Identity Issues

It almost seems too easy to pile on General Manager–and widely maligned ginger super villain–Gavin Wilkinson after the abortive mess that was the Portland Timbers 2012 campaign. Most, if not every, PTFC supporter is well aware of Wilkinson’s past hits; from throwing his squad under the bus (a few times), to somewhat callously slagging off players on their way out of town. Unfortunately for Wilkinson, with each interview he grants, the hits keep on coming, usually in the form of anyone but Gavin Wilkinson being made responsible for the club’s substandard play.

And so, with the first round of #Rostergeddon behind us, and the next round rapidly approaching, Wilkinson delivered another few gems in the form of two separate quotes on Monday:

“The general manager’s job is to get the pieces for the head coach to help the success of the organization, and it’s about the organization,” Wilkinson said. “And it’s also about giving Caleb the pieces he wants to work with, the pieces he thinks will contribute the way he sees them contributing.”

“We have enough athleticism, we have enough ability,” Wilkinson said. “What we want to fix is maybe the mental side of it and bring in mentally tough guys who have been in the league and succeeded in the league.”

Critics of the general manager will first point to the fact that by Gavin Wilkinson’s own standards, he has been an abject failure as a general manager. They will likely point out that the last two years have not done the organization any favors, particularly the way ‘upgrades’ and releases have been handled, and short of seeing the Cascadia Cup in the Fanladen, fans are very down on the club’s ability to perform in an MLS league that ranks somewhere towards the middle internationally.

But what I found particularly interesting about Wilkinson’s latest interview is how it plays into something I’ve been saying about the club since it’s ascendancy to MLS; it quite plainly does not have a footballing identity. While it ultimately falls on the players to play the game, it is the responsibility of management to set the direction of the club, which starts with the hiring of key staff and then make sure that staff does their jobs.

In the beginning, both Wilkinson and owner Meritt Paulson tried to sell us on a strategy of bringing in footballers with athletic prowess to make a team that could out-MLS everyone in MLS with hustle and and a pure athleticism that could produce some beautiful football and ultimately solid results. This seemed odd on its face given that the club had hired John Spencer, a manager who immediately implemented a 4-4-2 system, which classically relies on a solid back four that can defend and get up the pitch during an attack, coupled with a pair of central midfielders to support the back four and initiate the attack going the other way. Under Spencer, the team rarely found themselves being able to boast of success in either area. They were ostensibly a 4-4-2 team that couldn’t take leverage any the 4-4-2 formation’s advantages, due in great part to a bevy of personnel issues.


Attempting to spell out these personnel problems in each area of the pitch is difficult, due primarily to the fact that the personnel in each area of the pitch changed around so much, that John Spencer’s famous quip that he was fitting “square pegs going into round holes” became a talking point in its own right. However, it is fair to say that forwards were often more isolated than an ascetic monk on a hilltop, waiting for the inevitable long ball from a cartoonish rotation of unsuccessful left- and right-backs, all but nullifying the supposed athletic advantages the squad was meant to be built around. The midfield was toothless and unimaginative; often featuring two defensive-minded center-mids, with largely ineffective service sporadically coming from the wings. To use a very cheap analogy, it’s as if Merritt Paulson gave his GM the chassis of a Bugati Veyron and charged him with the task of sourcing parts and a competent driver, only to find what he saw as a Bugati running like a fucking Geo Metro with an increasingly befuddled toddler behind the wheel.

Looking from our tortured MLS past, to the somewhat unclear MLS future, that toddler, John Spencer, is but a distant memory in the minds of Timbers supporters and former Akron Zips coach Caleb Porter has been brought in to right the ship. The choice is interesting, inasmuch as it seems to be both an admission that past two years of football played at the club are to be forgotten, while still remaining well within the thus-far unsuccessful MO of owner Meritt Paulson, who is always after the next up-and-coming (read: unproven) talent to build his club around. The problem here is obvious, in a rush to obscure his lack of soccer knowledge and the FO’s gross  mismanagement, it seems that he has been watching Barcelona games on Fox Soccer, and now hopes to sell us on the idea that he’s going to build an MLS Barca here in Portland, without actually holding his people responsible for the success of that massive undertaking.

If you close your eyes, you can probably imagine Paulson yelling: “Just build me a fucking Veyron this time and let me know when you’re done, so that I can go for a ride. WEEEEEEEEEE!”

