The Change Up

Three months ago I wondered whether a radical change in tactics might be a way for the Timbers to put an end to a disappointing start to the season. It didn’t happen, and John Spencer abandoning his beloved 442 for something as radical as a 343 was always the longest of long shots, just like Sigi Schmid to passing up an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Spencer would be fired as the season continued on a downward spiral, with Gavin Wilkinson installed as interim coach with a brief to “find out more about the group”. That would be the group that he had a large hand in assembling that he’s finding out about.

Wilkinson has moved away from Spencer’s 442-shaped comfort blanket and experimented with a long front man, and a five man midfield. Whether it takes the shape of a 451, a 4231, 4141 or a 433, the team has still struggled to find form like I struggled to find a good metaphor to put here.

The problem, as far as this armchair manager sees it, is that we continue to make the same mistakes, patiently rearranging the deckchairs before ramming into every damned iceberg we can find.

The plan seems to be the same as it ever was: play it quickly out of the back, get it wide, ???, profit. The problem stems from the fact that we play with guys out wide who are attracted into the centre like Wayne Rooney to his local nursing home. Franck Songo’o, when he’s in the mood, is a fantastic player who’ll beat players with tricks and feints, but he tends to do most of that coming in off the flanks rather than getting round the defence to get a cross in.

This has the effect of narrowing our attack to a dull point, handing the emphasis for providing width to the full-backs. Mo’ problems as we have full-backs whose delivery from wide areas could be politely described as fucking shite, so even when we do work a good overlap there’s an odds on chance that the only person getting their head on the ball is going to wake up in hospital with a case of concussion and the faint memory of walking past a football ground.

The other issue is that when the pass doesn’t go out wide, and our nominal “wingers” are coming inside, the middle of the pitch can get more congested than Harry Knowles’ arteries. So, we run right into traffic, lose the ball and are caught with our pants down and full-backs way out of position.

Being the kind of football nerd that spends time thinking about these kind of things when I could be doing something more productive like shouting at traffic or seeing how many Ritz crackers I can eat at once (6), I thought if we’re not going to think out of the box – which is a shame cos, really, what have we got to lose at this point? – why not find a way of playing that requires the minimum of tweaking?

Taking the 433 that the Timbers lined up with against Goats USA as the basis, I came up with something that does much the same job, but better I think, and with a dash of Barcelona in there, cos why the hell not?

The “Christmas Tree” formation – a sadly fitting title given the way the Timbers defence have been dishing out gifts this year – is a variation of the more traditional 433 where the two wide attackers are played more centrally, in behind the striker rather than flanking him, or supporting from wide.

Or, as Jonathan Wilson puts it in Inverting the Pyramid:

The 4-2-3-1 is just one variant of the five-man midfield. One of the attacking midfielders can be sacrificed for an additional holder, producing either a 4-3-2-1 – the Christmas tree – or the modern 4-3-3. Co Adriaanse seems to have been the first exponent of the 4-3-2-1 at Den Haag in the late eighties, and Terry Venables experimented with it with England ahead of Euro 96, but it was at the 1998 World Cup that a side using it achieved its first notable success, and it entered the mainstream.
  

Aimé Jacquet’s problem was accommodating Zidane, one of the greatest playmakers the world has known, but a player of limited pace and almost no defensive instinct. His solution was to give him effectively a free role, but to do that without destabilising his team defensively, he followed the Italian convention and fielded three midfielders whose function was primarily defensive – Didier Deschamps, Emmanuel Petit and Christian Karembeu. Youri Djorkaeff was included as a further creative presence, with Stéphane Guivarc’h as the lone centre-forward. He was much derided – and it may well be that, from a technical point of view, he is the worst centre-forward ever to win a World Cup – but he performed his function, which was, broadly speaking, to provide a focal point and hold the ball up for the creators behind.
  

AC Milan are the best modern exponents of the 4-3-2-1, although theirs is rather more attacking than France’s had been. When they won the Champions League in 2006, Kaká and Clarence Seedorf were the advanced midfield presences, with Andrea Pirlo operating as a regista behind them, flanked by the snapping and snarling of Gennaro Gattuso and the unfussy efficiency of Massimo Ambrosini. Again, though, the key is fluidity, for both Pirlo and Ambrosini are comfortable advancing and Seedorf, equally, can play in a more defensive role.

Against Chivas we saw the Timbers play with one holding midfielder in Jack Jewsbury, with Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara ahead of him – Nagbe concentrated more on attack, with Chara performing the box-to-box role.

In the 4321 I propose for the Timbers, the holding midfield role could be retained (given to Chara (#21) in the example above, but it could easily be Jewsbury, or Lovel Palmer if you secretly really hate football and want it stamped out), with the two in-front both performing box-to-box roles. We’ll come back to that defensive midfield role in a bit.

Though it might seem at first glance that we’ve lost an attacking player, because we have as there’s no longer a “front four” as there was in the 433/4231, but I think it would allow us greater attacking flexibility and potential.

The key to this change, as Jonathan Wilson pointed out, is “fluidity”, and having the attacking midfielders – Songo’o (#8) and Nagbe (#6) above, but it could also have Alhassan, Richards or Mwanga in there instead – moving out of the most congested area of the field and into space, rather than the other way round, with support coming from the two deeper midfielders, Eric Alexander (#17) and Jewsbury (#13).

The fact is that we essentially play the same way every week and teams know it. The personnel changes and there might be variations on the theme of 442 or 451, but it tends to shake out just the same. They can sit two or three players in midfield and know that they can shut down much of our attacks by simply waiting for us to run blindly into them. They can take their chances that we won’t hurt them down the wings, as we generally won’t, and look to spring us on the break when we get frustrated or panic, and meekly hand possession back to them.

By having Songo’o and Nagbe start in the centre with instructions to stay mobile, we can start to pull players around and look to open up spaces for our deeper midfielders to step forward into.

Keeping possession of the football is something that the Timbers have struggled with. It doesn’t seem like keeping the ball was as important to Spencer as “going direct”. It’s a very British mentality, though one that’s becoming rarer as footballing cultures from around the world have exerted their influence on the game in the UK.

Clearly, that approach isn’t working, so let’s change it up. Let’s keep the ball instead.

Here Steven Smith (#14) has the ball out wide. He can look to go down the outside, either with a run or a pass for Songo’o, or work it to a midfielder inside, or back to Futty Danso (#98). By having that extra man in midfield, we give the player on the ball an extra body to find.

It might not making for blood-and-thunder, “exciting” football, but I’d rather see us work the ball back to defence and across the pitch without advancing than trying to force something to happen and turning the ball over.

So if we have to go back, and then work it across the defence and back again three or four times, then so be it. While we’re doing it, the opposition are having to constantly adjust and move to cover space, while we’re letting the ball do much of our work.

Keeping the attacking midfielders mobile, and being patient in possession, allows us to probe for a space or weakness, rather than launching the ball towards “the big guy” up top and hoping we can profit from a knock-down.

And that’s another thing: the long ball is gone. No longer will JELD-WEN Field be a no-fly zone for light aircraft, fearful of being struck by another errant Troy Perkins punt.

Keeping the ball begins at the back. Generally speaking, whenever the keeper has the chance to get it up the pitch it signals that the opposition have just been thwarted in an attack, so why the hell are we giving it back to them? It’s like spilling someone’s pint and then throwing your own drink over them for good measure – why make things more difficult for yourself and invite trouble?

I want to see the central defenders either side of the box, with the holding midfielder close by, and the ball rolled out to feet. These guys in turn should be looking for a pass to feet rather than putting their foot through it like they just caught it in bed with their wife. If these guys are covered, a long throw to the full-backs or one of the deeper midfielders looking for space.

I’m not saying never ever go with a long ball. If the opportunity presents itself to send someone into the clear with a quick ball up the pitch, by all means, but I hate seeing players resorting to a lazy punt as a matter of course. It’s an abdication of responsibility – “it’s not my fault he didn’t win the header” – and causes more problems than the occasional time the ball may break kindly is worth.

As you may have noticed, there’s a change at the back too. In possession I’d want my central defenders pushed out wide, with the holding midfielder dropping back to create a line of three. This is very much like the system Barcelona use where Busquets is often the guy to plug in at the back.

The thinking here is that is provides cover for the full-backs who’ll be expected to play on the front foot, and take the game to their opposite number.

Currently, if we lose the ball and the opposition attacks the gap left by a full-back caught up the pitch, we’re left with a central defender having to cover across, making up ground on the attacker, and a 1v1, or worse, in the centre. As players scramble to cover and get into shape, it’s easy to lose an attacker for the split second it takes for them to get that half-yard they need to get in behind.

