The Defence Rests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#RCTID


[post_ender]

The thing about football…

As the season drags on, with every minute of every miserable match, I get just a little closer to having my Chris Cooper Moment.

Don’t know what I’m talking about?

Check this out.

I was there for that match. I wasn’t sitting very far from where Chris had his moment of clarity. I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s shaped a lot of how I’ve viewed this season.

Despite what you may think if you only know me from my online persona, I’m not a super-emotional person. I don’t get crazy-excited about many things. I’m not incredibly demonstrative. I’m shy, I tend to keep to myself. For the most part, if I can possibly avoid the spotlight, I do everything in my power to do so.

And yet, here I am, pouring out words and emotion onto the internet for the world to see.

I watched the game tonight from a bar in SE Portland, a bar I’ve never been to when there wasn’t a soccer game on the big screen over the dining room. I sat at a table with people I didn’t know two years ago and I shouted at the tv more than once. In a bar. With strangers.

At my table were two other writers, a winemaker and an elementary school teacher. In various corners of the room were a 107ist board member, the founder of the Timbers Army, a girl I used to work with, and a guy who said some ridiculous things about me elsewhere on the internet.

We unite to support this team. We suffer as one.

I’ve been asked by non-Timbers friends why I put myself through all of this.

Simple.

I can’t remember what my life was like before I found myself in the midst of all of this, this whirling, churning tornado of hopes and dreams and frustration and insanity.

The thing about football – the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football.

– Terry Pratchett

That’s the thing. Terry Pratchett, who I do not in any way associate with soccer, hit the nail on the head. It’s not just about the game. It’s about everything surrounding the game. It’s about the relationships formed, friendships created through mutual celebration or mutual frustration.

And this. This is where a lot of us have spent most of the season:

Yes, yes, I know all the jokes…But I went to Chelsea and to Tottenham and to Rangers, and saw the same thing: that the natural state of a football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score.

– Nick Hornby

And, to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t trade a minute of that bitter disappointment for a minute of peaceful, blissful unawareness.

I just got a message from an internet friend in a city to the north, a city I’ve come to think of as a stronghold of the enemy, asking if I’m okay.

“I’ll be okay,” I tell him. “I’m an emotional creature. Rather, this miserable game has made me an emotional creature. It has changed me. For the better.”


You can read more from nomad at her blog.

[post_ender]

Still Dreaming

Victory against the Rapids took the Timbers out of the basement for the first time in what was in reality only a short while but felt so, so much longer. The recent turnaround in play and, crucially, results (I haven’t checked possession and shot stats, sorry) is sowing seeds of hope for 2013 when Caleb Porter will descend from on high – sorry, Ohio – to take over head coach duties.

A casual glance at the standings show that the Timbers are only 10 points behind Vancouver Whitecaps, and have played two fewer matches than our Canuck cousins. 10 points. 2 games. Do we really have to wait till 2013 for the good times to roll…?

I took the recent form of all the teams in the West (over the last six matches) and plugged it into the table to extrapolate how the season may finish.

[table “3” not found /]

If you tighten it to the last five matches, the Timbers have the same points but Dallas leapfrog Whitecaps 43-40, so 44 is still the “magic number”.

It doesn’t look good for the Timbers’ play-off chances, but then if things simply run according to “form” we could all pack up already. Still, I do think that if the Timbers were to pull off the unlikeliest play-off run in recent memory, they would have to win at least 5 of their last 8 matches.

The two teams fighting it out for that 5th spot currently are Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Dallas. For RSL, LA and Seattle the rest of the season will see them jostling for 2nd-4th while San Jose seek out their first Supporters’ Shield since 2005 with the cold-blooded determination of Walter White planning an expansion in territory.

Any Chivas fans reading this will, of course, first of all be wondering how the hell they ended up here, but secondly asking, “What about us? We’ve one more point than the Timbers, and we’ve played a game less!” To which I would reply, “Oh hey, Chivas, yeah, I, uh, I didn’t see you skulking about there. Um, yeah, this is awkward, you see, the thing is, no-one really cares about you. You should go and stand over there by New England cos he looks pretty lonely. Sorry, bro.”

Breaking down the run-in’s of Dallas and Vancouver, it’s clear that the advantage lies with the Canadian side. Of their final six matches, four are at home while Dallas hit the road for 3 of their last 5. To return to form tables, if both clubs were to hold up their respective home and away form the Whitecaps would end on 45 points to Dallas’ 37, but the Whitecaps would need to halt an alarming slide that has seen them lose their last four matches.

