God bless Robbie Earle. I mean really. I loved him as a player (I remember him playing for Port Vale in the 1980s) and I always really enjoyed hearing his commentary on football matches. He has that gift, so rare among former players in the color commentary role, of providing useful analysis without just opening his gob for the sake of opening it. He understands the game, but his real virtue as a commentator is his ability to provide information to the viewer that allows them to understand the game better as well.
Why am I going on about Robbie Earle? Because at about minute 21 or so in Saturday night’s match he pointed out something which I had sort of noticed but had not really put my finger on. Portland’s back line was playing a higher line than they’ve done all season and the effects on play in midfield were salutary. For once in a long while, Portland was doing an excellent job of closing down the space and denying opposing players room to operate. The result was one of the better defensive performances of the season.
The evidence of this was to be found all around midfield. Diego Chará, who so often has to expend a large portion of his energies chasing opposing players over wide stretches of ground, was able to close down effectively and turn his gains immediately into attacks. Nagbe looked a lot better as well, seeming to grow into the role that the team is determined to have him play. Perhaps the greatest benefit from the change in positioning was Jewsbury. With the spatial problems of holding defensive midfielder somewhat simplified by the tighter formation, Jewsbury was able to intervene effectively and win ball in a way that was extremely disruptive to the opposition.
Further up the pitch, matters also improved. Songo’o really made a fist of it, playing with flare and aggression and putting effective service to the middle of the penalty area. Brent Richards had his best game in the Timbers shirt. In previous matches he has seemed a bit at sea. Against Chivas, after a few early bobbles, he figured out what his role was and played it well. He has great hops, as evidenced by the fact that he beat Jazic to pretty much every ball in the air. In addition, he has the ability to throw long à la Rory Delap, and this is something that the team should really take to heart. Those of you who watch the English Premier League with regularity will have seen (with irritation unless you are Stoke fans) the ritual of the Delap throw in. It disrupts the tempo of the game, provides added set piece opportunities, and allows Stoke to employ the leverage of their size. All of these things would be useful additions to Portland’s arsenal. When balls are bouncing around in the penalty area and you’ve had a chance to pack it with bodies, good things tend to happen.
As it happens, Richards has lots of other positive qualities to bring to the table. He’s quick and he’s good on the ball. He still has some things to learn, such as that backheels in open play seldom come off, and he still has a tendency to dribble himself into blind alleys. These are things that coaching and experience will help. At all events, there is now some real competition for playing time at right wing and that is all to the good.
You could look at Kris Boyd’s performance and say that he flubbed far too many easy chances. And you’d be right. Looked at in broader perspective, it’s worth noting that he got a lot more chances than he had in practically any other match all season. Boyd knows where the goal is. His history at Rangers provides ample evidence for this proposition. My feeling, at least at this point, is that he feels a lot of pressure to convert chances because of the paucity of service that he has received so far this season. If Portland can continue to feed the ball in to him in dangerous areas, I have every confidence that he will come good. What seemed most promising about Boyd on Saturday was that he seemed engaged for the whole match. He is a guy who, if his body language is anything to go by, is easily given to frustration. With a better and more consistent service, Boyd should thrive.
I was favorably impressed by the work that new assistant coach Sean McAuley was doing on the touchline. McAuley has a good coaching pedigree, coming to us as he does from Sheffield Wednesday. Coaching in the Championship is, by might lights, excellent preparation for coaching in the MLS. He will have worked with players at this skill level and will know how to handle them and what can be expected of them. Both he and Gavin made the point that having a different voice in leadership is a good thing, and it didn’t take McAuley long to make his heard, even above the massive din created at the JW.
I want to pause here for a moment to take note of that din. I was trading texts with a Dallas fan during that match. We came in for a lot of well-deserved stick on that night, but one thing that he had to concede was that the atmosphere at the JW continues to be about the best in the league. A typical exchange from our conversation went something like this:
Dallas Fan: All you guys can do is sing.
Magadh: Yeah, that’s big talk given that your park is barely half full.
It would have been better if we’d at least gotten a point out of that match. I get that, and I know everyone else does. This I will say, the lads fought hard until the final whistle and showed spirit in the face of adversity. After four losses on the bounce that’s a good sign. The fixes for what’s wrong with this team won’t happen tomorrow, or even next week, but for the first time in some while there seems to be reason for optimism. That’s enough to be going on with for now.