It is expected that Porter will institute a 4-3-3 system, one which is favored in the modern game by teams like Barca for its positivity, but which also places a much higher premium of player technique and creativity, especially in the midfield. When done poorly it can leave the back-line isolated and vulnerable to attack, something the Timbers were quite prone to under the more defensive 4-4-2 setup. Porter seems to be saying all the right things and his clubs at the college level have played some very attractive, and very successful football, but he’s not walking into a hand-picked group of players at PTFC. This is still a club with a fair amount of personnel issues all over the pitch. And so, it seems, the identity of Caleb Porter’s PTFC  will depend largely on the direction of Merritt Paulson’s “soccer guy,” Gavin Wilkinson. That last sentence isn’t one prone to give supporters of the club much hope. In fact, you may want to call your favorite Timbers supporter now to talk them off the ledge, if you haven’t done so already this off-season.

The way “Timbers insiders” will tell it now–in a revisionist history fitting of Stalin or George W. Bush apologists–John Spencer was basically in charge of personnel decisions, directing his boss to scrounge up the squad we saw the past two seasons. While it is reasonably to expect that Spencer most certainly had sway in the process, as any manager does, it seems incredibly unlikely that this was actually the case, particularly given the sense of exacerbation with which Spencer bemoaned the lack of solid options at key positions. But this revisionism, which smacks of desperation by the FO to deflect some of the ire seen in the North End towards the end of last season, brings up management issues that many fans have quite rightly questioned. Firstly, if Spencer was essentially in control of personnel decisions, what the fuck was Gavin Wilkinson doing the past two years? It certainly wasn’t his job, even as he has described it as recently as Monday. Secondly, if he hasn’t been capable of doing his job the past two seasons, why is he being given a third? I’ve yet to hear a decent explanation for this and I’m most certainly not holding my breath.

What’s staggering is, while it’s easy to get focused on personnel, Wilkinson’s history of general managerial incompetence, when it comes to shaping the identity of the club, spans well beyond player signings. When John Spencer was hired as the first manager of the MLS Timbers, it was based on his history and reputation as a highly respected coach in MLS under Houston Dynamo’s Dominic Kinnear. And while few could doubt Spencer’s energy, passion, and ability to work day-to-day with players, it was often that case that he looked pitifully out of depth on match-day, unable or unwilling to adjust to tactical changes and woefully off-base with substitutions. Things only got worse when Trevor James, an MLS veteran, left the bank at the end of the first season. Wilkinson’s answer was as simplistic as it was incomprehensible, he doubled down on USL-era coaches and perennial ‘parts of the problem’ Amos Magee and Adam James. The results were predictable as the club struggled once again to find an identity or any points on the road for that matter. The James departure and its aftermath may seem like a small event, but it was a clear opportunity for Paulson and the man he relies on for soccer related counsel to step in and assert some control over the situation, to bring someone in that could assist Spencer in bringing the team into his system before things got so out of hand that the club was dropping games to amateur teams in front of its fans to the tune of “Taps.”


But for 2013 at least, we are going to battle with Gavin Wilkinson at the helm, and what Gavin Wilkinson is saying is that he believes that PTFC is basically set-up to allow Caleb Porter to succeed. He would have us believe that it is not, as many fans have complained, a lack of quality on the pitch– or should we say the right kind of quality on the pitch–but rather a lack of mental toughness that has held this squad back to this point. This could very well mean that we won’t see a great deal more change to the roster ahead of the upcoming campaign, not even in key areas for a 4-3-3 formation, like the midfield.

Given Porter’s track record, particularly as the U-21 coach for the USMNT, it has to be said that short of changing his mind, this is the crux of the gamble Wilkinson is making with PTFC’s future.  As noted sports philosopher Shaquile O’Neal once said, “Don’t fake the funk on a nasty dunk;” either this team actually takes on the identity of a fluid, 4-3-3 style attacking Porter team–with the players we currently have (give or take a pair here and there)–or Porter could be forced to be the face of another season of disjointed, disappointing play as square pegs are unceremoniously and repeatedly jammed into round holes without even the courtesy of a lubricant.

For supporters, whose anxiety is sure to produce some positively epic SCUSA posts in the coming days, we can only sit back and wait to see what happens with the rest of #Rostergeddon before we decide just how much to freak the fuck out. With Gavin Wilkinson at the helm we may have to be resigned to the fact that as long as we have no solidified footballing identity and as long as failure is accepted at the highest levels of this club, this is what our normal is.


