Game of Thorns

So here is the official list of internationals allocated to the Thorns:

USWNT:  Rachel Beuhler (D), Alex Morgan (F) , Tobin Heath (M)

MWNT: Luz del Rosario Saucedo (D), Marlene Sandoval (D)

CWNT: Karina LeBlanc (GK), Christine Sinclair (F)

Just a couple of thoughts:

Obviously the combination of Morgan and Sinclair will make the Thorns’ attack a challenge for any of the other teams in this league.  I loved watching Sinclair play at Merlo and look forward to seeing her play again in Portland.

In the times I’ve seen her LeBlanc appears to be a steady keeper with safe hands; I would consider her a good addition to the team.

Beuhler is a workmanlike USWNT defender.  I am unfamiliar with either of the two Mexico players.  In addition, I cannot find a “Marlene Sandoval” listed for Las Tri – there is a “Rubí Sandoval” who is this player identified as a defender.  Both Mexican defenders are experienced (Saucedo is 27, Sandoval 28 assuming this is the right Sandoval) but with a side not well known for its steadiness in the back.

Overall, I like what we’re getting.  Onward, Rose City!

NWSL Announces List of 55 Allocated Players

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has announced the list of 55 U.S., Canadian and Mexican National Team players that will be allocated to the eight clubs.

Once the allocation process is completed, the club location for all 55 players will be announced on Friday, Jan. 11.

The breakdown of players by country:

United States (23)

Goalkeepers (4): Nicole Barnhart, Ashlyn Harris, Jill Loyden, Hope Solo

Defenders (7): Rachel Buehler, Ali Krieger, Amy LePeilbet, Heather Mitts, Kelley O’Hara, Christie Rampone, Becky Sauerbrunn

Midfielders (8): Shannon Boxx, Lauren Cheney, Tobin Heath, Lori Lindsey, Carli Lloyd, Heather O’Reilly, Megan Rapinoe, Keelin Winters

Forwards (4): Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan, Amy Rodriguez, Abby Wambach

Canada (16)

Goalkeepers (2): Karina LeBlanc, Erin McLeod

Defenders (6): Melanie Booth, Robyn Gayle, Carmelina Moscato, Lauren Sesselmann, Rhian Wilkinson, Emily Zurrer

Defender/Midfielder (1): Bryana McCarthy

Midfielders (4): Kaylyn Kyle, Diana Matheson, Sophie Schmidt, Desiree Scott

Midfielders/Forwards (2): Adriana Leon, Jodi-Ann Robinson

Forward (1): Christine Sinclair

Mexico (16)

Goalkeepers (2): Aurora Cecilia Santiago Cisneros, Pamela Tajonar Alonso

Defenders (5): Alini Lisi Garciamendez Rowold, Jennifer Marie Ruiz Brown, Luz del Rosario Saucedo Soto, Rubi Marlene Sandoval Nungaray, Marylin Viridiana Diaz Ramirez

Midfielders (5): Veronica Raquel Perez Murillo, Teresa Noyola Bayardo, Lydia Nayeli Rangel Hernandez, Teresa Guadalupe Worbis Aguilar, Dinora Lizeth Garza Rodriguez

Forwards (4): Maribel Dominguez Castelan, Monica Ocampo Medina, Renae Nicole Cuellar Cuellar, Anisa Raquel Guajardo Braff

Some thoughts on the list of players:

* Originally, the number of allocated players was set at 52 (24 U.S, 16 Canada, 12 Mexico). Mexico was asked to add four players to the list so the distribution could be even (56 players total, 7 to each of the 8 clubs).

*  As you notice above, the U.S. only listed 23 players. Who’s missing? Olympic alternates Meghan Klingenberg and Christen Press are both committed to playing for Tyresö FF in Sweden.

* With the U.S. listing 23 players, that obviously means one team will have one less U.S. national team player. It will be interested to see how that plays out and whether that team will be awarded

* Players with Portland ties:

– Abby Wambach (recently purchased a home in Portland)

– Megan Rapinoe (former University of Portland player now playing in France with Olympique Lyonnais – she’ll return to NWSL about a month into the season)

– Christine Sinclair and Sophie Schmidt (also former University of Portland players)

– If those four somehow get allocated to Portland, that will be quite a coup for Thorns FC.

With the club location for all 55 players coming up on Friday, who do you think goes where? 

 

The Pragmatist

Once Arsenal is in possession of the ball, the right and left backs automatically become wingers. It’s almost like playing with two wingers on each side. That’s the way we’re going to encourage our guys to play –when we get the ball, get forward and attack. Attack in numbers and defend in numbers.

John Spencer promised to bring direct, attacking football to Portland when he was hired as the club’s first MLS head coach, and that is, for the most part, what the Timbers fans got.

It was certainly direct. The ball would be cycled from defence to attack in as few passes as was necessary (often only one).

The team were also pretty attacking, even if it was often toothless. The Timbers would get the ball forward quickly, run into a dead-end or give up possession tamely, and then be caught out of position at the back.

In a way, Spencer sowed the seeds for his own destruction. By emphasising a direct style, he was leaving his full-backs cruelly exposed, which in turn would stretch the space between centre-backs and leave the team vulnerable to breaking runs from midfield as well as being exposed down the flanks.

When Spencer would adopt a defensive posture, such as against Sporting Kansas City, the team showed they were capable of grinding out results against good teams, but at the expense of pretty much any attacking threat. Or attempts to play football. This ugly style didn’t really fit the pre-season promises of attacking, exciting football, but Spencer never seemed able to square-the-circle and find a way to combine his style with the players he had at his disposal, and balance defence and attack. It was either one or the other or, on occasion, neither.

After Spencer’s dismissal, Gavin Wilkinson stepped in and changed the side’s 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3, preparing the ground for Caleb Porter. Porter himself confirmed that he and Wilkinson had been in a constant dialogue even as the new coach was guiding his Akron Zips through the NCAA Championship.

The announcement of Porter’s hiring had some Timbers fans drooling at the prospect of “Timber-taka” after watching Akron’s “Death by 1000 passes” video, but Porter himself seemed keen to temper those who were expecting Cascadia’s answer to Barcelona to rock up when New York visit on March 3rd.

