An elegy of sorts…

Posted on: October 30th, 2014 by sunshine 4 Comments

 

Yesterday, Steve Zakuani announced on his website that he was retiring from professional football because his body could no longer handle the strain and pain. It is hard to not feel bad for the man—a career cut short by a reckless challenge and a series of recurrent injuries attributable to that initial injury. And it is that sentiment that will kill any efforts towards objectivity. But do try to be real.

 

Evaluating Zakuani’s contributions to the Timbers 2014 season is a rather simple calculus. First, thanks to those recurrent injuries, he could no longer run. Without that speed he was simply average. Without that speed he was predictable. Without that speed he was hopeless. If you watched any one of his games you too would be convinced that he never once stepped foot in Arsenal’s academy system. His contributions to the offense were one goal in the Champions League and three regular season assists and that was all. Such a lack of productivity from a man who once led collegiate scoring with 20 goals in a single season would have been forgivable had he devoted even an inkling of a “give-a-fuck” to his defensive duties. But even that was outside his skill set.

 

The reality is that after one year with the Timbers he will be remembered as a nice guy. Despite the fact he is an ex-Sounder, being a nice guy could well be enough to persuade some of you to speak glowingly of his time with the club. But do not kid yourselves, he was an empty kit. I will not echo the sentiments of the Timbers apologists and revisionist historians by suggesting Steve Zakuani’s announced retirement will have any effect on the club other than releasing a cool $150K for other, better players. And hopefully his exit will trigger the exit of several other players, who contributed similarly to the mediocrity that tricked us all into an uncomfortable, post-season optimism. If so, we might actually realize the potential of this club.

 

This off-season is going to be a test of the technical director’s mettle and the coach’s vision. But haven’t we seen that combination already? Following the Timbers exit from the 2013 playoffs, they failed to adequately address the defensive frailties exposed by Real Salt Lake, opting to stick with two USL caliber central defenders and an untested Argentine. It was that same combination of mettle and vision which made the mensa-like decision to select Zakuani in the re-entry draft.

 

It has been a knock on the modern game that loyalty no longer exists in football. While loyalty to players who once helped build your name and career is admirable, it is equally stupid. Porter’s loyalty to Zakuani is understandable—he scored goals for the Zips and brought Akron a national championship. But that player died in Colorado, when Brian Mullan made this tackle:

 

 

Look, the Timbers had to bring in someone who knew the system and could potentially fit in seamlessly while Rodney Wallace recuperated from his ACL injury. But if this is the type of acquisition we can expect from Wilkinson and Porter when they must replace injured starters then we should be very concerned to see who they determine is an adequate replacement for Diego Valeri. That is the main point of this article, not to condemn Zakuani to the annals of another useless Timbers player, but to suggest that his deficiencies highlight the club’s deficiencies in need assessment and replacement. The Timbers were one point away from making the playoffs with a healthy Diego Valeri; imagine where they will be without him. If the Timbers make a similar acquisition for Diego Valeri's replacement we can already prepare the second line for 2015’s funeral.

What’s luck got to… got to do with it?

Posted on: October 29th, 2014 by john nyen 6 Comments

 

 

Not a damn thing.

 

Luck is a variance. Luck is something you cannot understand, approach or build. You create luck, or rather the appearance of luck by having a positive team.

 

Yes, the Timbers lost out on the playoffs by one point, but that wasn't luck.

 

That was this game:

 

Where the Timbers defense capitulated over and over again managing to give up two leads and a two goal lead AT HOME to their biggest rival.

 

That was this game:

 

 

Where the Timbers defense again capitulated after scoring in the first half to let the perennial cellar dwellars of the west force a draw AT HOME. The defense left Cubo Torres UNMARKED... UNMARKED in the box to slip in the game tieing goal. That, right there is the playoffs.

 

That was this game:

 

 

Where the Timbers again took the lead AT HOME to watch their lead disappear through silly defensive mistakes in the box and poor play. And where the offense worked so incredibly hard just to secure a point after Columbus scored another goal to go up 3-2. Once again... AT HOME.

