Porter’s Portland Paradox

The Portland Timbers lost their 11th road match of the season 2-1 on Saturday at Real Salt Lake, first half free kick goals from Fabian Espindola and Javier Morales enough to hold off Bright Dike’s second half header as the visitors’ comeback failed.

Rather than pick apart every detail of the match itself, a step back is required to find perspective and put forth a long term view of the club, particularly what it will take for newly hired manager Caleb Porter to turn the team’s fortunes when he officially takes the reins in December.

In this review the focus is on how Porter fixes Portland’s problems through a look at the present roster, and where players stand for the 2013 campaign in the wake of the weekend’s result.

Speaking of which, there was little the Timbers could do to deny Morales’ brilliant bending shot for the eventual match winner, the Argentine’s set piece delivery inch perfect as it curled over the wall and under the bar. Espindola’s opener, by contrast, was a prime example of the mental lapses that plague Portland, and serves as the perfect focal point for Porter to address.

General manager and interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson admitted as much, saying:

“The first one, we should have pressured. They changed the point of attack on us and we should have had a man charge it. We will address it as a coaching staff and take responsibility for it. The players have worked really hard and we’ll continue to look for ways to move forward.”

Should have pressured. Should have had a man charge it. Coulda, shoulda, woulda. The mantra is a tired one to hear for the denizens of the Rose City. In the Timbers Army and throughout JELD-WEN Field and beyond, there is a high level of footballing intelligence, one borne of an obsession with the beautiful game. As vociferous as that passion is displayed by supporters in the stands, it is equally voiced in criticism of the club’s failures.

Perhaps surprising to some of Wilkinson’s biggest detractors is that in a moment the players deserved to be thrown under the proverbial bus, instead of kicking them while they were down for committing an elementary mistake, the part time gaffer praised their effort.

The problem with the Kiwi excusing this mistake is that it prevents the players from accepting accountability and learning from the experience. Charging a free kick once the first touch is made is Defense 101, not something that professionals need to be taught at this level. These types of defensive gaffes are all too common this season, and are the primary culprit in Portland’s failure to pick up the points necessary to qualify for the playoffs.

And while Wilkinson’s postgame comments are a familiar target of hostility from very vocal factions of the Timbers Army, the reality is the temporary nature of his coaching duties means that no matter what he does on the sidelines for the remainder of the season, it will hold little bearing on next season when Porter is in charge.

For Porter, whose success at the collegiate level is well known from his long list of accolades as University of Akron manager, the task is a tall one as he makes the leap from the amateur to professional level. Fortunately for the new man, he’s a keen judge of talent, and not merely at the individual level.

By virtue of 14 of his former Zips players now plying their trade regularly in MLS, what Porter has proven is that he is capable of not just scouting gifted players, but combining them to the desired effect of his vision. Porter brings a Barcelona-esque brand of football to the Timbers, a tiki-taka style that dominates possession and patiently creates chances.

For players like Franck Songo’o, a former Barca youth academy player, and Darlington Nagbe, the MVP of Porter’s NCAA title winning team in 2010, the system is a return to the one they know best, and the two will be the fulcrum of the new manager’s offense.

For the remaining Timbers players, some possess the qualities needed to succeed under the new gaffer, while others will be hard pressed to find a place in the coming new world order in Timberlandia.

Those that are kept will have a predilection for keeping the ball at their feet, and a high degree of comfort playing in tight spaces with two to three teammates in close proximity as passing outlets. Those that are shipped or benched are those that cannot meet the demands of Porter’s plan, which requires more patience than panache.

That bodes well for Eric Alexander, Danny Mwanga, and Kalif Alhassan, all players capable of maintaining possession and picking out teammates. Each has shown the touch necessary to hold the ball and link up well with others, yet of the three Alhassan needs the most fine tuning, particularly his decision making when playing balls into the attacking third.

And For all their recent upside, Sal Zizzo and Bright Dike are less assured a place in Porter’s lineup, one that is less reliant on their most positive attributes of pace and power, respectively. Zizzo is in superb form of late, a classic winger, his speed and delivery down the flanks the perfect setup to the hard charging Dike.

