2015 Timbers Mantra: Cross Early Cross Often

Posted on: May 8th, 2015 by john nyen No Comments

 

The Portland Timbers really like to cross the ball this season. Through 9 games, the Timbers crossed the ball 235 times. This number is nearly half of the total number of attempted crosses the Timbers tried the entire season in 2012 (482 in 34 games).

 

Portland Timbers Crosses Per Game By Season

2015 - 26 crosses per game

2014 - 19 crosses per game

2013 - 20 crosses per game

2012 - 14 crosses per game

2011 - ?? ( Numbers are unavailable through any website that I could find. Even if you try to go to the match recaps and tabulate all the crosses like I did with 2012, they don't indicate crosses in the stats.)

 

I would argue that the 2012 team was terrible at generating offense in any way, so the jump from 14 to 20 per game (2012 to 2013) could be attributed to a better style of play and more defined roles with better players. However, the jump from 2013 and 2014 to 2015 is a clear delineation of tactics that moves far away from the pass and move stylings of 2013. Whether this is up to the lack of a competent attacking midfielder to generate passes and possession through the middle of the field or an intentional long term shift towards punting the ball into the box is to be seen.

 

In the recent 5/2/2015 draw against Vancouver, the Timbers attempted 41 crosses according to official opta stats. The total number of successful crosses from this game was 5. The Whitecaps had a total of 39 clearances in the game.

 

In the 3/28/2015 loss against Vancouver, the Timbers attempted 48 crosses according to official opta stats.  The total number of successful crosses from this game was 4. The Whitecaps had a total of 29 clearances in the game.

 

Even after the entrance of Valeri, in the recent draw, the Timbers attempted to cross the ball over and over again as a tactic. Many will say that Valeri is going to fix everything and the Timbers are going to revert to the way in which the played in 2013 (ignoring Porter's interview about his tactical evolution), but how much can you really depend on a player for the future who has been critically injured in both the seasons he has played for the team? I sincerely hope that Valeri stays healthy for a long time, but it is clear that the Timbers are very, very different team without him. Other teams in the league have shown their ability to weather the loss of an important player in a way that the Timbers have not shown. If the Timbers play through the middle with Valeri and in the air without him, they will need a forward who is a target forward to convert the crosses coming into him. I also remain unconvinced that Valeri's re-birth from injury will change the way that Porter conducts his tactics. He is another cog in Porters system (albeit a very special and electric cog), one that may (as well) find himself funneling the ball to the outside and crossing into the box.

 

The distribution map for 5-2-2015 shows this tactic of crossing the ball in clear form.

vandistributionmap

The middle of the field above the 18 yard box is nearly abandoned from a distribution standpoint and everything is pushed to the left with some to the right. This "overload" is a classic Porter strategy, although the number of crosses is a clear increase from his previous seasons in charge. Twice in 2015 this strategy has not worked against the Whitecaps as it plays to the strengths of Vancouver. It will be interesting to see if Porter tries it again when playing Vancouver next.

 

Perhaps Porter believes that Adi and Urutti are competent headers of the ball and an aerial threat, but that has very clearly not born itself out. Of course, regardless of whether Porter believes that Adi or Urutti are threats for headed goals, the issue is that it doesn't matter whether they are good or not. The team doesn't have another forward on the roster (other than Gaston Fernandez who appears to be half way out the door and is being used as a midfielder despite his protestations) so whether they can head the ball in the net is incidental, Adi and Urutti will continue to be used because PTFC have no one else. They are going to get played, up until the Timbers acquire a new player or call up a player from their USL affiliate. This is what happens when a tactical shift occurs in the way a team plays in a salary capped league with poor depth decisions. It remains extremely difficult to change your tactics in Major League Soccer given the roster setup and financial restrictions by ownership and league, of that we can be certain. Despite that, though, the galling thing is that the Timbers had 6 months to plan how to combat these upcoming issues on offense and failed to do anything other than signing more wingers on loan that can punt the ball into the box.

 

Make no mistake that injury combined with poor player personnel decisions by the ownership of the Timbers have collaborated along with Porters seeming stylistic evolution to prompt a tactical change from the coach of the Timbers. The combination of Paulson, Wilkinson, and Porter built a team over the previous two seasons to attempt to play like Guardiola in a salary capped league where player value to your playing ideals is paramount and player movement is insanely restricted by arcane rules and finances. They succeeded in one season and failed in another. Now they appear to be switching methodologies again by looking to explore the idea of sacrificing offensive prowess for defensive stability, getting the ball up field faster and not being exposed at the back. With the rumors of Adi being sold swirling, the Timbers may soon play their hand as they move towards a system highly divorced from 2013.

