Porter’s Timbers

The Portland Timbers confirmed one of MLS’s worst kept secrets today when he announced that Caleb Porter would be their new head coach, taking over following the completion of the Akron Zips’ season in time for the 2013 MLS season.

The move to Portland will be Porter’s first foray into professional club management after a hugely successful time at the University of Akron, where he oversaw the development of a number of current MLS stars including the Timbers’ own Darlington Nagbe.

Many expected the Timbers would go with experience after the disappointing end to the John Spencer era, but owner Merritt Paulson was effusive in his praise for Porter, saying “Put simply, I believe Caleb Porter is the best young soccer coaching mind in the country.”

The lustre was somewhat taken off Porter following his failure to guide the US U’23 team to the London Olympics, but clearly the front office heard enough from him to convince them that that failure was a mere blip in the career of a hugely promising head coach.

Background

Caleb Porter moved into coaching relatively young after injuries curtailed his playing career at 25. His first coaching job was as assistant to Jerry Yeagley, and then Mike Freitag, at Indiana University and Yeagley, in particular, was a massive influence on the young coach.

Porter had played under Yeagley before turning professional, where the experienced coach sought to channel Porter’s natural intensity for the good of the team. The player had earned the nickname “Jean-Claude Van Damme” for his habit of tearing off his shirt to intimidate others during summer caps.

“Not in any ways was he a dirty player,” Yeagley said of Porter, “he was a hard player.”

Porter, a defensive midfielder, was a key part of that Indiana team and would later be drafted by San Jose Clash in 1998, but the intensity that had made him captain at Indiana bubbled over on his debut, where he managed to get himself sent off.

His career in MLS never really got off the ground, and knee injuries put an end to it altogether in 2000. Back at Indiana, he was mentored by Yeagley and his skills as a coach developed quickly, and soon made him stand out such that the University of Akron hired him to take over as head coach there in 2006.

With the Zips, he took a team that had a single NCAA Round of 16 appearance in the previous ten seasons and developed them into a powerhouse of US College soccer.

Porter’s eye for detail and man management abilities soon had the team firing on the field, while his eye of talent saw some of US soccer’s brightest prospect turning up in Ohio.

Porter was an enthusiastic adopter of technology, embracing statistical analysis systems like Match Analysis to give his teams that little bit extra edge that would, eventually, take them all the way to the NCAA final in 2009.

Although they would lose out on penalties to the University of Virginia, Porter had done enough in his time in Akron to attract the attention of DC United following the resignation of Tom Soehn after another poor season for the Black-and-Red.

Few could’ve blamed a young coach, fresh off some success, for having his head turned by the bright lights of Major League Soccer, but Porter chose to stick with the Zips, signing a new five year contract.

The decision would prove to be a good one for Porter as 2010 saw the Zips go one better when they won the national championship, fired to success by a certain Mr Nagbe, who won the Hermann Trophy that year, as well as Perry Kitchen and Darren Mattocks.

International

Porter’s sterling reputation at college level led to his appointment last October as head coach of the US U’23 team that would seek qualification to the 2012 London Olympics. It was a role that allowed him to retain his position at Akron, following his signing a 10 year contract after his 2010 championship success.

Despite big promises and high hopes, the qualifying campaign came to a crashing halt after a loss to Canada and a draw to El Salvador that saw the US eliminated.

It was a grave disappointment to all US Soccer fans, and Porter came in for much criticism for failure. Blame was laid at his door by some for his supposed “tactical inflexibility.” That’s a phrase that should get every Timbers fans worried after the experience of John Spencer where the Scot seemed unable or unwilling to deviate far from a throwback 4-4-2 style that was consistently being out-thought by other MLS coaches.

With the national team, Porter sought to replicate the attacking, possession based system he utilized at Akron. You don’t have to dig very far into Porter’s history before references to Barcelona and Arsenal abound regarding his team’s playing style.

In his early years in Ohio, he had his team playing with a fluid and mobile 4-4-2, but has changed it up recently, moving to a more “European” 4-3-3. One that that has remained constant has been Porter’s adherence to playing attacking football.

“We want to be known for playing the game in an attractive, attack-oriented way,” Porter has said of his Akron team. “We [want] people to see us win, but also feel good about the way we won.”

Porter places a high value on playing the game in an aesthetically pleasing way, and being proactive in their approach. His team’s will commonly look to keep the ball, and move it around at great pace, switching up between bouts of quick, short passes and long ball into space.

The key to this style of play is repetition, repetition, repetition. What the fans see on game day is the mere tip of the iceberg, beneath the surface lay countless hours of work on the training ground, drilling players and pushing them to develop tactically and technically.

While I don’t think Porter should escape all flak for the national team’s failure to make the Olympics, international football is a completely different beast to that of the domestic game. He wouldn’t be the first club coach to find life difficult in the international arena, and he won’t be the last.

Where club football affords you the time with your players to work on the intricate details of your tactical system, at international level there simply isn’t the time. You have to quickly mould together a diverse group of players, who are all likely playing in different systems domestically, and quickly form a cohesive unit.

Perhaps Porter was too ambitious in trying to force through his fluid system in such a short space of time, but that shouldn’t be such a problem at the domestic level.

Some critics also pointed out Porter’s lack of professional coaching experience as a problem, the insinuation being that top players wouldn’t listen to this young, unproven in their eyes, coach in the way that they perhaps would with a Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley – both of whom also learned their trade as University coaches.

One of Caleb Porter’s biggest critics in this regard was the twattish outspoken twitter trainwreck football fuckwit pundit-turned-coach Eric Wynalda.

“Caleb Porter was just given a job to coach a bunch of professionals, which is something he knows nothing about. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he failed and the team failed and that we didn’t qualify for the Olympics. Does Caleb Porter do a good job? A fantastic job, and his job is to be a recruiter, and what he’s been phenomenal at is convincing 10 families to send their kids to his university so they can have a successful program. But asking him to stand in front of a bunch of professionals and tell them what to do wasn’t going to work. It was never going to work.”

