What Now?

Well.

That was pretty damn awful, wasn’t it?

Shy of sticking a finger in the eye of the Colossus of the North (who thought that a single win at CLink meant that they should be handed the Cascadia Cup and were shocked, shocked that the Whitecaps weren’t willing to help them out worth a lick) the past season was pretty much a washout.

We got our coach fired, went one match away from going winless on the road, and generally exposed the weaknesses and problems in the side that the Front Office had spent the past two years ostensibly building. Two days after the final match of the second MLS season we find ourselves back, if not where we started in 2011, at least no better off than we were at the beginning of 2012.

Ugh.

So the obvious question is: where can we go from here, and how do we get there?

We’ve got a new coach coming on board sometime in the winter, there will probably be some roster changes, and MLSTimbers v.3.0 will get a rollout sometime in the late winter. Obviously we can’t know much or do anything about this but speculate.

But speculate we can, so why not? That’s why we’re here.

First, let’s take a look what we have now.

Individually I want to suggest that the flaws in Gavin Wilkinson’s player selection can’t be better displayed than through a quick look at the present Timbers roster. In my biased opinion the current side is dominated by two kinds of players; the “consistent but limited” and the “limited by inconsistency”. We just flat out don’t have any players with consistent, genuinely game-breaking talent, the sort of marquee player that our rivals have in people like Wondolowski or Montero. Yeah, I hate those guys, too, but I can’t deny their quality. We just don’t have that and the record seems to show that we never will.

So what do we have, and what does that tell us about our Front Office’s tendencies to pick and choose players?

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The way I see it the Consistently Limited make up the bulk of the side.

With these guys you know what you’re going to see. They bring pretty much the same game every time they run on the pitch. It’s not that they can’t play, or that they’re hackers and goofs. They’re all at least substitute-grade MLS quality guys. But their game, that game we know we’ll see, is lacking in one way or another. These guys all have a shortcoming, or shortcomings, that put a limit on their ability to produce winning soccer in one way or another.

Starting from the back we have Ricketts, whose limitation seems to be primarily age and fragility that comes with a history of injury, and the Bendik/Gleeson binary star, limited merely by their inexperience – though Bendik seemed to be at least a solid journeyman during his limited stint this season.

On the backline we have Mosquera, limited by his judgement and inability to communicate with his linemates, and Kimura who is limited in so many aspects it’s hard to figure out where start. In midfield we have Wallace and Palmer, who are sort of the Mosquera and Kimura of the center of the pitch; the one makes constant errors of judgement while the other is simply a quandary; why is he doing this for a living and I’m not?

Diego Chara, whose effort and defensive sturdiness are unquestionable is limited by his inability to keep from getting called for fouling and his poor forward passing. Jack Jewsbury is simply not young enough and mobile enough anymore to have more than a moderate impact.

Up front Bright Dike is limited by his poor touch and sloppy finishing, while Kris Boyd is limited simply by his style of play; without good distribution and service from the midfield he is simply wasted up top.

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The Limitedly Inconsistent are a minority on the team, but an important one. With these guys you never know whether they’re going to bring their A-game, or whether that game is going to last the entire match. They show streaks of brilliance matched with random outbursts of mediocrity or outright blunders.

David Horst is the poster child for this group. A stand-up guy who anchors the backline for 89 minutes he will suddenly make a horribly mistimed lunge, or stab, or find a way to mark space, or do something that will gift the enemy a goal. You love to see him most of the time, and then tiny remainder you look away because it’s like a car accident unfolding on the Sunset Highway at rush hour.

In midfield Darlington Nagbe who to me is still something of an enigma labelled “potential”; will he be the Nagbe that passes accurately and can score a clinical goal, or the one that gets knocked off the ball and is marked out of the game mid-match? Kalif Alhassan is another skilled but unpredictable midfielder; you never know which Kalif will show up – will it be the one that can provide a lovely assist, or the one whose crosses float over the entire 18 like a shiny soap bubble? Some matches Sal Zizzo is a speedy winger and clinical crosser while others earn his nickname “Zig Zag Zizzo”, running aimlessly about and lofting random high balls into the blue. Franck Songo’o can provide brilliance in attack and sturdy defence but can also repeatedly dribble into trouble and wander about seemingly at random.

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Of the entire current side there’s one guy who I would say has grown into a solidly dependable player who is both consistent and relatively skilled; Steven Smith. A liability in the back at first his play in the last half of the season has progressed to where he’s among the best of our defenders – yes, a low bar but, still – and has shown promise going forward. Of the current group of starters he seems the best rounded and most skilled.

Of the remainder we don’t really have any solid indicators. Eric Alexander has shown signs of being in the second group but his minutes have been so limited as to make that pure speculation. Eric Brunner was a hell of a defender prior to his injuries but hasn’t been a standout in the short stints he’s played in the late season; hard to tell how well he will come back, if at all. Jean-Baptiste showed well against San Jose on Sunday, but he is one of the large group of young players we just haven’t seen enough of this season to really judge. Brent Richards has looked better tracking back than he did in his earlier outings but his play retains the erratic quality of a young player. And we’ve just seen way too little of guys like Hogg, Kawulok, Purdy, Fucito…

But in general, given what this group seems to tell us about Gavin’s – or Gavin and Merritt’s – weakness in assessing players we need to assume that these young players are likely to have similar weaknesses. This seems to be the Front Office’s style; they see either only the strengths of the consistent-but-limited players, or the “manic phase” of the skilled-but-inconsistent players while not noticing the weaknesses of the one and the depressive phase of the other.

And we need to assume that if this same group continues to pick the players for the incoming coach we are likely to see very similar sorts of players next season. Gavin’s record, in particular, goes back to the USL days and was very like this; Portland saw players like Mamadou Keita and Ryan Pore, inconsistent guys who could play but would tend to drift out of the match, or the season, or guys like Scot Thompson and Takayuki Suzuki; good solid players but just not the sort that got you to the league championship finals.

This is likely to be it; this is likely to be “who we are” until and if we get a new group in the executive suite.

So the question is; how do we go forward, how do the Timbers get better, with these sorts of players?

And that is the subject of the next post.

