The Strange Case of Ian Hogg

With the new head coach now set to arrive within weeks, the most pressing question on my mind is how well the Timbers general manager will work to field a side capable of performing better under Caleb Porter than it did for John Spencer, or for Gavin himself, for that matter.

Most of you who have read my earlier posts know that I am skeptical of Gavin Wilkinson as an evaluator and selector of playing talent. The recent release of the young defender from New Zealand does nothing to reassure me that working with a new coach will change that.

Many of you may not even remember Ian Hogg. He was signed from the Auckland FC club on August 8, and in his roughly thirteen weeks as a Timber he never stepped out on the Jeld-Wen pitch as part of the Big Side, never logged a minute in a Portland jersey playing in an MLS match. His league vita is a blank.

His playing time was limited to the last two reserve matches; 71 minutes in the 4-nil loss to the Galaxy reserves away and then the full 90 against the Seattle reserves here. He provided a speculative cross into the box that was deflected and resulted in Richard’s goal against the Sounders.

And that was that. Hogg was waived (with Renken and Braun) on November 19th.

My sole sighting of the man was in the Seattle reserve match. I recall that he played a decent game, and appeared to be capable of playing a solid backup to Steven Smith at left back. He showed a similar knack for getting caught upfield on occasion, but he had decent wheels enough to scramble back into position. He could go forward as well, and provided service into the 18 that was at least no worse than what we saw from our starters at LB and better than some; sorry, Chabala.

So his odd little tenure with the Timbers leaves me with more questions than answers about Gavin’s man-management skills.

If you recall, early August 2012 was perhaps the worst of a bad, bad place the Timbers had been for the preceding month. Late July had been a disaster after John Spencer’s sacking, culminating in the meltdown that was Dallas away. The Portland defense had shipped 15 goals over the preceding 7 matches and the dark star that was right back was never darker – Kosuke Kimura had a VERY bad July, though you could observe that the remainder of his 2012 wasn’t that much brighter.

The club had just apparently concluded that its defensive woes would be solved by swapping keepers with Montreal, a move that infuriated many fans, and though Donovan Ricketts had yet to play a minute for Portland the frustration and anger of a season in tatters was boiling over.

The problems that had plagued the team since 2011 – the lack of a quality attacking/distributing midfielder and the cohesion of the backline (especially at right back) – had never seemed greater. But the one place that had been a similar defensive problem earlier in the season, left back, was actually looking better.

Steven Smith’s play in May and June was frankly awful. It didn’t help that he had nobody in front of him willing to track back on defense at that point; it took the early substitution against Colorado to convince Franck Songo’o that defending was part of his brief. But by early August Smith’s play was visibly improving. The need for a quality right back was still painful in early August; the need for an immediate upgrade at left back?

Not so much.

The timing of Hogg’s release is almost as peculiar as his signing. Accepting that premise that Mike Chabala was never going to be a useful substitute and a decent backup was needed, what had changed between August and November to make Hogg superfluous?

There was and is still no obvious replacement for Smith. Kawulok and Taylor seem to be primarily right backs and Jean-Baptiste a centerback, and we’ve seen the horrors that emerge from putting either Wallace or Palmer in the backline. Cam Vickers has been slotted in back occasionally but is listed as a forward/midfielder with the U-23s.

There seems to be no urgency to sign a replacement left back; mind you, this may be a matter of “early days yet” with the new head coach, but the prospect of the incoming Porter does not seem to have stopped the Timbers’ Front Office from bringing in either players or assistant coaches during the waning days of the 2012 season.

So what was the point of signing Hogg if never to play him? Why not play him somewhere – right back could hardly have been worse? Why sign him instead of bringing him on as a trialist? Why not keep him over the winter and see if he fits with Porter’s scheme for 2013? At least superficially he seems like a “Porter” sort of player; young, relatively speedy, with a decent tactical instinct for the opportune pass as well as a fairly competent defender. Why then release him and not, say, Chris Taylor, if you’re going to boot defenders who don’t play for you?

When he was signed Gavin said “Ian is a young, talented left back with good athleticism and a desire to succeed, we have signed him through the remainder of the season and look forward to closely evaluating him as we move to next season.” What happened? One has to assume that Hogg failed his evaluation, but why? Who did he lose out to? What were his failings, and where were they shown?

I have had more than one occasion to rub my head over a Gavin move, ranging from signings and releases to starting elevens. The strange case of Ian Hogg just reminds me once again why the man who seems like a bluff Kiwi sort of fella is to me a soccer riddle wrapped in an enigma inside a conundrum crafted into a beer cozy for a can of Steinlager, and I sure hope Coach Porter is better at figuring him out than I am.

