In the 16th minute of the Portland Timbers’ match against the Houston Dynamo, Rodney Wallace cut the ball inward from the left flank, creating space in front of himself for a right-footed cross into the box. Kris Boyd saw Wallace free himself in space but didn’t appear to expect a cross -- at least, not one from Wallace’s right foot. Boyd easily got past Geoff Cameron, but his hesitation delayed his connection with what could have been a perfect volley past Tally Hall. Instead the ball bounced harmlessly away.
Two matches later, Wallace was replaced in the starting lineup by Eric Alexander, the man Wallace had himself replaced a game before.
Portland Timbers fans don’t agree on much these days, but one thing they do seem to agree on is this: something needs to change.
Over the course of the season so far, though, change has been the constant. Whether a result of injuries, international absences, or the much touted ongoing competition for the starting spots, John Spencer has changed up his lineup nearly every week since the start of the season.
(And more change is evidently coming, in the form of Danny Mwanga. Apparently I need to work on my timing as well.)
In fact, the only outfield player who has started in exactly the same position in every league match this season is Kris Boyd. During the opening stretch Boyd has started with the same strike partner for no more than three consecutive games. Meanwhile, three different central midfield lineups and seven different backline setups have also been featured this year.
But nowhere on the pitch has instability been as much of a problem as on the wings, where five different combinations of seven players have been used for two positions in the starting lineup, with no combination continuing for more than three consecutive games.
Though injuries have played a role, the constant changes in the lineup were foretold in the preseason. Spencer and Gavin Wilkinson have been repeating the mantra of internal competition for months.
Speaking to the media back in October, Wilkinson said, "We need to have more depth in this squad and for those players to put more pressure on one another."
"I would hope that you wouldn’t need competition to fire you up to keep your job in the team," Spencer said in March. "Because when you step out here and you’re not mentally prepared and ready to go, they’ll sort you out pretty quickly, and you won’t be here long."
"If you get the opportunity to play," Spencer said more recently, "make sure you make the most of it. Play well and stay in the team."
In other words, if at first you don’t succeed, you’ll be replaced.
Now, obviously there is some sense in this system. If a player isn’t 90 minutes fit or needs to work on some individual skill that would help him do better on the field, he ought to be taken out of the lineup. If a player has an attitude problem or isn’t "mentally prepared" he ought to be taken out of the lineup (and probably taken to see a counselor).
But this mantra seems to be based on the assumption that players are no more than pawns on a chessboard, infinitely interchangeable but entirely unable to learn, change, or adapt on the playing field. It ignores the fact that a player’s quality on the field is in large part determined by his ability to anticipate his teammates’ movements and actions. It denies them the time they need to build these capacities.
For all the talk about Boyd needing better service in front of goal, the fans have missed hearing about the fact that service is created from more than just one pass. The best service Boyd is likely to get is going to be on the third or fourth ball, starting from the defensive half of the pitch.
So far, Boyd has been given insufficient time with a particular lineup to be able to anticipate the service he is likely to get from just a single pass. That's to say nothing of the three or four additional passes he'll need to be able to anticipate before he can score with any regularity.
Moreover, at this point in the season, whenever underperforming players are replaced in the starting lineup, they are invariably replaced by players who themselves had previously underperformed and had also been replaced. The Rodney Wallace/Eric Alexander case described above appears to be an example of this. It is possible that Eric Alexander had made sufficient improvement on the training ground to earn back his spot in the starting XI, but it’s every bit as likely it was just his turn in the rotation.
In other words, if at first you don’t succeed, wait a few weeks for your replacement to also not succeed, then try, try again. Not exactly a winning formula.
The lineup’s instability is a particular problem for such a young team as the Timbers, especially since they are competing against teams whose members have had years to get used to playing together. What chance does such a team have against Real Salt Lake? When the Timbers play them for a third time this season, will the Portland starting lineup have played together for more than a couple of weeks, or will they essentially be starting from scratch once again?
If the lineup continues to change week after week, will the Timbers have progressed as a team at all by the season’s end?
Instead of changing the players, let the players make changes.
The Timbers need continuity. Coach Spencer needs to pick a lineup, at least on the attacking side, and leave it alone for a few games. If they lose at first, give them a chance to learn to win together. Give them the opportunity to organize themselves differently and perfect their anticipation and timing together over the course of several matches. Give Boyd a few more matches to see what his teammates can do with improved anticipation and timing.
If they show no progress, if they prove unable to improve their timing and anticipation over the course of five or six games, give another combination of players the opportunity to make it work.
Progress is the key. Progress is the change I wish to see in the Timbers.