Silver Lining

385 days later, and at the 17th time of asking, the Timbers finally won a road match again, and few wins have mattered as much in the club’s short MLS existence as this one. The 1-0 victory in Vancouver, mirroring the scoreline of their last trip to British Columbia a year ago, was enough to ensure that the Cascadia Cup would be returning to Portland with the vocal Timbers Army, who had out-sung their strangely subdued rival fans in a sold-out BC Place.

The listless performance of the home fans mirrored that of the team. In truth, this does not look like a team that should be anywhere near the playoffs and, yet, thanks to Seattle’s victory against FC Dallas, that is exactly where they are.

Perhaps it was nerves on both sides that led to a very disjointed opening. At one point there seemed to be more fouls than completed passes, and the ball racked up the air miles as it was booted from back-to-front and back again. Eventually though, a football match threatened to break out as the timbers began to find a little more possession in the Whitecaps half, but neither keeper was being worked particularly, for the most part…

Gavin Wilkinson had taken a risky decision to play his best available players in an important match, bringing Steven Smith and Kosuke Kimura back into the starting line-up. Hanyer Mosquera also returned to the defence, giving the back four a much more settled look. Five of the team that started the Timbers’ last win in Canuckistan are no longer at the club, with only Nagbe, Chara and Zizzo starting last season’s result in Vancouver, giving some sense of the changes that have been wrought in the past twelve months.

Despite picking up a yellow card early on for a foul on Camilo, Mosquera highlighted what the Timbers had missed in his absence with an assured performance. The Colombian would be forced off with injury early in the second half, replaced by Eric Brunner, and I was worried that the enforced change at the back may just unsettle the defence, but I needn’t be so concerned.

By the time Mosquera went off, the Timbers already had the lead when Jack Jewsbury fired home a screamer from distance shortly before half-time.

From early on it seemed like a match that would be decided one way or the other by a defensive howler or a piece of magic from nowhere as both sides toiled. Fortunately for the Timbers, it was the latter. Indeed, early on in the first half there was a moment where Steven Smith didn’t catch a simple clearance right and forced Ricketts into a point blank save. On another night, that goes in and the Timbers crumble to another dispiriting road defeat. Not tonight, though. Not tonight.

In truth, there’s little to talk about in terms of the match itself. Songo’o played in the hole behind Dike for much of the game, and was subbed out for Rodney Wallace midway through the second half, presumably to counter the pace and athleticism of Whitecaps subs Dane Richards and Darren Mattocks.

Like the change at the back, the introduction of Rodney Wallace has, in the past, been a harbinger of late-game heartbreak, but the game felt so comfortable at this point that even this change didn’t cause the merest flutter for me.

Truth is, the Whitecaps could be out there still, playing against no-one, and they would’ve conspired to find some way not to score. I’d expected a whirlwind start to the second half by the Whitecaps, but instead it was no more than a moderate breeze.

Camilo looked like their most dangerous player, niggling and putting the central defenders out of their comfort zone and off-balance. It’s the kind of performance that can drive opposing fans, and players, crazy but his role, it seemed to me, was to wreak havoc and hope that a Kenny Miller or Barry Robson could profit and find space. Once he, finally and deservedly, was booked in the second half it robbed his game of that dimension and he drifted out of the game, to be subbed off shortly after.

From there, the entire Whitecaps game petered out to nothing. Rarely have the Timbers had it so easy, particularly on the road, and though I’ve talked about how poor Vancouver have been, some measure of credit must go to the Timbers defence for their work. Horst and Mosquera, and latterly Brunner, dealt with anything that came their way and even the late addition of Darren Mattocks and flailing limbs, failed to knock them off their stride.

After a nervy start, Steven Smith settled in to a reasonable game, even if it’s not one he’ll be putting on his highlight reel. Kimura had a couple of typically Kimuran moments as he was caught on his heels, or beaten to the ball, but even he never looked like he was under so much pressure that he was going to crack.

The Timbers had a couple of chances to seal the deal with breakaways, but as was typical of the match in general, there seemed to be little conviction or composure about them.

Whereas in the past we’ve seen the Timbers go away and play well for long spells, only to have it all crumble to dust late on, tonight we saw them put in a gritty performance that ground out the win they needed.

As well as securing some silverware, the 3 points also ensured that Portland wouldn’t be finishing bottom of the Western Conference. It leaves little to play for in the San Jose match next week but, with it being the final home match, I would hope it won’t be your typical end of season affair and the team take the chance to sign off on a crazy year with a victory against the Supporter’s Shield winners.

Rather than end on a “it shouldn’t be allowed to paper over the cracks” note – we’ve got a long off-season to come for all that! – I’d prefer to salute the fans. Not just those that made the trip to Vancouver, but those that have remained loyal throughout a trying year. The dedication and passion of the fans has been one inspiring constant as the on-field product has veered sharply from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous.

I’d also like to thank John Spencer for his part. The victory against Seattle went a long way to delivering the cup and though I felt he was floundering (apologies) by the end of his reign, without his hard work at the start of the year there would’ve been no light at the end of the tunnel.

Many sore heads will be nursed this morning, but the fans can now say that 2012 has not been for nothing. The thing is, even if it had, they would still be back come First Kick 2013 but through good times and bad, they have stayed the course, and they have earned the right to savour this.

#RCTID
Now and Forever

The Man, The Myth

When John Spencer was relieved of his duties in July of this year, club owner Merritt Paulson was at pains to point out that the Timbers were not “waving a white flag for 2012” as there were “still many games to play.” Indeed, Wilkinson inherited a team that weren’t far off the playoff spots and had, in their last four matches, beaten both Seattle Sounders and San Jose Earthquakes.

Gavin Wilkinson echoed that point, insisting that he was “responsible for bringing all those players here” and how it was “up to me to get a little bit more out of them.”

As we all know, Wilkinson promptly led the side on a four game losing streak, and before long the message had subtly shifted. “When I came into this position, it wasn’t a simple process of just going out and trying to win. We had to address some issues and there were some changes and there’s been a little bit of progress.”

In those first seven matches of Gavin’s interimship, the club picked up 2 points and the idea that Portland would reach the postseason became the notion of delusional fantasists as reality set in.

By the time the side took the field against the Sounders, looking to secure the Cascadia Cup, all focus was on laying the groundwork for the next season. Gavin’s decision to rest the “injured” Steven Smith and Kosuke Kimura in favour of Rodney Wallace and Lovel Palmer was dressed up as being “important to see a few players in different positions so we could go into the offseason making the right decisions.”

