new era in Portland.

Where does Jack fit in in 2013, and who do you feel should replace Jewsbury as captain, if he even needs replaced at all?

[cardoza_wp_poll id=2]

Official: Portland women named Portland Thorns FC

After weeks of anticipation, the new Portland women’s team finally has a name: Portland Thorns FC.

The Thorns FC crest was created by Portland artist Brent Diskin, an ardent local soccer supporter and member of the Timbers Army.

“Portland Thorns FC quickly emerged as a natural choice that was appropriate for the city and the culture of Soccer City, USA,” said Merritt Paulson, owner and president of the Timbers and Thorns FC. “And a nice side benefit of the name is the Army’s P-T-F-C chant doesn’t need much re-scripting for the women’s team.”

With some help of their friends from Girls, Inc., Thorns FC showed off their new logo and name in the video below.

In conjunction with today’s announcement, Thorns FC introduced the club’s official Facebook page (www.facebook.com/PortlandThornsFC).

The unveiling begins

While Thursday is slated as the official announcement of the the Portland women’s soccer team name and logo, the Portland Timbers are providing fans some clues on their Facebook page.

Here are the first three clues:

I love how the unveiling includes young girls from  Girls Inc. of NW Oregon holding the pieces of the new logo. Kudos to the Portland organization on involving the local community in not only the logo design itself, but especially involving these youth in the unveiling.

Girls Inc. of NW Oregon is partner in the Portland Timbers Stand Together program. Their mission is to inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold through life-changing programs and experiences that help girls navigate gender, economic, and social barriers.

To follow the clues, visit the Timbers Facebook at: www.facebook.com/portlandtimbers




The Aesthetics

Football has no place within the much debated world of aesthetics.

Actually, this could be considered a faulty or incorrect statement. Let’s try it again.

Football exists very tenuously within the realm of aesthetics.

Books have been written about this, columns have been written about this, tomes by intelligent men and women exist on the ideals of football.

Where does the abstraction of the team fall between the idealistic vision of “The beautiful game” and the current vision of what it takes to win in MLS?

The vision currently is thus, while MLS has taken strides towards an existence within the realm of the 4-3-3, the tempo pass, the creative midfielder, it still exists within the proposal of the 4-4-2, or (providence forbid) the Catenaccio. While certainly not many, or really any teams in MLS play with a full sweeper behind the back four, overload one side (preferably the right) push up the field and attempt to cynically disrupt the offense to counter attack, there is a certain current methodology towards winning MLS cup.

The current back-to-back champions of MLS have indicated this with the almost Italian philosophies of Bruce Arena and LA Galaxy. Bruce sets up a star powered team to play on the counter attack, inviting pressure upon the Galaxy and dictating the game with a deep lying creative midfielder (now gone) to play the ball up the field to streaking forwards. There is a reason why seemingly the Galaxy play tight and then seem to open up the game with late goals. They invite play through the middle, to their defensive side and frustrate their opponents leading to their opposition pushing more players into the attack. Then the hammer blow comes down as the midfield and full-backs are caught up field with only a center-back left to protect.

There is also a reason (or few reasons) why Galaxy were poor at the beginning of the season and started to play well later. Many fans point towards Robbie Keane’s form in the second half of the season after returning from the Euro’s, almost as though he had flipped a “Give-A-Shit” button. However, one can merely look at the rock of stability in Omar Gonzalez and the solidifying of LA’s defense through the addition of the “Should have been 2011 MLS MVP” to the back line. With Juninho covering in the midfield and the fluctuation passion of a disinterested Landon Donovan, the 2012 Galaxy eventually morphed into a version of a team that was reminiscent of the 2011 Galaxy team in terms of effectiveness.

LA plays a bizarre version of possum as they press and retreat. As well, Bruce Arena doesn’t just stick with one particular style. Reacting against the opponent they will at times shorten the field by moving the back line up (as they did against Seattle to great effect) which makes the field much smaller to play within. This has the effect of increasing the need for “touch” players for the opposition, something which is lacking in a general sense within MLS. When shortening the field, the midfield and defense of LA is given a shorter path to pressure the ball, enabling them to spring the attack quicker into the opposition end. With quality in defense and counter-attack, the Galaxy used the not-so-great ball outlet of Christian Wilhelmsson who frequently ran the touchline as a pressure valve.

Now, this works when you have David Beckham receiving the ball and pinging passes to all-star players like Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. This move also fails more often than not when you have David Beckham receiving the ball and pinging passes to players like Chad Barrett and Adam Cristman.

Houston themselves play within the realm of a 4-4-2, and play with a sense of positional discipline that would make Roy Hodgson pleasure himself repeatedly. They are underrated in the league within the realm of movement, fluidity and passing as they do attempt to play the ball. Paramount for Houston, though, is defensive rigidity, responsibility and ability. They play tough through the middle of the field, hitting anything that moves with slight shoulders, grabs and challenging headers. This kind of defensive presence through the midfield often leads to ugly games as typically teams within MLS are more than happy to mix it up physically.

What all this brings us to is the amazing challenge that Caleb Porter has taken on in Portland. He steps into a world that currently revolves around “two-banks-of-four” Houston Dynamo and “Catenaccio light” LA Galaxy.