Interregnum

As you can see, the site has had a bit of a makeover. To mark our more explicitly Timbers-centric nature, the site has ditched the old grey/red scheme for green/white. I hope you like it.


So… what to write about?

Well, we’re stuck in that strange hinterland between the season ending (play-off, what?) and “silly season” kicking off in earnest. Three players were waived – Freddie Braun, Charles Renken and Ian Hogg, only one of whom saw any first team action this season (Braun). The case could be made that there were perhaps more players deserving of being waived than Braun, but fact is that over two years (and two head coaches, with, presumably, the input of the third) he’s not done enough to be anything other than the “oh, we need 18 players do we? okay then, him” guy.

The cutting of Ian Hogg was a bit odd. Just months after spending six weeks on trial with second division Swedish side Umeå FC and failing to get a contract – a side that would go on to finish rock bottom of the league, by the way, and beat a hasty retreat back to the Third Division whence they came – he pitched up in Portland. As I said at the time, the step-up from the semi-pro ranks of football in Hobbit country to professional football is big enough, let alone the fact that even seasoned pros can find a move to the athletic and high-impact MLS requires some adjustment time, that I thought the chances of him seeing any time this year was virtually nil, but it seems that he didn’t even do enough in training to suggest that he would make an impact next year. Strange, as we’re not exactly blessed in the full-back position and Hogg’s still pretty young, but chalk another one up for Gavin’s famed scouting network.

After waiving three, and picking up no-one in the thrill-a-minute Waiver Draft, we now await the other foot dropping. Merritt Paulson has already tweeted that the Timbers have “been active on player front”, but any trades won’t be announced till after the final of the MLS Cup on 1st December. So, the question marks over Boyd, Palmer, Alexander and Wallace, to name but four, will remain for at least a few more days. Paulson also said that “moves aren’t made in a vacuum”, and since a vacuum could be loosely defined as a space utterly devoid of atmosphere, I think we can rule out any dealings with New England.

Of course, our new glorious leader Caleb Porter will be in town soon, after seeing his Akron Zips fall in the 3rd Round of the NCAA Championship. There was some irony in noting that, just as a missed penalty against Cal FC was cited by a highly-respected Timbers journalist and preeminent historian as a cause for the end of John Spencer’s reign, Porter’s time at Akron was brought to a close by a missed penalty, this time in a 5-4 shootout loss to Creighton.

It’s a shame that Porter couldn’t end his time in Akron with another championship, especially as his team were on a 15 game winning run before dropping out, but that’s football for you. He’s certainly left a great impression on the program at Akron, and with the fans who honoured his departure with a #ThanksCaleb hashtag on twitter.

Beyond that, the SuperDraft will be taking place in January, where the Timbers have the #3 pick. Top Drawer Soccer have already carried out a Mock Draft, projecting Mikey Lopez to the Timbers, and they’ve also listed the top prospects by position. For someone who approaches the whole draft/college system with the all the bemusement of a Victorian time-traveller being handed an iPad, TDS site has been an invaluable resource.

Andrew Jean-Baptiste was the Timbers’ first round pick last year, and while he didn’t get much of a look-in, primarily used as injury cover, he’s a player I’d like to see more of in 2013. Between Mosquera, Jean-Baptiste, Horst, Danso and Brunner, the Timbers have plenty of centre-back cover, and I suspect Danso will go as I was a little surprised he wasn’t waived, to be brutally honest, but wouldn’t be at all surprised if Brunner was one of the trades-waiting-to-formally-be-announced, though that would mean finding another club looking to take on a guy who missed a lot of last year through injury.

Darlington Nagbe, the Timbers first pick in 2011, reunites with his former coach next year, and we all hope that this is what help Nagbe take that next step, and fulfil some of his undoubted potential Word That Shall Not Be Spoken.

Even though we’re playing the waiting game, things aren’t exactly quiet for the Timbers. Bright Dike made his international debut for Nigeria in a 3-1 victory against Venezuela. While it would be fair to say that Nigerian football has been at a low ebb for the past couple of years – a dismal showing in the 2010 World Cup was followed by the President, the fantastically named Goodluck Jonathan, getting involved and pulling the country out of international competition (later reversed when FIFA started to lace up their ass-kicking boots, and things all got a bit messy) and then the two-times Cup of Nations winners failing to make the 2012 competition – they’ve made it to the 2013 Cup of Nations, and there is still such an aura around the nation that they’ll likely be among the favourites to win it, with Dike hoping to be there.