 

If Porter has really taken to heart the more defensive and less free-flowing tendencies of Mourinho and Allardyce (as indicated by him in an interview), then the team makeup must soon reflect this. The Timbers, as currently constructed, simply cannot keep lobbing in crosses to players more defined by their ability to play with their feet and think this will reflect a successful season in the end. These problems are on the Timbers ownership, front office staff, and coaching staff who are responsible for ensuring that the team structure reflects the mindset of what the coach wants to do and ensuring that he have the available talent to do so.

 

Otherwise the ownership, front office staff and coaching staff are absolutely perpetuating the idiom of "Square Pegs, Round Holes".

Game 5: POR v DAL, 4 April, 2015.

Posted on: April 5th, 2015 by sunshine No Comments

 

With the frustration of March behind us, we can finally focus on this team’s qualities. And they do have some. We saw a captain take control of a poor official, dictate the game, and leave everything he had on the pitch. We saw an embarrassed veteran make amends for an error in judgment, whether or not it was reasonable for him to rely on a young defender to play the offside trap. We saw our box to box midfielder frustrate the early season leader’s attack, and a young central defensive midfielder patrol the backfield like a veteran.

 

Urruti shoots down Dallas...

Urruti shoots down Dallas...

But those aspects of the Timbers play were present in the earlier games. Missing was an effective attack. Emboldened by a strong second half against Vancouver last weekend, Porter retained the 442 formation headed by Fanendo Adi and Maxi Urruti. Both players were instrumental in giving the Timbers the win—Urruti scored the winning goal, and Adi sent Chara through for the third, solidifying the win. What both players showed were the underused aspects of their games—Adi’s effective distribution and Urruti’s instincts around goal.

... Read More →

A Hard Night in Cascadia

Posted on: March 29th, 2015 by Magadh No Comments

 

Sad clown...

Sad clown...

I'll have more to say about this when I've had a bit of time to digest it, but I maintain (as I did on Farcebook last night) that we actually didn't play badly. In fact, in terms of working our possession game we were quite successful. We got the ball into dangerous areas, and if our crossing had been a bit better and certain people had been more clinical in front of goal I think we would have gotten a result. Clearly, we're much better in defense than we were last year. The partnership of Ridgewell and Borchers is rounding out nicely, and I think it's fair to say that Vancouver really wasn't able to generate much of a threat.... Read More →

Keep Calm and Carry On

Posted on: March 24th, 2015 by Magadh No Comments

 

Hi Everybody, Magadh here. I haven't posted in a long while (although those of you attached to our Farcebook page will have seen some of my comments there). Mrs. Mags and I had a child in October and since then I've been kind of busy. But I'm getting back in the swing of things, so hopefully real, normal service will be restored soon. sunshine texted me this morning to alert me to the fact that the site posts hadn't been going on to Facebook, so I'm really just putting something up so that I can see if the fix that I just tried worked. If not I may have to do things manually for a while.

Game 3: SKC away, 21 March, 2015

Posted on: March 24th, 2015 by sunshine No Comments

 

Having sufficiently digested that match, I can say there was little else to take away from it other than the fact not one player took charge of the game. A fact that should leave you, as supporters anticipating the new season, to question the how and the why of it all. This is not some existential moment in our Timbers lives, only it is.

 

How, when Porter fielded a team replete with experienced players, could the Timbers not find the leadership to take control of a game there for the win? That is not to say our captain, Liam Ridgewell, did not lead—he did. But a central defender can only do so much to press upon the attackers the importance of getting into spaces, building momentum, and breaking down the opposition’s own defense. His job is to yell and to organize, and he did that well enough to ensure the clean sheet. Still, Sporting Kansas City of 2015 is not the Sporting Kansas City of 2013—they were depleted of options, and they were as devoid of ideas as the Timbers midfield was devoid of ideas. In short, they were there for the taking but Portland lacked the character and vision to see it out.