Whereas I’m sure players would have a ton of respect for Mr Wynalda.

Caleb Porter’s Timbers

I don’t foresee this being such a problem at the Timbers. I don’t think players look at a coaches resume before deciding whether to respect a coach or not – that comes by by the coach interacts and gets on with the job. If it purely came down to Wynalda’s rather cynical view of professional footballers, there would be no career for Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger or Andre Vilas-Boas. All coaches with little to no professional playing experience, but who quickly won round players with effective coaching and man management. Well, at Porto at least for Vilas-Boas – let’s not talk about Chelsea – but you get my point!

So what can the Timbers fans expect for Porter’s Timbers? To be honest, I think we’ll see more of what we’ve seen under Wilkinson. It’s hard not to think that this is an appointment a long time in the inking, but which has seen the groundwork being put in place for some time now.

The way the team are playing is certainly on the road to how Porter would likely want the team doing. The key to how the club will progress will be in how effectively he can put his ideas across, and how far he can develop the talent already here or how much control he’ll have over the recruitment policy.

There are rumours that the Perkins trade was instigated, or at least okayed, by Porter. This may not exactly endear him to some fans, but if true then the trading of such a popular and influential first team player would suggest that Porter’s word will carry a lot of sway with the front office, though there will still be a not insignificant contingent of fans for whom Wilkinson’s seemingly perpetual presence in a position of power in Portland provokes a perdurable and passionate peevishness.

Some may question Porter’s loyalty to Akron, staying in the post till December and whether he’ll have enough time to implement the kind of changes he’ll likely have to to turn around the ailing Timbers. I don’t think it’s such a great concern as I’m sure, even though he won’t be discussing the issue publicly, he’ll be maintaining daily contact with Wilkinson and the coaching staff and keeping abreast of matters in Portland. It’s far from ideal, but I hardly think he’s going to rock up in the Rose City in December completely unprepared.

I suspect that there will be a lot of dead wood to be cleared out by Porter before the Timbers kick off their all-conquering 2013 season. Guys like Kris Boyd and Lovel Palmer, to name but two, don’t strike me as players who fit into Porter’s high impact, possession-led way of playing. The coincidental timing of an announcement that Jeld-Wen Field will be widened to 74 yards next season is most fortuitous as it will suit the direction that Caleb Porter will want to take the team in. It may – may – also shut up a few tumshies around the league, stopping them banging on about how small the pitch is. Let’s see how they like having a stadium full of rabid fanatics bearing down right on top of them now.

Of course, we’ve been down that road before with John Spencer given a lot of rope in regards to player acquisition, and it didn’t exactly work out great, but this is a clean slate. The potential Caleb Porter has as a coach is great, and the ambition of Merritt Paulson is no secret.

Marrying the two could, at last, produce a side that delivers true and lasting success to a fan base that has already proven itself loyal to the team through the most trying of period. Imagine the noise they’ll make when the MLS Cup comes to it’s spiritual home in Soccer City USA.

#RCTID

Couver Up

The Timbers took command of the Cascadia Cup standings with a deserved 2-1 victory at home to Vancouver Whitecaps, setting themselves up for a huge match against Seattle in a couple of weeks – as if that particular tie needed any more hype.

I suspected that Kimura would miss the match after he tickled Tim Cahill’s elbow with his nose last week, but to my surprise and relief he was named in the Starting XI. Relief as I’d psyched myself up for a Lovel Palmer master class at full-back this week, and that would be avoided.

The only change made by Gavin Wilkinson was an enforced one, with Eric Alexander coming in for Diego Chara. I wasn’t surprised to see Dike retain his place as it would be hard to drop a guy who scored the previous week. Kris Boyd warmed the bench once more.

In truth, there wasn’t much between the teams in the early stages with the Timbers showing some patience in retaining the ball that was so often lacking in Spencer’s team. There was always a sense under Spenny that if the team put more than three or four passes together and hadn’t made it to the edge of the opposition box, the ball would be launched forward in desperation.

It was Donovan Ricketts’ first home match as a Timber, and he gave the Timbers Army a taste of what he could do with a fantastic long throw early on that put Franck Songo’o in.

It’s certainly different from what we’d become used to with Troy Perkins, whose big failing was often his distribution. In truth though, despite some blockbuster throws and kicks, Ricketts could do with changing it up now and then as he seemed to rely too often on the long ball out.

Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that in this department at least, the move to bring in the Jamaican does represent an “upgrade”, even if I remain resolutely unconvinced that’s he’s any better a shot stopper or defensive organiser than Perkins.

It was through quick breaks that the Timbers tended to get most joy in attack, though Songo’o was having one of those games where he wasn’t as effective as he has been in the past. Down the right we have Sal Zizzo who gives a lot of pace and width, but down the left Songo’o seemed more intent on coming inside rather than testing the Vancouver full-backs.

As Nagbe looks up having gotten the ball in deep midfield, I’d be wanting Songo’o to pull on the shoulder of his man and go wide to stretch the play, but instead he runs straight down the middle where the Whitecaps have DeMerit covering.

Even with the ball at his feet, he’d invariably narrow the attack.

I don’t doubt Songo’o has bags of talent, but at times he seems to lack the instinct to play the role he’s been given. It’s like he wants to beat players at all costs, even if that means running right towards a mass of defenders instead of pulling off towards space and letting the rest of the team find gaps to exploit.

This break came only a couple of minutes before the Timbers opened the scoring, and the way the team used width is a nice contrast.

Dike’s pulling DeMerit out of position is key to this whole passage of play, and you can see how stretched the Vancouver defence is by his run out wide. Compare that to how narrow Songo’o allowed them to get in his breakaway chance.

Using the width, even in a shoe box like Jeld-Wen Field, isn’t just about getting it to the wingers so that they can swing cross after cross into the box – it’s also about creating space in the centre and that’s what you saw in the goal. The Timbers found themselves with players in space in a dangerous area, and instead of a mass of four or five defenders in their way, there were two.