With the three at the back, the flanks are already covered, with the defender of the opposite flank able to squeeze back in should there be runners from midfield.

The defenders also serving as linking players, helping to circulate the ball.

In attack, the important thing is to give the player on the ball options.

In this example, Smith has a number of options. He can go round the outside (a), looking for the run of Songo’o, whose run would have to be matched by his marker lest he be allowed to get in free and clear behind the defence. His run would allow Alexander to step forward into space.

The option for the cross (b) is still there. You could look to get Boyd (#9) in here, or if the Scot has dropped off and taken a defender with him, Nagbe making a late run against the full-back at the back post.

Both (c) and (d) let the player shift it inside, and the important factor here is to keep the ball moving quickly. One and two touch football, looking to work triangles and keeping it simple. The option to go back (e) is always there, and the ball can be shifted across to the other side where the opposition defence can be probed from another angle.

All this is very easy when it’s written down; it’s a different matter in real life. There’s been a noticeable drop in the speed the team plays at as guys look to take a couple of touches before moving it on and this, allied with the team playing towards the busiest area of the pitch, contributes to the side’s inability to create enough of the clear cut chances needed to win games.

Do we have the players to play a quick passing game, and is Boyd mobile enough? Perhaps not. You can tweak and experiment all you like with formations, but if the XI on the pitch simply aren’t good enough, you’re going to lose most matches regardless.

Given Wilkinson (coincidentally, this is how his name is pronounced in Kiwi) is there to see what the players can do, I’d like to at least see him ask the question of the players. Let’s see what they can do. Though, perhaps it’ll be down to Sean McAuley to experiment further given his appointment – I don’t understand why we’re hiring assistants when we don’t yet have a head coach, but there you go – seems to have, at least in part, been designed to free up Wilkinson to concentrate more on his peerless work as general manager.

The club is stuck in a kind of listless limbo state at the moment. The playoffs are like Lindsay Lohan’s career, a distant memory, and there’s no threat of relegation to light a fire under a team that have themselves spent much of the last couple of weeks under a bus. With no manager, and no direction, it’s little surprise the team are drifting towards the least satisfying climax since Snooki’s boyfriend sobered up mid-coitus.

With little to play for, the Cascadia Cup excepted, all the fans can look for is some signs for hope next year. We could start by at least trying to play good football.

Intolerable Cruelty

In shock news, the Timbers suffered another defeat, their fifth on the spin, this time following a smash-and-grab win from Chivas USA, the only goal of the game coming midway through the second half.

The scoreline mirrored that of the recent match, though at least the performance was better here. Just a shame you don’t get points for that. No to get wins you need to score – something the Timbers haven’t done in 290 minutes of play – and it also helps to keep a clean sheets or so – it’s now 11 consecutive matches the Timbers have conceded in since a 0-0 draw with Houston in mid May.

Gavin Wilkinson made six changes from the team that collectively shat the bed against Dallas. Out went Chabala (gone from the 18 altogether), Danso, Alhassan, Fucito, Alexander and Mwanga and in came Smith, Horst, Richards, Boyd, Jewsbury and Nagbe.

I suspected they would line up in a 4-2-3-1 again, but I was a little surprised to see how far up the field Chara was playing. Jewsbury had the holding role, and that freed the Colombian foul merchant up to go forward and support the attack.

Songo’o and Richards played out wide, with Nagbe tucked in behind – and running beyond – Boyd in the striking role.

From early on it was clear that Songo’o was in the mood for this one, and he ryansmithed the Chivas defence time and again in the first half. He was at the heart of pretty much everything positive about the Timbers attack, and is virtually unplayable when he’s in this sort of form. Which is to say, occasionally.

Boyd had a couple of decent sights at goal – one chance he beautifully engineered with a deft flick, and another he completely fluffed. Such is life as a striker – the margin between hero and villain is often vanishingly small.

Playing up top can be a cruel position to play. Mistakes are amplified. A missed chance falls under much greater scrutiny than a midfielder’s misplaced pass that leads to nothing. No player is more derided than the striker that misses a chance that is “easier to score”, yet even the greatest strikers will miss a few of them along the way.

I’d rather have a striker get ten chances and miss them all than not get any at all. Course, I’d much rather he put at least one of those away, but we’ve all had bad days/nights at the office and this was one of these for the striker.

The only position, in my opinion, that is crueller than that of striker in terms of the difference a single mistake can make is that of goalkeeper, and we’ll get to that soon enough…

Brent Richards made his first start for the Timbers in MLS, and he was hugely impressive in the first half too. He added a bustle and energy that the Timbers attack has oft lacked this year, and he displays as much contempt for the fundamental laws of gravity as John Terry does for decorum and sportsmanship.

His aerial abilities certainly seemed to catch Chivas out early on, and the home grown player got a lot of joy from long, high balls punted in his general direction. He also added a threat from throw-in’s with a Rory Delap-esque long throws.

As well as what he could offer the club going forward, he also displayed a focus and willingness to work in defence that helped Kosuke Kimura at right back.

As much as I like Alhassan, I’ve always had big reservations about his defensive work, among other things. Though Chivas offered little in attack, I do feel that Kimura had a much more assured match here than he’s had in a while in no small part to the security afforded him by Richards’ work ahead of him.

Fans have been calling for a while for some of the young guys to be given a chance to shine, and it’s pleasing to see Richards not only given that chance, but grasp it both hands, take it home to meet his parents and buy a nice three-bedroom house in the ‘burbs.

In his more advanced role Diego Chara also impressed in the first 45. He had a hand in a couple of good chances, and it was his pass that set Boyd off down the right in a counter-attack that had echoes of Mwanga’s goal against San Jose.

Such chances to break on Chivas would be few and far between given their plan to defend in depth, both numerically and geographically.

The Timbers faced a team with one plan in mind: keep it tight, and hope to nick a goal. From very early on it was clear that this was not a team that would come here and look to exploit a Timbers defence that had just shipped five goals to a distinctly average FC Dallas the previous week.

Half an hour in and Chivas were already defending in numbers and bunkering in. It’s a strategy that has served them fairly well, with four of their six wins prior to this match coming in 1-0 results. The other two were also one-goal victories, both 2-1. This isn’t a team that tends to blow out their opponents, nor do they get steamrollered having conceded more than 1 goal in only 4 of their previous 19 MLS match this year.

Having done so well in the first half, there seemed to be a slight drop-off in intensity in the second. The formation that had come as close to a 4-3-3 as we’ve seen from the Timbers this year in the first half took on more of a 4-1-4-1 shape in second.

Jewsbury still sat deep, but Chara didn’t have the same attacking focus that he’d had in the first half.

Richards, who’d had such a fine first half, also lost a bit of pep to his game in the second. Chivas seemed to wise up to the threat of Richards in the air, even as the Timbers continued to dementedly plough that particular furrow, and he didn’t quite have the same joy as he had in the first.

On the opposite flank, Songo’o tired and had less impact than he had before the break. The Cameroonian has had his share of injury problems, but he continues to struggle to find full match fitness, and it was a visibly tiring Songo’o who gave Chivas the chance the led to the only goal of the game.

All the Timbers good work in the first half was wiped out by a needless foul, poor defensive marking and a goalkeeping error.

You have to feel sorry for keepers sometimes. The slightest misjudgement and there’s a good chance they’ll cost the team a goal. Perkins has been one of the Timbers best, most consistent, players this year, but he has to take his share of the blame for this one.

Once in front, there was never any doubt that Chivas would look to park the bus and keep what they had. The Timbers failed to find a way through – Boyd missed a couple, and Nagbe joined the party with a couple of his own.

There was certainly a lot more positives to take from this match than there has been in the last few games. I don’t often agree with Wilkinson, but he’s right when he says that football is a “cruel, cruel sport at times”.

The Timbers continue to find frustration in attack, while they find that every mistake gets punished pitilessly.

I thought the tactics, in the first half certainly, were good and we got good performances out key players. What worries me is the drop-off in the second – something that’s happened too often to be mere coincidence.

Robbie Earle speculated in the commentary that Sean McAuley was doing much of the touchline coaching to give the players a “different voice” to react to, with Wilkinson saying his piece at half time. If the reaction from the players after the break is any indication, Wilkinson might want to consider getting a motivator like Mitt Romney in next time.

The Jekyll and Hyde nature of the team is annoying, but at least the drop-off wasn’t as dramatic as it has been in the past. And, hey, for a team that had lost so many late goals this season, only 2 of the last 15 have come in the last quarter hour, so that’s something. Right?