 

That was this game:

 

 

Where the Timbers again took the lead (again AT HOME) only to completely squander the day and lose to the team that eventually pipped them for the Western Conference playoffs, giving the points they needed at the end of the season.

 

That was this game:

 

 

Where the Timbers took a lead into the 87th minute against Los Angeles only to watch two points vanish with a McKenzie own goal.

 

 

That was this game:

 

 

Where the Timbers took a 2 goal lead into the second half only to lose 3-2.

 

AND THIS GAME:

 

 

Where coaching decisions and lackadaisical defense (which heavily included Michael Harrington and Liam Ridgewell) combined to watch the Timbers knocked out of the only cup competition they controlled with one game left in the season.

 

So don't talk to me about luck being the deciding factor in this season.

 

This season was the result of incorrect personnel decisions and baffling coaching decisions that doomed the team to poor, reactionary defense that cost them valuable points over the entirety of the season.

 

You make your own luck.

 

Shit Defense is Still Shit Defense. And good defense would have propelled the team into the playoffs and the CONCACAF Champions League knock out round.

The Valeri Conundrum

Posted on: October 28th, 2014 by john nyen 4 Comments

 

Don Garber announced his news as he typically does to the fans, with an authoritative thud designed for the most impact and largest dispersal zone. Garber is basically the hammer, dealing out information crack with the spread pattern of a mallet. He attempts to bend the narrative to his own devices and fills the largely empty void of media coverage with the leagues own spin.

 

Essentially the news was this.

 

Chivas USA is gone, done, kaput.

 

Fans of Chivas USA? Suffer.

 

There are, in the Portland Timbers ranks, a few fans that can empathize with the loss of a club from their day to day lifestyle.

 

However, the other news came in as well.

 

Two clubs on the move.

 

The defending champion (Sporting Kansas City) and the perennial place that no one wants to go during the summer to try to pick up points (Houston Dynamo) are moving west. What this means is a reshuffling of the order, and a reconfiguration of an already stacked conference.

 

However, what it means even more to the Portland Timbers is an elimination of what had become one of the "easier" points to take in the west.  When Portland played Chivas USA in 2014, they pulled 7 out of 9 points from the LA based team. Portland relied on pulling 7 out of 9 points from both Chivas and San Jose this season for a whopping total of 14 of their points. Hell, 4 of their 12 wins came from the two teams.

 

And now the goats are banished to the dustbin of MLS history along side Tampa Bay, Miami, Landon Donovan, and Andrew Shue's career.

 

This means that the western conference  just gained a defensive specific team in Kansas City that are incredibly difficult to break down and Houston who (at 100 degrees in the sun during the summer) are very difficult as well.  Not only that but they will now play them an indeterminate amount of times rather than the Home OR Home scenario from the past few years. This is an SKC team that beat Portland IN Portland during 2014.

 

Moreover the news came in from the Timbers sources that Diego Valeri potentially tore his ACL. Whether this is a full or partial tear, one could expect him to be out until April, May or even possibly June. This news dovetails to the column from yesterday in which I castigated the Timbers front office for attempting to replace Rodney Wallace with Steve Zakuani. This Valeri news also dovetails into a ton of different areas such as, the start to the season, replacements, an expansion draft where the Timbers may lose players, a Chivas USA personell dispersal mechanism, and the collective bargaining agreement. (which will be renegotiated this offseason.... hopefully... maybe...)

 

The issue here is the direction that the front office and coaching staff take in replacing a player who has essentially become the heart beat of the Timbers attack on every front. Valeri makes everyone around him better. He is the best player that has ever played for the MLS Timbers squad, full stop.

 

The idea of the team attempting to shoehorn in a discount replacement because of cap concerns, or potentially turning the reigns of the team over to Darlington "I've got one leg" Nagbe, or Gaston Fernandez will impact the first THREE months of the season which could impact a total of 10 games (that is, of course, if the season starts on time ... again... CBA!)  What the team big-wigs decide will have an impact on the Timbers ability to compete not only with the old guard of the Western Conference, but the new paradigm where the Western Conference just added Sporting Kansas City, Houston Dynamo, and the Timbers no longer have allocation money coming in from making the CONCACAF Champions League.