This notion that Gavin has been testing players for next year has taken such firm root that it’s become a generally accepted “fact” among a growing proportion of fans and pundits. It is, in my opinion, no more than a myth.

It’s easy to dress up a tactical fuck-up like sticking Wallace and Palmer into the line-up as some kind of experiment. Yeah, sure, it was just test to see how they would cope in the atmosphere, or pace of the game, or whatever. Of course.

What were we meant to learn about Wallace and Palmer that we didn’t already know for the numerous times they’ve already played at full-back, including a whole run of matches THIS SEASON already? If Wilkinson truly was assessing the squad and using it as some kind of tactical Petri dish, then why haven’t we see Ryan Kawulok in the team? Jean-Baptiste? Richards, after he got a whole two starts when Gavin made 6 changes to a team that lost 5-0 against Dallas? Where’s Rincon, or Taylor, or even Hogg (yes, I know there’ve been injuries, but they haven’t always been out), to mention but a few?

Instead, Wilkinson had picked a more settled team that his predecessor. 7 players have started at least 12 of the 15 matches (80%) that Wilkinson has been in control for. Seven. Kimura, Smith, Horst, Mosquera, Jewsbury, Songo’o and Nagbe.

That’s the entire back four. Now, I totally get that continuity is important in defence, probably more so than anywhere else of the pitch (when you think of great defences it’s generally a unit you think off, when you think of great attacks it might be one or two guys, on the whole) but does anyone out there actually think that this will be our back four next season? Cos if it is… well, that’s an early Halloween scare, right there. And if you accept that it won’t be the chose four next year, why aren’t we giving others a chance?

If you consider that Ricketts was only signed in August and has played when fit, that Chara only falls a couple shy of 12 starts due to injury, and that Zizzo has started 9 of the last 10 matches, then you can stretch that “settled” number up to 10. Dike has started 7 of the last 9 if you want to make it a full team.

By comparison, only five players reach the 80% criteria under Spencer – Perkins, Jewsbury, Chara, Boyd and Nagbe. (3 of these are mainstays under Wilkinson, one got traded and one fell out of favour.)

It’s quite clear to me that Gavin has a pretty clear idea of his “best eleven” and he is, in general, sticking to that core group. Fair enough. Continuity and all that. But aren’t we supposed to be figuring out what we have so as to make the right decisions in the offseason?

Putting to one side Ricketts, who was signed after Spencer left, and Kimura, who played the one match under Spencer that he was available for, there are really only six players who have seen themselves get significantly more game time under Wilkinson than Spencer.

David Horst (29% / 87%) played five straight games for Spencer following Brunner’s injury, and has held that role under Wilkinson despite a couple of starts for Danso along the way. I don’t think we can chalk that one down to Wilkinson.

Steven Smith (47% / 80%) is a little misleading as Smith was signed in April and, in actual fact, played 8 of the 10 matches he was available for under Spencer, so he’s actually been used as much under Wilkinson as he was under Spencer.

Hanyer Mosquera (59% / 93%) is another example where a player’s enforced absence has skewed the numbers. But for an early season injury and a 3 game suspension in June, he was clearly a first choice under Spencer.

Franck Songo’o (47% / 80%) has more to do with a player taking the time to adjust to a new league and new team mates than it does with Gavin Wilkinson bringing him through, in my opinion.

Which brings us to the two guys whose increased game time I would ascribe to Gavin Wilkinson.

Sal Zizzo (6% / 60%) seemed to have designated a “super sub” under Spencer, but since given a run of games under Gavin Wilkinson, he’s put in some great showings and has made four assists in his last eight starts.

Bright Dike (0% / 47%) went from forgotten man to hero when given a chance by Wilkinson and has repaid his former USL boss with four goals and some all-action performances. So, fair enough, hats off to Gavin Wilkinson there. I’d have big reservations if Dike is truly the man we look to lead the line next season, but he’s in a purple patch right now, and we’re getting a good return from him, so strike while the iron’s hot.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these two have shone together as they seemed to have struck up an immediate understanding. Three of Dike’s goals have been assisted by Zizzo, and it really seems to be the case that the two players are bringing out the best in each other.

Three guys who have seen their game time limited since Spencer left are Eric Alexander, Kris Boyd and Kalif Alhassan. In the latter case, injuries have been a big factor, as they have been to a lesser degree with Boyd, but the sense persists that these are three guys who don’t really fit under Wilkinson.

As with Zizzo & Dike, Alexander and Alhassan seem to bring the best out in Boyd as they seemed to be the two players who were most in tune with the Scottish striker. All of Boyd’s goals have been scored when either player is on the field, with Alhassan and Alexander both logging assists for Boyd.

In fact, the five game barren spell Boyd had between the 1-0 win against Kansas City and the 2-1 win against Chicago coincides with a five match stretch where neither Alexander nor Alhassan started. They all start against LA, Boyd scores; they return against Vancouver, Boyd scores. Can you guess which two players didn’t start any of the final three matches Boyd played before being dropped for Dike (ignoring the cameo against San Jose)?

All of this is to get off the point though. The fact is that, at best, you could say that Wilkinson brought Zizzo and Dike into the fold. Beyond that, what have we learned about this roster during this grand period of experimentation?

That Palmer and Wallace are every bit as not-very-good as we remembered them to be? That Mike Fucito will run about a bit, but just don’t expect him to score goals? That Sal Zizzo isn’t a right-back? That’s not a lot to show for 15 matches worth of time. If these are all things that Wilkinson thinks are questions that needed to be answered so as to build towards 2013, then I can’t help but fear for the worst with this guy as General Manager.

I haven’t addressed players being used as subs, cos I don’t think you’re going to learn a great deal about someone based on a 20 minute cameo here or there. Players need to start, and be given a few matches to show what they can do. We’re simply not doing that.

Don’t believe the hype. There is no appreciable difference to squad rotation under Wilkinson than there was under Spencer. In fact, only twice have the Timbers named an unchanged XI from one week to the next, and both of those occasions were with Gavin in charge. We’re not learning anything we didn’t already know. Beyond the change of formation and a couple of different faces, you would be hard pressed to see any difference.

You can’t put out a settled team every week and still play the “experimentation” card. You’re either rotating the squad and giving different people a chance to do different jobs, or you’re picking the same bunch of guys week in-week out.

