The New Mwanga

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a worrying dip in his production.

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Assistant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timbers gu bràth

The Abyss

Where to start?

Oh I know. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuucking hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They lost on a freak result. An aberration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#RCTID

The Intangible Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diego Chara & The Art of Fouling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


You can follow Andrew on twitter – @andyyax

Cascadi-argh

The problem with watching an M Night Shyamalan movie, apart from watching an M Night Shyamalan movie, is that you spend most of your time waiting for the twist – the shattering reveal that turns everything you just watched on it’s head. Shyamalan, after the huge success of The Sixth Sense (SPOILER ALERT: Simon is Hans Gruber’s brother), became “the twist guy”.

The Timbers have their own twist; their own little gimmick. They lose late goals. A fuckofa lot. And it’s getting every bit as head-smackingly tedious as Shyamalan’s third-act revelations did.

Despite John Spencer’s post-match insistence that losing so many late goals is “not a massive problem“ this season alone has seen the team lose 7 goals in the last 10 minutes of matches, while they haven’t scored a goal in that period. As Mike Donovan tweeted, in the last 20 minutes of home MLS matches, the Timbers have been outscored 4-18.

I really hope Spencer was simply trying to bat away negatives to put a positive spin on the match because if he really doesn’t think those figures represent a massive problem then I think we have the answer as to whether Spencer has lost it…

While the loss of yet another routinely sickening late goal may not have been a surprise, Spencer did pull a couple of rabbits out of the hat in his team selection.

I can’t say I was surprised to see Jewsbury back in at right-back, even though I thought Chabala had done enough against Chicago to keep his place. The shock was that Chabala didn’t even make the subs bench either. I can only assume it was a late knock (there were no injuries listed on the Friday before the match) because I can’t fathom any other reason why Chabala wouldn’t even make it to the bench.

The midfield was where the big shake up came, as only Diego Chara retained his starting place there. Songo’o and Wallace were replaced by Kalif Alhassan and Eric Alexander. Lovel Palmer dropped to the bench to facilitate a move into midfield for Darlington Nagbe, whose striking role alongside Kris Boyd was filled by Jorge Perlaza.

Despite my pre-match hope that we might see the team line-up in a 4-3-3 formation, it instead was much closer to the 4-4-2 diamond formation that the team had played earlier in the season, with Nagbe at the point.

It was an attacking set-up, and it looked like it would pay dividends early on as the play was much more fluid and connected that it had been in recent weeks. There were noticeably fewer hit-and-hope punts up the pitch, and much more quick passing and interplay.

If there is a criticism to be levelled at Troy Perkins – so often the Timbers hero in recent weeks – it’s that his distribution is often poor, but this week was much improved.

Though he had less to do this week than he had against the Fire, he still played the ball out short more often, with less recourse to the long ball. It’s a personal thing, but I much prefer to see the keeper look for that short throw or pass that retains possession and allows the team to build from the back than the lazy punt. The long ball has it’s place – to launch a quick counter, taking advantage of opponents that have overloaded the attack – but it’s seemingly the default setting for many keepers and it’s more often than not a waste of possession.

Perkins mirrored the play of his team-mates, which focussed much more on building the play through passing and movement. In this kind of system, Diego Chara’s role is crucial in the transition from defence to attack and vice versa. His passing is often underrated by some as he’s not one to attempt the “Hollywood pass” very often, but he keeps the play circulating with an excellent 90+% success rate.

His defensive play was characteristically strong, covering the area in front of his defence with steely determination. For a small guy, he’s deceptively strong as many bigger players have found out to their cost.

He was joined in midfield by Alexander and Alhassan. Alexander’s recall was a welcome sight, even though he was nominally the left midfielder, rather than playing through the centre where he seems more at home. At times it looked like he was a little over keen to impress having been given the chance.

Alhassan started after a good showing in a midweek friendly against Valencia. There are many similarities between Alhassan and Songo’o in that they’re both clearly skilful, flair players but equally both prone to trying to do a bit too much on their own. Both can frustrate when they try a flick, or try to beat a man when the easy pass is on to a wide-open team-mate but that’s the price you pay for the times when it does come off for them.

