John Spencer: Taking The High Road

John Spencer’s term as head coach of the Portland Timbers came to an emotional end on Monday as the Scot paid the price for a poor season. Andrew Brawley penned a good piece on the reaction to the firing that everyone should check out.

Truth is there was little-to-no surprise about the move. Some disappointment, for sure, even some relief, but no shock. The writing was on the wall on Sunday when it was revealed that Monday’s training was closed to media, and sure enough, Merritt Paulson had taken the difficult decision to relieve Spencer of his duties.

John Spencer will forever be a part of Timbers history as their first ever MLS coach, and he gave the fans some great moments to remember. There’s no doubting his passion or drive to succeed, and I’m sure this won’t be his one and only foray into management, though he might be better serving the rest of his apprenticeship away from the glare of a top league where mistakes and deficiencies aren’t quite so conspicuous.

And it was those mistakes and deficiences that ultimately cost Spencer his job. I’d written in the past about how I thought he was starting to lose control and focus under the pressure that the Timbers’ stuttering second season had put him under.

On the pitch, Spencer didn’t show the development or improvement that myself and many other fans had hoped to see. The team failed to find another way to play beyond the old-school kick-and-rush tactics. Even Barcelona, arguably the greatest club side ever, have had to adapt or die, and we’re no Barcelona to rely on a Messi or Xavi to conjure something up.

Even when he did adopt a 0]”>4-3-3 against Real, it was in such a defensive and negative way that the only question in the match was how long the Timbers could hold out. It’d be easy to look back at that game now and see an ultimatum from Paulson delivered to Spencer that drove him to play in such a manner, but truth is I don’t think this was a decision reached over a result or two, especially against one of the league’s leading teams.

Indeed, Paulson made reference to “philosophical differences” in his statement, and that would seem to suggest that the problem wasn’t necessarily that the Timbers were losing (yet, bizarrely, were still within touching distance of the playoffs), but rather it was the way we were losing. The Timbers lost ugly, drew ugly and won ugly, a few exceptions aside.

There may have been a case to stick with John Spencer if there’d been signs that the team were trying to play good football, and players were developing, with young guys coming through. I don’t think either of these three points were being addressed.

The football belongs in another age. Spencer talks a good game, and it’s easy to get swept up with him, but the fact is that either the players didn’t do what he said, or he couldn’t figure out how to implement it. In trying to repeat what Dominic Kinnear has at Houston, where Spencer was assistant, he found out that Kinnear is actually pretty good at what he does. I’d thought Spencer perhaps needed an experienced guiding hand alongside him, but he never got it.

I’m not sure the young guys on the roster will be in mourning for long, either. While Nagbe has been a regular starter for the team, he’s the only player under 22 in the top ten of minutes played. Alhassan might have figured in that group had he not been injured for most of the season.

There’s actually a lot of experience in that top ten, with five bringing previous MLS experience to the table and many having played at international level. It’s not the “young guns” that some would have you believe. I don’t attend the U’23 games or Reserve matches, but those that do assure me that there are excellent prospects coming through.

The problem is that Spencer seemed unwilling to give them a chance, except when given no option as with Jean-Baptiste earlier in the year. When there was a crisis at right-back, Spencer didn’t turn to youth, he gave the job to a 31 year old midfielder. As the goals have singularly failed to flow, the kids weren’t given a shot until youth was bought in by signing Mwanga from Philadelphia.

It seems to have become a vicious cycle – the team weren’t winning so Spencer doesn’t want to risk the kids – but there comes a point when the old heads simply aren’t cutting it. I’d rather have a 20 year old make a honest mistake but learn from it and improve, than have a veteran simply stink.

It’s hard to see how the guys Spencer has been giving a chance to have developed. Nagbe burst onto the scene, but as he’s been leaned on more and more he’s on a Mwanga-esque career trajectory. Alhassan is every bit as inconsistent and mercurial as he ever was. Alexander has gone from the fringes of the national team to the fringes of the Timbers XI.

He’s been over-reliant on trusted players, and this has hurt him. Fitting Jewsbury into any XI, no matter what, is a problem. What Jack did in his first year for this club will live long in the memories of every Timbers fan, but there’s no escaping the fact that his performances have been on a slippery slope for some time now. Yet, he always played. Palmer – a solid MLS player at Houston and a Jamaican international – is arguably the single most frustrating player on the roster, given his poor ball control and almost sisyphean approach to long-range shooting, yet he’s been one of Spencer’s most picked players.

I don’t want to beat Spencer up too much though. He’s gone, and I’d prefer to see him off with a shake of the hand for his work. He made mistakes, sure, but he made them honestly. I wish him all the best for the future, but this was a decision that had to be made, and it’s as well to make it now.

