Portland Timbers 2 – 1 Vancouver Whitecaps – Review

I ♥ the Cascadia Cup.

I get a lot of people asking why I, a born-and-bred Newcastle United fan, follow the Portland Timbers. Most of the time, I re-route them to the first post I published on this blog – a love letter to my new mistress in green. When I fancy letting my gums flap (which if you know me, is more often than not, and usually over a few beers) the Cascadia Cup is something I love explaining to people. A trophy in a trophy, a league within the league. “Win-ception”, if you’re as elated with our most recent Cascadia victory as I am.

Whilst I watched with vested interest during the 1-0 defeat in LA on 17th June, the game where I “got it” was the 2-1 win over Seattle – my first taste of the MLS rivalry. It was a PROPER rivalry, and it got me excited. Just like I did for the Vancouver pre-game buildup, I tried to scrap together some of the pictures taken by the Timber Army in and around Jeld-Wen. From the sea of green and white to that tifo, with a little help from the Cascadian rivalries, Portland absolutely took a piece of my football-shaped heart that day.

So, like everybody, the Cascadia Cup has its reasons for being a special competition for me. It also means we could still win something this year.

Line-ups
As far as I was concerned, I was surprised to see Kosuke Kimura (lookin’ like a Shredder Mo’fuckah) line up at RB. Apparently it was always on the cards, but I was skeptical of his inclusion. Either way, I was happy to see an unchanged back four (i.e. no Palmer). I’m a firm believer in stability (when it comes to defence) but then I’m pretty liberal in my belief that even repeat offenders can rehabilitate. Horst and Mosquera have been left wanting in recent times, my main gripe being some poor positional sense, and the seeming inability to defend the front post.

Going forward, with Diego Chara suspended, there was another space for Lovel Palmer to potentially fill, this time in the engine room alongside Cap’n Jack. I was delighted to see Eric Alexander given the role instead. Furthering my preference for “stability”, Alexander smacks of a player who needs games under his belt in order to find out what kind player he actually is. He’s definitely got the ability to play in the middle of the park and influence the game, and is technically proficient enough to support the forwards. Sometimes though, he disappears from game and doesn’t give enough at the back.

We then, of course, come to the forward line. Staying with the relatively successful formula of Bright Dike playing central, flanked by Sal Zizzo and Franck Songo’o, it seems as if Wilkinson was taking the line of rewarding those who perform to the expected standard. Rightly so. Again, to reiterate, if a player is showing signs of improvement and is working hard, play them. I’m going to gloss over the inclusion of Dike instead of DP Kris Boyd, we’ve played off his relative merits against his shortcomings already. The argument of not providing him the right service is diminishing somewhat, Zizzo and Nagbe have both shown that you sometimes have to create your own.

Looking at the Vancouver team, to this UK-based writer, there were some familiar faces. Barry Robson is someone who’s played in my native North East for Middlesbrough, and I watched Andy O’Brien play for a number of years at Newcastle with Sir Bobby Robson at the helm. “The Most Scottish Looking Man on the Planet™” Kenny Miller scored a decent amount of goals in the English and Scottish Premier Leagues, Lee Young-Pyo has played in 3 World Cups and for a number of Northern European teams, whilst Jay DeMerit plied his trade with yo-yoing Watford.

The Game
Jumping straight into it, I thought the first goal was brilliant. It showcased our defensive strengths (getting bodies back to nullify attacks) and attacking potential (close control, quick counter-attacking passing). Against New York, we used those same attributes, but we scored against the run of play. Below, are the two goals we scored against Red Bulls.

Both times, after a period of New York possession, we won the ball and within 5 touches, we’d scored. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to put down this style of play (counter-attacking football away from home should get the Europhiles frothing, non?), but Nagbe’s goal against Vancouver was one scored in anger – “Yeh? Well, we can pass it about too.” If you remember, last week, I was pretty harsh on our defensive misgivings for Kenny Cooper’s goal to make it 2-1 and swing the pendulum in favour of the Red Bulls. Whilst the finish wasn’t the same, I thought our build up for the 1st goal was akin to that of New York. They dragged us out of position and preyed upon our complacency. For at least our first goal, we seem to have learnt from that…

Yes, NYRB took 18 passes before scoring, but we took 11. Both teams involved 8 players in their move. To me, this goal… THIS goal, was sublime. You had the initial break down of a Vancouver attack, Horst was dragged out wide by a looped Barry Robson ball to Kenny Miller (see below – 1). Usually, there’d be an overlapping run from the opposition full-back/winger and we’d turn to shit. Not this time, Horst jockeyed Miller out to the byline (2), forcing him to check back into Richards (3). What I was happiest about at this point was the line we held – although you’d think Smith should be out left, we obviously man-mark, and Miller was to be dealt with by Horst. We held a good line, and Kimura also comes and fills the hole at right-back, just in case they attempt to switch the play. By the time Dane Richards gets the ball (4), we’re in line and waiting to snub out their attack. Then… then… my favourite bit of the goal.

