We Are Legend

First off, I’ll just say I’m writing this on my iPod, which isn’t ideal. So no pics, and I’ll keep it brief. But The Timbers won. They beat Seattle, and there was simply no way I couldn’t talk about the game yesterday.

The tone for the day was set by the Army’s epic Clive Charles* tifo. As it rose, it snagged and tore a bit, but great work by the Timbers Army crew freed it up, and as the sun broke through, the full splendour of many hours of work was revealed.

On the pitch, the team also met similar problems. In the second half Seattle had us pinned back for long spells, threatening to spoil an outstanding start that had seen the Timbers race to a 2-0 lead, and only the most fervent of fans wouldn’t have felt queasy as time wore on.

Disaster, as it was with the tifo, was averted. Two first half goals had given the Timbers the cushion they needed to hold out during a second half that threatened to descend into chaos at times.

Kris Boyd’s opener came from a great low cross from Steven Smith, slotted home from six yards as the Seattle defence took leave of their senses. David Horst head butted the team into a two-goal lead shortly after from a corner.

The Timbers were rampant for much of the first half. Fucito buzzed around the attack, and Alhassan and Songo’o were finding joy where last week there was only woe.

Smith’s reintroduction to the team gave them an overlapping threat down the left that was so lacking against LA.

A quick word about Songo’o. I thought this was his best showing for the Timbers. He looked like he had purpose whereas previously he’s looked like he’s floated around with no clear goal in mind.

I still felt his best work came centrally – fortunately with Smith back in the team we had some width to compensate – with his behind-the-leg pass for Fucito in the second half a particular delight.

Also, I think it’s time to declare my man-crush on Diego Chara. I’m almost scared to considering my record – *cough*Perlaza*cough* – but seriously, how freaking good is this guy?

Watching the replay, I was mesmerised watching the Colombian dynamo. The guy is unflappable in possession.

The complaints about Xavi “only passing sideways” have largely died down as people have come to realise that he’s actually pretty ok at football.

So with Chara. Okay, he might not harvest tonnes of assists or send a fifty yard crossfield pass onto a sixpence, but watching him is a lesson for all kids on how to do the “simple” things well.

Three guys around him? No problem, he’ll pass through them. Snapping at his heels? He’ll lay it off and spin round you to get the pass back.

He never panics and kicks it away. He keeps his head up and finds his man, and then he’ll move and look for it right back.

He’s the beating heart of the team.

As well as a Xavi-like ability to circulate the ball so efficiently, he also has, to borrow another Barca/Spain player, the defensive instincts of a Busquets.

There was one point in the second half where he dived in to make a block, then got up and harried the play back from the edge of the Timbers box to the centre circle.

His play was a large part of why, even as Seattle pressed, the Timbers were able to hold them off.

Seattle’s attacking strategy was reduced to either shooting from distance, or falling over to generate set pieces.

Eddie Johnson, who seemed to have sharpened his elbows before kick-off, seemed to have a particularly tenuous relationship with gravity. Perhaps he suffers from Drogba’s Disease?

And Montero… He played like one of those entitled 16 year old shits who’ll scream the mansion down cos their daddy bought them a red Porsche instead of a black one. Fredy thinks the world exists to serve him and won’t take no for an answer.

When things weren’t going his way, he became ever more petulant. It’s a wonder he was able to go more than five yards without tripping over his bottom lip.

The ref has to take a portion of the blame. Time and again Montero, and a few of his cohorts, resorted to shoving and elbowing. If the ref had drawn a line earlier on and made it clear it wasn’t going to fly, perhaps some of the later unpleasantness could’ve been avoided.

Instead, Montero got away with what he wanted until Horst made sure he couldn’t wave it away. A weak performance by a ref who let himself be controlled by the match rather than the other way round.

The little shitehawk got his just desserts late on with a red card, at least.

It was a great day to be a Timber. It was a complete 180 from the LA match.

It’s still too early to declare a corner has been turned yet. I don’t like going negative after a match like that, but…

I wasn’t impressed with much of Nagbe’s work. He seemed a yard off the pace of the game at times. He seemed to get caught in possession far too often.

Similarly, at the back things aren’t perfect. Despite his goal, and providing a real threat from set plays, Horst still showed his worst side with a poor effort to win the ball in the build up to Seattle’s goal.

Teams will still generate a number of decent chances against us, but on this day Perkins came up big again.

The potential loss of Alhassan for a spell is also a blow after injury forced him out. The Ghanaian can have you pulling your hair out at times, but is always capable of a dazzling piece of trickery.

Let’s not end on negatives though. This may be the last Timbers game I catch live this season, and if so it’s a great way to go.

Legends were born yesterday.

Trading Places

Portland Timbers recently attempted to kick start their ailing season by bringing Danny Mwanga in from Philadelphia in exchange for Jorge Perlaza. General Manager Gavin Wilkinson indicated that they would be seeking to improve key areas over the next few weeks, so it’s highly likely that the trading is far from over.

Timbers fans hoping to see the team take a step forward this year have been bitterly disappointed by a number of sub-par performances, culminating in a humiliating loss to Cal FC in the US Open Cup.

As the front office look to strengthen their squad over the next few weeks in the hope of kick-starting a playoff push, it seems an apposite time to review their preview dealings in the transfer market.

The system of trades in MLS, while familiar to American sports fan, can seem Byzantine in it’s complexity to outsiders, and that is without wading into the murky waters of Allocation Money.

Regardless, by looking over six of the highest profile trade moves, and addressing the clubs policy in general, can we get an idea of where the club is heading and whether fans have reason to believe that a second year with no playoff soccer can be avoided?

Let’s see…

[learn_more caption=”McCarty / Wallace”]

Dax McCarty was already a veteran of almost 100 MLS matches with FC Dallas, and still only 23, when taken as the Timbers’ first pick in the expansion draft that greeted the clubs arrival in Major League Soccer.

Yet McCarty would only be a Timber for as long as it took to make a deal with DC United to exchange the midfielder for the Costa Rican left-back Rodney Wallace.

Despite his youth and being an important part of the Dallas midfield an abundance of players there, as well as the emergence of Eric Alexander, led Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman to leave McCarty unprotected.

In trading away the US international the Timbers lost a hard-working, combative midfielder, who allied grit with a finesse that delivered 17 assists in his time at Dallas.

On the face of it, the move for Wallace made some logical sense. In building a team from scratch they had also moved for left-back Anthony Wallace as their fourth pick, but had traded him right back to Colorado Rapids in return for allocation money. It left the team with no left-back on their nascent roster, and that role is traditionally one where it is difficult to find quality.

Rodney Wallace, himself a first round pick for DC in the 2009 SuperDraft, already had a couple of years of MLS experience under his belt. He’d also played in the same University of Maryland side as Jeremy Hall, who’d joined the Timbers a couple of days previously, which was something that Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson thought would be “a tremendous benefit” to the team.

In the end, there are few fans who would consider Wallace to have been a benefit to the team. A couple of goals and assists in his first year failed to mask the fact that Wallace has never really set the heather on fire at Portland due to displays that are only consistent in their inconsistency. He never looked comfortable at left back, seemingly better suited to midfield, and yet, when moved to midfield, he looked lost.

He now finds himself behind Steven Smith in the pecking order, and could even be considered third choice for left back behind Mike Chabala. With a substantial cap hit of $110,000 it wouldn’t surprise if he was one of the pieces that the Timbers were looking to move out to freshen up the squad, as they did with his ex-college team mate Jeremy Hall.

McCarty on the other hand would only spend a few months at DC before being traded to New York Red Bulls in exchange for Dwayne De Rosario, where he’s become an anchor in midfield.

While there may have been some sense in the trade at the time, it’s hard for Timbers fans to not to look back on it with hindsight and wince.

 

Verdict: Qualified Failure

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Cronin / Perkins”]

After a fantastic year in the Timbers final USL season in 2010, goalkeeper Steve Cronin was one of the first four players announced as members of the MLS squad.

The stats for that final year certainly indicate that his step-up to the big league was a no-brainer – a 42.86% shutout rate and 114.5 minutes per goal conceded.

However, almost before the ink the dry Cronin had been traded to DC United in exchange for another keeper, Troy Perkins. If the McCarty/Wallace deal was an error on the part of the front office then this trade was nothing short of a masterstroke.

2011 would be Cronin’s second bite at MLS after spells at San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy before dropping to USL. His final year in MLS, 2008 with the Galaxy, saw Cronin play 22 matches and ship 44 goals. Admittedly, it was a difficult year all round for LA but a rate of 2 goals lost per game is not good.

Despite this, DC saw enough in Cronin to grab him for cover. It signalled a premature end to Perkins second spell in the capitol.

A spell in Norway with Vålerenga broke up Perkins’ time at DC. From 2004 to 2007 he made 77 regular season appearances, conceding 97 goals, and won the Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2006.

Signing Perkins was a risk for Portland, though as his return in 2010 was less than glorious. He shipped 37 goals in only 22 appearances, making the 2006 and 2007 seasons seem a long time ago. There was no guarantee he could be that keeper again.