When it became clear that Spencer wasn’t going to turn the ship around, there was no sense in keeping him here till the end of the season. It’s hard seeing how results would improve significantly, and having a lame duck manager does no-one any good. Better to make the call early, and give the next guy a chance to plan ahead for next season without coming in at the end of the year and finding himself months behind every other MLS club in preparation.

At Killie there was a manager who was stuck-in-his-ways, and played old school football. He’d gone stale. When he left midway through the season, the club hired an interim manager to see it out. He kept the club up on the last day, but was cut from the same cloth as his predecessor. He went, in came a completely new managerial team, who brought with them a revolution in style and methods, and led the club up the table and to a cup win. I can only glean hope from the parallels with the Timbers.

Speaking of interim managers, Gavin Wilkinson, the general manager, will take over from Spencer until a permanent replacement is found. Who that man will be is going to keep the rumour mill going for a while. I suspect it’ll be a manager with top flight experience this time. I’m not sure MLS experience is a must, but it may be that Paulson will want to “play safe” with this appointment and get a guy in who has managed here before.

But back to Wilkinson… His new role wasn’t met with a great deal of enthusiasm. I’d asked a while ago for thoughts on Wilkinson, and it seems apposite to finish this by posting one of these now.

#RCTID


By John Lawes

Watched from the North End during Gavin’s tenure as coach during the last of the USL years – and that’s all; no closer connection then that of a supporter in the stands. So anything I can provide is purely subjective. That said –

Gavin always seemed fairly hands-off on matchday. He wasn’t a shouter, like Spencer, much less aggro. He seemed to have a similar problem with substitutions, tho; his subs often seemed to let in more trouble than they solved.
He seemed to get on well with certain players, and those guys would play – in my opinion – often well past their sell-by date. That seemed especially true of his forwards and attacking mids. He stuck with several strikers, both in terms of minutes and in his adjustment or lack of same to the way their skills/styles fit into his tactical setup, after it was fairly obvious that other coaches had figured them out and had developed tactics to counter them.
As for his tactics, they were…ummm…a bit on the crude side, IMO. He seemed to like to play pretty direct, hoof-it-up, Route 1 style football. We always figured that this was a Kiwi thing.

And in particular, he seemed to have little or no interest, or patience, for Latino players. I don’t recall any Hispanic player getting significant minutes or having any particular success during his tenure.

His single honor during his tenure was winning the league in 2009. But this is deceptive on two counts; first, because this being American soccer the actual “winning” the USL-1 meant nothing other than a first round bye (and then a speedy exit at the hands of our old enemies Vancouver), and, second, because even with the unbeaten streak Gav’s team fell apart at the wrong time. Going into September the team had four losses. Over the next four weeks the side managed to win two, draw one (the final match against Vancouver that, with the Timbers down 2-1 from the first leg, meant elimination), and lose five.

Overall, Gavin’s coaching seemed, well, like a decent club- or lower-division professional-level level; never particularly brilliant but typically never disastrous. Cautious would be the word I’d use. Befitting a former defender his backline was usually solid. His midfield and forwards, not so much. And the Timbers of Gavin’s time never seemed to be able to find a way to beat the teams they needed to beat. For all that his payroll was never immense Gav never seemed to find a way to use the attacking players he had to their best advantage; he tended to find a formula – a lineup or a tactic – and stick with it even after the results began to fade. He muled his striker Keita in 2009; the guy scored a league-high 14 goals in the first half of the season, but after July? Nada. The next year, the last USL year, Gav did the same thing with Ryan Pore; fed him the ball and enjoyed the results in the spring and early summer…but by August and September the guy wasn’t scoring – everyone else in the league had figured out how to put a body on him and mark him out of the match – and Gavin never adjusted. Sounds a little familiar?

Portland Timbers Nil, [INSERT_TEAM_NAME] [INSERT_VALUE>0]

“Timbers road loss” are three words I’m getting sick of hearing, reading, saying or writing. A trip to face Real Salt Lake resulted in a pretty comprehensive 3-0 defeat for Portland – the second road defeat by the same scoreline in a row. Alvaro Saborio will grab the headlines for his hat-trick, but he’s a Real* player and I’m more interested in talking about the Timbers. RSL fans can talk their own team up.

As expected, Kosuke Kimura started, which meant Jack Jewsbury being relieved of half-a-brain duty at full back and back into his “best” position in midfield alongside the suspension-free Diego Chara. What I didn’t quite expect was that Lovel Palmer would be crashing the party like the metaphorical third wheel, or the literal player of limited ability.

In fact, if the @TimbersFC twitter squad announcement was to be believed, the team would be lining up in a 4-3-3 with Mwanga up top, flanked by Darlington Nagbe and Eric Alexander. I couldn’t see that happening. I’ve been watching Scotland slog around Eastern Europe, playing for draws against teams that weren’t even countries when I was born, and I saw the same look to this Timbers team.

An isolated attacker, left to fend for scraps and given the jobs of running the channels, holding up the play, chasing down lost causes, challenging for the ball.. oh, and something about a ball and a net. I forget what.