The Whitecaps and Dallas will meet in a couple of weeks in Texas for a proverbial “six pointer”. Portland will visit Vancouver in October in a match that will either mean everything or nothing, in play-off terms at least.

So let’s assume Dallas beat Vancouver, which there’s a good chance they will do. They then hit the road from three matches on the west coast, playing San Jose, Chivas and Seattle. You would expect San Jose and Seattle to win, and Chivas’ home form (the last couple of matches aside) has been decent so a loss there isn’t inconceivable, but let’s be charitable and give Dallas a point against LA’s Other Team. They would then host Chivas on the last day, and I’d fancy them to win that one, giving them 7 points and a final tally of 40.

If the Whitecaps were to lose both matches against Dallas and the Timbers, that would leave them 4 matches to pick up the points to overhaul Dallas (let’s say 4, to reach 41) as well as keep Portland in their rear view mirror. Those four games are at home to Colorado, Seattle and Chivas, and away to RSL. I’d back them to lose at RSL, so let’s narrow it down to three games. Colorado’s away record is abject, so the Whitecaps must pick up 3 there. Chivas aren’t the greatest travellers, but they can grind out a draw with the best/worst/most tedious of them. There’s the ‘Caps 4 points. Which leaves Seattle.

The Sounders are all over any faint play-off hopes the Timbers have. They play both Dallas and Vancouver, and there are two matches against the Timbers to come this year, beginning a week on Saturday when the Sounders return to Jeld-Wen Field.

If the Timbers are to have any hopes of turning the season around, they need other teams to help out and that means Seattle. I already have Seattle beating Dallas, and here I have them drawing with Vancouver. Sounders losses in both, or either, circumstance could put take the matter well out of Portland’s hands. It’s as uncomfortable as having a jaggy nettle thong riding up your sheugh to be in any way relying on them, but if the Timbers are to snaffle 5th place we’d need the Sounders to do their job.

So, by my very rough and ready reckoning, I have Dallas on 40 and Vancouver in 5th on 42. Not too far removed from the form table above. With Portland Timbers currently on 27 points, it’s still a five-win minimum required. [Or 4 and three draws – A Pedant]

What are the chances of the Timbers pulling it off?

Match 1 – @ Colorado

The Timbers just beat the Rapids, stringing together two wins for the first time in almost exactly a year. The Timbers haven’t yet won three-in-a-row in MLS, and are without a road win this year, but this is one they simply have to win. Draw or defeat here takes play-off talk that is already stretching credibility and shifts it towards Scientology-levels of couch-jumping batshittery. It’ll be a tough match, but the Timbers can do it. Win

Match 2 – vs Seattle

A win would not only propel them forward in the play-off hunt, it would secure the Cascadia Cup for 2012. A home match against your rivals doesn’t need any more hype, but if the Timbers can pull of a repeat of the earlier victory at Jeld-Wen then that would be 2 wins down, 3 to go. Win

Match 3 – @ San Jose

Ha. Well. Yeah. This is where things get tricky. The Earthquakes have been imperious at home with 6 wins in their last 7, and an unbeaten run of 12. They’ve managed to score 4 or more at home on 5 occasions so, even though the Timbers beat them earlier this season, I don’t think you’ll find many tipping them to leave Buck Shaw with so much as a point. Loss

Match 4 – @ RSL

We follow up arguably our toughest trip with another from Brick McShithouse’s Bumper Book of Hard Grounds. Though RSL haven’t hit the heights they have in previous years, it’s still not easy to pick up points there. Clean sheets in 3 of their last 5 matches indicate that any potential Timbers success there will have to be founded on an immense defensive performance. So, yeah, a point would be a good result here, but that’s not a win… Draw

Match 5 – vs DC

Back to Portland for the visit of DC United, and another must-win-if-there-is-even-the-slightest-of-slight-hopes match. DC don’t travel well – losing their last six road matches prior to their upcoming match against Philly – and have only won once in their last 6 trips to the West Coast, and that was last year. A draw here would be two points catastrophically dropped. Win

Match 6 – @ Seattle

Assuming the Timbers had won 3 of their last 5, and other results had favoured them, we would travel up the I-5 as Cascadia Cup champs and with a play-off spot firmly in our sights. You can bet your #GWOut two-stick that the Sounders would love nothing more than to be the team that killed that dream off. The usual derby clichés apply – “form out of the window” and so forth. The Sounders have the best home defence in the West and we ain’t exactly banging them in on the road. Dispassionately you could say a draw would be a good result, however nothing but victory will do in a match like this. Win/Draw