The gamble paid off in fine style as Perkins was a rock at the back for the Timbers in an often difficult debut season. He played 29 times, losing 38 goals, and posted a shutout rate of over 30% for the first time in his career.

2012 has seen Perkins improve further, getting back to his very best form.

2005’s figures are skewed by Perkins having played only two matches that year.

A regular contender for Save of the Week, Perkins has been the saviour of the Timbers on a myriad of occasions.

Cronin, on the other hand, make a couple of sub appearances for DC in 2011, and lost 4 goals to mirror his 2008 MLS season. He was released at the end of the year, and has since left the game to become a State Farm agent.

 

Verdict: Undoubted Success

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Moffat / Chabala & Palmer”]

Adam Moffat clocked a grand total of 239 days with the Timbers, four substitute appearances and a sum of 100 game minutes before being traded away to Houston Dynamo for two defensive players, Mike Chabala and Lovel Palmer.

It was another move, like the McCarty deal, that made some sense in the context of the time. Jeremy Hall wasn’t doing enough to justify his place in the team at right back, and on the other flank Rodney Wallace was frustrating all and sundry.

Palmer and Chabala would bolster the squad at right and left back respectively and give, as Wilkinson explained, “more depth at the back and more options.”

The industrious Moffat had found himself unable to break into the side thanks to the coach’s preference for Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara in the middle.

A tough-tackling defensive midfielder, the Scot brought aggression and passion to the pitch, but also knew what to do with the ball when we got it with a good range of passing.

He’d been Portland’s third pick in the expansion draft after coming to the States in 2007 and establishing himself at Columbus Crew despite a serious knee injury early on.

In trading Moffat away, along with a chunk of allocation money, the Timbers bolstered their defence with two experienced players.

Chabala had already played for the Timbers in 2006, when loaned out by the Dynamo. Though much of his time in Houston was on the periphery of the team, 2010 saw him clock up a career high 22 starts. 2011 had seen him return to the fringes, and he had only 2 starts under his belt before being moved on.

Palmer had been a regular for the Dynamo since moving there in 2010 from his native Jamaica. Able to play at full back or defensive midfield, it was in the former role he would establish himself at Portland.

It would be fair to say he’s not won a great deal of admirers among Timbers fans who have wearied of his wayward distribution and ball control. Coach Spencer moved him into midfield this year, and that switch coincided with a marked improvement in defence albeit with a sense that Palmer in midfield carries the cost of curtailing the club’s creativity in attack.

Meanwhile, Moffat no-nonsense style has proved a hit with fans in Houston. He would return to haunt Portland with a screamer from distance when the clubs met a couple of months after the move.

I can’t help but ruefully shake my head when I see Palmer play the role for Portland that Moffat excels in with Houston and think that, even in a 2-for-1 deal, we got the shitty end of the stick.

 

Verdict: Failure. But only just.

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Hall / Alexander”]

As already mentioned, Jeremy Hall had joined the Timbers from New York Red Bulls before the expansion draft, making him the first MLS trade the club had made.

Hall had been in New york since being drafted in the first-round in 2009. A strong debut season boded well for the athletic right-back, but his form tailed off and he found his opportunities limited in his second year.

Though he was quickly installed as first choice for the Timbers, he was a frustrating player to watch. He had fantastic pace, and a willingness to break forward at every opportunity, delivering three assists and getting nine shots at goal – impressive numbers for a full back.

The problem was his willingness to get forward at EVERY opportunity. He was often caught out of position and seemed to lack the defensive awareness his position demanded.

His relatively large salary – around $129,000 – made it difficult to justify so much money being spent of a player who clearly wasn’t living up to expectations. The writing was on the wall with acquisition of Lovel Palmer to play in the same position.

Hall’s time as a Timber came to an end in August when he was traded to FC Dallas for Eric Alexander.

Alexander had been a factor in McCarty being unprotected in the expansion draft, so it was somewhat of a surprise to find Schellas Hyndman willing to let him go, even with the deal sweetened by Portland picking up some of Hall’s salary for the rest of the year.

No-one was more surprised than Alexander himself, but Hyndman’s reasoned that the signing of Daniel Cruz in midfield left them overstocked in that area yet light in defence.

In Alexander the Timbers gained a hard-working, versatile midfielder who carried a salary of less than half that of Hall’s.

Eric has struggled to pin down a starting place for Portland since the move, and has fallen foul of Coach Spencer’s high standards but, despite this, he remains fairly popular with fans, thanks in no small part to his play this season.

Despite being 10th in terms of playing time, he leads the club in assists, and is third for shots taken (591 mins, 3 assists, 13 shots).

Hall, on the other hand, had a torrid time at Dallas. He failed to win over the fans, and even Hyndman later expressed regret about the move.

To be fair, he carried an injury during his time at Dallas which limited his mobility before being traded to Toronto FC where he promptly got injured in preseason. Having only recently returned to action, he played a part in Toronto’s first league win of the season.

Despite Alexander’s lack of first team action even Dallas fans would agree that Portland got by far the better end of this trade.

 

Verdict: Success

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Cooper”]

Though strictly not a trade in the sense of the other deals in this list, it would be remiss of me not to address Kenny Cooper here.

Cooper joined the club from 1860 Munich with high hopes, and Wilkinson raving that the striker was “a great signing” who added experience and a goal scoring pedigree to the attack.

It’s hard to find fault with Wilkinson as Cooper had scored 40 times in 90 regular season matches for FC Dallas before joining 1860 Munich midway through the 2009 MLS season.

Though Cooper struggled to find form in Europe, Timbers fans were still excited by the prospect of him leading the line with over 40% predicting a goal haul in double figures in an online poll.

In the end Cooper never seemed at home in Portland, and would score only 8 times in 34 matches, marking his poorest year in MLS. Those figures get thrown into stark relief by Cooper’s 11 goals in 13 games since being traded to New York Red Bulls in exchange for a first-round 2013 draft pick.

Cooper’s shot accuracy also dipped to 38%, while it averaged 50% across all other years

The reasons for Cooper’s failure to find the net consistently at Portland are hard to pin down. He often seemed without a real purpose or clear idea of his role, and would drift ineffectually all over the pitch in search of the ball, disappearing out of matches like a namesake DB from the back of a Boeing 727.

Despite rare flashes of the potent finisher he could be, the overriding memory of Cooper as a Timber is one of frustration, fans and player alike.

Cooper’s travails are perhaps best encapsulated by an incident in a match against DC United where he had a meltdown from 12 yards. He missed twice from retaken penalties before Jewsbury stepped up to score, and would later be subbed. He was never quite the same player afterwards.

His resurgence at New York, which has seen him touted for international honours, has been a talking point among Timbers fans. Some point the finger at Spencer’s tactics as having doomed Cooper to fail, whilst others see the greater talents – Thierry Henry, Joel Lindepere and, ahem, Dax McCarty to name but three – around him in New York as the real answer.

Cooper’s year in Portland is an example of “right man, wrong place”. It underlines the fact that simply going out and buying the “best” isn’t always the right move if that player isn’t suited to how the club play, or vice versa.

The coaching staff never seemed to be able to bring out the best in Cooper and his role as totemic front man has been taken up this year by Kris Boyd, a striker who broke records back in his native Scotland.

Boyd currently has 4 goals in 12 matches.

 

Verdict: Kenny Flopping Cooper

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Perlaza / Mwanga”]

All of which brings us to the most recent trade. Jorge Perlaza, a polarizing and frustrating player at times, traded to Philadelphia Union for Danny Mwanga.

Clearly it’s too early to call on whether this is a good deal. Perlaza saw a little time towards the end of the Union’s defeat to DC United, though Perlaza did score in a friendly. Having been burnt on seemingly “good deals” before, most fans are wisely taking a wait-and-see approach.

Perlaza’s contribution to the cause was recognised by most Timbers fans, but few shed tears to see the Colombian leave, despite him scoring the first goal at JELD-WEN Field. A record of only 6 goals in 41 matches simply wasn’t enough.

I’ve written in the past about the value I think Perlaza brought to the team, but I can also recognise the sense in this trade. The team are struggling for goals – only Chivas USA have scored fewer in the Western Conference – and a fresh impetus up top may provide the spark they need.

In Mwanga, that spark is a 20 year old, 6’2” striker who hit the MLS at full speed in his first season, scoring seven times in his first 14 appearances. A refugee from DR Congo who had settled in Oregon, he had been drafted first by the Union in 2010.

It would certainly seem on that early evidence that Portland have got the better end of the deal, but the trade is not without its risks.

Since that early burst, Mwanga has found goals and game time under Piotr Nowak hard to come by. Niggling injuries have hampered him, and when he has played it’s often be out of position, or from the bench as Nowak focused on defence over attack.

The trade that saw Sebastien Le Toux join Vancouver Whitecaps this year meant Mwanga lost the one player he seemed to have an intuitive understanding with, and he’s cut a forlorn figure this year, with no goals in his 11 matches.