Admin note: Logan has asked that a line be edited from the piece as it seemed to be detracting from discussion of the actual thrust of the article. Let’s keep the conversation on what matters, please. Thanks.

Forward the Foundation

After a slow start, the much-promised Rostergeddon got into full swing on a day that would’ve reminded many fans of English football of Transfer Deadline day. All it needed was Harry Redknapp in his car telling a reporter that David Horst was a “great lad, great lad, really like ‘im.”

What we got was five players on the way out (with another whose status is up in the air), two players coming in (and another potential) and a Breaking Bad-esque pile of allocation cash.

Chris already did a great job of going over the wheeling and dealing in his post, so I’ll keep my thoughts on the deals “brief”.

The first deal confirmed was that of Kosuke Kimura to the New York Notcosmos. Kimura had staggered around the right-back position like a punchdrunk boxer for much of his time in Portland. Whether that’s due to his own deficincies or coming into a team with no real direction, that’s up to you to decide, but whatever the reasons, the move was one that was always likely to happen.

Kimura, who also found time to fit in an unsuccessful trial in Poland since the season ended, was joined by a second-round draft pick to New York, with the Timbers getting the homegrown rights to Bryan Gallego, a centreback who just so happens plays his college soccer for Akron Zips. You may have heard of them.

Given Porter’s background and experience of the college game, no-one will have a clearer idea of who he wants in the SuperDraft, so it’s interesting to me that he’s given up a draft pick to make this deal work. Of course, there’s a long way to go before the draft, plenty of time to wheel and deal for other picks, but the acquisition of Gallego’s homegrown rights is illuminating for a couple of reasons, I think.

Here’s a player Porter has worked closely within Akron, and it seems rates highly enough to give up a draft pick to get him. Being a homegrown player, Gallego wouldn’t have been eligible for the SuperDraft (as is my understanding, which could be way wrong), so is this a roundabout way to “draft” a guy Porter really wanted? Whether Gallego steps up this year (he’ll be 20 in March so, without getting into my pet peeve about youth development in the States, it’s not that crazy an idea) or he’s one for 2014, it also points towards a change in philosophy at the back for the Timbers.

It’d be fair to say that we’ve had a lot of guys with heart and spirit, but who are limited in technical ability. That won’t fly under the system Porter favours where the defenders have to be comfortable on the ball and able to play an intelligent, possession-based game. Clearly, Gallego already knows what Porter wants from his defenders, and Porter likes what he sees from Gallego.

Next came the news of Eric Brunner going to Houston. A sad one, but not unexpected. I’d written about the potential of Brunner’s leaving and while I leaned towards him staying (I thought Danso would be first to go) the news of his departure didn’t surprise me.

Brunner’s injury really took the wind out of the defender’s sails. He had a good 2011, and looked set to form a partnership with Mosquera at the back, but in his enforced absence he was usurped by David Horst.

With Horst holding down the position, Mosquera a lock and Jean-Baptiste hungry to push on in 2013, Brunner found himself squeezed out. A fine servant to the club in his time in Portland, Eric leaves with the best wishes on the Timbers faithful.

Michael Harrington’s arrival was the next announcement. The last time we picked up a former Kansas City starter who’d found himself relegated to the bench, it worked out pretty well! Harrington will give us options at both left and right back, and seems like a very solid addition to the squad.

Next up was the departure of Steve Purdy and Lovel Palmer. Purdy had been unable to really cement a place in the team since the move up to MLS. I liked what little I saw of him, but given his sporadic appearances in the team, it was of little surprise to see the option on him declined.

Lovel Palmer. I’d written about how I couldn’t see a future for him in Portland. I’ve been critical of him in the past, and justified in (much of) it, so I can’t say I’ll miss having him on the team but, nevertheless, I’m sure he gave his all. It just wasn’t good enough, consistently enough. Fare thee well.

Steven Smith was next to go, announcing it himself on twitter. This was one where I thought “oh no” at the time, but the more I thought about it, and the more I read about it, the more it made cold hard sense. Talk is that Smith would’ve needed DP wages to stay, and with Spencer going (and Boyd likely to go), there was little to hold Smith here on a personal level. There will be no shortage of offers back “home”.