Match 7 – @ Vancouver

Another Cascadian battle, and one that I’ve already said could be decisive. With 3, potentially 4, wins till now, this could be hugely important in the chase for 5th place. I like how we match up against Vancouver, and if we had the kind of momentum behinds us that a play-off charge would bring, I’d fancy us to win here. Win

Match 8 – vs San Jose

The season ends with the visit of San Jose. There is a good chance that San Jose could have the conference title sewn up by the time they visit, but a potential push for the Supporters Shield will ensure a tough match as well as simply wanting to keep up momentum for the play-offs. Though the Earthquakes have lost three of their last four road matches, their overall records isn’t bad. I’d hate to go into this match needing a win, but as I said earlier, we have done it before. Draw/Loss

Clearly the chances of reaching the post-season are slim. They’d have to do something they haven’t done all year – win on the road – at least twice, but the last couple of road matches have shown signs that it’s not beyond believable that they could. Of course, this whole article could be moot, and the subject of retrospective amusement, over come Thursday morning, and it would remain that precarious all the way through the run-in where a single misstep would kill us off.

But then what is football without dreams, or without hope? Just a bunch of guys kicking a ball about a field. So I say screw that, the Timbers still have a dream, and for so long as cruel reality doesn’t kick me awake, so do I.

#RCTID


The featured image for this post is from Timbers Army.org

[post_ender]

Win Ugly

Timbers Starting Line-up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Match Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finnegan’s Five:

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

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

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

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

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


You can follow Jeremy on twitter here

The next rant…

Here’s another one where I don’t even know where to start.

The beginning, I suppose. Always best to start at the beginning.

I’m amazed at the connections that link us. Sure, the most basic is that we come together once a week or so, eight or nine months out of the year, to cheer on a soccer team we all follow. But our net is cast much wider than that.

That guy I ran into pre-match? I know he and his mother-in-law from a writing group we’re all involved in that causes much gnashing of teeth each November. That capo over there? She went to high school with one of my best friends. They were on dance team together. This blogger I just met? He learned to play bass from a guy whose band I used to follow around in high school a very, very long time ago.

We are a community. We are a community of artists and writers and winemakers and IT guys and teachers and students and doctors and political activists on both sides of the aisle.

At the center of our community is our gathering place, our place of worship, our cathedral.

If Jeld-Wen Field is our cathedral, we are her congregation. Her rowdy, loud, passionately invested congregation.

And, like any thinking congregation, we sometimes find fault with our clergy.

And sometimes the church protects her clergy to the detriment of her congregation.

Well, guess what? Portland, though often touted as one of the “least churched” areas in the country, is home to a pretty fair number of Lutherans.

You know what that means?

We have a tendency to rant, write treatises and address the wrongdoings of those who lead our church. We make lists and nail them to doors.*

Yeah. I just tied Martin Luther to the Timbers. I. Just. Did. That.

So, last night, minutes before the game, I got a tip from a tweet that this had happened:

I wanted to communicate that there were several sings/banners at the last match they we felt crossed the line that will not be allowed up at this match. Our policy is that signage will not be allowed if they represent a personal attack on any of our players or staff. Any signage in the stadium that does make a personal (as opposed to professional) attack on our staff will be removed. Any resistance from fans regarding this will also result in those fans being asked to leave the stadium. We will continue respect the right of our fans to voice their opinions and appreciate the dialogue that we’ve had so far on this issue. Please share this with your membership as you see fit before tonight’s match. (Email sent from Chris Wilson, Timbers Director of Ticket Services, to the Timbers Army 107ist board)

Dare I switch metaphors mid-post? Our FO has fired a warning shot over the bow.

I know several folks have asked for clarification as to which banners crossed the line from professional to personal but, as yet, being a holiday weekend, no such clarification has been forthcoming. From my vantage point, I didn’t see anything that I thought was egregious. Perhaps I’m not as sensitive as the ginger on the sidelines.

Here’s the thing: Gavin is controversial. He says things that are inappropriate for a man in his position. His reputation for tossing his players under the proverbial bus is well-documented. He has, in the past, taken aim at the TA and knows the backlash that results from such a move.

But, somehow, a few banners in the North End are too much for him to handle? Spare me.

If we miss out on a playoff spot (we’re not officially out yet, you know), will it because the #GWout banners were so incredibly distracting to the coaching staff and the players? Nope.

Will it be because we’ve recruited a bunch of really good players and haven’t figured out how to slot them together into a consistent, winning side? Yup.

