All eyes are on Atlanta? Bullshit. My attention has lingered on the panic button for most of this week. By the end of this weekend, the Portland Timbers will be over 1/5 of the way through 2014. We’ll be seven games into a 34-game regular season, right? And the odds of getting a win in there? Let’s see…how is Portland’s record against Real Salt Lake? Not so good, people. And…shit.
It’s funny (actually, no, it’s not) to consider that, just prior to this past weekend, I slipped a throw-away sentence about Portland having time to tinker into a post in favor of squad rotation. The thing about squad rotation I stand by, but that thing about time just jumped out the window. 100% open to experimentation, though, because, y’know, losing. Or just not winning.
The League beat me to the business of acknowledging the panic button – though they expanded the sample size to MLS’s five winless teams. That the first thing one sees after Andrew Wiebe’s face is Timbers captain Will Johnson’s now-familiar pinched, frustrated scowl says something about the locus of the disaster. That is the image of the season, people: a captain of a boat taking on water coming to grips with the possibility that we’re out of fucking buckets.
To digress for a second, it’s a funny little video, that thing with Wiebe. First, consider the company Portland’s keeping in that shitty little winless dinghy: Red Bull New York, the Montreal Impact, the Chicago Fire, and the San Jose Earthquakes. (Wanna feel a little more sick: consider who is not in it with an eye to 2013 for context: DC United, Chivas USA. And fuck!) The funny thing, for me anyway, is that Wiebe seems least worried about the teams I’m inclined to write off – e.g. Chicago and Montreal. That’s of interest, at most, but the sharp pongy reality comes with the subtext of the video: could some or all of these teams remain winless by the end of May?
Feel free to consider the schedule for each team (Portland, New York, Montreal, Chicago, and San Jose) and come to your own conclusions for each. I’ll confine my attention to Portland…after I self-medicate with a little taste of courage…
The nice people at Stumptown Footy provided a nice frame for this discussion by looking at other MLS clubs who got off to equal or shittier starts in seasons past. (They also pulled a nice shift deconstructing the two goals from Portland v. Chivas.) It does not make for happy reading. Basically, I’d caution against clicking through…oh, you’re just…never mind.
So, here’s the road ahead through the end of May: RSL away; Houston away; DC at home; the LA Galaxy at home; Columbus at home; Red Bull away; Chivas USA away. That’s seven games, a number that will take Portland to 13 games on the season. Still a ways to go, obviously, but it becomes a long road to fucking nowhere if Portland can’t get three points from at least some of those games. Just to throw this out there: of course I want a win this Saturday, but I’ll also be thankful for a tie. Given the circumstances.
So, what to do to up the chances that Portland gets three points here, there, ideally everywhere? Let’s grasp at some straws, shall we?
Now, personally, I’d really like to see Portland give Frederic Piquionne the start. To acknowledge something right up front: yes, this is absolutely where magical thinking hopes to meet wish fulfillment. There’s a reason I like this, though, a couple actually. The Timbers have been able to get the ball to the flanks fairly effectively and they’ve crossed the balls – if to embarrassingly little effect. Why not see what happens if we put a guy in there to play to? See that Piquionne stays up, etc. Basically, I’m urging a switch away from the channel running attacks we’ve relied on so far through Maximiliano Urruti and Gaston Fernandez. The second hope is that Piquionne will provide some hold-up play because, again, we’ve got channel-runners right now and it’s not really coming off. Maybe a hold-up guy will help get our midfielders more involved, etc.
Sadly, the real problem resides in defense. Or, rather, said problem has set up house back there and built some additions to the house so that some other problems can move in. Sigh. This constitutes an actual nightmare because our problems with scoring (against any team not from Seattle) doesn’t hurt so damn badly if the defense would just hold up. And here’s a thought, this from Stumptown’s match report on the Chivas game:
“Chivas USA had some great spells of possession during this time and forced Portland to defend for longer than they are accustomed to and for longer than their defense is built to manage.”
That last line, that phrase “built to manage,” is honest, accurate and horrifying all at once. To start, why would one build a defense to do anything but keep the ball out of the goddamn goal? Portland’s fails to do that and the reasons for it – e.g. dumb mistakes, both novel and repeated – are maddening. Some things can be fixed – e.g. had Harrington and Kah been able to communicate last weekend, Erick Torres doesn’t walk in unmarked (this assumes they can hear one another) – but that doesn’t apply to one of the Timbers’ worst, repeating weaknesses. When Portland fails to command the area and/or clear the ball on set-pieces – which they do with the avidity of hobbyists – they give teams multiple opportunities to score. I don’t know how you get a player to get better contact when they head the ball, or to kick their clearances more cleanly, beyond saying, “Do it. Please.” That’s the hell of it, right there: one can know they did something wrong or poorly but still be unable to fix it. Mistakes and mistakes for a reason.
I’m not going to worry about the panic button. There’s no point in hitting the thing, really, because there’s nothing to do after sirens sound except sit there glumly meditating on passing the point of no return.
For now, I’m going to start counting progress by one measure: clean sheets (as in games where the other team doesn’t score). Wins will be nice and embraced like prodigal sons, but I’m not going to get over-excited about a 3-2, never mind a 4-3. It’s defensive solidity I’m after. I watched RSL last weekend and couldn’t help but notice they managed to spring a healthy number of attacks…again, sigh…