US Soccer announced a new 8 team professional Women’s League, and that the Timbers would be operating a franchise. Supposedly the team can’t actually use the Timbers name, so we await news on that, but hopefully this new league will have better luck than previous efforts to run a pro women’s league have had. I’m sure the Timbers Army will get out in numbers to support their team.


And yeah, so, that’s about it for now. As I said at the top, I hope you like the new look and I hope the site can have a bit more range to its coverage this year. If you want to write for us, just get in touch. It’s really simple. We’d love to get folks who could keep everyone up to speed with the latest goings on at U23 and youth soccer, or even if you want to keep us posted on grassroots and local soccer.

Thanks for stopping by in 2012, and I hope to see you all back in 2013.

#RCTID

Kits

Playing around with photoshop, and bored – it’s a long offseason, after all – I was messing around with some fantasy Timbers kits based off some existing designs and, with nothing else going on here, I thought I’d throw them up here for the hell of it. Enjoy, or not!

“Ghost” stripes

“Ghost” stripes (alternate)

Thin stripes

“The Golfer”

“The Golfer” (alternate)

Thin hoops

Viva Cascadia

Viva Cascadia (alternate)

Red Stripe

City of Portland

Tartan

“Ghost” hoops

Gradient

Cascadia Green

More kits this way.

What Now 2: Electric Boogaloo

Okay. I’ll admit it; I’ve always wanted to write a blog post with “Electric Boogaloo” in the title. I was young in the Eighties. Sorry.

Anyway.

So; here we are.

The Portland Timbers are coming off a pretty ragged season with a team in some disarray and no head coach. The next time we’ll see the Boys in Green on the pitch will be in the spring, when – we hope – the new coach Caleb Porter will have brought some calm and order to the House of Pane, shattered by poor results on the pitch and broken by hard feelings off the pitch between the most hardbitten supporters and the interim coach/long-term general manager Gavin Wilkinson.

There has been talk of a wholesale housecleaning.

But in my opinion that is all it is; talk.

Given the approach that this team management has taken in the past, and what we’ve seen on the pitch this season and last, I cannot believe that who we will see run out on the pitch next season will be all that much different, either in form or in function, from what we have seen up until now. We will not suddenly see a side full of crafty veterans leading enthusiastic youngsters, all bursting with soccer skills.

As we talked about in the preceding post, we are likely to see many players of fair-to-middling grade MLS abilities… but many of them will have one or more limitations, ranging from trivial to significant, in their skill-set. And we will see a smaller but significant group that is better skilled – when they are at their best – but prone to maddening reversals of fortune, drifting in and out of matches, or in and out of the roster as their touch ebbs and flows.

That’s who we seem to be, that’s who Gavin and Merritt seem to find to stuff the Boot Room with. So that’s what we need to work with. That’s how we need to go forward.

We’re not going to be Spain. Let’s abandon the notion that we will ever have the quality to play “Timber-taka”.

We’re not going to be Germany, or France, or even Holland.

So.

We need to be Finland.

You say; OK, smart guy – how can we win as Finland?

Here’s how;

1. Play smart, not hard. OK, yeah, play hard. BUT play smart, too.

I heard a lot of talk on the ‘Net about how the 2012 Timbers lacked “heart”. How they didn’t play “like they cared”. How the team would roll over and die like a possum on the interstate when things went wrong.

But when I watched the team I didn’t usually see that.

OK, Dallas away? Yeah, crap, I saw it then.

But what I usually saw was a team that was tossed out onto the pitch without a plan. Without a through understanding of their opponents. I saw a group that had been given some vague instructions on what their coach wanted them to do, probably some offhand suggestions on how to cope with the opponents’ strengths, and then told to go play and see what happens. Not surprisingly, when our opponents then went through us like a dose of salts the guys got frustrated and confused; they felt like they had been out-coached and couldn’t win – from the stands that looks a lot like jackin’ it. But in my opinion it was pure coaching laziness; an approach that says, we’re just gonna go out and kick the ball around and hope for the best.

If you’re Spain, or Germany, or San Jose… you can get away with that. You have such dominant skills – even if those skills are the skills of a Lenhart; deep-dyed evil flopping and thuggery – that you can impose them on your enemy.

The Timbers can’t. Finland, remember, the plucky little guy?

For teams like us, teams with a thin roster and limited skills, each match has to be approached as a new challenge. Every opponent is a new day, a new plan. The team; the tactical plan, the roster, the communications, the discipline, needs to be adjusted to every match – and then constantly assessed during the match to re-adjust to the opponent’s moves.

Gavin, as a coach, was flat-out awful at this. Spencer seemed to pick this up from him; his “tactics” never varied. His starting XI seemed to be “whoever played well last match”.

We can’t win that way.