And whose fault is that? Gavin. Let’s remember one more time that this is the guy who, as interim coach, said he’d done all the coaching he could do. If I remember correctly, that was about two games into his tenure as interim. So, #GWin folks, please turn your attention to Sean McAuley. #McAuleyIN.

But, beyond this, we all need to be paying more attention. There’s something afoot in MLS: The Fort, Teddy Montoya’s lifetime ban in Colorado, the crackdown on the Texian Army in the spring, rumors of bans from other stadiums for minor infractions. That our own front office, the FO whose relationship with its team’s supporters group is a model for the rest of the league, would threaten us in such a way is unacceptable.

I’m becoming increasingly suspicious of every single word that comes from anyone in the FO. Is this another attempt to spin the story? Maybe, but I have absolutely no idea which story they’d be spinning. It was a fun week of Timbers news capped off by a win. What’s to spin? Or was it the other way around? Does all of this week’s good will make us more likely to settle down and play nice?

Cleats up, Timbers fans. And eyes open.

*Please do not interpret this as my suggestion that you actually nail something to a door at the field. Don’t. Do. That. That’s what email is for.


You can read more from Kristen at her blog.

[post_ender]

Porter’s Timbers

The Portland Timbers confirmed one of MLS’s worst kept secrets today when he announced that Caleb Porter would be their new head coach, taking over following the completion of the Akron Zips’ season in time for the 2013 MLS season.

The move to Portland will be Porter’s first foray into professional club management after a hugely successful time at the University of Akron, where he oversaw the development of a number of current MLS stars including the Timbers’ own Darlington Nagbe.

Many expected the Timbers would go with experience after the disappointing end to the John Spencer era, but owner Merritt Paulson was effusive in his praise for Porter, saying “Put simply, I believe Caleb Porter is the best young soccer coaching mind in the country.”

The lustre was somewhat taken off Porter following his failure to guide the US U’23 team to the London Olympics, but clearly the front office heard enough from him to convince them that that failure was a mere blip in the career of a hugely promising head coach.

Background

Caleb Porter moved into coaching relatively young after injuries curtailed his playing career at 25. His first coaching job was as assistant to Jerry Yeagley, and then Mike Freitag, at Indiana University and Yeagley, in particular, was a massive influence on the young coach.

Porter had played under Yeagley before turning professional, where the experienced coach sought to channel Porter’s natural intensity for the good of the team. The player had earned the nickname “Jean-Claude Van Damme” for his habit of tearing off his shirt to intimidate others during summer caps.

“Not in any ways was he a dirty player,” Yeagley said of Porter, “he was a hard player.”

Porter, a defensive midfielder, was a key part of that Indiana team and would later be drafted by San Jose Clash in 1998, but the intensity that had made him captain at Indiana bubbled over on his debut, where he managed to get himself sent off.

His career in MLS never really got off the ground, and knee injuries put an end to it altogether in 2000. Back at Indiana, he was mentored by Yeagley and his skills as a coach developed quickly, and soon made him stand out such that the University of Akron hired him to take over as head coach there in 2006.

With the Zips, he took a team that had a single NCAA Round of 16 appearance in the previous ten seasons and developed them into a powerhouse of US College soccer.

Porter’s eye for detail and man management abilities soon had the team firing on the field, while his eye of talent saw some of US soccer’s brightest prospect turning up in Ohio.

Porter was an enthusiastic adopter of technology, embracing statistical analysis systems like Match Analysis to give his teams that little bit extra edge that would, eventually, take them all the way to the NCAA final in 2009.

Although they would lose out on penalties to the University of Virginia, Porter had done enough in his time in Akron to attract the attention of DC United following the resignation of Tom Soehn after another poor season for the Black-and-Red.

Few could’ve blamed a young coach, fresh off some success, for having his head turned by the bright lights of Major League Soccer, but Porter chose to stick with the Zips, signing a new five year contract.

The decision would prove to be a good one for Porter as 2010 saw the Zips go one better when they won the national championship, fired to success by a certain Mr Nagbe, who won the Hermann Trophy that year, as well as Perry Kitchen and Darren Mattocks.

International

Porter’s sterling reputation at college level led to his appointment last October as head coach of the US U’23 team that would seek qualification to the 2012 London Olympics. It was a role that allowed him to retain his position at Akron, following his signing a 10 year contract after his 2010 championship success.

Despite big promises and high hopes, the qualifying campaign came to a crashing halt after a loss to Canada and a draw to El Salvador that saw the US eliminated.