Worryingly for Timbers fans, if Mwanga’s early form for the Union was taken out of the equation his record is five goals in 47 appearances (526 minutes per goal) – one fewer goal than Perlaza, who’d played six fewer matches (440 minutes per goal).

The change in scenery may do both players the world of good. Certainly Mwanga has looked a lot happier since the trade, and has talked of his return to his “hometown”.

Perlaza’s situation is a little more difficult to read following Nowak’s recent departure, but given the chance he could yet shine away from Portland as Cooper has.

 

Verdict: Time will tell…

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Overall”]

It wouldn’t be fair to say the front office has outright failed in it’s transfer dealings, and neither has it been a roaring success. The truth is there’s been a mix of the good, the bad and the indifferent.

From the ten players selected in the expansion draft, only one has racked up any meaningful first team action – Eric Brunner. Six never kicked a ball for the club with four – McCarty, Wallace, Arturo Alvarez (to Real Salt Lake for a second-round draft pick) and Jordan Graye (to Houston for a fourth-round 2014 draft pick) – traded away and two – Robbie Findley and Jonathan Bornstein – who had left the league.

In terms of moves outwith MLS there’s been tendency to go for almost exclusively Colombian and Scottish targets. Colombians make up the largest non-American bloc in the league and the Timbers have played their part in pushing that number up.

Diego Chara has been a mainstay in the Timbers midfield, and is popular with with fans for his rambunctious style on the pitch. Jorge Perlaza wrote himself into the history books with the club’s first home MLS goal, if not the hearts of the support.

This year has seen three Colombians join – Jose Adolfo Valencia, Sebastián Rincón and Hanyer Mosquera.

Valencia is a huge prospect, but unlikely to see any game time until 2013 due to injury. Rincón is young and skillful, but hasn’t yet got his chance during his loan spell.

Of the three, Mosquera is the one that’s made the immediate impact. He’s a huge presence in the heart of defence and, if he can continue to improve, will undoubtedly prove himself one of the best centre-backs in the league.

Steven Smith joined Boyd, his ex-Rangers teammate, at the end of April following a spell in England. A bustling left-back, his signing has seemed to edge Wallace closer to the door. Rumours swirl linking Portland to a move to another ex-Rangers player, Kenny Miller, but are, as yet, unsubstantiated.

The move to sign Boyd was a big deal. Signed as a designated player, he represents a large financial undertaking. Goals haven’t exactly flowed as yet, and there are some fans who wonder if they will. I still have confidence that he’ll find his feet before too long.

The worry is that the Timbers are often limited in scope when it comes to transfer targets, and don’t seem to address the problems the squad clearly has.

The lack of a natural attacking midfielder has been glaring for some time, and the team still have problems at right back, where Jewsbury has been filling in.

If this article were to be written last year, getting Jewsbury from Kansas City would’ve been viewed a stunning success. Jewsbury had been a solid, if unspectacular, part of Kansas City’s midfield, but during those early months of 2011 he was transformed into a set-piece specialist and driving force behind the Timbers. He delivered eight assists and seven goals in 31 matches, defying all expectations of him.

However, 2012 has seen a regression to the mean. His overall play has slumped, yet there seems a reluctance from John Spencer to drop the man he installed as captain, preferring to fit him in at right back instead.

The recent move to sign Mike Fucito, another striker, from Montreal Impact also confuses me. Is another striker really what the team needs at this point? I’ve no doubt Fucito will give his all, and he’s certainly looked eager in the little game time he’s had so far, but what is the front office’s overall strategy here?

And that is my concern.

At times it seems like there’s no guiding principle as to how the Timbers are working their trades. My own sense is that John Spencer and Gavin Wilkinson seem to have different ideas on the kind of squad they want, and this is leading to there being “Spencer players” and “Wilkinson players” on the roster, with very little overlap in that particular Venn diagram.

The transfer window remains open for some time, and the season is young, so the Timbers can still turn it around and reach the play-offs. The next few weeks will be very interesting in Soccer City USA.

[/learn_more]

 

What do you think? Have the Timbers trade dealings worked for you, or not?

Sound off below.

Timbers’ Galaxy Quest

LA Galaxy host Portland Timbers for the second time this season with neither team in sparkling form, though the Timbers can at least point to an unbeaten month of May after 3 draws and the win against Chicago. LA’s form has been little short of catastrophic, with only 1 win in the 8 MLS matches since they defeated the Timbers 3-1 in April. They’ve lost the last three, as well as losing to Carolina Railhawks in the US Open Cup.

Bah, the Open Cup…

How the Timbers react to their defeat to Cal FC will be one of the big questions hanging over the side. The sour taste that the defeat left in the mouths of fans has lingered, and both players and fans will be looking for a palate cleansing victory this weekend.

During the break the Timbers have added Danny Mwanga to the side, sending Jorge Perlaza to Philadelphia, and you would expect that Mwanga will be in line for a debut against LA. The developing partnership of Mwanga and Boyd will be an interesting one to watch.

LA Galaxy Team Problems

The Timbers have every right to feel that this is a very winnable match. They aren’t facing the same team that swept to an MLS Cup triumph last year. This LA will have lost Robbie Keane to international duty, are nursing a long injury list and have Mike Magee and Michael Stephens suspended as well as Landon Donovan publicly expressing his ennui. Also is not well at Beckham FC, and Bruce Arena has had to fend off talk of dressing room unrest.

This will force the Galaxy into a number of changes in line-up, with Keane, Buddle and Cristman all likely to miss out. Chad Barrett has started the last couple of matches with Edson Buddle, so it would seem likely he would lead the line against Portland, with the veteran ex-Sounder Pat Noonan also an option, though he has only started one of his nine appearances this season. Jack McBean, only 17, is an option but unlikely to be start. If Juninho makes it, I’d expect a front three of Nakazawa, Barrett and Donovan – assuming he’s fit to go after a raft of international matches – to start, with Beckham behind and Juninho and Sarvas providing the steel in midfield.

Magee’s suspension is a blow for them, but Kyle Nakazawa is an able deputy on the left. Nakazawa will be no stranger to Danny Mwanaga having been team mates at Philadelphia (Mwanga even contributed an assist to a Nakazawa goal last season), and he possesses a threat from set plays, assuming Beckham lets him take any.

The midfield battle

A big key point for LA will be whether Juninho makes it. Juninho is very much the heart of the engine room for the Galaxy, and his absence is usually sorely felt. His box-to-box, all action hustle allows Beckham to play a more advanced central role where his long passing and shooting can be more effective.

Though very much in the twilight of his career, Beckham’s ability to spread the play around will keep the Timbers back line stretched. The flashes of old brilliance are coming at ever-increasing intervals these days, but the Timbers won’t need any reminding about what he can do if given time and space 30 yards from goal.

Having Juninho and Sarvas in the centre also takes away some of the defensive responsibility from the ageing underwear model, which is probably just as well as it’s certainly not his strong suit.

There was a sense that Marcelo Sarvas had been signed from LD Alajuelense to replace his countryman Juninho, before the Brazilian was signed on a third year-long loan deal the following month. Though his playing time has been limited, Sarvas has done reasonably well when given the chance in a Diego Chara-esque role.

Winning this midfield battle will be difficult. The Galaxy have a number of ways they can go – Beckham may play out wide in a 4-4-2, or they can put 3 in the middle in a 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 set up. Diego Chara’s ability to disrupt play is important, but whoever is alongside him will have to help out defensively to stop Chara being outnumbered by an onrushing Juninho, or Donovan/Nakazawa coming in from the flanks.

Donovan’s Threat

Though his form for LA has been below par Donovan remains a threat, coming in from wide or from deep with late runs, as the Timbers found out to their cost in the last match between the teams when he equalised just before half time. Given his talismanic status with the Galaxy, it’s unsurprising that he’s often given license to roam and this can make him difficult to track. He’ll also drop deep to pick up the ball and can, with a pass and move, set off quick attacking moves, as Colorado found out to their cost this season.

In Defence

The Timbers’ new-found defensive solidity will be put to the test. They have lost only 2 goals in 4, and kept 3 clean sheets in the past 6, so there’s every reason for a degree of confidence even though Troy Perkins has had come up huge a number of times for the team. Concentration will be key, and it’s vital that Chara gets support in the midfield to help protect the defence.

Hanyer Mosquera has also proven himself to be an astute piece of business. The heart of the defence at this point is certainly Mosquera & A. N. Other. His robust style sets the tone at the back, but his tendency to come out of defence and ball chase can leave gaps – the kind of spaces that a Barrett or Donovan love to find.

In the Galaxy they’ll face a defence that have often shown the same levels of competence as Alexi Lalas does footballing insight. Without Omar Gonzales to marshal the backline, it’s been seat-of-the-pants time for Galaxy fans. Almost every goal can be attributed to an individual mistake, or poor defensive co-ordination.

Goalie Josh Saunders will likely be back for his first start since the 2-1 win against Colorado, having played in the reserve match against the Timbers at the start of the month. The 3 wins LA have this year have all come with Saunders between the sticks, but the goals against average hasn’t changed much – in fact, it’s been marginally lower without Saunders – 1.57 from 1.67, or a goal every ten games or so.