Alexander can now cross off another box in Square Hole Bingo as he was a nominal attacker here. In reality, and as I suspected after a seconds though, it was going to be much more a 4-5-1 than 4-3-3.

In fact, it generally shaped into a 4-1-4-1 with one of the three central midfielders sitting deep. I’d have preferred to see the more limited Palmer playing as the anchor man of the three, but instead it was Chara, presumably in an attempt to bring the ball out from the back instead of resorting to long balls at Mwanga, who was being matched by 2 Salt Lake defenders at all times.

Unsurprisingly, the Timbers gave up a lot of possession, and found it hard to bring midfield and attack together. Chances were fleeting and carried more of hope than expectation about them.

The flow of the play can, broadly, be followed here:

At no point are RSL put under the kosh as their pass success rate actually improve as the game goes on. After an initial “feeling out” spell, it doesn’t take long for RSL to recognise that the Timbers’, cough, 4-3-3 leaves the flanks open.

They seem to target Kimura early on, presumably looking to exploit the “new guy” and his unfamiliarity with his team mates. Kimura had a decent game though. He doesn’t look like a match winner, necessarily, but neither does he look like a match loser. So, onwards and upwards.

They almost exclusively play down the flanks in the second half, and eventually get joy from it, by exploiting the way Huey, Dewey and Louie in midfield were dropping deeper.

A fine finish, but a poor goal to lose for the Timbers, in my opinion. Given the way we were set up with three guys congesting the midfield, how did a Real** player get so much space and time to cross in for Saborio?

Some will point to the lack of Real passing through the middle and say that our three did their job, but it never felt like a sure fit for me and it failed us more than once in the match.

Besides which, RSL actually had more passes in that attacking midfield area against the Timbers central three, than they managed against Seattle.

When they stepped up a gear, there was always the threat, to me at least, that they could go right through the heart of the three musketeers, if they needed to. Rather than turning Salt Lake attacks to stone, the Timbers lined up with the Stygian Witches in midfield and found themselves unable to fathom what do when the opponents simply play around you.

Looking back at the big set of chalkboards, you can even see the Timbers start to mimic the way RSL were playing in the second half. Almost exclusively down the wings. We had three guys in the centre of the pitch who simply weren’t getting involved in the match to any real degree.

By the time Spencer perhaps began to recognise his team was ceding more territory to RSL, dropping the midfield right in front of the defence and with no outlet for the ball, the Timbers were 2-0 down.

The second goal, following on so quickly after the 1st, was a killer blow and put out any faint hopes that the Timbers would improbably come back.

If I wasn’t a Timbers fan I could almost laugh at the way Saborio jumps and down and waves for the quick ball over the top when he realises he’s one on one with Smith, and that he has the jump on him.

The third goal was a comedy of errors. First Jack Jewsbury gets comprehensively outjumped by Saborio, and then Diego Chara is sent off for handling the ball on the line. With the game as good as lost, it was one of those occaisions when Chara’s instincts betrayed him. A more calculating player lets it go past as 3-0 is as good as 2-0 *shrug*. Instead, Chara will miss the visit of LA Galaxy in the third match of the “Seriously? Again? Already?!” Cup this weekend.

By the way, glance back to those chalkboards and see how RSL kill a game off and close it out (admittedly against 10 men for a bit) and compare it to how the Timbers did against San Jose. Night and day.

With injuries hitting, it’s actually admirable to see Spencer try and change things up. His bunker-in-and-break-out ploy was, on paper, a decent, if hardly exciting, thought. The problem with a strategy like that only works as long as you’re not behind as it’s hard to play with that mentality and then have to chase a game late on.

Mosquera didn’t start, as I thought he might not given the way Spencer picks his XI-JJ. In the event, neither Futty nor Horst had particularly bad games. RSL are a good team, and good teams will punish you.

In a way, it’s not that much of a surprise that RSL won another home game. It’s certainly no surprise that the Timbers lost a road game. For 60 minutes, Spencer will say the Timbers strategy was working and it was only when the Timbers chased the game that the gap widened.

The fact is, as I see it, the Timbers didn’t hold off RSL for 60 minutes, they held on. We simply don’t possess the players to play this way and win more than the occasional fluke.

Mwanga didn’t provide the outlet the Timbers needed, and Nagbe and Alexander found it difficult to build the play. There was still a good chance when Chara led a breakaway, but his pass into the box was way ahead of Mwanga, who hadn’t made the run to the back post the Colombian expected.

Such is the nature of the way the Timbers played that failure to take what few chances were presented to them left them in an ever more precarious position.

Without that guy doing the donkey work up top, RSL were only going to get more and more of the ball, and they’re too good to not punish you eventually.