Certainly there has been some success within the league with teams that attempt to play the ball “see: Real Salt Lake and Miami Fusion”. However, even Real Salt Lake hasn’t had unmitigated success playing the pass and move game within the confines of MLS. Their win within MLS cup came during their transition to playing on-the-ground/passing football and came two years after Jason Kreis was put in charge to change the direction of the new team.

Throughout 2012, Timbers fans were able to see the truly varied approaches of multiple head coaches at their position. With the start of the 2012 season, they were able to see more of a wing approach. While lip service was given to portray the team attempting to play through the middle of the field, the team typically still pushed the ball out to the wings and attempted to dump the ball into the box. Quite often this lead to immediate turn overs and midfielders/wing players getting caught up field with the immediate destruction of the full-backs happening. When build up play happened with the full-backs overlapping up the field and playing balls with the outside midfield players near the corner of the penalty area, the impact was that the Timbers typically took one too many touches, got caught in possession and then the full-backs and outside midfield were caught up field.

Quite often this would lead to break outs in the Timbers defensive end with players like Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury attempting to break up plays with fouls, or getting bypassed on the way to the back line.

With a lack of defensive integrity at the back, John Spencer attempted to fix this problem by limiting the amount of times that his full-backs or midfielders got caught up field. Without a true midfielder capable of delivering the ball through the middle of the field, the Timbers would often sit back and try to “not get beaten”. The problem with this is that not only did this kill the offense, but the 2012 Timbers were not talented enough at full-back and center-back to play a defensive shell game. Games would vacillate between defensive slog fests where eventually Portland would be beaten by the mental defensive mistake that always seemed to happen, and offensively open games where the Timbers couldn’t sustain leads.

This ultimate nadir of this tactical confusion was the Timbers 1-0 loss to amateur team Cal FC in the US Open Cup. Portland created a mind-boggling 37 shots with 15 shots on goal and 0 goals (including a missed PK). Out of those 15 shots on goal, there were really none that challenged the keeper. There was so little confidence in the team finishing their shots that they could have played for 500 minutes in a row and probably not scored a goal. At that point the Timbers had managed to neuter the confidence of offense AND have a defensive catastrophe… at home…. to an amateur team filled with valets and dishwashers.

Certainly John Spencer wasn’t a one trick pony, but it seemed that his train of thought in adaptation and recognizing trends was simply not fast enough at the time. When he attempted to play Lovel Palmer at defensive midfield to man-mark against Kansas City the experiment worked (although in a method of nihilistic frustration as the Timbers rarely threatened and won the game on an own goal). However, he then extrapolated that this formation and deployment would work in the next game against a Montreal side that had no intention of playing the same method into the Timbers hands. This resulted in a 2-0 loss on the road with more offensive ineptness.

With John Spencer sacked and in the rear view, Gavin Wilkinson took over as head coach of the Timbers. While fans that watched his coaching style before bet on the inevitable return of the long ball tactics he used during the USL days of the team, the real tactics he used were a bit different. Wilkinson (in conjunction of the hire of Caleb Porter) took the shackles off the full-backs and asked them and the midfield to attempt to attack. This, in combination of the poor defensive form, the lack of ability of players in the midfield to play defense, and the inevitable confusion that happens with a coaching change lead to some terrible performances by the Timbers. There were suggestions that Wilkinson was attempting to implement the changes that Porter would envision in 2013, there were suggestions that the team was getting shadow coached by Sean Mcauley. Either way, the team’s defense was routinely exposed in the early going of Wilkinson’s tenure leading to a number of truly horrific games.

As time elapsed, the new defense and offensive scheme coalesced into a slightly more congealed attack and defense. Mind you this congealed presence DID NOT improve the Timbers ability to win, score goals, and prevent goals. The performances of Steven Smith became more composed down the left side, and even though the right back position remained a sieve the entirety of the year, the Timbers found themselves ready to play for the right to lift the Cascadia Cup against their hated rivals, the Seattle Sounders.

They imploded instead.

On the road, Wilkinson started two full-backs (Lovel Palmer and Rodney Wallace) that were largely relegated to bench and reserve appearances as they both had proven over the course of the season their lack of the basic ability to play in defense. As well, Wilkinson started a fourth choice Center-back (Futty Danso). These choices were supposedly to increase the athleticism in the team and replace a nebulous injury (athleticism a trait that Wilkinson has frequently touted as important to him and to Porters new offense). The Timbers were absolutely destroyed on the road and thrashed like a limp rag as the defense and midfield were unable to contain, press or even think on the ball.

Somehow, despite this loss, the Timbers were still able to play for the Cascadia Cup….. again on the road… This time the game to win was against Vancouver.

And this is where any kind of beautiful aesthetics went out the window completely.

Wilkinson set out a side with a game plan to play cynical, aggressive, pressing football with a long ball emphasis that would have made Charles Reep proud (Reep was one of the foremost English proponents of long ball play). Wilkinson restored the three players in the defense with their progenitors and had his defensive line push up as high as possible. This was not to have the intent of playing the pressing and drop game that teams like Barcelona implement (in which Barcelona press up high in order to decrease the space available to the opposing players and the size of the field, and then upon possession of the ball they drop deep in order to expand the field to give their players the ability pass freely around a large space) he did this in order to destroy the flow of the game.

