Game Of Thorns: Two Games, One Point & Cascadia
The regular season in MLS is a long affair spanning from March to October, and during that time teams have to travel long distances. In addition to the distance, away teams can find themselves dealing with the harshness of Texas in the summer or snow, and high elevation in Colorado at either end of the schedule. But what is more important is team chemistry and overall form.
After two weeks into 2013, the Portland Timbers were given the gift of two games at home before traveling a few hours north to meet their bitter rivals, Seattle Sounders FC. On the flip side, the Sounders had a bye during week two due to their participation in the CONCACAF Champions league in a two leg tie against Mexican side Tigres.
Despite playing in front of their loyal fans, PTFC walked away with just 1 point in the table and a goal differential of minus 1. One could argue though that despite the defensive woes, putting 4 goals in the net over the first two games is a sign that newly hired coach Caleb Porter’s vision and philosophy is headed in the right direction. But it’s important to point out that there are still quite a few games left to play before the “rust” gets polished off.
This leads us to a very important set of questions. What does the club need to do to prepare for the first of 6 Cascadia matches? What changes could Porter make for his starting formation and tactical strategy?
Rest and the time to prepare are on the side of the Timbers. Seattle has just three days to prepare versus Portland’s six. But there’s one major factor to consider — this is a Cascadia match. These are a bit different than a game against Dallas. Also, anyone who has been a follower of the Sounders will remind you of the time they won 7 of 8 matches in a single month (August of 2011) where they averaged just four days between games, and the one game they did not win was a scoreless tie against Chivas USA.
Sounders Coach Sigi Schmid has a proven track record in having his team prepped for big games (winning major trophies), especially with little time to prepare. In comparison, at the professional level, Porter has none.
Some of his loyalists argue that Porter was quite the manager while at Akron. He never lost in conference play, and only dropped four points total in all of 2006 and 2007. In all competitions he had a record of 119-17-18, and won the NCAA championship in 2010. In addition, he qualified for the post season every year he was coach.
But what about coaching grown men? Can these results be transferred from college to the pros? It’s possible. But to become reality, changes in what has occurred on the pitch during the first two weeks may need to be made sooner rather than later.
Observations made by Timbers Army loyalists indicate that corrections are necessary. Not just for the game against Seattle but for the expected progress this season. Even though it’s early, Saturday evening’s performance against the Montreal Impact showed a team with an identity crisis.
Coach Porter has built the team to consist of creative playmakers, such as Kalif Alhassan, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri. While they may very well have those tendencies, against the Impact it was hard to see.
Alhassan was subbed off at half time. He passed one too many hospital balls and his inability to spread out his side of the pitch caused all sorts of problems in the center. This brought in his defender and the bunch ball like effect it had made it impossible for Valeri to distribute the ball as seen against San Jose in the preseason and New York. In addition, this left tons of space for Ryan Miller to attack on the right wing but then left the entire flank on his side vulnerable for attack, which was seen to take place quite a few times.
Without being able to control the ball effectively, the attack on the right was stagnant and frustrating. This was exactly what Impact players such as Felipe and Patrice Bernier wanted. Space out wide was left for them to distribute the ball on counter attacks. Miller was gassed early and so was Harrington on the left once similar interactions took place with Darlington Nagbe.
Basically, if Porter can get his attack minded system in order and stay spread out, what was seen in the opening match’s second half against New York is a possibility. Kalif may have to take a seat if he continues this poor form. This will open up passing lanes and space to attack on runs if whoever takes his place stays disciplined. But at the moment, this is not the only issue.
The Back Line
On defense in the Impact match, all eyes were on one man and one man only. After what can be described as a very poor first impression, the experienced former Arsenal and Manchester United defender Mikael Silvestre was expected to clean up his act and lead the back line. What he did was show that he was still not match fit, and that communication for a full ninety is still a major issue.
One plus was he did not make any mental errors (like missing a ball that he should have touched or knocking balls to row 75 when under pressure) that led to any early goals. Instead, it was Andrew Jean Baptiste who hasn’t yet learned that ball watching can be lethal.