It was a grave disappointment to all US Soccer fans, and Porter came in for much criticism for failure. Blame was laid at his door by some for his supposed “tactical inflexibility.” That’s a phrase that should get every Timbers fans worried after the experience of John Spencer where the Scot seemed unable or unwilling to deviate far from a throwback 4-4-2 style that was consistently being out-thought by other MLS coaches.

With the national team, Porter sought to replicate the attacking, possession based system he utilized at Akron. You don’t have to dig very far into Porter’s history before references to Barcelona and Arsenal abound regarding his team’s playing style.

In his early years in Ohio, he had his team playing with a fluid and mobile 4-4-2, but has changed it up recently, moving to a more “European” 4-3-3. One that that has remained constant has been Porter’s adherence to playing attacking football.

“We want to be known for playing the game in an attractive, attack-oriented way,” Porter has said of his Akron team. “We [want] people to see us win, but also feel good about the way we won.”

Porter places a high value on playing the game in an aesthetically pleasing way, and being proactive in their approach. His team’s will commonly look to keep the ball, and move it around at great pace, switching up between bouts of quick, short passes and long ball into space.

The key to this style of play is repetition, repetition, repetition. What the fans see on game day is the mere tip of the iceberg, beneath the surface lay countless hours of work on the training ground, drilling players and pushing them to develop tactically and technically.

While I don’t think Porter should escape all flak for the national team’s failure to make the Olympics, international football is a completely different beast to that of the domestic game. He wouldn’t be the first club coach to find life difficult in the international arena, and he won’t be the last.

Where club football affords you the time with your players to work on the intricate details of your tactical system, at international level there simply isn’t the time. You have to quickly mould together a diverse group of players, who are all likely playing in different systems domestically, and quickly form a cohesive unit.

Perhaps Porter was too ambitious in trying to force through his fluid system in such a short space of time, but that shouldn’t be such a problem at the domestic level.

Some critics also pointed out Porter’s lack of professional coaching experience as a problem, the insinuation being that top players wouldn’t listen to this young, unproven in their eyes, coach in the way that they perhaps would with a Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley – both of whom also learned their trade as University coaches.

One of Caleb Porter’s biggest critics in this regard was the twattish outspoken twitter trainwreck football fuckwit pundit-turned-coach Eric Wynalda.

“Caleb Porter was just given a job to coach a bunch of professionals, which is something he knows nothing about. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he failed and the team failed and that we didn’t qualify for the Olympics. Does Caleb Porter do a good job? A fantastic job, and his job is to be a recruiter, and what he’s been phenomenal at is convincing 10 families to send their kids to his university so they can have a successful program. But asking him to stand in front of a bunch of professionals and tell them what to do wasn’t going to work. It was never going to work.”

Whereas I’m sure players would have a ton of respect for Mr Wynalda.

Caleb Porter’s Timbers

I don’t foresee this being such a problem at the Timbers. I don’t think players look at a coaches resume before deciding whether to respect a coach or not – that comes by by the coach interacts and gets on with the job. If it purely came down to Wynalda’s rather cynical view of professional footballers, there would be no career for Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger or Andre Vilas-Boas. All coaches with little to no professional playing experience, but who quickly won round players with effective coaching and man management. Well, at Porto at least for Vilas-Boas – let’s not talk about Chelsea – but you get my point!

So what can the Timbers fans expect for Porter’s Timbers? To be honest, I think we’ll see more of what we’ve seen under Wilkinson. It’s hard not to think that this is an appointment a long time in the inking, but which has seen the groundwork being put in place for some time now.

The way the team are playing is certainly on the road to how Porter would likely want the team doing. The key to how the club will progress will be in how effectively he can put his ideas across, and how far he can develop the talent already here or how much control he’ll have over the recruitment policy.

There are rumours that the Perkins trade was instigated, or at least okayed, by Porter. This may not exactly endear him to some fans, but if true then the trading of such a popular and influential first team player would suggest that Porter’s word will carry a lot of sway with the front office, though there will still be a not insignificant contingent of fans for whom Wilkinson’s seemingly perpetual presence in a position of power in Portland provokes a perdurable and passionate peevishness.

Some may question Porter’s loyalty to Akron, staying in the post till December and whether he’ll have enough time to implement the kind of changes he’ll likely have to to turn around the ailing Timbers. I don’t think it’s such a great concern as I’m sure, even though he won’t be discussing the issue publicly, he’ll be maintaining daily contact with Wilkinson and the coaching staff and keeping abreast of matters in Portland. It’s far from ideal, but I hardly think he’s going to rock up in the Rose City in December completely unprepared.