This shows how much I value midfielders. Both Alexander and Jewsbury come steaming back into play (3 + 4), preventing Richards from switching and stretching the play out left. I was over the moon at this, because I think it capped a good performance by both central midfielders, and the rest of their contribution in the move (Jack’s especially) showed the quiet but effective influence they had on the game. Anyway, back to the goal. Richards has the ball, and he has space in which to move. What happens then? With 6 players surrounding Richards (5), like a master Kabbadi player (note – if anyone knows the official name, drop me a line. Kabbadi-er?) Horst steps forward, takes the ball from the floundering Dane Richards and gives it to eventual scorer, Darlington Nagbe (6). With a confidence not seen in a while, Nagbe strolls into space and taps the ball back and forth with Franck Songo’o.

The ball is then played back across the defence, all the way over to Kosuke Kimura, who then lays it into Jewsbury. The ball that Jack was able to play next shows another sea-change in attitude for the Timbers. He plays it down the line into Bright Dike. I’m not out to assassinate Boyd, but rarely did he pull his marker out of position. Yes, Bright’s being watched by Vancouver left-back Alain Rochat, but you’ll see Jay DeMerit (Dike’s marker) comes out to double-up on Dike, in case Rochat loses him. This leaves the gaping space for Nagbe to take Jewsbury’s dink into and pass into the back of the net.

For me, what this goal shows, is the importance of positioning across the park. Yes, you can hit teams on the break, but if your own house is in order, then you lay the foundations on which goals are built. This goal came from a well drilled defence biding their time, breaking down an attack and moving the ball slowly up the pitch.

The Equaliser – Same Ol’, Same Ol’.
Unfortunately, it seems that the work Sean McAuley’s been drilling into our center backs is not yet finished. For Vancouver’s equaliser, a mere 5 minutes after our opener, the usual suspects stepped back into (or out of, to be technical) line.

We all know the corner shouldn’t have been given by the referee in the lead up to the goal, but… whatever. That’s not why we conceded. The goal was massively against the run of play, and to put that in perspective, in this 1 minute of play, we made 5 clearances and blocked 1 shot. Although we had a startling amount of clearances (41 across the full game), those 5 were 12% of the total. On average, against Vancouver we made 0.45 clearances per minute. Just to show how busy we were in that 1 minute, we made 5.

Unfortunately, there’s only 1 person at fault for their swift equaliser – David Horst. I hate to say it, I thought he had a real swashbuckling display at center back (more on that later), but he plays Kenny Miller onside. It was pretty much the only time in the game where the back four strayed. Kimura should maybe have been in position to block Miller – but as discussed before, we play man-for-man and Miller is Horst’s man. Much in the way that defensive positioning is important in creating goals, small imperfections can be hugely costly at the back.

Individual Performances

Franck Songo’o & Sal Zizzo
I’m not going as in-depth on Franck Songo’o’s (too many apostrophes?) winning free-kick, as I think his individual performance deserves more praise than that. What I will say, however, is that although Joe Cannon botched it, Franck’s technique in getting up and over the wall was fantastic. If you watch it closer, you’ll see how much spin he generates, just enough for it to zip underneath the Vancouver keeper.

In regards to his overall performance, Franck was busy, if not entirely tidy. A pass success rate of 67.5% came from completing 27 of 40 passes. He also attempted 9 crosses, 2 of them successful. Songo’o won 3 free-kicks for his team, completed 3 dribbles of 6, and hit 1 shot on target, and 2 off (1 of which hit the bottom of the post). Defensively, he made 1 tackle, 1 clearance and recovered the ball 4 times.

Sal Zizzo balanced our attack on the opposite flank by putting in a similarly impressive performance. A low pass success rate of 63.9% (23 of 36 passes) was countered by contributing 2 key passes, 1 successful cross from 6, 3 successful dribbles of 4 and 2 shots off-target. Defensively, he won 2 tackles, made 1 clearances and recovered the ball 5 times.

In the past I’ve discussed that if we are to persist with playing 2 out-and-out wingers, then they need to protect their full-backs. Time and time again we’ve seen Steven Smith and Kosuke Kimura over-exposed and fully punished – need I discuss the resulting inability to protect the near post again!? Today (and at times against NYRB), the two wingers put in a fantastic shift up and down each flank. I hope we see this improvement continue through to the rest of the season.

David Horst
We’ve all been critical of our center backs this year. We still don’t know what the best partnership is. We’re all certain that once he returns from injury, Brunner will partner Mosquera, but I really believe that if some small creases are ironed out, Horst can push for a starting role. His passing is strong, only misplacing 5 of 25 passes – 5 of which were headers, meaning his headed clearances met his own players. Looking at clearances, he made a whopping 11 – 27% of all our clearances. On top of that, he made 1 tackle, 1 interception and 3 recoveries.