It was still a fantastic touch by Nagbe to take two players out of the game, and a lovely finish, but the work of Dike shouldn’t be underestimated in helping engineer the chance in the first place.

Dike had had an earlier chance when he made a good front-to-back post move to get between DeMerit and the fullback for a header from a fantastic Smith cross, but he hit the post. In truth, I didn’t think Dike had an especially great game, but he worked hard and he’s a presence up top that the opposition can’t ignore.

Vancouver lined up without a Dike figure in attack, going with a more mobile and fluid front line that looked to pull the Timbers defence around to create space for balls into feet. To the Timbers credit, they didn’t allow this to happen and stuck to their jobs, apart from one moment in the first half.

Miller’s move was key in this move as the the Timbers were pretty well matched up across the back and in midfield. By dropping off though he gave Vancouver a man extra against Jewsbury, and forced Horst to follow him out lest the ball go into his feet.

However Horst’s move left space for the attacker to move into and Vancouver created a shooting chance. I don’t want to give Horst too much of a kicking here as I understand why he felt he had to match Miller. It was exactly the kind of move I feared we’d see from Vancouver, but fortunately this was really the only time they were able to make the Timbers defence do their bidding.

However, Horst certainly didn’t cover himself in glory with the Vancouver goal, which came after a disputed corner kick in the dying seconds of the first half.

Again, I can see why he was covering across (though I don’t think he had to) but he completely switched off and was caught on his heels when the ball was cleared when his first instinct should’ve been to push out. By dallying he gave Miller an easy chance to open his MLS account.

The problem with Horst, as I see it, is he’s 95% of a decent, workable MLS defender. But that 5% represents a lack of concentration and poor decision making that seems to manifest itself in a mistake at least once a game. And when you’re the last man, making a mistake can often be fatal.

There were shades of the New York match as the Timbers through away a lead in the dying moments of the half, with help from questionable officiating, and there can’t have been many fans who didn’t have at least a momentary panic that we’d seen how this story ends before.

Losing such a controversial goal at such a horrible time would’ve at least made Wilkinson’s team talk pretty easy, as I don’t doubt the team were fired up by a sense of injustice. Aside from the way the goal came about, there was also the sense that we deserved the lead on merit any way.

The second half followed much the same pattern as the first. There’s not a great deal between these clubs, but the Timbers probably edged it.

Songo’o continued to delight on one hand, and frustrate on the other.

There’s no doubt that Songo’o is a skilful player, but he’d benefit at times from getting his head up and taking the easy way out rather than over-complicating things. But I guess, if he was the complete package he wouldn’t be ex-Barcelona, let alone ex-Portsmouth.

He’d soon delight the Timbers faithful with the 2nd, and decisive, goal from a free kick. He did well to get the ball up, over the wall and back down but Joe Cannon had an absolute howler. The Vancouver keeper somehow endeavoured to let the ball squirm through his grasp and into the net.

Having to chase the game, the Whitecaps threw on Mattocks and switched from a 4-2-3-1 to more of a 4-4-2, with one holding midfielder instead of the two they had previously. I thought that perhaps , with a bit of daring, the Timbers could’ve pushed someone in midfield a little further forward and look to hurt Vancouver here, but we never did.

Mattocks wouldn’t have any great impact on the game, though he did have on David Horst’s face when a clumsy jump for the ball saw him lead his arms. He got a red card, though I felt a yellow would’ve been warranted, but in truth the Timbers looked pretty comfortable playing against 11 – one good chance for the Whitecaps aside when Steven Smith was called upon to head the ball off the line.

Smith, after a shaky spell a while ago, seems to be settling a bit more and looking much more assured at left-back. He and Kimura both had solid games, and it’s telling that Vancouver were able to get very little joy down the wings.

Another player who impressed me greatly was Eric Alexander. Much of what was good about the Timbers going forward would invariably go through Alexander at some point, and he stepped into the Chara role with aplomb. I’ve never really take much note of his defensive work in the past, but I thought he was quietly effective in this aspect of the game and helped out when needed. Chances are that he’ll sit out the next game when Chara returns which is a shame, but if you’re going to have problems it’s much better to have too many good players to fit into the midfield than not enough.

Jewsbury was also efficient in his role. Given the way that Vancouver’s forward line were all over the place it would’ve been easy for him to get pulled around and taken out of position but he stuck to his role and did the unglamorous work of keeping it tight at the back and quickly passing the ball on to his more attack-minded team mates to take forward.

The whistle was met with a mixture of relief and joy. It’s Wilkinson’s first win as interim head coach, and if rumours about Caleb Porter’s imminent appointment prove to be true, it may be his only win. I don’t know a great deal about Porter, though I’ll be doing a fair bit of reading if it does pan out, but he certainly did all right according to Football Manager 2012!

Porter was, of course, Nagbe’s coach at Akron and if it’s true that the new man has been consulted for some time on team matters, it’s quite interesting to note how Darlington’s performances have really picked up in the last few weeks. Coincidence? Probably, but still… If anyone is going to get the best from him, you’d have to think the guy who made his a star at college level has a pretty good shot.

Overall, I thought we deserved the win, though I actually felt the team played better for long spells against Toronto and New York. But against Vancouver we put together a much more complete performance across (most of) the 90 and breaking the long run without a win will hopefully give the team the impetus to kick on and end the season on a hopeful note for next year.

I posted a couple of graphics on twitter that show how the team aren’t actually that far off repeating our 2011 record.

The main difference is that we’ve really struggled to keep clean sheets this year. We actually kept as many clean sheets on the road in 2011 as we have done in the entire 2012 season thus far – 3. As long as we keep making elementary mistakes at the back it’s hard to see that situation improving, so the incoming coach certainly has a job on his hands whipping them into shape.

Colorado Rapids, fresh from a spanking in San Jose, are next up at Jeld-Wen at the end of the week. A victory against the Rapids would see the Timbers overhaul them in the table and, if results go our way, possibly even Chivas too.

It’s been a funny old year.