I am realistic, I’m not naive. I don’t think that we are just going to throw the ball out and play beautiful soccer and automatically pass the ball around and beat the New York Red Bulls on March 3rd.

There’s no doubt that Porter will seek to instill a change in the footballing culture of the Timbers, but in the short term I suspect we’ll be seeing a more pragmatic approach from the new coach.

They brought in a couple veteran guys like myself and Will Johnson, guys who have been around and been around successful teams and been in successful locker rooms and kind of know what it takes to win in this league. So it sounds to me like this year is all about bringing those pieces together and winning.”

Michael Harrington was signed from Sporting Kansas City, obstentibly to replace Steven Smith, who departed after becoming one of the Timbers most dependable and consistent players over the home stretch of 2012. After spending much of their first two years stumbling in a slapstick manner from one full-back catastrophe to another, there was something inevitable about the team finally seeming to lock down on of the positions at least, only for that player to up sticks and leave.

I don’t know a great deal about Harrington, but I haven’t heard many anticipating exciting wing play from him. Rodney Wallace seems, at times, to suffer from Jeremy Hall Syndrome, forgetting whether he’s a winger or a full-back. I thought he played his best football in the centre of midfield, but I don’t think there’s room for him there now, and I’m not sure he’s the guy to play as the left-sided attacker as that’s where I expect Nagbe to play next season.

Under Spencer, the full-backs were pushed on, acting like wingers as the team looked to get the ball in from wide positions, despite never signing an out-and-out targetman. To go back to the 1000 Passes video for a moment, the first thing you notice is, not surprisingly given the title, the number of passes being made by the Zips.

The attractive way they pass and move together is certainly eye catching, and you can see why it draws comparisons with Barcelona’s tiki-taka style, but what is more relevant to the Timbers is the way they use the possession to dominate the field.

They won’t simply content themselves with knocking it across the back a few times, as they seek to use possession to pin their opponents back into their own half. The old adage that you can’t concede a goal if the opposition can’t get the ball is true, and by keeping the ball the Zips are able to conserve their energy.

Domination of the field and conservation of energy were not the team’s forte under Spencer. The direct style Spenny wanted his team to play resulting in a side that eschewed possession for attacking thrust and ceded the ball to the opposition in over 70% of games.

The relentless athleticism also led to issue with late game collapses. As the system changed under Wilkinson, undoubtably in consultation with Porter, and there was less emphasis on the full-backs getting up and down the line, the number of late goals conceded started to drop. The hiring of a new fitness coach as well as an increased emphasis on modern alaytical techniques – something you never felt fit with Spencer’s up-and-at-them old school style – will, one would hope, allow the team to up the tempo without running out of gas in the final 15 minutes.

The role of the full-back is important under Porter’s possession-based system. With the team pushed on, the full-backs allow them to make the field as big as possible and stretching it to the sidelines. They aren’t the “almost-wingers” of Spencer, but still require sound technical ability and awareness as they’re an important part in circulating the ball and probing for space to get in behind the defence.

Providing you can get the right players in, this possession of the football acts as both defence and attack, and gives the full-backs a safety net to push forward. It would be fair to say that full-back isn’t the league’s strong point, so the hiring of Harrington, a player with bags of league experience, is a pretty solid get, if not exactly a reason to get the bunting out and rush down to get a new name on the back of your shirt.

Of course, it’s one thing to play like that when you possess the technical ace card by being able to attract the hottest prospects, it’s another when you’re a team coming off of a 17th place finish, with the 3rd worst defensive record.

Even though the league has seen a general trend towards more goals per game despite an increasing in defensive spending, when the figures are broken down to level of investment vs results you can see that there is a relationship between more spending and better defences.

The above charts maps all the changes since 2008 for MLS clubs, going back the official salary info that gets released. What you see is that a team will generally spend more on defence from one year to the next 70% of the time, though most changes tend to be very minimal variations up or down, and that an increase in spending tends to see a reduction in the number of goals conceded.

Obviously it’s much more complicated than more money = better, but I think it’s illustrative all the same. Sensible investment in keys areas will bring about an improvement, and a marked improved in defence will give the team, obviously, a better chance of turning 0 points into 1, and 1 point into 3. It only takes a second to score a goal, but you need to defend for the full 90 minutes.

The likelihood of your investment returning in terms of fewer goals being conceded increases as you spend more money on that area. It’s basic soccernomics, to steal a phrase.

In the signing of Harrington, I see a “safe” pick at left back and Merritt Paulson confirmed what everyone knew, that the Timbers weren’t done with the roster, or indeed, the defence.

Two areas where GW/CP still want to make additions: creative mid and right back. Goal is to have all spots filled by start of pre-season

The tweet that also seemed to confirm the rumour of Timbers interest in Mix Diskeruud, with talks apparently stalling a few days later and Diskerud now looking likely to stay in Norway, the flirtation with Portland looking more and more like an attempt to force Rosenborg’s hand in contract negotiations than a serious contemplation of a move to the States. Since then Diego Valeri has emerged as the man the Timbers want to pick up, with speculation being that he will be signed as a Designated Player.

I have to return to the full-back position though, as I feel that is the crucial area the Timbers need to get right this year. Hopefully Porter will find the special formula to fix it. The Timbers invested in defence last season, bringing in Steven Smith and Kosuke Kimura, as well as Hanyer Mosquera in the centre, but only one of those guys will, presumably, be playing in Timbers green in 2013.

I wouldn’t expect fireworks over Portland when the, hopefully first choice, guy they have for right-back lined up actually signs as I suspect it’ll be one of those “consistent and dependable” types, married to sound technical ability and tactical nous.

Though I’d worry about his pace against teams with quick wingers, Jack Jewsbury would do a decent job at right-back, I think. He filled in last year, and though I felt it robbed the team of a bit of width in the final third at times, the football under Porter wouldn’t necessarily place those same demands on him.

As I’ve said before, it’s hard to see a place for Jewsbury in the midfield, especially following the signing of Will Johnson.