The “final” announcement was that of the signing of Will Johnson from RSL. The Canadian international has been an important part of the RSL midfield over the past few years, and it’ll be interesting to see where he fits in in 2013. There are times we’ve lacked a bit of bite and spark in the middle, and Johnson will provide both of these in spades.

The MLS released the Re-Entry Draft list shortly afterwards. It would be worth keeping an eye on as the Timbers have the #3 pick and the draft is a good way to fill out the squad and/or pick up pieces that can be traded on later.

It certainly raised a few eyebrows among Timbers fans when Rodney Wallace’s name appeared on it.

It’s important to note that the club and player have a couple more days to thrash out a deal that would see Wallace stay, and Merritt’s omission of Rodney from his “so long and thanks for all the fish” tweet would suggest the intention is to work something out. The talk is that the Timbers want to negotiate Wallace’s salary down. I’m not his biggest fan, but he is a decent squad player. He’s just not worth the money he’s currently pulling, in my opinion.

All in all, a pretty good day for the Timbers. Too early to make definitive judgements, of course, but it’s a start to Porter’s reign that fills me with cruel, cruel optimism!

Five out, two in and a complete revamp of the defence is underway. Given that so much of Akron’s play under Porter was built from the back, it makes sense that the gaffer would start his own rebuilding there.

Onwards and upwards.

#RCTID

Six Defining Moments of 2012

2012 is rife with talk of apocalypse, and there were certainly times that the sky seemed to be falling in on the Timbers. A managerial sacking, fans protests, twitter meltdowns, cup embarrassments, defensive horror-shows and, bizarrely, a late season triumph.

Thinking of some of the defining moments of the Timbers year, it would be easy to think of Spencer’s sacking, Porter’s hiring, the Cal FC defeat or Perkins’ trade as the big moments, and they probably are, but the lack of a definite article in the title is deliberate as I want to take a look at 6 other moments that I think would, in their own way, come to define the Timbers’ season.

1. The Late Collapse vs Real Salt Lake

Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon
When: March 31st, approx 19:45
What: There was still an air of optimism in Portland as the Timbers kicked-off against RSL. A opening day win, heralding the arrival of Kris Boyd with a debut goal, had been followed by a gritty road draw and a narrow road loss while RSL were coming off a home defeat to Chivas USA.

Despite the setback of going 1-0 down, the Timbers roared back with a brace of classy Darlington Nagbe goals to lead 2-1. The minutes ticked away, James Marcelin came on to help close the game out, the Timbers were looking at a 7 point haul from their opening 4 games, with a visit from Chivas USA up next.

And then, disaster. Two goals in the dying minutes overturned the result, giving the visitors a 3-2 win. Like a pin popping a balloon, suddenly the early belief and confidence was gone.

Another defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory result against Chivas the next week – throwing away a lead to another late winner – only cemented the belief that it was going to be another long season.

2. Eric Brunner’s injury vs Vancouver Whitecaps

Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon
When: May 26th, approx 18:06
What: With the second worst defensive record in the Western Conference in 2011, bolstering the defence was a priority for the Timbers in 2012 and, in the signing of Hanyer Mosquera, they thought they had their man to partner Eric Brunner in the heart of the back four.

Brunner had emerged from 2011 as a fan favourite, and a rare bright spot at the back for Portland. It was always going to be a case of Brunner + A.N. Other at the back, or so it seemed.

The partnership between Mosquera and Brunner took a while to get together thanks to injuries and such, but it looked like the club had finally found a solution in the middle, even if the full-back positions continued to perplex.

A concussion sustained early in the match against the Whitecaps saw Brunner removed at half-time. It would be September before Brunner saw action again, thanks in part to a further knee injury, when he came on as a late game sub. By this time, David Horst had made the position beside Mosquera his own.

The instability that followed – Danso and Horst would come in and out of the team – would see the team lose goals left and right before they finally settled on Horst. Horst looked out of his depth early on, but steadied to become a solid presence at the back, but one of the big “What if?” questions that hang over the Timbers season is “What if Brunner had never gotten injured?”

3. Kris Boyd’s goal vs Seattle Sounders

Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon
When: 24th June, approx 13:16
What: Steven Smith to Franck Songo’o, touched off to the overlapping Smith, a low cross ball to the middle where an unmarked Kris Boyd taps it past the Sounders keeper.

