Only the most wildly optimistic fan would've had the Timbers kicking off 2013 in triumphant and imperious fashion, sweeping all before them in a green and gold blitzkrieg of free-flowing football. Most fans, I think, accept that we're firmly in a period of transition, and have adjusted their expectations accordingly.
Despite this understanding, a return of three points from four games has some fans grumbling as the free-flowing attacking football many felt they were promised by the hiring of Caleb Porter has been noticeably absent for much of the first few games. The Rapids match was especially tough to watch for aesthetes as the Timbers stuttered and stumbled their way through long periods in the match, looking every inch the team that is still trying to figure things out. Despite this, the Timbers returned from Colorado with two goals and a point - a better haul than their three previous visits combined.
The more defensive play over the past couple of matches could be attributed to a tough couple of road trips, but given Porter's own comments that he may have gone too far, too early in trying to put his team on the front foot in matches, it seems clear to me that he would have initiated these changes regardless of opposition or venue. Though no club has missed out on the playoffs because of their first four games, Porter only needs to look at the lesson of last year to see how things can quickly spiral out of control when you get a run of bad results against you.
In a league where the counter-attack is king, and your defence has been thrown together over a handful of preseason games, the way the Timbers set up in the first couple of matches only invites trouble. With an attack that is also in a learning period, it would be foolhardy to rely on them to bail the defence out of trouble too often.
To help solve the problems at the back, Porter has turned to Jack Jewsbury and Ben Zemanski.
Jewsbury's role in the team at this point, both as a fullback and a DM, seems to be to act almost like a set of training wheels for the defence, protecting and screening the back line while they work out the kinks. He's also a very dependable footballer, and is the only player to record a pass accuracy of over 80% in both the Seattle and Colorado games. Critics might say that the majority of those passes are simple, short passes, but that misses the point that those kind of passes are exactly his job. He's not there to create, but to circulate the ball to those that do, and he does that fairly well.
The question many have asked is why we don't play Chara in defensive midfield, as that seems to be his "natural" position. I think that Porter has gone with Jack for tow reasons: 1) Chara has the better engine for getting up and down in support of both defence and attack, and 2) Chara's bustling style simply gives up too many fouls. If Chara fouls on the half-way line the opposition still have a bit of work to do to get a shot at goal, but if he does it 25 or 30 yards from goal, their job is a lot easier.
It's interesting to note that Jewsbury, according to OPTA at least, made zero tackles as a midfielder, which might seem counter-intuitive to the idea of what a defensive midfielder does, unless you consider that the role's primary duty should be getting the ball before it ever reaches the attacking player. With Will Johnson and Diego Chara ahead of him, doing the pressing and putting in tackles (OPTA has them making a combined 21 tackles in the last two games), it leaves Jewsbury behind them to mop up what does gets through, and funnel the ball out wide for the full-backs or wide attackers.
Even though three matches is far too small a sample to draw any grand conclusions, three goals conceded is an improvement over the five lost in the first two games. Jewsbury's introduction comes as the defence has played a little deeper, and this combination has seen opponents resorting to taking more shots from distance which, golazos aside, are generally less of a threat that shots in the box. They're also finding the target less often, and if you look at the goals the Timbers have conceded in this time, the first was a mistake leading to a fine cross and finish, the second was the aforementioned golazo, and the third was a penalty, awarded in dubious circumstances.
While this is all good stuff, fitting Jewsbury into the midfield meant there was no room centrally for Diego Valeri, sending the Argentine to the right side of the attack. This left our right wing dangerously exposed as the Valeri drifts centrally and doesn't do the defensive work that Kalif Alhassan does. For all Alhassan can delight and frustrate within a couple of touches of the ball, off it he actually puts in a decent defensive shift, registering five tackles in two games, compared to Valeri's four in four (two when playing the wide right role).
Though Alhassan is by no means a defensive rock, and is prone to wandering and switching off at times, by putting Valeri there we were opening up that side to greater attack. Ryan Miller started the season fairly well, though he struggled against an organized and defensive Montreal (he wasn't alone in this).
Faced with the issue of protecting his team's right side, Caleb Porter turned to one of Portland's many ex-Zips, Ben Zemanski. Though there's no particular reason why Miller couldn't still play there, the sense I got from watching them both is that Zemanski operates as a more traditional full-back, whereas Miller seems like more a natural wing-back.
In the two games Zemanski started, he registered eleven tackles, as opposed to Miller's four in his game-and-a-bit. It's important to note here that the Timbers weren't pressing as high in those matches, nor possessing the ball as much, so you would expect the full-backs to face more attacks that they did against New York and Montreal. The presence of Jewsbury in the middle would also force teams wide, upping those numbers, yet Michael Harrington on the left has actually seen his defensive numbers drop on the road as the full-backs role has changed from one who presses high and looks to launch attacks to one that is more focused on sitting in and stopping players getting past them.
Ryan Miller may well be the guy to press high and provide attacking width, as his 80% pass success would suggest, but Zemanski, and his mid-60% pass success rate, is the guy to provide a steady presence at the back while looking to pick and choose his moments to get forward. The fact he can also hit a decent cross ball is a big bonus when the Timbers lack a central playmaker to go through.