 

Whether this player is tasked to play a new role and selected from the already existing roster or is acquired with the intention of creating competition and backup for Valeri's position, remains to be seen. However, it is my opinion that without Valeri in the lineup, over the course of 3 to 5 months, the Timbers will be forced to play slightly more defensively. If this is the case, then the front office acquiring better defensive talent this season becomes even more important along with correctly identifying a player to bring even half of Valeri's impact.

 

The next months will tell, but whether the Timbers break from the mold of acquiring discount "coming off a bad spell with their old team and possibly previously injured" talent  and find the gems they need to compete will have everything to do with the success of the 2015 season.

 

There will be no place to hide in the Western Conference in 2015.

 

 

The 2014 Postmortem: Part 1

Posted on: October 27th, 2014 by john nyen 1 Comment

 

In the death throw of the 2013 season the coaching staff and front office of the Timbers were handed a number of obvious issues that needed to be addressed for 2014.

 

 

#1 Rodney Wallace was injured and would be out a number of months.

#2 The Timbers were exposed defensively against better teams at the centerback position leading to unpredictable and poor play at the back.

#3 The Timbers were exposed defensively against better teams at the fullback position leading to unpredictable and poor play at the back.

#4 Ryan Johnson was not interested in being re-signed by the team leaving a hole at the forward position in terms of offense, defense and link up play.

(not in order of importance)

 

 

Over the next month I plan on exploring all of the above items, how the team attempted to fix the problems and whether the fix the front office and coaching staff implemented, worked.

 

Firstly, some would argue that the team was set up to compete after a season in which the Timbers seemed to be defensively resolute, were top of the western conference (although they did not win the western conference championship, this went to Real Salt Lake) and went to the playoffs.

 

However, I argue that what the fans were watching was the slow pragmatic abandonment of the Timbers original ideals of pass and press (with a high line) when it comes to tactics and the implementation of more direct play with the injury of Mikael Silvestre and Caleb Porter losing faith in Andrew Jean-Baptiste. While the team had fantastic results and a fantastic season, over the course of the year the Timbers were exposed in defense by great teams, the most glaring of which was the battle with Real Salt Lake over the course of the season.

 

The Timbers finished the 2013 season 0-4-2 (W-L-D) against RSL in all competitions having lost to the Salt Lake team in the USOC and MLS Playoff knockout rounds. The Real Salt Lake outside/inside game of overloading the PTFC centerbacks and getting beyond the Timbers midfield seemed to define the strategy that many teams employed against the Timbers in 2014.

 

So, beginning the postmortem of the 2014 team we look at issue #1

 

 

#1 Rodney Wallace was injured and would be out a number of months.

 

Wallace was severely injured during the 2nd leg of the Timbers loss against Real Salt Lake with a right anterior cruciate ligament and a non-displaced tibial plateau fracture. During the 2013 season, Wallace exploded offensively and defensively after being moved up in the lineup to a forward/winger position for the Timbers. His play allowed the Timbers to expand the field, play vertically and play with combination down the left side while providing 7 goals and 6 assists on the season. Also highly underrated was his effort on the defensive side of the ball where he covered for Michael Harrington’s up the field exploits, with Wallace frequently flipping between playing as a winger, playing as a wingback and playing as a fullback as the situation dictated.

 

With Wallace out up to seven months the Timbers attempted to keep his diagnosis hidden while looking for available talent. Eventually, one month later, the team decided on a strategy for the 2014 season.

 

Wallace’s replacement was acquired when Steve Zakuani came in to the Timbers from the 2013 MLS Re-Entry process on December 12, 2013. Zakuani previously played with athleticism and speed during the 2010 season before being massively injured during the beginning of the 2011 season.

