Thursday, September 6, 2012

Where's Gavin stand?

   Imagine if the Portland Timbers had won Wednesday's game in Colorado.
   At 30 points, with seven games, left, there might actually have been some considerable excitement about the team maybe squeezing into the playoffs, especially with one game left against Vancouver - the team in fifth place.
   And, the winless streak on the road would have been history.
   All gone.
   So the Timbers are back to where they've been all season on the road - seemingly somewhere else.
   General Manager Gavin Wilkinson had some momentum on his side entering the game with those eight points in August, having named an incoming head coach, and sending an inspired line-up onto the field game after game, regardless of the status of Kris Boyd.
   All the grumbling about GW being replaceable, just like anyone else, seemed like an early pounce on the team's savior. Calm down, Armed ones!
   What now?
   What's all that momentum matter without a win?
   So, the GW Out crew has reason to show up in force Sept. 15 when the team returns to Jeld-Wen Field for a crucial Cascadia Cup match against Seattle, a win that would wrap up the Cup for Soccer City USA.
   That's going to be a challenging game for the GW Out crew. On one hand, a Timbers win would be fantastic because it would secure the Cup. On the other hand, a loss would be great fodder for sending GW to another post in the organization, or, perhaps, another organization.
   That's going to be an entertaining game on and off the field, more than usual.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Five reasons for the Timbers struggles

It's two months into the Portland Timbers second MLS season and the first eight games have left much to be desired. Portland is currently last in the MLS’s Western Conference and is the only team in the West with fewer points (7) than games (8).
Here are five reasons why the Timbers have struggled, and how they might be able to turn their season around.

1. Injuries
Every team gets injured, but the Timbers have dealt with the injury bug early and often. This season has seen injuries at every position, from players that have never played in Portland (Jose Adolfo Valencia) to some of last year’s stalwarts (Futty Danso, Kalif Alhassan, Rodney Wallace, David Horst, etc). So far, the Timbers haven’t been able to catch a break.
There isn't much solution to staying injury-free other than making sure players aren’t rushed back too early and sustain more long-term damage.

2. Where is Nagbe?
While second-year player Darlington Nagbe showed glimpses of his immense talent last season, his rookie year was marred by injuries and a slow start to the year. This season, Nagbe has already bested his scoring mark from last season with three goals. All three goals came from when Nagbe was playing in the center of the field. Despite Nagbe’s success in the middle, he has started three games at outside midfielder.
Ten minutes into the Timbers match vs Real Salt Lake, John Spencer moved Nagbe off the wing and into an attacking center-mid role. All Nagbe did was score two first-rate goals and play his best soccer as a professional. Despite this, Nagbe hasn’t played in the central of the midfield since.The best solution would be to stick Nagbe underneath the strikers and let him create. This would also make it easier on either Jack Jewsbury or Lovel Palmer, as they are better when playing a holding midfield position.

3. The play of the backline
The Timbers ended the 2011 season with some very stout defensive performances and gave up just eight goals in their final ten matches. However, the beginning of 2012 bodes no resemblance to the end of 2011 having conceded 13 goals in the first eight matches. Consistently poor positioning, lack of marking near the end of matches, and ball-watching have led to numerous goals that could have been prevented.
While the fullback position has been justifiably criticized by media and fans alike, the centerbacks have also been at fault on multiple goals this year. Eric Brunner has shown outstanding leadership and has had to cover for poor play on the outside, but he has also not shown the domination in the aerial game that he had last season. The budding partnership between Brunner and Hanyer Mosquera looks promising, but only clean sheets will prove the pair’s worth.

4. Late game debacles
In all but one game this season, the Portland Timbers have entered the 75th minute with a tie or a lead. Despite this, Portland has only been able to get positive results in three of those seven matches. Portland has given up six goals in the final 15 minutes, which leads the league. One reason for the late-game struggles, seems to from needless late-game substitutions. On multiple occasions this season, a second half sub has been at fault for an opponent’s goal. One of those players, James Marcelin, was waived last week to make room for Steven Smith.
One way to fix the problem is to make sure players understand their late game roles. Players such as Diego Chara have seemed to be unsure of what position they are meant to be playing in at the end of matches. Another problem, which might be harder to overcome, is changing the belief of the team at the end of the matches. It's hard to hold a lead when everything in your brain is telling you that you are going to concede a late goal. It might be easier for attacking players to continue their attacking ways instead of trying to overload the defensive half. In fact, Portland is one of just three MLS squads without a goal in the final 15 minutes of a match.