Even if you buy that early on Wilkinson was looking to push the team to the playoffs and only latterly, when that became impossible, turned to experimenting with the roster the fact is that of the 13 line-up changes in the last five matches, 5 have been enforced (injuries or suspensions) which leaves 8 in a very broad “tactical” category, or, if you prefer, 61.5% of line-up changes have been tactical. That is actually lower than the same criteria under Spencer (64.7%) and a big dip in Wilkinson’s overall 72.7%. So Wilkinson is changing things up and giving players a chance, he’s making changes when they’re forced upon him.

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. The greatest trick Gavin has pulled is that he’s working to some kind of plan.

The Questionable Seven

With only 180 minutes left of the 2012 season, the thoughts of Portland Timbers fans are already turning to 2013. A huge job awaits Caleb Porter when he flies west in December as the squad needs some urgent surgery if it’s to be in any shape to challenge for a playoff place next year.

Players like Darlington Nagbe, Diego Chara and Hanyer Mosquera can feel pretty secure in their positions within the team, while guys like Lovel Palmer and Mike Fucito may be starting to pack up their belongings in an old canvas sack as I type. For a large majority of the roster, though, this offseason will be one of great uncertainty.

Porter may decide that continuity is important to the team, and look to retain a large core of the squad, with a few additions and alterations here and there, but I suspect, in an ideal world, Porter would much to prefer to rip it up and start again, largely from scratch. There are precious few guys in the current roster who you would say fit into the mould of guys who can play the way Porter wants his teams to play, with quick, accurate passes and incisive movement.

With that in mind, I’ll take a quick look at seven of the guys I’d put into that “questionable” bracket and try and guess whether they’ll be back in Timbers green in 2013.

[learn_more caption=”Kalif Alhassan”]
2012 Record: 15 Appearances (10 Starts), 2 Assists, 1 Goal

Kalif Alhassan joined the Timbers in the twilight of their USL days with a view to progressing into MLS. Had a big role to play in 2011 with 6 assists in 27 starts, and on his day he is capable of creating a bit of magic out of nothing. 2012 has been something of a washout for the Ghanaian however, as he’s missed much of it through a series of niggling injuries.

Reasons to keep: He’s still young and can, hopefully, put the injuries behind him. With some disciplined coaching, could reign in his rather anarchic approach to tactical instruction and become a key component in Porter’s 4-3-3.

Reasons to cut: Injuries have curtailed his development at a crucial time, and when he does play he is inconsistent and tactically naive. Perhaps a little too similar to, but lacking the finesse of, Franck Songo’o.

Verdict: He doesn’t command a great wage, and is still pretty young, so he’ll be back. Next year will be the biggest of his Timbers career. Make or break time.

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[learn_more caption=”Jack Jewsbury”]
2012 Record: 31 Appearances (30 Starts), 4 Assists, 2 Goals

Captain Jack came into 2012 as an MLS All-Star following a tremendous debut year for Portland. However, he has rarely even threatened to live up to the standards of that first season with some fans questioning his seemingly unshakable place in the first XI. He’s far away the player with most on-field time for Portland in MLS with almost 800 more minutes than Chara, the club’s #2.

Reasons to keep: He’s clearly popular with the squad and respected by the coaching staff. His position as club captain has rarely been in doubt, and he has shown versatility in filling in at right back during an injury crisis.

Reasons to cut: Lacks the tenacity and awareness to be a regular defensive midfielder, as well as the craft and creativity to play further forward. Always a sense that wherever he plays, he’s the second best option there. Turns 32 next year, so is unlikely to improve.

Verdict: He’ll be back but whether he’ll be the first name on the team sheet any more is up for debate, though, considering he left Kansas City when she spent much of the back-end of 2010 on the bench, will he accept a squad role next year?

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[learn_more caption=”Kris Boyd”]
2012 Record: 26 Appearances (22 Starts), 1 Assist, 7 Goals

Kris Boyd set records for goalscoring in the Scottish Premier League, but after an undistinguished spell in England, and a short stint in Turkey, he came to Portland with expectations riding high that he could recapture his old form and fire the Timbers towards the playoffs. Like his predecessor, Kenny Cooper, he found it hard to adjust to the Timbers style and, despite leading the club in goals scored, he has failed to live up to his hefty price tag for many fans.

Reasons to keep: Goals. Boyd will score them if given the chance, but those chances have been too few and too far between. His link-up play is generally good too, and he will lead the line with passion and force.

Reasons to cut: He carries a hefty wage – 10th highest player in MLS – that doesn’t match up to his return in goals. Perhaps not suited to the way Caleb Porter seeks to play. Seemingly not rated by Gavin Wilkinson.

Verdict: Unlikely to be back in Portland in 2013, though it’s not clear cut. There is talk of a potential return before the season is out

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[learn_more caption=”Eric Brunner”]
2012 Record: 12 Appearances (10 Starts), 0 Assists, 1 Goal

Eric Brunner was a solid part of the Timbers defence, and everything was going well for the ex-Columbus man until a concussion sustained against Vancouver in late May. He’s struggled to get back into the team since, making only two subs thanks to a subsequent knee injury, with David Horst – young, cheaper – having improved.

Reasons to keep: Still, arguably, the Timbers best defender, or 2nd behind Mosquera, if you’re a fan of the Colombian. Solid, reliable and fiercely committed.

Reasons to cut: Such a long lay-off with concussion is a big worry, and the knee injury doesn’t help matters. In his absence, Horst has stepped up and shown he can do a job at a fraction of the price of Brunner.

Verdict: He’ll be back, assuming there aren’t deeper, thus-far-unspoken concerns among the coaching team about his injuries. If anyone gets cut from the defence, one suspects it will be Futty Danso. Whether he can dislodge David Horst, only time will tell.

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[learn_more caption=”Bright Dike”]
2012 Record: 10 Appearances (7 Starts), 0 Assists, 4 Goals

When Dike was sent out on loan to LA Blues earlier this season, you could’ve been forgiven for thinking that his Timbers career was over. After netting 10 times for the Timbers in their last year in USL, he didn’t make a single start in 2011, though he did still find the net once. Since his return from LA though, Dike has score 4 times – only 3 fewer than club leader Boyd.