There’s no doubt the talent on that roster is there, but talent is such a small part of winning in MLS games. It’s hardly even worth talking about. It’s more about teamwork and hard work and those kinds of things, those things get you results in MLS.

Will Johnson echoed his new team mate, emphasising hard work over talent. There’s no doubt that Porter’s style will require great athleticism as lots of movement on and off the ball are essential, and Johnson brings a more dynamic presence to the centre than Jewsbury.

Porter used the press conference to drop the biggest hint yet that Kris Boyd’s time as a Timber is as good as over. Though he wouldn’t say outright that Boyd was done, he did confirm what many have suspected that Boyd’s penalty box based style isn’t what Porter himself expects from his striker.

Kris Boyd is a player that I think will have a hard time playing in the way that we want to play. And that’s no knock on Kris. He would fit in a lot of different systems but, with what I want out of my strikers, it’s going to be difficult for him to offer what I’m looking for in that position.

In a way, I find this encouraging. Not because I don’t rate Boyd as I do, and still believe he has all the tools to be a big star in MLS should he decide to, and get the chance to, remain in the league; but because it represents a change in the way the Timbers are building their team. No more is about just getting the “best” players and making them fit into a system, as it seemed to be for the first couple of years, but rather it is about putting the system in place first, and get the “right” players for that system.

The door isn’t closed on Boyd, but with the emergence of Bright Dike, the stockpiling of strikers, and the imminent announcement of a new DP, it’s hard to see Boyd hanging around for long. There was talk out of Scotland about Boyd going back to Rangers, but in the short term that would seem unlikely. Rangers are labouring under a player registration ban until 31 August but, thanks to a quirk of the calendar, that day falls on a Saturday, which means the registration (and transfer) window will be extended to Mondays 2nd September meaning that Boyd’s old club would be able to register players for the upcoming 2013/14 season.

However, even if there was gas in the Rangers talk, that leaves 9 months where Boyd would either be being paid not to play – and at 29 one would imagine Boyd would want to maximise his playing time – or a potentially messy situation where Rangers would risk the wrath of FIFA and the SFA in playing Boyd as a trialist (trialists are allowed to play in league games in the Scottish lower leagues). The likelier outcome, given that a move with MLS is a more remote possibility, would be to loan Boyd back to the UK, say to a club like Nottingham Forest who have Boyd’s ex-manager, and oft-time suitor, Alex McLeish in charge, until the end of the season, putting the player in the shop window for a potential transfer or, failing that, writing off the last few months of his contract and allowing the player to find a new club back home in the summer. This would represent the least financial loss for the club, as opposed to simply buying out the whole year of his remaining contract. We shall see.

But anyway, let’s get back on track. With much of the work thus far being done on bolstering the defence and midfield, I think it’s pretty clear where the priorities of Porter and Wilkinson have lain this offseason.

Porters looking to put some 1-0’s on the board, and win games by simply not losing them first. That sounds obvious and dumb, but it’s something we’ve struggled to do as we’ve often been our own worst enemy. Shutting-out the opponent guarantees at least a point, and all it takes is one swing of the boot, or graze off the shoulder to turn that one into three.

2011 saw the Timbers keep nine clean sheets, six of which came at home, but 2012 had only five, three at home. As this map shows, the Timbers also struggled to score, going goalless twelve times in 2012, up from nine the year before.

In their three home clean-sheets of 2012, they won two by 1-0 (Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City) and drew the other against Columbus Crew. With a bit more defensive stability, even with meagre returns from another under-performing attack, the Timbers could reasonably expect to grind out a few 1-0’s along the way, and those extra few points could be what it takes to put a side in with a chance of glory, in a league where over half the sides qualify for the post-season.

I suspect his experiences with the USMNT may have just chastened college soccer’s rising star. Where once he rejected DC United, following the disappointment in failing to reach the Olympics and the resultant somewhat-backlash against the young coach, Porter has now decided that a club at a crossroads was the perfect fit, saying he was “uncomfortable being comfortable” in Akron.

Caleb Porter will, I’m sure, seek to bring more than defensive grind to Portland as the signing of Ryan Johnson and Diego Valeri speak volumes as to how Porter will look to utilise pace and craft to break through defences. Given the way the Timbers struggled in offence, closing the door at the back will only take you so far before the old attacking frustrations kick in. The Timbers have lacked a creative central midfielder thus far, with Alexander seemingly happier a little deeper, and most of the flair in the team is played out wide.

Porter expressed a desire to utilise Homegrown Players more going forward. With Brent Richards spending much of 2012 on the fringes of the team and Steven Evans announced as the club’s second Homegrown player, following a successful season with the U’23s and University of Portland, it’ll be interesting to see how and when these guys are fed into the starting XI.

While I don’t think the roster reconstruction is over, the addition of a right back and a creative midfielder seem like the last two big pieces of the puzzle. The are still questions over the attack – I love me some Dike, but I’m still not sold on him as a consistent starter – but I think it’ll be a case of one out before we get one in, as we’re carrying a lot of bodies in attack, and they can’t all play together, unless you want to turn the clock back to the early days of football when the 1-2-7 formation held sway.

I expect to see the team play possession-based, attack-minded football, but not naively so. Porter clearly has strong ideas on how the game should be played, but I don’t think he’s such an ideologue that he’ll seek to play in a way that leaves the team exposed at the back. Equally, I don’t think it’ll be exclusively 4-3-3 all the way. Barcelona can do that because they’re so much better than just about anyone else, but the Timbers aren’t. As Spencer found out to his cost, simply going out there and doing the same things every week doesn’t work so well in as league where parity rules. You need to adapt, or die.

As for how the team will shape in attack, and seek to better a record that saw only Chivas USA go more matches in 2012 without finding the opposition net, we’ll have to wait and see what the next few months bring, but I’m encouraged by the focused way that Porter and Wilkinson have been going about their business thus far.

