Saturday, June 2, 2012

Timbers: Whither or wither?

I wasn't able to attend the Timbers' Open Cup match this past week.  Heard a fair amount of the end of it on the radio as I was driving home from work.  And the disheartening outcome, outplaying the opponent and then giving up a goal in stoppage time,  was distressing to hear.  Not for me 'cause I'm just a fan,   but certainly for the team and management.  Lots of voices from the stands and in the chatter boxes, electronic and print,  offered a range of opinions.  Spencer was to blame.  Boyd was to blame, Wilkinson was to blame.  Referees are to blame.  The defense is to blame.   

I've had a busy week so I haven't had time to follow all of it closely, but my inclination is to take none of this too seriously- yet.  I haven't lost my 'cheery optimism' that the core of this crew is solid.   A couple of posts back I ticked off thoughts on several players.   I don't feel differently so far.   

Boyd, for example,  and his drought.  Is it so unheard of?  I looked up some stats for strikers.   Zlatan Ibrahimovic might be a good example.  Player close to Boyd's age who's been around the game for a fair number of years. Twenty nine years old, he only knocked in 14 goals in 29 games last year at AC Milan.  This year he's showing 28 goals in 32 games.  Same team.    In 2005/6 at Juventus,  he only nailed 7 goals in 35 matches and then the next year went on to score 15 in 27 games when he moved to Inter.  I suspect in that grim year at Juvie,  people wondered if he'd lost it.
I'm sure Boyd has moments of doubt and anxiety; he'd be inhuman if he didn't.

What about the shooting?  A newspaper column this week mentioned the low percentage of shots on goal.   I  am reminded of one of my teammates,  Pat McCormick,  who says a lot of stuff I take with a grain of salt,  but he also says  "If you can't shoot you can't score."   I looked at the current MLS stats.   The Timbers are pulling the trigger an average of twelve times a game and 33% of those shots are on frame.  Is that low?   No.  United is leading the League with fourteen shots a game and  37% are SOG.   Right behind them,  San Jose is shooting 35 % on goal with fifteen a game.   I can't see that the numbers are big enough to explain anything. 

These statistics are interesting but not very helpful.   I personally think the Timbers should be shooting three or four more times a game.  In the last game against Vancouver,  I put my head in my hands when a lovely ball was slotted down from the back,  can't remember to whom.   When the ball reached the player's foot there was a clear lane for a hard low shot just outside the box on the Key Bank side--twenty yards.   The player didn't appear to look at goal as the ball was arriving,  but passed outside to the overlapping run.   The Timbers have used that successfully  but alternating with shots increases the dangerousness of the runs because the defense can't be sure which they'll be served with.

I do think the defense is challenged.   Early on there was talk about the Timbers giving up early goals being a problem.  And it may be,  but I note that San Jose have allowed an early first goal in the last five matches and come back to win.   For every easy factor to point to,  there are examples that suggest contrary interpretations. As I'm sure John Stewart knows all too well, there are no easy answers.  

I do have a couple of thoughts that I may have blathered about in some earlier post, but they keep coming back to me.
Stewart has often been quoted in the press as saying that he's going to put out the best eleven in his judgement  on any given day and that there are no givens.   Part of me likes the performance based decisionmaking.   Part of me also knows,  from managing employees over the years,   that folks don't do their best when their lives are uncertain.   Maybe Stewart's approach isn't as fluid as it sounds,  but many of these guys are young and I could imagine not everyone is gong to thrive in that system.

The other thought I have is about communication and understanding.   On the field, lack of  these two qualities can hamstring talent and desire.   On the pitch, players who know each other well and who get a rush from successfully connecting are more effective.  If you know a guy's strengths and weaknesses and play to that knowledge,  the whole side is better.   Don't put the ball on the left foot of a right-footed player.  I get the impression that Boyd and  some of his midfielders arent' quite there because he's not getting enough passes he can work with.   Again, in the Vancouver game, Chara slipped a lovely ball through the defensive line at the top of the box,  but clearly Boyd didn't know it was coming.
Communication and understanding.  

There are,  every game,  too many examples of our players passing to the feet of opponents.   There are more good passes but  the ones that go so directly astray are disheartening.  Is it lack of focus or misreading what the  other player is going to do?  I'm not sure.   I think that the rotation of players in the lineup does make it harder to find rhythm and understanding.   

Bottom line,  we're a long way from a worst case scenario.  Toronto has lost nine games in a row this year,  the longest losing streak since RSL went ten in a row in 2005.  Now that's gotta hurt.   I'm willing to think positive about our prospects.  We've got a ways to go before the season is truly ready for the ashcan.