Reasons to keep: Goals – the man has scored them. 4 in only 731 minutes. He’s scored from the start, and as an impact sub. He’s a handful to play against and a willing and hard worker. Has got the goals in the new system. Even with his obvious deficiencies, he has the scoring habit, and that’s a good habit to have!

Reasons to cut: He has a pretty poor touch, and lacks the more “all round” ability of his attacking colleagues. He’s a rather one-dimensional player, which is great when it works but leaves the team bereft in attack when it doesn’t.

Verdict: He’s certainly earned a 2013 roster spot, but I’d fear for the team if he’s back as first choice. A good weapon to have in the arsenal.

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Rodney Wallace”]
2012 Record: 18 Appearances (14 Starts), 1 Assist, 1 Goal

Wallace joined the Timbers in exchange for Dax McCarty befoer the start of the 2011 season, but has never really convinced in the left-back role he seemed to be earmarked for. Despite that, he’s racked up over 40 appearances for the MLS Timbers meaning only four current Timbers have logged more on-field minutes than he.

Reasons to keep: Can play all up the left-side and has turned his hand to a central midfield role too. He’s chipped in with a few goals and assists, and is still relatively young at 24.

Reasons to cut: Lapses in concentration can, and have, cost the Timbers dearly in defence and he simply isn’t as good as the other attacking options available. Commands a salary that is out of sync with his role as a squad player.

Verdict: Will be back, but only if the Timbers can’t find a taker for him.

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Eric Alexander”]
2012 Record: 23 Appearances (13 Starts), 6 Assists, 0 Goals

Eric Alexander joined the Timbers from FC Dallas towards the end of the 2011 season in exchange for Jeremy Hall, but has failed to nail down a starting spot, with only 16 starts in his time as a Timber. An industrious and tidy midfielder with good range of passing.

Reasons to keep: The clubs leader in assists, despite being on the fringes of the starting XI. It wasn’t so long that he was on the fringes of the USMNT. Showed his game has steel when he subbed for Chara and acquitted himself well in a more defensive role. Still only 24, and not a big earner.

Reasons to cut: Assists fudged by at least a couple of those assists having more to do with Nagbe creating something out of nothing than Alexander’s work. Unable to impose himself on the team when he’s been given the chance. Had his work rate questioned by management.

Verdict: Trade bait. Underutilized, under-appreciated and seemingly unwanted by an organisation that can’t seem to find room for him in midfield.

[/learn_more]

What do you think? Who goes, who stays, and whose place is up for debate?

All You Need Is Love(l)

Emerging from the wreckage of the Shitfest in Seattle, the vitriol directed towards Gavin Wilkinson and Merritt Paulson for talking the talk of taking the Cascadia Cup seriously before admitting they had used this crucial match as a try-out for 2013 bestrode the landscape like a colossus, unavoidable to all but those with their heads firmly planted in the sand.

The team selection, as well as tactics, were under the spotlight, with the decision to bring in Rodney Wallace and Lovel Palmer at full back a stand-out WTF moment. While the decision to give Wallace the nod was lent some credibility by Steven Smith’s reportedly “tight hamstring” – which would, if so, lead me to question why he was on the bench at all. What if Wallace had pulled up with an injury in the first 5 minutes? Would Smith have come on? Was he fit for a potential 85 minutes, but not an actual 90? If not, was he taking the space on the bench that could’ve been better given over to a young player to experience the “big game atmosphere”? And so on… – the choice of Lovel Palmer ahead of Kosuke Kimura, Jack Jewsbury, Ryan Kawulok, Steve Purdy, Sal Zizzo, Slabby or some kind of hastily improvised scarecrow left many fans, to borrow the hashtag, #facepalmer-ing themselves into a light coma.

In the event, Palmer surprised no-one by having a typically poor-to-mediocre game, something that has characterised much of his Timbers career since joining the club with Mike Chabala in exchange for Adam “MLS Cup Finalist” Moffat and a chunk of change.

Such is low regard he is held in by Timbers fans, and the criticism of his play that follows as surely as night follows day, that Palmer took to twitter to have a little dig back at those who deign to criticise him.

Now, it’s hardly on the levels of Ashley Cole’s #bunchoftwats or anything tweeted by Joey Barton when he’s not cut-and-pasting from smartquotationsforreallydumbpeople.com in a futile effort to shed his “what a terrible bellend” image, but nevertheless it’s somewhat unusual to see an active player having a shot at his own team’s fans; fans who have endured the kind of season that would have CIA interrogators taking a sharp intake of breath and muttering something about it being a bit too cruel.

It’s less unusual to see the part-time Old Gregg lookalike completely miss the target.

Now, on one hand, it’s rather unfair to Palmer that he’s not allowed to fire back when he’s on the receiving end of some, admittedly funny, criticism…

… but on the other hand, I find it hard to feel sympathy for someone who has been abject for much of his time in Portland. In a team that has struggled, Palmer has still managed to stand out as being a beacon of shittery.

Yet, he tweets, “Shout out to all the REAL timbers fans that stand by their players through the good and bad times.”

Aside from the fallacy that only “real” fans, whatever that means, stand by their players, the thing is that no fan, real or otherwise, wants to see their own players play terribly. To think otherwise is madness.

But neither will some fans simply stand by and watch someone repeatedly stink up the field and accept it.

Sure, seeing Palmer’s name on the team sheet may cause me to break out in a cold sweat, but the moment the whistle goes, he gets full support. Twitter perhaps skews that perception as it makes it a bit easier to be critical or a smartarse when you’re sat at home in your underpants at 3am on a dark and cold Sunday morning (calm yourself, ladies), but if I’m at the game I shout support, I sing and I cheer as do the overwhelming majority of Timbers fans.

But just as you and I may vanity search now and then (fuck you, the actor Kevin Alexander), so you can be sure players do. I’m not sure whether Palmer has read this blog, or any of the other Timbers fan sites, or if he gets his feedback through facebook or twitter, but fans nowadays have the means to voice their opinions in such a way that players are more exposed to it, as opposed to the post-mortem grumbling about how crappy a player is that would’ve been carried out over a pint or six with your mates down the pub.

It must be hard to read such damning criticism on a weekly basis. Twitter makes it even more direct as you an @ the player into your scathing bon mot, though it’s not something I’d personally do as it seems to me to be the internet equivalent of shouting at someone in the street.

