Picture by Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Let’s get it out of the way. The referee blew his whistle before the goal went in the back of the net. A technicality, sure, but the blowing of the whistle intimated he’d given a penalty. There was no way it affected the reactions of our players, and really, the goal was just that – a goal. An equaliser at that. However, it underlined and exacerbated a seemingly increasing trend of poor MLS officiating. Look at the furor over DeRo’s retaken penalty and subsequent miss against Philadelphia Union for a recent bone of contention. I did search through USSoccer.com’s interpretation of FIFA’s refereeing rules and regulations, and all I could find in direct relation to the blowing of a whistle was this:
- Law 5 – The Referee. If a spectator blows a whistle and the referee considers the whistle interfered with play (e.g. a player picks up the ball with his hands, assuming that play has been stopped), the referee must stop the match and restart the play with a dropped ball from the position of the ball when play was stopped, unless play was stopped inside the goal area, in which case the referee drops the ball on the goal area line parallel to the goal line at the point nearest to where the ball was located when play was stopped.
All that can be said is that there are multiple references to the “stopping” of play. We all know that play stops when the referee blows his whistle. Ball was dead, goal shouldn’t have been given. But it was. End of story. Chalk it down to bad luck.
On to the rest of the game, I really believe we played some of the best football we’ve played in the first 36 minutes of this game. In Bright Dike, we had a bustling striker (his work rate making up for what he lacks in innate ability) who thrives on being that lone front-man. In Nagbe, we had glimpses of the goal-scoring midfielder we’ve been promised. He’s always been tidy, if a little shy, and his 85.2% pass success from 27 passes plus a goal, shows his quality. In Chara, we had… well, Diego Chara, our midfield crossbreed; blessed with the deceptive grit of his Beagle father and the grace of his Rough Collie mother.
For me, the brightest spark was Sal Zizzo. Adding to his case for inclusion, Zizzo was a veritable hive of activity, even if some of it was misplaced. Grabbing 2 assists, he attempted 12 crosses, only 1 of which was successful – but a marked improvement from previous. He completed 2 dribbles from 3 and also won 2 fouls. He didn’t give much in the way of protection to Kosuke Kimura (or Lovel Palmer after that shocking Cahill elbow) only winning 1 tackle. Where Zizzo suffered most though, was his passing game. He attempted 41 passes (game average was 40 – Zizzo was our busiest passer) but only completed 23 of those – a return of 56.1%.
Maybe I’m writing myself out of a blog, but sometimes statistics can paint the wrong picture, especially when used out of context. Given recent concerns over (lack of) service from the wings, it was important that Zizzo put in an influential performance, regardless of whether it was “pretty” or not. Too many times has he, Alhassan and Songo’o been shut out of the game.
Using a better example of how subtle changes to the dynamic of the team are working, look at the positivity surrounding Bright Dike’s debut MLS start. His body language opposed the desolate lone figure of Kris Boyd we’ve become accustomed to. Barring his goal, Dike’s overall contribution to the game was scrappy at best. He only contributed 19 passes all game, 8 of which reaching their intended target – a hideous 42.1% success rate. Dike only had 2 shots, one of which was the goal, the other off-target. One telling figure is the 2 (alas, unsuccessful) crosses attempted by Bright – the guy worked his balls off. Compare the heatmap of his 74 minutes v NYRB against Boyd’s 61 minutes v Dallas.
My point is, at this moment in time, people just want to see you care. You could take the approach (which I have done in the past), that Boyd wasn’t receiving the right service. But just as it can be applied to the whole of the Portland Timbers in general, you make your own luck. Or in this case, service.
Sure, there are other positives to take into consideration, but the only tangible one is that of Sal Zizzo’s contribution. We still lost. We still displayed some of the frailties that were on show during the 3-0 defeat at Real Salt Lake.
At 2-0 up, we’re sitting pretty. But, within 10 minutes, Portland were literally pegged back. Of course a home side with nothing to lose (and some obvious attacking talent) were going to push on. The sequence of events was thus: Nagbe scores in the 32nd minute, taking the wind out of the New York’s sails. They’d made 15 successful passes from 19 attempted in the ten minutes leading up to our 2nd goal, as opposed to our 2 of 3. We barely touched the ball, and with a tidy counter-attacking move we doubled our lead. Four minutes after that, Red Bull right-back Roy Miller made way for ex-Timber Kenny Cooper. In the 42nd minute of the game, Cooper had pulled 1 back for New York, and then (by my count) two and a half minutes later, the game was level thanks to a highly dubious Tim Cahill goal.