#RCTID


[post_ender]

The Devil’s Advocate

It would be fair to say that there has been a fair amount of anti-Gavin Wilkinson material on this site. I’ve stated in the past that I felt the sacking of John Spencer was the correct decision, but only half the job as I felt, and still feel, that Wilkinson bears a large culpability for the club’s woes.

However, a couple of tweets I received got me thinking a bit.

Playing Devil’s Advocate can be a useful intellectual exercise, or so I find. Most Timbers blogs, and the overwhelming majority of the #RCTID feed on twitter tend towards anti-Wilkinson sentiment, but I think it’s good to explore the other side of the argument as “herd mentality” can sometimes take over, making it easy to get swept along. By arguing against yourself you can explore why you feel the way you feel and it can make your arguments stronger. Besides which, debate is always good.

So, while I may not be a fan of Wilkinson, what is the case for his defence? That’s what I’ll (hopefully) explore here.

Consistency

Since Merritt Paulson took over the Timbers franchise back in May 2007, much has changed at the club right down to the very ground itself, which was redeveloped for the step up to MLS in 2011.

One of the biggest constants held over from Paulson’s first day is Gavin Wilkinson. Wilkinson, a former player and team captain, was made head coach at the end of the 2006 season following a disastrous year that saw the club toiling under the management of Chris Agnello.

For all of Paulson’s reign, Wilkinson has been right there with him. When the Timbers won the MLS franchise, Wilkinson stepped aside as head coach, yet retained his position as general manager.

Wilkinson clearly has the respect of the team owner, and has had a lot of influence in the preparation for Major League Soccer. The hiring of John Spencer would’ve been Paulson’s first head coach appointment and I’ve no doubt that Wilkinson’s coaching expertise was of crucial importance.

Though John Spencer never worked out in the end, he came into the job with a great reputation as one of the league’s finest up-and-coming coaches. He’d worked closely with Dominic Kinnear at Houston Dynamo and had great knowledge of the intricacies of working in MLS. The lack of top flight experience was a problem for the timbers in moving up, but in Spencer they seemed to have the best of both worlds – someone with MLS experience, but who would yet bring a fresh look to the expansion club.

With the search for the Timbers second permanent head coach presumably in it’s final stages, Wilkinson has undoubtedly been influential once more. Paulson has defended his general manager on twitter, stating, “If I thought it was [Wilkinson] who was the issue than [sic] it would have been different presser at midseason”.

Hindsight has a habit of making past decisions look foolish, and it’s easy to sit back now and say that the Timbers should’ve appointed someone with experience to ease the club into the top flight. Going with Spencer was a brave choice even though it seems to have been a mistake now.

Not even Wilkinson’s staunchest supporters would claim he had made no mistakes in his tenure. “He has made some mistakes but he’s done a ton of good and a lot has gone on that nobody sees”, said Paulson.

The club’s trade record can also make for painful, retrospective, reading.

Kenny Cooper scored against the Timbers at the weekend, and his form this season for New York has been a source of rancour for some. His time in Portland was professionally frustrating for all involved, but it wasn’t Wilkinson who failed to get the best out of Kenny Cooper.

Indeed, there were mixed feelings regarding the trade at the time.

Source: bigsoccer.com

Another trade that looks poor in retrospect was that of Moffat for Chabala and Palmer. This looks especially bad as Adam Moffat went on to play in the MLS Cup that year while the Timbers failed to reach the play-offs, but in the context of the times when the move was made, I don’t think it stacks up so badly.

It’s easy to forget that Adam Moffat could hardly get a game for the Timbers. Four appearances, all of them as sub, for a grand total of 100 minutes of playing time. Again, it wasn’t Gavin Wilkinson’s fault that Moffat couldn’t dislodge either Jewsbury and Chara as John Spencer’s favoured midfield.

With the club lacking cover at full-back, a move that saw a bench warmer shipped out in return for two full-backs seemed like a great piece of business. Lovel Palmer had been a regular for Houston since his move from his native Jamaica.

Looking back, the move can leave you smacking your head as Moffat continues to feature in the Dynamo’s midfield, while Chabala has been moved on and Palmer is as popular with a section of fans as Todd Akin in a rape crisis center. But beating Wilkinson with that stick seems like petty revisionism.

Respect

Wilkinson’s interim appointment as head coach was met with derision and concern from some quarters but he has the respect of the coaching staff, many of whom he has worked with in the past.

Amos Magee was an assistant under Wilkinson during the Timbers USL days, and Cameron Knowles, a fellow Kiwi to boot, was one of Wilkinson’s first signings as head coach, back in 2007. Knowles joined the coaching staff at the start of 2012.

Sean McAuley also joined the coaching staff this year, following the departure of Spencer, and the ex-Sheffield Wednesday coach played alongside Wilkinson in the Timbers defence during the 2002 season. His appointment was hailed be Paulson as “a great add” and Wilkinson has also spoken about the fresh voice that McAuley has brought to the locker room.

Merritt Paulson has also asserted that Wilkinson has the respect of the players, saying that the “state of locker room is extremely happy” and that Wilkinson “has been popular w players season [sic]. we create anonymous feedback outlets. obviously w 30 guys, always outliers.”

There may be speculation about how those “outliers” are, or were. Certainly, reading between the lines, there doesn’t seem to have been a great deal of love lost from Troy Perkins following his recent trade to Montreal, and some fans speculate that Kris Boyd’s relegation the bench against New York (where he was subsequently unused as a sub) are a sign of tension between the club’s high-earning top scorer and Wilkinson.

It’s all speculation though and unless Paulson is flat-out lying there’s no reason to doubt that most of the locker room is fully behind Wilkinson and his short-term appointment.

The sense of continuity provided by having Wilkinson step in while a search is carried out for a new head coach has given the locker room a sense of stability that can easily be lost when a manager is sacked and big changes are made.

Ambition

Paulson’s rather crude assertion that “the same morons starting this [#GWOut] movement [would] line up to kiss gavin’s ass”, while somewhat lacking in diplomacy, does speak to the continued ambition of Paulson and Wilkinson.