Palmer has sought in the past two deflect criticism, by claiming he doesn’t care what people say…

… but clearly he does or he wouldn’t be whining about “real fans”.

So, while I can understand that Lovel is angry that these keyboard warriors are daring to question the ability of a man who has been capped at international level, and who is still missed by some at his old club, there’s a vocal group out there that don’t feel they’ve been given any reason to expect anything good from him. He either has to HTFU, or go out there and prove them wrong.

People are going to have opinions, and they’re not going to be shy in sharing them, but you can’t write off those that may think you’re not good at kickball as not being “real fans”. Fans are going to bring a wide array of outlooks and perceptions with them, whether that’s thinking that it would be better if Vancouver win next week or that Gavin Wilkinson is doing a not-terrible job. To disagree with someone doesn’t make them in some way less of a fan.

I would love nothing more than to see Palmer go out there and astound us with some top drawer football. Even the middle drawer would be nice, you know, the one where you keep your old t-shirts or socks. And if he wants to come off the field and shove his 30 yard, top corner, screamer of a goal down the throats of his critics, more power to your elbow, good chap. The thing is that, much like my dream that I will wake up one day and find that I piss only the finest champagne (serious question – would you still drink it?), Palmer turning in a string of great performances is, sadly, unlikely.

It’s hard to see where the relationship between player and fans goes when it’s clearly soured on both sides. If, as some suggest, Palmer’s inclusion in the starting XI against the Sounders was his try-out for 2013, then it’s hard to imagine that Palmer will be around for much longer. It may be best if he’s not, for his sake as much as that of the “real fans'” collective sanity.


And like that, Lovel’s “REAL fans” tweet was gone.

Lose Your Illusions

New contributor Cory Cordero has some interesting thoughts ahead of the final Cascadia Cup match of 2012.


We all know that Sunday was a disgrace. The Timbers had a chance to prove their mettle and failed spectacularly. A lot of Timbers fans are saying, from behind dead eyes, “Well, we can still win the Cascadia Cup if we beat Vancouver.” This is the last piece of flotsam that people are clinging to from this shipwreck season. After hearing this a number of times, though, I’ve come to a conclusion:

For the next game, I’m rooting for Vancouver.

You see, if we win on October 21st, it will actually be bad for the organization. Management can point to the Cascadia cup and say “Well, at least we won that” and use it as a rationale to continue business as usual when the truth is that business cannot continue as usual. A Cascadian victory would be a salve that the front office might use to assure us that things are okay when we ALL know that we are dealing with massive complications that no salve can fix.

The biggest problem from last season was not John Spencer or Kenny Cooper or any other scapegoat. The biggest problem was that we overachieved. Realistically, we weren’t that good. We had the unfortunate honor of advancing into the MLS in a year where we had to compete with another expansion franchise in the same season. This meant we got half as much quality from the expansion draft, that prospects to fill the squad were not as robust, and that we faced competition for signings on all fronts. Can you imagine how our defense would look today if we had signed Jay DeMerit instead of Vancouver? In fact, let’s look at the Whitecaps for reference.

Vancouver had a horrible season last year comparable to what the Timbers are going through now. The organization was in disarray, coaches were fired, and the fan base was disgusted. Subsequently, management took a harsh and sometimes brutal approach with the squad (just ask Lee Nguyen and Long Tan). Then they became decent. Of course, their openness to cutting their squad isn’t always effective (see the winless streak after the jettison of Hassli and Chiumiento), but at least their fans don’t have to constantly ask why Lovel Palmer is in the starting lineup.

The Timbers, in contrast, had a “good enough” season last year with almost making the playoffs so that no one really looked closely at the flaws in the squad. Instead, we looked to add on to what was considered a talented core of players. We branded Cooper as the bad juju, banished him to New York, and bought a million dollar finisher to bring glory to this talented core of players that Cooper was not doing justice to. Too late, we realized that this was all a lie. The talented core was really a just a group of hard working grunts that had gotten lucky on a lot of set pieces in 2011.

This is why I’m hoping for Vancouver to win. It would strip away the last of the lies that we would be able to tell ourselves about this season. Make no mistake, it will be painful, but it’s for the best. Maybe, just maybe, if we can get trounced by the Whitecaps, the Timbers front office will look at Vancouver’s example to try to figure out how to make things right.


I managed to delete this, so all your comments are gone. Sorry. – Kevin

Monkey Jesus

With the Cascadia Cup up for grabs, 1500 Timbers fans made the trip up the I-5 into enemy territory with hopes high that they would be returning to the Rose City with silverware. A draw would’ve been enough to secure the title. In the end those same fans would make the return trip having seen their side lose 3-0 in front of an (official, if not actual) 66,452 crowd. Closer to 66,500 if you include the Timbers playing and coaching staff, who spent much of their time spectating.

The absence of Hanyer Mosquera from the back line, as well as the return of Diego Chara to midfield, forced our Gavin Wilkinson to make changes.

Now, you and I in our n00bishness may think that if you’re missing a crucial piece from your defence in such a big match, that would seek to make sure you keep changes to a minimum at the back, right? WRONG! What you do is change the full-backs and goalkeeper too so that you have change 80% of the back line. That is the right thing to do.

And the attack that has hardly been striking fear into defences? Well, you make no changes there and you most certainly do not, under any circumstances, start your team’s leading assist provider. That would be the actions of a madman.

So, into defence came Futty Danso, Lovel Palmer and Rodney Wallace. I got up at 1:55am for the game. I checked twitter and saw the line-up at 1:58am. The temptation to go back to bed at 1:59am was strong. It wasn’t so much that I feared the worst as I expected it.

Wallace’s spot in midfield was taken by the returning Chara, with the rest of the midfield and attack as it was for the 1-1 draw with DC United last week.

Not to blow my own trumpet, but after doing a bit of research on Seattle and watching a few games – those are hours I will never get back – I’d identified what I thought were pretty obvious patterns to the Seattle attack.

1 – They would look to overload the right with Rosales/Evans, Tiffert and Johansson. As such we would need a left-back who could make the right choices, as well as having a left midfielder who would track back and help out.

2 – They lacked a left-footed player on the left side, and Gonzales doesn’t get forward nearly as much as Johansson, so we had to expect that they would look to come inside and ping the ball diagonally to the back post for Montero or Johnson to attack.