That is all well and good in the current formation, but it is when Zizzo is faced with playing the ball back and his favored first option is denied that will worry Porter. Teams that scout the Timbers will be acutely aware of Zizzo’s danger going forward, but the bite of his game can be neutralized with attentive defenders that deny him space on the wings. If Zizzo doesn’t round into a more complete player, he risks a return to the sidelines.

Dike, a fan favorite as a holdover from the club’s second division days, is showing the same drive and determination that prompted Portland to bring him up to MLS. While many questioned why he never earned more chances while understudying the profligate Jorge Perlaza, he’s done well to put away a few goals as a regular starter, albeit unlucky not to convert more often with the goalposts and crossbar rejecting him on as many occasions.

The drawback for Dike is a heavy touch, a skill more difficult to develop at this stage in a player’s career. The strikers Porter prefers need not only a deft first touch, but a second and third as well. To retain his position, Dike simply must improve in that area.

Kris Boyd, fitness concerns aside, is still the club’s most natural finisher, and although his personal highlight reel is still predominantly from his Scottish Premier League days at Rangers, he’s shown flashes for the Timbers of the technique and quality that made him his homeland’s top scorer in history.

Despite not playing nearly as often since the sacking of John Spencer at midseason, the Scot still leads Portland in scoring, and owner Merritt Paulson will be wary to send him to the exit door too early after witnessing Kenny Cooper go on a tear after leaving Portland. Seeing out the year left on Boyd’s contract must certainly be preferred to watching another striker challenge for Golden Boot honors for a competing club.

For Boyd, Porter offers another chance at redeeming a stalled career, while the new manager is presented with his first professional level opportunity to rehabilitate an established star and inspire him to play to his potential. Boyd may be done for the season, but it would be a mistake to give up on him when the club has so far failed to provide him the service he was surely promised in his courtship.

Since Boyd’s benching, that missing service materialized, and Dike and Mwanga are the rewarded recipients. While both players’ ties to Portland ensure they are held in sentimental regard in the North End, Mwanga is the better fit for the future, both near and far. Loyalty aside, Dike is playing at the top of his game right now, and his trade potential may never be higher as the front office must consider him one for the shop window.

Boyd’s contract may be hefty, and next season he may only serve a role similar to Donovan Ricketts as a high priced mentor for up and coming forwards Jose Adolofo Valencia and Sebastian Rincon. Even in a limited capacity, Boyd is still more capable of adapting to Porter’s style of play than the bullish Dike.

In the center of the park, captain Jack Jewsbury is the odd man out for Porter, and Spencer’s ‘captain for life’ tag could expire in short order if new management looks to put its stamp on the club. That is not to say Jewsbury must depart after his diligent work as a servant of the club, but rather to resume the role of right back more regularly, be it a starter or substitute.

As a central midfielder, the skipper is too limited in creativity to take responsibility for the crux of Porter’s passing game. As a defender, however, the savvy veteran is arguably the team’s most able outside back, and is undoubtedly better at stopping the opposition with a man in front of him, notwithstanding the two fouls he committed to provide RSL with the set pieces needed for the winning margin.

What Jewsbury brings as a defender is composure on the ball while in the defensive third, a trait missing from every other wingback on the roster, barring reserve Ryan Kawulok, who has displayed similar poise when given the chance on the first team. Porter starts his attack from the back, and Steven Smith, Kosuke Kimura, and Rodney Wallace simply give the ball away too easily to be considered permanent solutions in the outside positions.

Wallace’s last performance in defense against the Seattle Sounders was his most complete to date, and he followed that up with a stellar outing in midfield against the San Jose Earthquakes. Against Real the Costa Rican international split time in midfield and defense, and only time will tell if he can become more than a utility player and claim regular starts at either position.

Diego Chara will surely remain a midfield cog under Porter, but will need to learn to stay on his feet longer and avoid the disciplinary issues that force him to repeatedly miss matches due to yellow card accumulation, if not red card suspensions.