The team owner had previously set goals for the club’s second year that have clearly not been met, but the road map remains the same. Together they are building a squad that is capable of delivering success commensurate with the level of support they receive. Should they start to deliver the results they seek in the 3rd and 4th years, then this season will be looked back as little more than an unfortunate detour off course.

The hiring of an experienced, and respected coach such as McAuley is a part of the rebuilding process, and the club continue to change things on the field. Kosuke Kimura was signed shortly before Spencer’s sacking, and since Spencer has gone the changes have continued apace.

The trade of Perkins was a controversial one, the merits of which continue to be debated by fans and pundits alike, but Wilkinson and Paulson have been steadfast in asserting that bringing in Ricketts was an “upgrade”. Paulson tweeted that the “team was broken and system needed to be torn down and rebuilt” and this what we’re seeing now.

Mike Chabala was moved on to DC United – a move that makes sense for both parties in my opinion, as Chabala never really impressed upon me that he was a guy to command a place in the match day 18, never mind the starting 11 – while New Zealand international Ian Hogg has been brought in on what is effectively an extended trial. Bright Dike, one of the star players in the Timbers final USL season, was promptly recalled from loan at LA Blues upon Spencer’s departure to bolster the attack, something he did to fine effect against New York. It’s unlikely that the club are finished reshaping the team this year as, with Paulson on the “verge of hiring a terrific coach“, it seems that some of the moves are being guided with this new appointment in mind.

Performance

“I’ve been responsible for bringing all those players here. Now it’s up to me to get a little bit more out of them.” The words of Gavin Wilkinson on his appointment as interim head coach are very telling to me as they indicated the front office’s belief that Spencer’s great failing was in not finding a way to get a good return out of the squad at his disposal.

A record of 5 defeats and 2 draws in his 7 matches, with 8 goals scored and a whopping 18 conceded, makes it easy to dismiss Wilkinson’s record as interim head coach. However, since it’s a role he’s made clear he doesn’t want on a permanent basis, so it’s hard to see how his record as a coach can be used to beat him if he’s no interest in being coach. Rather his remit seems to me to have been to address how the team is playing, and this is perhaps a better way to measure Wilkinson’s time in the hot seat during this difficult transitional period.

The biggest change since Spencer’s sacking has been the adoption of a 4-3-3 system. Spencer seemed unwilling or unable to change from his tried-and-tested 4-4-2, his greatest tinkering reserved to adopting a flawed “diamond” system, so it’s perhaps understandable that there would be an “adjustment” period for players as they got used to the new system.

Early results were poor – the first three matches under Wilkinson saw the Timbers ship 5 goals twice and score only 3, but recent performances have been much improved, even if it hasn’t brought a great improvement in results.

There have been two draws in the last four matches, with a strong case to be made that a bit of luck or more composure in front of goal could’ve resulted in at least a couple of wins. The team have scored 5, and lost 7 – a record that would (measured across a whole season) result in the team being a single goal worse off than under the record under Spencer by scoring 10 more, and conceding 11.

For a team under reconstruction, and undergoing a change in footballing philosophy, that’s not such a bad return. Paulson seems to agree that performances are encouraging, tweeting that the “players [are] being used as they should and we actually have a system now.”

That system has brought about an improvement from a number of players. Darlington Nagbe has been a source for debate for much of the season as the youngster suffered from a mid-season slump in his form. Recently though there seems to have been the return of some of his old spark, and he had probably his best game in a long time against New York. The 4-3-3 seems to free up Nagbe from much of the defensive responsibility that Spencer’s use of the 4-4-2 placed upon him, and he’s benefiting.

Another player benefiting from less defensive onus is Diego Chara. The Colombian midfielder is now being used as more of a box-to-box midfielder under Wilkinson, and he’s been a revelation in the role. Essentially, he’s now playing more in the opponents first half, and putting his quick passing and intelligent play to use in creating for the Timbers, rather than solely destroying the work of the opposition. It seems much more suited to his abilities, though it does come at the cost of lessening the Timbers presence in defensive midfield, and perhaps contributes in some way to the leakier-than-usual back line of recent weeks.

With Chara renewed in midfield, Jack Jewsbury has also seen his game improve as the anchor man in midfield. There was a good post about how the clearly delineated roles for Jewsbury and Chara had helped them both, and it certainly seems that Captain Jack seems more assured and confident in the role now that he and Diego Chara aren’t getting in each others way at the base of the midfield.


In conclusion it’s clearly not been plain sailing. Results have been poor, and that is ultimately what matters. You don’t get points for style, or moral victories. Nor, unbelievably, for shots on goal and possession. The defence remains a big problem, and I suspect that the work to set it right – started with the signing of Kimura – has only just begun. I have my own doubts about David Horst’s abilities at this level, and I think at 29 we’re unlikely to see great improvement from Futty. Eric Brunner’s fitness remains an engima. Finding a partner for Mosquera must surely be a priority for Wilkinson and The New Head Coach Who Shall Not Be Named, though with the return to the club of Andrew Jean-Baptiste perhaps the youngster can stack his claim in the few weeks that remain of the 2012 season.

The fact of the matter is that Wilkinson is here for the long haul. Paulson is adamant that Wilkinson is “not going anywhere”. Consistency is the watchword, and “making [Wilkinson] a scapegoat and calls for heads in our 2nd year in league is bush-league“.

That’s not to say Wilkinson’s position is one for life. “If its like this next year than go ahead and call for his head,“ Paulson tweeted, though this won’t stop some fans making their feeling perfectly clear against Vancouver at the weekend. The next year, starting with the formal appointment of a new head coach, could make or break Wilkinson’s tenure with the Timbers.

Paulson views the #GWOut movement as a “witch hunt”, while a vocal section of fans see it as necessary to save their club. A new head coach make take some of the heat off the front office for a while, but it’s unlikely to dampen the fires entirely as both sides continue to entrench their positions. Even delivering a MLS Cup next year is unlikely to have fans lining up to kiss Kiwi ass as, I suspect, such success would be viewed as being in spite of Gavin Wilkinson rather than thanks to him.

