Well, I suppose it’s my turn to flog the dead horse that is John Spencer’s dismissal. There are certain things that I have talked to death recently, so maybe I’ll try to stay off matters such as the catastrophic tactical decisions that marred his final game in charge. I’ve heard a bit of back and forth about his relationship with the team. Spencer had the reputation for being a player’s coach. That can mean some different things, but what it seemed to mean in this case was that he was the sort of guy with whom one always knew where one stood, presuming one was willing to be honest with oneself.
I suppose that we all have to concede that we just don’t know what happened behind the scenes. What remains now for those of us on the outside looking in is to meditate on how things got to out of whack that the coach got canned.
First of all, this is a team that hasn’t won on the road all season and hasn’t scored a road goal since the middle of April. That’s bad. It’s bad over and above the shambles that the team looked in SLC last weekend. The last time the Timbers actually won a league match on the road was in October of last year. The killer really was that it didn’t seem to matter how the team had been playing at home. The back to back 3-0 road thrashings merely highlighted the point, but the point had been made some time ago. If you discount preseason matches, the Timbers have only kept three clean sheets on the road since the beginning of September 2011
This is not the only factor to which one could point. On the other hand, it does sort of rankle. The question of why this team absolutely cannot get it together away from the friendly confines cries out for an answer. And perhaps it has something to do with those friendly confines themselves. It is an oft-mentioned fact that Jeld-Wen has about the smallest playing surface of any park in the league. Here is a list for purposes of comparison:
Jeld- Wen Field 110x70 yards
Century Link Field 114x74 yards
Home Depot Center 120x75 yards
Red Bull Arena 120x75 yards
BC Place 120x80 yards
Buck Shaw Stadium 115x74 yards
Anyway, you get the idea. For the record, what I am not saying here is that playing on a small pitch at home results in catastrophic disadvantages on the road as a general matter. For the largest part of their history, Arsenal’s pitch at Highbury was one of the very smallest in the league (at 110x73 yards). Generally speaking, and taking into account larger the larger pools of data available about the performance of most teams in Europe, there is no correlation between pitch size and disparities in home versus road record (at least so far as I am aware).
Having said that, I think it might be worth suggesting that there was a difference in this particular instance. Portland’s goals against is noticeably higher on the road than at home. You’d sort of expect that to be the case. The stat that really jumps out at you is that Portland’s goals scored on the road is absolutely anemic. It’s considerably worse than it was last year even. I have a suspicion that there are two bases for this. One is the deficiencies in terms of the quality of the on field staff. The second is the problematic formations that this lack of quality dictates. Playing on a pitch with smaller dimensions has an effect on this team in particular: it tends to camouflage defensive shortcomings and allows players to get forward more readily.
That’s my bit of speculation anyway. Irrespective of that, it has been clear for some time that this is a team in search of an identity. Much of this season has been spent in Spencer’s quest to find a defensive arrangement that will not hemorrhage goals. From where I am sitting, it looks as if all the viable answers to that question require playing formations and personnel that don’t allow this team much chance of scoring. The match against FSL was the most painful illustration of this so far. Not only were there not even the merest shadow of a threat to the opposing goal, but Timbers fans were “treated” to the unedifying sight of hordes of Timbers midfielders chasing ineffectually after opposing players. It might be worth noting at this point that Rio Tinto’s pitch dimensions (130x90 yards) are about the largest in the league. That is an extra 40 square yards of territory that this team, already spatially challenged, was forced to cover. And, not surprisingly, one saw Portland players start to make a lot of late challenges in the latter stages of the match, especially after the 60th minute when the hamster had really keeled over in the wheel.
Just to reiterate, it’s perfectly possible for a team with a very small pitch to be successful on a larger surface…assuming the overall quality of players allows this. In Portland’s case, the larger the surface, the more the illusion of acceptable quality in defense dissipates.
What now remains to be seen is whether something can be done with the people on hand to turn this around. I think the Kimura signing was a positive step. He looked pretty vibrant on Saturday and he’s the kind of guy who likes to get forward. On the other side, Steven Smith is also the sort of player who wants to make a difference at both ends. But even given this, it is still incumbent on the wings in front of them to show some commitment to making things happen in the wide areas of the pitch. And it is of crucial importance to impress on Darlinton Nagbe the idea that he must move the ball at a higher tempo. It’s not just a matter of his not being a great passer. It is matter of his repeatedly getting caught on the ball, or being forced to pass negatively due to a lack of support. With more effective wide play, it’s possible that Nagbe might be converted into an effective MLS level attacking midfielder. It’s hard to tell what he is now, given the swarm of opposing players that tends to develop around him every time he touches the ball.
Thanks to our readers for allowing me to indulge in some rank speculation. Before I go, perhaps I can direct the following questions to those of you with a yen for analysis. Given a half a season’s evidence with the current stable of players (most of them anyway), who is part of the problem and who is part of the solution? Riddle me that, Batman.