3 – Johnson’s aerial threat meant that there was no way we would win every duel, so we had to make sure that the players were alive to the second ball and that we won that.

Given all that, here was the line-up I’d have gone with – Bendik/Ricketts; Kimura, Horst, Futty/Brunner, Smith; Jewsbury, Chara, Alexander; Nagbe, Mwanga, Songo’o

My reasoning? As I said, I felt continuity (as far as possible) at the back was crucial, though I wouldn’t be adverse to Jewsbury starting ahead of Kimura (with Nagbe back to midfield and Zizzo starting).

My thinking is that, since Seattle offer less threat down their left, Kimura – who I don’t particularly rate highly, but still think is better than Palmer – could be given a set of simple instructions of “keep tight, don’t let them come inside and stay on your feet”. Ditto if Jewsbury subs in there.

If we play with Nagbe, I’d play him a little off the wing rather than as a winger. Here I’d want Nagbe to look for space and, in the process, either pull Gonzalez narrow (opening up space for the overlap of Kimura/Jewsbury) or force Alonso to drop in and mark him, opening up space for Songo’o to come inside from the left, with support from Alexander (and Smith on the outside).

Mwanga is up top because I felt it would be pointless to play long ball football as the Seattle central defence would eat that up all night long. Rather, playing Mwanga would emphasise movement and passing over physicality or “lumping it into the mixer”.

The help out Smith on the left, since Songo’o isn’t the greatest defender in the world, Alexander would be given the job of playing left of centre, and to shuttle across to back up the Scot. He’s shown, when he subbed for Chara earlier this year, that he can play this disciplined, defensive role if asked to, and between the three – Smith, Alexander and Songo’o – I feel we’d have the numbers to match up and nullify much of Seattle’s threat.

That’s what I’d have done.

What Gavin did was put Wallace in at left-back. The reasoning seems to be it was because Wallace is more “athletic” than Smith. I’d back that line of thinking if the game was only one part of a heptathlon, but it isn’t, it’s the main event and you just put someone on the back line whose best attributes sure as hell aren’t his defensive ones. Wallace has looked decent in the last few matches playing in midfield, where his lapses in concentration aren’t directly punished by having an opponent go clean through on goal.

Maybe Gavin thought Wallace’s “athleticism” would get him forward, and push Seattle back and win the battle down the flank that way. Well, that worked a fucking treat, eh? Because, as you know, that slovenly Smith never gets up and down the line.

The decision to drop Smith was a strange one – references to a Wilkinson quote “player health” abound on twitter, but at the time of writing they aren’t being reported. Smith has a case for being the Timbers most improved player over the past few weeks. He had a really rocky spell earlier in the season, but as his fitness has improved and he’s become more attuned to the league, he’s settling in very nicely.

Now, I’ve nothing against Wallace. I think he’s perfectly functional (if a tad overpaid) as a squad player, questionable as a starter and downright objectionable as a defender. You almost can’t get mad at the guy whose known to make mistakes when he makes mistakes, instead you should direct that ire at the guy who put him in what I felt was the key position on the field to make those mistakes.

The first goal came about as, surprise, Seattle overloaded that flank.

Rosales, Tiffert and Johansson are all out there on the right. Wallace is trying to marshal Tiffert, while keeping an eye on Rosales, as Johansson bursts forward. Songo’o fails to track his man.

The Seattle midfield has narrowed, negating the Timbers 3v2 advantage in the middle, as Zizzo stays out wide. The ball forward by Alonso is missed by a diving Wallace, and Johansson runs on to it. His pass into the centre is aimed towards Montero, but Danso gets there first and directs it past a helpless Ricketts.

Fucking. Textbook. Elementary. Football.

The second goal followed soon after as the Timbers were in disarray. That is, more disarray than is usual.

Here we have Danso following Montero out of defence (a). Tiffert (d) will slot into the space left by Danso (d) as the ball goes left to Evans. Now, there’s only place Evans wants to go here, and it’s inside (c). Palmer’s job here is to get tight, and force Evans onto his weaker left foot, and down the side (b). Instead, Lovel stands off Evans (e), letting him get his head up and measure the cross to Johnson, who is making a customary back post run (f) to finish the move, and the Timbers hopes of a result here, off.

Taking a leaf from the seemingly half-arsed way Wilkinson prepared the team for this match, I’m not even going to bother going over the 3rd goal in any detail, except to say we failed to win the second ball when Johnson got a flick-on because Wallace was asleep at the back post, which was fine cos he was only marking Fredy Montero. Equally, I’ll give the substitutions as much thought and consideration as Wilkinson seemingly did. There, done.

Sure, there were chances for Portland. Songo’o had a couple of sites of goal, Wallace had a free header from a corner, Dike had a sniff, as did Nagbe. Nothing that would overly worry Gspurring, the Sounders keeper.

I went to bed last night, knowing that I would wake up to gold from Wilkinson and the Unsackable One didn’t disappoint.

Those two [David Horst and Futty Danso] haven’t played together an awful lot.

Who picks the team, and who hasn’t been rotating the squad? Look, I get that defensive consistency is important (as I said earlier), but by my quick reckoning Wilkinson has set out the same back four in 7 of the last 9 matches. You can’t have it both ways – you’re either trying players out and seeing what you have, or you’re picking a settled team

They had a lot more mobility in the midfield. They had a lot more freedom and kept the ball moving. They caused problems.

We (supposedly) outnumbered them and yet you’d think Seattle had the extra midfielder. As I said before the game, quick movement of the ball was vital. We did none of that. Seattle did. They won.

(That’s what happens) when you’ve got mature players that understand the game and understand what is expected, and we had problems solving it.

A good coach is supposed to help players “understand the game” (hint: coach). A good coach is supposed to make sure that a player “understands what is expected”. A good coach is supposed to identify problems on the field, and solve it p- not just sit back and blame the players for not understanding. You see something going wrong – fix it! Change it if you have to. Shuffle players around. Relay instructions to the guys on the field. You see it happen all the time in matches all over the world. That’s your job.

Then there’s this…

I have no words.

In a big environment you want players to play well and sometimes when things aren’t going well, one or two players start hiding a little bit. That’s not a go at the players, it’s just the environment.