As Kristen noted, Porter isn’t exactly one for Patton-esque stirring speeches – at least not in public, though by all accounts he has the ability to inspire players to go above and beyond – but I was encouraged by his press conference as he addressed many of the areas of concern, showing that he gets it. Learning from previous mistakes, both his own and those of others, is key to becoming a better person and a better coach, and Porter seems to have done that.

Of course, the proof will come when the season gets underway, but for now I’m pretty optimistic that the Timbers have turned the corner and are ready to start delivering some success to a fanbase that have endured two tough years, but keep on coming back and in greater numbers than before.

The Anti-Merritt

Yes, I got into the press conference. No, I don’t know if they’ll ever let me in again. No, I’m not terribly worried about it. No, I won’t stop whining about not having an actual press credential. No, there was no spiced IPA.

Okay, here’s the nitty-gritty.

You can get quotes elsewhere. Try Stumptown Footy. The entire thing is posted on the net. Watch for yourself if you’ve got a spare 45 minutes. My notes are terrible. From me, you get something else.

You get me wanting desperately to fall in love with Caleb Porter. And you get me faltering.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked his honesty. I like his slow, careful speech pattern. I liked a lot of the things he had to say.

But a spark plug he ain’t. I don’t think we’ll be getting a clever Alaska Airlines commercial or any snarky soundbites out of him anytime soon.

I’ll trade that for a team that wins games. While Porter hit all the appropriate buzzwords (consistency and continuity and a half dozen others in the same vein), he also offered a starkly realistic view of where the Timbers are headed. And I didn’t like that view. I don’t like realism.

I’ve gotten so used to the rah-rah that Merritt gives us that I don’t really know how to react to Porter’s much more grounded approach to the coming season. It made me… sad. It made me feel lonely and grey and left me wishing for something other than what he’d given us. But he was right about everything. Everything.

Okay, one quote.

I’m realistic. I’m not naive. I don’t believe that we’re just going to throw the ball out and play beautiful soccer and automatically pass the ball around and beat the New York Red Bulls on March 3rd.

I know what he’s saying. I get where he’s coming from. I feel for him. I feel kind of like he’s been invited over for dinner, a really great dinner, and arrives to find a bowl of Grapenuts and a host who spends the entire evening apologizing for the mess.

I keep returning to the build up to last season. So much potential, so much expectation, so much anticipation. I didn’t get any of those same butterflies sitting in that room today.

That comes later, right? When Dike starts breaking people in the preseason, maybe? I don’t know.

I still remain semi-hopeful about the coming season, but without the excitement I’ve felt about the last two seasons. If all else fails (and after such a dreary introduction, I fully expect a fair few hashmarks in the fail column), I know that in a few weeks I’ll be back at JWF with my Timbers family and I won’t have to suffer alone.

Valeri, Valer-aha-ha-ha…

The Timbers appear to have secured the temporary services of Argentine midfielder Diego Valeri.

I find this satisfying for two reasons:

First, because the player appears to provide something that the Timbers have needed for two years; a skilled playmaking midfielder.  While I don’t know much about the player himself, over at the Axe the post discussing this deal in which our correspondent sunshine describes him as:

“…that creative midfielder the timbers have needed since their mls inception, and he is the type of player the more observant and vocal supporters have been begging the management to sign.”

…as well as Sheba’s note in the comments that:

“Some of the most heartening comments I have read are from fans in Argentina who are baffled that he is wasting his talents in the MLS. As one fan in Argentina explained to me, they still think of the MLS as someplace 35 year olds go to retire. The fact that they see him as still having too much skill and talent to waste in the MLS speaks well of his potential.”

and, second, because this signing, to me, is a significant uptick on our Front Office’s professional judgement.

Until this off-season the Timbers management has seemed to have little judgement and less discipline in their signings.  Forwards were being logpiled in the training room as the midfield and backline went a-glimmering.  Players came, and went, or never arrived based on some peculiar wisdom that many of us standing outside the end- and touchlines couldn’t fathom.

Many of us, including many of the moderators and commentors to the online fora; here, at Stumptown Footy, at the Axe, at Dropping Timber, were screaming at the FO to rectify the right back and ACM situations at the end of the 2011 season.  Result?  Nothing.  Early in 2012 the ‘net was rich with the heady fumes of the same… fuming; WTF, Gavin?  WTF, Merritt?  You trade Cooper for an even more expensive, even more service-dependent striker… and then do nothing to provide service?

But… this signing has a different feel.  The Timbers need a playmaker to serve the ball up… and they go sign one.

Howaboutthat!

So the hope that is faintly sparking in the back of my head is that the Magpie Era of Timbers acquisitions is ending.

Mind you, in my opinion the outside-back situation is still unsettled, and we will see if this Valeri business is merely the exception that proofs the rule, or genuinely the sign that the management is beginning to think like soccer professionals wanting to compete at the top level in our country.  But we can hope.

30 Points: An Obsession

My last look back at 2012 brings out what started as a fear and became a full blown obsession as the season progressed. Here’s how it came about and what cured it.

“Match day again and we are feeling whole
The drums are pounding, our voices full
We sing our love of team

“And in a flash, Jorge scores
I see that very first goal
Something in JELD-WEN is calling me”

These are part of some poached lyrics to a bluegrass tune I wrote during the silly season leading up to the preseason tournament. While I thought to submit it here and there, I also thought I might better wait until Jorge does score his first goal. So I waited. And waited. And I waited, and then Perlaza was traded without scoring a single goal in 2012.

Well, thanks Jorge, there goes my song. Actually that came as a big shock to me. Yes, I was one of “THOSE” guys. But this is professional soccer; trades come with the territory. After a few weeks, I moved on. (Although I confess, I’m happy to see Jorge is scoring goals with Millionarios.)

But now I’m way ahead of my story. I go back, back to the home opener. What a glorious night. After a very satisfying and successful preseason tournament, in which we whupped all comers, there we were, in the North End, rain pouring down, chills and thrills of anticipation, until BOOM! we pored our hearts out in the National Anthem again. And then the match. We won! Boyd scored! Glory and bliss for all! What a great season we were certain to have.

Real Salt Lake. After the match, at home I watched the recording of the live version I had only hours before witnessed at Jelly, with replays, and commentary, and reverse (perverse?) angles. The gut punch didn’t hurt any less the second time.