Boyd’s goal put the Timbers on their way to a 2-1 victory against their great rivals – their first MLS victory against the Orcish minions from the North. It would also put the Timbers in the driving seat to win the Cascadia Cup.

The win came less than a month after the Timbers had lost 1-0 to Cal FC, the same team the Sounders would thump 5-0 shortly afterwards. If that loss had represented the nadir of the club’s fortunes, the derby win was the zenith, with hopes restored that the club could yet get it’s playoff hopes back on track.

And yet, a little over two weeks later, John Spencer had been sacked.

4. Kris Boyd’s misses vs Chivas USA

Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon
When: 28th July, multiple times
What: Strictly speaking this is more than a single moment, but Boyd’s first half showing against Chivas would come to define so much of his season, and how it went into a tailspin.

Boyd was already getting criticism for not scoring enough goals, or justifying his hefty price tag, and it seemed to be weighing on the Scot. Gone were the natural, smooth finishes of early in the season – think, the flicked header against the Union, the calm finish against the Galaxy, the (wrongly) disallowed bit of skill and finish in the same match.

Now the finishes were nervy, jittery, rushed. In his desperation to score, he was hampering his natural instincts.

The first chance was much like that flash of skill against the Galaxy. Boyd heel-flicked a header down from Richards to control the ball, but rushed his shot, and sent it wide.

The second chance saw him caught offside, and of course he finished it with aplomb.

The third chance came only minutes later, and a nice touch left his defender for dead, but Boyd took the shot from a tight angle rather than the easy lay-off to Chara. Trying too hard.

The fourth chance came after a shot by Chara was palmed out by the keeper. Boyd swung at the rebound, barely connecting and only looping the ball up ineffectually.

Chivas would score the only goal of the game in the second half. Boyd’s time as a starter would come to an end only weeks later.

5. Bright Dike’s goal vs New York Red Bulls

Where: Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey
When: 19th August, approx 18:08
What: After a toothless showing in Toronto, Boyd was relegated to the bench. Bright Dike made his first-ever MLS start, after spending time on loan with LA Blues earlier in the season.

473 seconds. That is how long it took Dike to do what Boyd had gone 384 minutes without doing – score. Dike got on the end of Sal Zizzo’s low cross to put the Timbers in front, the first of five goals the striker would go on to tally before the season was out.

The Timbers would double their lead, but some poor defending, terrible officiating and an familiar late game sucker-punch resulted in a 3-2 defeat.

Dike’s form would bring him to the attention of the Nigerian national team, and would keep his more expensive team mate cooling his heels on the bench until injury ended Boyd’s 2012, and potentially his Timbers career.

6. Gavin Wilkinson’s experiment vs Seattle Sounders

Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Washington
When: 7th October, approx 17:00
What: The Timbers knew that a favourable result in Seattle’s backyard would guarantee them the Cascadia Cup. Interim head coach opted to switch out both full-backs and give starts to Lovel Palmer and Rodney Wallace. The game ended in a 3-0 defeat.

Peeved would be one word to describe the fans’ reaction to Wilkinson’s tinkering. Fucking furious would be two words.

Excuses would be made for the changes, some more convincing than others, but the fact remained that the Timbers went north to play their biggest rivals, with silverware on the line, with two guys in the team who had never convinced in their positions.

The defeat put the Cascadia Cup in doubt, and it would take a first road-win of the season against a frankly awful Vancouver Whitecaps to seal the deal. Had the cup been squandered… Well, that’s another “What if?” and one that would be best written by the writers of the Saw franchise should the Timbers fans have ever gotten their hands on Wilkinson.


So, there we have my thoughts on six moments that would shape and define the Timbers season. Which would you add as your own?

The Strange Case of Ian Hogg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interregnum

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


So… what to write about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

#RCTID

Kits

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

“Ghost” stripes

“Ghost” stripes (alternate)

Thin stripes

“The Golfer”

“The Golfer” (alternate)

Thin hoops

Viva Cascadia

Viva Cascadia (alternate)

Red Stripe

City of Portland

Tartan

“Ghost” hoops

Gradient

Cascadia Green

More kits this way.

What Now 2: Electric Boogaloo

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

Anyway.

So; here we are.

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

There has been talk of a wholesale housecleaning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So.

We need to be Finland.

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

Here’s how;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can’t win that way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———–

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

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

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

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

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

But we’ll see, won’t we?

————–

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