Just like you know when someone starts a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” it will be followed by the most egregiously racist statement, so “that’s not a go at the players” will, when utter by Gavin Wilkinson, inevitably be preceded by him having a go at the players. Have the courage of your convictions, Gavin. If you want to blame the players, do it. Rev that bus up, crank up the Whitesnake, run them over and back up if you feel like it. Don’t fob us off with crap about “the environment” because you fool no-one but yourself.

We learned a little tonight about certain individuals. It’s going to be an evaluation process through to the end of the year. It was important to see a few players in different positions so we could go into the offseason making the right decisions.

First off, players in different positions – what did we learn about Wallace and Palmer at full-back that we didn’t already know from the many times they’ve played full-back before? That they are as mediocre as everyone already knew? Well, good job Captain, sorry, General Manager Obvious in underlining that point on the biggest fucking stage of the year. I’m giving you the world’s slowest hand clap over here.

Second, and this maybe just my interpretation of what Wilkinson is saying, but it sounds to me that he thought this game was just another experiment. Another attempt to throw shit at the wall and see what sticks. He used the biggest game of the season – the chance to salvage something worthwhile from a Wynaldian trainwreck of a season, in the backyard of our greatest rivals no less (YES, THAT FUCKING GAME) – as an EXPERIMENT? Fuck off with your “it was the players fault” bullshit, if anything they were only taking their cue from you. 1500 fans paid hard cash in good faith to watch Wilkinson tinker with stuff to prove some vague point about players that he should not be allowed to wriggle out of responsibility for signing in the first place.

I wouldn’t put Wilkinson in charge of a McDonald’s franchise, let alone a Major League Soccer team.

Look, as much as it pains us to admit it, we all know Seattle are a better team, with a better head coach. If it wasn’t for the rivalry aspect, there would be no great embarrassment in going there and losing (though the manner of said defeat may be good cause). We know that. So the very least we expect is that the head coach, the general-fucking-manager, takes it seriously and approaches it in the proper manner.

You certainly don’t use it as an excuse to tinker with things. And if the front office did any work at all in scouting Seattle, it was either woefully produced or completely ignored by Wilkinson.

I was 100% on board with the idea of writing off the season, and using the time to see what we had for 2013, and what we needed to get. It made sense. But I don’t think we’ve got that, despite Wilkinson mentioning it whenever he gets a chance. What we’ve had, as far as I can see, is the same small group of players, sometimes playing in different roles, but generally playing in the very positions where we already know exactly what to expect from them. The fringe guys don’t seem to be getting a look in. Eric Alexander gets pity minutes here and there. Danny Mwanga can’t get a run of games together to build some consistency or confidence. Fucito is granted a farewell tour of Seattle (and, with any luck, top flight football) while Richards, Jean-Baptiste and Kawulok can’t get a look in. What are we supposed to be learning, exactly?

When you play a team that are, and the league doesn’t lie, better than you, in their home ground, you adjust your tactics accordingly. You seek to nullify their strengths, and exploit their weakness. You don’t send out two full-backs who aren’t up the task and then resort to lumping the ball forward to Dike who had more success drawing blood from Seattle defenders than he had drawing saves from the Seattle keeper. That is just sloppy.

Gavin Wilkinson’s management of the squad post-Spencer puts me in mind of Cecilia Gimenez, the 81 year old amateur fresco artist from Spain. Both have sought to repair something that, while hardly a masterpiece in the first place, certainly needed a bit of work to bring out it’s best features but their cackhanded attempts have rendered the result a laughing stock. At least the Monkey Jesus is proving popular though, so Cecilia has that over Gavin.

Sure, he never wanted to be head coach and he’s only there to fill in before Caleb Porter gets to add his rut to the wall John Spencer presumably spent 18 months beating his head against. The thing is, I don’t think the guy who has watched Wallace and Palmer (sorry to keep picking on these two – they weren’t the only non-performers out there by any stretch) in training for weeks, months even, and still hasn’t recognised that neither of them are top flight full-backs should be in charge of scouting and signing players. It’d be like hiring Stevie Wonder as an interior decorator or Abu Hamza as a juggler.

Despite this result, the Timbers can still salvage the Cascadia Cup by beating Vancouver next week in the final road match of the season. Winning the trophy after this omnishambles, in our first road victory in our last road match, would be so Portland.

#RCTID

It all comes down to this.

I think we can all agree that this has not been the easiest of seasons. In fact, when we get right down to it, it’s been pretty ridiculous.

Inexplicable things have happened. Things we’d like to forget. Things we wish had never happened.

Through it all, we keep coming back. Despite our minor disagreements, we still stand united.

And now, with the Cascadia Cup on the line, an Army is gathering.

Eighteen buses at last count. Fifteen hundred tickets in the official allotment.

I’ve spent some time over the last couple weeks listening to the last half dozen or so episodes of Heart and Hand, a Rangers podcast. Bless them. If we could extract the accents, half the time, it would seem they were talking about the Timbers. Poor road form, unexpected and ridiculous losses snatched from the jaws of victory (including one recently that bounced Rangers from the Ramsden Cup) and a host of other similarities, not the least of which is a derby opponent whose fans seem more obsessed with Rangers than with their own club, despite the fact that probably won’t even face each other this year.

Gers are struggling, now in the third division of Scottish football, and as we saw when our Timbers began to struggle in the spring, people are calling for the manager’s head. I’m more than a little stunned by this. Without Ally McCoist, there might be no Rangers. Regardless, it was this quote from the pod that sent me off on this tangent:

One of the frames from them was that there’s no room for sentiment in football. And that, I have to say, is the most stupid thing I think I’ve ever heard. Football is entirely, intrinsically built on sentiment. If it wasn’t, you would change every year and support the most successful club. The reason you stay loyal is sentiment… it’s entirely sentiment.

Entirely sentiment.

Sentiment is why we continue. Sentiment is why, on a Sunday afternoon in October, over 1500 Timbers faithful will travel 180 miles into enemy territory knowing that our boys are underdogs.

“It means more,” one of my TA elders tells me, “because we do it together.” Sentiment.

We have survived this season because we’ve done it together. We’ve celebrated, we’ve mourned. We’re within a point of bringing home the Cascadia Cup and salvaging the season. And this we will do together.

For those unable to make the trip, our triumph will be broadcast Sunday on ESPN.

The soundtrack to our weekend, our Cascadia Cup derby weekend, can be found here. Be warned: it is not safe for sensitive ears.


You can read more from Kristen at her blog.