 

The Timbers supposed deputized “idea man” spent most of his game in what has become his typical stance—arms raised, not battling, questioning how the ball was taken from him without a foul called. The most fouled man in Major League Soccer seems to have bought into his own hype. Unfortunately for a man who appears to have missed the lesson of playing to the whistle, fouls, whether real or imagined, happen only when the whistle is blown. Worse still was the increased number of turnovers committed by Valeri’s understudy—in the first half alone he committed 8 forced and 2 unforced turnovers (I stopped counting at that point and, to be honest, I am not sure he even returned to play the second half). That was the extent of the Timbers on-field ingenuity—Nagbe dribbled until he lost the ball.

 

This brings everyone to question what exactly could the management have been thinking when faced an extended lay-off for the Timbers creative engine. Inventiveness is not grown from being fast and able to dribble the ball, it is developed from vision and intelligence—characteristics often found missing when two or three defenders surround Nagbe. At least Nagbe tries to get involved; Fernandez is utterly incapable of doing so. But harping on these players as if it is their fault they have been asked to play a role for this team for which their games are not suited is simply unfair. Fernandez is a poacher of goals with limited speed and Nagbe’s best form has always been found as an inverted winger. Neither player is the answer to the Timbers missing creativity.

 

The fact the Timbers have resorted to a form of long ball only shows they do actually understand their creative options are not so creative. But the personnel employed to execute the change in tactics seem all wrong. Ironically, while the midfield generals are still recuperating from serious injury, Porter has employed 2011’s midfield into 2015’s midfield—one would think tow players so well studied in anti-football tactics would excel at this game. But the whole is only as strong as the parts, and this is where the trouble starts. Adi is better when taking the ball at his feet and distributing to the wings than he is battling for 50/50 moon-launches, where Maxi Urruti is the player who will chase down deep balls and get them into play. Sadly, the Timbers cannot utilize his speed when it is plumped on the bench for 75 minutes each game.

 

But I am not discussing the game against Sporting Kansas City, yet I am. Journalists are often preoccupied with the search for defining moments in a person’s life. The driving story so far this season has been the slight Caleb Porter took from Pep Guardiola during last year’s All Star Game. And, to believe the journalists who use such metaphors to drive their otherwise irrelevant commentary on the game, it was that moment where Porter determined to change his style and looked to the kings of negative football—Jose Mourinho and Sam Allardyce—as inspiration for uninspired football. The narrative, while enjoyable, paints Porter as a sensitive and petty man rather than a pragmatic man, willing to do anything to win. You do remember that narrative, right? The one where the Timbers brought in a young coach, just off the failures of an Olympic games, who had learned the lessons of doing whatever necessary to win? That same coach who built a system around sharp passing within a shortened field of play, backed by an intense drive to win the ball back within 2-3 passes? That coach? Are we still enamored with that coach, or are we now looking for reasons to vilify him for last year’s failures? Because if we need a scapegoat, painting him as a petty man who had his little heart broken by his hero is the way to begin that narrative.

 

Perhaps the better thing to do, when looking at this game and this team’s performance in the game, is not to find scapegoats but to accept it is a game played against another team. This game against Sporting was not visually beautiful, it was not well constructed, it was, in short, boring like watching water boil is boring. And much like the old saying—a watched pot never boils—that is the story of this game: it never quite heated up. But what did result was another draw, another game without losing—the very result these types of tactics are intended to produce. Perhaps that is what we are seeing—a capitulation from the manager, stating, in only terms he knows how to write, that until Will Johnson and Diego Valeri return the Timbers will do everything they can to not lose. You may not like that answer, but that is the answer this game gave us—that is a pragmatic answer.

Game 1: RSL, March 7, 2015

Posted on: March 9th, 2015 by sunshine 1 Comment

 

That was as entertaining of a nil-nil draw as you are going to see. But for what has become Nick Rimando’s standard of play against Portland, that scoreline might have been different. That happens. Certainly there were some hiccups and the rust was clearly on display, but, and I am going to say this twice (once now and once again in the next sentence): this was the first game of the season.

 

Yes, it was the first game of the season and you were all likely watching every move of every Timbers player, but if you paid any attention to Real Salt Lake during the match you may have been confused about their formation. Were they playing their heralded diamond? Were they playing a 4-3-3? Do not feel too bad about your abilities to identify morphing formations: Real Salt Lake were as confused as you were. Atypical of one the most consistent clubs in MLS, the players seemed uncertain and in both possession and attack. They understood where to go, what to do, but they had the tinge of a club still not comfortable in the new tactics. That will change.