Merritt is going to have to give Porter the resources to do an extensive scouting and preparation for each match next season and the next on ad infinitum. And Porter will have to be constantly assessing both our team and our opponents to find the most advantageous matchups he can find. And then use his substitutions to counter their counters.

It will be nerve-wracking. It won’t always work. But I believe that it can work better than the past two season’s lassiez faire approach.

2. Play disciplined: you aren’t the dinosaur, you’re the small mammal that eats their eggs.

The 2012 Timbers were among the least tactically disciplined – and sophisticated – teams I have watched outside Vancouver away this past October and several U-12 sides in North Portland.

It showed in all aspects of our play. It showed in our backline the most; our repeated inability to catch attackers offsides, in our failure to mark and cover each other, in our backline/keeper communications. But it also showed in attack, in our inability to put together strings of attacking passes, or an attack that didn’t consistently breakdown inside the 18. It showed in out wasteful finishing, and our failure to get repeated chances on goal from an attacking series.

It even showed in something as simple as our throw-ins. I can’t be sure, but I’d think that we had the poorest ratio of throws to possession-from-throws of any team in MLS. We were just terrible at throw-ins.

Oh – and corners and free kicks! Gah! We were so good at that in 2011! The hallmark of a team that is dangerous from set-pieces is that the team will place the free kick where it wants to, and the players will get to the ball before the defenders. We took a huge step backwards there; our set-piece discipline was terrible in 2012.

See the theme here? We were either careless or wasteful on the pitch, and it cost us.

Overtalented teams can be wasteful. There will always be another chance, another shot, another corner.

Finland – sorry, the Timbers – can’t afford to be wasteful. They can’t afford to be careless. That shot has GOT to be on frame. That corner has GOT to be on a Timber’s head. Because it might be the one chance you get all half, or even all match. You HAVE to make it count.

Teams with good but limited skills can succeed with on-field discipline; hell, look at the entire history of Italian international football.

If Coach Porter can succeed in instilling that sort of discipline in this team, I think we should see some real improvement on the pitch in 2013.

3. Quantity has a quality of its own, but it’s a lot better and more fun to have quality instead

In my opinion, infusing more intelligence and discipline in our coaching and our play can take this group of players – or someone like them – further in 2013 that we have come so far.

But the problem is that to go further, we STILL have pieces that aren’t there.

Remember; the Soviets won in the end. Pluck, smarts, and discipline can only take you so far.

We still need someone who can create from the center of the midfield; someone who can provide service, start attacks, and provide a threat that will negate the current problem that if you take away the flanks the Timbers cannot generate attack.

We still need a right fullback who can be relied upon to shut down that wing.

We need Coach Porter to recognize this, and to insist that the team move the heavens and the earth to find and bring those players here.

———–

So here’s what I think is our bottom line:

We need a coach who understands the game, and how individual players, groups, and tactics can be tweaked to get the most out of that game. If I understand this correctly, Caleb Porter appears to be such a coach.

We need a group of players willing to be coached in such a way, and willing to adapt their game to take advantage of their strengths, minimize their weaknesses, and work together to do that. We will see whether our players will be such a team.

But – to me most important – we need an owner and a general manager that understands that this is how a team like Portland moves forward.

I’m not sure whether Merritt and Gavin are such a management.

But we’ll see, won’t we?

————–

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to put 2012 behind us and warm up the songs for 2013. RCTID- Onward, Rose City!

What Now?

Well.

That was pretty damn awful, wasn’t it?

Shy of sticking a finger in the eye of the Colossus of the North (who thought that a single win at CLink meant that they should be handed the Cascadia Cup and were shocked, shocked that the Whitecaps weren’t willing to help them out worth a lick) the past season was pretty much a washout.

We got our coach fired, went one match away from going winless on the road, and generally exposed the weaknesses and problems in the side that the Front Office had spent the past two years ostensibly building. Two days after the final match of the second MLS season we find ourselves back, if not where we started in 2011, at least no better off than we were at the beginning of 2012.

Ugh.

So the obvious question is: where can we go from here, and how do we get there?

We’ve got a new coach coming on board sometime in the winter, there will probably be some roster changes, and MLSTimbers v.3.0 will get a rollout sometime in the late winter. Obviously we can’t know much or do anything about this but speculate.

But speculate we can, so why not? That’s why we’re here.

First, let’s take a look what we have now.

Individually I want to suggest that the flaws in Gavin Wilkinson’s player selection can’t be better displayed than through a quick look at the present Timbers roster. In my biased opinion the current side is dominated by two kinds of players; the “consistent but limited” and the “limited by inconsistency”. We just flat out don’t have any players with consistent, genuinely game-breaking talent, the sort of marquee player that our rivals have in people like Wondolowski or Montero. Yeah, I hate those guys, too, but I can’t deny their quality. We just don’t have that and the record seems to show that we never will.