Of course, those 15 goals have been conceded in the last 5 games. That’s also something… *shudder*

I want to strike a positive note, as I did feel we played some good football at times, but we leave ourselves at the mercy of a single, silly mistake at the back when we fail to put the ball in the net. And if there’s one thing that you can count on with this team, it’s that they’ll make a mistake at the back at some point. Today it was Perkins, on another day it’s Kimura, or Smith. It’s a wonder we have any toes left considering the number of times we’ve shot ourselves in the foot.

Chivas recorded their third win over the Timbers this season with this result. You know what you’ll get from Chivas. They play pretty much the same way in most matches, and that strategy never really changed for Chivas as the match wore on.

Though Chivas has the edge in possession before the goal (53%-47%), the Timbers made almost half of their passes in the Chivas half, with only 39% of Chivas passes coming in the Timbers half. After the goal, the Timbers dominate possession (79%-21%), and have much more of the play in the Chivas half, but fail to take what chances come their way.

Like a dealer who gives a hit of the good stuff to hook you, so the Timbers give flashes of what they could be, reeling you in and making you believe, before sucker punching you square in the babymaker.

And yet, we’ll be back again for the next game, and what’s more we’ll have hope that next time it’ll be different.

Despite the scoreline in the last meeting, the Timbers are more than capable of beating Dallas next week. Unfortunately, they’re also more than capable of beating themselves.

The team have a week before they have a chance to avenge that 5-0 defeat in front of a Timbers Army that have been starved of reasons to be cheerful lately.

It’s a cruel game indeed.

#RCTID

Why We Hate Gavin

Let’s start near the beginning.

In 2006, Wilkinson was the team Captain during the worst season the Timbers have suffered since the reformation of the club in 2001. The Timbers Army still loudly supported the players, but had issue with both the tactics and player personnel decisions of the manager at the time, Chris Agnello. We still sang our player chants, including one for Gavin. About 2/3rds of the way through the season, the Oregonian printed one of their rare stories about the Timbers. Rather than speak of the problems on the field, the story focused on language problems in the TA making the games an anti-family friendly atmosphere. This in a season when the growth in attendance of the TA and the stadium at large was almost literally the only positive story to be told. But more distressingly, the majority of quotes in the piece did not come from a front office employee, but from our Captain. The poor play of the team was blamed on the only people in the city of Portland who cared whether or not those players still had a job. Most of the TA around at that time will tell you that reading that article was easily one of the lowest points they’d ever suffered as a supporter. We couldn’t understand why this article had been written, but more importantly we couldn’t understand from whom it was coming.

At the end of the 2006 season, Agnello was replaced by Wilkinson, who took over both the coaching and GM duties. Everything started to make sense. Practically his first decision in charge was to eliminate all interaction between players and the TA. The Bullpen was a gathering spot after matches for players and fans to co-mingle and it was one of the most important factors in breaking down the barriers and making players feel like they belonged here. Fan favorite players like Hugo Alcaraz-Cueller and Byron Alvarez did not have their contracts renewed. Hugo went to Seattle and won a Championship with the Sounders in 2007. His second decision was to start an officially sanctioned supporters group to compete with, and hopefully replace, the TA. Called the Portland Timbers Official Supporters Club (or PTOSC), Gavin would use player interaction as a way to leverage interest in this group and take power away from the supporters. Ever wonder why Sal Zizzo went to the Thirsty Lion to hang with AO-PDX but you’ve never seen a Timbers player at one of our Food Bank drives, or at 442 to watch the Euros, or at the Bitter End during one of our offseason events? It’s not like the players aren’t aware of us. That’s a legacy of Gavin’s. It’s not simply that players may not mingle with fans, they just can’t mingle with the TA because the TA are drunk louts who offend genteel sensibilities. When you see a publication like Willamette Week hammer on an old, dead stereotype seemingly out of nowhere, remember who the first people they would call on a story would be.

I would refer you to this article, worthy of its own discussion.

This is 2007. Toronto FC was just about to enter the league and the Red Patch Boys were going to play a part in the solidifying the general movement away from catering solely to soccer moms and their kids and embrace real soccer supporters. The Timbers were still a minor league club with what was then almost universally recognized as the most legitimate, sizable, and serious SG in American soccer with the TA. In hindsight, it’s easy to make quotes like…

While we love the Timbers Army, we’d like to refine some of their behavior,” says Wilkinson, at age 33 starting his first coaching job. “I pose that the language they’re using is limiting the potential to bring in more and more kids. There are 60,000 kids playing soccer in Oregon, yet we’re not getting many of them at the games.

… look absurd but I can promise you there were just as many face palms 5 years ago. And in the sentence beneath, promises of added security and police. In literally less than 6 months, Gavin Wilkinson went from a beloved Captain and long-tenured player to a suit who banished the best and most popular players in the squad from the city, tried to supplant the best thing the club had going for it with a pale imitation, and threatened eviction or prosecution if we didn’t do an about face from being in the vanguard of what’s now known at “MLS 2.0” to embracing mascot races and t-shirt cannons. He was on the wrong side of the fans, the wrong side of history, the wrong side of empty, preening authoritarianism, and basically every single constituent piece of what “RCTID” and that Timbers MLS Marketing campaign was supposed to be about. But he did it for the children. As a modern ambassador of soccer, I guess he’s a pretty good youth soccer coach. But as a father with a child, I’d personally keep my kid as far away from that guy as possible.


I regret any language which made it appear I was alluding to any scandal. What I meant to say is that over the course of putting this article together, I had the opportunity to speak with many fans who have had the closest interactions with Wilkinson. From the old fan meetings to people who were friendly with old players, many of them ended up using a variation of a word to describe him.

A bully.

Players were consistently berated and degraded. Throwing them under the bus was just the public face of a more persistent problem. He refuses to accept personal responsibility for problems, he has a tendency to treat intelligent adults as if they were children, he plays favorites, and he fancies himself a hard-nosed disciplinarian which means that a culture of mutual trust and respect is to be avoided. In short, everything I would like least in a teacher/role model with the capacity of shaping the self-esteem and development of my kid.


This post has been published anonymously at the request of the author.

Another Fiasco in Frisco

I’m not mad, I’m disappointed.

In their first year in MLS, the Timbers went to Dallas in summer and lost 4-0. That remained their heaviest defeat as an MLS club until this week when they went one worse and lost 5-0. It was the first time Dallas had scored 5 since they beat LA 6-3 in 2009 and the first time they’d won by more than three goals since the Timbers visited last June.

The result leaves the Timbers rooted to the bottom in the West, and bottom overall on goal difference. Of the 35 goals they’ve conceded, 14 have come in the last four matches. The Timbers also set records for the longest a team has gone without scoring a goal away from home. It’s now seven full games since Kris Boyd scored against LA, and an aggregate score in that time of 0-15.

So, is everyone feeling happy? Let’s get on with the game…

The team that Gavin Wilkinson selected to put an end to that run saw Boyd benched, and a return to the 4-4-2. Alexander moved centrally, to play the top of the diamond as Nagbe also sat out. Mwanga and Fucito were up top, while Smith was replaced by Chabala at left-back . Songo’o and Alhassan were the wingers.

It was, on paper, an attacking set-up. Two mobile strikers to stretch the Dallas defence, and exploit any spaces. Alexander pulling the strings in midfield, with the creativity of Songo’o and Alhassan out wide.

In reality, it was a different matter.

The tone was set from early on. The Timbers sat off, seemingly looking to conserve energy in the sapping heat, but all it did was hand the impetus to the hosts. Dallas dominated play from the first whistle, and wouldn’t give up control until the final whistle mercifully brought an end to a contest that as one-sided as you’re likely to see.

The battle was quickly won, and lost, in the wide areas. There seemed to be no understanding between Chabala and Songo’o down the left or Kimura and Alhassan down the right.

When the ball got forward into attacking wide areas, there was no support for the full-backs time and again.

It may be that Wilkinson had told his fullbacks to sit deeper to counter the threat offered by Dallas’ full-backs, but rather than snuff out a Dallas threat, all it did was neuter our own.

Even on the few occaisions that a full-back did get forward for the Timbers, they would find themselves isolated.

It’s a wonder I don’t have a bruise on my forehead from the number of head smackings I give myself as the Timbers continue to make the same basic errors. Neither Songo’o or Alhassan are guys who are going to go round a defender and hit the byline, yet we persist with playing them out wide.

Fine, then we need to get our full-backs up to provide that wide out-ball, except we either have the ball dribbled or passed inside, and lost, or the run is so late, or the pass too slow, that rather than having a 2-on-1 out wide, it’s 2-on-2 or even 2-on-3.

To see how it’s done properly , just watch Dallas.

That’s how you do it. It wasn’t just a one-off, it was consistent. Quick, crisp and effective. Compare to the ponderous and plodding play of Portland. It’s men and boys.

