Largely Fictitious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there is nothing more to say about that goal.

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

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

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

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

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

QED, Anno is full of shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#RCTID

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

– Bill Shankley

Wagons East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#RCTID

The Sims

A little over a month has passed since John Spencer was let go by Portland Timbers, and still there is no head coach formally in place, though it seems an announcement will be made sooner rather than later on who will fill that role. It seems that the recent moves the club has made – trading out Mike Chabala and bringing in young Kiwi left back Ian Hogg – have been with the future head coaches guidance, or at least his assent.

Still, as long as there is no-one in place, speculation will continue. Stumptown had an article on the 10 possibilities for the role, and still it continues as Eric Wynalda’s ever tweet is scrutinised for any hidden message that shows he is Portland-bound is what must be the worst Da Vinci Code knock-off yet.

For a little change of pace, and filling the time before we can get back to talking about football again when the Timbers face Toronto tomorrow, I thought I’d use the armchair manager’s favourite tool, Football Manager 2012, to assess who is the best man for the job. I should point out that cos of the stupid way MLS works in the FM games, it’s a year behind, so essentially it’s the 2011 season (sorry Impact fans) with some of the 2012 roster – Boyd is in, yet Smith and Songo’o aren’t. But still, it’s not like I’ve got anything better to do with my time.

So without further ado, here are how 10 Realistic And Not-So-Realistic Candidates got on.

1. Gavin Wilkinson

Most Timbers fans’ worst nightmare as the “club icon” (seriously, he is according to the game – it’s not an exact science, bro) decides that he is the best man for the job after all.

All things being equal, they don’t have a terrible season. A somewhat respectable 6th place is achieved, but on the way Wilkinson does guide his team to Cascadia Cup glory, albeit on goal difference. Knocked out at the first stage of the US Open Cup by Philadelphia, it’s very much not a season that’ll linger long in the memory.

Interestingly (or not), 10 of the other 17 MLS head coaches lost their jobs during the season – more than in any other game. The Wilkinson Effect?

2. No Manager

It was left to the game to appoint a new manager and it obliged by giving the job to… Henning Berg, the ex-Blackburn and Manchester United defender. The big Norwegian guided the Timbers to 4th in the West, but lost out in the play-off semi-finals to New York.

The team fell at the first hurdle in the US Open Cup again, and despite beating the Sounders in Seattle (thanks to an improbable winner from Lovel Palmer), it the customers from the north who celebrate winning the Cascadia Cup.

3. Sean McAuley

McAuley gets the promotion to the top job and led the team to another 6th place finish, with no US Open Cup run to speak off. Vancouver waltzed off with the Cascadia Cup.

It was an odd season for Kris Boyd. McAuley didn’t seem to trust the big Scot as Boyd found it hard to pin down a starting spot. In 23 matches, Boyd got 8 goals while Nagbe matched that tally with only 4 starts and 14 sub appearances. What was odd about Boyd’s season was half his goal haul came in one match, and it was a match that would probably ensure Boyd and McAuley would, despite having a marginally worse season than Wilkinson, forever have a place in the hearts of the Timbers Army.

4. Steve Nicol

The former New England manager brings experience to the job, and that experience manifested itself in a stingy defence and even stingier attack. With 35 goals scored in the whole season, it wouldn’t surprise to learn there were 6 goalless draws. Thrills and spills aplenty.

He did managed to guide the team to a 4th place finish, before losing the play-off semi to, yes, New York and he at least won a match in the US Open Cup (just one, though) but all in all it was pretty dull fare though Alhassan would probably disagree as Nicol was the only coach to give him any significant game time.

5. Caleb Porter

Porter is lured away from University of Akron to take the Timbers job and, damn, he’s pretty good. It’s another 4th place finish, but he made it all the way to the conference final where the Timbers lost 4-2 to Columbus – the game falling apart when Jewsbury gave up an og to make it 0-2.

He coasted to a Cascadia Cup win with the best match being the Timbers victory at JELD-WEN against Seattle when late goals from Boyd, Palmer (?!) and Nagbe overturned a 2-0 Seattle lead.

Porter also gave the fans something to cheer about in the US Open Cup, putting the team into the 3rd Round proper where it all came to an end in typical Timbers fashion – defeat to a lower league club.

Out on penalties, with Boyd missing one. GCA would be having a field day with that. If it any consolation, Wilmington did go on to beaT Seattle 2-1 in the semi-final before being thumped by LA in the final.

6. Neil Emblen

The man who took charge of New Zealand at the Olympic Games is lured to Portland by promises of professional football and more Kiwis than you can shake a stick at.