He’s likely to be behind a back four of Dunivant, Lopes, DeLaGarza and Franklin. AJ DeLaGarza formed a good understanding with Gonzales last season, but this year he’s had more partners than Newt Gingrich, and failed to find chemistry with any of them. It’s likely that ex-Chivas man David Junior Lopes will start against Portland, with Lopes and DeLaGarza playing together four times this season – the most of any Galaxy centre-back twosomes.

Something In The Air…

DeLaGarza’s lack of height – he’s only 5’9 – is also a problem that teams have sought to take advantage of. With that in mind, getting good delivery in from the flanks has proven very fruitful for opponents this season.

DeLaGarza isn’t at fault in the centre here, but he does allows his man too much space to get turned and get a cross in, and by putting it between defenders, Sene is given the relatively simple job of nodding the ball home. The lack of a dominant presence at the back such as Gonzales really shows in this area, as no-one takes it upon themselves to attack the ball.

Here Gaul doesn’t close down Rosales, preferring to concentrate on the outside runner, while Donovan shows a lackadaisical attitude to getting back. The cross from deep is well measured to miss out the 6’3 Lopes at the front post, and let Eddie Johnson go up against the smaller DeLaGarza.

The Back Post

Taking “the big man” out of the equation and isolating DeLaGarza or the fullbacks has been a recurring theme for the Galaxy.

Again, it’s a far post cross, and Kamara reads it better than Franklin for a simple header, and even if Franklin didn’t have a brainfart, you’d put money on Kamara beating him to the ball anyway.

Neither first choice full-back for the Galaxy have covered themselves in glory this season. Their attacking play has carried any great potency, and their defensive work has often left a lot to be desired. It’s almost as if it’s not that easy a position to play.

It may be a result of the loss of Gonzales’ influence and organisation, but whatever the cause for the dip in form, both full-backs are playing like players not entirely sure of their jobs and with little confidence in the rest of their defensive team mates.  They’ve had real problems defending the channels, and a switched-on attacker can find himself in acres of space with a well-timed forward pass.

Timbers Attacking

The biggest problem the Timbers have faced isn’t shutting out the opposition, it’s putting the ball in the net. They’ve netted only 4 times in the 6 matches since the loss to Galaxy, and half of those were own-goals.

Given the way that Spencer has relentlessly had the Timbers playing – direct from back to front, get it wide – it almost seems like the Galaxy’s weakness at full back, and soft centre, are tailor made for the Timbers to shine.

In a way, given the weakness out wide this is almost the perfect match for the running of Perlaza. His channel running would cause the full-backs headaches, allowing the outside players to get space for the cross. Mwanga though has that ability, combined with a bit more of a physical presence.

With Boyd and Mwanga both likely to start – and 6’1 and 6’2 respectively – the height is there to really challenge the Galaxy defence, providing the delivery is good. Too often the Timbers have been wasteful from wide areas, but have in Sal Zizzo and Kalif Alhassan two guys who can measure a cross. But they also have guys like Mike Chabala who has an almost vampiric fear of a good cross, preferring the hit and hope and fail method.

Though neither Boyd or Mwanga are particularly dominant in the air, both would fancy their chances against the fullbacks or DeLaGarza. Indeed, DeLaGarza’s weakness in the air is something the team and player himself are all too aware of.

There is a tendency for the defence to drop a little deeper to try and limit the effectiveness of long balls forward for big strikers to win flick-ons, but this leaves this exposed to cross balls into dangerous areas as players are able to attack the ball 6 yards from goal.

The temptation may be to pump the ball long and look to win the second ball on knock-downs against DeLaGarza from which could allow the Timbers to get good possession in dangerous areas and keep the attack moving, with the outside midfielders getting forward to offer through balls in the channels between centre and full backs or a pass out wide, but they may find themselves thwarted in this by the presence in those areas of Sarvas and/or Juninho.

Late Game Jitters

Whichever teams holds it’s late game nerve could well come out on top. In April it was the Galaxy who grabbed a couple of late goals for the win and Timbers fans are all to aware of the teams late game performance. There hasn’t been a record as abject as the Timbers in the last 20 minutes since Paris Hilton got delusions of musical adequacy.

While the Galaxy have also suffered late in matches, conceding over half their goals in the final 30 minutes, they also score a lot late on – 60% of the goals they’ve scored this year have come in the final 30.

Both teams have thrown away leads late in matches, so the mental toughness of both XI’s are likely to be tested here. The Galaxy’s poor home form, coupled with fans unrest, could work to the Timbers advantage if they can get themselves ahead and frustrate the hosts and turn the crowd against their heroes.

Timbers Selection

With Futty on international duty with The Gambia, and Eric Brunner a doubt, it looks like David Horst will partner Hanyer Mosquera at the back. Horst didn’t cover himself in glory at the Cal FC goal, but no-one really came out of that game with credit. Steven Smith is taking his time getting back, and with Wallace picking up a knock it might mean a start for Mike Chabala at left back, with Jewsbury likely to continue at right back.

Given the emphasis I’ve placed on getting good delivery in from wide areas, I am worried about having Chabala’s Comically Catastrophic Crossing Cavalcade down the wing, but I do like him matched against Landon Donovan or David Beckham as I feel his defensive game is much more his strength.

In midfield Diego Chara is a lock, hopefully at central midfield, though you can never be sure. Out wide there’s Sal Zizzo, Kalif Alhassan, Franck Songo’o and Eric Alexander all competing for a spot. Personally, I’d go with Alhassan and Zizzo, but Zizzo’s impact as a sub may be something Spencer wants to hold in reserve until later in the game. I worry that going with Alhassan and Songo’o out wide, given both these guys’ propensity for dribbling inside, could leave our distinctly-not-first-choice full backs exposed to a double team as Franklin and Dunivant are allowed to break forward without worry.

Nagbe will likely start in his midfield/attacker role with Mwanga and Boyd up top, though I wouldn’t be shocked to see Mwanga start from the bench, with Nagbe partnering Boyd and possibly Alexander in midfield with Chara. I wouldn’t be entirely happy, but not shocked either. Brent Richards did reasonably well when he came on against Cal FC, and has done well for the reserves this year, but I doubt we’ll see Spencer drop any of the “proven” players to give Richards a debut in the back yard of the Champions.

Conclusion

All this being said, I’m feeling pretty confident about Portland’s chances on Sunday. While the Timbers have their own concerns and players missing, there’s a sense that finally the important players are coming back into the team. That’s not the sense you get from LA, who have Keane missing, Donovan’s form slumping and Beckham not getting any younger.

It’s been far too long to make amends after the Open Cup débâcle, and I’m sure the players are itching to prove that result an aberration.

If the Timbers defence can stick to their task and stay focused, then the foundations are there for the win. The LA defence is nothing to be feared. Pressure applied to the flanks with strong, dynamic play from the strikers could kick open the doors. If Real Salt Lake can beat Chivas at the same ground the night before, Spencer’s boys will know a win will put them up into 6th, with the play-offs firmly in sight.

#RCTID

The New Mwanga

The Timbers took advantage of an extended mid-season break to engineer a trade with fellow strugglers Philadelphia Union which saw Jorge Perlaza leave Portland, and a homecoming of sorts for Danny Mwanga, who made a similar trip to his old strike partner Sebastien Le Toux, who left in preseason, to the Pacific Northwest.

It’s an interesting move by the Timbers front office. In retrospect it’s not hard to see that Perlaza was the obvious trade bait on the squad. He’s a guy who’s underappreciated by a large section of fans – so unlikely to cause uproar by being sent away – but clearly has enough about him for those within the game to value him highly. He’s experienced, tough, cheap, hard working and will fit right in at Philly, where he has a number of fellow countryman around him.

There’s always been a sense that Perlaza has never quite fitted in to John Spencer’s system, which seemed to be predicated on a staunch belief in the Big Guy/Little Guy front two pairing, with guys getting wide to rifle cross after cross into the box for them to feed off. Except that Perlaza was never going to be the “fox in the box” that Spencer was in his heyday, and so never really fit in. Perlaza often seemed to be the facilitator of attacking play, rather than the focus or the fulcrum.

I was, and still am, a big fan of his and having written a couple of articles highlighting his positive features I pretty much got tagged the Perlaza Guy on twitter. Yet, I only wrote those features as i felt Perlaza was being often unfairly criticised, and I appreciated what he brought to the team. Yet, for some, he didn’t score “enough” and was never going to win them round.

In bringing in Mwanga, the Timbers have traded one striker who doesn’t score, for another who is in a deep goalscoring slump. It’s now over 22 hours of MLS football since Danny Mwanga last found the back of the net. Almost 14 hours for Perlaza, for those that are keeping count. Though they have at least shaved 7 years off, and at no extra cost to the club.

This year has been something of a slog for the Congolese striker. Without Le Toux, who joined Vancouver, Mwanga has found chances few and far between. Only five shots in his nine appearances.

It’s a worrying dip in his production.