I get what Spencer was doing with Mwanga. He’s more mobile than Boyd, he’s big (if not exactly dominant aerially) and can play it on the deck too. It was a gamble – dropping the club’s leading scorer – but one I can respect, even though it didn’t come off in the end.

We were never able to join the dots in attack, and as a result we were ever more reliant on out defense performing above themselves. In the end, the quality of an attacker like Saborio told.

A game we were expected to lose, despite some hopeful coverage pre-game, and, given the way Spencer lined up his team, we lost the way you’d expect us to. Even so, it’s still hurts. The road form is trolling on a subcontinental level.

Our away form continues to be dismal. It can’t be coincidence still. Something in our prep or approach is lacking away from Jeld-Wen. Yes, the fans make great noise and support the team and I’m sure it lifts the players, but they shouldn’t need that kind of lift to perform at even at decent standard. And I don’t believe for a second it has quite the dramatic effect that the stats would seem to suggest. There has to be more to it than that, and if not then it’s time to get a group of players who can do their jobs without being roared on by a crowd that, pardon the cliche, deserves better.

With the home crowd behind them, the Timbers might be expected to do a bit better against LA, but they’ll have to do it without Chara. At least Jack is back where he’s needed, though, so, there’s that.

A win against Beckham FC would move the Timbers to within a point of them and, potentially, the play-off spots.

As bad as it’s been, there’s still hope. Just, maybe not a great deal of expectation.

#RCTID

* also works with a lower-case r
** again, as above

Timbers: Where Goonies Go To Die

The atmosphere around the Timbers this week is noticeably lighter than it was after the weekend. A victory, at home of course, against Conference leaders San Jose Earthquakes was followed by news that the team had traded for Colorado Rapids right-back Kosuke Kimura.

I don’t know a great deal about Kimura, so I won’t comment too much about it except to say that I can only hope we’ve found the right guy for a position that’s been a problem since day one which is strange for “one of the easiest positions to play if you’ve got half a brain.”

By the way, what does that say about the guys who haven’t exactly excelled themselves at full back for the Timbers?

Kimura will go straight into the team, which you would assume would see Jewsbury back into central midfield. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Nagbe pushed out wide again rather than rested, which is what I think would be the best thing for him and the team.

Back to the game…

The visit of one of the league’s hottest teams, after a match where the Timbers failed to master even the basics, didn’t exactly inspire confidence. And yet, there was always the sense that winning this match was just something Portland would do, backed up by ridiculously daft stats about the team’s record when the moon was full. Don’t drink and Microsoft Excel, kids.

The hashtags quickly turned from #WhyWeLost to #WhyWeWillWin on twitter as the fans’ gallows humour turned to, at times self-deprecating, hope.

Tactically, not much changed in the team’s approach from the Rapids match to this one. John Spencer still had the team lined up in 4-4-2, with Lovel Palmer replacing Diego Chara. Nagbe seemed to play a but deeper, perhaps to compensate for the fact that Lovel Palmer is not Diego Chara.

While it was a better performance all round for Nagbe, his defensive work was probably the most marked.

He had a couple of good touches in attack, but still seems a yard or so of the pace. He looks like he’s missing a bit of sharpness, and he’s been leaned on pretty heavily for a second year pro.

It may be that Kimura’s signing will bring Jewsbury into midfield, and allow Nagbe to rest and recharge the batteries. Certainly, a Jewsbury/Chara midfield seems more up Spencer’s alley than a Chara/Alexander one, and Jewsbury’s move to full-back may be the reason why Nagbe hasn’t had a break yet.

Of course, the loser from Chara’s return will probably be Lovel Palmer. While Palmer wasn’t bad – he even managed to get a shot on target, which is probably a bad sign for those seeking portents of an impending apocalypse – there’s simply no getting round the face that he’s not Diego.

Apart from general work rate and presence, Palmer’s ball skills lag those of Chara. The most telling instance what 70 minutes in, with the Timbers up by 2, but being pressed back by rolling attacks from San Jose.

On getting the ball, there wasn’t even a moment’s thought of looking for an easy pass – right in front of him to Nagbe, who in turn had Songo’o just out of shot, but free, on the right flank – but rather he just got his head down and put his foot through the ball. Mwanga ends up giving away a foul in trying to chase down the ball.

While you can understand it on one level – he got the ball out of the “danger area” after all – it only hands possession right back to the opponents. It’s one of my pet hates. I’m not a tactics nazi who disdains long-ball football – though I’m not a big fan of it either – but it’s not a defensive strategy. It’s a sign of panic, and like a drop of blood in the water will only encourage the piranhas to attack even more, so launching the ball back at your opponents and drooping ever deeper will only bring them further upon you.

Nerves play a factor in this. A confident team rarely close out a match by punting the ball up the pitch but instead will look to kill the opponents momentum by retaining the ball and frustrating the team chasing the match.