It’s all a bit of damp squib in the end as the Timbers limp to another 6th place finish, winning a couple of matches in the US Open Cup and failing to beat wither Seattle or Vancouver as the Whitecaps take the Cascadia Cup. Had they not lost their last three matches they could’ve finished 4th, but it wasn’t to be with a 4-1 defeat to RSL really capping the season off.

7. Piotr Novak

The ex-Union bon viveur takes over in Portland to wild celebrations and impromptu street parties. Buoyed by such enthusiasm, the team surge to a 3rd place finish, racking up 17 league wins. The key being a defence as stingy as it was under Nicol, but with the ability to score goals now and then as well.

Nothing much to write home about in the US Open Cup, but he does give the fans a Cascadia Cup triumph to celebrate. It all falls apart in the post-season as 30 crazy minutes in the playoff semi 2nd leg against Chivas sees the team ship 3 goals and lose any chance of progressing.

For the first time there is some trade action as Novak brought in Marcelo Saragosa from DC United in August. And then didn’t play him.

8. Bobby Williamson

The ex-Kilmarnock manager leaves his post in Uganda. True to his “if fans want entertainment they should go to the cinema” philosophy, he serves up a lot of draws and not many goals.

Despite this, his team finishes in 4th place, losing out in the playoffs to LA Galaxy. However, he takes the Timbers all the way to the quarter finals of the US Open Cup before losing to Columbus.

His best moment was probably a come-from-behind win in Seattle, with the winner coming in the 88th minute from Sal Zizzo. Zizzo’s was traded to DC shortly after in exchange for Chris Korb and Austin da Luz as the winger never really fit in with his 5-3-2 formation.

He won the Cascadia Cup but, and this is as good a reason for him never coaching the Timbers, Seattle won the MLS Cup.

9. Marcelo Bielsa

Builder-confronting tactical genius Bielsa rocks up in Portland just to add to the weird quotient a bit.

El Loco never really seems to settle in MLS though. His 4-3-3 formation, with Boyd leading the attack, never really gets going and the team draw 16 of their games. However, he sorts out the defence is quick order – only 28 goals conceded and Troy Perkins (remember him?) leads the league in clean sheets.

So, despite the high hopes, it ends with a 5th place finish (and customary play-off semi loss to New York), a single win the US Open Cup and the Whitecaps taking the Cascadia Cup.

10. John Spencer

Merritt Paulson hits 88mph in his DeLorean and Spencer is restored to the top job. Where he absolutely slays it.

A 3rd place finish, with the highest points total of all follows a quarter final run in the US Open Cup. Boyd was on fire, scoring 17 times in 34 matches and Cameron Knowles was fired, in March.

A play-off semi final with RSL went all the way to penalties where the Timbers eventually lost out, 13-12. Mike Chabala missed the final penalty.

The downside was a Sounders double in the US Open Cup and Cascadia Cup. Oh, and Spencer traded Brunner to New York.

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So, what to conclude from this? Well, it’s just a bit of fun. I actually ran an 11th season, with Pep Guardiola in charge. He was sacked in July after a run of six straight defeats, so clearly it’s not to be taken seriously.

As a nerd, it was fun to run through the different scenarios and see who came out on top. Lovel Palmer is ridiculously overrated in that game and became a star in every season while Nagbe and Alhassan struggled for games. I don’t know who does the stats for the Timbers in the game, but they really need to step up their game for FM 2013!

So, anyway, clearly we should’ve stuck with Spencer all along! Who knew?

Hotheads and Bampots

Over the course of a few rocky days in July battle lines were redrawn at the two clubs I love.

These weren’t new fights, but rather the refiring of what had become a “cold war” at both clubs, between the fans and those in a position of authority.

On the 4th of July, Kilmarnock chairman Michael Johnston abstained from a vote on the admittance of the NewCo Rangers into the SPL, going against the other 10 clubs who all bowed to the pressure of their fans in voting “no”.

Less than a week later, after a defeat to Real Salt Lake, Portland Timbers parted company with head coach John Spencer, and installed Gavin Wilkinson as interim coach in a move that was met with almost universal disapproval among the fans.

Over the following month the talk has grown ever more angry and militant, with talks of boycotts and protests common between both sets of supporters. And here I am stuck in the middle of both.

I grew up a fan of Killie. They are, were, my local team, so it was only natural that I’d end up on the terraces, and later crammed into the seats with legroom that suggests the club expected a crowd of Douglas Baders, at Rugby Park. My wife being Oregonian, and a move over there on the cards, supporting the Timbers was an obvious next step. What wasn’t so obvious was the way the club, and in particular the supporters, would draw me in so wholeheartedly to the point where, whisper it, the Timbers are the team I follow first and foremost now.