The Whitecaps didn’t possess the ability (or, at the very least, decided against it) to play the ball on the ground and break the defensive line. The first 15 minutes of the game showed the kind of football that would have made Ronaldinho cry in shame. The ball barely even noticed the grass as it logged more frequent flier miles than an airplane. The Timbers had no real intent of keeping possession; they merely attempted to push up on the opposing Whitecaps players, disrupted their game and then kick the ball up to the front as fast as possible. The goal for the Timbers came about from some of the scant amount of decent play, as the deadlock was broken by a wonder strike late. Nine times out of ten that game finishes 0-0.

Tactically the game plan was a simplistic master stroke. For the un-invested fan the game was a giant pile of shit.

The problem here for Porter is that the method of press, kick and rush worked and does work. Granted this was against a slumping opponent who was suffering from their own offensive identity problem. However, MLS is still in the development phase in terms of players and (as well) in terms of tactics.

Porter’s Akron teams, as well as his ill-fated US U-23 team, attempted to build the offense from the back and prioritize the connection of the back four to the midfield. He attempts to play the game with two ball handling center-backs (the impetus of the attack) and 8 midfielders. The idea is that with possession and quality control you minimize the amount of time that the opposition can have to attack your own defense. His Akron team would pass the ball around in their own end with the free ease of a team on the training ground. The left back would push up, interchange positions with the midfield, then exchange the ball in rolling triangles between them and the center-back as the ball would make it over to the center-backs, the keeper, the right back, the midfield and then back across to the left back again.

The issue here is the ethos and rigidity with which Porter and, to a certain extent, Merritt Paulson see the game. The downfall of Porter with the U-23 Olympic team was the inability to adapt tactically to a situation or team in which a difference from his preferred tiki-taka style was needed.

The premier trophy in MLS has now been won and contested via counter attacking defensive first style and defensively rigid two banks of four style for the last two years. One can look at the 2012 San Jose Earthquakes in terms of a current MLS style of offensive execution. When implementing the towers of (either/or/and) Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart, San Jose operate within the realm of the big man/smaller man, goal poaching, defensive stability, somebody hit somebody, physical play that exists within MLS. Kansas City operated with such a pressing style within MLS that it leads to questions about the playability of their style. They use such physicality in their pressing and play that it became a question of “what is a foul and what isn’t a foul” towards the end of the year. Their style was such that it could be influenced heavily by the appointment of referees who have their own particular way of viewing physical interaction and the way in which players play. These philosophies worked (for the most part) as Kansas City, with their high octane press and disrupt style, only gave up 27 goals on the year (lowest in MLS); and San Jose, with their disrupt in the box and service to goal poaching striker formula, scored 72 goals (highest in MLS) on the year. Certainly one could look at LA’s Goals Against number from this season as very high, but you must remember that prior to the return of Omar Gonzalez and the refocus of the team to their defensive responsibilities that the defense was a sieve. Colorado, as well, won a MLS cup with a rugged defense, a big man up top and a direct style.

It is within this scope of “what works in MLS” that we see what John Spencer was heading towards. His attempted focus on wing play, physicality, playing to a big man, defensive rigidity would and should have worked. Spencer’s major problem was the quality of the players obtained by and for him. With unwise trades and acquisitions Spencer and Wilkinson traded players they could have used for players that weakened the defense and midfield significantly. Spencer’s philosophies are those philosophies that work for Dominic Kinear. The difference is that Kinear has consistently picked the right players (sometimes at the DIRECT expense of the Timbers) and Spencer did not.

Which brings us to a major problem for Porter, that is… the Players.

This is a league in which defensive work rate, athleticism and gritty hard nose play are en vogue. MLS teams typically don’t possess the financial ability, the scouting or the stature to lure technically skilled players to the league. Those that have been brought over haven’t always worked out, for a number of reasons. As well, many technical players may not want to play in a league that is currently dominated by very physical play. What Porter was able to obtain at Akron is not going to be readily available within the ranks of professionalism. With Akron, Porter was one of the (if not THE top) alpha dogs in college soccer. His prestige alone made it easier to pitch the ideal of playing fluid football to blue chip prospects with technical flair.

With the Timbers, Porter will have to operate with a manager and owner overseeing his every move, a salary cap, and teams like Los Angeles who are more than willing to unload a couple million dollars towards available players who have never heard of Caleb Porter, Akron, and Portland. His navigation of player acquisition, his ability to work with youth prospects and find diamonds with inexpensive players will be key to his ability to implement some kind of fluid football. As well, his ability to translate his requests to Gavin Wilkinson will be one of the key components that will determine his success and failure. If Wilkinson is unable to obtain the talent that Porter requires, if he decides to imprint his own ideals on the player selection, or simply if he scouts poorly… Porter may find the seas enormously difficult during his tenure as coach.

It is a cop out to say that time will tell, but that is the trope to use here. Important milestones for Timbers fans will be the acquisition or discovery of authentic and useful full-backs that are comfortable with the ball and proficient (at least one of the two) in attack. As well, another milestone will be the acquisition of an attacking midfielder. The Timbers desperately need a player that can control the ball, the tempo of the offense and provide service. The 2012 Portland Timbers starting lineup simply does not have the technical ability or poise to play with Porter’s system. It remains up to Caleb Porter, Gavin Wilkinson and Merritt Paulson to find these players. As well it remains to be seen if MLS is at a time in which stylistic possession with the players available under a strict salary cap can defeat counter attacking or negative-branded tactics.