With the way Dallas would push on their full-backs, it should’ve created chances for Portland to hit them down the flanks on the break, but again we were just too slow. We seem unable to put some quick passes together in transitioning from defense to attack. You can almost hear the gears crunching as we try to.

The one time we did turn it over quickly, a long ball forward was robbed from the defender by Fucito and his shot was deflected off the post. It was 0-0 at the time, and while it may have changed the matches had it gone it, I have little confidence that it would’ve halted the tide of the match which was washing all over the Timbers defence.

It very quickly became evident that Wilkinson’s attempt to play Alexander as an attacking midfielder was leaving Diego Chara exposed in deep. Not for the first time this season. And not for the first time, we did nothing to remedy a glaring problem.

As Dallas worked the flanks well, they were able to overload the middle and create chance after chance, and it was only a matter of time until they broke through.

It was also little surprise to see all of the Dallas goals exploiting our full-back weaknesses, and three in particular playing on our inability to defend in wide areas.

On the first, Kimura was marking a man in the centre of the field, leaving acres out wide. He then did that annoying thing of jumping back first to block the ball. Mosquera was unfortunate to turn it home.

The second saw Chabala go off on an adventure into midfield, and Songo’o resolutely fail to bother his arse to cover for his full-back.

The fourth was that classic thing the Timbers do of giving the ball away cheaply and leaving the full-back with his arse in the breeze. Jewsbury, who had started on the bench, gave the ball away and Dallas always looked likely to score.

The third and fifth goals won’t be featured on Mike Chabala’s highlight reel should he find himself seeking a new club at some point. On both occasions Jackson breezed past him so easily I had to rewind and double check he really was there at all.

It was a defensive horror show, and the full-back area continues to be a problem.

It was, of course, yet another shuffle at the back with Chabala coming in. The lack of consistency at the back is certainly a contributing factor to our defensive woes. Probably the best defense I’ve seen was the famous Arsenal back four of Adams, Bould, Dixon and Winterburn. These were guys who played together every week, knew each others games inside out and played not as four individuals, but as one collective unit. They were formidable.

To be fair, the continued absence of Brunner perhaps prevents the Timbers from picking their first choice central pairing, but the continued switching of Horst and Futty alongside Mosquera doesn’t build stability. Nor do the woes at the full-back area.

Lack of communication, players not knowing or doing their job properly, poor positioning – all these are results of players not knowing who they’ll be playing beside from game to game.

Dallas were also able to use their defenders as a way to slow the game up and take a breather.

As you can see, Dallas were happy to play across the defense. It keeps the ball, gives the attacking players a chance to rest up, and it also lets the team probe for weakness in the Timbers defense. Look at the Timbers defence, and there is none of that. The difference is like those before and after pictures of a spider’s web when the spider is jacked up on caffeine. We’re nervous and jittery where Dallas are composed and confident.

It’s a symptom of the Timbers season. Hardly anyone wants to put a foot of the ball and work the play. It’s head down, kick it forward and run, and the tone is set at the back. Perkins continues to punt the ball hopefully up the field even though anyone who’s played in heat will tell you it’s much easier to conserve energy when you have the ball than when you’re chasing it. Look for a full-back to throw it to, or a central defender to drop off for a ball to feet. Pass the ball, even if you’re not always moving forward. Keep it, treasure it, and let the spaces open up in front of you, rather than hoping they will.

It’s just not good football. I said during the week on twitter that it’s little surprise we play USL football considering our entire backroom team is drawn from there. Just like a lower league team will upset the odds from time to time, so do we, but over the course of a season the results will even out and you’ll find yourself some way short of the quality needed. For all the work done to bring the old PGE Park up to MLS standards, we neglected to improve the personnel in the same way.

The fact it was the Timbers 3rd game in 8 days should have made possession of the football an even more pressing concern.

If the ninety minutes wasn’t dispiriting enough, Wilkinson’s post match comments won’t have improved anyone’s mood.

The tone of Gavin’s comments, despite his protestations that he wasn’t throwing anyone under the bus, were of someone throwing everyone under the bus before hopping on that same bus and telling the driver to step on it.

In short: “It was them, not me. Honest.”

It was hard not to see them being directed not towards the fans that had just seen the club they love humiliated and abused, but to Merritt Paulson in an attempt to convince the owner that he shouldn’t be culpable for having “people quit tonight”.

For all Gavin Wilkinson sought to shift the blame for the result onto the players – and the players do deserve criticism, as I’ve given too – he can’t, and shouldn’t be allowed to, weasel his way out of this one entirely.

Not only did he pick this team, and set the tactics, he signed these guys. I’ve never believed for a second that Wilkinson deferred entirely to a rookie manager in who the Timbers signed. And if he did, why are we paying him a wage if he’s just going to stand silently by and watch as a team is built in the most haphazard and poorly-planned manner?

The notion that Spencer signed all the duds is, quite frankly, bollocks. Wilkinson’s hands are dirty.

These are his players and if they’re not good enough, he’s not good enough. I don’t think sacking Spencer was a mistake, but it’s a job only half done. Spencer made many mistakes in his tactics, game management and approach, but he wasn’t alone in putting together a team that now prop up the rest of MLS.

I don’t buy the notion that bringing Spencer back would make things any better. The depths the club have fallen after he left doesn’t change the fact we were already scraping the barrel with him here. It’s a completely fresh start the club needs, with new eyes looking over everything and putting the club back on track.

I think we overachieved some in the first year. Players were a little bit complacent coming into their second year.

What in the holy fuck is this guy babbling about?

We overachieved by losing 14 of our 34 games? By having the second worst defence in the West? By winning two of our 17 road matches? Overachieved? Fuck off with that nonsense!

If our General Manager, the guy who is supposed to shape the “vision” for this club going forward, thinks that is overachievement then he had no place in MLS, never mind this club.

You may overachieve in a cup competition, and string a few results together and win a trophy, but you achieve exactly what you deserve over 34 matches. We’ve gone backwards this year and not because we did so well last year that players got complacent, but because management have failed in their duty.

You because complacent, Gavin. You’ve been here 12 years now. You’re comfortable, you’re part of the furniture. You’ve gotten lazy. You’re not good enough. You’re failing the Timbers, and if you have even a shred of good feeling towards this club, you’d do the right thing and admit the job is too big for you and go.

You may even find that fans have a bit of respect for you as a result. You got offered a nice job, and you took it. No-one would begrudge you that. You gave it your bes,t I don’t doubt, but your best isn’t nearly good enough. To hang onto your position now would be entirely selfish and destructive for this team.

You’re part of the problem, Gavin. Yes, the players have to take a large share of the blame for results, but I have zero confidence that you are the man to bring in better players. And the thought of you having input into the next manager at the club fills me with cold dread.

As I posted last week, I don’t expect title after title. I don’t support the Timbers for the glory. But this isn’t good enough. The fans remain loyal in their support, but they’re hurting. Ultimately, beyond singing themselves hoarse at every match, they can only watch as their club – THEIR club – is mismanaged.

You can blame everyone else for your failings, Gavin, but you don’t fool the fans.

One can only hope that the owner isn’t fooled either.

The Timbers have a week before their next proper match, when they host Chivas USA. It’s the return legs of this bizarre little midseason double-double-header, so a chance to avenge this defeat will follow the Chivas match.

#RCTID

So What If We Suck?

It’s sad to say that the #SWIWS (So What If We Suck) hashtag has found itself attached to the #RCTID one on more than a few occasions this year as the Timbers have found the going tough in their second year of MLS.

The sentiment is well-meaning. It’s basically “we’ll support you ever more”. Yeah, we suck, so what? We still love the club.

I get all that, and I appreciate it, I really do, and yet I hate it.

So what if we suck? It’s fucking shit to suck, that’s so what!

I don’t expect the team to win every game and, to be honest, as much as I want us to, if we did it would probably bore me to tears. You need the agony to truly appreciate the ecstasy.

So it’s not all about the glory, but, still, fuck this #SWIWS sentiment. I give the team my absolute support when I’m in the ground. I sing, I cheer, I hug random strangers when we score. The Timbers Army sing their support of the club, no matter what. There was no better example of the Army’s dedication to the cause than the way they drove the side on despite finding themselves 4-1 before half time in the LA game.

So What… even if the sentiment is right, just doesn’t sit right with me. It carries a “oh well, doesn’t really matter” connotation, but football does matter to me. Okay, it’s not life or death, but it’s a passion of mine, and it’s something I put a lot of myself in to. I’m not obsessive, though my wife might disagree when she’s asking me why I’m watching a random German football game, but this stuff matters.

