The Sims

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

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

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

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

1. Gavin Wilkinson

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

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

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

2. No Manager

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

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

3. Sean McAuley

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

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

4. Steve Nicol

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

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

5. Caleb Porter

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

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

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

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

6. Neil Emblen

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

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

7. Piotr Novak

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

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

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

8. Bobby Williamson

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

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

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

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

9. Marcelo Bielsa

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

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

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

10. John Spencer

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

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

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

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

[table “2” not found /]

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

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

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

Hotheads and Bampots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, he continues to alienate the fans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#RCTID
#KTID

The Road Worriers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Troy Story

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

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

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

Yes. Yes, we did.

So, what is going on here?

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

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

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

Oh, sheeeeeeeeeeet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be afraid, be very afraid.

#RCTIUpgrade

Crackerjack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#RCTID


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

The Nagbe Enigma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Change Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intolerable Cruelty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a cruel game indeed.

#RCTID