As for now…. All that Timbers fans can do is wait and see.

Roster Talk

Ahead of the first round of the Re-Entry Draft, which to my Scottish ears still sounds a euphemism for something that belongs in Roger’s Profanisaurus, the Timbers have announced the re-signing of 3 players, as well as the exercising of the option on a further 8.

It puts to bed the appearance of a Mr Rodney Wallace Esq on the original list put up by MLS. Whatever shape the supposed negotiations took, we won’t know the details for some time, the end result is that Wallace is at least signed on for 2013, though the roster is a pretty nebulous thing at this stage, and things may, and most likely will, change.

The current roster now looks something like this.

Players who were under contract for 2013

# Pos Player Name Age Country
21 M Diego Chara 26 Colombia
9 F Kris Boyd 29 Scotland
D Michael Harrington 26 USA
12 D David Horst 27 USA
35 D Andrew Jean-Baptiste 20 USA
8 M Franck Songo'o 25 Cameroon
13 D/M Jack Jewsbury 31 USA
M Will Johnson 25 Canada
24 F Sebastián Rincón 18 Colombia
33 D Hanyer Mosquera 25 Colombia
1 GK Donovan Ricketts 35 Jamaica
6 M/F Darlington Nagbe 22 Liberia

Players re-signing, or having options exercised, for 2013.

# Pos Player Name Age Country
17 M Eric Alexander 24 USA
11 M Kalif Alhassan 22 Ghana
23 GK Joe Bendik 23 USA
98 D Mamadou "Futty" Danso 29 The Gambia
19 F Bright Dike 25 USA
90 GK Jake Gleeson 22 New Zealand
18 D Ryan Kawulok 22 USA
27 D Chris Taylor 23 USA
22 D/M Rodney Wallace 24 Costa Rica
7 M Sal Zizzo 25 USA
16 M/F Brent Richards 22 USA

That leaves three of the current squad, as listed on the official site, currently unspoken for.

# Pos Player Name Age Country
10 F Danny Mwanga 21 DR Congo
20 F Jose Adolfo Valencia 20 Colombia
2 F Mike Fucito 26 USA

The big stand-out there is Danny Mwanga. It would be foolish to read too much into his omission – as it was with Wallace and the Re-Entry Draft (sorry, it just amuses me every time I write that) – for the press release today, but if what Chris Rifer suggested on timbersarmy.org about Danny’s salary increasing is true then it may be worth just keeping an eye on all the same.

Speaking of the Re-Entry Draft, WVHooligan has a look at a few decent options to consider.

MLS have released an updated list of eligible players, if you want to take a look. Obviously, Rodney Wallace’s name is no longer there and, oddly, neither is Steve Purdy’s.

And while I’m on drafts, Stumptown Footy have suggested a trio of midfielders that the Portland Timbers could go for in the SuperDraft in January.

By the way, just as an aside, I’m no longer as convinced as I was that Kris Boyd isn’t back in 2013. Just a hunch.

Andrew Wiebe at MajorLeagueSoccerSoccerDotCom took a longer look at the Timbers deal to acquire the homegrown rights of Bryan Gallego. It’s certainly an interesting move. I don’t know that we should heap all the credit on Porter’s shoulders.

Gavin Wilkinson has taken a few knocks, on this site especially, but this deal seems to me to be a collaboration between Wilkinson and Porter, rather than the work of one or the other and so Gavin deserves some of the kudos too, assuming that Gallego actually makes it to the big leagues eventually etc.

The most logical way this deal works, in my mind, is the trade of Kimura to New York for allocation money is worked out by the front offices. Porter would give his approval that Kimura isn’t part of his plans, so go ahead with the deal and, oh, by the way, this kid I’ve worked with, I really rate him, he’s in New York’s academy system, could we fit him into the deal somehow? Phone calls go back and forth, the club get the nod from the league, and a deal is worked out to add Gallego in, with the Timbers writing off money due as part of the Cooper deal.

Or it goes the other way, with the move for Gallego coming first and fitting Kimura in to bring some allocation money back to Portland, for reasons as yet unknown.

Just my conjecture, but it’s what makes sense to me rather than one guy doing it all. Good communication between Porter and the front office is essential if he is to have any chance of putting out a successful team.

I still have deep reservations about Gavin’s ability to guide the ship, but I’m not an ideologue or anti-GW zealot, by any means. Perhaps because I wasn’t there at the time he was butting heads with a large sections of the fans, I don’t have the same visceral reaction to the man than some have, but I just try to call it as I see it. And I simply haven’t liked what I’ve seen so far. At all. But if he can turn it around, and give Porter the backing he needs to make a success of it, then I’ve no problem in giving him credit for the job. I was a big fan of John Spencer, but when it reached the point where I thought he was doing more harm than good, I said so. I’m a rationalist – I respond to reason and evidence, so equally, if we see the same problems repeating, then I make no apologises for “yet another anti-GW article, #yawn”.

MLSSoccer.com have done their review of the year for the Portland Timbers. Interesting choice to give Best Newcomer to Kris Boyd. Personally, I’d have gone for Hanyer Mosquera or Steven Smith. As for the MVP nod towards Chara, I’d agree with that. Other players have hit higher heights than Diego, but no-one has been as consistently good. Again, an honourable mention to Mosquera.