I suspect that there will be a lot of dead wood to be cleared out by Porter before the Timbers kick off their all-conquering 2013 season. Guys like Kris Boyd and Lovel Palmer, to name but two, don’t strike me as players who fit into Porter’s high impact, possession-led way of playing. The coincidental timing of an announcement that Jeld-Wen Field will be widened to 74 yards next season is most fortuitous as it will suit the direction that Caleb Porter will want to take the team in. It may – may – also shut up a few tumshies around the league, stopping them banging on about how small the pitch is. Let’s see how they like having a stadium full of rabid fanatics bearing down right on top of them now.

Of course, we’ve been down that road before with John Spencer given a lot of rope in regards to player acquisition, and it didn’t exactly work out great, but this is a clean slate. The potential Caleb Porter has as a coach is great, and the ambition of Merritt Paulson is no secret.

Marrying the two could, at last, produce a side that delivers true and lasting success to a fan base that has already proven itself loyal to the team through the most trying of period. Imagine the noise they’ll make when the MLS Cup comes to it’s spiritual home in Soccer City USA.

#RCTID

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]

The Devil’s Advocate

It would be fair to say that there has been a fair amount of anti-Gavin Wilkinson material on this site. I’ve stated in the past that I felt the sacking of John Spencer was the correct decision, but only half the job as I felt, and still feel, that Wilkinson bears a large culpability for the club’s woes.

However, a couple of tweets I received got me thinking a bit.

Playing Devil’s Advocate can be a useful intellectual exercise, or so I find. Most Timbers blogs, and the overwhelming majority of the #RCTID feed on twitter tend towards anti-Wilkinson sentiment, but I think it’s good to explore the other side of the argument as “herd mentality” can sometimes take over, making it easy to get swept along. By arguing against yourself you can explore why you feel the way you feel and it can make your arguments stronger. Besides which, debate is always good.

So, while I may not be a fan of Wilkinson, what is the case for his defence? That’s what I’ll (hopefully) explore here.

Consistency

Since Merritt Paulson took over the Timbers franchise back in May 2007, much has changed at the club right down to the very ground itself, which was redeveloped for the step up to MLS in 2011.

One of the biggest constants held over from Paulson’s first day is Gavin Wilkinson. Wilkinson, a former player and team captain, was made head coach at the end of the 2006 season following a disastrous year that saw the club toiling under the management of Chris Agnello.

For all of Paulson’s reign, Wilkinson has been right there with him. When the Timbers won the MLS franchise, Wilkinson stepped aside as head coach, yet retained his position as general manager.

Wilkinson clearly has the respect of the team owner, and has had a lot of influence in the preparation for Major League Soccer. The hiring of John Spencer would’ve been Paulson’s first head coach appointment and I’ve no doubt that Wilkinson’s coaching expertise was of crucial importance.

Though John Spencer never worked out in the end, he came into the job with a great reputation as one of the league’s finest up-and-coming coaches. He’d worked closely with Dominic Kinnear at Houston Dynamo and had great knowledge of the intricacies of working in MLS. The lack of top flight experience was a problem for the timbers in moving up, but in Spencer they seemed to have the best of both worlds – someone with MLS experience, but who would yet bring a fresh look to the expansion club.

With the search for the Timbers second permanent head coach presumably in it’s final stages, Wilkinson has undoubtedly been influential once more. Paulson has defended his general manager on twitter, stating, “If I thought it was [Wilkinson] who was the issue than [sic] it would have been different presser at midseason”.

Hindsight has a habit of making past decisions look foolish, and it’s easy to sit back now and say that the Timbers should’ve appointed someone with experience to ease the club into the top flight. Going with Spencer was a brave choice even though it seems to have been a mistake now.

Not even Wilkinson’s staunchest supporters would claim he had made no mistakes in his tenure. “He has made some mistakes but he’s done a ton of good and a lot has gone on that nobody sees”, said Paulson.

The club’s trade record can also make for painful, retrospective, reading.

Kenny Cooper scored against the Timbers at the weekend, and his form this season for New York has been a source of rancour for some. His time in Portland was professionally frustrating for all involved, but it wasn’t Wilkinson who failed to get the best out of Kenny Cooper.

Indeed, there were mixed feelings regarding the trade at the time.

Source: bigsoccer.com

Another trade that looks poor in retrospect was that of Moffat for Chabala and Palmer. This looks especially bad as Adam Moffat went on to play in the MLS Cup that year while the Timbers failed to reach the play-offs, but in the context of the times when the move was made, I don’t think it stacks up so badly.