So what do we have, and what does that tell us about our Front Office’s tendencies to pick and choose players?

———-

The way I see it the Consistently Limited make up the bulk of the side.

With these guys you know what you’re going to see. They bring pretty much the same game every time they run on the pitch. It’s not that they can’t play, or that they’re hackers and goofs. They’re all at least substitute-grade MLS quality guys. But their game, that game we know we’ll see, is lacking in one way or another. These guys all have a shortcoming, or shortcomings, that put a limit on their ability to produce winning soccer in one way or another.

Starting from the back we have Ricketts, whose limitation seems to be primarily age and fragility that comes with a history of injury, and the Bendik/Gleeson binary star, limited merely by their inexperience – though Bendik seemed to be at least a solid journeyman during his limited stint this season.

On the backline we have Mosquera, limited by his judgement and inability to communicate with his linemates, and Kimura who is limited in so many aspects it’s hard to figure out where start. In midfield we have Wallace and Palmer, who are sort of the Mosquera and Kimura of the center of the pitch; the one makes constant errors of judgement while the other is simply a quandary; why is he doing this for a living and I’m not?

Diego Chara, whose effort and defensive sturdiness are unquestionable is limited by his inability to keep from getting called for fouling and his poor forward passing. Jack Jewsbury is simply not young enough and mobile enough anymore to have more than a moderate impact.

Up front Bright Dike is limited by his poor touch and sloppy finishing, while Kris Boyd is limited simply by his style of play; without good distribution and service from the midfield he is simply wasted up top.

———-

The Limitedly Inconsistent are a minority on the team, but an important one. With these guys you never know whether they’re going to bring their A-game, or whether that game is going to last the entire match. They show streaks of brilliance matched with random outbursts of mediocrity or outright blunders.

David Horst is the poster child for this group. A stand-up guy who anchors the backline for 89 minutes he will suddenly make a horribly mistimed lunge, or stab, or find a way to mark space, or do something that will gift the enemy a goal. You love to see him most of the time, and then tiny remainder you look away because it’s like a car accident unfolding on the Sunset Highway at rush hour.

In midfield Darlington Nagbe who to me is still something of an enigma labelled “potential”; will he be the Nagbe that passes accurately and can score a clinical goal, or the one that gets knocked off the ball and is marked out of the game mid-match? Kalif Alhassan is another skilled but unpredictable midfielder; you never know which Kalif will show up – will it be the one that can provide a lovely assist, or the one whose crosses float over the entire 18 like a shiny soap bubble? Some matches Sal Zizzo is a speedy winger and clinical crosser while others earn his nickname “Zig Zag Zizzo”, running aimlessly about and lofting random high balls into the blue. Franck Songo’o can provide brilliance in attack and sturdy defence but can also repeatedly dribble into trouble and wander about seemingly at random.

———

Of the entire current side there’s one guy who I would say has grown into a solidly dependable player who is both consistent and relatively skilled; Steven Smith. A liability in the back at first his play in the last half of the season has progressed to where he’s among the best of our defenders – yes, a low bar but, still – and has shown promise going forward. Of the current group of starters he seems the best rounded and most skilled.

Of the remainder we don’t really have any solid indicators. Eric Alexander has shown signs of being in the second group but his minutes have been so limited as to make that pure speculation. Eric Brunner was a hell of a defender prior to his injuries but hasn’t been a standout in the short stints he’s played in the late season; hard to tell how well he will come back, if at all. Jean-Baptiste showed well against San Jose on Sunday, but he is one of the large group of young players we just haven’t seen enough of this season to really judge. Brent Richards has looked better tracking back than he did in his earlier outings but his play retains the erratic quality of a young player. And we’ve just seen way too little of guys like Hogg, Kawulok, Purdy, Fucito…

But in general, given what this group seems to tell us about Gavin’s – or Gavin and Merritt’s – weakness in assessing players we need to assume that these young players are likely to have similar weaknesses. This seems to be the Front Office’s style; they see either only the strengths of the consistent-but-limited players, or the “manic phase” of the skilled-but-inconsistent players while not noticing the weaknesses of the one and the depressive phase of the other.

And we need to assume that if this same group continues to pick the players for the incoming coach we are likely to see very similar sorts of players next season. Gavin’s record, in particular, goes back to the USL days and was very like this; Portland saw players like Mamadou Keita and Ryan Pore, inconsistent guys who could play but would tend to drift out of the match, or the season, or guys like Scot Thompson and Takayuki Suzuki; good solid players but just not the sort that got you to the league championship finals.