It’s an interesting read, with some OPTA and tactical stuff thrown in there, but I’ll be glad when we can start talking Previews rather than Reviews. I’m reading for 2012 to be done already.

Identity Issues

It almost seems too easy to pile on General Manager–and widely maligned ginger super villain–Gavin Wilkinson after the abortive mess that was the Portland Timbers 2012 campaign. Most, if not every, PTFC supporter is well aware of Wilkinson’s past hits; from throwing his squad under the bus (a few times), to somewhat callously slagging off players on their way out of town. Unfortunately for Wilkinson, with each interview he grants, the hits keep on coming, usually in the form of anyone but Gavin Wilkinson being made responsible for the club’s substandard play.

And so, with the first round of #Rostergeddon behind us, and the next round rapidly approaching, Wilkinson delivered another few gems in the form of two separate quotes on Monday:

“The general manager’s job is to get the pieces for the head coach to help the success of the organization, and it’s about the organization,” Wilkinson said. “And it’s also about giving Caleb the pieces he wants to work with, the pieces he thinks will contribute the way he sees them contributing.”

“We have enough athleticism, we have enough ability,” Wilkinson said. “What we want to fix is maybe the mental side of it and bring in mentally tough guys who have been in the league and succeeded in the league.”

Critics of the general manager will first point to the fact that by Gavin Wilkinson’s own standards, he has been an abject failure as a general manager. They will likely point out that the last two years have not done the organization any favors, particularly the way ‘upgrades’ and releases have been handled, and short of seeing the Cascadia Cup in the Fanladen, fans are very down on the club’s ability to perform in an MLS league that ranks somewhere towards the middle internationally.

But what I found particularly interesting about Wilkinson’s latest interview is how it plays into something I’ve been saying about the club since it’s ascendancy to MLS; it quite plainly does not have a footballing identity. While it ultimately falls on the players to play the game, it is the responsibility of management to set the direction of the club, which starts with the hiring of key staff and then make sure that staff does their jobs.

In the beginning, both Wilkinson and owner Meritt Paulson tried to sell us on a strategy of bringing in footballers with athletic prowess to make a team that could out-MLS everyone in MLS with hustle and and a pure athleticism that could produce some beautiful football and ultimately solid results. This seemed odd on its face given that the club had hired John Spencer, a manager who immediately implemented a 4-4-2 system, which classically relies on a solid back four that can defend and get up the pitch during an attack, coupled with a pair of central midfielders to support the back four and initiate the attack going the other way. Under Spencer, the team rarely found themselves being able to boast of success in either area. They were ostensibly a 4-4-2 team that couldn’t take leverage any the 4-4-2 formation’s advantages, due in great part to a bevy of personnel issues.

Attempting to spell out these personnel problems in each area of the pitch is difficult, due primarily to the fact that the personnel in each area of the pitch changed around so much, that John Spencer’s famous quip that he was fitting “square pegs going into round holes” became a talking point in its own right. However, it is fair to say that forwards were often more isolated than an ascetic monk on a hilltop, waiting for the inevitable long ball from a cartoonish rotation of unsuccessful left- and right-backs, all but nullifying the supposed athletic advantages the squad was meant to be built around. The midfield was toothless and unimaginative; often featuring two defensive-minded center-mids, with largely ineffective service sporadically coming from the wings. To use a very cheap analogy, it’s as if Merritt Paulson gave his GM the chassis of a Bugati Veyron and charged him with the task of sourcing parts and a competent driver, only to find what he saw as a Bugati running like a fucking Geo Metro with an increasingly befuddled toddler behind the wheel.

Looking from our tortured MLS past, to the somewhat unclear MLS future, that toddler, John Spencer, is but a distant memory in the minds of Timbers supporters and former Akron Zips coach Caleb Porter has been brought in to right the ship. The choice is interesting, inasmuch as it seems to be both an admission that past two years of football played at the club are to be forgotten, while still remaining well within the thus-far unsuccessful MO of owner Meritt Paulson, who is always after the next up-and-coming (read: unproven) talent to build his club around. The problem here is obvious, in a rush to obscure his lack of soccer knowledge and the FO’s gross  mismanagement, it seems that he has been watching Barcelona games on Fox Soccer, and now hopes to sell us on the idea that he’s going to build an MLS Barca here in Portland, without actually holding his people responsible for the success of that massive undertaking.

If you close your eyes, you can probably imagine Paulson yelling: “Just build me a fucking Veyron this time and let me know when you’re done, so that I can go for a ride. WEEEEEEEEEE!”

It is expected that Porter will institute a 4-3-3 system, one which is favored in the modern game by teams like Barca for its positivity, but which also places a much higher premium of player technique and creativity, especially in the midfield. When done poorly it can leave the back-line isolated and vulnerable to attack, something the Timbers were quite prone to under the more defensive 4-4-2 setup. Porter seems to be saying all the right things and his clubs at the college level have played some very attractive, and very successful football, but he’s not walking into a hand-picked group of players at PTFC. This is still a club with a fair amount of personnel issues all over the pitch. And so, it seems, the identity of Caleb Porter’s PTFC  will depend largely on the direction of Merritt Paulson’s “soccer guy,” Gavin Wilkinson. That last sentence isn’t one prone to give supporters of the club much hope. In fact, you may want to call your favorite Timbers supporter now to talk them off the ledge, if you haven’t done so already this off-season.