So I care that we suck, and I don’t like it. I want better. As I said, I appreciate the sentiment and don’t mean to offend those that use it, but my unwavering support for the club is summed up perfectly by RCTID – Rose City Till I Die – it doesn’t mean I have to acquiesce to having the team playing poorly.

Despite a Season of Suck the club announced that there were 7,000 fans currently on the season ticket waiting list – a staggering number, especially as the club struggle on through a torrid season. There’s certainly no question that these fans are seeking to attach themselves to a winning team!

No, it’s seems it’s rather more that they want to attach themselves to the Timbers Army.

There’s a phrase to describe this phenomena – Basking In Reflecting Glory, or BIRGing, for short.

I grew up in a town where I could see the relative supports for the big Glasgow clubs wax and wane depending on whichever was doing better at the time. I never did understand that mentality. Gloryhunting, us fans of local, not so successful, clubs would call it.

There’s certainly no way that thousands are lining up to support the Timbers on the basis of the reflected glory cast by the exploits of the team.

Yet, even as the team on the pitch has flirted with disaster, winked at calamity and rounded third-base with misery, the fans continue to garner positive headlines both for their unwavering support in the stands, and tireless community work.

Who wouldn’t want to sign up for that Army?

Who wouldn’t want to bask in that glory?

Some fans, in a conspiratorial mood, have drawn from the release of an increase in waiting list figures an inference that a season ticket price rise is on the way. I mean, after all, if you’re not willing to stump up for a pay hike on your ticket, then someone else surely will. It’s the first step on a path towards a “supply and demand” argument with regards to ticket prices.

This, taken with a loose (obviously since deleted, but undoubtedly screencapped somewhere) tweet from club owner Merritt Paulson about General Admission vs Assigned Seating in the North End, as well as complaints by some fans about chaotic lines to get into the ground on game day, has fostered a burgeoning Them vs Us attitude. Battle lines are being drawn, with the purity and tradition of the Timbers Army at stake.

The GA debate rages on and off on twitter and facebook, as well as the various Timbers forums. As every MLS match gets sold out, and the prestige of the Army shows no sign of abating, it’s little wonder than more new fans are being drawn to it like moths to a flame, and this creates problems that supporters groups are continually working hard to put right, without having to resort to assigned seating.

Assigned seating, critics argue, would rob the Army of something integral. It takes away that spirit of freedom and flexibility.

Besides which, the rest of the ground is Assigned Seating. The option is there for those that want it. My wife, after experiencing the lines for the Vancouver match was adamant that if we got tickets for the Seattle match, they had to be assigned. Fortunately we were able to scored tickets for the West with friends, and so avoided a long wait in line and no chance of a spot in the “prestige” lower sections – besides which, we sat up in the 200s for the Whitecaps, and enjoyed it just fine.

So the arguments for and against carry on, while the club itself continues to deny any move away from General Admission. For some the answer is to install Safe Standing in the North End, on the model used in Europe. It’s a hybrid system that allows the club to increase capacity, while maintaining seating should it be needed for whatever reason, such as a non-football event.

Speaking as someone who grew up with terracing, before all-seated stadia became a legal requirement in Scotland, I found standing with the TA a reminder of just how much fun going to the game could be. Standing at the game is almost a primordial thing. I’d lost touch with that sense of tribal belonging in the years I’d been sitting in the cramped stands at Rugby Park.

It may well be that all this talk of Assigned Seating and Price Rises is nothing more than hot air. Or it way turn out that the waters are being tested after all. Given that there’s little good news to grab on to on the field, the stuff off it tends to get magnified and over-analysed in a way it wouldn’t if the team were doing the business.

A season and a half on from their MLS debut, the Timbers continue to be overshadowed by the Army. The attention and recognition were nice for a while, but even the most ardent fan was going to tire eventually of every Timbers story having to shoehorn some kind of tenuous Army angle into it.

And there are only so many patronising head pats anyone can take.

It’s a symbiotic relationship – there would be no club without the fans, and there would be no fans without the club. It’s about time the club started pulling it’s weight.

I’m probably not the guy to pontificate too long on the subject of the Timbers Army. My first live match was only last year, the 3-3 draw with New York. Though, in my defence, I would point out that the commute from Scotland to Portland is a bit of a tricky one.

There are folks who have been TA from back before I could even point to Oregon on a map, never mind tell you the name of Portland’s top club. So, it’s to those guys and girls that I defer.

My tuppence worth though would be that the Army, and the Timbers faithful in general, have something special going on, and when you have something precious like that, it’s should be nurtured. It’s not just about bending to the Army’s every whim – at the end of the day the club has to function as a business – but finding that balance where the Front Office are able to service the growing number of wannabe supporters, while maintaining the unique atmosphere that the North End bring each and every match has to be paramount.

I hope that General Admission stays, and that the price are kept relatively low. I makes is affordable to all who want to sample it, and gives the North End a special kind of buzz that would be lost if the stadium went entirely Assigned Seating. I say that as someone who hasn’t got a season ticket yet, and have long wait ahead of me to get one, but so be it.

There are lots of supporters groups in MLS, but there is only one Army.

The support still grows and BIRGers, and late adopters, want to be a part of something wonderful.

And who knows, maybe one day they’ll want to be bask in the reflected glory of what happens where it truly matters – on the pitch.


No sooner did I post this than there was a post on the Timbers Army sight about the importance of General Admission. They obviously have a lot more authority on the subject that I do, so go check it out if you haven’t already.

Goats 1, Donkeys 0

No-one said being a Timbers fan would be easy.

There were some positives to take from the 5-3 defeat to LA Galaxy at the weekend, but panning for gold in the 1-0 loss at Chivas USA would be as futile as searching for signs of intelligent life in YouTube comments. The Timbers served up a performance so leaden that it could be considered a danger to public health.

It was the kind of showing that would get football stopped.

It’s strange to think that a 1-0 defeat on the road was somehow worse than losing 5 goals at home, and yet that’s the overriding feeling I have after enduring 90 minutes of ball-numbing suffering.

Gavin Wilkinson made a couple of changes to the team from the weekend, with Futty in for Horst and Chara for Palmer. Apart from that, it was business as usual with the team playing in a 4-2-3-1 again. Though, at times it seemed more like a 4-4-1-1 or plain ol’ 4-4-2 to me.

I had hoped, after showing up better in the middle during the second half, that Eric Alexander would start alongside Chara, but Jewsbury, who seemingly knows all the secrets, continues to hold on to a place with a death grip.

My own hope, before the match, was a Chara/Alexander two behind a three of Songo’o, Alhassan and Nagbe – though I wouldn’t have been adverse to Nagbe sitting and Richards starting. The team, as announced, just seem a bit too defensive for my liking against a team that had drawn a blank in three of their last four MLS matches and managed only 11 goals in 17.

It’s not like packing the team with defensive players did anything to help 0]”>the situation against Real Salt Lake.

The game itself was pretty even in the opening stages. The 1pm kick-off time saw a bunch of local kids groups given tickets to attend, lending the match a “Chuck E Cheese at lunch time” atmosphere, made all the more grating by the addition of no-one’s favourite football fad, the vuvuzela.

It was hard not to recall the infamous Estonia vs Scotland match from 1996, when a dispute over floodlights led to the surreal situation where Scotland kicked off against no opponents, in front of no home fans. Only one team turning up and no fans? Hello Home Depot Center, 2012.

Ryan Smith, who had tormented the Timbers defence like a wasp in the car the last time the teams met, started this time, matching up against his namesake, Steven Smith. Rather than purely to annoy me by forcing me to specify which Smith I’m talking about, it seems like the move was a deliberate attempt to exploit Steven Smith’s ever-more apparent defensive weaknesses.

When Steven Smith had come to Portland earlier this year, I’d sounded a hopeful note. I remember him from his time at Rangers, where he had burst onto the scene and looked every inch the future Scotland stalwart. Injuries hit, and took a toll out of the player, such that he ended up kicking around the lower English leagues before being picked up by the Timbers.

The player I remembered from his Rangers days was an explosive wing-back with a good crossing boot. I expected the injuries to take a half-yard or so off his pace, but I thought his defensive awareness and crossing ability would, at least, remain.

It’s getting harder to hold onto that belief as week after week Smith has been found lacking in a number of areas. His crossing has been haphazard – I’m being kind – and he seems to have compensated for losing a bit of pace by developing a penchant for going to ground early and diving into tackles.

Ryan Smith certainly came out the best in this particular duel, and it was by beating Steven Smith that the Chivas man was able to set-up the only goal of the match early on.

Smith had a poor game, no doubt, but he wasn’t alone in this as every defender would, if they’re being honest, hold their hands to having had an off day.

Futty could, and probably should, have done a bit better in getting close to Smith and shutting the winger out, but the moment that Smith was able to get square on, there was only ever going to be one winner there.