This is likely to be it; this is likely to be “who we are” until and if we get a new group in the executive suite.

So the question is; how do we go forward, how do the Timbers get better, with these sorts of players?

And that is the subject of the next post.

Silver Lining

385 days later, and at the 17th time of asking, the Timbers finally won a road match again, and few wins have mattered as much in the club’s short MLS existence as this one. The 1-0 victory in Vancouver, mirroring the scoreline of their last trip to British Columbia a year ago, was enough to ensure that the Cascadia Cup would be returning to Portland with the vocal Timbers Army, who had out-sung their strangely subdued rival fans in a sold-out BC Place.

The listless performance of the home fans mirrored that of the team. In truth, this does not look like a team that should be anywhere near the playoffs and, yet, thanks to Seattle’s victory against FC Dallas, that is exactly where they are.

Perhaps it was nerves on both sides that led to a very disjointed opening. At one point there seemed to be more fouls than completed passes, and the ball racked up the air miles as it was booted from back-to-front and back again. Eventually though, a football match threatened to break out as the timbers began to find a little more possession in the Whitecaps half, but neither keeper was being worked particularly, for the most part…

Gavin Wilkinson had taken a risky decision to play his best available players in an important match, bringing Steven Smith and Kosuke Kimura back into the starting line-up. Hanyer Mosquera also returned to the defence, giving the back four a much more settled look. Five of the team that started the Timbers’ last win in Canuckistan are no longer at the club, with only Nagbe, Chara and Zizzo starting last season’s result in Vancouver, giving some sense of the changes that have been wrought in the past twelve months.

Despite picking up a yellow card early on for a foul on Camilo, Mosquera highlighted what the Timbers had missed in his absence with an assured performance. The Colombian would be forced off with injury early in the second half, replaced by Eric Brunner, and I was worried that the enforced change at the back may just unsettle the defence, but I needn’t be so concerned.

By the time Mosquera went off, the Timbers already had the lead when Jack Jewsbury fired home a screamer from distance shortly before half-time.

From early on it seemed like a match that would be decided one way or the other by a defensive howler or a piece of magic from nowhere as both sides toiled. Fortunately for the Timbers, it was the latter. Indeed, early on in the first half there was a moment where Steven Smith didn’t catch a simple clearance right and forced Ricketts into a point blank save. On another night, that goes in and the Timbers crumble to another dispiriting road defeat. Not tonight, though. Not tonight.

In truth, there’s little to talk about in terms of the match itself. Songo’o played in the hole behind Dike for much of the game, and was subbed out for Rodney Wallace midway through the second half, presumably to counter the pace and athleticism of Whitecaps subs Dane Richards and Darren Mattocks.

Like the change at the back, the introduction of Rodney Wallace has, in the past, been a harbinger of late-game heartbreak, but the game felt so comfortable at this point that even this change didn’t cause the merest flutter for me.

Truth is, the Whitecaps could be out there still, playing against no-one, and they would’ve conspired to find some way not to score. I’d expected a whirlwind start to the second half by the Whitecaps, but instead it was no more than a moderate breeze.

Camilo looked like their most dangerous player, niggling and putting the central defenders out of their comfort zone and off-balance. It’s the kind of performance that can drive opposing fans, and players, crazy but his role, it seemed to me, was to wreak havoc and hope that a Kenny Miller or Barry Robson could profit and find space. Once he, finally and deservedly, was booked in the second half it robbed his game of that dimension and he drifted out of the game, to be subbed off shortly after.

From there, the entire Whitecaps game petered out to nothing. Rarely have the Timbers had it so easy, particularly on the road, and though I’ve talked about how poor Vancouver have been, some measure of credit must go to the Timbers defence for their work. Horst and Mosquera, and latterly Brunner, dealt with anything that came their way and even the late addition of Darren Mattocks and flailing limbs, failed to knock them off their stride.

After a nervy start, Steven Smith settled in to a reasonable game, even if it’s not one he’ll be putting on his highlight reel. Kimura had a couple of typically Kimuran moments as he was caught on his heels, or beaten to the ball, but even he never looked like he was under so much pressure that he was going to crack.

The Timbers had a couple of chances to seal the deal with breakaways, but as was typical of the match in general, there seemed to be little conviction or composure about them.

Whereas in the past we’ve seen the Timbers go away and play well for long spells, only to have it all crumble to dust late on, tonight we saw them put in a gritty performance that ground out the win they needed.