What I took away this time, though, was something I didn’t see at the stadium – the smile on Jason Kreis’ face. As he walked away, it looked like he was laughing. And why wouldn’t he laugh? He went from a loss, to a point, to three points! In a matter of minutes. It still burns.

Chivas USA. What just happened? We were winning. At home. That’s as it should be. TA singing our hearts out, stadium rocking, beautiful weather. Two rookie coaches, John Spencer and Robin Fraser, former teammates at Colorado, going head to head. It couldn’t get any better. But oh, it could get way worse!

At half time, one coach made an adjustment that immediately almost produced a goal. 120 seconds later it did produce a goal. Wait a minute. Where’s our team? Why aren’t we making tactical adjustments? Where’s that second half fire that Spencer was famous for producing last season?

*****

In between, there were some away games. We got a point out of one of them. The first one. Dallas away. We scored a goal. They scored a goal. ONE goal. Sure, it was March, but it was Dallas away. And we got a point. Four points out of six. This season is looking good, I thought.

Then we lost a game. Well, it was an away game. And yeah, we played poorly. But it was New England. Surely we could have expected 1 point. Maybe the boys had a big head from the away result – against Dallas. Maybe they were tired from the rigors of away travel in MLS. And we don’t really play well on the road.

We came out of March with 4 points. They came from the first two games. Two more games into April and we still have 4 points. Next we face the best team in the league, the only undefeated team in MLS.

Whoa! Now what just happened? We beat the best team in the league; we beat Sporting Kansas City! Sure, it’s 3 more points. But we beat the best. We beat Sporting Kansas City. Who are we?

And where are we now: 7 points from seven games. If you like draws, maybe that’s pretty good.

We finish April with those same 7 points. Ouch! (Troy) And obviously, by omission, I’m over that non-brace by Boyd. We would have been up 2-nil at that point. What would that have done to the bottom-dwelling league champions? But, I’m over that.

We get ready for May, hope in our hearts, courage on our sleeves, and knowledge. The season is only one-third over. We still have two-thirds to play and see the success we began the season knowing we deserved. So May, and we’re at 7 points from eight games. I’m starting to wonder if maybe draws ARE pretty good.

An unwanted and certainly unwelcome feeling is creeping into my subconscious.

We end May with 6 more points. That’s 6 points from four games. Or, 6 points from a possible twelve. We’re feeling pretty good. Nut, um, now we have 13 points. I mean, we have 13 points! That creeping feeling has identified itself.

We finish June with 16 points. We got 3 more points from three more games. Maybe there’s something to be said for the consistency of draws. Or maybe some people do like draws. I don’t. Maybe one or two here and there, but NOT as a replacement for wins. That said, 3 points from three games is an an average over three games. But oh were we not average!

Another painful loss in LA, a chance to avenge a wrongful loss – wasted. A wretched 3-nil loss in Colorado. What could that portend? What words for that game?

*****

That feeling I was so loathe admit to at the end of May, is here. Strong. It’s fear. Fear about points. But it’s early, I tell myself. And I didn’t want to admit to it at the end of May because of one game in June. There’s that one game in June that we’ve been looking forward to all year. That one game in June from which we got all our points. 3 points from one game. No average game at all. One game where our lads brought their game.

What a game! A game where the points don’t even really matter, only the delicious, orgasmic, satisfying result. Was it good for you too? Most of the time that’s a rhetorical question. Here, we don’t even have to ask. There were other delicacies in the tryst. Lots of good physical play. Before and after play. We scored twice! Kris Boyd created some amazing photo opportunities. Someone we don’t like got a red card. Oh NO! And someone else we don’t like got a red card. Oh WELL!

Usually, one NO is enough. Sometimes not.

As painful as 2012 was to endure as a supporter, as much as it hurts now, bringing this up again, there’s something else that is gnawing at me. I’m going over my schedule and my notes, and the points. I don’t see it. What is bothering me so?

Oh. Oh yeah.

Even though I’m only 5’7,” from where I sat behind the goal in late May, I could tell that, even directly in line with the one PK of that game, standing on top of the crossbar, I wouldn’t have had to flinch.

Oh yeah. That.

Back to the story.

We started July with 16 points. Before Independence Day we had 19! There was hope for the season after all.

July we ended with 19 points. Six games and we pulled out 3 points. Now we’re at 19 points in twenty- one games. Draws are starting to look positively appealing.

“MY GOD, WE’RE NOT EVEN GOING TO MAKE 30 POINTS!”

Aaagh! It’s out! All through July I had been repressing it. Now it’s been voiced. Granted, out loud only a few times, and certainly not in front of sane persons. But what had been a creeping, concealed fear a few months ago has turned into all-consuming, uncontrollable MONSTER!

The agony is on. The obsession has me in its jaws. 30 points. Will we make 30 points? Surely, we will. I resisted the temptation to look at our standing last year at this time. What good would that do?

*****

August. Dallas. But it’s at home. 19 points. 19 points. … A result! 1 point!! One graciously gained point. Gracias Capitán! Golazo!

20 points. Toronto away. We scored 2 goals! We never score two goals away. Uh, we gave away 2 goals. We gave away 2 points. But we got 1 point!

21 points. New York Red Bulls away. We scored 2 goals! We scored 2 goals. Away. Again! We gave away three goals. We gave away 3 points.

21 points. Vancouver – at home! We win!

24 points! Two wins away from breaking free! Two wins.

Colorado. The team that has mugged us away and robbed us at home. How can we possibly beat them? But we do! Maybe ginger ball is not imaginary after all. That’s two wins in a row.

So where are we? It’s September. We have 27 points. Nothing to brag about for a season. But most of us have pretty much given up on the season. But for me, release is imminent! One win and we’re there. One win.

So, 27 points in – nope! I’m not gonna do the math. We had two wins in a row. I like wins. I don’t want to think about draws.

September. 27 points. Colorado away. It’s okay. We showed them at home, we’ll show them away. After school, behind Safeway. Bring it!