In minute 26 he failed to notice that Marco Di Vaio had snuck behind him, and if not for an amazing one handed save by keeper Donovan Ricketts, the Timbers would have yet again been down a goal early. But four minutes later it happened again.
At first glance, it’s hard to blame the defense or the keeper for the first goal. Hassoun Camara knocked one in with an acrobatic bicycle style kick that no goal keeper could have saved. But after review of the goal, the Timbers were guilty of losing their men and the dreaded sin of simpy watching the ball. Right before Camara flipped himself at the ball, five members of PTFC were within arm’s reach of each other right above the spot, with zero Impact players near them. Instead, the Impact were spread around the box with Camara and DiVaio near the ball.
Left back Harrington was so clueless to what was happening that he lifted his arms in the air to show he wasn’t making contact and turned his head away from the play. His reaction when he saw the ball showed that he realized he could have done something to rattle Camera’s thought process.
Essentially, Porter needs to get his defense in order. They need to be told to play physical and set an example to their opponent about what happens when they come in the Timber’s house. Mental toughness is important, but so is a little dirty play to prevent a goal (MLS refs and linesmen are notorious in missing blatant fouls in the box — watching Pearce’s mugging of AJB in the New York match is proof of that). Moreover, Porter needs Sylvestre to lead. He needs to get his guys in training to stop watching the ball and watch their marks. Seattle, more specifically Eddie Johnson, can put the game to rest if he gets a chance in the 18 with zero pressure.
Porter’s plan to victory must include these corrections. Should he keep the same back line? Yes. They need time to gel, but defense cannot win without goals. PTFC has not had an issue with attacking over the past two games, but can they really score?
Out shooting their opponents 40 to 19 in two games and only getting 16 of them on frame is poor. It’s close to the numbers seen in the infamous loss to Cal FC. Any fan in attendance knows what that means.
In contrast, Montreal had 9 shots total with 6 on frame and won the game. Porter needs to get the team’s finishing to improve and it has to happen now. Too many of the shots in both games either went right at the goalkeeper or were not even close — and against a keeper like Troy Perkins, they had to do better than that.
In Seattle, they have one of the best in the league in goal. Gspurning is cool under pressure and he rarely makes mistakes or gets beat. Something like getting chipped by the Impact’s Arnaud may not occur again this season. He is smarter and better than that. Porter needs to get the finishing situation in order.
The Starters vs. The Substitutes
Will Porter need to change his top 11? On paper, no. After the past two games? One could argue a strong Yes, but at this stage in the season it’s hard to tell who will take a seat. Besides Nagbe, Valeri, Ryan Johnson and Diego Chara, all other parts of the starting 11 that were featured had moments of poor form. Surely Porter will not throw out 7 new people to the line up before the most important game of the season so far (it is indeed odd to say that at game three).
But the North End faithful in the Timbers Army want payback for what happened during Gavin Wilkinson’s test of manhood in Seattle last fall (I’m not going to open that can of worms this week). So who should sit? Lets look at who has made appearances as subs.
Sal Zizzo came on as a late sub against New York, but he’s out at least four weeks following knee surgery. Jose Valencia has played twice and has dazzled the fans with speed and a killer instinct towards the goal. He came on for Alhassan, but is he ready for prime time? He is very talented, but is it enough to trick the likes of Leo Gonzalez or fellow Colombian Jhon Kennedy Hurtado? He very well may be, but he has to get that star struck deer-in-the-headlights moment from the Impact game out of his head.
The argument to keep Kalif that could be made is that he has moments of brilliance. His ability to creatively play the one and two touch game is impressive. Yet he has those moments of giving away the ball at vital moments on the attack. It’s a tough choice and if Porter looks at these two a safe bet will be giving Kalif another shot.