Palmer’s play was indicative of the team as a whole as the match wore on, and it’s understandable that a team who had lost so many late goals would suffer from Squeaky Bum Syndrome against a team dubbed “The Goonies” for their reluctance to accept defeat. Nevertheless, I felt we really missed the often undervalued side of Chara’s game – his ability to keep it simple.

The difference between the two players is pretty apparent. Chara is all across the midfield, linking up play and keeping the ball moving. Palmer plays much more narrowly, and is more prone to resort to the long, hopeful ball.

Unsurprisingly, the goal did come for San Jose a couple of minutes later. Fortunately, the Timbers held on to record the win, but it wasn’t for the lack of effort on San Jose’s part. They’ll certainly feel that their second half efforts warranted at least a point from the match.

The first half had been pretty level, with very little between the teams in terms of passes, though San Jose were a bit more accurate (73%-67%). The second half though was a completely different beast.

The Timbers made almost 100 fewer passes in the second half, and dropped to 59% in accuracy. San Jose made a few more passes, and held their accuracy rate at 72%. The possession split went from around 50/50 in the first to somewhere near 35/65 in San Jose’s favour in the second.

No-one with even a passing acquaintance with either team would be surprised by those stats. The Timbers have an uncanny ability to throw games away late on, and San Jose have been free-scoring.

Alan Gordon’s strike was the only breach in the Timbers goal. The ex-Timber set up a heart-stopping final few minutes, but a Timbers defence led by David Horst refused to give way.

Though San Jose still made chances – Lenhart missed an absolute sitter earlier in the half – Horst marshaled the back line pretty well. It was a statement game for Horst who really stood out with some good tackling and presence at the back, and a threat from attacking set plays.

With Mosquera now free of suspension, it’ll be interesting to see if either of Horst or Futty are benched to make way. Given the way Spencer has tended to stick with what worked, I could conceivably see Mosquera riding the bench against Real Salt Lake at the weekend. Mosquera has been a totemic figure at the back for Portland this year though, so any decision to bench the Colombian had better be met with a solid defensive display on the pitch, or questions will inevitably be asked.

Moving further up the pitch, Franck Songo’o deserves a special mention. He was subbed out early against Colorado, and that must surely have stung. He responded with an imperious showing from a right-wing position where he tormented the Rapids back line.

He played a two key roles in the Timbers first goal – winning the ball and delivering the key final pass.

The interplay between Songo’o and Alexander got the team out of defence and over the halfway line, and the attacking instinct of Mwanga drove him past his marker to get the killer touch on a move that will be used in classrooms to demonstrate the concept of counter-attacking at speed. 90 yards, three men, three passes and a goal.

Songo’o also had a part in the Timbers’ second. His free kick from deep saw Futty challenge the keeper and the ball broke kindly for Jewsbury to poke home from close range. It was one of those goals where I expected the free kick to be called on Futty for having the temerity to fairly challenge the keeper, but in a rare MLS Referee With Common Sense moment, the goal stood.

The big worry now is that Songo’o’s participation ended with an injury. With Alhassan potentially still out, there’s no way that Spencer would want to having Songo’o out too. It leaves options out wide very limited as Rodney Wallace, who has filled in at left-wing, is still struggling with injury too, and Sal Zizzo has thus far failed to convince he is anything other than a late game sub to stretch tiring defenses.

It’s one reason why I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nagbe played wide, with a Jewsbury/Chara middle and Alexander on the other flank.

Eric Alexander also had a pretty good game on the left-wing, so I expect he’ll remain in a wide role, even if I feel he’s better suited to playing in the middle. He doesn’t seem entirely comfortable out wide, but the return of Jewsbury to contention in the middle leaves that area heavily congested, so it’s hard to see Eric getting much of a chance there.

The victory was just what the team and fans needed after the Colorado match. The team’s form at JELD-WEN is both a source of pride and frustration. Only RSL and Vancouver have picked up more home points than the Timbers in the Western Conference. Yet the team continues to show a Mr T like aversion to travel as only Dallas have fewer points on the road. If the Timbers could produce away form that even approached that of their home, they’d be sitting comfortably in the play-off positions.

Perhaps expecting a first away win of the season at RSL is a bit too much, but all Timbers fans will be hoping for at least some of the passion and verve that they show at home.

John Spencer faces a couple of selection headaches ahead of this weekend, and I worry that pulling Casablanca and setting out to “Play It Again, Sam*,” will come a cropper, but at least we can go into it with the afterglow of a victory behind us. I suspect that we’ll be setting out to play on the counter, with Jewsbury and Chara hunkering down in the middle. It’s not really made for exciting, free-flowing attacking football in the past, but as long as a play-off spot remains a possibility I suspect aesthetics will (continue to) be ignored in pursuit of points.

As a wise frog once said, “It’s not easy being green.

PTFC

* Yes, I know.