The turning point, however, was quite obviously the introduction of Kenny Cooper. It was a subtle but effective switch by Hans Backe, one that he was afforded due to the flexibility of talent he had available. Lade switched to right-back, Solli slotted in at left-back and Cahill dropped into the midfield alongside Lindpere and McCarty. Sebastian Le Toux gravitated out right to accommodate Cooper, and Henry was allowed to go anywhere he pleased. Red Bull were now a 4-3-3, completely flummoxing the Timbers, bending our defence out of shape.
For that first goal, we saw what New York – with Dax McCarty and Cooper in the leading roles (of course it was) – intended to do. Dax hit a long ball to Cooper which he knocked down to nobody, Horst sweeps up and plays it into Songo’o. An innocent and hopeful-at-best long-ball by McCarty, to Cooper who hasn’t been able to bed himself into the game, you may think. You’d be foolish to believe that. Songo’o lost the ball due to some good, high pressing from New York, who then proceeded to play 16 passes in a 45 second period leading to the goal. To break down that 45 seconds somewhat, we can see exactly how NY lured us into a false sense of security, and turned the game in their favour.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t really a case of the tide shifting, more that the levee was breached. Even looking at the first 32 minutes, where we scored 2 goals, the statistics point towards New York domination. They completed 177 of 215 passes (82.3% success rate) whilst we managed 93 of 133 (69.9% success). Just under half (48.8%) of all passes were attempted in our half (105) at a success rate of 75.2%. Looking at the Timbers, we actually attempted 68 of our 133 passes overall (51.1%) in the Red Bulls’ half, which is a higher percentage, but our success rate was 66.2%.
Whilst Donovan Ricketts had zero shots to handle (apart from one off-target Thierry Henry free kick), Portland put in 16 clearances, won 10 tackles, 21 recoveries and 4 interceptions. If we look at the rest of the 90 minutes, we only made 14 clearances, won 5 tackles, 22 recoveries and 12 interceptions. New York’s attacking game considerably improved – they had 5 shots on target (Ricketts making only 2 saves) and 4 off.
Whilst quality of possession should be preferred to quantity, what these statistics show us is that a counter-attacking game is okay if you’ve got the legs and react to any changes. Our system worked for 36 minutes, until our opposition changed tact. We didn’t react, and were suitably punished.
Non Game-Specific Conclusion…
I know we should’ve done it already, but let’s just write this fucking season off. Well, lets at least consolidate on a match-by-match basis and just extrapolate any positives possible. At a very base level, let’s at least find out who’s shit and why.
So in that same spirit, even after losing a 2 goal advantage, I’m not down on the whole of our performance in New Jersey. I am, however, down on our luck. At the Timbers, we’re all down on our luck. From Merritt to Gavin. From Kris to Donovan. From Brunner to Kosuke. From the Timbers F.O. to every one of us who sit in the stands, or (in my case) stays up til stupid o’clock to catch a game. We all have our reasons to feel hard done by at the moment.
Something needs to change, something needs to be said, and whilst we’ve tried to force Paulson’s hand, he’s still not saying what we need to hear. Whether Paulson’s PR man was employed through a filter of nepotism, is up for debate. But we actually have an Owner who gives a fuck. Unfortunately, at the moment he’s got nowhere to turn except straight into the bosom of Gavin Wilkinson.
Everyone employed by Portland Timbers need to be on the same bus. Whether you liked Troy Perkins or not, whether you saw him as a future Captain or not, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that everyone’s working in tandem inside the club. If Wilkinson is here for the duration, then we need people who can work with him. Simple. If getting rid of him is a pipe dream (to quell the burning rage, reading the other side of the argument at Slide Rule Pass is much advised), then we need to have the right staff underneath him. When Alan Pardew came to Newcastle, he had a 2% approval rating. Thing is, he’s the first person on the same wavelength as Mike Ashley (Owner) and Derek Llambias (Chairman – akin to GW in this scenario). What this meant was he could stand his ground, argue, put his point across and convince the man with the money to part with it. The scenario is the same here. Believe me, you think you hate Gavin Wilkinson? Come ask me what people think of Mike Ashley even now. The thing is, we’re doing well now. We’re winning games and we’re competing. We finished 5th last year, we have European football, we have players sought after the top clubs in Europe, the very same players want to stay at Newcastle. A perfect world is when the FO do their job, and we see nothing but a winning team.
We can’t change the Owner, and we can’t change his friends. But we can hope that the Front Office get a man who can appease their tendency to get in public slanging matches by, firstly, sitting them back down behind their desks. I hope we get a man who has a track record, has the clout to argue for his own signings, and prevents the Timbers from boiling over by taking them off the heat.
I live in hope that one day, we’re all focusing on the football, and celebrating together.