 

Zakuani’s injury was so severe that there was talk, at one point, about amputating his leg.

 

During the 2013 season, Sounders fitness coach Dave Tenney admitted (in a Seattle Times interview) that the injury forced Zakuani to have a gait (walking/running motion) change.

 

“Obviously in your gait, everything works up the pelvis, and there was actually some stuff through his gait that was affecting his pelvis and basically stressing his pelvis in a way that was totally abnormal because of how his gait had changed through coming back, and the fact that he’s an explosive guy who does stress his pelvis extensively. There was some stuff in that foot and ankle that was changing some things subtly, and it was having an impact higher up the chain. If you’re flat-out strong enough, maybe it won’t make us much of a difference. But him being explosive, trying to gain strength, being explosive and also trying to play ended up being too much for his pelvis. So he had trauma where everything attaches in there.”

 

Tenney referred to the fact that despite Zakuani rehabbing from his injury over the course of 2 years that he, in 2013, tore his groin requiring sports hernia surgery.

 

The idea of Zakuani replacing Wallace already was on a tenuous ground when the player was acquired given the injury history of the player, as well as his porous defense.

 

However, with Zakuani, Kalif Alhassan, and Gaston Fernandez, the Timbers Front Office indicated that they were satisfied that this would hold the team over until Wallace would return.

 

The reason why this article compares Zakuani to Wallace is because despite Zakuani’s infrequent minutes, he remains the only like for like player option that the Timbers tried on the left. Gaston Fernandez frequently cut to the middle of the field and appeared more comfortable in that position than as a pure winger. Kalif Alhassan tends to do the same as Fernandez and was one of the few players on the team to have fewer minutes than Zakuani as he completed a season of anonymity with 590 minutes. Darlington Nagbe was tried as an inverted winger out left and Fernandez on the right, but with both players cutting in, this typically clogged the midfield and did not provide width the way the coaching staff seemed to desire.

 

And so, the front office and coaching staff decided to gamble a portion of the beginning of the 2014 season on a player who was so heavily injured in 2011 that during his rehab his walking/running motion permanently changed causing him to tear his groin in a traumatic fashion as he attempted to play again in 2013.

 

Not much that Zakuani did during the season helped show that the player was “fixed” for the long term. He was infrequently used during the season due to the team needing to handle him delicately during training before eventually being shut down for the rest of the season on September 24th, 2014 for, yet again, another groin injury.

 

When he DID play, he showed that his defensive prowess was, at best, poor and frequently non-existent. While he did offer things from an offensive perspective, typically it was to run straight at a defender before sending in an off target shot. He took 19 shots with only 3 ending up on goal.

 

Zakuani, in total, played 739 minutes on the season and his best contributions to the side were in the form of his three assists and his goal for the Timbers during the CONCACAF Champions league match against Guyana minnow Alpha United. Of all the Timbers players to get minutes during the 2014 season, only six had fewer minutes than he did, and Ben Zemanski was clearly on his way to passing Zakuani after Will Johnson’s season ending injury.

 

After Rodney Wallace was fully fit and ready to contribute again, he contributed 5 goals and 1 assist in 1058 minutes. More important, though, were his contributions on the defensive end as Wallace would provide cover for the fullback and the pivot CDM allowing the Timbers to play more aggressively offensively and competently defensively down the left hand side of the field.

 

You cannot blame the entire fortunes of a team on the appointment of one player, and the struggles during the time Zakuani played are really a manifestation of the difficulty that the team had in playing defense and keeping opposing teams from scoring. The reality though is that Zakuani is a part of that defense as much as he is part of the offense and during his tenure the team gave up a large quantity of goals, many down his side of the field.  During his time starting for the team (9 games), the Timbers gave up 2 or more goals 6 times and never kept a clean sheet.

 

There will be some that will look at Zakuani’s acquisition as a net positive for the fact that the Timbers were also able to acquire Jorge Villafaña during the trade with Chivas USA that netted the Timbers the position to acquire Zakuani during the re-entry draft. However, as necessary as Villafaña was for the Timbers later in the season, it remains a major issue that the Timbers coaching staff and front office believed that they could replace Wallace’s production with an injury prone Steve Zakuani.