As well as securing some silverware, the 3 points also ensured that Portland wouldn’t be finishing bottom of the Western Conference. It leaves little to play for in the San Jose match next week but, with it being the final home match, I would hope it won’t be your typical end of season affair and the team take the chance to sign off on a crazy year with a victory against the Supporter’s Shield winners.

Rather than end on a “it shouldn’t be allowed to paper over the cracks” note – we’ve got a long off-season to come for all that! – I’d prefer to salute the fans. Not just those that made the trip to Vancouver, but those that have remained loyal throughout a trying year. The dedication and passion of the fans has been one inspiring constant as the on-field product has veered sharply from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous.

I’d also like to thank John Spencer for his part. The victory against Seattle went a long way to delivering the cup and though I felt he was floundering (apologies) by the end of his reign, without his hard work at the start of the year there would’ve been no light at the end of the tunnel.

Many sore heads will be nursed this morning, but the fans can now say that 2012 has not been for nothing. The thing is, even if it had, they would still be back come First Kick 2013 but through good times and bad, they have stayed the course, and they have earned the right to savour this.

#RCTID
Now and Forever

The Man, The Myth

When John Spencer was relieved of his duties in July of this year, club owner Merritt Paulson was at pains to point out that the Timbers were not “waving a white flag for 2012” as there were “still many games to play.” Indeed, Wilkinson inherited a team that weren’t far off the playoff spots and had, in their last four matches, beaten both Seattle Sounders and San Jose Earthquakes.

Gavin Wilkinson echoed that point, insisting that he was “responsible for bringing all those players here” and how it was “up to me to get a little bit more out of them.”

As we all know, Wilkinson promptly led the side on a four game losing streak, and before long the message had subtly shifted. “When I came into this position, it wasn’t a simple process of just going out and trying to win. We had to address some issues and there were some changes and there’s been a little bit of progress.”

In those first seven matches of Gavin’s interimship, the club picked up 2 points and the idea that Portland would reach the postseason became the notion of delusional fantasists as reality set in.

By the time the side took the field against the Sounders, looking to secure the Cascadia Cup, all focus was on laying the groundwork for the next season. Gavin’s decision to rest the “injured” Steven Smith and Kosuke Kimura in favour of Rodney Wallace and Lovel Palmer was dressed up as being “important to see a few players in different positions so we could go into the offseason making the right decisions.”

This notion that Gavin has been testing players for next year has taken such firm root that it’s become a generally accepted “fact” among a growing proportion of fans and pundits. It is, in my opinion, no more than a myth.

It’s easy to dress up a tactical fuck-up like sticking Wallace and Palmer into the line-up as some kind of experiment. Yeah, sure, it was just test to see how they would cope in the atmosphere, or pace of the game, or whatever. Of course.

What were we meant to learn about Wallace and Palmer that we didn’t already know for the numerous times they’ve already played at full-back, including a whole run of matches THIS SEASON already? If Wilkinson truly was assessing the squad and using it as some kind of tactical Petri dish, then why haven’t we see Ryan Kawulok in the team? Jean-Baptiste? Richards, after he got a whole two starts when Gavin made 6 changes to a team that lost 5-0 against Dallas? Where’s Rincon, or Taylor, or even Hogg (yes, I know there’ve been injuries, but they haven’t always been out), to mention but a few?

Instead, Wilkinson had picked a more settled team that his predecessor. 7 players have started at least 12 of the 15 matches (80%) that Wilkinson has been in control for. Seven. Kimura, Smith, Horst, Mosquera, Jewsbury, Songo’o and Nagbe.

That’s the entire back four. Now, I totally get that continuity is important in defence, probably more so than anywhere else of the pitch (when you think of great defences it’s generally a unit you think off, when you think of great attacks it might be one or two guys, on the whole) but does anyone out there actually think that this will be our back four next season? Cos if it is… well, that’s an early Halloween scare, right there. And if you accept that it won’t be the chose four next year, why aren’t we giving others a chance?

If you consider that Ricketts was only signed in August and has played when fit, that Chara only falls a couple shy of 12 starts due to injury, and that Zizzo has started 9 of the last 10 matches, then you can stretch that “settled” number up to 10. Dike has started 7 of the last 9 if you want to make it a full team.

By comparison, only five players reach the 80% criteria under Spencer – Perkins, Jewsbury, Chara, Boyd and Nagbe. (3 of these are mainstays under Wilkinson, one got traded and one fell out of favour.)

It’s quite clear to me that Gavin has a pretty clear idea of his “best eleven” and he is, in general, sticking to that core group. Fair enough. Continuity and all that. But aren’t we supposed to be figuring out what we have so as to make the right decisions in the offseason?