The way “Timbers insiders” will tell it now–in a revisionist history fitting of Stalin or George W. Bush apologists–John Spencer was basically in charge of personnel decisions, directing his boss to scrounge up the squad we saw the past two seasons. While it is reasonably to expect that Spencer most certainly had sway in the process, as any manager does, it seems incredibly unlikely that this was actually the case, particularly given the sense of exacerbation with which Spencer bemoaned the lack of solid options at key positions. But this revisionism, which smacks of desperation by the FO to deflect some of the ire seen in the North End towards the end of last season, brings up management issues that many fans have quite rightly questioned. Firstly, if Spencer was essentially in control of personnel decisions, what the fuck was Gavin Wilkinson doing the past two years? It certainly wasn’t his job, even as he has described it as recently as Monday. Secondly, if he hasn’t been capable of doing his job the past two seasons, why is he being given a third? I’ve yet to hear a decent explanation for this and I’m most certainly not holding my breath.

What’s staggering is, while it’s easy to get focused on personnel, Wilkinson’s history of general managerial incompetence, when it comes to shaping the identity of the club, spans well beyond player signings. When John Spencer was hired as the first manager of the MLS Timbers, it was based on his history and reputation as a highly respected coach in MLS under Houston Dynamo’s Dominic Kinnear. And while few could doubt Spencer’s energy, passion, and ability to work day-to-day with players, it was often that case that he looked pitifully out of depth on match-day, unable or unwilling to adjust to tactical changes and woefully off-base with substitutions. Things only got worse when Trevor James, an MLS veteran, left the bank at the end of the first season. Wilkinson’s answer was as simplistic as it was incomprehensible, he doubled down on USL-era coaches and perennial ‘parts of the problem’ Amos Magee and Adam James. The results were predictable as the club struggled once again to find an identity or any points on the road for that matter. The James departure and its aftermath may seem like a small event, but it was a clear opportunity for Paulson and the man he relies on for soccer related counsel to step in and assert some control over the situation, to bring someone in that could assist Spencer in bringing the team into his system before things got so out of hand that the club was dropping games to amateur teams in front of its fans to the tune of “Taps.”

But for 2013 at least, we are going to battle with Gavin Wilkinson at the helm, and what Gavin Wilkinson is saying is that he believes that PTFC is basically set-up to allow Caleb Porter to succeed. He would have us believe that it is not, as many fans have complained, a lack of quality on the pitch– or should we say the right kind of quality on the pitch–but rather a lack of mental toughness that has held this squad back to this point. This could very well mean that we won’t see a great deal more change to the roster ahead of the upcoming campaign, not even in key areas for a 4-3-3 formation, like the midfield.

Given Porter’s track record, particularly as the U-21 coach for the USMNT, it has to be said that short of changing his mind, this is the crux of the gamble Wilkinson is making with PTFC’s future.  As noted sports philosopher Shaquile O’Neal once said, “Don’t fake the funk on a nasty dunk;” either this team actually takes on the identity of a fluid, 4-3-3 style attacking Porter team–with the players we currently have (give or take a pair here and there)–or Porter could be forced to be the face of another season of disjointed, disappointing play as square pegs are unceremoniously and repeatedly jammed into round holes without even the courtesy of a lubricant.

For supporters, whose anxiety is sure to produce some positively epic SCUSA posts in the coming days, we can only sit back and wait to see what happens with the rest of #Rostergeddon before we decide just how much to freak the fuck out. With Gavin Wilkinson at the helm we may have to be resigned to the fact that as long as we have no solidified footballing identity and as long as failure is accepted at the highest levels of this club, this is what our normal is.

Admin note: Logan has asked that a line be edited from the piece as it seemed to be detracting from discussion of the actual thrust of the article. Let’s keep the conversation on what matters, please. Thanks.

Forward the Foundation

After a slow start, the much-promised Rostergeddon got into full swing on a day that would’ve reminded many fans of English football of Transfer Deadline day. All it needed was Harry Redknapp in his car telling a reporter that David Horst was a “great lad, great lad, really like ‘im.”

What we got was five players on the way out (with another whose status is up in the air), two players coming in (and another potential) and a Breaking Bad-esque pile of allocation cash.

Chris already did a great job of going over the wheeling and dealing in his post, so I’ll keep my thoughts on the deals “brief”.

The first deal confirmed was that of Kosuke Kimura to the New York Notcosmos. Kimura had staggered around the right-back position like a punchdrunk boxer for much of his time in Portland. Whether that’s due to his own deficincies or coming into a team with no real direction, that’s up to you to decide, but whatever the reasons, the move was one that was always likely to happen.

Kimura, who also found time to fit in an unsuccessful trial in Poland since the season ended, was joined by a second-round draft pick to New York, with the Timbers getting the homegrown rights to Bryan Gallego, a centreback who just so happens plays his college soccer for Akron Zips. You may have heard of them.

Given Porter’s background and experience of the college game, no-one will have a clearer idea of who he wants in the SuperDraft, so it’s interesting to me that he’s given up a draft pick to make this deal work. Of course, there’s a long way to go before the draft, plenty of time to wheel and deal for other picks, but the acquisition of Gallego’s homegrown rights is illuminating for a couple of reasons, I think.