Last year saw Mwanga start fewer matches than he had in his debut season (from 50% of regular season games to 38%), but he saw more on-field minutes and he was taking more shots than ever, and getting more on target, yet he found the net less often. This year has seen fewer shots, lower accuracy and no goals.

In many ways, it makes this the ideal time to get Mwanga. There’s no doubting his, apologies in advance for invoking the “P word”, potential but it’s clearly not working out for him at Philadelphia and a change is best for both parties.

Despite this slump, many Union fans bemoaned the loss of the 20 year old, who was the club’s very first draft pick in 2010. A common complaint is that Mwanga suffered through Piotr Novak failing to allow the player a consistent run of games, and playing him out of position.

Timbers fans can feel free to go sit in a darkened room for a few minutes right now, having read that.

Because, you know, Mwanga now finds himself at a club that utilises players to their strengths and plays them where they’re most comfortable.

Yeah.

The worry is that Mwanga, much like Kris Boyd, is a big guy and the temptation is to think of him as a target man, which he isn’t. Sure, like Boyd, he’ll win his fair share of flick-ons, but expecting him to be a dominant presence in the air is only setting yourself up for disappointment and the player himself for a frustrating time.

Given Spencer’s love of the “direct game”, having two big guys up top does worry me that the temptation to rely on launched balls towards the opposing box will be overpowering. Mind you, given the dearth of attacking creative options in midfield – something fans have been crying out to be rectified – perhaps this is the club’s way of fixing the problem? Poor attacking play from midfield? No problem, we’ll just bypass them altogether.

It doesn’t have to be that way though as Mwanga and Boyd can compliment each other well. Whereas Boyd is very much the penalty box striker, Mwanga’s best work is outside the box. He’s big and strong and so can hold the ball up and bring others into play.

Having him in the same XI as Darlington Nagbe will be interesting as they play in a similar way, with Mwanga perhaps possessing a little more of the predatory instinct.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see Spencer line up with Nagbe and Mwanga both operating in the space behind Boyd. This is a position Mwanga has often played for the Union.

Nagbe’s running with the ball, and Mwanga’s ability to hold up and good close control could work well together. Mwanga’s not shy to try his luck from distance either as this picture plotting a number of shots from a random selection of matches shows.

Having the ability to test the keeper from distance can be an important attacking attribute for a team. A long-standing criticism of Barcelona was their lack of a good long-shooter meant that teams could bunker down and defend deep knowing that Barcelona lacked someone who was going to put it on frame from 25-30 yards.

Of course, Barcelona are good enough that they can still play through most teams, but the Timbers aren’t. Teams know they can press the flanks, and keep it tight and deep at the back and there’s often little we can do to counter it.

Good first touch and close control allows Mwanga to get away from his man and get a shot in.

Someone like Mwanga, who can sting the keeper’s gloves from 30 yards, will force defenders to close him down. That opens up space for a Boyd, Nagbe or Alhassan to wreak havoc. Often it’s just the threat of knowing what someone is capable of that will force the opposition to act in a way that can be exploited.

It’s like when you know someone on the other side is a free kick specialist. You’re going to be that little more cautious when tackling around your own box, and that momentary hesitation could be all a team needs to find a pass, or get a shot off that can hurt you.

To be brutally honest, that wasn’t something Perlaza offered. Teams knew Perlaza would run all day and stretch defences, but he wasn’t a dribbler or a guy who’s going to sling one at goal from 35 yards. Let him run down dead ends, force him back and shut off the space and he can be neutralised. He’s not going to offer that other dimension that Mwanga can.

It’s not just link-up play, or shooting from deep, that Mwanga brings to the table. He’s quick, and an intelligent player. He knows how to time his runs and if guys like Chara, Alexander and Alhassan can get on his wavelength all the better for the Timbers.

Only some good pressure applied by Wynne denies Mwanga a clean shot at goal here, but few defenders can match the Colorado man for pace.

Though he can play in that reserved attacking role, often his more effective, direct work comes when he plays up top. Though he’s actually a year younger than Nagbe, I’d hope there’s much Nagbe can pick up from Mwanga in how to play that position.

Good positional awareness and intelligence means he’ll give defenders a headache wherever he’s playing up top.

On his game, he’s an exceptionally difficult opponent to face. Let him drop off and he can get a shot in; go with him and he can spin you, or use his good close control to take you out the game with a touch or a pass. He’s a multi-dimensional option up front for a team that have often seemed entirely one-dimensional in its play.

The big issue with Mwanga is his current form and seeming lack of confidence.

A lack of starts and chemistry with his fellow attackers have seen his head drop. A confident striker in the grab above would have looked to get beyond the defender and get a shot away. A striker lacking in confidence will look to take the easy way out. There’s never any sense that Mwanga believes he can push the line and get in behind.

Getting Mwanga in his groove again will be key. He is no stranger to Portland, having settled there in 2006 after fleeing DR Congo, and playing college soccer for OSU Beavers. The move to Portland gets Mwanga out of a club situation that clearly wasn’t working, and into an environment he should be more comfortable with. This should help.

Getting him game time and building his understanding with Boyd and Nagbe will take time, but could reap rich rewards.

The big question fans will be asking though is will he bring goals. It would be easy to check out his highlight reel and declare Mwanga the answer to all Timbers problems but as any fan who has youtubed (is that even a verb? I guess I could google it) the club’s hot new signing to see videos that show he’s Pele reborn, only to find the reality is a numpty who can barely put one foot in front of another can tell you, it’s easy to cut together a player’s best bits and make him look, well, the best.

The Timbers have sorely lacked for them this season, but I think patience will be key with Mwanga. He’s a young lad still, and he’s had a torrid time over the past year or so. It’ll take time to get him firing again, but I’m optimistic about the prospect of a Mwanga/Boyd pairing.

I wish Perlaza all the best and hope he finds a happy home in Philadelphia, but he is the past now. Danny Mwanga is the future, and the future looks bright.

The Assistant

The recent English Premier League season ended with a promoted former-assistant at the helm of two of the relegated clubs – Steven Kean at Blackburn Rovers and Terry Connor at Wolves. Both had good coaching reputations, but neither could prevent their side from going down

It’s always interesting to see how assistants do when given the reins. It’s very much a sink or swim situation. Kean and Connor are the latest in a line of sinkers.

Brian Kidd is one of the highest profile sinkers. He had been assistant to Alex Ferguson and instrumental in bringing through some of the prodigous talent that propelled United to the top of European football, but when he took over as Blackburn manager in 1998, he prompted got Rovers relegated. Kidd is now back in his best role, behind the scenes, at Manchester City.

Another name that could be considered as a managerial flop is Carlos Queiroz. Not a bad manager, he found some success,and a number of high profile appointments, but there’s no doubting that Queiroz’s most successful spell came as assistant to Sir Alex. His recent appointment as manager of Iran certainly suggests that he won’t be bothering the upper echelons of the footballing pantheon any time soon.

Not all Number 2’s go on to fail when given the top job, of course. Bob Paisley faced the seemingly impossible task of replacing the legendary Bill Shankly at Liverpool. He swam, winning six league titles and three European cups. Not strictly an assistant, Pep Guardiola was a promotion from within at Barcelona, taking over the top job after a year in charge of the B team. It’s a trick Barça want to repeat following the appointment of Guardiola’s assistant, Tito Vilanova, to take over from him from next season.

As a Killie fan, I could also mention Kenny Shiels as doing a great job since taking over from Mixu Paatelainen, leading the club to a comfortable league position and a League Cup triumph.

The reason that all this occurred to me was that as the Timbers have struggled this year under the guidance of John Spencer, a lot of fans have voiced the thought that perhaps Spencer is an example of someone who makes a better assistant than a manager. A sinker.

Spenny had a few years as Dominic Kinnear’s assistant at Houston Dynamo before being chosen by Timbers owner Merritt Paulson to take over in the club’s first year in MLS. Paulson has always emphasised the long term nature of Spencer’s appointment, and the “project” they’re embarking on, but it’s hard to imagine he’s not been bitterly disappointed with the way the Timbers’ second season had unfolded.

Unlike a Guardiola or Paisley, or even Shiels, Spencer hasn’t served his “apprenticeship” in-house. Coming in from relative obscurity at Houston, he’s been thrown in at the deep end with a club whose fanbase is fanatical and fervent, to say the least.

Inexperience is a common theme at the Timbers. From a manager with no managerial experience, to a General Manager with no MLS experience and a young owner who’d be the first to admit soccer was never his first love.

Given all this, you might expect that Spencer would’ve been backed up by an experienced number two. Last season Trevor James had served as back-up to Spencer. James had five years of experience within the LA Galaxy set-up, but his tenure at the club lasted only a year.

This year has seen Cameron Knowles join Amos Magee – an assistant to then-manager, now General Manager, Gavin Wilkinson, during the Timbers USL days. The appointment is Knowles’ first coaching job following his retirement at the end of last season. He’s another with a Wilkinson connection, having played under him for the USL Timbers.