Who is right will ultimately be another one of those things that will only become clear with hindsight. For now fans better just buckle up cos there’s no sign that the ride is going to get any less bumpy any time soon.

The defence rests.

#RCTID


As any twitter-literate Timbers fan will know, Merritt is rather fond of deleting tweets so you’re not going to find many of the quotes used here in his current feed. But trust me, they were all there at one point.

[post_ender]

Largely Fictitious

The Timbers served up another one of those games that’ll take a couple of years off the lifespan of every fan who witnessed it as they lost for the 18th time in 29 road trips. But this was so much more than just another routine road loss.

This game had the Timbers racing into an improbable, yet richly deserved, two goal lead before blowing it all, losing 3-2, amidst some cosmically awful refereeing, missed chances and an epic post-game twitter meltdown from the club owner.

And yet there are some people out there who think that soccer is boring. I pity those poor, poor bastards.

After the emotional wringer that was Toronto in midweek, Gavin Wilkinson opted for the same shape against New York but swapped in Songo’o and Dike for Wallace and Boyd.

The exclusion of the club’s top scorer was certainly a bold move by Wilkinson, though it was to pay dividends early on when it was Dike that put the Timbers 1-0 up.

Dike is a popular guy among Timbers fans after his USL exploits, and it’s great to see him finding a place in the team after his first year was badly hampered by injury. When he was sent on load to LA Blues earlier this year I honestly thought that was the end of Bright Dike as a Portland Timber, but he’s fought his way back into the reckoning very nicely.

What I loved about the goal though wasn’t necessarily the finish, it was the build up play. Against Toronto the team seemed determined to slow the pace as they crossed into the opposing half, but there was none of that hesitancy here.

New York had been served a warning only minutes prior when the Timbers broke out from a corner.

A better touch from Dike, or more willingness and composure to put his foot on the ball and get his head up and perhaps something could’ve come of the break, but it served the Red Bulls notice of what the Timbers intentions were – they were going to sit in and look to spring out down the flanks.

Roy Miller, at left back for New York, had the sort of game that reminds you that the full-back position for the Timbers could be worse. He was terrible. Time and again he was caught out of position and Zizzo had him in his back pocket for all the 36 minutes he graced Red Bull Arena with his presence.

It was by mugging Miller that Zizzo was able to set in motion the flowing move that led to the Timbers 2nd goal.

I get the feeling that in earlier games, Songo’o either throws a hopeful ball from wide into Dike, or looks to lay it back to Smith, but here he cuts in to great effect and draws the defenders towards him. Rather than his usual tact of then trying to beat them, he lays it off to Zizzo and he rolls it past Miller and into the path of Nagbe who made a devastating run from deep that every Timbers fan would love to see more of.

Zizzo’s role in both goals was a delight too. He menaced the New York back line, looking like a real threat every time he got the ball. He was crafty and composed and by far the team’s most effective player early on.

Having been at fault in both Timbers goal, Roy Miller’s game came to a premature end as he was replaced by Kenny Cooper.

As all thoughts turned to making it to half-time with the two-goal lead in tact, the Timbers began to sink back as New York pushed on to grab something before the break. There was almost a sense of inevitability when Cooper scored the goal they’d sought, and that it would come from some suspect defensive work.

Songo’o put in a better defensive shift that I’ve seen from him, but the one time he fell asleep it cost the team a goal, though David Horst needs to have a strong word with himself. At no point does he seem concerned by the presence of Cooper, and it was such a sloppy goal to lose. And at the worst possible time.

With their shape totally lost, the Timbers task was simply a case of grimly hanging on for a few minutes, but they allowed McCarty time to get a shot off, which was blocked by David Horst, only for the rebound to be lashed home by Tim Cahill.

And there is nothing more to say about that goal.

Oh, except that referee Jason Anno is an Olympic grade halfwit.

Anno blew his whistle, presumably for a handball from Horst – though the angle is hard to tell – before Cahill took his shot, but then decided to allow the goal to stand. He can claim he played advantage till he’s blue in the face, but the fact is he blew his whistle before the goal was scored and therefore the goal shouldn’t have stood. It’s his own fault for not taking a second to see if an advantage occurred before spasmodically whistling like the last pillhead at a rave.

After the match he claimed, sorry, he lied that he blew the whistle “when the ball entered the goal.” No, you didn’t Jason. I have a functioning set of eyes and ears, and the senses to wield them, and I clearly heard the whistle before Cahill shot.

Now unless there’s some kind of weird time dilation effect in Red Bull Arena, there’s no getting away from that fact. The whistle went first. Science agrees with me. Let’s say that Anno is 30m from the sideline, so it would take a little under 0.1 of a second – or a third of a blink of an eye – for the sound of the ref’s whistle to reach the sideline mics. By comparison, it would take a tad over 100 microseconds for the light from Cahill striking the ball to reach the camera – roughly 1/10000th of the time it took the sound to carry.

Even if you allow for the camera to be further back, in order for Anno’s interpretation to be correct, there must have been some inexplicable warping of light speed that caused it to slow to that of an admittedly sprightly cheetah, while the speed of sound remained constant.

QED, Anno is full of shit.

That’s not me talking, that’s science, bitches.

It was a sickening way to end a half that had promised so much, but there had been enough evidence in the first half to suggest that the Timbers could still come out with all 3 points.

The second half served up good chances for both sides. Ricketts came up big with a double save, while the Timbers continued to carve open the Red Bull defence. Nagbe had a good chance from the edge of the box, but he didn’t get it far enough away from Gaudette to beat the keeper.

Chara served one up for Zizzo shortly after with a really delightful through-ball.

Chara’s role further up the field certainly sacrifices a bit defensively, but when you see him split open the defence like that it’s hard to argue with playing him in a more advanced role.