Just Another Timbers Loss

The Timbers lost again, suffering their biggest defeat since going down 4-0 in Dallas a year ago but in some ways this 3-0 loss in Colorado was even more dispiriting.

In beating Seattle last week the Timbers had finally shown a spark of what John Spencer has been telling us their capable of, with some good wing play and incisive attacking. This week saw a return of the bad old Timbers and, you know what, it’s really fucking pissing me off.

Here’s a short, Scottish summation or my thoughts…

Aner fuckin loass. Goatae say, ah’m gettin mare th’n a wee bit fucked off wae this shite. It’s no the loassin that pisses me aff, it’s the fuckin wey we dae it. Thur’s nae fuckin heart tae this shower. Lose wan fuckin goal and it’s gemme o’or.

Spenny disnae seem tae huv a fuckin scooby whit he’s daein maist ae the time. It’s no workin? Nae both’r, ah’ll jist take wan cunt oot and pit aner yin oot tae dae the same fuckin hing that wisnae fuckin workin in the fucking first place, for fuck sake. It giy dis yir fuckin heid in.

Ah wannae hope fur the best against yon Urthquakes oan Tuesday nicht, but it’s kinna hard, ken whit ah mean? Ye cun oanly eat so much shite afore it comes back up, and ah’ve hud ma fill.

Will we win? Fucked if ah ken. We’ll miss wee Diego fur share, but it’d jist be lik the Timburs tae fuckin win like we did against yon Sportin mob a while ago.

Aner loass, and fuck, who kens? How long dis Spenny get? How long’s a piece a string? Ah don’t ken whit’s goan oan there. Tae bae hoanest, ah’ve kinna loast faith in the gaffer, ken? How’s he still in a joab efter Cal FC n aw that, fuck knows.

Hing is, ah’ll be back tae support’n the boiys the morra, giein it laldy. Thur’s nae skulking awa’. The hing aboot being a fan is yir eiweys there.

Rose City till ah dee.

Anyway… Where was I?

I said last week that I worried we’d go out there and just blindly repeat what worked before, and guess what? We only fucking did. Sure Zizzo came in to replace the injured Alhassan, but the plan was the same as last week.

Spencer is like the guy at the roulette table who won big on red once and is going to stick to that strategy because it clearly works even as he’s offering blow jobs in the fucking casino toilets for another ten bucks to throw away.

I mean, for fuck sake. I’m sick of this shit.

What annoyed so much me isn’t the losing, though no-one likes that, it’s the way we lost. Rolled over and let the Rapids tickle our bellies. It was so bad to watch that to take my mind off it, I spent much of the second half thinking up #timbersmovienames on twitter with other fans.

I don’t expect a team that’s going to buy it’s way to success, or win every week. I do expect a modicum of fucking effort and intelligence. I saw neither this week. I saw a spineless performance, led by a manager who, I’m beginning to suspect, never fucking had it in the first place to lose it.

We hear Spencer is a great coach, so who has improved under his guidance? So he’s a motivator, right? Except the team I saw wearing green on Saturday showed all the motivation of a hooker on her eighth john of the night – sure, she might make the right noises, but her heart’s clearly not in it.

And it’s not the fucking first time either. How often do we only get 45 minutes of effort of out this team? A shambolic, lazy first half followed by a rocket up the arse at half time, or a decent first half, then a snooze through the second? What. The. Fuck?

We didn’t even get that this week. Sure I could go through it with pics and graphs and all that shit, but why fucking bother? We were shit; a shambles. You know it, I know it, Colorado sure as fuck know it. HashtagRCTID does a good enough job of it, anyway.

Steven Smith had his worst game for the Timbers. He played like he was still on honeymoon. I can only assume that Brian Mullan has horrific B.O. cos Smith didn’t seem to want to get anywhere near him all game.

Last week he and Songo’o looked so effective and threatening down that flank, but they may as well have stayed in Portland. Both ended up being subbed – Songo’o in the first half, Smith in the second.

Smith looked gassed. Was it the heat and altitude? If so, why the fuck didn’t the team fly in earlier to prepare? If anyone should know about the problems with playing at the Rapids, it should be Spencer since he played there himself.

Another bad day at the office for Darlington Nagbe too. Where is the player who started the season? He looks a shadow of himself. Gone is the zip and verve, the daring and dramatic. In comes a player who looks tired, needs an extra touch and is off the pace. He’s repeatedly being caught in possession and even when he’s not, he doesn’t seem to have any clear idea what he’s hoping to achieve.

The role that Spencer has him playing in, at the tip of the diamond, should be the creative fulcrum for the attack. It’s a dead end right now.

Yet Spencer keeps putting him in, and keeps playing the same way. Tactically, he’s a dinosaur. He’s a second year manager, and he already looks like he’s twenty years late to the party. The Timbers play like a mediocre British team from the early 90’s. It’s like the last twenty years of footballing innovations have completely passed him by.