To go back to Alex Ferguson briefly, he has given a masterclass in how to utilise assistants over the years. The role of assistant manager is a hard one to quantify.

To paint in broad strokes, the role is to be a guiding voice to the manager, and a bridge from manager to players. Within those outlines, there’s much more to the role. He can be the guy who’s on the training ground every day, such as Kevin Bond at Spurs, or he can fulfil the roles and duties the manager doesn’t want to, as Sir Alex’s assistants have done for years when the grumpy Scot wasn’t talking to the BBC.

Rather than just throw his assistants in front of the post-match cameras, Ferguson has used the role to develop his club into a forward-thinking operation. The key to how Fergie has managed to stay on top for so long without going stale could be the way he changes assistants periodically to bring in a fresh approach.

Queiroz brought a continental, technical style to the club – he’s widely credited with the club’s adoption of the 4-5-1/4-3-3 – whilst Steve McClaren modernised with a pioneering use of sports psychology and in-depth analytical technology.

What fresh ideas and approaches Knowles and Magee bring to the club is hard to tell without being on the training ground every day. Given the tactical naivety shown by Spencer at times over his tenure, it does seem like he misses an “old head” to provide guidance.

This lack of experience – from assistants, to manager, general manger and all the way up to club owner – is thrown into stark relief by the team up the road.

Seattle Sounders, in contrast to the Timbers, installed a vastly experienced head coach in Sigi Schmid, and they hit the ground running with successive US Open Cup triumphs that have kept the customers in rave green and bule suitably smug.

Travelling a little further north, Vancouver Whitecaps somewhat mirrored the Timbers when they appointed a relatively inexperienced Scot, Martin Rennie, as head coach (though he had held the top job at a number of lower league clubs), but made sure he had experience such as ex-DC United head coach Tom Soehn as Director of Soccer Operations to lean on.

It’s hard to tell if Spencer himself is is a sinker, or his Wilkinsonite support network within the club hasn’t been able to give him proper guidance. Given I’m relatively new to the Timbers, I don’t feel I have the authority to go over Wilkinson’s role in the Timbers’ struggles, but if there’s anyone out there who wants to give it a go, please do get in touch.

Very few first time managers hit the ground running and deliver immediate results, and it’s often the case that relatively inexperienced managers are given a more experienced assistant to help them out.

Even a legend such as Arsene Wenger, who lacked playing “credentials”, had the “football man” Pat Rice as assistant, until Rice’s recent retirement. Spencer certainly doesn’t lack for credentials having had an illustrious career in the UK and US, nor does he lack for confidence, but something is certainly missing.

Following the ignominious defeat to Cal FC, there are no matches for the Timbers for almost two weeks, when they will travel to face LA Galaxy. Despite having a team packed with quality and experience, Beckham FC prop up the Western Conference. I hope to have an in-depth look at them in the next week or so.

Timbers gu bràth

The Abyss

Where to start?

Oh I know. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuucking hell.

Okay, that’s out of the way, moving on.

So, the US Open Cup had already thrown up its fair share of upsets before Timbers took to the field to face Cal FC, an amateur side made up of ex-pros currently playing in the fifth tier. Cal FC already had a couple of notable scalps before rocking up to Jeld-Wen Field, and they were led by Eric Wynalda, a man who is to controversy what Eric Wynalda is to douchebaggery.

The worry was that Portland would send out a team of scrubs, get caught on the hop and suffer an embarrassing defeat but those concerns seemed to be alleviated when the squad announced was pretty much the regular starting XI. The Timbers were taking it seriously, and looking to send out a message that winning the cup was a major priority for them.

Unfortunately the Timbers would suffer a humiliation on a scale as yet unquantified by science.

A 1-0 defeat after extra time. To a team from the fifth tier. Oh, for fu-

It would be fair to say that the reaction on twitter was bugfucknuts. If #RCTID was a monkey enclosure, there would be shit EVERYWHERE.

The reaction is understandable. Passions run high in the heat of a shocking defeat. It hurts. It really, really hurts.

There are no excuses. We had the chances to win, we didn’t take them, we lost.

The fact is that the team played poorly. The first half was played at half-tempo, almost as if this was friendly. The Timbers looked like a team that expected to win. It was a certainty. Gonna happen. Any minute now. Just you wait and see. Written in the stars. Sure thing.

Chances came, chances went. No worries, there’s plenty more where they came from and one of them is bound to go in. Simple.

A brief flurry at the opening of the second half raised heartbeats a little, but soon the game slumped back into cruise control. When a penalty kick was won, it seemed that finally Cal FC’s resistance had been broken down. Truth is, for much of the second half, they looked like a team that had run themselves down to empty. The high pressing and in-your-face style of the first half had given away to a sit-back-and-wait approach, giving Timbers players an almost ludicrous amount of timer and space on the ball.

Kris Boyd buried the penalty in the corner of th… Wait, no. He absolutely murdered the ball, sending it sailing over the bar and, in doing so, let all the air out of Jeld-Wen Field.

Into extra-time, still pressing for the inevitable winner, the Timbers got caught on the break and Artur Aghasyan clipped it over Troy Perkins for what proved to be the actual winner.

I’m not going to make excuses for it. We were shit. All ends up, bad.

But I would say, divorced of the emotive knee-jerk reaction, there was a large slice of freakishness about the whole thing. The Timbers had an almost ludicrous amount of shots at goal. In fact, scratch that – not almost ludicrous, it was way beyond ludicrous. Over 40 attempts, 10 corners and a penalty kick. And still no goals.

The fact is, despite the angry lashing out on twitter, the Timbers still deserved to win this match. Yeah, it was horrible to watch, but they consistently outplayed their opponents, as you’d expect, but blew chance after chance and then let in one good chance at the other end on a break.

They weren’t “outplayed”, as some suggested. If anyone thinks the guys out there didn’t care about the match, or weren’t putting in their everything, they’ve never played sports at any kind of competitive level. No-one knew more clearly the disparity between the two teams positions than the players themselves, and there’s no way their professional or personal pride would accept anything other than a win. As they skulk out of Jeld-Wen tonight, you can be sure the players are hurting.

They lost on a freak result. An aberration.

If great chances hadn’t been missed by Perlaza (great timing on that article, huh? Though I’d still argue he was the best of a bad bunch in attack. But yeah, those misses. Baaad.), Boyd, Richards and Jewsbury to name just four, the result would’ve been vastly different. A half-yard here, a split-second there…

But, hey, it is what it is. Timbers lost and no amount of coulda-woulda rationalising will change that. The trolls will mock. The media will snigger. The fans will suffer.

We lost a match we should’ve won five times over, to a team we should be beating with relative ease. Big question will be asked in the wake of this.

How is left holding the blame when the music stops will be interesting. Will Gavin Wilkinson or John Spencer pay the price? Will it fall on a player or players to carry the can. After a result like this, the soul-searching almost invariably draws out a scapegoat. Someone to hang it all on. It was this guy. He fucked it up.

I don’t have the answers. Mistakes were made right across the board. I don’t think there is a The One to blame.

But, taking this match as part of the larger picture, there is a worrying trend emerging. This is a club that has so often looked like it’s lacked inspiration both on and off the field. I’ve already written about my concerns with Spencer, but to be fair to him there’s not much he can do about players passing up gilt-edged chance after chance when they cross the white line.

However, there’s no getting away from the fact that, a few bright spots aside, the football has been ugly this year. The strategy – get it wide, whip in a half-arsed cross for strikers to throw their hands in the air about when they don’t get a chance to attack it – hasn’t worked yet, but we keep doing it. We’re like the bee that keeps beating its head off the window in the belief that next time it won’t be there. We absolutely deserve to be where we are in the conference.

It may well be the problems lie higher up the totem pole. Whatever it is, something isn’t right. I could almost – ALMOST – shrug off a freak result like this if it had come in isolation, but it didn’t. This season is trending toward the basement, and that’s not where anyone wanted to be in Year Two. This was the year we were supposed to be looking up and ahead. Well, yeah, we are looking up but only to see just how far we’re slipping away.

The next few days will be interesting to see what happens, or not, at the club as the dust settles. Will heads roll? I’m not so sure, but equally I wouldn’t be surprised.

If ever a club needed a wake up call it’s this one, and they just got a firm jab to nuts. Where we go from here will make or break this year, and possibly a few careers.

#RCTID

The Intangible Man

I mentioned in my match report for the Vancouver match that there was more I’d have liked to write about Jorge Perlaza’s role in the match, but was limited by what I could illustrate thanks to Major League Soccer Soccer Dot Com’s pitiful match “highlights” package. Well, fortunately (or not…) I now have access to MLS Live, so let’s do this thing.

There’s no doubt that Perlaza is a player that will divide fans. I’m of the opinion that he’s a valuable asset to the team, and a great foil to Kris Boyd. Others will point to a poor shots-on-goal rate, or his erratic finishing and ask, what’s the point in a striker that doesn’t score goals?

I can’t really argue that point. He doesn’t score a lot. I don’t think that’s his strong suit, and I’m not going to waste anyone’s time by trying to make the case it is for contrarians sake.