I like Futty – and Horst too – but it’s becoming ever more apparent what the team miss by not having Brunner, for all his own faults, on the backline.

Mosquera is by far the Timbers’ best defender, but he came out second best in his own personal duel in the build up to the goal. His desire to push out of defence and close down can cause more problems that it solves sometimes.

Futty has to take a share of blame for turning his back on the man, but had Mosquera not been off ranging like Aragorn reborn, he wouldn’t have been trailing the Chivas runner. The cross ultimately didn’t come in so we weren’t punished for it, but it’s concerning when even your top man is making basic errors.

Kimura had a strange match against LA. His sloppiness in the tackle, and poor concentration, led to two of the LA goals, but he also popped up at the other end to score, so there’s that. He still looks like a guy who is adjusting to a new team, so it’d be unfair to lay into him too hard until he’s got a run of games under his belt.

I thought, in the goal, he had allowed himself to be attracted towards the ball, and by going so narrow left the space at the far post wide open. He at least made a valiant effort to get back, but too little, too late.

I like the guy’s athleticism, but he needs to tighten up his defensive work.

Again, we weren’t punished here, but Kimura was caught hanging around up field – he’d raced forward long before the ball came back to Chara. It’s tough for Kimura, and Smith, as given the way the Timbers were playing, with Alhassan and Alexander narrowing up top, the onus was on the fullbacks to get forward and provide the width.

It’s this delicate balance of knowing when to get forward, and when to cover, that makes the fullback role such a tricky one to play well. To be fair, if Chara doesn’t give the ball away sloppily (collector’s item, that one) there’s perhaps no problem for Kimura.

His defensive judgement though can lead to situations like late on where he completely misjudged the flight of a lofted ball and ended up almost gifting Chivas a gilt-edged chance.

The full-back area has been a constant problem for the Timbers. Having Kimura in at right-back is certainly better than having Jewsbury play make-believe there, but Smith isn’t really convincing that he’s an upgrade over Chabala or, whisper it, Wallace at this point. Chabala’s big weakness is his final pass/cross, but it’s not like Smith is putting the ball into dangerous areas from wide right now. Aside for a late forward ball to Kris Boyd that the striker nudged narrowly wide, I’m at a loss to recall any serviceable delivery from Smith.

Considering all three Timbers goals against LA came directly or indirectly from set-plays, it’s perhaps not that surprising that the team struggled to create much going forward.

The first half in particular was remarkable for the toothless nature of the Timbers attack. They at least stepped it up in the second half.

You can see pretty clearly that the Timbers were playing a bit further up field, and they created more chances as a result. There was the aforementioned Boyd chance, while Alexander had a couple of attempts screwing the best chance wide after a nice back heel lay-off from Jewsbury.

Smith had a chance in injury time when the ball pinballed around the box, before Sal Zizzo laid it off for the Scot to curl his effort just wide with his weaker right foot. It was one of those chances where you just wished it had fallen to his left boot, where he could’ve got a clearer shot away or laid it off to Jewsbury. Such are the fine margins of defeat.

Truth is, for all the gained territory and pops at goal, Chivas never look overly ruffled. They Fonzied their way through the second half, happy to soak up what pressure the Timbers tried to apply.

It was a pedestrian display from the boys in green. Even when they were supposedly chasing an equaliser, it never truly seemed like there was a real sense of urgency.

Given the Timbers road form, and manner of play, there was always the sense that when Chivas got their noses in front, the game was over, even after only 15 minutes. That is truly depressing. Where is the fight?

I had thought that perhaps a change in manager would signal a fresh approach to road games, but it’s not surprising that the same shit keeps happening when it’s basically the usual suspects.

Wilkinson took the defeat last week on his own shoulders, and he’s welcome to much of this one as well. He set out a team with very little attacking impetus. He left Boyd woefully isolated and provided little support to his wide defenders. And when it came time to roll the dice and try to find a way back into the game, he made subs that left me shaking my head.

First Nagbe went off for Songo’o. Fair enough, Nagbe was largely invisible, but it was hardly a change designed to throw bodies forward.

Ten minutes later, I was literally halfway through writing a tweet to the effect that I hoped to see Mwanga or Zizzo on to replace Jewsbury, with Alexander taking over Captain Marvel’s role when Wilkinson made a change. He brought on Zizzo, but Jewsbury stayed on the field and Alexander came off. Okay, fine. The third change saw Alhassan off for Mwanga, and by this point I’m at a loss to explain what the thinking was.

I can’t say Jewsbury was especially bad in this match, but he was pretty ineffectual. Story of his season. He’s rarely outright awful, but neither does he have an impact on the match. His inviolate place in the team seems to have heldover from John Spencer’s days, as has his captaincy.

I don’t expect the captain to be the best player, but I do expect a leader. Maybe the players themselves would disagree, but I don’t see a great deal of leadership from Jewsbury. He doesn’t seem to be a shouter, or a motivator, nor is he a guy that leads by example. He’s just out there, misplacing passes and looking every inch the MLS veteran on the down slope of his career.

I worry about Boyd, too. He cuts a frustrated figure more often than not. There were some giving him stick on twitter, but I don’t give that notion a shred of credence. It was interesting listening to his interview on John Strong’s Talk Timbers podcast, as he gave his thoughts on playing the 4-2-3-1.

I’m used to playing with someone up front, but as a formation it does work. Your role does change because you find yourself with two centre-halves most of the time […] and it’s important for the two wide men […] to get on the ball and create chances.

That’s the crux of the matter. Boyd needs those around him to do their jobs before he can even think of doing his. If he could conjure it all out of thin air on his own, he’d be playing at the Camp Nou and not in front of a bunch of bored kids at freaking Home Depot Center.

With the sacking of Spencer, the guy who brought him here, I’m coming more and more to fear that Boyd’s time in Portland will be one season, and done. Though he has never said as much, listening to his interview it’s clear that he’s bitterly disappointed with how things are going so far.

You can enjoy your life but when you’re not winning games it affects everything because you want to win games. I’ve won so much, and I’ve won so many games in my career. You get used to winning and when you’re not doing it, it’s not easy to come to terms with.

Where Do We Go From Here?

With Toronto’s win, the Timbers are now tied for last overall. There’s a seven point gap to LA on the edge of the play-off places, and I expect LA to climb a place or two before the season’s out. Vancouver are a further four points ahead of LA. That’s potentially 11 points to turnover in 15 games.

The play-offs are gone. Done. Forget about it.

For so long the Timbers had stayed in touch almost despite themselves, but this result finally put a pillow over the face of our faint hopes and mercy killed the fuck out of them. And I think this is a good thing.

The play-offs have been hanging around on the sidelines like a creepy uncle at a kid’s birthday party. The club has been unable to put them out of their mind, and it’s led to a conservative approach to team selection as we’ve “chased the dream”, or more accurately “sort of drunkenly staggered in the general direction of the dream with no real idea where we were going, or why we were going there”.

Truth is, even if every other team conspired to outdo our kamikaze tailspin and sneak us into the play-offs, it’d only prolong the misery that is the 2012 season.

Time to draw a line through it, forget about it and start planning for 2013. And that means it’s time to shake this team up.

Give the kids a chance.

I want to end 2012 with hopes of green shoots, rather than faced with the same old dead wood.

We’re already bottom. It’s hardly going to get worse, is it?

I also think we need to get someone in before the end of the year. By all means, be thorough, but we need a guy with top level experience to come in and shake this place up. It’s perhaps not surprising that when you build a staff that’s largely made up of USL alumni, you end up with a team that plays like a USL team. We’re too often tactically naive, and there are good players on this team who aren’t playing to their potential – that’s a coaching issue.

Next up is Dallas at the weekend. I may not have a match report up for that one as I’m flying back to the UK at the start of next week, which means I get to enjoy the pleasure of 3am kick-offs once more.

#RCTID

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Tis But A Scratch

The Timbers were on the losing end of an eight-goal thriller with LA Galaxy in Gavin Wilkinson’s first match in charge since John Spencer was philosophically fired last week.

The defeat at JELD-WEN was the Timbers’ first MLS reverse since Chivas won 2-1 way back in April – and the five goals conceded were more than they had lost in the six matches between that match and this.

Wilkinson didn’t stray far for Spencer’s formula in his team selection. Boyd started, which was nice in a he’s-involved-in-virtually-every-goal-we-score kind of way. Chara’s suspension meant a place in midfield for Palmer and Jewsbury, with Alexander and Alhassan on the flanks. Mosquera returned to the starting XI, with Futty the man to sit out.

The one difference was this wouldn’t be the usual 4-4-2. Wilkinson lined his team up in a 4-2-3-1, with Nagbe tucked in behind Boyd. The truth is that the formation was a bit more fluid than some digits on a screen would suggest.