Here’s a player Porter has worked closely within Akron, and it seems rates highly enough to give up a draft pick to get him. Being a homegrown player, Gallego wouldn’t have been eligible for the SuperDraft (as is my understanding, which could be way wrong), so is this a roundabout way to “draft” a guy Porter really wanted? Whether Gallego steps up this year (he’ll be 20 in March so, without getting into my pet peeve about youth development in the States, it’s not that crazy an idea) or he’s one for 2014, it also points towards a change in philosophy at the back for the Timbers.

It’d be fair to say that we’ve had a lot of guys with heart and spirit, but who are limited in technical ability. That won’t fly under the system Porter favours where the defenders have to be comfortable on the ball and able to play an intelligent, possession-based game. Clearly, Gallego already knows what Porter wants from his defenders, and Porter likes what he sees from Gallego.

Next came the news of Eric Brunner going to Houston. A sad one, but not unexpected. I’d written about the potential of Brunner’s leaving and while I leaned towards him staying (I thought Danso would be first to go) the news of his departure didn’t surprise me.

Brunner’s injury really took the wind out of the defender’s sails. He had a good 2011, and looked set to form a partnership with Mosquera at the back, but in his enforced absence he was usurped by David Horst.

With Horst holding down the position, Mosquera a lock and Jean-Baptiste hungry to push on in 2013, Brunner found himself squeezed out. A fine servant to the club in his time in Portland, Eric leaves with the best wishes on the Timbers faithful.

Michael Harrington’s arrival was the next announcement. The last time we picked up a former Kansas City starter who’d found himself relegated to the bench, it worked out pretty well! Harrington will give us options at both left and right back, and seems like a very solid addition to the squad.

Next up was the departure of Steve Purdy and Lovel Palmer. Purdy had been unable to really cement a place in the team since the move up to MLS. I liked what little I saw of him, but given his sporadic appearances in the team, it was of little surprise to see the option on him declined.

Lovel Palmer. I’d written about how I couldn’t see a future for him in Portland. I’ve been critical of him in the past, and justified in (much of) it, so I can’t say I’ll miss having him on the team but, nevertheless, I’m sure he gave his all. It just wasn’t good enough, consistently enough. Fare thee well.

Steven Smith was next to go, announcing it himself on twitter. This was one where I thought “oh no” at the time, but the more I thought about it, and the more I read about it, the more it made cold hard sense. Talk is that Smith would’ve needed DP wages to stay, and with Spencer going (and Boyd likely to go), there was little to hold Smith here on a personal level. There will be no shortage of offers back “home”.

The “final” announcement was that of the signing of Will Johnson from RSL. The Canadian international has been an important part of the RSL midfield over the past few years, and it’ll be interesting to see where he fits in in 2013. There are times we’ve lacked a bit of bite and spark in the middle, and Johnson will provide both of these in spades.

The MLS released the Re-Entry Draft list shortly afterwards. It would be worth keeping an eye on as the Timbers have the #3 pick and the draft is a good way to fill out the squad and/or pick up pieces that can be traded on later.

It certainly raised a few eyebrows among Timbers fans when Rodney Wallace’s name appeared on it.

It’s important to note that the club and player have a couple more days to thrash out a deal that would see Wallace stay, and Merritt’s omission of Rodney from his “so long and thanks for all the fish” tweet would suggest the intention is to work something out. The talk is that the Timbers want to negotiate Wallace’s salary down. I’m not his biggest fan, but he is a decent squad player. He’s just not worth the money he’s currently pulling, in my opinion.

All in all, a pretty good day for the Timbers. Too early to make definitive judgements, of course, but it’s a start to Porter’s reign that fills me with cruel, cruel optimism!

Five out, two in and a complete revamp of the defence is underway. Given that so much of Akron’s play under Porter was built from the back, it makes sense that the gaffer would start his own rebuilding there.

Onwards and upwards.


Six Defining Moments of 2012

2012 is rife with talk of apocalypse, and there were certainly times that the sky seemed to be falling in on the Timbers. A managerial sacking, fans protests, twitter meltdowns, cup embarrassments, defensive horror-shows and, bizarrely, a late season triumph.

Thinking of some of the defining moments of the Timbers year, it would be easy to think of Spencer’s sacking, Porter’s hiring, the Cal FC defeat or Perkins’ trade as the big moments, and they probably are, but the lack of a definite article in the title is deliberate as I want to take a look at 6 other moments that I think would, in their own way, come to define the Timbers’ season.

1. The Late Collapse vs Real Salt Lake

Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon
When: March 31st, approx 19:45
What: There was still an air of optimism in Portland as the Timbers kicked-off against RSL. A opening day win, heralding the arrival of Kris Boyd with a debut goal, had been followed by a gritty road draw and a narrow road loss while RSL were coming off a home defeat to Chivas USA.

Despite the setback of going 1-0 down, the Timbers roared back with a brace of classy Darlington Nagbe goals to lead 2-1. The minutes ticked away, James Marcelin came on to help close the game out, the Timbers were looking at a 7 point haul from their opening 4 games, with a visit from Chivas USA up next.

And then, disaster. Two goals in the dying minutes overturned the result, giving the visitors a 3-2 win. Like a pin popping a balloon, suddenly the early belief and confidence was gone.