Jack Jewsbury & Eric Alexander
OKAY. I know, I was one of hivemind, one of the mob branding pitchforks calling for Jewsbury’s armband. Whilst I’m still not sure he has the credentials to be our Captain (whether this holds any weight any more, I’m not sure), I have to say that he has been another player who’s performances have improved. Both he and Eric Alexander hit an impressive pass rate of 94.1%, spookily both completing 48 of their 51 passes. To put that in context, only Dane Richards was anywhere near them in the pass rate making 88.2%. But this was from only 17 passes. JJ and EA were right in the mixer, each making more passes than all but one player – Barry Robson who made 55 at a rate of 69.1%. To put their stellar performances in further perspective, the average amount of passes made through each of the 22 starting players was 34.1 at an average rate of 73.06%. They played way above the standard of everyone else.

Darlington Nagbe
I don’t know what more I can say about Nagbe. I’m starting to see exactly why the Akron graduate is so highly rated. His close control looks effortless, he’s now pitching in with goals – maybe John Spencer was right, he looks born to play centrally, behind a center forward. Statistically, he’s a pleasure on the eye also. A pass success rate of 85.7% from 42 passes included 2 key passes. He had 100% dribble success with the 3 attempts, and he also won 3 free-kicks for Portland. He also pitched in with 1 interception, 1 clearance and 4 recoveries.

Thoughts…
Yeah, I’m absolutely overreacting to a win against another team in dire straits. Vancouver aren’t doing well, but since last year, they’re a much better defensive unit. Our first goal is most certainly something to take joy and hope from, after all, they scored it in the Wilkinson-era.

I think there comes a time when grudges need to be put aside, and we need to concentrate on what’s next to come. My opinion players like Darlington Nagbe, Sal Zizzo and Jack Jewsbury has changed over the last 3 or 4 games, and I’m starting to see why “moving on” is the best thing for all involved. GW is going to be here for a while, but we’re on the brink of bringing in a new man, a new manager who needs our support. Everyone believes it’s going to be Caleb Porter, Merritt Paulson has indicated that he wants someone with a long-term vision and that Portland are to be a team that nurtures talent locally. With Porter’s stints at the helm of the USA U23’s and Head Coach of the Akron college team, his resumé stacks up.

To look at it cynically – he’s a young manager, who hasn’t managed on the big stage yet. This falls directly in with the organisational structure Portland have in place. Wilkinson is staying, no matter how many stickers, banners, online campaigns and hashtags we create. Therefore, it’s in the interest of the Timbers that the next manager understands the role (underneath the GM) he’s taking. If he doesn’t, we’ll be back here again in a year, citing philosophical differences and forlornly staring at the playoffs and “what could’ve been”.

Whoever it is that takes us into the final year of Merritt’s current three-year-plan, he has the framework of a working system to develop. Let’s hope that MP and GW don’t F it up for X. Whoever that may be.

Would you be happy with Caleb Porter? Do you see the same improvements in the players I mention? Once Wilkinson’s back behind a closed office door – will that be the end of that, or is he just a dormant volcano ready to smother our Pompeii Timbers once again? DISCUSS (or Tweet)!

2 responses to “Portland Timbers 2 – 1 Vancouver Whitecaps – Review

  1. Great breakdown. I knew that Jack and EA had a great game, but I hadn’t seen their numbers yet. It feels good to know we have someone capable of stepping in for Chara when the inevitable card suspensions come.

  2. Part of the reason for the high pass rate completion is that our guys are finally moving off the ball. In particular, our guys in front are not standing around waiting for service, but are getting themselves free. The thing that interests me the most is how the team seems to be coming together as a team, how guys are trusting one another and working to help make the play happen, rather than primarily avoiding being the one who looks the worst.

    This is a style of football that is dynamic, fun to watch, and that is particularly helped by an energetic, loud and involved fan base.

    Elsewhere I have discussed the possibility that Wilkinson might well be the loyal #2 to Paulson, not making the bad calls but just delivering the bad decisions and thus taking the blame for them. Now is when we see a critical piece of evidence about where the problems have originated; will Porter be hampered by the occasional colossal meddle by ownership, or will he have the freedom to succeed or fail as coach?

    I hope we are able to give him room to succeed, that our energy is not so focused and intrusive he finds his options unnecessarily limited.

    Given this blog’s analysis of the Vancouver and New York games, where should the Timbers’ focus be on player/position improvement? That is, not just “where are we the weakest” but “where will some money and creative recruiting likely yield the best results?”

    I would have said midfield before Alexander’s significantly improved play this week. Are we all right in the middle, with Alexander/Jewsbury/Nagbe or do we really need a significant boost midfield?

    And what about the defense? I would really like to see a head-on evaluation of Kimura, Horst, Brunner and company. I am not sure whether they are up to snuff compared to other back lines in the MLS, or if our middle woes are exacerbated by the need to keep plugging holes in the back. Can our midfield trust the back four to properly maintain a disciplined line and defend against most of what they will face in the MLS?

    Or do we need a serious “upgrade” at one or more backline positions before the midfield can reasonable divert the reasonable level of attention to attack and frontline support?

    I really am not sure so far. . .

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