Not everyone agreed with me that Nagbe has been looking a little low in energy and confidence lately, but I hoped his drop into an attacking midfield role would reinvigorate him, and he did show little flashes of the player that can get fans on the edge of their seats.

At times he was playing as an orthodox central midfielder, but he adjusted admirably well. It’s good to see him more involved in play, and running at opponents again.

As the resident Jorge Perlaza apologist, it should be no surprise to read that I thought he had a good game. He worked tirelessly and got involved in play in a way that Nagbe doesn’t when he’s asked to partner Boyd.

Though he’s unquestionably a frustrating figure – his finishing can be wildly erratic at times – his ball retention is good and he is a good link between midfield and attack in terms of his running and ability to hold up the ball and feed it to onrushing midfielders, much like his countryman Chara fulfils the role in linking defence and midfield.

He also created a good chance for Nagbe early in the second half with a good run down the right and first time cross into the path of Nagbe who got under the ball and sent it sailing over the bar, as well as a couple of chances for himself. With the addition of Fucito to the squad, there’s even more pressure of Perlaza to perform when he’s given the chance, and I’d hope his strong showing against the Whitecaps is a sign that he’s taken the challenge on board and raised his game.

Kris Boyd got back on the scoresheet again after a poacher’s goal in 67 minutes when Jewsbury’s erratic cross was palmed away the Whitecaps keeper right into the area Boyd had staked out at the back post. It was a typically opportunistic bit of finishing from the Scot as he got himself in the right place at the right time.

Boyd is the kind of striker that does his best work off the second ball, where he has the strikers instinct to attack the area the ball is going to be. This was a prime example of this where skill and luck put him in the right place to hook the ball home. Too often though the Timbers are looking for him to win the first ball in the air, and this isn’t his strong suit especially against big guys like Jay DeMerit, who only minutes before the goal has clattered clumsily into Kalif in what looked like a stonewall penalty, but was waved away by both referee and his assistant.

Despite indirectly supplying the assist for Boyd’s goal, I thought Jewsbury’s crossing had been poor all night. I wouldn’t be surprised if Whitecaps defenders were drawing lots as to who would close down Jewsbury’s crosses, as to be the first man to a Jewsbury cross is to more-often-than-not get hit.

With Alhassan ahead of you, it’s a tricky job as his defensive work isn’t his strong suit. Jewsbury coped well in the defensive sense, but again I felt he offered little in attack.

The lead would last less than 20 minutes before a routine long ball was poorly defending, and Darren Mattocks, on the pitch for all of a minute, was able to breeze into the box and thunder the ball past Perkins.

The defending had been generally good, but here they switched off at the back, and were punsihed. Mosquera allowed Hassli to get the run on him, and Horst failed to cover the space behind his partner which gave Mattocks the time he needed to blow past Horst’s weak challenge.

It was a sickening end to a match that the Timbers will feel they deserved three points from.

It’s not just the late goals being lost that are a worry, it’s the inability to hold a lead. On 8 occasions this season the Timbers have taken the lead, but they’ve only held onto it 3 times. Of the 5 times the Timbers have lost the lead in a game, they’ve then gone on to lose 3 – the horrible run of RSL, Chivas and LA. In short – the Timbers are as likely to lose a match as win it when they go ahead! (3 wins, 3 losses, 1 draw – yes, that’s only 7, they took the lead twice against Chicago)

In a weird coincidence, the figures are mirrored when they go behind. 8 times they’ve slipped behind, and only 3 times they’ve found an equaliser – Philly (W), Dallas (D) and RSL (L).

The seeming inability to turn around a game when the momentum turns against the team is troubling.

Recent weeks have brought around better defensive performances, and for long spells of the game against the Whitecaps, there was much to be happy about the attacking play. A bit more luck or composure in front of goal and the Timbers could’ve been comfortable.

It wasn’t to be, and it’s another 2 points dropped – doubly galling as it’s against both a local and conference rival. It’s all very well complaining about the refereeing – and the Alhassan decision was especially poor – but as Mike Perron tweeted, “nothing takes a referee out of a game like finishing chances.” So very true. As long as the match is precarious, you’re always one defensive lapse from undoing all your good work.