 

But Saturday night they were not the team that was once our boogeyman. And that led them to employ one tactic consistently throughout—the clutch and grab. Perhaps the memories of Fanendo Adi last season still touch a nerve bit raw.

Jamison Olave proving he is no Hanyer Mosquera.

Jamison Olave proving he is no Hanyer Mosquera.

Regardless, it was a tough night for the Timbers center forward. At this point, I expect to read that Schuler proposed marriage to him. If he has not then the cops should be called. Frankly, even if he has, the cops should be called—regardless of the yellow he earned in the 48 minute, you don’t treat people you love that way.

 

The Timbers were not innocent, either. Powell was first into the book with a late tackle on Olmes Garcia (I think we are all prepared for that from him—he has shown a reckless side to his game) and Ridgewell earned a booking in the second half. Shockingly, the Timbers committed more fouls during the match than Real Salt Lake. But that was the type of game it was—physical, heated, wonderfully contested from the first to last kick.

 

Perhaps the physicality could have been reduced had the Timbers reduced their reliance on route one football. It has been a trend of the team to unnecessarily resort to long balls when Adi is on the pitch, which is too bad because he can play rather well with the ball at his feet. Similarly, so can Asprilla. But Powell seemed to insist on punting forward rather than playing the ball on ground, inevitably losing possession.  This is not to single out Powell, he was not alone when opting to play balls over the top. For some reason, the Timbers opted more to challenge aerially than with their reputed ball control. Adi is a player who can win the aerial battle, but he can also take the ball at foot and distribute—a key to breaking down a stout midfield like Real Salt Lake’s. This also led to much of the abuse Adi received during his time on the pitch. But that will be reduced when Valeri returns to the fold.

 

Let’s face it, asking Darlington Nagbe to be an attacking midfielder is much like asking a wet paper towel to hold a glass of wine mid-air. Sometimes making the obvious pass is the better option than trying to be awesome. Yet, too often, when he was involved in the match, Nagbe looked to be awesome rather than distribute into space. But that is the mindset of a dribbler over a distributer. And so when critiquing his play we should understand he has been asked to play a position for which his game was not built. In that regard, he improved over his truly poor displays of the pre-season. Indeed, he made two drives during the game that made you hope and believe the promise that Nagbe will return to his 2013 form.

 

Much of the action came in the midfield battles, where debutante, George Fochive, gave an excellent performance.  But there were chances on goal. New boy and welcomed Kalif Alhassan replacement, Dairon Asprilla, had the best opportunity to score in the 30 minute when he connected with a Rod Wall cross.

AsLou Reed of the Velevet Underground once sang, oh, Dairon ron ron ron ron, what ever did you do?!?!

As Lou Reed once sang, oh, Dairon ron ron ron ron, what ever did you do?!?!

Uncontested, he put the ball wide of the near post. Still, he showed the promise of his play—he is an exciting addition to this club. Ten minutes later, it was Rod Wall again involved in a near chance. This time he was at the end of a classic Jewsbury set piece, but failed to get a good touch on the ball before redirecting into Rimando’s hands.

If only he had a bad case of gas.

If only he had a bad case of gas.

Perhaps he would have been better to lay off for Adi, but that did not happen. Nor did it happen for him in the 52 minute, when Rimando saved his point-blank shot from a Jewsbury corner. Frankly, at that point, it was not going to happen for the Timbers, but that was not too worrying—the Timbers controlled the game from start to finish.

 

Much of the credit for the Timbers assured play rests with the backline. With the exclusion of 2013, defense has been the plague of the Timbers MLS existence. Going into last year, the Timbers made few lasting and important moves to improve their backline. This off season they made two moves that might prove to be, dare I say, genius. New man, Nat Borchers, settled in with Liam Ridgewell and played as if he had five years of joy with the Englishman.

Yeah, his defensive skills match the manliness of his manly man-beard.

Yeah, his defensive skills match the manliness of his manly man-beard.

Perhaps that comes from experience, more likely it comes from his proven quality. Added to the stout central defensive pairing was Ghanaian national keeper, Adam Kwarasey. I would like to say he handled the pressure Real Salt Lake placed him under, but, thanks to the excellent understanding between the Timbers defenders, he was not challenged at all.

 

Vancouver 1 - Portland 0

 

Well, that was something.

