At this time last year, the Portland Timbers were just eight games into their inaugural season, and they were already creating a reputation for a dangerous ability to score goals off corner kicks and free kicks.
By May 8 the Timbers had scored eleven goals, seven from set pieces. Portland's next game came against the Seattle Sounders, when Futty Danso famously got his head above Kasey Keller's outstretched mitts and redirected Jack Jewsbury's long free kick for the equalizer.
After the match, Sigi Schmid complained of the Timbers' quality from the dead ball. "That’s what their danger is," he said. "That’s what they live for."
The trend flew even more out of whack after the Seattle match, as the team scored three more set piece goals over the next four games before creating their next goal from the run of play, that one finally coming on June 19. Timbers fans rightly worried that they were becoming too dependent on set pieces to score goals.
By contrast, so far in 2012, the Timbers have scored nine goals, just two from set piece plays, both of those coming on opening night. Their failure to convert free kicks consistently in 2012 is every bit as much of a problem as the lack of quality from the run of play was in 2011.
Set pieces are obviously an important part of the game, quite simply because they are opportunities to score goals. Plain and simple. As John Spencer incredulously told Will Conwell after Monday's practice, "Seriously? My approach to free kicks is, if you get an opportunity to hit the target, hit the target."
But just as important, a team that can routinely score on set pieces can use that threat as a deterrent. The message: don't knock down our attackers near your end, or chances are you're going to give up a goal.
Conversely, fail to convert free kicks, as the Timbers have done so far this year, and the opposing defense won't miss an opportunity to take an attacker's legs out from under him, or wrestle a striker to the ground while fighting for a long ball from the keeper. The Timbers have seen their fair share of that kind of play this year, and the Timbers' failure to make their opponents pay simply invites more of the same.
(True, Darlington Nagbe is showing considerable improvement in his ability to handle that kind of physicality, but it sure would be nice if he had a little extra protection.)
In Saturday's match against the Columbus Crew, Nagbe, Franck Songo'o and company combined to draw, by my count, eight free kicks in dangerous areas. Add the six corners the Timbers won, and that makes 14 chances the team had from a dead ball near the Crew's goal area.
A couple of them were taken straightforwardly enough -- the kick taker, usually Songo'o, floated the ball into the space in front of goal with the hope that Futty Danso, Hanyer Mosquera, or Kris Boyd might get on the end of it. One or two more were drilled directly on goal. Several others strayed from the basic formula, instead featuring a cheeky tip five yards to the right to change the angle, or a pass to the other side of the field to try to get an open shot.
No matter what they tried, most of the attempts failed to test the keeper, and none of them found the back of the net. Frustration in the stands boiled over when, in the 77th minute, Jack Jewsbury used a free kick to pass the ball across to Lovel Palmer, who promptly coughed up possession. It was an outlier, but still, it wasn't pretty.
I don't fault the Timbers for trying something different. They used cheeky, quickly taken free kicks quite often in 2011 and found consistent success from those plays, which further broadened their opportunities. Excessive creativity is not their problem.
So what is the problem? Here are a few possibilities.
1. Kalif Alhassan has been out of the lineup.
Several of the successful free kicks in 2011 involved a sneaky pass down the flank to Alhassan, who would poke in a cross to a waiting head for the goal. Alhassan's goal in the opener this year was a similar play, except, instead of aiming for somebody's head, he aimed for the keeper's towel.
Getting Kalif back into the lineup could draw one or two extra defenders out of the scrum in front of goal, creating more space for the big guys in front.
2. The Timbers are missing multiple quality targets.
In 2011, the Timbers could count on Eric Brunner, Futty Danso and Kenny Cooper to provide three reasonably high percentage heads to aim for. So far this season neither Hanyer Mosquera nor Kris Boyd, for all the quality they bring to the lineup, have demonstrated that same prowess with their heads.
That leaves one high percentage target: either Brunner or Futty, depending on who is in the lineup. All the defense has to do is push Brunner out of the way or climb onto Futty's back, and the crisis is averted.
This lack of quality targets, by the way, is a problem on all aerial crosses, not just the ones originating from dead balls.
3. The team still hasn't settled on a regular kick taker.
Last year Jack Jewsbury nearly always took free kicks and corners. The rest of the team got used to the timing and the pace of his service, which helped improve their consistency with the finishing.
So far this year the team has not coalesced around a single kick taker. Franck Songo'o took several of them on Saturday, but Jewsbury, Wallace, and Boyd also provided service. In past games Mike Chabala, Steven Smith, and others have shared kick taking duties.
Part of this inconsistency is also a function of the lineup overall changing nearly every game, and perhaps Spencer is trying every player out for the role. In my humble opinion, though, he would be well served to make up his mind already.
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What do you think? Do the Timbers have a set piece problem? What can they do about it?