As I've said, we've seen the Timbers back line drop a little deeper, generally. The high-line is an especially risky strategy when you have players who are virtual strangers in the back four, but I'm sure that we'll see it return as working as a unit becomes second nature.
The issue for many fans though is that process has compromised the attack to the extent that we took fewer shots at goal against Colorado than we managed in the second half of either the New York or Montreal games. Obviously that improved in the second half against Houston, but whether that was a blip in a prevailing trend remains to be seen.
With more focus being given to the defence, it's no surprise to see the attack suffer somewhat. What we've also seen is a drop in tempo from Portland, making fewer passes and fewer blocks and tackles, again, with the exception of the Houston match.
By isolating Valeri and Nagbe on either side of the attack the Timbers lack that creative focal point in the final third, resulting in a drop in shots and attacking efficiency. Despite making fewer passes overall, the number of passes before the Timbers can work a shooting opportunity has risen, which has pretty results but is far from ideal.
There's no reason why Diego Valeri can't play a wide right attacking role, and play it well, but it's clear that it's a role that he;s unused to thus far. Having him come in from the wing and pop up in places the opposition weren't expecting him, makes a lot of sense to anyone who saw the number that the Impact did on Valeri, and the Timbers attack in general, by denying space in that crucial zone in front of the penalty box.
It'll take some time for Valeri to truly find his feet in MLS, and playing him wide right where he might expect a bit more space and time could be beneficial to his bedding-in. Unfortunately, in the meantime, it has the effect of stretching the gap between our two key creative players, Valeri and Nagbe.
Both players have seen their pass success rate suffer as the Timbers struggle to get support in and around them. Harrington and Zemanski try their best to get forward, but they're constrained somewhat by a desire to keep it tight at the back. Ryan Johnson has tended to drift wide to help but, without supporting runs from center midfield, this only serves to leave the penalty box largely deserted. The run from Will Johnson to score against the Rapids is something the Timbers need to see more of, but it's difficult to do when the team is vertically stretched by playing so deep.
Porter explored a potential solution to this isolation of Valeri by moving to a diamond formation for a spell against Colorado. The problem with the diamond formation is what you then do with Darlington Nagbe. There's no room for him in the engine room, and he's not a guy to lead the line as he works best in the left-side attacking role, driving at defences, not playing off their shoulder. No-one knows Nagbe better than Porter and the fact that Nagbe has been utilised on the left, and was withdrawn at half time when the Timbers went to the diamond, would suggest that Porter isn't about to fall down the square pegs/round holes rabbit hole that Spencer did.
In Nagbe, Valeri, Trencito, Alhassan, Johnson and Piquionne, the Timbers have all the ingredients of a varied and exciting attacking line but before Porter can truly unleash them upon MLS he has to make sure that the support structure is there behind them. I'm sure Porter is working towards is a highly mobile, high pressing, high tempo possession-based team, but it's not as simple as telling players to do this or do that, and then expect it all to work. In order to get the attack right, the Timbers first have to get it right at the back.
In the past couple of seasons we had a head coach who said we were going to play a certain way, and he stuck to it regardless of whether we had the personnel to do it, or even if it was the right strategy at all. This year we have another coach with a pretty clear philosophy, but one who recognises that without laying down foundations first, you're merely inviting disaster further down the line.
It's interesting to note that Spencer, in his first head coach role, came to Portland from Houston, where he had worked in a system that was already well defined and established. whereas Porter came from a college background, where he is used to building teams almost from scratch. Spencer seems to thought he could take Dom Kinnear's blueprints and implement them in Portland, without really asking himself what they had to do to achieve success. What we got was a group of players who didn't really seem to know what they were supposed to do, leading to play that was, at best, inconsistent.
Meanwhile, players would come and go through the college system, so Porter has had to drill a new batch of guys on how he wanted them to play on a fairly regular basis. I don't get the sense at all that players don't know what they're supposed to be doing this year. The problem is that we're still in the process of putting all the parts together into a cohesive whole.
The first year was always going to be a bumpy ride, and the first few months especially so. My concerns over the past couple of seasons weren't that the team weren't getting good results, but that I never felt there was an end goal to what Spencer was building. He was just throwing players at it, and then scratching his head when they wouldn't play like the Dynamo did. I can accept defeats and ugly football if I think we're working towards something better, and that's how I feel right now. I know the Timbers I'm watching right now isn't the same team I'll be watching in six months or a year.
That's the team I want to see, but patience is the watchword for now. Six points from five games isn't great, but considering who we've played and the turnover of last few months, it's not that far off what you'd expect. Getting results while implementing such wide ranging changes in personnel and tactics, all under the watchful gaze of fans whose passion for their club in unrivaled, is a tricky balancing act, and one that I think Porter is pulling off pretty damn well.
Kevin Alexander is a lifelong fan of football, growing up supporting his hometown team of Kilmarnock in Scotland. Having married an Oregonian, he adopted the Timbers as his new team and has grown to think of himself as a Timbers fan first, Killie second. He enjoys watching, talking and writing about the game and his team, and runs the Slide Rule Pass site primarily to give his wife a break from having to listen him ramble on.
Read more of Kevin's analysis at Slide Rule Pass.