 

Is there something to take from this game? I mean the Timbers looked slightly unprepared, the referee was incompetent for both sides, there was a catastrophic injury and the urinal troughs had a certain glint to them in the bathroom as to say, "this will probably be one of the only things that doesn't disappoint you tonight".

 

If there was one thing that the Timbers front office preached coming out of 2014 it was continuity and that is what the 2015 pre-season team had. It was the same continuity from the vast majority of 2014 where the Timbers showed well at possessing the ball, gave up some stupid free-kicks and then paid on a set piece goal with the goal scorer who beat one of the two members of a new centerback pairing in the air. I mean if the Timbers still had Kalif 'legacy' Alhassan on the roster I would be hard pressed to tell the differences between the two sides.

 

That said, this team is a work in progress, this game was part of the pre-season and many things can be corrected. The major talking point for this game is Ben Zemanski's crushing ACL injury which marks another player to have gone down on the turf at Providence Park. Certainly the good news is that the team will be experts at putting back together players with debilitating ACL/Leg injuries by now. The sad news is that the turf isn't going anywhere, and it will likely continue to gobble up players ACL's despite the most positive spin that people put out there. Granted the evidence against the grass carpet is anecdotal, but at some point the common Portland fan will just get tired of watching midfielders, forwards and centerbacks be carried off the field to not be seen again for 6 to 8 months. Then again, as said before, the turf is likely not going anywhere and people will debate the pro/con of playing surfaces until the sun expires and the earth goes cold. I mean Bright Dike hurt himself on every playing surface known to man, some people are just perpetually injured... Like Seattle Sounder Steve Zakuani.

 

Zemanski provided cover for Will Johnson and Diego Chara in 2014 while really exploding into proficient effect at the end of the 2014 season after Johnson's horrible leg break. He was looking quite adept before going down with a torn ACL against Vancouver and the team was clearly missing him in the middle of the field after his injury. When he left the field it was up to  Jack Jewsbury to ratchet up the intensity in midfield, which was a bit odd given that Jewsbury is a known commodity, this was the pre-season and the Timbers just drafted a rookie CDM that they could have thrown into the fray at that point or Michael Nanchoff or George Fochive. Granted this game had turned into rugby by this point and the referee was party to this madness, but this is what the pre-season is for, to test out players in difficult situations without the worry of affecting your league status.

 

The good news is that the very early preview of Adam Kwarasey showed quite well. He came off his line with confidence, played the ball with his feet and seems to be quick. He will need to be quick because as showed last night as the Timbers are slow.... Slow.... SLOw... SLOW at the centerback position and will need Kwarasey to push up in order to cover the space behind them if they wish to play a high line. Of course one game and 90 minutes do not a career make, so it will be interesting to watch Kwarasey as we go along.

 

I also watched Darlington Nagbe nearly exclusively after Gaston Fernandez was taken off the field. Nagbe took a mock position at the center of the pitch but then drifted out to the left leaving the middle open with only Jack Jewsbury to push up to collect the ball there. Granted this may have been a reaction to playing without a full 11 on the field, but Nagbe was not running the point completely after Fernandez left. A quick word on the two mentioned players. Neither Nagbe nor Gaston Fernandez is capable of replicating what Diego Valeri does, when healthy, and the team changes because of that. Whether Nagbe can learn to do so is something to be seen, with the Nagbe project going on year five now (this is not a surprise or a new statement). Valeri is a one of a kind talent and the Timbers miss him immensely in the middle of the field.

 

The Timbers generated one shot on goal during the game. Given that offense has been the shining light of the last two seasons for the Timbers and defense the problem, I would imagine that this will not necessarily be a season long problem. The give and go opportunities were not sharp, passes were missed and opportunities left hanging that should be taken during the season. However, without Valeri and Will Johnson at the start and now Ben Zemanski it remains to be seen if the Timbers can be as sharp offensively as they once were.

 

One thing to keep note of, the Timbers did not react well to the punishing physical style that Vancouver dished out. Granted it took the referee cocking it up to allow this to happen, but that will be something to keep note of as the season goes along as MLS referees are not exactly a shining light of adjudication.

 

Regardless of what happened at the CDM position after Zemanski went down, Wallace and Ridgewell both were sent off, and the Timbers lost the game on a header by former Timber Pa-Modou Kah who beat Ridgewell to score the winning goal. The Timbers move onto the next opponent, the Chicago Fire, on Wednesday at 7:30 pm. Hopefully something resembling a game of soccer will be played.

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