Monday, July 4, 2011

Eighteen games left in the season...what can be said?

Independence Day weekend is often marked at stadiums around the country with a fireworks display.  Tonight at Jeld-Wen Field,  the Portland Timbers appeared to have soggy fuses and little about the game against Sporting KC evoked anything resembling sparks.   True,  Darlington Nagbe's inaugural goal just before the close of the first half was stellar.  Well taken and wicked.  It's nice to see that he's got a shot because we haven't seen much evidence of it to date.
The greenclad crew left the field tonight with nothing to put on the tote board once again. In the world of standings and stats, though, the team is not even close to a crisis yet.  With eighteen points on sixteen matches,   the team is in the bottom half of the league standings overall but has a game or two in hand on several other 'slow starters'.   While we're not in a great place,  we're not quite ready to be turned out to the bone yard.  The playoffs include ten of the eighteen teams in the league; from that perspective we have time.
What's more perplexing, however, is to understand what's happening with this crew.  Reading the fan chat online,  there's no shortage of opinions but I don't read much that makes sense to me.  Tonight,  we gave up two early goals.  One goal sprang from a failed tackle just beyond the top of the box by Brunner which left the KC attacker free to shoot.   The second goal was the result of a lovely arced cross from our right corner which floated to a virtually unmarked KC player's head and in. It was a classic finish.   So criticizing defensive play is an easy route to take.  Much has been made about the Timbers' lack of snap early in games, and giving up two goals in twenty minutes falls into that bucket.  
What I don't quite get is that I think this team has the talent to come back from early adversity and win games.  They're not doing it and my question is why?  In particular,  tonight we were not playing one of the high scoring powerhouse teams in the league.  What to make of mediocre performances against so-so opponents?  I don't think it's personnel. 
In the last game against Dallas,  I would have to call out Perkins for misjudging or mishandling at least two of the goals we gave away.  Tonight he played a solid match so I can't point to the keeper slot as being a consistent weak spot.  Still, success in the hole is very much a mental exercise and even good goalies can get spooked.  
On the back line,  Dansu's return after his injury is heartening but he may not be quite as sharp as he was before.  Still,  he's been solid more than not.  And Brunner,  despite the misjudged tackle has been solid as well.   I would have rated Jeremy Hall solid at right back too but apparently the coaching staff didn't think so since they replaced him with Purdy.  Wallace on the left side would still be my candidate to replace.  He's been sloppy with his passing in midfield and has been beaten outside more frequently.   If the reason to keep him in is that he adds to the attack,  I'd note that it's left our flank open to quick counters.  Again in this last match,  Wallace in the attacking end was stuck without good coverage and a Sporting attacker had a free sixty yard run into our end.  
Apart from the specific players,  though,  I see the defense overall allowing a high number of balls into the goal box from both the wings and from around the arc.  Even if they get cleaned up,  the more time the ball is in that space,  the more likely there'll be a goal.  
At midfield I like Jewsbury and I like Chara.   I give them both high marks for their workrate.  But I think this is where we see one of the issues arise.  All four of our midfield starters, with AlHasan and Nagbe added in,  come from completely different styles of play.   With language issues added to the challenge,  I just think it's hard to imagine that these four players would have settled as team in four months.  And Chara hasn't been here even that long.   Perhaps because they are all good players and successful in the systems they're used to,  it may be harder to mold them into a unit.   If I were making the choices,  I think I would use Zizzo as the starter and make Nagbe the sub.  Not that the coaching staff can do anything about it,  but I'd like to see AlHasan get a little more protection from the officials;  he gets hit a lot.  And my read is that opponenets just want to make him wary so he can't use the flair he has.  In this last game,  the referee wagged his finger at players after some thuggery.  That's not enough. 
There are ten midfielders on the roster but I mostly like this group.
On the front line,  much public commentary has focused on Cooper's failure to score goals.   I don't see that as being the issue.   Cooper works hard.  He's wily and does interesting things with the ball.  He's fast for a big guy.  And he's stiffened up from some games earlier when he seemed to be upended every other touch at the ball.  I think part of Cooper's lack of scores stems from the way we're using him.  Perkins puts up a long ball,  Cooper positions himself and heads it.  And he does it darn well.  But it makes him often the player who's away from the danger zone where he can shoot.    Perlaza was brought on as the guy who had blistering speed and a ferocious shot.   I think his scoring has been limited because we haven't put him often enough in positions where he can use that speed.  
When we aren't lobbing a long ball up to Cooper,  our attack has,  commendably,  been patient.  We have a demonstrated a great ability in our own end to move the ball laterally,  keep our shape and look for openings.   My totally amateur observation, however, is that our players are too often visually blinkered:  they make the accurate and effective lateral pass but they miss the 'variation'  the 'look' upfield where the lateral motion has left an open lane in the defense in which a strong pass on the ground could be fed to a player like Perlaza.   More frequently,  I believe,  we end up  making the attack on a set of sideline passes which,  when successful, give us a cross from the corner.   It's not that these choices are mutually exclusive,  I think our players tend to have a harder time seeing and executing the opportunistic play into the slant.
I'm guessing that most opposing teams aren't going to worry about us too much if we want to play the ball laterally back and forth but largely in our own end.  In the game against Ajax  the Dutch team used excellent lateral play,  patience and ball control,   but the players off the ball created opportunities for a variety of thrusts into the attacking end.  We have the play between the boxes as they say.  We need to add the play at the ends.
So this is my long-winded way of saying I'm frustrated that the team isn't playing better.  I'm not ready to see a wholesale reshaping of the crew.   And I'm betting that their increased comfort levels with each other under fire will bring us a stronger end to the season.  I'm even willing to say I think we'll snag one of those ten playoffs slots.