I do believe that in that position he’s the best the Timbers have to offer (I haven’t seen enough of Fucito to comment on him, but I hope to see more from him) at the moment. The past handful of matches prior to the Whitecaps have seen Darlington Nagbe played as the partner to Boyd and I don’t think it’s been a happy marriage up top, despite a record of 1 win and 2 draws.

The issue for me is that I don’t feel that Nagbe is suited to the role and it negates many of his strengths and natural flair. Perlaza on the other hands, thrives in the role and, I feel, has a greater understanding with Boyd.

[Oops, this image is gone]

Finding a partner for Boyd is a vital piece in the puzzle for the Timbers. The Scot has always done his best work when he’s had a regular foil up top with him, be that Colin Nish at Kilmarnock, Steven Naismith at Killie and Rangers or Kenny Miller at Rangers and Scotland.

All these guys will stay close to Boyd, do a lot of the off-the-ball running into channels and opening space up, as well linking up the play to bring in others around Boyd to support him or feed the ball into his feet.

[Oops, this image is gone]

Time and again you notice the link-up play between Boyd and Perlaza. The flick-ons or little reverse balls come off here, where they weren’t with Nagbe. It’s not that Nagbe isn’t as good as Perlaza, he just doesn’t have that instinctive nous for the role, as yet. It’s similar to how Emile Heskey would bring out the best in Michael Owen. Owen was a fantastic striker on his own, but put Heskey alongside him and Owen’s game was lifted a notch. The benefit of having a good counterfoil and intuitive understanding.

As well as his link-up with Boyd, Perlaza also brings a pragmatism to the role. Like his compatriot Diego Chara, he’s not going to bring a lot of flash and dazzle. What he will bring is intelligent running, good possession play and a bridge between midfield and attack.

You can see in the above example that Perlaza picks up the ball on the edge of the box, but his first instinct isn’t to try and turn to get a shot off, it’s that Alexander’s overlapping run on the outside presents a better opportunity, so he retains possession by feed in the midfielder.

This is a feature of Perlaza’s game, and it’s perhaps why he doesn’t have the ratio of shots at goal you might expect from a striker. Sure, a greedier, less pragmatic striker might’ve tried to take a touch and fire in an early shot and maybe it flies into the top corner for a Goal of the Week contender, but 99 times out 100 he’s tackled and loses possession and the Timbers find themselves with players caught out of position on the break.

[Oops, this image is gone]

This passage, to me, is the essence of Jorge Perlaza. His running beyond Boyd gives the big guy an easy pass to make. It would’ve been easy for Perlaza to get his head down and try to run at goal, but with a defender at his shoulder, he weighs the odds and decides that keeping the ball is more important.

By laying it off to Alhassan he also allows Boyd to get into the box, where you want him, but rather than stand still, he keeps moving and runs into the space behind the defender. This forces the defender to choose – cover Perlaza or close down the ball. He covers Perlaza and Alhassan has time to get the ball under control and make moves in field. The run comes of nothing, but Perlaza is on hand again to give his team mate an out ball. He lays it back to Jewsbury in space, whose cross is into a dangerous area where Boyd is lurking.

Nothing flashy. Nothing particularly stands out as especially noteworthy, but at each point Perlaza is thinking and weighing up the options and taking the pragmatic option. He doesn’t hide at any point, or try to take on too much. He does the simple things well, and from that the Timbers are able to engineer a chance to threaten the Whitecaps defence.

There are times when you want a bit more invention and daring up top, and that’s when Perlaza perhaps becomes more of an inhibitor than a facilitator. Those are the occasions when perhaps Fucito could be the better option, or throwing Nagbe up top can pay dividends.

The problem for me with Nagbe up top is that he’s easily taken out of the match by experienced defenders.

[Oops, this image is gone]

These guys know who to use the full range of the defender’s book of tricks to keep a player off-balance and under control. Darlington Nagbe has the potential to be a big star in MLS, and possibly beyond these shores, but for now he lacks the physical attributes – too often he can be dominated by defenders, and pushed around – and the tactical nous to play the role, if that is indeed where he’s destined to end up.

Nagbe as yet doesn’t have Perlaza’s canny ability to use his body to hold off defenders, or to retain the ball as efficiently. His best work come when he can get turned, get the ball at his feet and run at players. Play him up top, and defenders will intimidate him; play him deeper and let him run at those same guys with the ball at his feet and the tables are turned.

With Perlaza up top, you get a lot of movement right across the width of the pitch, allowing Boyd to concentrate his efforts in staying in that central third, where he can be more dangerous.

[Oops, this image is gone]

Here Perlaza’s running out wide takes him past a defender and lets him get a cross in. The cross is a good one, but narrowly missed by Nagbe – whose run from deep is excellent and much more what you want to see from him – and Boyd. When the ball comes back in, Perlaza shows he does have a strikers anticipation by getting his head to ball, despite giving away a height advantage to all around him.

[Oops, this image is gone]

Again we see Perlaza making the run out wide. It’s a fairly simple little move, but not one every attacker would make. Others might stay central and look to work a one-two with Alexander or Boyd, or look for a through ball through the centre or a spinning run out to the right side of the box. Perlaza though will make a selfless move out of the area, and force the defender to make a choice. He rarely gives the defenders a simple job – he’ll make them think, keep them moving and on their toes.

His ability to bring out the best in Boyd will pay dividends. Having someone on the same wavelength that he can rely on takes a lot of the pressure off Boyd’s shoulders. His passing success rate takes a significant jump when Perlaza is on the field.

[Oops, this image is gone]

These figures are over the last six matches – 3 where Perlaza has partnered Boyd from the start, and 3 with Nagbe.

Just like Chara links defence and midifeld, so Perlaza does with midfield and attack. He also brings Boyd into the game more, and that can’t be a bad thing for a team that’s been starved of goals.

Despite his own relative lack of shots, the team also engineer more attempts at goal when Perlaza in on the pitch. Over a 90 minute period, the Timbers average almost 13 shots-on-goal when Perlaza is on the field, compared to less than 11 when he’s not. One of the reasons behind that jump, I suspect, is that with Perlaza up top there are less turnovers in the final third. Keeping possession in the final third might not get the hearts racing in the way a mazy dribble through a ruck of defenders might, but it does allow the Timbers to keep up the pressure and work a shooting opportunity elsewhere.

His ability to bring others into play, keep defenders on their toes and get the best out of Boyd are all key reasons why I feel Perlaza is an important player for the Timbers. Yes, he doesn’t score enough. Yes, he can frustrate. Yes, it’s not necessarily exciting to watch. I’m not going to argue that Perlaza is a superstar.

It would be great to see him get a goal or two soon and, hopefully, get some off his back but I’m happy if he keeps on doing what he’s doing. I’m sure the goals will come for him, but they’ll certainly also come for others.

Perlaza up top, Nagbe in the hole. Alhassan, Alexander, Songo’o, Zizzo – take your pick – providing creativity from midfield. The tools are there for the Timbers to build a House of Pain for MLS defences.

Diego Chara & The Art of Fouling

The old saying that rules are meant to be broken is usually used to justify some sort of misdemeanor or blatant cheating. I think we’d all agree that cheating is rampant throughout football and are fed up of seeing a player throw themselves to the ground in complete agony only to discover in a nicely presented slow motion replay that nobody touched him. Yet that old saying rings true in football.

Players often know that a foul will be called and yet will commit the act anyway because fouling is an important part of the game of football.

I am not talking about dangerous tackles. I stand firmly on the side of seeing them eliminated from the game even at the cost of making it less physical and losing certain kinds of tackles. But it has a place tactically and in the flow of the game.

Diego Chara, energetic midfielder to the Portland Timbers, is a master of such acts. It’s a well known statistic to Timbers fans that Chara committed the most fouls in the MLS last year. Despite this Timbers actually committed 3rd fewest fouls in the league. There are several reasons why Chara is a “foul master”. Firstly, he is a central midfielders and central midfielders tend to commit more fouls than any other position. Particularly those who are of a defensive disposition, which Chara is even if John Spencer doesn’t agree. Secondly, he does not stop running (well until the 80th minute at least). He covers an amazing amount of ground and thus is usually close to where the action is. Thirdly, he has a relatively good understanding of the value of the foul and discernment of when to commitment one and when not to.

The deliberate foul is, in a sense, an art. Of course it’s not artistic in the form that many other elements of the beautiful game are but it is also not as brutal and simplistic as one may think in simply watching it. A player has a split second to weigh up the potential risks and gains of said foul. This applies to a legitimate attempt to win a challenge too. You have to determine what are the risk of potential injury to both parties (most professional players don’t want to deliberately injure other players beyond, perhaps, a bruise or something else small), the chance of winning the ball (if indeed you are going for the ball), the chance of receiving either a yellow or a red card, the position of the free kick and chance of opposition scoring from said free kick. All of these are thought about and processed usually within a second then weighed against the reward, and there is always some reward to a foul that is committed intentionally. This can be one of several things, and for the purpose of this article I will separate the type of foul by these categories.