Of course, if you’d watched the highlights on the MLS site, you might be wondering “what chances?” and “what (non) penalty?”. Thankfully the MLS site haven’t included the penalty shout in their “highlights” package. You want to see Steven Smith get a yellow card? Oh, you better believe that’s a highlight. You want to see a contentious decision that the officials clearly got wrong? Not a highlight. Neither are a number of decent chances at goal or passages of play.

I really hope whoever it was that compiles the highlights had a hot date last night to explain such a slap-dash and lazy job.

There’s often so much more that I’d like to illustrate and show through screengrab and the like but, as I don’t have MLS Live, I’m limited in what I can illustrate here by what MLS choose to put into their highlights. This match is probably one of their worst efforts yet – hence the lack of pics. I’d have loved to have written more about Perlaza, for instance, but there was next to nothing for me to do so in the highlights. Hopefully I’d get MLS Live soon, but for now I’ll just make do.

I do feel that progress is being made. The defence – a couple of weak moments aside – looks solid and didn’t look any weaker for having one less defensive midfielder in the team. In attack, with the reintroduction of Alhassan and seeing Nagbe played in his more natural position, there are encouraging signs for the future.

There’s a break in MLS action for the Timbers until the middle of next month, with a visit to LA to play Beckham FC. Before then the Timbers kick-off their US Open Cup campaign with the visit of Cal FC in midweek. The promise of a CONCACAF Champions League place for the cup winners should be all the incentive needed for the club to take the competition, and their amateur opponents, seriously.

There’s no doubt the fans already do.

#RCTID

Accentuate The Positive

Sunday night saw the Timbers battle to a 2-1 victory against Chicago Fire, a victory that ended a run of three matches without a win and over 7 hours without a Timbers player scoring a goal. It’s also the third match in a row that the Timbers have been unbeaten at home and kept a 100% record against the Fire intact.

With Jack Jewsbury out thanks to injury, it meant a start at right back for Mike Chabala. Futty Danso was a doubt for the match after his late game injury in the Houston match, but the MLS disciplinary committee took the decision out of the clubs hands by banning the Gambian for accidentally bumping the back Caleb Carr’s neck with his arm. If only Futty had kicked him square in the face instead as that doesn’t draw any sanctions, apparently.

Eric Brunner returned to his spot in the centre of defence, and those two enforced changes apart, it was the same team that drew in Texas that would face the Fire.

Again, what looked like 4-4-2 on paper played much more like a 4-1-3-1-1 as Palmer sat deeper, and Nagbe frequently dropped off the front line.

The Timbers knew their new-found defensive solidity would be tested against the speed and interplay of the Fire attack, but once more the team proved (largely) equal to the task.

Kris Boyd, for so long an isolated and frustrated figure against Houston, was much more involved this time round, and his early header from a Chabala throw-in produced a great stop from the Chicago keeper.

Indeed, it was from dead ball situations that the Timbers carved out their best chances on goal. The opening strike came from a corner, headed back across goal from Mosquera and skited into the path of Eric Brunner by Boyd, for the defender to score.

Relief was palpable as the long goal drought ended, but some things never seem to change, and after missing a couple of half chances, some sloppy defensive play allowed the Fire equalise.

While some measure of credit has to go to Pappa for the pass, the fact is it was another goal lost where the Timbers were undone as much by themselves as anyone else. Smith sclaffed his clearance, but all was still not lost had Palmer not gone to sleep and allowed Anibaba to get the space he needed to finish well.

There’s also the issue of three Timbers players huddled right in front of goal, which none of them awake to the through pass either. This is just poor alertness and concentration.

The team had almost come a cropper just prior to the goal when a corner was cleared to the edge of the box, before being worked back into to Pardo who was unmarked right in front of goal.

Fortunately for the Timbers, Troy Perkins came to the rescue once more, but if the chance had been a defensive wake-up call, it was one the Timbers failed to heed minutes later.

