A bit of background: the Portland Timbers MLS exist for two reasons: 1) the crowds in the USL days averaged 8K-10K, second only to Montreal and boasted a boisterous support in the North End lending credence to the thought that this town does seem to like some soccer 2) Merritt Paulson got tired of working at NBA Entertainment in New York and got on a plane to Portland where he decided quite early on that he was going to make an MLS team. This is by and large all that anyone knows about the Portland Timbers: Paulson (@MerrittPaulson for those in the know), and the Timbers Army.
We're coming off what would be generously described as a shit season: second from the bottom in goals scored, third from the bottom in goals allowed, only Chivas and TFC kept us out of the basement. Were this a relegation league, we'd be back in USL. 2011 had seen us go close to the playoffs, so we assumed 2012 would be our playoff year and all would go swimmingly. Our coach John Spencer, a colorful and thoroughly likable Scotsman, brought in the all-time scoring leader from the Scottish Premier League, former Glasgow Rangers striker Kris Boyd. He was made vice-captain, wore the armband on many occasions, and colored the team irrevocably both in terms of his style, his work rate, and his attention span. He had skill, but also low confidence, prone to complete disappearances in games, manifestly unfit, and by the middle of the season, seemingly disinterested in anything other than cashing his paycheck. The rest of the team seemingly took that on, completely failing to show up on numerous occasions, managing -15 goal differential for the first 1/2 of the season, conceding 14 goals in the final 15 minutes of games over the season, looking disorganized, playing desperate balls up the sideline to hit desperate crosses to a striker who ran no channels, did no work, and despite being 6'2 and 190lbs, lost most headers. In mid-July coach John Spencer was fired and General Manager Gavin Wilkinson took over and things got, em, tragic: 8 straight games without a win with 5 straight losses thrown in for good measure, any faint hopes of a playoff appearance vanished. "Star" forward Kris Boyd was benched, then injured, then benched, then largely forgotten about, goalkeeper Tory Perkins and forward Jorge Perlaza sent packing, "GW OUT" banners blossomed in the North End, Paulson and various members of the TA sniped at each on Twitter. It looked bad. Caleb Porter, erstwhile coach of Akron, was hired with the start date set for January, and much of the end of the season felt somewhat like the aftermath of a late night drunken bike crash: limping homewards, bleeding, dragging a bent wheel, hoping sleep would somehow erase everything. The dark clouds parted a little at the end, just a hint. Porters philosophy-by-proxy and the shape of the team and the parts that would stay started coming together. The late shipping of goals dried up somewhat, several nervy draws and close losses hinted at a team that was at least trying, and finally, for the
third time in our MLS history, we won a road game, and this earned us the Cascadia Cup and a tiny piece of solace. Then we watched the playoffs start without us and hit refresh on our browsers as the roster churn began:
|2012/2013 Out ||2012/2013 In |
|Kris Boyd(DP) ||Diego Valeri (DP) |
|Jorge Perlaza* ||Will Johnson |
|Troy Perkins* ||Donovan Ricketts* |
|Ian Hogg ||Michael Harrington |
|Franck Songo'o ||Dylan Tucker-Gagnes |
|Mike Chabala* ||Danny Mwanga* |
|Eric Brunner ||Mobi Fehr |
|Kosuke Kimura ||Michael Nanchoff |
|Steven Smith ||Ben Zemanski |
|Eric Alexander ||Mikael Silvestre |
|Joe Bendik ||Steven Evans |
|Freddie Braun ||Ben Zemanski |
|Charles Renken ||Milos Kocic |
|Lovell Palmer || |
Manager + Tactics
New coach Caleb Porter is an Ajax man, or a Barcelona man, perhaps even a mid-90's Milan man, or, you know, a contemporary soccer man. The age of "possession and pressure" is upon us in the US, everyone moving to Mourinho+Chelsea era 433 if not Barcelona-esque 451/460, and we in Portland are no exception to that. We have no outsized stars this time, Porters goal being a quick short passing game that pressures for recovery and moves into the attacking third together, requiring more discipline, intelligence, and diligence than speed, flash, and genius. As we have no stars nor are we likely to get any in the foreseeable future due to our lack of proximity to Manhattan/Hollywood this seems a more promising plan than the Spencer-era "hoof it to the big man and charge". We've brought in a slew of new recruits, several of them Akron-ites, and dropped ~6-7 of our starters from last year. Porter himself does an excellent job of conveying a well-mannered polite but serious American Soccerball Coach but if you look at his eyes, he's a man of steely preciseness. He was brilliant building a program at Akron from nothing to arguably the apex of NCAA soccer but it remains to be seen how that will translate to MLS. His brief stint with the US U23s was hamstrung by selection problems, lack of training time, his own mistakes, and bizarre bureaucracy. This is his chance and he knows it.
