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.”"