Nevertheless, I still keep my eye on Killie and try to stay in touch with what’s going on there. The calls for Johnston to go are nothing new. The Killie Trust, a supporters group, have for a long time set themselves up as wanting change at the top.

When Bobby Fleeting took over the club in the late 80’s, reshaping it into its modern form, he did so by waving a crest of popular support from fans. These were fans that were contemptuously described as “hotheads and bampots” by the old regime, led by Bob Lauchlan. Lauchlan had presided over the club’s bleakest period as the one-time champions slid from relevance and into part-time football and, for a mercifully brief period, the third tier of Scottish football.

Now the supposed benefactors and reformers are shadowy figures. Certain fan representatives claim to know who they are, and vouch for their credibility, but until they step forward and gather support around them, the calls for Johnston to go seem like little more than a futile gesture. Some supporters talk of a popular buy-out, led by a Trust, that could take over the club and hand it to the fans for control, but it’s hard to see that happening when the bank, crucially, are happy to have Johnston there.

There’s no getting away from the elephant in the room – debt. It currently stands around £9m ($14m), which is colossal for a club from a small industrial town in Ayrshire, with an average attendance of around 5,500 (of which around 3,000 are season ticket holders). The loss of so many jobs in the town, the biggest being the pull-out of Diageo who own the Johnnie Walker brand (Johnnie Walker being founded in the town, and the man himself being buried not 2 minutes from where I’m sat right now) has left the town as a whole is a depressed state.

The reasons for the debt are myriad. A decade a go, or so, many clubs is Scotland “chased the dream”, spending lots of money that came into the game through television deals. When that money dried up, a few faced the difficult reality of having run up debts they could no longer service. Killie had gone as far as to build a four star hotel next to Rugby Park, a legacy of ex-Chairman and hotelier Bill Costley.

Johnston arrived on the scene not through a love of the club, or even football in general. He’s a solicitor, and it was only through his connection with Jamie Moffat that he was given the share for a nominal fee of £1. Moffat himself had inherited the club from his late father, and massive Kilmarnock fan, Jim Moffat. The younger Moffat never inherited his father’s love for the club though, and always seemed to be eyeing the exits.

The suspicion held by many fans is that Johnston is a mere puppet of Moffat’s; a buffer to keep the bank happy. He brings no financial investment to the club and has displayed next to no business or marketing know-how in his time at the helm. Local businesses have been gradually alienated, and at a time when jobs are being lost in the town and the cost of football rises, he’s done nothing to arrest the slide in attendance, even following a League Cup win last season.

Instead, he continues to alienate the fans.

Halfway around the world, Gavin Wilkinson is held in much the same regard by Timbers fans. Wilkinson’s reign at the Timbers falls in the “before my time” bracket, so I tend to be guided by those that were around to experience it. The anonymous article posted here drew a lot of attention, but off-site communication with other fans suggest that it’s merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Gavin’s poor relations with fans and players.

Yet, in the one relationship that matters, Wilkinson seems to have his back covered by Merritt Paulson, the club owner. Paulson’s clearly not a stupid guy, but neither was he a “soccer guy” before he got in the Timbers business, and it seems that from very early on Wilkinson has cannily positioned himself as Paulson’s go-to soccer guru.

It’s a relationship that many fans have likened to that of Wormtongue and Theoden from The Lord of the Rings. For me it’s almost like a case of Stockholm Syndrome, where Wilkinson has Paulson convinced that not only is he the right man for the job, but that’s he’s worth riding roughshod over players and fans alike for.

The trade of two popular players this week in Troy Perkins and Mike Chabala gave Wilkinson a chance to indulge in one of his favourite sports: having a little dig at departing players. He claimed that Donovan Ricketts was an “upgrade” over Perkins, a rather classless statement to make as it’s perfectly possible to talk up your new player without having to frame it in reference to the guy who has gone after giving you fantastic service.

It’s something that the club, rather than drop the “upgrade” tack and learn some lessons about PR from what has been somewhat of a clusterfuck, have doubled down on. Paulson himself tweeted “Troy has meant a lot but he’s not Petr Cech. People making him something he’s not” which is a strange assertion as a) no-one ever claimed he was and b) neither is Ricketts. It’s utterly irrelevant to the point.

Perkins weighed in with a rather telling statement to reporters in Montreal, “He’s said some things in the past about guys who had left the club, and that’s him.” Ex-Timbers players have expressed strong opinions on Wilkinson in the past, and it seems that it’s not something that’s going to stop any time soon.