We'll likely line up 433/4231 with Valeri moving forward and the left & right wings staying back slightly.
Ricketts Miller Mosquera/Horst Jean-Baptiste/Danso Harrington/Wallace Nagbe/Jewsbury/Mwanga Valeri/Nanchoff W. Johnson/Chara/Alhassan Zizzo/Rincon R.Johnson Valencia
People to watch
Diego Valeri - He looks calm, collected, and intelligent without being overly flashy or demanding. If he slots in the Porter system as well as he seems to be doing, then his play will be a very important part of the team being creative and moving the ball from the midfield and into the attacking third. He is no a "star", but he will be key both in terms of his positioning and his directing of traffic.
Ryan Johnson - A hat-trick against San Jose showed he might be up for it. We've never had a striker who worked and his track record at Toronto was not golden but Coopers record with us was lackluster while he sparkled in NY, so we might be due some karma. If he stays threatening, we can play our game. Without a reliable option up front the midfield will be forced to push forward into shooting positions and our defensive shape will not be what it needs to be.
Will Johnson - We need to make sure that our high pressure doesn't descend into farce and our possession and movement through the middle of the pitch is meaningful. A lot of this is going to depend on the positioning and understanding of Johnson, Valeri, and everyone else in the middle of the pitch. We're going to be playing a very flexible system but even in the early games you could see that we're going to have two primary pivots: Johnson and Valeri. If they work, we'll work. If not, not.
Donovan Ricketts - As he demonstrated on duty with the Jamaican national team in Azteca, when he really wants to play and is healthy, he is a very good goalie. As he demonstrated in Montreal and then in Portland, when he's hurt or disinterested he's a liability. Spectacular save after spectacular save followed by howlers that compel one to scream into a clenched fist.
Diego Chara - "I love me some Diego Chara but if he’s gonna stay on the pitch with Will Johnson and Valeri he’s gonna need to do more than be an engine that kicks the shit out of people and disrupts play." Our player of the year last year, he came into his own towards the end of last season and when he wasn't on the field destroying anything or one that came near him we lost all shape and ability to control the space 30 yards from our box. A team that desperately needed a leader found one in him. This season however, we're not as leadership-lacking, so he needs to do more than just break up everything and trip people. He most definitely can, the question is whether he will.
Darlington Nagbe - Man-without-a-position and repeat goal of the season contender Nagbe has arrived at his chance to stop being a promising youngster and start being a solid player. Porter was his college coach when he was NCAA player of the year and if he's going to be good, he's going to be good now.
Jose Valencia aka Trencito - He's fast, he's got a good touch, he's big and not afraid to to muscle his way through a backline, and he hasn't started a first team game yet. Signed when he was due for major surgery we've all been waiting to see him and the earliest of indications from the preseason friendlies show that he might be what he's cracked up to be.
Move the ball through the middle intelligently. This simply did not happen with regularity at any point last season. Little possession, long hopeful hoofs, and runs up the wings were the blueprint last year and it was excruciating to watch, particularly away from home. Porter is obsessed with moving the ball both laterally and vertically around midfield with confidence and if this happens, we'll do well.
Positional discipline. Last years Timbers almost never controlled space and seemed to only start to attack the ball 2/3 of the way up the field, which was a marvelous way to open space for the opposition. Lots of last ditch defending, utter lack of positional co-ordination, all contributed to completely incoherent performances and embarrassing losses. Some of the main perpetrators of this, Palmer, Songo'o, Smith, are gone. This years model looks far more composed and Porter is rightly obsessed with improving this.