Maybe it’s not surprising. Spencer was inculcated in that system throughout his playing career. 442 was king. MLS is beginning to show some innovation and moving towards a more modern, nuanced attitude towards tactical flexibility and playing style, and yet the Timbers are stuck in this kick-and-rush, blood-and-thunder time loop. We’re outdated.

It’s never been more clear than now, when Euro 2012 has served up some delightful, modern, football. Going back to watching the Timbers is like going to McDonalds after eating at a Gordon Ramsey restaurant.

He’s either too bloody-minded to recognise the fact that his “system” doesn’t fucking work, or doesn’t even realise. Neither of these are good things.

Or perhaps, this is the only way he can play with the guys he’s got? Maybe he’d love to go Full Bielsa on us, but he can’t. I doubt there’s much more to him than what we’ve seen, but who knows?

Sure, the team might lift their performance level now and then, and beat a poor Seattle (who seemed to have got MMA and MLS mixed up on the trip south), but we’ll inevitably regress to the mean.

Regardless, the same old faces will be in the XI. There are some decent young players in the roster – Jean-Baptiste, Richards, Rincon, Kawulok to name but four – but they can’t get a sniff of first team action.

On one hand, I can understand Spencer’s reticence. He knows it’s not going well, and he probably feels he can’t “risk” the kids for fear that they lose the match that costs him his job – though considering he’s survived the Cal FC debacle, the dire Galaxy showing, and this gutless shitfest, I suspect the only two things that’ll survive a nuclear holocaust are cockroaches, and John Spencer as head coach of the Portland Timbers.

The thing is, it’s not really a risk, is it? Neither Fucito – despite his great workrate, which I do admire – nor Mwanga have exactly hit the ground running. Even Boyd has looked a shadow of himself at times. Nagbe looks like he needs a break. Jewsbury isn’t a right back. Horst goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. Is Brunner ever going to be fit again? Palmer… Yeah.

Why not blood some of the young guys? At least they might care. And at this stage, I don’t think many Timbers fans are keeping play-off dates clear in their calenders, you know?

As I said, I don’t expect wins every week. If I was a gloryhunter, I’d have grown up supporting Rangers or Celtic, just up the road. Instead, I supported my local team, Kilmarnock, through bad times, allright times, more bad times, and a couple of good times.

So it is for all Timbers fans. This is our team, and we don’t expect the moon on a stick. All we want is a team that care enough to give 100% every single week, not just when the ESPN cameras are in town, and a manager who knows what he’s doing.

Tomorrow we play San Jose Earthquakes, and we’ll be missing the one outfield player who can hold his head up high week after week, Diego Chara. It’s no surprise the yellows have accumulated considering the way he plays – and the fact he’s often had to do that defensive job single-handedly – but it’s a huge blow to have him miss this match.

This is a team that are flying this year – they finished 2011 four points behind the Timbers, but already twenty points ahead this year and top the Western Conference. The Earthquakes come into the game on the back of a remarkable come-from-behind 4-3 win against LA Galaxy, so the omens aren’t good.

Do I think it’s time for Spencer to go? It’s getting harder and harder to justify supporting him. The whole “who’ll replace him, then?” argument is bullshit. Who’ll replace him? Who the fuck knows – that’s why you accept applications and select the best candidate.

I don’t know. I’m angry. I’m rapidly losing faith in Spenny. He’s showing nothing on the field, but I always held to the belief that he does good work on the training ground, and maybe all he needed was someone alongside to nudge him in the right direction, tactically. Now I’m not so sure about his off-field endeavours. This really doesn’t look like a team that’s busting a gut for their manager.

Knowing the Timbers, they’ll go and beat San Jose on Tuesday, with Palmer smashing one in from 30 yards*, and everything will be rosy – pardon the pun – again. I’ll get the “so what do you think now?” questions. Which would be fine. I really hope we do win.

My problem isn’t individual results – the Kansas City win didn’t spark our season, and neither is the Seattle win, as welcome as it was, good enough on it’s own. Equally, I went out of my way to play down the loss to Cal FC, and I’ve tried to find positives in every defeat. It’s getting harder though. The trend isn’t good.

We, the fans, will endure this and emerge stronger for it. The Army will be in full voice against San Jose, and will sing till the final whistle.

I can only hope that the team at least match that effort.

* Actually, as was pointed out on twitter, Palmer may be suspended still. I haven’t checked, but thinking about it, it was a straight red so he probably will be. In which case, Jewsbury? Yay…?

The Timbers Take Wing

Portland Timbers fans are still basking in the afterglow of a fine derby victory, and with the dust still settling I thought I’d look back at one of the aspects of the Timbers play that really encouraged me – the wings.

Alhassan put in another good shift down the right, backed up by Jewsbury, but here I’m going start with a focus on the left wing.