Timbers fans face, I fear, a long and hard fight to remove Wilkinson for a position that he has dug himself into so effectively. When the owner is willing to go toe-to-toe with fans on social media to defend his ginger-haired beau, even as Wilkinson is having to tear up the team that he helped build as he presides over a disaster run of results and performances with all the public grace and charm of a rattlesnake, it’s hard to see how the fans can effect positive change.

Paulson himself weighed in with what was perhaps his “hotheads and bampots” moment when he reacted to the outraged masses on twitter by calling the medium a “cesspool of vitriol” (I would link to these tweets, but Merritt is notorious for deleting them). Now that may be true. Certainly, the British diver Tom Daley felt the full impact that the immediacy and relative anonymity that twitter offers recently. But just because the fans anger is now being directed in a more forthright manner, straight to the owner’s inbox where in the past letters would be screened, and Paulson himself has a itchy twitter finger doesn’t mean that had twitter not been invented the fan’s dissatisfaction with recent events wouldn’t have been manifested in other ways, and may still yet.

Michael Johnstone may not have been, and some would argue he still isn’t, a football fan when he took over, but he certainly seems to enjoy the trappings of being an SPL chairman now. If there’s an opportunity to get his face in front of a camera, Johnston will be there, and in the days after his abstention in the July 4th vote he was elected to the SPL board.

With no figurehead for the hotheads and bampots to rally round, I suspect any attempts to force Johnston out will come to nothing. So long as Johnston wants to stay in the limelight, the bank are happy for him to be there and the fans lack a Fleeting-type character to rally round, all the banners and flags in the world aren’t going to change a thing.

In Portland, it’s difficult to see how the fans will force Wilkinson out so long as Paulson is his Patty Hearst. Clearly Merritt must see something in Wilkinson that convinces him he is the man to guide the Timbers forward, but the failure to transmit this to the fans and get them on board is another failure of communication. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to see any cohesion or direction in the way the Timbers have gone about their first two years in MLS.

But it seems that as bad as it gets, one man remains untouchable in the eye of the storm. The supposedly imminent announcement of a new head coach may take some of the heat off Wilkinson, though I doubt the fans are going to completely forget about the Kiwi as, I suspect, they had better set their expectations to “underwhelmed” in regards to that appointment. I just don’t see how any top coach is going to want to work in this environment, though I’d love to be proven wrong.

What the future holds for both clubs is hard to see at this point. It would be nice, as a fan, to get back to thinking exclusively about what’s happening on the field again. That is why we love the game after all, right?

Maybe I’m some kind of jinx?! That’s the price for having me support a club. At least the Perkins trade took the heat off me as the guy who killed Timbers careers dead. Now I’m the guy who brings an omnishambles of a front office/boardroom to the table.

Whatever happens, one thing is sure. The fans will endure it. Owners and chairmen come and go, as do coaches and managers; the one constant are the fans. They are the beating heart of any club.

Hotheads and bampots they may be, but without them the club is nothing.

#RCTID
#KTID

The Road Worriers

The road trip, that staple of modern American cinema, has held little in the way of romance or wonder for the Portland Timbers. Disappointment, anguish and frustration have characterised the journeys away from downtown PDX.

The team has desperately struggled to find any form other than awful, and the figures make for pretty uncomfortable reading. Of their 28 MLS matches at home the Timbers have won 14, yet of their 27 away matches they’ve returned to the Pacific Northwest with all three points on only two occasions, and have had nothing more to show for their travels than a fresh stack of air miles no fewer than 17 times.

Such are the depths the team have sunk to on the road that the recent 5-0 defeat to FC Dallas – a result that was humiliating enough in isolation – saw them go 697 minutes since their last goal away from home, setting a league record as wretched as it is unwanted in the process.

The travails on the road are all the more stark when compared to a reasonably decent home record. JELD-WEN has been somewhat of a fortress where the Timbers won their first five home matches in their debut season last year. Though they’ve obviously not been able to maintain that deep into their second year, the record at home is still okay where it is distinctly mid-table form in the West.

The reasons from this great disparity in form has vexed many around the club. The club’s Jekyll and Hyde nature may be explained by some as the result of a boost at home by the fanatical and rambunctious support of the Timbers Army. The Army gather in the North End, making a cacophony of noise from an hour before the whistle until long after the players have departed the field.

With such support comes a degree of pressure, which the players have addressed, but does it really gives the Timbers such a distinct home advantage as to explain the vastly divergent returns home and away?

Certainly, opposing teams have oft spoken of how unique the atmosphere generated by the Timbers Army is, within the context of MLS. However, all evidence points to their being no direct “home advantage” effect. Many academic studies have been conducted to look into the issue, with most agreeing that the size and volume of the crowd have no discernible effect on the end result. The myth of the “twelfth man”, while appealing to our romantic nature and sense of tribal belonging, is little more than that – a myth.