It’s easy to forget that Adam Moffat could hardly get a game for the Timbers. Four appearances, all of them as sub, for a grand total of 100 minutes of playing time. Again, it wasn’t Gavin Wilkinson’s fault that Moffat couldn’t dislodge either Jewsbury and Chara as John Spencer’s favoured midfield.

With the club lacking cover at full-back, a move that saw a bench warmer shipped out in return for two full-backs seemed like a great piece of business. Lovel Palmer had been a regular for Houston since his move from his native Jamaica.

Looking back, the move can leave you smacking your head as Moffat continues to feature in the Dynamo’s midfield, while Chabala has been moved on and Palmer is as popular with a section of fans as Todd Akin in a rape crisis center. But beating Wilkinson with that stick seems like petty revisionism.

Respect

Wilkinson’s interim appointment as head coach was met with derision and concern from some quarters but he has the respect of the coaching staff, many of whom he has worked with in the past.

Amos Magee was an assistant under Wilkinson during the Timbers USL days, and Cameron Knowles, a fellow Kiwi to boot, was one of Wilkinson’s first signings as head coach, back in 2007. Knowles joined the coaching staff at the start of 2012.

Sean McAuley also joined the coaching staff this year, following the departure of Spencer, and the ex-Sheffield Wednesday coach played alongside Wilkinson in the Timbers defence during the 2002 season. His appointment was hailed be Paulson as “a great add” and Wilkinson has also spoken about the fresh voice that McAuley has brought to the locker room.

Merritt Paulson has also asserted that Wilkinson has the respect of the players, saying that the “state of locker room is extremely happy” and that Wilkinson “has been popular w players season [sic]. we create anonymous feedback outlets. obviously w 30 guys, always outliers.”

There may be speculation about how those “outliers” are, or were. Certainly, reading between the lines, there doesn’t seem to have been a great deal of love lost from Troy Perkins following his recent trade to Montreal, and some fans speculate that Kris Boyd’s relegation the bench against New York (where he was subsequently unused as a sub) are a sign of tension between the club’s high-earning top scorer and Wilkinson.

It’s all speculation though and unless Paulson is flat-out lying there’s no reason to doubt that most of the locker room is fully behind Wilkinson and his short-term appointment.

The sense of continuity provided by having Wilkinson step in while a search is carried out for a new head coach has given the locker room a sense of stability that can easily be lost when a manager is sacked and big changes are made.

Ambition

Paulson’s rather crude assertion that “the same morons starting this [#GWOut] movement [would] line up to kiss gavin’s ass”, while somewhat lacking in diplomacy, does speak to the continued ambition of Paulson and Wilkinson.

The team owner had previously set goals for the club’s second year that have clearly not been met, but the road map remains the same. Together they are building a squad that is capable of delivering success commensurate with the level of support they receive. Should they start to deliver the results they seek in the 3rd and 4th years, then this season will be looked back as little more than an unfortunate detour off course.

The hiring of an experienced, and respected coach such as McAuley is a part of the rebuilding process, and the club continue to change things on the field. Kosuke Kimura was signed shortly before Spencer’s sacking, and since Spencer has gone the changes have continued apace.

The trade of Perkins was a controversial one, the merits of which continue to be debated by fans and pundits alike, but Wilkinson and Paulson have been steadfast in asserting that bringing in Ricketts was an “upgrade”. Paulson tweeted that the “team was broken and system needed to be torn down and rebuilt” and this what we’re seeing now.

Mike Chabala was moved on to DC United – a move that makes sense for both parties in my opinion, as Chabala never really impressed upon me that he was a guy to command a place in the match day 18, never mind the starting 11 – while New Zealand international Ian Hogg has been brought in on what is effectively an extended trial. Bright Dike, one of the star players in the Timbers final USL season, was promptly recalled from loan at LA Blues upon Spencer’s departure to bolster the attack, something he did to fine effect against New York. It’s unlikely that the club are finished reshaping the team this year as, with Paulson on the “verge of hiring a terrific coach“, it seems that some of the moves are being guided with this new appointment in mind.

Performance

“I’ve been responsible for bringing all those players here. Now it’s up to me to get a little bit more out of them.” The words of Gavin Wilkinson on his appointment as interim head coach are very telling to me as they indicated the front office’s belief that Spencer’s great failing was in not finding a way to get a good return out of the squad at his disposal.