The Professional Foul
Or, preventing a goalscoring opportunity or liklihood of an opportunity developing.

Professional fouls are deliberately imposed by an opposition player because of the risk of conceding a goal. Traditional definitions talk strictly of preventing goalscoring opportunities and insist on a professional foul being a red card offense but I think a slightly broader definition gives a better indicator of what they are.

I would define it as a foul committed to avoid a situation where the probability of a goalscoring opportunity is high. For example, where 4 players are advancing on a counter attack against 3 defenders or where a highly skilled individual player is advancing with a supporting attacker against 2 defenders. Using my definition of a professional foul it will almost always result in a yellow card and often a red card. Two examples immediately jump to mind from my years of watching football. The first of the classic last man professional foul. The second is from my broader definition.

The first occurred in a game at Old Trafford in the 1997/8 season. With four games left in the season Manchester United sit a top the premier league but under severe pressure from Arsenal. They are hosting a Newcastle United team languishing in mid table. The game was tied at 1-1 with just a few minutes left. Man United have the ball deep in the Newcastle half and Beckham’s cross is headed clear by Stuart Pearce and drops for Temuri Ketsbaia who manages to help it on to Rob Lee. Lee is inside his own half but there isn’t a single player between him and Manchester United goalkeeper Raimond Van Der Gaouw. He charges forward under pursuit from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who realises he won’t catch Lee in time and so chops him down about 10 yard outside the Manchester United penalty area. He gets up and already starts walking off the field even before the referee brandishes the red card. Solskjaer knew he was going to get sent off, but the reward was justifiable as Lee was likely to score and that was likely to result in a loss. It’s made all the more interesting by the fact that this is the only red card Solskjaer would receive in his whole career. He also only received 4 yellow cards, so this is not someone that can be accused of being a “dirty” player. It was a tactical foul for tactical reasons.

My broader definition is highlighted by an incident from the 2002 World Cup. The semi-final between Germany and South Korea is tied at 0-0. Germany are in the ascendancy and but South Korea launch a counter. Suddenly there are 4 South Korean attackers bearing down on 2 German defenders with Lee Choon-soo dribbling the ball. 2 German midfielders are closely in pursuit. Lee cuts inside beating one man and is facing the last defender with the option to beat him or square the ball to waiting attackers on either side. Michael Ballack sticks out a leg from behind and brings down Lee promptly ending a very promising attack for Korea. He is booked by the ref, and despite his protests it’s a justifiable booking. It’s significant because it’s his second booking of the tournament and mean he’ll be suspended from the final should they reach it, which they did courtesy of a goal from Ballack himself. It’s plausible here that Ballack was going for the ball. But he knows going into it that it’s a low probability challenge and that the likelihood is he’s going to commit a foul and it’s going to be a booking. It cost him his place in the final but possibly got his team there.

The later incident represents the bread and butter of the deliberate fouls of a defensive midfielder. They must know when an attack is progressing that it’s very dangerous and know when it’s acceptable to end that attack with a risky tackle. It’s calculated risk as sometimes you might end a promising attack with one such challenge only to find the resulting free kick nominated for goal of the week or expect a yellow card only to find its colour is red.

Watching Diego Chara I often see him commit these kind of fouls and I daresay they have saved the Timbers from conceding a goal on some occasions. Often I find myself quietly thinking “good one Chara”.

One particularly special example from Diego occurred in the away game in Houston. Kandji was rapidly advancing towards the Portland goal and several Dynamo players were joining him in the attack. It was something akin to a 4 on 4 breakaway. Then up stepped Chara, all 5ft7 of him, and he completely levelled the 6ft4 Kandji. Inexplicably the referee waved play on and the game continued but this was definitely a foul and probably a bookable offense. I can only assume the ref believed the contact was a normal shoulder to shoulder challenge that is permissible in football.

I fully believe that Chara thought the foul would be called and maybe even expected a yellow card but committed the offense anyway knowing that the Houston attack was looking very dangerous. To me, it was a moment of beauty and intelligence from Chara. Firstly, to recognize the danger and secondly, to so promptly to put a stop to a huge and menacing striker. It makes me smile just thinking about how tough Chara is considering his size. Pound for pound I am not sure many can compete with the wee man.

The Breakup
Or, disrupting the flow of the game and an opponent’s possession of the ball.

Football is a game that at its finest is free flowing and continuous. It’s one of the things that make it such a beautiful game. But sometimes you are in a situation as a player where you don’t want that to happen.

A great recent example of this was Chelsea’s performances against Barcelona. Branded as “anti football” by many people, Chelsea set out defensively with the intent of frustrating Barcelona and exploiting opportunities on the break. With a fairly large slab of luck it succeeded and we all know Chelsea went on, with another defensive luck ridden display, to win the Champions League.

A part of the game plan against Barca was to hound them and to break up their play (by either committing a foul, winning a tackle or forcing the ball out of play). It isn’t pretty to watch but sometimes it is necessary. Many teams have tried to outplay Barcelona and very, very few have succeeded in the last few years. The teams that have tried and failed consist of some that are much more talented than Chelsea. Chelsea knew that they couldn’t win playing that way. Whilst I deplore teams that use this as their primary way of playing football, against certain opposition in certain circumstances it is a necessity.

The breakup foul is a simple part of such a game plan. You commit a challenge that will draw a foul call from the referee simply to stop the flow of the game in that moment. It, assuming the opposition take a moment to take the free kick, gives players a chance to get back into position.

Of course this type of foul doesn’t need to be used as a tactical outlay for an entire game. It can simply be the decision that a player takes in a moment. This is one of the areas in which I see Chara excelling the most. He has a knack of knowing when it is wise to commit a simple foul to break up a play. He’s often getting cautioned (or warned about getting cautioned) for repetitive fouling because of this. It seems like half the time an opposition player gets the ball and the possibility of launching a quick attack is there, so is Chara hassling him. Sometimes his presence is enough, other times he can win the ball back legally. But sometimes he takes a quick tug on the shirt or sticks a leg in to commit a foul. This especially seems to happen when Timbers give away possession cheaply in midfield or in the opposition half. So often the possibility for a quick counter is denied because of Diego Chara and I appreciate it a lot.

The Aggregator
Or, frustrating opposition players to limit their effectiveness.

This particular kind of foul can be frustrating to watch and if abused can be dangerous but it can also be very effective. It very much overlaps with the previous sections as often fouls which break up plays can be extremely frustrating.

That niggling pest of a player who will not get off your back and keeps fouling you. Everyone that plays regular has experienced this kind of player and it can be incredibly frustrating. More often than not for me, in my extremely amateur level of play, it’s because someone doesn’t know how to tackle very well. But at the professional level this is simply not the case (save for the occasional lazy attacker).

Most teams, particularly in a physical league like the MLS, have players like this. They are constantly frustrating opposition players in the hope of nullifying their threat in a game. Frequently it works and sometimes even with amazing players. In his first couple of years at Manchester United Christiano Ronaldo was often hounded out of games. He would get wound up by consistent fouling, perhaps make a mistake or two and then drift out of the game. Players saw a weakness in him and exploited in it. He learned to move beyond that, grew up and, well, the rest is history. Certainly these niggling, frustrating fouls are not pretty to watch. A line also has to be drawn here. Being overly physically aggressive to irritate people is dangerous. That line is frequently crossed by individual players, particularly in attempting to cope with players that are advanced far beyond their skill level and that has no place in the game. It’s why the powers that be have clamped down on challenges from behind, two footed tackles and the like.

But, in my opinion, this is where Diego Chara succeeds. He rarely puts in dangerous challenges or looks out of control. Yet he often frustrates opposition players with his persistent tackles and fouls and his physical presence. This is why you frequently see opposition players start to get angry with Chara, and why he often has a smile on his face as they do. He’s doing his job.

As a fan of this wonderful sport I have come to appreciate this element of football. Of course it will never hold the same place as a beautiful dribble, a passing move or those goals that we crave so much. But it can still be appreciated. Indeed, if we are to appreciate a player like Diego Chara fully for what he is worth than it must be appreciated. Not every player can play “sexy football”, as Ruud Gullit once called it. Not every game can be filled with glorious moments. So we must learn to appreciate these seemingly mundane elements of the game as then we will never grow tired of it and will enjoy the truly beautifully crafted moments all the more.

Diego Chara’s place in the Portland Timbers is invaluable. Although, he may not of lived up to his early billing as an “attacking midfielder” or the promise he showed with some most excellent displays last year he continues to produce performances that aid the Timbers tremendously. His continual running, tackling and intercepting ability coupled with the understanding of when fouls are needed is crucial in helping to frustrate opponents offense. Of course he also has a decent ability on the ball, is quick to assist in offense and good at starting up attacks (he frequently will make the pass to Nagbe or one of the Wingers in a position that they are able to launch an attack).

Of course Chara is not alone here. There are many players who have successfully mastered this domain and most football fans could learn to love them even more if they can appreciate the art of fouling.


You can follow Andrew on twitter – @andyyax