Where there may be some influence exerted by home crowds is over officials. Studies have shown that there is indeed a tendency for referees to show a slight bias towards the home team. A large mass of supporters, shouting with one voice, can subconsciously influence the referee’s decision making in favour of their team in marginal calls. To be perfectly frank however, it’s hard to discern whether this “referee bias” has any greater effect than good old fashioned poor officiating, which is as rife in MLS as collective amnesia regarding support levels in USL is amongst Seattle’s loyal customers.

There are, though, examples where it does seem that the home crowd has had a direct influence on the play. In a match earlier this year against Chivas USA, a routine cross ball was spilled by Dan Kennedy, the Chivas keeper, into the path of Kris Boyd, who rolled it into the net. This apparent lack of communication between goalkeeper and defender happened right in front of the massed legion of the Timbers Army, and it’s not much of a stretch to think that the noise coming from them made communication difficult, leading to the mistake.

Another aspect that may, in some small part, explain some of the disparity in the team’s form is the field itself. At only 70 yards wide, the pitch at JELD-WEN only just meets the standards laid down by FIFA as acceptable for international matches. To put it into some context, Wembley Stadium is 75 yards wide and Barcelona’s Camp Nou is 74 yards. The relatively small size of the pitch in Portland has drawn criticism from a few quarters, notably Chicago Fire defender Dan Gargan, who called it a “shoe box” following Chicago’s defeat there in May.

While it’s debatable whether the field size hands the Timbers any real advantage at home – I tend to think it gets overblown a bit – it could be a factor in the team’s road woes. There has been a tendency for the club to be exposed down their flanks, with many goals coming from play that has begun out wide, and taken advantage of space between defenders. Perhaps those extra few yards are opening up gaps that aren’t there at home, or perhaps it’s because the full back position is one the Timbers have struggled to adequately fill since joining MLS last year. Six of one…

The thing is that the Timbers don’t seem to concede significantly more goals on the road (46 away, 38 at home), so the problem more likely lies at the other end. Of the 59 goals they’ve scored the Timbers have found the net a grand total of 12 times on the road, and have yet to score more than once in any single road match.

Thierry Henry, when addressing his relatively poor start to Arsenal’s first season at The Emirates, made an interesting point about lacking the visual cues he had built up at Highbury in the new ground. You can see how being able to tell with a single cue in his peripheral vision that he’s 25 yards from goal, and slightly off centre, could make a crucial split-second difference to a striker who has a hulking great defender breathing down his neck.

But, let’s be honest, it’s doubtful that Kris Boyd, for example, has built up such a wealth of instinctual knowledge in his time in their few months in Portland that Henry had in seven years at Highbury, so it’s seems the problems may be more psychological than anything. The team can seem defeated before a ball is even kicked, and when they go a goal behind it’s generally the end of the match as a sporting contest. The poor road form has become a vicious cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom, and one that is hard to break in a league that is already one of, if not the most arduous for travelling teams.

It’s easy to forget just how vast the continental United States are. It crosses four time zones, and local derbies are measured in the hundreds of miles, the LA “SuperClasico” between Chivas and David Beckham’s Galaxy excepted.

The longest single trip in the league is when San Jose Earthquakes visit New England Revolution (or vice versa), and covers a distance, one way, of around 2680 miles. To put that figure into some perspective, that would be the equivalent of Liverpool travelling to play in Baghdad.

With this in mind, it’s little surprise to see that Major League Soccer clubs tend to perform more strongly at home than clubs in other big leagues. In 2011 MLS teams, on average, picked up 62.2% of their total points tally at home (Home Reliance, HR) and the figure is currently up to 64.6%. Last season in England, Germany and Italy the figures we 57.9%, 59.1% and 61.6% respectively. In a league of comparable geographical size, Brazil’s Serie A, the figure jumps to 63.5%. There does seem to be some correlation between the distances travelled and “home advantage”, though even in Brazil there is a clustering of teams round a few large urban centres – something lacking in MLS where the general rule of thumb is one city, one team.

Rooting out the cause of the terrible away form is something that the Timbers current interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson, and his eventual successor, will have to do if the club are to be in any way successful. Last year they had a 71.4% HR, a figure only beaten by fellow expansion side Vancouver Whitecaps (82.1%). This season the Timbers have seen it jump to 90% while the Whitecaps has already almost match their home tally of last year while more than doubling success away from home.