Franck Songo’o has frustrated me so far this year. There’s been flashes of skill here and there, but he’s been entirely inconsistent and at times has seemed to lack focus and purpose in the final third.

I’ve also doubted his winger credentials, especially in light of his performance against LA.

Songo’o tendency to drift infield really hurt the Timbers in that match. He was coming in off the wing, and running right into the most congested part of the pitch, with LA packing three men in the centre of midfield.

He showed much more discipline against Seattle, sticking to his role a lot better.

For me, it was Songo’o best game in Timbers green. I’m still not convinced he’s an out-and-out winger, but his display against Seattle showed that he can play that wide role effectively, especially when he has Steven Smith on his shoulder.

The reintroduction of Smith down the left flank was a massive boon to the team. Where Songo’o may drift infield, and narrow the attacking line, Smith will pop up out wide and force Seattle to leave gaps in the middle, or give the Scot a free run at the byline.

Songo’o and Smith would combine out left in the build up to the first goal, scored by Kris Boyd.

As well as the combination of Smith and Songo’o down the left, another very encouraging aspect of the play was the way that they switched play from flank to flank.

Too often we’ve seen the Timbers work the ball down the channels, run into trouble and simply cede possession to the other team, but against Seattle we saw them switch play from one side to another with real purpose.

Here we see the team winning the ball deep, getting it forward quickly down the right and then working it across the pitch, right in front of the Seattle defence. Unfortunately the pass into the box is a poor one, but notice Smith once more making himself available down the line – finding himself level with the ball at both the start and finish of the move.

Another example of this crisp passing across the pitch to stretch the Seattle defence begins with Smith and Songo’o wide left and ends, via Nagbe and an onrushing Jewsbury, with Alhassan in wide right.

Alhassan’s dinked shot/cross (who knows with this guy) drops just wide of the post, but agains you see the team moving the ball with poise and precision.

This kind of crossfield passing is only possible with willing runners from fullback positions and hard-working guys in the middle who make themselves available for the ball, and move it on crisply.

No-one sums that role up better than Diego Chara.

This was probably my favourite passage of play, even though it didn’t come to anything in the end. I simply love Chara’s work here. He’s the first on the scene to take the ball from Smith, and then at every stage of the move, he’s always available to take the ball back. He doesn’t do anything flashy or highlight-reel worthy – his passing is simple and measured – but this kind of play in the middle is what allows the team to move the ball across the field at pace and keep the opposition moving, allowing the Timbers to probe for weakness.

Even when he does lose the ball, he’s straight onto it and wins it right back.

Someone like Chara is essential as the Timbers don’t have a passer like Beckham, who thinks nothing of launching a 50 yard crossfield pass. Instead, the Timbers looked to rely on quick, short passes and runs to work the ball across, with only one crossfield pass attempted (not including set pieces).

Once more it was the Smith/Songo’o combination down the left that combined to forge a great chance for Danny Mwanga to write himself into Timbers folklore by scoring against Seattle with his first touch at Jeld-Wen Field.

The team has oft been criticised for being predictable in the way they play. They’ll be direct, they’ll try and get it wide and cross it in. Teams have capitalized on this and neutralised the flanks, driving the team infield and into trouble as we’ve often lacked the short, quick passing game needed to carve open a team through the middle.

We finally saw a glimpse of that game plan clicking into place against Seattle. Smith has already made himself indispensable at left back, and Jewsbury is solid enough at right back – thought I still think that’s an area that needs to be strengthened with real quality.

Given this team’s tendency to find something that works one week, and blindly try to replicate it the next week without thought for the change of opposition I still worry that we seem to lack a Plan B.

It’ll be interesting to see who replaces Alhassan in the next match. Jewsbury isn’t the willing runner that Smith is round the outside, so isn’t going to cover for a player who drifts inside as well as the Scot, and that could leave the team lopsided and forced down dead ends. It may be that Zizzo’s time has come.

We Are Legend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s the beating heart of the team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legends were born yesterday.

Trading Places

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s see…

[learn_more caption=”McCarty / Wallace”]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Verdict: Qualified Failure

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Cronin / Perkins”]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Verdict: Undoubted Success

[/learn_more]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Verdict: Failure. But only just.

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Hall / Alexander”]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Verdict: Success

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Cooper”]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boyd currently has 4 goals in 12 matches.

 

Verdict: Kenny Flopping Cooper

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Perlaza / Mwanga”]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Verdict: Time will tell…

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[learn_more caption=”Overall”]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is my concern.

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

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

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

Sound off below.

Timbers’ Galaxy Quest

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

Bah, the Open Cup…

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

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

LA Galaxy Team Problems

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

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

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

The midfield battle

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

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

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

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

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

Donovan’s Threat

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

In Defence

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

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

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

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

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

Something In The Air…

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

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

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

The Back Post

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

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

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

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

Timbers Attacking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late Game Jitters

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

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

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

Timbers Selection

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

#RCTID