The "high pressure, high up the pitch, hunt the ball like a pack of wolves" could be scary with lack of fitness shown last season. This seems like the norm in MLS, but I think we'll be pushing it further than most teams and staying more committed to it through mid and late season. It most certainly may backfire on occasion as our back line is not particularly strong, but I think it will keep us from shipping the quantity of goals that we saw last season.
Discipline and professionalism have to be better. They can't really get worse, frankly. Last years abysmal road record was largely due to a lack of confidence and an inability to stay mentally in the game. The field resizing will help a little bit but an improvement in discipline will do far far more.
A abysmal season, a star who was essentially out of the team mid-season, an almost popular revolt against the General Manager and acting coach, and still only around 400 season ticket holders declined to renew, while the $50 deposit waiting list grew to around 8000 or so (afaik). No discussion of the franchise can ignore the supporters, which is largely the reason we exist at all in the popular consciousness of US soccer. 4th smallest market in MLS and a short jump to much a larger market, were it not for the supporters the Timbers would still be in USL. Every game since joining MLS in 2011 has been sold out and there is a wonderful match-day atmosphere which is the closest I've felt in the US to the air of a Argentinian or German matchday. Our supporters group, the Timbers Army, is probably the most prominent supporters group in MLS relative to the club. Please note
I'm not starting an argument about "best SG" or "most important SG", so please don't start a thread of bickering. I'm merely pointing out that the team has basically had no success other than attracting a large, very active, and very devoted fan base and supporters group. We were on TV last year a lot because of the TA and while our dismal season last year means that we'll be on less this time the TA is still our draw for national broadcast. When you're there, they make the games fun, they make the stadium positively ring with song, and for a lot of last year being with them was about the only consolation of watching the Timbers. There is one competition in which I am sure we will be in the finals or thereabouts of and that is for the Tifo of The Year. Look for it to be brightly colored, warm, and probably thematically full of hope and yearning. As this is awarded by internet vote, if the popular preference remains for a more nü-metal color palette and font, look for us to remain bridesmaids to the brides of our neighbors to the near north in that competition. We have fun, we're welcoming, we have some fine t-shirts and hoodies, we're not into exclusivity, and we're not assholes.
We have rivalries with Seattle and Vancouver. In Cascadia we like each other enough that the supporters made a cup of their own a few years ago for the teams to contest, the Cascadia Cup, and we dislike each other enough that the atmosphere at those games is fairly crackling, particularly Portland-Seattle.For those curious, yes it's heated, yes it's real, no you will not get beaten up for wearing Timbers gear in Seattle and vice versa, yes it's very very fun.
For those who haven't been there our stadium Jeld-Wen is from the 1920's and a bit on the small side, which makes it feel intimate, and is right in the middle of the city on the train-line, which means getting there and away is fun. The downside of the location is that in all likelihood it can't be expanded from its current 20480, which is a pity as the Timbers could quite easily fill a 30K-ish stadium. The beer selection is good, the seats aren't bad but the benches are better, and even on a cold rainy night there's very very few places I'd rather be.
Our owner Merritt Paulson continues to Twitter away like a fan, at once passionate, provocative, infuriating, encouraging, and a mixture of all four, and then delete his tweets almost immediately afterwards. He loves the team and the supporters, we by and large feel likewise, and despite the turmoil with the General Manager which lead to some serious sniping back and forth, all seems happy and optimistic.
Expectations Not the basement
: A 4th/5th finish seems possible. However, RSL aside, no one looks any weaker than they did last season and both Dallas and Colorado look significantly stronger, so this might be difficult. Ever the optimist, I'm going to start saving up now for tickets to the game just in case. Road games
: they should not have the air of a man being marched out back to a firing squad. The -25 GD of last year needs to be left in the dustbin of history. Will we post a winning road record? Probably not, but I expect it to be better. Better fitness
: last years Timbers often simply stopped playing in the final 20 minutes, meaning winnable draws stayed draws, close losses stayed losses, and not-close losses turned into blowouts. The (XBox) Cascadia Cup™ (brought to you by Starbucks Mocha Caramel Frappuchino)
: it's probably not in the cards for us this year as the unbalanced schedule is against us this year and both Vancouver and Seattle look quite strong. Neutral fans: if you want to tune in for some Timbers games, these are probably the ones, particularly the Seattle games both home and away.
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