The Colombian’s other failing is a tendency to spray rushed passes into the path of defenders when a simpler option is available. If Porter can help excise that from his game, Chara could become one of the league’s more dominant players.

In central defense, Hanyer Mosquera is the most suited to Porter’s possession game, Chara’s countryman accustomed to the South American feel of Porter’s system, one that expects players in every position to play with a competent touch.

David Horst, Eric Brunner, and Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso are all near equivalents to one another, but none stand out as particularly adept at playing the ball out of the back with the more practiced polish of Mosquera.

Who partners Mosquera in Porter’s team is anyone’s guess, but it wouldn’t surprise if rookie Andrew Jean-Baptiste were given serious consideration sooner than later. More of a raw talent than the more senior players ahead of him, AJB’s potential is what Porter will look to develop as the youngster has shown himself capable of competing in the top flight, if only in limited appearances.

In goal, Joe Bendik and Jake Gleeson will continue to battle as backups to Ricketts, who will need to increase his mobility upon return from injury or see his spot up for debate when Porter makes the selection of his first team sheet.

Charles Renken, Freddie Braun, Mike Fucito, and Brent Richards are all young, talented prospects to consider for Porter, but disappointing as it may be for the players and their most ardent supporters, unless something drastic changes these four will remain in the reserves for the foreseeable future.

For the last two roster players, there is too little evidence to assess newcomer Ian Hogg and the long injured Chris Taylor, both of whom face an uphill battle to earn minutes on the first team.

That is a challenge Porter will also need to overcome in his relationship with owner and GM. Many will recall the laurels bestowed upon Spencer’s arrival in Portland, the honors of winning a Reserve League championship and MLS Cup honors as part of Dominic Kinnear’s Houston Dynamo staff touted as ample evidence the Scot was the right man for the job, despite a lack of top flight head coaching credentials.

When Spencer’s tenure was cut short after heightened expectations came crashing down following a moderately successful inaugural season, observers openly wondered why the wheels fell off a multi-year championship building project in a span of less than two years.

Paulson stated ‘philosophical differences’ as the rationale for Spencer’s dismissal, but the move bore the hallmarks of impatience after results in the first half of 2012 didn’t pan out as well as the year prior.

There is some agreement that Spencer’s penchant for pushing out what appeared on paper a more conservative veteran lineup was his ultimate undoing, the former manager’s failure to integrate more of the dynamic potential of the younger players the real reason behind the decision.

Paulson and Wilkinson maintain the stated aim of ‘attractive, attacking soccer’, the same one suggested when Spencer came on board. While the offensive creativity is noticeably improved during Wilkinson’s watch, the team is no more effective at winning matches, the key component Porter must deliver on to make good on the club’s promise.

After a Porter led U-23 Olympic squad crashed out of qualifying for London 2012, some of the luster diminished on a coach renowned for his ability to evoke the best out of young players. The spotlight of Porter’s relatively short stint thus far leading the national team is certainly brighter than at the university level, yet Porter’s success at Akron is measured in terms of years, not months.

To build the same level of quality program in Portland, the front office must be patient and willing to overlook short term setbacks. There also must be a level of commitment to winning Porter’s way and not giving up on a winning style midstream, because the cost of that schizophrenic strategy is only more frivolous points lost.

Portland lost or tied after leading in eight matches this season, 22 points dropped illustrating just how precious each point is, and the price paid is missing the playoffs for a second straight year. Aside from remedying the crippling errors that continually undermine the attacking aplomb exhibited by Portland, Porter is tasked with turning out more tactical nous from the touchline.

The attractive soccer will eventually come, but first Porter must establish a foundation of confidence that is sorely lacking in this squad. Under two managers in the MLS era, the record speaks for itself as Portland’s proven time and again they lack the leadership on and off the field to close out games.

When it comes time for the new manager to impose his style on this beleaguered club, the most telling proof of the plan coming together will not be how Porter’s team starts games, but how they finish them.

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