With expectations as high as the venue, the Timbers were met with a reality as cold as the weather in Colorado. They are not yet ready to dominate clubs the way they did last April. Indeed, they looked a shadow of the side that went 15 games unbeaten last season while introducing a new style of play that seemed foreign to them yesterday in Colorado.
They were sloppy. They were lethargic. They could not or would not press the Rapids. And the Backline was found to be full of holes as they left their keepers to cover their mistakes. While the disordered play from midfield to attack is a shockingly new development, the disarray of the backline really is not. But when the central defenders have a great name to describe their style of play it is easy to overlook their flaws. The Great Wall of Gambia may have been a feel good story of last year—two fellas who found each other in Portland and developed a wonderful friendship—they are still incapable of performing in ways this team needs.
Due to a slight groin strain Paparatto was a game day decision to not start, and yet the passing percentage of the entire team was still 10 points off of last year’s standard of precision. You cannot blame him, the air, or the similarities in kit design for these issues—they are the same issues that were present in the first two matches. And the conclusion is that the Timbers miss a central player to distribute the ball.
For some reason, they have scraped the effective, yet seemingly narrow 4-2-3-1 formation for the 4-3-3, or the Spanish version of a blob. The formation is effective with certain personnel used in very specific positions, but the Timbers have opted to place their most effective central midfielder on the right wing rather than in the center of the formation where he can dictate and control play. A decision that would not be as ineffective as it appears if they would designate one or the other of Will Johnson or Diego Chara to sit primarily in front of the back four instead of both.
Like a kid asked to choose just one type of ice cream in a Baskin and Robbins, the defense had too many options and so they chose no option. The resulting confusion for the two central defenders was apparent—neither Futty nor Kah knew who to build play through. Futty used one of two options. He either made lateral passes to Kah, or hoofed the ball long to the Timbers imaginary central forward. Yes, we are aware that hoofing it has never been a sign of confusion for Futty, it is his preferred means of distributing the ball, but in only one instance yesterday did his distribution show actual purpose and precision. In stark contrast, Kah simply showed his inability to make the right decision. He completed 67% of the passes he attempted and made 22 turnovers.
But more concerning than Kah’s pass completion rate was the option he chose to use when pushing the ball from the back forward. Primarily in the 4-3-3 formation, the deep-lying, central midfielder is the outlet for central defense. He is the one who pushes the play and begins the distribution of the ball through his more active midfield partners. Kah opted to use Harrington as his outlet and Colorado sniffed it out well. Harrington was already pinned back by Nick LaBrocca, Shane O’Neill, and Vicente Sanchez, and his distribution reflected that—he looked to develop good interplay with Steve Zakuani, but because Colorado did such a good job at pressuring his flank his primary option was to pass back.
There were times in the game that the formation worked. Jack Jewsbury got forward enough to stretch the Colorado defense, which allowed Valeri and Nagbe to work several neat series of passes. But, aside from three specific crosses, the Timbers really did not trouble John Berner. Indeed, in the 27 minute, no one got forward to latch onto Jack’s exceptional cross from the right flank. He performed the same feat in the 29 minute only to suffer the same result. In the 32 minute, Futty failed to convert an unchallenged header from Valeri’s corner kick to open the scoring. And that would be the narrative of the match for the Timbers—things would not and did not click.
On the other end, through the efforts of Deshorn Brown, Colorado made the Timbers central defense look like rubble rather than a wall. Futty spent a good deal of time passing to Brown, and Brown was only too happy to take advantage of his miscues. In the 69 minute, Futty failed to cover Jack when the right back stepped to cut off an unmarked Dillon Powers as he looked to set Deshorn Brown loose. Brown drove forward, past Futty, who looked shocked that the guy who had abused him the entire first half had the audacity to do it again. Ricketts sensed the danger and came off his line, but rather than attack the ball he attacked the man with a flying kick only Bruce Lee would be proud of. A clear red card, but even worse: a clear penalty, as the challenge occurred in the box. Webber came on for Valeri and was beaten by Vicente Sanchez from the spot.
Two minutes later, it was Kah who, likely in a show of fidelity to his Wall buddy, passed to Deshorn Brown in the midfield. Brown found Vicente Sanchez, unmarked on the right, with a great pass. Sanchez drove into the box and Webber had no choice but to challenge. Unfortunately, he gave up the second penalty in two minutes. Brown easily put that away, to top his man of the match performance.
Very little else needs to be said about this match. The backline was sixes and sevens and it was not assisted any by the confusion in midfield. Not surprisingly, the most effective moments of the game came when Diego Valeri switched from the right flank and pushed centrally. But when he was taken off for Webber, the match was effectively lost. Hopefully, that aspect of the game—not the sending off, but the central positioning of Valeri—will be addressed before too long.