Putting to one side Ricketts, who was signed after Spencer left, and Kimura, who played the one match under Spencer that he was available for, there are really only six players who have seen themselves get significantly more game time under Wilkinson than Spencer.

David Horst (29% / 87%) played five straight games for Spencer following Brunner’s injury, and has held that role under Wilkinson despite a couple of starts for Danso along the way. I don’t think we can chalk that one down to Wilkinson.

Steven Smith (47% / 80%) is a little misleading as Smith was signed in April and, in actual fact, played 8 of the 10 matches he was available for under Spencer, so he’s actually been used as much under Wilkinson as he was under Spencer.

Hanyer Mosquera (59% / 93%) is another example where a player’s enforced absence has skewed the numbers. But for an early season injury and a 3 game suspension in June, he was clearly a first choice under Spencer.

Franck Songo’o (47% / 80%) has more to do with a player taking the time to adjust to a new league and new team mates than it does with Gavin Wilkinson bringing him through, in my opinion.

Which brings us to the two guys whose increased game time I would ascribe to Gavin Wilkinson.

Sal Zizzo (6% / 60%) seemed to have designated a “super sub” under Spencer, but since given a run of games under Gavin Wilkinson, he’s put in some great showings and has made four assists in his last eight starts.

Bright Dike (0% / 47%) went from forgotten man to hero when given a chance by Wilkinson and has repaid his former USL boss with four goals and some all-action performances. So, fair enough, hats off to Gavin Wilkinson there. I’d have big reservations if Dike is truly the man we look to lead the line next season, but he’s in a purple patch right now, and we’re getting a good return from him, so strike while the iron’s hot.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these two have shone together as they seemed to have struck up an immediate understanding. Three of Dike’s goals have been assisted by Zizzo, and it really seems to be the case that the two players are bringing out the best in each other.

Three guys who have seen their game time limited since Spencer left are Eric Alexander, Kris Boyd and Kalif Alhassan. In the latter case, injuries have been a big factor, as they have been to a lesser degree with Boyd, but the sense persists that these are three guys who don’t really fit under Wilkinson.

As with Zizzo & Dike, Alexander and Alhassan seem to bring the best out in Boyd as they seemed to be the two players who were most in tune with the Scottish striker. All of Boyd’s goals have been scored when either player is on the field, with Alhassan and Alexander both logging assists for Boyd.

In fact, the five game barren spell Boyd had between the 1-0 win against Kansas City and the 2-1 win against Chicago coincides with a five match stretch where neither Alexander nor Alhassan started. They all start against LA, Boyd scores; they return against Vancouver, Boyd scores. Can you guess which two players didn’t start any of the final three matches Boyd played before being dropped for Dike (ignoring the cameo against San Jose)?

All of this is to get off the point though. The fact is that, at best, you could say that Wilkinson brought Zizzo and Dike into the fold. Beyond that, what have we learned about this roster during this grand period of experimentation?

That Palmer and Wallace are every bit as not-very-good as we remembered them to be? That Mike Fucito will run about a bit, but just don’t expect him to score goals? That Sal Zizzo isn’t a right-back? That’s not a lot to show for 15 matches worth of time. If these are all things that Wilkinson thinks are questions that needed to be answered so as to build towards 2013, then I can’t help but fear for the worst with this guy as General Manager.

I haven’t addressed players being used as subs, cos I don’t think you’re going to learn a great deal about someone based on a 20 minute cameo here or there. Players need to start, and be given a few matches to show what they can do. We’re simply not doing that.

Don’t believe the hype. There is no appreciable difference to squad rotation under Wilkinson than there was under Spencer. In fact, only twice have the Timbers named an unchanged XI from one week to the next, and both of those occasions were with Gavin in charge. We’re not learning anything we didn’t already know. Beyond the change of formation and a couple of different faces, you would be hard pressed to see any difference.

You can’t put out a settled team every week and still play the “experimentation” card. You’re either rotating the squad and giving different people a chance to do different jobs, or you’re picking the same bunch of guys week in-week out.

Even if you buy that early on Wilkinson was looking to push the team to the playoffs and only latterly, when that became impossible, turned to experimenting with the roster the fact is that of the 13 line-up changes in the last five matches, 5 have been enforced (injuries or suspensions) which leaves 8 in a very broad “tactical” category, or, if you prefer, 61.5% of line-up changes have been tactical. That is actually lower than the same criteria under Spencer (64.7%) and a big dip in Wilkinson’s overall 72.7%. So Wilkinson is changing things up and giving players a chance, he’s making changes when they’re forced upon him.

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. The greatest trick Gavin has pulled is that he’s working to some kind of plan.