The wee Colombian got the next crack at Gaudette when Nagbe, who looked reinvigorated in the first half, set him clear.

Again the Timbers failed to apply the finish that the set-up deserved. There was no Boyd to blame for the misses this time, and indeed the club’s top scorer would remain on the bench as Wilkinson looked to Fucito to replace the gassed Bright Dike with less than 20 minutes to go.

Kimura had earlier been replaced by Lovel Palmer when Tim Cahill’s macho charisma caused the Japanese fullback to dive face first into the turf, breaking his nose and giving himself concussion. Or the snidey little Aussie shitehawk elbowed him in the face. Who can tell?

The third change would see the club’s assist leader also left on the shelf when Rodney Wallace replaced Franck Songo’o as the Cameroonian faded out of the game.

With all three subs made, the Timbers promptly shot themselves in the foot and gave up another soft goal.

A sickening end to a roller-coaster game. How often will the Timbers give up free headers in and around their six yard box. I like David Horst, but I fear he’s simply not commanding enough to warrant a place in the team.

As for the subs, the Timbers were desperately unlucky in losing a goal as soon as the third change was made, meaning there was no way to push for an equaliser (though we still did have a good chance at the death, to be fair). However, the Wallace ? Songo’o change smacked of a team that was settling for the draw, and when you do that you risk getting sucker-punched spark out.

The Palmer change was understandable. The only other (keep the same system) change available would’ve been to put on Alexander and slot Jewsbury back into RB. It would’ve meant putting Chara into defensive midfield. Maybe that was the call to make. If I’m being honest though, in Wilkinson’s position I make the same change and I’m no great fan of Palmer.

Dike going off wasn’t a shock – he looked tired. Fucito coming on was. I think the idea was that Fucito’s energy would stretch a tired NY defence, but having faced the physical presence of Dike I can’t help but think the Bulls defence heaved a sigh of relief when they saw Fucito coming on.

For me, if you wanted to keep the tempo up, the ideal change would’ve been to bring Mwanga on, but he wasn’t in the 18. Boyd languished.

With the final change Songo’o had faded too (shock) but bringing on Wallace wasn’t the move I’d have made. Fucito could’ve easily gone out left and Boyd up top, or even Alexander on and out left (or Nagbe going there) which would’ve, in my opinion, offered more of an offensive presence. In the end, Wallace Marcelin’ed his closers role.

There were certainly some positives to be taken. There was some tidy attacking play, and with better finishing we’d be looking at a comfortable road win at a ground no team have come to and won this year. The chances the Timbers created were very good. There was a post earlier in the week that ranked various stats in an attempt to “shed some light” on why Spencer was fired, and the differences in the team under Wilkinson but such an “analysis” was flawed in that it didn’t take into account things like the type and quality of chance created – anyone can spank it from 30 yards, some may even have it saved easily by the keeper for that all-important “shot on target” – and finding any great significance in possession is like mining Pauly Shore’s IMDb for Oscar winners – you’re onto a loser before you even start. The over-importance of “possession” is the great lie TV has sold the football-watching public. Just a quick scan revealed that the six matches ending in a win this week, precisely 50% of the winning teams won the “possession battle”. The whole debate about possession is for another time though.

And hey, maybe Merritt does actually place an inordinate value on such things, in which case the likely start of Palmer next week (Chara is suspended and Kimura likely out) should have him prepping his special plastic underpants in anticipation.

In the end, we didn’t finish our chances well, while we continue to exhibit weakness at the back and it was this that told in the end. The ref’s appalling showing certainly sticks in the craw – would’ve changed the game, etc, so on and so forth – but he wasn’t the reason for the bad defending.

Merritt’s post-match meltdown saw him rail against fans calling for Wilkinson to go. I believe he referred to the #GWOut crowd as “idiots” and “morons” who would “line up to kiss gavin’s ass” when “we win a cup”. The Gettysburg Address, it was not. Oh, and Gavin is “not going anywhere” in case you were wondering if there were consequences to haphazard team building and a terrible track record in trades, so there’s that.

I’ll leave it to others to rake over the coals of Paulson’s trademark twitter trainwreck.

So we end a road series that saw the Timbers score 4 times, and yet earn only a single point. There are some positives to take, but still the Timbers look soft at the back. Next up is a return to Portland, and the visit of Vancouver in a big Cascadia Cup match.

The Whitecaps have lost their last two, without scoring a goal, and are five away games without a win. It’s sure to be an interesting atmosphere, one way or another.

#RCTID

If you can’t support us when we draw or lose, don’t support us when we win.

– Bill Shankley

Wagons East

A little over 500 days since their MLS debut, and at only the 28th time of asking, the Timbers finally scored more than once in a single road game as they put two past a severely depleted Toronto FC side at a BMO Field with more wide open spaces than a Constable and Turner exhibition.

The 2-2 draw allows Portland to stretch their unbeaten streak to 2 matches (and in the context of this season, two matches without defeat definitely constitutes a streak) but they had to come from behind, again, to earn a point in a match they really could’ve and should’ve won.

Suspensions and injuries forced Gavin Wilkinson into a couple of changes, with Rodney Wallace and Sal Zizzo starting at left and right wing respectively. Just like John Spencer seemed determined to play a certain way, and would crowbar players into positions that didn’t suit them to fit the system, so Wilkinson seems wed to playing with a 4-3-3. It led to the situation where 4 of the Timbers 7 subs were out and out attackers – Mwanga, Fucito, Dike and Richards.

Long spells of the first half brought to mind the old saying about bald men fighting over a comb, as neither team seemed set to play to anything other than their positions as bottom scrapers in their respective conferences. It was every inch the Wooden Spoon Showdown it had been billed as as both teams seemed to have simply “not losing” foremost in their mind.

Domination of the early possession stats by Portland belies the fact that there wasn’t really any clear cut chances of note created, with the Timbers most dangerous looks coming from set plays. It was a combination of a set play and the kind of woeful defending that puts you bottom of the pile that gave the Timbers their opener after 20 minutes.

