I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I really don’t like Texas. I’m sure there are plenty of fine people who live there, and I’ve heard that Austin is a pretty nice place, but overall I just immediately dislike anything associated with the Lone Star State. Yes, I know that it is a personality flaw. It’s one of those things that I should try to work through as part of the long term project of improving my character. As matters currently, it’s just one of those flaws with which I must deal.
My general dislike for things associated with Texas was not helped by the tonking that we had from FC Dallas nigh on two weeks ago. July 21, 2012, a date that will live in infamy, at least so far as supporters of the Portland Timbers are concerned. I was watching that match while barbecuing with some friends who had come in from out of town, and I pretty nearly set the house on fire. It was one of those moments when you learn the danger of publicly voicing the questions, “How much worse could this get?” We found out exactly how bad it could get.
Truth be told, we mostly had ourselves to blame. In part, the poor performance was due to poor organization and ill-conceived tactical decisions. That analysis gets us only so far. The truly disturbing thing about the Dallas match was how thoroughly the air seemed to go out of the team as things got worse and worse. It was a pretty low point no doubt about it.
Since then, we’ve seen some positive signs out of the squad. Admittedly, they once again failed to get a result in the match with Chivas, but I think that a fair-minded observer would have to say that there was palpable improvement in the side. The higher defensive line led to a more compact formation and allowed Chará, Nagbe, and Jewsbury to compete in midfield. Once again, you could look at this and say that some of the improvement was due to the fact that they had a relatively smaller area to cover than they might have had the match been played away. This ignores the undeniable fact that the Timbers have looked rather disorganized in midfield on numerous occasions at home this season.
At this point, I want to mention something that I noticed in the Chivas match but failed to mention in either of the two columns that I’ve written since then. It relates to, but is not reduceable to, the higher defensive line. I’ve gone back through the Timbers earlier matches to confirm something that I thought that I’d seen, which is this. When confronted by concerted attacks, Portland’s back line tended to drop off even further from the already deep line that they had been playing. As Robbie Earle pointed out in the match commentary, the higher defensive line closes down the space between the midfielders and the defenders, creating a more complex and unfavorable environment for attacking players by denying them time and space. If you watch matches from earlier this season, you will notice two things. The first is that opposing attackers have too much freedom to operate in the slot between midfield and defense. The second is that Portland didn’t do a very good job of preventing opposing attackers from getting deep, close to the byline. When this happened (and not only then) there was a distinct tendency for the central defenders, be it Brunner or Danso or Mosquera or Horst, to drop even deeper.
All too often, the consequence of this was that an opposing player got the opportunity to shoot unmolested from around, or just inside, the top of the box. Moreover, this tendency to drop too deep created all kinds of space and allowed the enemy to play with too much freedom in the box. Even when the problem didn’t immediately arise from a failure to close down, it too often happened that we ended up with confused scrambles in front of goal, and that is the sort of thing that is very often punished at pretty much every level of the game.
Certainly, this tendency to drop was not the only problem that the Timbers had in defense. We’ve given up a fair number of goals this season due to simple failures to mark people at the back post or other such metal errors. The tendency to drop too far and too quickly is notable, not just because of the consequences to which it led, but also because of the mindset that it evinced. Whether conscious or subliminal, there seems to have been a self-reinforcing cycle of panic in defense.
It is for this reason, among others, that I view the defensive performance of the team last Saturday as a step forward. Playing a higher line is the sort of thing that requires confidence; confidence that you can play as a unit to keep a consistent offside line, confidence that the keeper will be alive to long balls into his area, and confidence that there is enough pace about to cover balls over the top. I saw a lot of all of these qualities in the Chivas match, and if they we not to be seen in every instance, the performance still counts as a dramatic improvement over previous efforts.
There are those of you who will read this and say, “Yes, but we still lost, and did so on the basis of a moment of undue panic in defense.” Obviously, there is some justice in such a comment. Discounting a number of contributing causes, the main reason that we gave up that goal was that Perkins misjudged what was otherwise a pretty pedestrian ball into the box. You could look at that and say that it was a matter of lacking confidence in his defenders. Another way to look at is that even the best keepers will make a few blunders in the course of a season. If you look at the big picture, it’s hard to find very many other situations in which Perkins has really made a certifiably poor decision (the case of Dunivant’s goal for LA being the most glaring other one so far). Football, especially at the higher levels, tends to be a pretty tightly run thing, especially when you’re having trouble producing goals on your own account. Perkins’s error might not have told in the way that it did if others (read: Kris Boyd) had managed to pot the chances that they got.
Well, that’s me for today. I’ll be back on Saturday morning with a look ahead to the Dallas match and other related blag.