5. The Timbers just aren’t as good as their opponents
The 300-pound elephant staring the Timbers in the face is a scary one. Despite the acquisitions of Kris Boyd and Mosquera, Portland is simply not playing as well as it did in the second half of last season. It's completely possible that the majority of MLS teams have gotten better, while the Timbers have stayed the same or gotten worse.
Since opening night, only Nagbe and Boyd have scored goals. The midfield has provided little in the attack and hasn’t been able to close down on opponent midfielders away from the ball.
In almost every match, the opponents have gotten production from their bench, while the Timbers haven’t gotten much (other than Nagbe’s goal).
The lack of depth in the bench has been easy to see while teams such as Chivas USA, Real Salt Lake and even expansion Montreal have had subs be key parts of goals. In-season acquisitions of Mike Fucito and Smith might provide some much-needed support for Portland, but it still waits to be seen if the Timbers face a “talent issue.”
One positive for the club is the season is only a quarter of the way through. However, if the Timbers can’t turn their early season woes around soon, it will be a long season at Jeld-Wen Field.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Timbers Nation delves into questions Saturday night

What just happened?
That was the question on the minds of the Timbers players, fans, and anyone else who watched the Timbers give up two goals in the final five minutes in a 3-2 loss to Real Salt Lake on Saturday night.  What just happened?
After the final whistle, almost everyone associated with Timbers had the same glazed over, look of shock on their face. Whether it was Merritt Paulson with head-in-hand in front of his office computer or Kris Boyd slumped over with both hands on his chin in the locker room, no member of the Timbers organization could seem to make sense of what had just happened.
Just 30 minutes before the final whistle, the only question running through the minds of the Timbers Army was, “did that just happen?” As Darlington Nagbe blasted a volley over Nick Rimando giving his 2011 MLS Goal of the Year a fitting sequel and the Timbers a 2-1 lead 65 minutes into the match.
But, Nagbe’s golazzo was not the question on everyone’s mind after the match. John Spencer faced the media with the same look of confusion that was being worn by most at Jeld-Wen. What just happened?
“I don’t think at any one time Real Salt Lake stopped fighting,” Spencer said. “We knew we had to match them for 90 minutes, and we matched them for 84 minutes.”
As to what actually happened on the two goals that were scored late by RSL, the replays tell some of the story. On the tying goal by Jonny Steele, the usually reliable James Marcelin gave the ball away softly to Javier Morales. Then Steele easily sidestepped Eric Brunner, who looked to be running on fumes.
The game winner by Kyle Beckerman is even easier to diagnose after multiple viewings. At least seven Timbers defenders were ball-watching and none of the players on the pitch saw Beckerman waving both his arms in the air to notify Fabian Espindola that no one was marking him.
And if Beckerman’s face looked familiar during his post-goal celebration, it was because it was the same one that Troy Perkins had as he sat down on the field staring at his defense. What just happened?
The Timbers aren’t the first MLS team to lose a game they were winning after 85 minutes. And they won’t be the last. It is how they come back this April Fool’s Day-like stomach punch that will define the early part of their 2012 season.
Will the memories of Saturday lead to sluggish performances in upcoming games vs Chivas USA, LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City? Or will the disappointment provide motivation going forward?
While those questions will be answered in the coming weeks, one direct question remains as Jeld-Wen Field employees cleaned up a deserted, dimly-lit stadium.
What just happened?

-- Mike Donovan

Thursday, March 22, 2012

For Timbers, the time is now for Nagbe

Going into halftime Saturday in Frisco, Texas, the Portland Timbers were behind 1-0 on the scoreboard and Darlington Nagbe was not on the pitch for the second consecutive first half.

Five minutes into the second half, Nagbe was in and the Timbers were no longer losing.

A Nagbe goal four minutes into the second half earned the Timbers a 1-1 draw in their first away match of the season.  Unlike the Timbers home opener on Monday at Jeld-Wen, Nagbe entered the game as a striker and not a midfielder.

While his goal was only set up after a disastrous screw-up by FC Dallas midfielder Daniel Hernandez, his finishing ability and presence of mind to turn and fire on net had zero to do with an opponent’s mistakes.

According to head coach John Spencer last season following the New England home game, Nagbe prefers to play up top paired with another striker. With newly acquired striker Kris Boyd a ready-and-willing presence in the box, Nagbe might have found his perfect match.

It was not just the goal that earned Nagbe the right to start at striker for the Timbers in upcoming matches. It was his touch and passing ability. His first touch is clearly far above any other potential starting forward on the club, while his ability to pass in tight spaces is a notch above Jorge Perlaza.

Nagbe’s ascent to striker would also clear up Perlaza to be used as a speedy, change-of-pace forward in the final 20 or so minutes of a match. Perlaza would have a game changing ability going against defenders that had been on the pitch for the entire game.

Another plus of Nagbe starting as a striker is how it clears up the jumbled outside midfielder position. Assuming Franck Songo’o eventually starts, the Timbers will have two defined starters (Kalif Alhassan and Songo’o) and two defined backups (Sal Zizzo and Eric Alexander) on the wings.

While Nagbe does not have the height of most starting MLS forwards, his excellent jumping ability and sheer soccer IQ make up for his lack of inches. Nagbe displayed his ability to beat much taller defenders in last year’s 1-1 draw with the San Jose Earthwaukes at Jeld-Wen.

Using his brain and leverage, the 21-year-old beat 6-foot-5 defender Bobby Burling to a ball and then slotted in a cross to Cooper, who found the back of the net. Plays like that demonstrate Nagbe’s ability to play against much taller central defenders.

Sometimes in sports, players lose their spot not due to their inability, but simply because another player gives his team a better chance to win. And that is exactly what is happening to Jorge Perlaza. His demotion paired with Nagbe’s promotion would simply make the Timbers better.