Another mugging.

One thing that hasn’t escaped me in this all-consuming obsession with points is our record against our Cascadian rivals. Two wins and a dr–… (cough cough) put us in the driver’s seat to win the Cascadia Cup!! Really? With such a shitty season, we can still win the Cascadia Cup?

And look who’s up next? And not only that, a win, at home, clinches the Cup! How glorious would that be! Here at home. Beat our biggest rival from up north, here at our own stadium, and win the Cup! Right here in front of our own fans! Those Emerald City Idiots would have to present the Cascadia Cup right here, in front of the whole Timbers Army. Come on, boys, now’s the time!

*****

28 points. We can still actually win the Cascadia Cup. And there is another way to get to 30 points. But I’m not going to talk about that.

San Jose away. Who DOESN’T hate San Jose?

Two more away goals! Another goal against San Jose for the hometown boy.

Damn! I hate talking about this. Two goals up, two goals given, 2 points lost. One point gained.

29 points. Rio Tinto. The last time there put a different slant on a chant from last year, “Free John Spencer!” But I didn’t chant that, nor did I hear anyone else chanting that. Maybe it was Gavin. As much as anyone didn’t want to acknowledge it, even while recognizing the inevitability of it, it rang true.

29 points. Four more matches to go. One more point! Surely we couldn’t go four matches without a point. I take a quick look back at the results. March 24, March 31, April 7, April 14. Four losses – in a row. Holy shit! But that’s an anomaly. I scan some more. Lots of L’s and some D’s. Not very many W’s. There it is again! July. Four losses in a row. No, wait. I miscounted. Five losses in a row.

Not only was it possible, we’d already done it twice this season. 30 points! Four games. Oh, mama, help me!

29 points. D.C. United. We haven’t lost at home in two months. We’ve only lost at home three times this year. Oh, do I love home. 1 point. Please, Timbers boys, take me out of my agony.

We win! No, I win! We draw! (We draw and you’re happy?) 30 points! 30 points. We made 30 points!

There aren’t words sufficient to express my relief!

So, where are we now? 30 points. Three more games. Possible 39 points to end the season. Three less than last year. Respectable. But who’s counting on that?

We STILL have a chance to win the Cascadia Cup? Are you kidding me? Up north. In their stadium. Clink, clink. And the Emerald City Imbeciles present the Cup to us in THEIR home? Even better. Come on, boys!

*****

Are you kidding me?

What do we have now? Yeah, sure we can STILL win the Cup. Do I want to now? Chance to win it at home. Chance to win it where it smells like fish. Cal FC. I’m not feeling very good about this season. So if we win the Cup, IF we win the Cup – meaning we have to win on the road – IF we win that Cup, am I going to feel good about the season? Do I feel I DON’T want to win the Cup? Well, kind of, in the sense we had a chance to take it, show we were men on the pitch; instead we let it slide way, twice. Do we deserve the Cup? Do you ever NOT deserve something you win? After two weeks of agonizing, I realize I’m not with Cory Cordero: no way can you root for the other team. No way do I NOT want to win the Cup. I just realize that winning the Cup isn’t going to make me feel good. Cal FC still sticks out as the highlight of the season. Low light. Wish I could block it out.

30 points. (Other than me, who really cares about points? And even that’s wearing off now.) Vancouver. Away. No road wins to date. Chance to win the Cascadia Cup with a win. No chance with a draw or worse. Well, more than, anything, like always, I want the boys to play well, and win the game, which would win the Cup, which still wouldn’t assuage the pain from Cal FC.

Come on boys!

Wow! Again, Capitán, GOLAZO! We won! We won! We scored a golazo on a listless Whitecraps team and won! We won on the road! We won our first road game! And we win the Cup!! Ah, look at Abe. Look at the imbeciles in their aviators. They sure look happy! Ha Ha! (assholes) Sure would like to know that exchange between them and Abe. Ah look at Abe! He looks great! And there goes Gavin. Wonder what he he’s doing? What exchange with Abe there?

Wow! Look at the boys. Jack, Dike, Sal’s in there, Kosuke looks pretty happy, Brunner! Wow, it’s great. And Abe, above all. Hey MP. TV coverage can provide some great angles.

Wow. We did it. We won on the road. We won the Cascadia Cup. And we have more than 30 points. It feels great.

*****

Now that the season’s been over for a while, that 30 points obsession really doesn’t feel so bad. We made it and we broke it. We ended up with 34 points. Not so bad. Not very good. Winning the Cascadia Cup really did help take the pain of the season. I didn’t expect there to be such a catharsis from the Cup. Cal FC still hurts. But it feels a whole lot better knowing the Cascadia Cup is resting proudly in the Fanladen.

One more game? I don’t have any notes about it. It was a home game, I must have been there. San Jose. Oh yeah. All I can say is, you didn’t break the record in our house, Wondo. And you still haven’t scored a goal here in the run of play. And that was a shitty call, anyway.

34 points.

Goals, all we really want is goals…

It was probably the most epic new chant created by the Timbers Army this year. One memory in particular stands out to me. The day this chant was born. In the May 5th game against Columbus Crew.  Walking to my spot in the top of 104, slightly late from half time having been helping at the 107ist table, I decided to walk along the gangway between the one and two hundreds to avoid the crowds of folks still waiting for beer or a free toilet. I have a distinct memory of entering in around 108 and hearing this chant going, smiling to myself because I’d quite enjoyed learning it in the first half. Then proceeding a little further down and seeing Shawn Levy in his midsection capo stand leading the chant with great enthusiasm, jumping around and maybe even dancing a little! I thought to myself I love this chant.

Why did I love this chant? Well no doubt that a part of it was because of its homage to the sadly departed MCA. But there was something more. I think this song connected to my footballing soul. I think this song connected to the heart of the Timbers Army.  And, perhaps crucially, it connected to one of the biggest points of disappointment that we had in the stands. Goals are at the very heart of the game of football. It doesn’t matter how much you appreciate good defending or a solid hard working midfielder you still love goals. We all do. Every football fan across the world loves goals. It’s why, whether or not we like the teams on every level, we are more likely to tune in to watch games which we think are more likely to produce goals. It’s why we are instantly inclined to think that a 0-0 was probably boring and that a 3-4 game was probably a classic. It’s why we have goal of the week and goal of the month competitions. Goals are the pinnacle of a football game. The troubling thing is that the Portland Timbers don’t score many of them.