The night started so well as a crisp Alhassan cross was put beyond Saunders by Boyd after only a few minutes.

Having spent so often bemoaning the way the Timbers have failed to play to the Scot’s strengths, it was nice to finally see someone give him the kind of ball that he thrives on. And it was no surprise to see it was Alhassan.

Alhassan seems to be one of the few players who is on Boyd’s wavelength, and keeping Kalif fit – as well as instilling at least some semblance of discipline to his play – has to be a priority for Wilkinson and whoever takes over the top job in the long-term.

In retrospect, it’s easy to look back and see that there was something odd in the air. I mean, really, a Timbers goal in the south end?! As a wise scientist once said, “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!”

Buoyed by the early goal, some of the Timbers play was nice to watch. There seemed to be a noticeable drop in the number of long hopeful balls up the field, and much more pass-and-move play, with the ball staying on the deck.

However, a crazy ten minute spell midway through the first half saw all the encouraging early play undone in brutal fashion.

The Galaxy’s fightback was triggered by some of that mercurial ill-discipline from Alhassan as well as, in my opinion, some presciently poor defensive work from Lovel Palmer.

First off, there was no reason for Alhassan to dribble the ball around in that area – Palmer was wide open for an easy pass. Secondly, as soon as the ball was lost, just when you’d want your defensive midfielder to come alive, Palmer went to sleep.

Palmer’s almost preternatural ability to do the wrong thing at the wrong time is fast becoming a joke that even Daniel Tosh wouldn’t touch as being just too tasteless.

The thing is, I don’t think Palmer is necessarily a terrible technical player. You don’t get this far, and achieve what he has in the game, if you can’t master the basics. Sure, he’s not the best passer in the world and his long-range shooting fetish borders on the obscene.

What Palmer lacks, in my opinion, is the ability to make the right decision at crucial moments, and that’s pretty damned key if your responsibility is to protect the defence.

The ability to take in what’s going on around you, extrapolating that information and making the right decision – all within a split second – is one of the skills that is hardest, arguably impossible, to teach. You can teach a player to pass or shoot. You can hone his ability to cross a ball, or play to game plan. Teaching a player to think faster, and better, is much more difficult to do.

John Terry would be an example of a player who, for me, lacks this ability but his other abilities allow him to, more often than not, make a last-ditch recovery to salvage the situation. The late sliding tackle that is so beloved by fans and producers of slow-motion highlight reels is the action of a defender who has made a poor decision. The old adage is true – the best defenders will finish the match with barely a stain on their kit.

Palmer doesn’t have Terry’s ability to recover a bad situation, and his poor decision-making renders him a defensive liability. Lovel Palmer is a ticking time bomb of Fail.

In the Jimenez chance we saw Palmer marshaling a space rather than the man. For the Galaxy equaliser he changed it up.

For sure, it was a good finish from Mrs Cruise, but I’d think more of it if he’d done it with a guy on his shoulder and nipping at his heels. The fact is, for the second time this season, he was given all the time in the world, right in front of goal, and he punished us.

Palmer dropping off to shadow Donovan gave Beckham the breathing space he needed. Only Alexander – eventually – woke up to the danger, and by then it was too late.

Some more awareness from Palmer – or if you’re being kind to Palmer, a shout from Mosquera that he had Donovan covered – and Beckham doesn’t get thee shot away.

Yes, that should read Donovan instead of Keane. The perils of text in pics.

Honestly, at this point, I’m at a loss to explain what Palmer brings to the team. The fact that he only lasted to half-time may suggest that Wilkinson was asking himself the same question.

He displays poor defensive awareness, time and again, and offers next-to-nothing going forward. He just… is.

As Palmer’s moment in the spotlight passed, it was time for Kosuke Kimura to step forward.

A foul by Kimura gave the Galaxy a free-kick in dangerous territory. Beckham stepped forward and duly put the ball in the exact spot that just about everyone expected him to.

I actually had the thought, one that’s occurred to me in the past, that it might actually be a good idea for the Timbers to set up without a wall in this situation.

As you can see, Beckham puts the ball low and near the right hand post (X marks the spot) – right in the spot that most fans would’ve predicted him to aim for. It gives Perkins a good 13 ft or so to cover – and the wall gives him 10 fewer yards to respond, especially as the Galaxy players (ringed) crowd the end of the wall right in front of Perkins.

So, why not say “screw the wall”? Perkins could take up a more central position and he’d have a better sight of the ball from the moment it leaves Beckham’s foot.

It clearly couldn’t be a regular strategy as teams would quickly figure us out as the guys who don’t line up a wall and adjust accordingly – lining up a wall of their own for example, but I doubt no wall is a situation teams prepare for, and the confusion it sows may just be enough to prevent the Galaxy taking the lead.

I fully expect to be called a madman for this idea, by the way.

Kimura’s crazy spell continued when he switched off at a throw-in and allowed Stephens to get in behind him. A clumsy tackle in the box gave the Galaxy a penalty, and Donovan duly dispatched it.

It became 4-1 when Smith played a lazy pass which was cut-out by Beckham. Donovan was sent scampering down the right, where he blew past Horst and slid it on for Keane to tap home between Mosquera and Kimura.

Kimura wasn’t done though. A trademark Boyd free-kick – head down, hit it hard – was spilled by Saunders and the new man got his first goal for the Timbers to make it 4-2 before the break.

As the game slipped away from the Timbers, so the 4-2-3-1 seemed to go out the window. Nagbe began to play more as a striker, albeit deeper-lying than Boyd. By the time the second half rolled round, we were back in 4-4-2 territory.

Richards replaced Palmer, who was presumably sent into a quiet room to think about what he’d done tonight. This meant Alexander was shifted inside, and he looked happier there.

Though his play was generally pretty tidy, and he worked well with Smith, he lacked the attacking punch that Alhassan had down the right side. It gave the team a lop-sided feel.

Moving into the middle allowed Alexander to be more involved in linking play. In the second half he made only eight fewer passes than Palmer and Jewsbury combined in the first.

The team’s traded goals in the second period after Donovan and Nagbe had missed good chances one-on-one. Nagbe’s came about from a tremendous throw from Perkins, whose general distribution continues to frustrate. Great pace put Darlington in, but he lacked the killer touch to finish the move and put the Timbers within a goal of the visitors.

Keane would eventually put LA up 5-2 when Smith was drawn out of defence, and Franklin beat Richards to the ball over the top before laying it on a plate for the boyhood Galaxy fan. Boyd cut out the middle man later when he put another free kick past Saunders to make it 5-3.

Unfortunately, the Timbers were unable to find the goal that would set up a grandstand finish but few would forget this match in a hurry. Shown nationwide on NBC Sports, the game was a great advert for the kind of entertaining football MLS can serve up, even if it would give defensive coaches nightmares.

It’s a bittersweet result. On one hand, there was a lot of fight in the team. Boyd served up two goals, and played a key role in the other. He did his job. He scored. Strikers are often “streaky”, so getting a brace under his belt may just spur the club’s top scorer on further.

For spells, in the first half especially, the football was good to watch. There was some good interplay, movement and purpose about the way the Timbers crossed the field – a long way from the panicky, hit-and-hope football that defined much of the late Spencer period, even after they’d gone down 4-1.

There wasn’t really a great deal between the clubs. Both had porous defences that gave up chances to the opposition, but the Galaxy had a bit more nous and cutting-edge about them in attack. Despite the two defensive midfielders in the first half, I also felt that overall the Galaxy had the upper hand in the midfield battle, though there was little between the two in the second half.

In some respects, losing to a better team is to be expected. In Donovan, Keane and Beckham, the Galaxy have access to talents beyond those of the Timbers. The only way to beat a better team is to either get lucky, work even harder, or both. The Timbers certainly worked hard, but ultimately gave themselves too much to do. Luck wasn’t really as much of a factor as numerous individual mistakes and poor choices at the back were.

They way the side kept their heads up and kept plugging away is a world away from the same team that has rolled over in recent weeks.

However, the defence. Just not good enough. It’s not the first time that a player has simply blown past a comically-bad Horst tackle, and probably won’t be the last.

Smith’s crossing was as poor as I can remember it. It’s all the more frustrating as Smith is capable of so much better.. Kimura had that crazy spell in the first half, and clearly there’s a bit more work to be done in integrating him into the team.


Chivas await for the Timbers, and though Portland find themselves bottom of the Western Conference (2nd bottom overall), a win against their hosts could propel them, improbably, back into the play-off hunt. It’s not hard to think of the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the Timbers refuse to give up, no matter how devastating the blows they receive.