A record of 5 defeats and 2 draws in his 7 matches, with 8 goals scored and a whopping 18 conceded, makes it easy to dismiss Wilkinson’s record as interim head coach. However, since it’s a role he’s made clear he doesn’t want on a permanent basis, so it’s hard to see how his record as a coach can be used to beat him if he’s no interest in being coach. Rather his remit seems to me to have been to address how the team is playing, and this is perhaps a better way to measure Wilkinson’s time in the hot seat during this difficult transitional period.

The biggest change since Spencer’s sacking has been the adoption of a 4-3-3 system. Spencer seemed unwilling or unable to change from his tried-and-tested 4-4-2, his greatest tinkering reserved to adopting a flawed “diamond” system, so it’s perhaps understandable that there would be an “adjustment” period for players as they got used to the new system.

Early results were poor – the first three matches under Wilkinson saw the Timbers ship 5 goals twice and score only 3, but recent performances have been much improved, even if it hasn’t brought a great improvement in results.

There have been two draws in the last four matches, with a strong case to be made that a bit of luck or more composure in front of goal could’ve resulted in at least a couple of wins. The team have scored 5, and lost 7 – a record that would (measured across a whole season) result in the team being a single goal worse off than under the record under Spencer by scoring 10 more, and conceding 11.

For a team under reconstruction, and undergoing a change in footballing philosophy, that’s not such a bad return. Paulson seems to agree that performances are encouraging, tweeting that the “players [are] being used as they should and we actually have a system now.”

That system has brought about an improvement from a number of players. Darlington Nagbe has been a source for debate for much of the season as the youngster suffered from a mid-season slump in his form. Recently though there seems to have been the return of some of his old spark, and he had probably his best game in a long time against New York. The 4-3-3 seems to free up Nagbe from much of the defensive responsibility that Spencer’s use of the 4-4-2 placed upon him, and he’s benefiting.

Another player benefiting from less defensive onus is Diego Chara. The Colombian midfielder is now being used as more of a box-to-box midfielder under Wilkinson, and he’s been a revelation in the role. Essentially, he’s now playing more in the opponents first half, and putting his quick passing and intelligent play to use in creating for the Timbers, rather than solely destroying the work of the opposition. It seems much more suited to his abilities, though it does come at the cost of lessening the Timbers presence in defensive midfield, and perhaps contributes in some way to the leakier-than-usual back line of recent weeks.

With Chara renewed in midfield, Jack Jewsbury has also seen his game improve as the anchor man in midfield. There was a good post about how the clearly delineated roles for Jewsbury and Chara had helped them both, and it certainly seems that Captain Jack seems more assured and confident in the role now that he and Diego Chara aren’t getting in each others way at the base of the midfield.


In conclusion it’s clearly not been plain sailing. Results have been poor, and that is ultimately what matters. You don’t get points for style, or moral victories. Nor, unbelievably, for shots on goal and possession. The defence remains a big problem, and I suspect that the work to set it right – started with the signing of Kimura – has only just begun. I have my own doubts about David Horst’s abilities at this level, and I think at 29 we’re unlikely to see great improvement from Futty. Eric Brunner’s fitness remains an engima. Finding a partner for Mosquera must surely be a priority for Wilkinson and The New Head Coach Who Shall Not Be Named, though with the return to the club of Andrew Jean-Baptiste perhaps the youngster can stack his claim in the few weeks that remain of the 2012 season.

The fact of the matter is that Wilkinson is here for the long haul. Paulson is adamant that Wilkinson is “not going anywhere”. Consistency is the watchword, and “making [Wilkinson] a scapegoat and calls for heads in our 2nd year in league is bush-league“.

That’s not to say Wilkinson’s position is one for life. “If its like this next year than go ahead and call for his head,“ Paulson tweeted, though this won’t stop some fans making their feeling perfectly clear against Vancouver at the weekend. The next year, starting with the formal appointment of a new head coach, could make or break Wilkinson’s tenure with the Timbers.

Paulson views the #GWOut movement as a “witch hunt”, while a vocal section of fans see it as necessary to save their club. A new head coach make take some of the heat off the front office for a while, but it’s unlikely to dampen the fires entirely as both sides continue to entrench their positions. Even delivering a MLS Cup next year is unlikely to have fans lining up to kiss Kiwi ass as, I suspect, such success would be viewed as being in spite of Gavin Wilkinson rather than thanks to him.

Who is right will ultimately be another one of those things that will only become clear with hindsight. For now fans better just buckle up cos there’s no sign that the ride is going to get any less bumpy any time soon.

The defence rests.

#RCTID


As any twitter-literate Timbers fan will know, Merritt is rather fond of deleting tweets so you’re not going to find many of the quotes used here in his current feed. But trust me, they were all there at one point.

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