Somewhere in the last year or so (actual year, not calendar) I discovered podcasting – which I now believe happens kind of automatically on arriving at middle age…probably relates to how music suddenly sounds scary somehow…anyway…
I don’t listen that many podcasts; MLSsoccer.com’s March to the Match is the only one I listen to reliably (obsessively, even; and I do recommend that one, and highly. They just do things better ‘round there.) ExtraTime Radio (ETR) can lure me back every once in a while – notably, when they have a guest ready to talk Portland Timbers and everything that’s wrong with them this year.
That someone was The Oregonian’s sports reporter, Geoffrey Arnold, a guy I used to read regularly before they fucked up just about everything about Portland, Oregon’s leading major daily. The man does good work, though, so it was the paper who cocked it up, not Arnold.
Arnold’s segment on ETR didn’t last long, but he had some interesting things to say, among them: casting Caleb Porter as a “supremely confident coach, almost to the point of some arrogance” (in a highly-public forum, no less) and having close to zero confidence in the Timbers finding their first win of 2014 this weekend (TRAIT…oh, who am I kidding; I requested odds when betting on a Portland win).
But Arnold made some other, specific points. To wit, and to respond:
– Portland misses Ryan Johnson
File under, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone, but Ryan Johnson is the parking lot that paved over Portland’s paradise…wait, I mean the opposite. He was paradise and Portland paved over his memory with the, uh, trade. I’ve gone back to this a couple times over the past few weeks, so I’ll keep it short here: the Timbers seem to have neither the capacity nor the personnel for hold-up play. As a result, their attacks take the shape of playing someone through or a long-range bomb from the 20, 25 yard range. Having someone able to hold up the ball in the opposition end would help. So…help!
– Has the backline “dropped-off” – i.e. are they worse than last year?
While high-scoring soccer games are almost always an anomaly – that’s the Seattle game – Portland has let in 11 goals so far this season. That’s exactly one-third the number of goals allowed in all of 2013 (33 goals against) and Portland isn’t one-third of the way into this season, clearly. (Of interest, the team has scored just over 1/7 (8) the number of goals as last year (54) at just under the 1/5 point of 2014.) So, statistically, no, it’s not good (on either side). Arnold didn’t see a drop-off, and god knows he’s watching, but I do. The problems with clearing the ball hurts enough, but it’s the mistakes, the ball-watching and missed marks that pain me. And, yes, that make me think it is worse this year.
– Portland defends by possession…possession versus self-possession
By way of making the above argument, Arnold noted that the Timbers fell on the wrong side of the possession equation a couple times this season. While that doesn’t necessarily translate to more pressure on the backline, it certainly can and has. I think Arnold’s right that Portland isn’t possessing like it did last season and I put that down to slow starts for Diego Valeri and Will Johnson, in particular. That’s a hopeful thought because, barring injury, both players should improve. It bears remembering, however, that it’s that defense – e.g. the one “not built” to manage that sort of pressure ([shiver] that phrase haunts me still). Any team will give up X number of chances per game – or, to raise something approaching that-which-must-not-be-named territory, set pieces – and the defense has to cope in a way that Portland’s simply has not so far. Color me troubled.
– Was 2013 an Annus mirabilis that shall not repeat?
A certain fatalism lurks behind this argument. Arnold’s case here boils down to the idea that only the best players bring a consistent A-game year after year after year. He went on to note that several key players – Valeri, Johnson and the still-injured Rodney Wallace – enjoyed career years last season. As is sometimes pointed out, there is no real-world cure for hangovers and Arnold’s merely speculating that the Timbers had a couple players who enjoyed the benefit of the proverbial bubbly last season. And we know what happens after one sleeps off a binge…in a word, yikes! The question is whether to buy it. I guess I don’t, though it’s hard to know where wishful thinking stops and reality starts…is, say, Johnson among the best in MLS? Tough call, but he’s been one thing to date: steady. And that’s why I have faith in a turn-around. At least here.
To put a bow on all the above, Portland is dancing on the edge of The Poop. Some things will improve automatically – e.g, form for key players and the increase in possession that will follow – but will those improvements in those areas be enough to get the season going – especially with the what I perceive to be structural problems on either side of midfield?
One significant question that hovers over all this: assuming Porter to be “almost arrogant,” will he have the flexibility to accept that adjustments need to be made (an argument that assumes they do)?