People are panicking in the streets of Portland. The Portland Timbers are just six matches into their 2012 campaign and already they've managed to build their longest losing streak since losing five straight between the last four games of 2008 and the start of the 2009 season.
Adding a heavy dose of despair to our panic, our next game on the schedule comes against a team that has won all six of its games so far (this before Sporting Kansas City's match Wednesday night against the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place). Oh, and they only just had their MLS record 335 minutes without allowing a shot on goal halted in the 91st minute on Saturday. Woe is we.
People of Portland, don't panic -- at least, not yet. There's a lot of season left to be played. The lads are making mistakes, taking their lumps, and learning to lose together. Here's hoping they use this time to learn to win together.
We've only played six games
The easiest thing for us to do right now as a coaching staff and a playing staff is to feel sorry for yourself.
- Coach John Spencer
Losing streaks are always tough to take, but never more than when they happen so early in the season, when we have so little to compare them against. The Timbers had a rough patch last year, but it happened after the 5-game home win streak that started the season. "Sure," we said, "we've lost the last few games, but this team can win, and we've seen them do it." This year, there's not much good to look back on in the immediate past.
But remember that the small sample size can throw a winning form out of perspective just as much. Look at the San Jose Earthquakes: the only Western team that has lost only once in six games, they hold the highest points per match in the Western Conference. Could anybody anywhere have predicted they'd start the season like this? Of course not, nor should we have.
Injuries happen, players can get comfortable and complacent, the rest of the league can figure out your tricks (referees can start calling your fouls), etc. San Jose's fortunes will likely turn, and it'll happen against teams like Philadelphia Union, Chivas USA, or Columbus Crew. The breaks will go the other way for the Timbers as well.
We've got two more shots against RSL, Chivas, and LA Galaxy
This isn't a struggling team. There's too much quality and potential in this group, and I think all of us just need to look in and believe in ourselves, which I think is the biggest message.
And, you know, obviously, learning from our mistakes.
The unbalanced schedule brings all kinds of complexity -- bye weeks, home-away disparity, etc. But it also allows teams to get to know each other better over the course of three games. More importantly, it allows soccer teams to use the baseball cliche -- if you don't win the game, the next thing you do is try to win the series.
The Timbers have two more chances to beat each of these teams. During the interim, the team will have learned about themselves and tailored their game plan according to what they learned about the opposition. Furthermore, it's hard to imagine the Timbers not improving themselves in the coming months. Kris Boyd will further solidify his presence at the top, the defense will start to coalesce as a fighting group as more players return from injury, and the wings will figure out their roles in the starting lineup or lose their place therein.
Yes, every other team will be doing the same thing, but the Timbers will have one advantage: they lost the first time. Players and coaches tend to learn more from losses than from wins. At least, that's our hope.
When Boyd gets the ball at his feet, he scores
You've got to remember, we didn't have Kris Boyd for the whole of preseason with our team. That's an important part of the season is getting guys and getting them embedded in the system. That's why we have ten or twelve preseason games. It's to get guys used to each other.
- John Spencer
As Spenny says, it has clearly taken some time for Kris Boyd and the rest of the team to get used to each other. But there is evidence that they are starting to come together. If you include the goal that was called back against LA, Boyd has four goals this season. His last two are the ones that most resemble the highlight reel that accompanied him on his transfer from Europe.
The reader will also notice that in Boyd's four* shots on target against LA, one was assisted by an aerial cross from Steve Purdy to his feet, while the others all came from service from on the ground from the center of the pitch. Meanwhile, Boyd's runs were more visible and better timed to what was going on behind him. Yes, that improved play resulted partially from playing against the weak LA defense, but it's a sign that the team is finding different ways of scoring with Boyd at the helm.
The point is, the team is clearly improving their understanding of Boyd, and vice versa. That mutual understanding will only continue to improve.
We haven't played a Cascadia Cup match yet
There's no better place to play against one of the best teams in the country at home.
- John Spencer
Remember the July 10th match against our hated rivals, the Seattle Sounders, last year? Timbers fans wondered if a bunch of guys assembled only months before would understand the meaning of the decades-long rivalry and produce on the pitch. They wondered if a Sounders squad that had been playing together for years would run all over the Timbers and make us a laughing stock in our own stadium.
Moreover, this match came in the midst of last year's winless streak -- a streak that had dated back more than a month, starting with their 3-2 loss against D.C. United, their first home loss of the year. In the meantime the Timbers lost five games, including their worst loss of the season, a 4-0 drubbing by FC Dallas. Even their draw felt like a loss -- the 3-3 result against the New York Red Bulls.
But when the Seattle Sounders came to town, the Timbers were transformed. After a scoreless first half, both teams came out of the locker room running full bore at a victory. In the end, five goals were scored, and all the things you want in a rivalry came to pass -- an embarrassing own goal by the visiting side, a red card, a PK -- everything except a win for the home team.
The Timbers didn't win that one, but it was a hard-fought loss, and the fans were proud of their team. A week later, the boys in green won their first road game. In fact, they went on to collect 11 points from their next six games, putting themselves back on track and reviving their playoff hopes.
I completely love it. I mean, to get this kind of experience at the age of 19 -- I mean, I still have, what, 12, 13, maybe even 14 years in the league left in me.
Rincon, Valencia, Renken, AJB, Gleeson, and Nagbe are all players under 21, and all seem poised to play a major role in the future. A couple rough years could well see us start to blossom (hopefully).
- Regular Stumptown Footy contributor, zaggy
OK, let's say none of our current starters get it done. Let's say we continue to lose for the next couple of months of the season. We've still got guys on our team -- lots of them -- who have never made an appearance on the first team. After all, none of us expected to see Andrew Jean-Baptiste at all this year, and certainly not so early in the season, but the 19-year-old impressed everybody with his composure and maturity at the back.
Who knows what other reserves might come into the first team and surprise everyone with their skill and teamwork?
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The Timbers are going to pull themselves out of this rut, sooner or later. Let's just hope we don't have to wait too long for that to happen.