I thought Palmer had a decent game last week, but I can’t say the same here. While he wasn’t bad by any means, he is prone to lapses in concentration like the above and he seemed to drift out of the game as it went on.

In the second half he was a largely peripheral figure as he failed to impose himself on the game in the way that, for example, Diego Chara did, and does on a regular basis.

It will be interesting to see what John Spencer does when Jack Jewsbury is fit once more (presumably next week). Will Jack come in (as I assume he will) for Chabala or Palmer? My suspicion is that Chabala will sit, with Jack in again at right back.

There really is not much between Jack and Chabala at right back. Both have similar pass success rates, with Chabala perhaps a little more likely to get the ball forward than Jack. The two big differences I can pick between the two are that Chabala is a smarter full back than Jack, and his intensity is greater.

The reason I say Chabala is smarter is that I always feel he has a better understanding with the man in front of him than Jewsbury does. Despite the coach’s insistance that full back is the “easiest position to play” – something Jonathan Wilson might disagree with – the fact is that it’s not that simple – just ask Lovel Palmer, Jeremy Hall or Rodney Wallace. Chabala fits in much more naturally in the role, and his instinct of when to step up, or drop back is much more honed than Jewsbury’s, who often seemed to need that extra half-second or so to think about what he should be doing.

Chabala’s intensity was exmplemified by the little tête-à-tête with Nyarko just before half time. Chabala brings much more of a terrier mentality to the role than Jewsbury’s more measured, hands-off approach.

Both of these factors give Chabala a much stronger presence in the role than Jewsbury’s had so far. Spencer has already stated that when fit, Jewsbury will play which could, perhaps should, put Palmer’s place under threat.

If Jack’s place in the team truly is inviolate, then it would make sense to at least fit him in in his natural position, and a role he’s shown himself more comfortable in. We wouldn’t want square pegs in round holes, would we?

Of course, given the team’s victory this week, perhaps Spencer will bench the club captain and stick with the same XI, which would also be tough on Futty Danso who had started to form a formidable partnership with Mosquera, only to see Brunner slip back into the role and score.

Of course, I’m just a hopeless romantic who’d like to see us go to 3 at the back, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

The half brought another line-up change, with the largely ineffectual Franck Songo’o replaced by Sal Zizzo. Songo’o is a player I still haven’t got a handle on. He shows some really nice touches, and good tricks, but he still, for me, hasn’t offered enough final product. Step overs and jinks are all well and good, but if you end up getting robbed of possession or your final pass is weak, it’s all for nothing. I can’t shake the lingering sense than Franck Songo’o plays for Franck Songo’o first, and the Timbers second. I could be being harsh on him there though. Maybe it’s my ingrained Scottish suspicion of flashy players showing…

Zizzo’s bag of tricks is certainly a lot lighter but he offers a directness that the team were lacking. Songo’o will look to short, quick touches, bringing the ball inside and looking to beat a man or thread the ball through the eye of a needle; Zizzo will take one touch, knock it past his man and go round him in his bloody-minded desire to hit the byline and provide service to the strikers.

Zizzo’s introduction saw the whole flow of the Timbers play change.

Much of the Timbers first half play was focussed down the left hand side, where Rodney Wallace was putting in a much stronger shift than he had in the previous match. His defensive work was much more focussed and he and Smith are starting to build a good understanding down the flank.

With Kalif Alhassan on the bench, now is the time for Wallace to firmly stake his claim to the left midfield role, and while he could do with a better end result for his work, he won’t do his chances any harm if he can keep up this level of play.

With Zizzo on the pitch, the balance of play shifted to the right wing, and his direct running and pace caused the Fire backline all manner of headache.

In the first half, the four tackles down the Timbers right-wing were all successful, from a Fire perspective. The situation changed somewhat after the break as the foul count rose.

Given that I just wrote a blog where I was largely critical of Spencer, it’s only right that I give him the credit for his changes in this match. Recognising that the Timbers were playing much of the game in front of the Fire defence, his introduction of Zizzo gave them a ball in behind, and someone who would run at them and stretch that backline.