Curiously, the team second to the Timbers in terms of reliance on home form is Montreal Impact, this years expansion club, with 86.7%. Perhaps there is something to supporters having a positive effect of their team when everything is still fresh and new; something that naturally diminishes over time. Teams in the East, like Montreal, do tend to struggle a little bit more away from home (66.4% HR in the East, 62.7% in the West).

So, while Vancouver have improved their away form and are looking good to reach the play-offs, the Timbers continue to toil. Had they performed “on average” away from home, Portland could expect to have 8 more points (based on home form), which would tuck them in behind LA in the race for the playoffs. Instead, they face a fight with Toronto FC in a race to avoid the wooden spoon.

For a club where the mascot chainsaws slabs of wood for every goal the team score, there would be some dark irony in that particular “achievement”.

Troy Story

After 51 appearances, and almost two years in Portland, Troy Perkins is a Timber no more. In a move that took everyone by surprise the first choice keeper was traded to playoff chasing Montreal Impact in exchange for their goalie, Donovan Ricketts.

And to think I had wondered what we were going to do to occupy ourselves in the long stretch before the El Cuchara de Madera Clasico in Toronto next week.

I took me a while to parse what had actually happened here. Had we really just shipped out one of the few guys on the roster to emerge out of a FUBAR 2012 season with a reputation relatively unscathed?

Yes. Yes, we did.

So, what is going on here?

Well, in Ricketts the Timbers have acquired the 2010 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. The ex-Galaxy man is still held in high regard by many Beckham FC fans, though few Impact fans seem to be mourning his loss.

I’ll be honest in that I haven’t been watching a great deal of Montreal this season, so I’ll leave it to others who are more capable of really analysing what the Timbers have got here. Being in the UK for much of the season, the only non-Timbers matches I really get a chance to see are those broadcast here by ESPN, and those are predominantly LA or New York games.

Perhaps Ricketts struggles this year can be attributed to a poor defence in front of him. 7 of the 39 goals he’s conceded this year have come from penalties, which suggests all is not well in front of him. So, it’s just as well he’s coming to a team where we’ve got the defence absolutely locked down and water tight.

Oh, sheeeeeeeeeeet.

Montreal are willing to pick up some of the more expensive Rickett’s salary for the next two years, so the Timbers effectively pay the same as they had for Perkins and don’t take a hit, in that sense at least, for it. I’ll admit that the MLS salary rules are something I’ll likely never properly understand, but when I see a team chasing the playoffs paying us to take their keeper of their hands, I have to wonder if this really is the “upgrade” that Gavin Wilkinson claims it is.

The more I hear from Wilkinson, the more I wish he’d keep his mouth shut.

Reading the news of the official site one line stood out to me.

Troy has been an important player for us, but we as a coaching staff saw this as an opportunity to improve the position, while optimizing our budget numbers in 2012 and 2013.

“Improve the position”. Is there really any need for that line to be there? What is it with this club and the need to take a shot at players who’ve left?

Maybe I’m nitpicking and, okay, it’s not the “professional expectations” and “non soccer reasons” of the Marcelin cut, but for me it betrays a lack of class and decency from the front office.

Would it be so hard to say something like this instead?

Troy has been an important player for us, but we as a coaching staff saw this as an opportunity to get another experienced, quality goalkeeper in, while optimizing our budget numbers in 2012 and 2013, with a view to developing our young goalkeepers who are the long term future of the club.

I get that you want to put a positive spin on the move, but it’s entirely possible to talk up Ricketts as the great saviour without having to stamp down Perkins down in the process with snidey little digs.

Wilkinson went on to reaffirm his opinion that Ricketts was the better keeper with his “ It’s an upgrade, in all honesty” comment. I don’t see why he can’t talk positively about Rickett’s attributes without framing it in terms of Troy Perkins’ supposed deficiencies, regardless of whether you actually think this is an upgrade or not.

For the record, I don’t. I think at best it’s a sideways move, and at worst we’ve just signed a keeper on the downhill part of his career.

This is a guy, Perkins, who took a boot to the face for the this club, and anyone with half a brain in their head could see has bailed this team out on countless occasions. Show the guy a bit of fucking respect at least.

Even if you do genuinely believe you’ve got a better keeper in, why have you got to betray such a lack of class in addressing it. It’s the “professional expectations” and “non soccer reasons” of the Marcelin cut all over again.

Of course, why I should expect any different from a guy who gave us “I’m not throwing anyone under the bus, but…” comments after he guided his team to a 5-0 loss in Dallas, I don’t know.

As well as the needlessly petty tone taken in talking about Perkins’ contribution to the Timbers, it’s the timing of this move that bothers me.