 

In total, it can be conclusively said that the acquisition of Steve Zakuani, as a replacement (even temporary) for Rodney Wallace in 2014, was an abject failure by the front office and coaching staff of the Portland Timbers. The warning signs were there in 2013 and 2012 that Zakuani may never regain his full capacity as a soccer player, and sad though that may be, the Timbers decided to take a chance on the oft-injured winger that did not pan out.

 

 

The final word comes from Caleb Porter on Zakuani,

“I don’t know if it’s biomechanics or what, but he continues to have problems with muscle strains. I think it stems ultimately from that broken leg, most likely." "We’re probably going to end up shutting him down for the season and figure out the next steps with him and his body, try to get him in to see a specialist.”"

 

MLS All-Stars Shine Against Bayern

Posted on: August 7th, 2014 by Magadh 4 Comments

 

bayernI didn’t really have anything much to say in the wake of the loss to L.A., and since sunshine is on some kind of hush hush assignment down near the equator nothing got said. The match was hard for me to watch. The absence of Darlington Nagbe had a profoundly negative effect on our ability to transition the ball out of defense. We lacked pace and this allowed the Gals to smother us in midfield. By the end of the first half it really looked to me as if the end result was a foregone conclusion. We’re playing better than we were a couple of months ago, but we’re still a ways away from being the kind of side with serious pretensions to compete. More on that a bit later.

 

 

In more recent news, I am pleased to say that the MLS All-Star Game was just about the most entertaining iteration of this fixture that I have ever seen. Not surprisingly, Portland put on a top notch event. Also not surprisingly, Clint Dempsey got booed during the playing introductions. Too right. I’d boo that guy at his own funeral if they held it in Portland.... Read More →

In L.A. Everyone is a Star…

Posted on: August 2nd, 2014 by Magadh No Comments

 

flailI’m getting back into the swing of writing, but obviously I haven’t quite fully gotten back on the horse. It’s not, please believe, that I’ve lost my passion for the team. Rather it’s that I’m kind of short on passion for everything in life these days. But I’m coming around and hopefully that will be more evident soon.

 

 

As part of my therapy I went back and watched L.A.’s recent match with the Flounders. As an aside, I like reading Seattle fan pages. It makes me feel a bit crazy and that keeps me warm at night. In the lead up to that match there was a lot of confidence among the slime green faithful that they were going to put the boot into the Gals, especially given that L.A. had been on the receiving end of a comprehensive whupping from United fairly recently. Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, L.A. pretty much dominated Seattle. Frankly I thought the scoreline flattered Seattle. Not that it wasn’t ugly, but it could have been even worse. Seattle had one of those nights where nothing worked and on which their defensive flaws were laid bare for all to see. Truth to tell we laid those flaws bare as well, but we had quite a few of our own on the night that we drew 4-4 with them. But that’s another story.... Read More →

an impactful win…

Posted on: July 28th, 2014 by sunshine 2 Comments

 

The Timbers pulled off another road win in the most typical of Timbers ways. They controlled possession, dominated the midfield, passed the Impact off the pitch, and gave up the first goal against the run of play. The narrative of this match was written well before the game began. Thankfully it turned out happy because after the 14 minute things felt like they were going to turn horribly wrong.

 

picture perfect positioning...

picture perfect positioning...

Going up against the worst team in MLS is never easy for a team like the Timbers—they have an uncanny knack of making life harder for themselves simply by stepping foot on a pitch. Winning a game against the worst team in MLS only gets harder when that team scores first. Until last night, Montreal has not lost a match at home after scoring the first goal. Hidden within that meaningless little statistic is found the heart of a wounded lion—I am certain of this. They may have only 14 points on the season thanks in no small part to the limited ability spread along their back line, but when given a lead they work hard to retain it (if only for a short time). The same cannot always be said about the Timbers.

... Read More →