Jorge Perlaza came on for Nagbe later on, for much the same reason. Perlaza’s running and harrying would keep the Fire wary at a time when the Timbers were defending a lead when Logan Pause turned home Boyd’s flick from a Sal Zizzo corner shortly after the restart.

Nagbe has cut a lonely figure these past couple of weeks. He’s not getting involved in the way he was early in the season, and when he does have the ball he isn’t the same exciting presence. Where at the start of the season, he’d run at defenders, get them unbalanced and look to get a shot away, recently he’s been more reluctant to go for the jugular and is instead looking to pass it off.

It could be that’s what he’s been told to do, or that’s he’s just not comfortable in the role he’s being asked to play, but to me he’s looking a bit tired, or low in confidence. A rest may be the best thing for him – it’s only his second year in MLS and young players will blow hot and cold.

Perlaza showed great energy in his short spell on the pitch, and helped out in the late game defence with good tracking and harrying.

The way the field seemed to open up for the opposition would’ve had some Timbers fans chewing their nails down to the quick, but Perlaza did well to recognise the threat and get back to fill in and get a block in. But for a cynical foul on the breakaway, Zizzo would’ve been clean through as the wide man again showed what a valuable asset his pace could be.

Despite a great deal of late pressure, the Fire failed to really trouble Troy Perkins’ goal, and that was thanks to some more good defensive work from the Timbers.

Compared to the Houston match, you can see that the Timbers were pressing higher up the pitch. The backline has stepped up, and the second line had also moved further up the pitched. Especially encouraging is a third line half way up the pitch as the Timbers sought to press high and force the Fire into mistakes before they could even get into dangerous areas.

While the lack of open-play chances is still concerning, the Timbers still ground out a win here. When your attack isn’t quite hitting top gear, exploiting set plays is more important than ever. Delivery has improved – Songo’o and Zizzo delivered great corners that lead to both goals – and players are making runs and movements in the box with much more intent.

Players are starting to return to the fold from injury, with Zizzo having an impact in the last two matches from the bench, and Alhassan now making the bench. It would be interesting to see these two playing the wide roles in future, though Zizzo’s history with the club last year suggests that Spencer perhaps sees him more as an impact sub late in the game, using his pace and width to stretch and get in behind tiring defences. I can’t really argue with that, thought I do think that Zizzo has earned strong starting consideration at the very least.

It’s also nice to see the Timbers push back when challenged physically. There was a time when this team could be bullied by other teams, but there’s been a recent shift towards giving every bit as good as they get lately, and indeed it was the Fire players who spent most of the game falling dramatically to the turf in an attempt to hoodwink the referee, who was switched on enough to book a particularly egregious example late in the match.

It was also good to see Boyd more involved in the play as he seemed to have the measure of his opponents in the Fire defence. He had a hand in both goals for the Timbers, provided the cross for Chance Myers to score an own goal in the Sporting KC match, and scored the last open play goal against LA. Crucial, much?

Next up is Vancouver Whitecaps as the Timbers kick-off their Cascadia Cup campaign. The Whitecaps have a number of attacking dangers that it will be vital the Timbers defence have the measure of, but they’ve also shown defensive frailties that can be exploited.

Now off the foot of the Western Conference, the Timbers will hope to keep that momentum going. The football may not be pretty right now, but the points are nice.

#RCTID

Has Spencer Lost It?

There will be few of a Timbers persuasion who will look back on the the first few months of the 2012 season with anything other than a grimace/rueful shake of the head depending on how the year turns out. It has not been good. At all.

Midway through May the performances and results have been poor and the team find themselves propping up the Western Conference with almost a third of the season gone.

Such is the atmosphere around the club that Merritt Paulson’s trip to Munich for the Champions League final drew the ire of some. You can guarantee that a winning team’s fans don’t particularly care if their team owner is out of town on a jolly, missing a grand total of one game in a season. But when the results aren’t good…

Many fans are asking hard questions of Paulson and the Timbers front office, or of the players of the pitch. It doesn’t diminish their support, but neither does support mean tough questions shouldn’t be asked.