Following on from the hiring of an “assistant” before we’d even appointed a new head coach – I guess whoever we get had better just accept the staff he’s given and get on with it – we’re now trading away crucial members of our first team.

What is pretty clear is that this is a move all about getting Jake Gleeson installed in the starting XI. The 22 year old Kiwi got a chance last season when Troy Perkins was injured, and I thought he did fairly well and I wouldn’t have minded at all if he’d been allowed to keep his place. I’m a big believer that if you get a chance and do well, you deserve to play regardless of who you’re keeping out of the team.

But Wilkinson’s own words betray the fact that even he doesn’t think Gleeson is quite ready yet.

We are bringing [Ricketts] in to do a job and we are also thinking that that is a better environment for Jake Gleeson to develop in. [He] accepts that he’s a mentor for [Gleeson and Bendik], that one day one of those two is going to surpass where he is.

So we’ve essentially traded out one of the club’s few genuine top players, someone just coming into his prime years, for a stop-gap veteran?

Clearly Gleeson isn’t quite ready to step up yet, or we wouldn’t be signing a “mentor” for him. I’m sure he will be a great keeper in time. I don’t see why we don’t ride out this year and let the new head coach, whoever he or she may be, make the call on who they think is the best keeper for the club. If they agree Gleeson is the future, and the future is now, then we have one of the league’s top goalkeepers, with years ahead of him still, to offer as leverage in a trade for a player in a position where we are weak like, say, defence. Or midfield. Or attack.

I get the impression that Troy was unwilling to sit out so that Gleeson could get some game time, though give the way he’s carried himself with supreme professionalism and dignity through-out his time here, I’ve also doubt that had he been benched, he’d have done it without throwing the toys of out the pram. I mean, not being happy at all, but not feeling the need to unsettle everyone else over it.

Also, I’m not sure signing someone who is willing to sit out is a good thing, you know? That hardly speaks of a guy in his prime, confident in his abilities to be a top keeper any more. Maybe Ricketts himself has recognised he’s lost a bit of sharpness and accepts that this is going to be his role, and as long as he gets some game time in front a good crowd, he’s happy with that. Maybe he’s got one eye on moving into coaching, and this is a good bridge towards that. Only Donovan Ricketts would know.

So instead of keeping Perkins and letting Gleeson battle him for the right to take over as number one, we get a 35 year old who’ll likely see out the next couple of years, as I don’t think there’s any way Ricketts is here beyond 2013 when Montreal stop supplementing his salary. If all goes well, Ricketts rides the bench for much of next year as Gleeson takes over. Of course, as Wilkinson says, “35, for a goalkeeper, is not old” and he’s right – Brad Friedel is still doing it arguably the toughest league in the world, past 40 – but the flip side is that we seem hell bent on rushing through a 22 year old. If 35 isn’t old, is 22 a bit young?

The debate can rage on about the merits or otherwise of this trade, but after all is said and done Troy Perkins has gone and Donovan Ricketts is a Timber now. I wish Troy all the best, except when Montreal face Portland (which fortunately won’t be this year) but Donovan is our man now and he’s gets 100% backing.

I doubt this isn’t the end of it. I’ve suspected for a while that we won’t see Kris Boyd back next year, for one. He’s seen the guy who brought him here fired, and has been hung out to dry in a system that doesn’t work for him – seriously, if you sign Kris Boyd for DP money, you know what you’re getting so you build the team around playing to his strengths, you don’t just plug him into what was currently there and hope for the best because, shock, that isn’t going to work. If I was a Championship club and I’m looking to push on in January, I’d fancy taking a punt of him. I doubt Wilkinson would put up a big fight to keep Spenny’s guy in Portland.

Those fans calling for Wilkinson to go had best buckle down because if this move says anything to me it’s that Gavin is going nowhere. He’s already building his team for next year.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

#RCTIUpgrade

Crackerjack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#RCTID


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

The Nagbe Enigma

Darlington Nagbe has come to embody the fortunes of the Portland Timbers in what has been a difficult second year for both parties. So much hope and expectation was placed upon them coming into 2012, and both have frustrated and disappointed while still showing the occasional flash of brilliance that only serve to make the lows seem ever bleaker by comparison.

Nagbe came out of a successful University of Akron side in to the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. The Zips have been one of college soccer’s finest conveyor belts for young talent with Steve Zakuani, Ben Zemanski, Perry Kitchen and Teal Bunbury also coming through there.

He was given the Hermann Trophy, an award for the country’s top college talent, after guiding the Zips to a national championship and had, it seemed, the world, or at least the US soccer portion of it, at his feet.