I am not much for analyzing football by numbers. But sometimes they do highlight certain points well. So, allow me to hurl a few at you to digest. It’s probably not news to you that Portland scored the second fewest goals, 34, in the MLS only behind the woefully poor Chivas. Yes, even Toronto managed more goals. We were also recorded the third worst defence. No doubt I feel the defence needs to improve, but I think most of our attention should be on getting the attack to work. I think that if the Timbers got the attack to work better they may even find their defence naturally improving. There could be a whole blog entry dedicated to that theory but in brief: a good attack helps the team to keep possession, something the Timbers are generally woeful at. When you have the ball more the opposition has less possibility to score. Also, when the Timbers are chasing games, which is too often the case, they leave themselves exposed at the back. A good attack would score more and thus help to prevent this.

Allow me to indulge you with some more numbers. After two full seasons in the MLS, this is the Timbers overall scoring chart:

  1. Jack Jewsbury- 10 goals
  2. Kenny Cooper  – 8 Goals
  3. Darlington Nagbe- 8 Goals (6 of these in 2012)
  4. Kris Boyd – 7 Goals
  5. Bright Dike- 6 Goals
  6. Jorge Perlaza- 6 Goals
  7. Eric Brunner- 4 Goals
  8. Rodney Wallace- 3 Goals
  9. Danny Mwanga- 3 Goals
  10. Futty Danso- 3 Goals

For the record: Boyd, Cooper and Dike all have a very similar strike rate of around 1 in 4. Cooper’s strike rate significantly improved when provided with better service at NYRB. Is it possible that better service could see Dike or Boyd hit high up on the scoring charts? Oh, and for a laugh… the other Timber player with a 1 in 4 strike rate is Kevin Goldthwaite.

And the assists totals:

  1. Khalif Alhassan- 8 Assists (6 of these were in 2011)
  2. Jack Jewsbury- 7 Assists
  3. Sal Zizzo- 5 Assists
  4. Eric Alexander – 4 Assists
  5. Franck Songo’o- 4 Assists
  6. Diego Chara- 4 Assists (All in 2011)
  7. Darlington Nagbe- 3 Assists
  8. Rodney Wallace- 3 Assists

So Jewsbury is the most consistently producing offensive player. A defensive midfielder is consistently out producing wingers, attacking midfielders and even strikers. Beyond that, Jewsbury isn’t even a particularly special defensive midfielder. He is solid and pretty consistent and he can pass a football reasonably well. But those attributes have been enough to see him become our most productive player. This highlights what, in my opinion,  is the biggest problem in the team. A severe lack of creativity. There are plenty of striking things to be revealed in these little lists.

After 2 years of MLS football and 47 appearances Khalif Alhassan has notched up 8 assists and a solitary goal. In his 61 games Darlington Nagbe has produced 8 assists and 3 goals. These are two of our more skillful attacking players, and yet so little production. With Nagbe and Alhassan the problem is evident on many levels. These are young players who are incredibly inconsistent. They can go from looking like European bound superstars in one game, to looking like a player that would struggle in the USL.

This is not a unique problem to Portland Timbers young players. After one season with Manchester United Cristiano Ronaldo had been described by many as a “one trick pony”. It was quite a popular opinion that he was a “bag of tricks” who wouldn’t produce much. What was the problem? Ronaldo, was very inconsistent in delivering end product. He could do 5 stepovers in 2 second, blow a player away and then fail to deliver a good cross. He’s shooting was inconsistent too.  Fast forward a few years. There may be many things to call Ronaldo, not all of them pleasant, but unproductive is not one of them.

Season by season he matured in Manchester, and then in Madrid, into one of the worlds very best footballers. There are countless other examples of players going through this process. Nagbe and Alhassan’s inconsistency is very, very normal for young, flair based players. The problem is that they are two key players in Portland’s offense and that most of the other attack based players share the same fate.

Franck Songo’o has unquestionable talent. With the skill he had he should be one of the top performing players in the MLS. But he is limited by his inconsistency.  Alhassan, Nagbe and Songo’o are an exciting trio of players. However, they are not just limited by consistency, they are shackled. But not just them, the whole offense is shackled. Because these three should be our primary source of provision for strikers. But the strikers are feeding off scraps. Zizzo’s return to fitness in the later half of the season offered a boost here. He is more consistency in his performances and especially in the area of delivery. But, I would also say he has less ability.

After the Timbers first MLS season I naively thought that Nagbe and Alhassan would magically progress in the off season and help the Timbers set the league on fire in their second season (burn, destroy, wreck and kill!). I believed in the progress of young players, in their development into better players. Perhaps I have been playing too much FIFA and Football Manager, where young players will always develop if you play them. It’s probably fair to say that Nagbe has improved a little. With the more limited game time it’s hard to see anyway in which Alhassan has improved. Now, I see that Nagbe and Alhassan have two things working against them in the current set up.

Firstly, they have often been two very important players in the offense. There is pressure to perform. Any professional should be able to handle pressure of course. But a lot consistent pressure to perform on a young and developing player is not conducive to the development of said player. Just think how many times you sat in the stands last season, and even more the season before, hoping that Nagbe or Alhassan could pull something off to help create a goal.

In every league around the world young players are hyped as the next big thing. Pressure is heaped upon them, as they are labeled the next so and so and so. There are two great examples in the Premier League this season in Raheem Sterling and Tom Cleverley.