The question that’s been nagging away at the back of my head for a while now isn’t about Paulson, a guy whose love for the club I do not question, or Gavin Wilkinson, a General Manager with no MLS experience, or even the players, whom I think are giving their best under the circumstances. No, the question that’s been on my mind is this –

What the hell is up with John Spencer?

Hiring a manager with no experience of the top job was always a risk, especially without experienced back-up, but I felt that last year Spencer had shown some signs of progress. He’s certainly enthusiastic and engaging. On the pitch there were a few missteps, but as long as lessons are learned, then that’s fine. No-one expected trophies from the get-go.

The thing is that this year it doesn’t seem like the lessons of last year have been learned after all. The team seems to make the same mistakes, over and over and over again.

The last few weeks have been especially concerning for me as Spencer’s words and actions seem to indicate a manager who is, frankly, out of his depth.

Last month saw James Marcelin waived in a move that took many by surprise, but the real headscratcher was a couple of lines in the press release that gave the reason for Marcelin’s dismissal as “non-soccer-related“, and that the club had “a high level of professional expectations for all its players”.

Now, most fans are aware of the rumours about Marcelin, and few would describe the Haitian as a model professional, but quite why the club felt the need to include such a pointed, yet vague, dig at Marcelin is unclear.

Spencer undoutedly had very little to do with the wording of the press release, but Marcelin’s comments since getting picked up by FC Dallas that the Scot “doesn’t let you [play your game]” because “he’s just yelling all the time” probably points towards a personality clash that would’ve certainly hastened Marcelin’s departure.

The thing is, if the Timbers had simply said that Marcelin was surplus to requirements, and they felt the roster spot would be better utilised elsewhere, few would’ve batted an eyelid. Marcelin had never really commanded a place in the Timbers XI, and his effectiveness as a “closer” was questionable, at best. The little petty dig struck me, ironically enough, as rather unbecoming of a professional outfit.

Shortly after Marcelin’s departure, Spencer addressed Eric Alexander’s absence from the team with a very candid spiel on the midfielder’s application.

As he told the press, “[Eric] has been given an opportunity to play and is not playing to the best of his ability that we know how he can play. He needs to realize … that when you get the opportunity to play you’ve got to take it with both hands. Play well and stay in the team.”

This again caused eyebrows to raise among Timbers fans. Alexander, it should be noted, currently leads the club in assists. The last goal scored by a Timber came from an Alexander assist. Alexander isn’t playing, the Timbers aren’t scoring. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

Spencer sees Alexander in training every day – he knows more about him than any of us fans could hope to, so in some respects you have to bow to his insider knowledge. Perhaps Eric isn’t giving enough in training. Perhaps there is more to come from him. I wouldn’t dare to profess any great insight into whether Eric Alexander isn’t doing his best.

My issue is that publicly calling someone out isn’t, to my mind, the way to get more effort from that person. What sort of message does it send to other players as well that a manager under pressure and facing questions about his own performance is going to throw one of his (better) players out there as not doing enough?

There are those who’ll say that Spencer is just answering the question honestly. Hey, I can respect that. The meaningless clichés of football are one of my big bugbears. But I’d say that the place for blunt “honesty” is the locker room, not in front of the assembled press. You can be honest and diplomatic at the same time.

It doesn’t seem that Spencer’s public pep-talk has done much to improve Alexander’s efforts as he’s since been limited to cameo appearances, while Lovel Palmer has settled in at centre midfield. There are some who’d read Spencer’s “play well and stay in the team” line and then look at the team sheet with eyebrows raised so high they’d be halfway down the back of the neck.

The last couple of matches have at least seen the team come together defensively and put in some good shifts at the back, keeping two clean sheets back-to-back. Something to be applauded. A great foundation to build upon.

The problem has been that the team has offered very little in attack. It’s over 7 hours since a Timber put the ball in the net.

John Spencer, speaking to Timbers Insider, addressed fans concerns about a lack of attacking midfielders with a dismissive “square pegs in round holes” dig. “You’re just putting a blindfold on and throwing a dart at a dartboard and hopefully it comes up trumps. We’re not coaching [youth soccer] where you can do what you want. We’re a professional level, you’ve got to play the players in the positions that they’re accustomed to.”