Prior to the SuperDraft there were many pundits who tipped Nagbe to go first and Sports Illustrated praised his “strong presence on the ball, ability to go at and get by defenders and typically smooth finishing touch”. He would eventually be drafted second, as Portland’s first pick, and hit the ground running with 21 starts in his debut season.

The highlight of that first year was probably his wondergoal against Sporting Kansas City.

Any fears of a sophomore slump from Nagbe seemed unfounded as he started the year in sparkling form, coming off the bench against Dallas to score an equaliser in the second match of the season. He followed that up with two goals against Real Salt Lake a couple of weeks later.

Such was his early season form that there was speculation over just how Nagbe would choose to represent on the international stage, with the player himself seemingly rebuffing the advances of Liberia, the country of his birth.

However, since those heady first few weeks Nagbe’s form has been on a slow, steady decline. It’s not that he’s playing poorly, as such, but that he’s certainly not improving either.

Comparing his first goal against Real Salt Lake earlier this year with a passage of play in the similar area against Colorado Rapids highlights the difference between the Nagbe that started the year on fire and the player who’s currently filling the Timbers #6 jersey.

It’s been noticeable, to me at least, that the drive has gone from Nagbe’s game. The team as a whole has struggled, and it’s tough for a 22 year old, 2nd year pro to flourish under those circumstances, but nevertheless it’s been disappointing to see Nagbe fail to progress as I’d hoped he would this year.

Even ex-head coach John Spencer seemed to tire of the talk surrounding Nagbe, and a few of the players.

I’m sick and tired of hearing the word potential. For me, potential gets you your contract, gets you on the field, then you’ve got to produce. We’ve got too many guys right now not producing to the best of their abilities.

Spencer’s comments came after the 1-0 defeat to LA Galaxy, the first match after the defeat Cal FC, so a time when the team were really struggling to put together anything positive. This was also a period when Nagbe began to be used more deeply.

Nagbe’s found himself in a number of positions this year. He’s played as a striker, a wide attacker, at the point of the midfield diamond, tucked in behind the strikers, and also in a more traditional midfield role at times. How he’s expected to get any consistency in his play when there’s seemingly little consistency in where he plays is a mystery.

It’s interesting that the Timbers signed Danny Mwanga this year. Mwanga was a player who took the MLS by storm in his debut season at Philadelphia, before struggling to find a defined role in his second year which saw his form slump. The parallels between Mwanga and Nagbe are striking, though at least Nagbe has remained a fixture in the Timbers’ starting XI.

You can see how Nagbe has been utilised in these heat maps of his appearances this season. Note, the 1-0 defeat to New England and the 2-1 victory against San Jose are missing as the chalkboards for these games are borked.

In that first half of his season, Nagbe had almost as any many shots on target (10) as he’s had shots in total in the second half (13). Given his deeper role, it’s understandable that he’s getting fewer shots off. What’s worrying is his accuracy plummeted too. In that first half he got 47.6% of his target shots on target (10/21), but since then he’s had a single shot on target, or 7.7% accuracy.

To be fair to Nagbe, he’s still every bit as involved in the play as he’s ever been. He’s not hiding out there. He’s making passes around every 140 seconds or so, a figure that’s been consistent across the year, and his accuracy has hovered around 86%, with four matches seeing it over 90%. The problem is that he’s doing it further from goal, and there are a lot more backwards and sideways passes, which gives the perception that’s he’s being less effective.

I’ve wondered a few times what Nagbe’s best position is. I still feel he lacks a bit of the robustness to play up top. Even Kris Boyd, a bigger and more seasoned players, used to the “blood and snotters” nature of football in Scotland and England, has seemed to find the physicality of MLS defences tough to come to terms with at times.

I also feel he’s not as well utilised out wide, and Songo’o and Alhassan are arguably better choices there in any case. In his attacking midfield role, I just feel he hasn’t been the attacking fulcrum the position demands. He hasn’t seemed fully comfortable playing there, and has been playing much more conservatively as a result.

Part of the reasoning behind the “Christmas Tree” formation I proposed a couple of days ago was to try and get the best from Nagbe. Playing as the sole player in the centre between midfield and attack heaps too much responsibility on his shoulders. Having three players tucked in behind him would, I’d hope, give him the freedom to try something now and then, rather than playing the safe percentage game.

I’m all for keeping possession, but when you transition into that final third, you need guys who can provide that spark of something special, not simply laying it off for others for fear of being the guy who loses the ball.

There’s no doubt that Darlington Nagbe is a good player, with the potential to be very good. Failure to get the best of Nagbe doesn’t bode well for the club’s hopes of bringing through other young talents and developing them into players who can fire Portland to glory.