Sal Zizzo scored his first MLS goal in his 50th appearance when Toronto gave him the freedom of the six yard box to poke it home after David Horst’s header wasn’t cleared. It was less to do with rare good fortune for Portland than it was to do with the fact that Donovan Ricketts’ old team, Montreal Impact, are the only side to have conceded more than Toronto this year and bad defences make bad mistakes. That’s what they do.

They almost compounded it by doing exactly the same thing a few minutes later in letting Zizzo drift around the the six yard box unchecked. It didn’t fall for him this time, but it’s not hard to see why Toronto are where they are.

Having gotten their noses in front, the Timbers started to slide back towards their own goal as the half wore on. Toronto pushed on without ever really troubling Ricketts and it was hard to see how they would get back into the match without their two top scorers, unless Portland gave them a helping hand.

That helping hand came a little over 10 minutes into the second half when Eric Hassli levelled things up.

It’s a frustrating goal to lose because there were three points where the Timbers could’ve prevented the goal, and three seperate failures.

  • You have a 6’3 defender getting a free header. If ever someone is going to be an aerial target for a long ball, it’s the 6’3 guy, and yet it was left to Mosquera to make a late, and fruitless attempt to get to him. I’m not saying anyone has to beat him to the ball, but at least putting a challenge in makes it much more difficult.
  • If Rodney Wallace actually makes contact with the ball, it never reaches Silva.
  • Mosquera’s late dash to go for the first ball leaves him the wrong side of Hassli and he gives up on the ball where Hassli take a gamble on the rebound.

To Ricketts’ credit, he made a good save (nitpickers corner: he could’ve pushed it wider) but he was left helpless as Hassli followed up.

While I’m on Ricketts I’d like to say I thought he had a good debut. There were a couple of shaky moments, including late on when he came for a ball he was never going to get and then charged about the box like Rocky trying to catch the chicken, but other than that he looked fairly assured. His distribution was decent, especially when he kept it short. 88% of his clearances over the half way line went to opponents, but he was successful in finding a team-mate 89% of the time he kept it shorter.

It’s not Ricketts’ fault that Wilkinson traded Perkins for him and while there is still, rightly, anger above that move I don’t think it’s fair to the new guy to be constantly holding him up against Troy. It’s like dating a girl whose ex died in a car crash or something, and there’s no hope of ever living up to the myth that he has become. Not that Perkins is dead, but, still… Montreal…

Anyway, things got worse soon after the equaliser when Toronto doubled their tally, and again it was poor organisation and players being given too much space in and around the box.

Kimura, a man who get beaten more often than a Catholic in Larkhall, gets beaten too easily, but the damage had already been done in the middle where the defenders completely lost track of what it was they were supposed to be doing.

It looked like another case where the Timbers would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Part of the problem was that, for all the possession, there seemed a lack of urgency going into the final third.

Going with Wallace and Zizzo was a brave choice, though rather enforced by Songo’o being suspended and Alhassan picking up a knock. Neither have particularly stood as starters in the past.

The differing styles of both players led to a bit of imbalance in the attack. Zizzo is a winger, pure and simple, whereas Wallace is a left back being played at left midfield.

It’s a chicken and egg scenario with Wallace – was he attacking less because Toronto were playing more down their right, or were Toronto getting more job down their right because Wallace was attacking less?

In Wallace’s defence, I will say that having him in front of Steven Smith seem to give the Scot a bit more protection than having the mercurial Songo’o at left wing.

It seems to be a trade-off: you either get the attacking verve of Songo’o, but leave Smith exposed to 1-on-1’s which he’s shown little aptitude for or you get the more defensive Wallace who’ll track back and cover Smith, but offer next to nothing down the wing.

It may just have been the strategy for this match as there were a couple of instances where we had a potential break on, only to put the brakes on and slow it right down in the final third.

Both wide players had gilt-edged chances to attack the corners, and both cut inside. The Zizzo one especially had my head in my hands as it was the sort of opportunity you would dream of as a winger, but instead he allowed Toronto to get lots of bodies back behind the ball.

When he finally did put together some quick, incisive play in the opponents half it resulted in a goal that ranks up there as one of the very best the Timbers have scored in MLS.

With Toronto players clustered around for the throw-in, Nagbe had the confidence to stay out wide and not be dragged in. The quick passing between Fucito-Smith-Boyd-Alexander-Smith was the sort of things that coaches love to see and it tore a hole in the Canuck back line. Smith then had the presence of mind to look up and pick out Nagbe, all on his own at the back post.

The addition of Alexander in midfield, as well as Fucito up top (and pushing Nagbe further up the pitch) revitalised the Timbers attack. The partnership of Fucito and Boyd nearly paid dividends earlier when Fucito broke the offside trap and laid it on to Boyd but the Scot couldn’t beat the boot of Kocic in the Toronto goal.

Boyd came in for his customary criticism on twitter, nothing unusual in that. What was unusual was that Diego Chara also took a bit of stick.

It was far from Chara’s best game, that’s for sure. He still hustled, he was still all action, but his normally reliable passing was just that little bit off. This match was his “Cars 2” – objectively not that bad, but compared to the rest of his work, pretty poor. He pays the price for having set the bar so high, but I think he’s allowed a game or two when he plays down to everyone else’s bar.

Objectively, throwing away a goal lead against a team that are already bottom of their conference before they’re then shorn of a good number of starters is a bad result. Looking at the run of games left you have to wonder if there will be a better chance for the Timbers to record their first away win of the season.

However, in the context of the last couple of months, it is encouraging to see the team fight back and equalise late on again. We’re no longer a team that stops playing after 70 minutes. Instead we kinda take a wee nap for 20 minutes after the half but, hey, unbeaten streak, remember?

The Timbers stay on the east coast for a match against the New Jersey Red Bulls this weekend. The Bulls haven’t lost a home league match this year, winning 8 of the 11 and shutting out the visitors in the last 3.

So that’s a definite Timbers win, then. It’s just what we do.

#RCTID

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”.