Sitting down to write this column, I was tempted to write that the 3-0 battering that we got away to Colorado at the end of June was one of the real low points of the season. At the time it seems like it was. It was part of the death spiral of the John Spencer regime; part of a four game run in which we beat Seattle and San Jose 2-1 and lost to the Rapids and to RSL 3-0. I suppose that you could say that worse was to come, since after Spencer’s departure we managed to lose four in a row, including the 5-0 hammering by Dallas. At the time, however, our performance at Colorado was gutting. Having just caused our hated neighbors to the north to shut their mouths for a couple of minutes, we contrived to give up two goals in the opening 22 minutes in a match in which we simply never looked competitive. The goal that they scored in stoppage time was just the exclamation point on a sorry, disorganized performance.
Here it is two months later and perhaps things have changed for the better. We are coming off our first win in a long time (in the Cascadia Cup no less) and, with the hiring of our new manager being confirmed yesterday, there is at least some reason to believe that the club is moving in the right direction. Of course, you’re only as good as your last result. All of this good news isn’t going to mean a whole lot if we don’t do the business tonight.
At the risk of raising expectations, it’s probably fair to say that Colorado is one of the few teams in the league on worse form than we are. Since beating us two months ago they’ve lost eight of their ten matches. Most recently, they were dismembered away to San Jose. Not surprisingly, if you look at their fan sites you will find a certain degree of joy among their supporters at the prospect of playing us. They clearly think that we are a team that they can beat. Give the recent history, why wouldn’t they?
Personally, I think that they are in for a pretty rude awakening. Although, putting aside our win against the White Caps, our recent record has not been that great, the team has actually been playing a lot better. We seem to have come to a moment of recognition about the role that Kris Boyd can (or perhaps more properly can’t) play for this team. In recent matches, the Timbers have gotten back to basics; to the things in football that allow you to have success even against teams with a higher level of talent. If a team is willing to pass the ball quickly and positively and to keep moving…blah blah blah. You get the point.
I’ve been kicking around an idea that I thought I might run by all and sundry. It seems to me that, given the development of a new attacking approach in the last few matches, it is perhaps the case that we now have the options to run two distinct plans. Recent experience suggests that the first option should be our dynamic approach, with the front four who have been playing for the last few weeks: Songo’o, Nagbe, Zizzo, and Dike. Is this the best group in the league? Well, no. Is this group good enough to carry us forward in the long term? I think you’d probably also have to answer that one in the negative. But they are the best thing we have going, and I think that experience has shown that they can be successful if they are stubborn about playing aggressively and at a high tempo.
There are some nights on which this will not work. In particular, teams with a lot of smaller, mobile players are likely to be able to frustrate this approach. With the personnel currently available, we now have a second option. If things aren’t working out for us by minute 65 or so, we can send in some combination of Boyd, Richards, and (maybe) Mwanga. Let Boyd post up in the box and just start lobbing balls in there to see if our opposition to cope with it. This is what good teams do. If attacking from one direction doesn’t work, change the angle of attack and make the opposition show that they can adjust. [Caveat emptor: I am probably fascinated by the idea of having a “Plan B” because it is something that Arsenal has signally lacked in the last few years.]
Ok, I know that a lot of you will say, “It’s great to talk about Plan B, but the fact is that it’s not yet clear that we have a viable Plan A.” Point well taken. We have scored two goals in each of the last three matches, and that’s the first time that that has happened all season. Nagbe finally seems to be growing into the role of an attacking central midfielder, and he’s been scoring, which is great. All of that adds up to one win, one draw, and one loss in the last three. It’s a sign of how grim our resuls have been for the last two months that this constitutes a distinct uptick in our form.
This match isn’t quite the dawning of a new era. That won’t happen until the beginning of next season when Caleb Porter has had a winter to really put his stamp on the team. But it is the beginning of a period in which the current players are going to have to audition for further work. No one’s spot in the squad is sacrosanct. As the benching Kris Boyd has shown, a place on the pitch has to be dependent upon results. It probably took a bit too long to make that determination in Boyd’s case, but given the kind of contract that he’s on, it’s not totally surprising that the club was desperate to get some kind of value for money.
I’m excited for this match with Colorado in a way that I haven’t been for some time. If the team can put together a decent run to the end of the season it will go a long way toward salving the collective psyche of the club and its supporters. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”