Another defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory result against Chivas the next week – throwing away a lead to another late winner – only cemented the belief that it was going to be another long season.

2. Eric Brunner’s injury vs Vancouver Whitecaps

Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon
When: May 26th, approx 18:06
What: With the second worst defensive record in the Western Conference in 2011, bolstering the defence was a priority for the Timbers in 2012 and, in the signing of Hanyer Mosquera, they thought they had their man to partner Eric Brunner in the heart of the back four.

Brunner had emerged from 2011 as a fan favourite, and a rare bright spot at the back for Portland. It was always going to be a case of Brunner + A.N. Other at the back, or so it seemed.

The partnership between Mosquera and Brunner took a while to get together thanks to injuries and such, but it looked like the club had finally found a solution in the middle, even if the full-back positions continued to perplex.

A concussion sustained early in the match against the Whitecaps saw Brunner removed at half-time. It would be September before Brunner saw action again, thanks in part to a further knee injury, when he came on as a late game sub. By this time, David Horst had made the position beside Mosquera his own.

The instability that followed – Danso and Horst would come in and out of the team – would see the team lose goals left and right before they finally settled on Horst. Horst looked out of his depth early on, but steadied to become a solid presence at the back, but one of the big “What if?” questions that hang over the Timbers season is “What if Brunner had never gotten injured?”

3. Kris Boyd’s goal vs Seattle Sounders

Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon
When: 24th June, approx 13:16
What: Steven Smith to Franck Songo’o, touched off to the overlapping Smith, a low cross ball to the middle where an unmarked Kris Boyd taps it past the Sounders keeper.

Boyd’s goal put the Timbers on their way to a 2-1 victory against their great rivals – their first MLS victory against the Orcish minions from the North. It would also put the Timbers in the driving seat to win the Cascadia Cup.

The win came less than a month after the Timbers had lost 1-0 to Cal FC, the same team the Sounders would thump 5-0 shortly afterwards. If that loss had represented the nadir of the club’s fortunes, the derby win was the zenith, with hopes restored that the club could yet get it’s playoff hopes back on track.

And yet, a little over two weeks later, John Spencer had been sacked.

4. Kris Boyd’s misses vs Chivas USA

Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon
When: 28th July, multiple times
What: Strictly speaking this is more than a single moment, but Boyd’s first half showing against Chivas would come to define so much of his season, and how it went into a tailspin.

Boyd was already getting criticism for not scoring enough goals, or justifying his hefty price tag, and it seemed to be weighing on the Scot. Gone were the natural, smooth finishes of early in the season – think, the flicked header against the Union, the calm finish against the Galaxy, the (wrongly) disallowed bit of skill and finish in the same match.

Now the finishes were nervy, jittery, rushed. In his desperation to score, he was hampering his natural instincts.

The first chance was much like that flash of skill against the Galaxy. Boyd heel-flicked a header down from Richards to control the ball, but rushed his shot, and sent it wide.

The second chance saw him caught offside, and of course he finished it with aplomb.

The third chance came only minutes later, and a nice touch left his defender for dead, but Boyd took the shot from a tight angle rather than the easy lay-off to Chara. Trying too hard.

The fourth chance came after a shot by Chara was palmed out by the keeper. Boyd swung at the rebound, barely connecting and only looping the ball up ineffectually.

Chivas would score the only goal of the game in the second half. Boyd’s time as a starter would come to an end only weeks later.

5. Bright Dike’s goal vs New York Red Bulls

Where: Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey
When: 19th August, approx 18:08
What: After a toothless showing in Toronto, Boyd was relegated to the bench. Bright Dike made his first-ever MLS start, after spending time on loan with LA Blues earlier in the season.

473 seconds. That is how long it took Dike to do what Boyd had gone 384 minutes without doing – score. Dike got on the end of Sal Zizzo’s low cross to put the Timbers in front, the first of five goals the striker would go on to tally before the season was out.

The Timbers would double their lead, but some poor defending, terrible officiating and an familiar late game sucker-punch resulted in a 3-2 defeat.

Dike’s form would bring him to the attention of the Nigerian national team, and would keep his more expensive team mate cooling his heels on the bench until injury ended Boyd’s 2012, and potentially his Timbers career.

6. Gavin Wilkinson’s experiment vs Seattle Sounders

Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Washington
When: 7th October, approx 17:00
What: The Timbers knew that a favourable result in Seattle’s backyard would guarantee them the Cascadia Cup. Interim head coach opted to switch out both full-backs and give starts to Lovel Palmer and Rodney Wallace. The game ended in a 3-0 defeat.

Peeved would be one word to describe the fans’ reaction to Wilkinson’s tinkering. Fucking furious would be two words.

Excuses would be made for the changes, some more convincing than others, but the fact remained that the Timbers went north to play their biggest rivals, with silverware on the line, with two guys in the team who had never convinced in their positions.

The defeat put the Cascadia Cup in doubt, and it would take a first road-win of the season against a frankly awful Vancouver Whitecaps to seal the deal. Had the cup been squandered… Well, that’s another “What if?” and one that would be best written by the writers of the Saw franchise should the Timbers fans have ever gotten their hands on Wilkinson.

So, there we have my thoughts on six moments that would shape and define the Timbers season. Which would you add as your own?