The talent both youngsters possess is evident. It’s also evident that both are far from finished article. But that didn’t stop the hyperbole. After a particularly impressive display for England Cleverley was actually compared to Iniesta. Here is a player still struggling to hold down a place in the Manchester United midfield (the weakest area of that team) being compared to one of the worlds finest creative midfielders. Raheem Sterling had his fair amount of ridiculous over the top praises and comparisons too. But, whilst they may have pressure to perform from over expectant fans and media there is not too much pressure from within the team. Manchester United have Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Nani, Valencia, Kagawa, Scholes and Carrick to supply the passes for Van Persie up front. If Cleverley is struggling to make those incisive passes in a game then Manchester United will probably get by without them. Even with Liverpool struggling as they are they still have several players in addition to Sterling capable of creating chances.

The addition of Songo’o certainly provided us with another player to pin our offensive hopes on. But, as mentioned earlier, his struggle was the same. Whilst Zizzo is more consistent, you still would not say consistency is a strong point of his. Four attacking midfielders/wingers and wingers whose struggle with inconsistency only served to heap more pressure on themselves and left Boyd, Dike et al casting a lonely shadow upfront waiting for service.

Any kind of service. 

So, rather than being able to participate and develop themselves in a successful attacking unit Nagbe and Alhassan (and Songo’o and Zizzo for that matter) were left to try and overcome their demon and provide the team with the creativity it needed. At times during the season I think I could almost see the burden sitting on their shoulders. I think that perhaps that pressure stifled the creativity of Nagbe and Alhassan. Particularly Nagbe. He often seemed scared to run at players and take risks because he felt the pressure to supply the right pass or move to provide the goal. There will always be pressure on youngsters to perform but the system at the Timbers has not served to alleviate any of this pressure. There is a huge difference to being a young star winger in a great offensive unit, and being a young star winger who is the hope of the offensive unit. The former is more likely to bring the successful development of a young player.

The second thing is that Nagbe and Alhassan don’t have another player to look up to in their development. Songo’o is the closest thing they have and he is also relatively young and struggles in exactly the same areas. This is very much related to the first problem. If the Timbers had one,  one is surely not too much to ask, attacking midfielder or winger who was experienced and a consistent producer it would make the world of difference. They don’t have to be all that dynamic or exciting. They just have to have been there and done that. They just have to be consistent. The type of player that could stroll up and put an arm around Nagbe in training and give a word of advice. They type of player who could consistently put in 4 or 5 good crosses or through balls EVERY game. In an instant the pressure on Nagbe and Alhassan drops and they are spending time everyday with a player that can assist them in their develop.

Mr Porter, in the chance you are an avid reader of Slide Rule Pass, which I assume you are as it is the primary location for all your Portland Timbers blogging needs, I plead with you. I beg you. Please, please, please sign someone who can fulfill that role. May I suggest it would be a most excellent way to sign the new year! (P.S I don’t think McCourt will cut it for this role). This would be a huge step in the right direction offensively and could even be a step toward fulfilling the identity of the team. I believe it would help this team tremendously in their development. Even if it costs us sacrificing one of Alhassan, Nagbe or Songo’o I think it would be worth it to get the best out of the other three and offer better service to our lonely strikers. I don’t suppose it will suddenly make us a great team challenging for MLS titles, but it will certainly elevate us.

In Reserve

Rumors are flying about the sort-of-announced partnership between MLS and USL that will integrate the MLS Reserves into the third division. This dovetails neatly with MLS commissioner Don Garber’s statements recently about MLS not getting enough value out of the Academy structure and the Reserve League, and their failure to properly develop the talent the league can access. Benefits abound on both side of the potential agreement: MLS gains an established outlet for developing their youth talent beyond a pathetic 10 game reserve schedule; USL-Pro gets free talented youth players and the ability to establish a regional format due to an increased west coast footprint, both features which increase financial stability for a notoriously unstable league.

It has become clear that a few main points have been agreed upon informally between the leagues, with some integration to begin in 2013 and full integration in 2014.

First, that MLS teams will have a USL-Pro affiliate (with the likely exception of Antigua Barracudas FC, who develop players for their own national team). MLS teams will provide up to five players to their third tier affiliate, at their discretion, with salaries paid by their home team.

Second, that MLS teams will be scheduling reserve games against USL-Pro teams in the coming season, with a formal schedule integration coming in following year. MLS teams without a local counterpart may field full division-three teams in 2014, in order to establish regional divisions in USL-Pro.

Given that there are more MLS teams than USL teams, it is unclear exactly how the west coast teams will be affiliated in 2013. It’s likely that initially west coast teams will be sending players to the southeast where there are four USL teams but zero MLS teams. USL covers the entire east coast but has only one team west of the Mississippi, with Phoenix and Sacramento set to debut in ’13 and ’14 respectively.

An interactive map of Div 2 and 3 attendances from 1996 to 2012

This isn’t ideal, of course, but it is likely that this partnership will induce many of the 70+ USL-PDL (fourth division – semi-pro) to make the jump up to the third tier. If making the jump includes 5 free youth stars, it is very doubtful may fourth division teams would resist. There are many clubs in the fourth tier on the west coast that could make the leap to the third with some marginal support. Cascadia teams not directly associated with MLS U-23 teams in the PDL include Victoria Highlanders, Kitsap Pumas, Washington Crossfire, North Sound SeaWolves FC, and Fraser Valley Mariners FC. Any three of these D-4 teams could step up and become D-3 MLS affiliates to Cascadian MLS partners.

One interesting note about this deal is the leapfrogging of the NASL (second division) in the arrangement with USL. It’s been made clear by NASL owners that they see themselves in a complementary position rather than a support structure relationship with MLS. This is quite an interesting but ambitious position to take given their recent instability, having been refused sanctioning as D-2 by the USSF as recently as 2011. It seems likely the NASL will remain an outlet for more permanent loan-type situations, but won’t be included in a the more fluid reserve league setup with USL.

There are clearly many variables that need to be worked out still, but it’s a promising future for the development of youth talent in MLS. Timbers fans will very likely see many more developmental players sent out to third division sides, like Bright Dike and Andrew Jean-Baptiste were sent to LA Blues in 2012. More games => more experience => increased development. Any arrangement that gets more real game time for developmental MLS players, while promoting and stabilizing a lower division, cannot be a negative for the league. We are sure to hear more concrete details about this arrangement in the future; I’ll be sure to keep you up to date.