Over the next four proper matches, the Timbers will play two game series against both Chivas and Dallas – two sides also struggling in the West.

Make or break time.

#RCTID

EDIT:

rhamje raised the point in the comments below that he felt Keane’s 2nd goal, LA’s 5th, was offside. I didnb’t think it was at the time, so I went back and checked, and had it confirmed. Definitely onside.

John Spencer: Taking The High Road

John Spencer’s term as head coach of the Portland Timbers came to an emotional end on Monday as the Scot paid the price for a poor season. Andrew Brawley penned a good piece on the reaction to the firing that everyone should check out.

Truth is there was little-to-no surprise about the move. Some disappointment, for sure, even some relief, but no shock. The writing was on the wall on Sunday when it was revealed that Monday’s training was closed to media, and sure enough, Merritt Paulson had taken the difficult decision to relieve Spencer of his duties.

John Spencer will forever be a part of Timbers history as their first ever MLS coach, and he gave the fans some great moments to remember. There’s no doubting his passion or drive to succeed, and I’m sure this won’t be his one and only foray into management, though he might be better serving the rest of his apprenticeship away from the glare of a top league where mistakes and deficiencies aren’t quite so conspicuous.

And it was those mistakes and deficiences that ultimately cost Spencer his job. I’d written in the past about how I thought he was starting to lose control and focus under the pressure that the Timbers’ stuttering second season had put him under.

On the pitch, Spencer didn’t show the development or improvement that myself and many other fans had hoped to see. The team failed to find another way to play beyond the old-school kick-and-rush tactics. Even Barcelona, arguably the greatest club side ever, have had to adapt or die, and we’re no Barcelona to rely on a Messi or Xavi to conjure something up.

Even when he did adopt a 0]”>4-3-3 against Real, it was in such a defensive and negative way that the only question in the match was how long the Timbers could hold out. It’d be easy to look back at that game now and see an ultimatum from Paulson delivered to Spencer that drove him to play in such a manner, but truth is I don’t think this was a decision reached over a result or two, especially against one of the league’s leading teams.

Indeed, Paulson made reference to “philosophical differences” in his statement, and that would seem to suggest that the problem wasn’t necessarily that the Timbers were losing (yet, bizarrely, were still within touching distance of the playoffs), but rather it was the way we were losing. The Timbers lost ugly, drew ugly and won ugly, a few exceptions aside.

There may have been a case to stick with John Spencer if there’d been signs that the team were trying to play good football, and players were developing, with young guys coming through. I don’t think either of these three points were being addressed.

The football belongs in another age. Spencer talks a good game, and it’s easy to get swept up with him, but the fact is that either the players didn’t do what he said, or he couldn’t figure out how to implement it. In trying to repeat what Dominic Kinnear has at Houston, where Spencer was assistant, he found out that Kinnear is actually pretty good at what he does. I’d thought Spencer perhaps needed an experienced guiding hand alongside him, but he never got it.

I’m not sure the young guys on the roster will be in mourning for long, either. While Nagbe has been a regular starter for the team, he’s the only player under 22 in the top ten of minutes played. Alhassan might have figured in that group had he not been injured for most of the season.

There’s actually a lot of experience in that top ten, with five bringing previous MLS experience to the table and many having played at international level. It’s not the “young guns” that some would have you believe. I don’t attend the U’23 games or Reserve matches, but those that do assure me that there are excellent prospects coming through.

The problem is that Spencer seemed unwilling to give them a chance, except when given no option as with Jean-Baptiste earlier in the year. When there was a crisis at right-back, Spencer didn’t turn to youth, he gave the job to a 31 year old midfielder. As the goals have singularly failed to flow, the kids weren’t given a shot until youth was bought in by signing Mwanga from Philadelphia.

It seems to have become a vicious cycle – the team weren’t winning so Spencer doesn’t want to risk the kids – but there comes a point when the old heads simply aren’t cutting it. I’d rather have a 20 year old make a honest mistake but learn from it and improve, than have a veteran simply stink.

It’s hard to see how the guys Spencer has been giving a chance to have developed. Nagbe burst onto the scene, but as he’s been leaned on more and more he’s on a Mwanga-esque career trajectory. Alhassan is every bit as inconsistent and mercurial as he ever was. Alexander has gone from the fringes of the national team to the fringes of the Timbers XI.

He’s been over-reliant on trusted players, and this has hurt him. Fitting Jewsbury into any XI, no matter what, is a problem. What Jack did in his first year for this club will live long in the memories of every Timbers fan, but there’s no escaping the fact that his performances have been on a slippery slope for some time now. Yet, he always played. Palmer – a solid MLS player at Houston and a Jamaican international – is arguably the single most frustrating player on the roster, given his poor ball control and almost sisyphean approach to long-range shooting, yet he’s been one of Spencer’s most picked players.

I don’t want to beat Spencer up too much though. He’s gone, and I’d prefer to see him off with a shake of the hand for his work. He made mistakes, sure, but he made them honestly. I wish him all the best for the future, but this was a decision that had to be made, and it’s as well to make it now.

When it became clear that Spencer wasn’t going to turn the ship around, there was no sense in keeping him here till the end of the season. It’s hard seeing how results would improve significantly, and having a lame duck manager does no-one any good. Better to make the call early, and give the next guy a chance to plan ahead for next season without coming in at the end of the year and finding himself months behind every other MLS club in preparation.

At Killie there was a manager who was stuck-in-his-ways, and played old school football. He’d gone stale. When he left midway through the season, the club hired an interim manager to see it out. He kept the club up on the last day, but was cut from the same cloth as his predecessor. He went, in came a completely new managerial team, who brought with them a revolution in style and methods, and led the club up the table and to a cup win. I can only glean hope from the parallels with the Timbers.

Speaking of interim managers, Gavin Wilkinson, the general manager, will take over from Spencer until a permanent replacement is found. Who that man will be is going to keep the rumour mill going for a while. I suspect it’ll be a manager with top flight experience this time. I’m not sure MLS experience is a must, but it may be that Paulson will want to “play safe” with this appointment and get a guy in who has managed here before.

But back to Wilkinson… His new role wasn’t met with a great deal of enthusiasm. I’d asked a while ago for thoughts on Wilkinson, and it seems apposite to finish this by posting one of these now.

#RCTID


By John Lawes

Watched from the North End during Gavin’s tenure as coach during the last of the USL years – and that’s all; no closer connection then that of a supporter in the stands. So anything I can provide is purely subjective. That said –

Gavin always seemed fairly hands-off on matchday. He wasn’t a shouter, like Spencer, much less aggro. He seemed to have a similar problem with substitutions, tho; his subs often seemed to let in more trouble than they solved.
He seemed to get on well with certain players, and those guys would play – in my opinion – often well past their sell-by date. That seemed especially true of his forwards and attacking mids. He stuck with several strikers, both in terms of minutes and in his adjustment or lack of same to the way their skills/styles fit into his tactical setup, after it was fairly obvious that other coaches had figured them out and had developed tactics to counter them.
As for his tactics, they were…ummm…a bit on the crude side, IMO. He seemed to like to play pretty direct, hoof-it-up, Route 1 style football. We always figured that this was a Kiwi thing.

And in particular, he seemed to have little or no interest, or patience, for Latino players. I don’t recall any Hispanic player getting significant minutes or having any particular success during his tenure.

His single honor during his tenure was winning the league in 2009. But this is deceptive on two counts; first, because this being American soccer the actual “winning” the USL-1 meant nothing other than a first round bye (and then a speedy exit at the hands of our old enemies Vancouver), and, second, because even with the unbeaten streak Gav’s team fell apart at the wrong time. Going into September the team had four losses. Over the next four weeks the side managed to win two, draw one (the final match against Vancouver that, with the Timbers down 2-1 from the first leg, meant elimination), and lose five.

Overall, Gavin’s coaching seemed, well, like a decent club- or lower-division professional-level level; never particularly brilliant but typically never disastrous. Cautious would be the word I’d use. Befitting a former defender his backline was usually solid. His midfield and forwards, not so much. And the Timbers of Gavin’s time never seemed to be able to find a way to beat the teams they needed to beat. For all that his payroll was never immense Gav never seemed to find a way to use the attacking players he had to their best advantage; he tended to find a formula – a lineup or a tactic – and stick with it even after the results began to fade. He muled his striker Keita in 2009; the guy scored a league-high 14 goals in the first half of the season, but after July? Nada. The next year, the last USL year, Gav did the same thing with Ryan Pore; fed him the ball and enjoyed the results in the spring and early summer…but by August and September the guy wasn’t scoring – everyone else in the league had figured out how to put a body on him and mark him out of the match – and Gavin never adjusted. Sounds a little familiar?