Ryan Miller could not have had a game that contrasted more with his first match. He was caught up field too many times and the Impact’s Nyassi had his way. In addition, early season fitness issues were evident as he looked too tired to compete. So fast was the Impact side that he had to be replaced by Valencia who flip flopped position on the right with Alhassan’s substitute Ben Zemanski. Zemanski later got the assist for Portland’s lone goal when his crisp cross was tapped in by Ryan Johnson.
Together Zemanski and Valencia looked like a good pair, but is Zemanski really a right back? He was the one who tried to cover for Silvestre when he had to challenge Romero late in the game, but Felipe was too quick, awarded a sitter which he easily knocked it in. After his assist, Ben was burned by an attacking Montreal player, though fortunately Ricketts saved the shot and kept the match close. Though midfield may be Zemanski’s best option, with Zizzo out he looks to be the one who, if not starting for Miller, will certainly be his substitute if needed.
The last of the roster that came on late needs no introduction. Rodney Wallace is well known to Timbers fans. He is a player who has a love/hate relationship with the fans. In other words, they love to hate him. Stagnant defensive play for Portland while scoring goals for Costa Rica (one of which was a game winner against the USA) has left many baffled. Is it because of the system? Has he played out of position since he was added to the team two seasons ago?
At times when playing as a midfielder his attacking nature seems to suit him best, but in previous seasons he has been more often featured as a defender. In game one Porter put him in to give work-horse Chara a break, and he seemed to do an average job. In limited minutes agains Montreal he did not stand out too much. Perhaps Montreal decided to protect the lead and gave him more of an opportunity to press up instead of, to put it bluntly, dink around with the ball as he has so often in the past two seasons.
The current situation at keeper is controversial. The “upgrade”, as GM Gavin Wilkinson has called Donovan Ricketts, has become ever more anger inducing. As one faithful supporter said to me, “Ricketts is garbage.” Another TA member mentioned that “He has been too inconsistent regardless of what the stats may indicate.” But he does have his supporters. One TA member who went on the record anonymously simply stated, “I don’t like it but he is the best we have.”
The only other viable option for Porter is third year keeper Jake Gleeson – the starting keeper for the Timbers MLS home opener when both Perkins and his back up were injured and unavailable. He has been put out there in the past, and he has been a part of other games that were not easy for an inexperienced youngster. But is this the right time?
Milos Kocic has yet to play since the team returned from preseason play in Arizona. It would be even more dangerous to toss him into the ring at this point.
In the recent past, Ricketts put together a stellar performance for Jamaica against Mexico. He earned a draw, which almost never happens at the Azteca. However, he is injury prone. His injury during the second game against Seattle was a major factor in the Timber’s loss. Before his replacement even got a chance to get a sense of the pace of the game, he was scored on by Fredy Montero.
So should Porter throw Gleeson out there? It’s a tough choice. There are quite a few who are saying a very loud, “Yes!” To put my bias aside, I think it would be foolish for a coach to alter the still-forming chemistry of Ricketts and Silvestre’s back line – and my gut says it will be Ricketts on Saturday.
In the end, Porter has his work cut out for him. Yes, I have been critical of my team. But I know for a fact that what I have said reflects what many of my TA brothers and sisters feel. I can also bet you dollars for donuts what I have provided is a conservative commentary. There are people who’ve said that we are going nowhere and may not win. This is not my view.
Of course Portland has a shot at winning. Anything can happen in soccer. Portland beat them once last year (the game where defender David Horst headed in the winner). Plus during the past week, Toronto beat Kansas City. RSL has yet to ever win at RFK, and Chicago (a playoff team) lost to New England (not even a playoff team) in Chicago.
Portland can win in Seattle, but there are a lot of things that have to happen at training this week. And there’s one thing that I will close with.
Porter and the Timbers need to ignore what happens in Seattle’s CONCACAF match up. They need to work on team chemistry. What happens against Tigres FC happens, and whether people believe this or not, that result is completely meaningless for this match up. This is Cascadia. This is for bragging rights and from my experience in rivalry games, we may see a game winner by a highly unlikely player. This isn’t isn’t a prediction, but it might even be Rodney Wallace.