Take that fans. You know nothing. Now run along, there’s a dear.

If any fans had eyebrows left, reading that has probably shot them off into near-Earth orbit. “Play the players in the positions that they’re accustomed to.” Really, John? You’re actually using that line?

I suppose you mean guys like Diego Chara, the winger? Or Jack Jewsbury, the attacking midfielder?

Either Spencer is forgetful, or he’s a hypocrite. He’s the guy that’s been playing players out of position, consistently. That’s the problem. John.

There are few who believe that Nagbe’s rightful position is up top. His best work has come from deeper positions, when he can get turned, get his head up and run with the ball. Yet he’s found himself leading the line, or even stuck out wide.

The passive-aggressive tone of Spencer’s reply is that of the age-old defence – if you’ve not done it yourself, you can’t possibly be qualified to talk about it. Yeah, I don’t get paid to do this (I actually pay for the privilege with hosting costs), nor do I have coaching badges or experience of playing beyond school’s level, but don’t insinuate that I, and other fans, don’t know what we’re seeing.

I don’t have to have directed a blockbuster movie to know that Battleship is a steaming crock of shit. I don’t have to have written and performed a Top 10 hit to know that Justin Bieber is the greatest single threat to humanity since the invention of the A-Bomb.

And I don’t have to have managed a professional team (or youth soccer – hey youth soccer coaches, you suck too!) to know that this isn’t good enough, and you haven’t shown anything to suggest that you have any idea how to fix it.

To the list of unprofessional players, players who aren’t working hard enough, and an overabundance of square pegs, you can add “too many young players” to the list of reasons why the Timbers are underachieving this year.

“”I think we are underachieving when it comes to getting good service [to the attackers],” Spencer said to OregonLive.com. “We are inconsistent in that department. But that comes from having young players. They’re going to have inconsistencies.”

Well, I for one am glad that’s been sorted out. We’re not scoring because we have too many young players, not because we lack an attacking midfielder, or we’re benching our leading assist creator. It’s the young players!

Which is, quite frankly, horse shit. Freshly laid, steaming equine manure.

Let’s look at the numbers. The average age of the Timbers starting midfield and attack in the last tow matches is over 25. Only one player, Nagbe, could reasonably be tagged as “young”. Rodney Wallace, the next youngest at 23, has over 60 MLS starts to his name.

Meanwhile, at DC United – a team that have scored 22 in 13 matches, compared to the Timbers 9 in 10 – four of their most used midfield and attackers are 22 or under. The average age of their 7 most used midfielders and attackers comes in at a full year younger than the Timbers “kids” (a little over 24) – and that includes Dwayne De Rosario, a player so old he still remembers when everything was black and white. Take DeRo out of the mix and the average age crashes below 23. Nagbe is a veteran in that set up.

I’m not buying it, John.

Now, you could certainly make the case that Spencer had little or nothing to do with the Marcelin press release, and argue that Spencer’s comments about Alexander are just a sign of the man’s honesty and willingness to give a straight answer, but the last two examples are the most worrying to me.

These are the words of a manager who either doesn’t realise the problems the team faces, or doesn’t know how to right them. The passive-aggressive obfuscation of the fans legitimate concerns is getting old, fast.

It seems that whenever the pressure is on the manager, and questions are asked, the answer is the same: it’s the players. They’re not doing enough, or they’re inconsistent or too young. There’s always someone else to blame. Luck, referees, conditions. The list of excuses is as long as it is fatuous.

I might not know the answer of who to put the Timber back on track, but then it’s not my job to. It’s John Spencer’s, and if he doesn’t even understand the question in the first place, that’s not just worrying, it’s downright terrifying.

Tomorrow the Timbers face Chicago and have a chance to lay a marker down for the rest of the season. The rot stops here, and the goals will flow. No-one will be happier to see John Spencer turn it round, you might be surprised to hear, than me. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I’m starting to lose faith in the man in charge.

I firmly believe we have the players to go out and play a creatively attacking game, while remaining defensively responsible. Whether Spencer will let his young square pegs go out and do it is another matter.

#RCTID through the good times and, especially, the bad.