whether by luck, by chance, by fate, or by their efforts, the timbers have put to bed an 8 game winless streak that began in july and they have replaced it with a mini-streak of wins. the challenge now is to continue that streak on the road. and so, as most news hacks might do, i could devote a 1000 words to a discussion of the one streak that has persisted since last season. the fact the timbers have failed to win on the road going back to last season is an obvious and painful reminder of the limitations of this squad. but rather than discussing the continued problems on the road, i felt on this labor day it might be better to discuss what has been going right than persist with a tired subject that still seems to earn mileage.
a number of changes have contributed to the recent effectiveness of the side, but none have contributed as positively to the improvement in the team than the injury to kalif alhassan and the benching of kris boyd. kalif's injury may not have forced the inclusion of sal zizzo in the side, but it sure helped. used as an impact sub during the dark ages of timbers mls football, he has now found what i hope to be a permanent spot in the starting eleven. unlike kalif, who is frustrating at the best of times and ineffective at the worst, zizzo is very direct and uses his speed to attack defenders. he does not suffer the stop-start game with a few flash step overs that invariably result in losing possession, instead zizzo's game is intended to put defenders off-balance and drive to the byline.
while zizzo's inclusion in the side signified the beginning of a new type of football played by the timbers, it also announced a new ethos that should persist if the timbers desire success. athleticism may rule over, but consistency in play dictates a player's inclusion. with the exclusion of one player, on field performance and effectiveness now determine playing time--there are no safe positions.
if zizzo's inclusion in the starting eleven was not clarification enough, benching the million dollar man did. dropping kris boyd to sit unused with danny mwanga in favor of bright dike, a player who found himself loaned out to the la blues earlier this season, has been an inspired move to say the least. unlike boyd who requires service of metric precision, dike through sheer speed and fear of destruction can make his openings. it cannot be denied that dike is not effective with the ball at his feet, often looking as unsure of how to dribble as boyd did when unmarked in front of goal. yet his limited ball skill is forgivable due to his workrate off the ball--he makes smart runs to open space for players like darlington nagbe and franck songoo.
take for instance songoo's deflected shot in the first half against colorado, he drew two defenders which made significant space for franck to set and fire. while the result was not there, the effectiveness was. similarly, his halted movement for nagbe's missed sitter was subtle, but crucial. rewatching that play, i noticed the colorado midfield focus on dike, which allowed nagbe to run behind tyrone marshall to latch onto songoo's perfectly weighted pass. dike had made a run through the middle, but halted. whether it confused the ginger larentowicz and hendry thomas, it was clear they were focused on him and not darlington. marshall was isolated with nagbe, who very easily slid behind him only to chip wide by inches. concentrated attention by midfielders like that is often missing when boyd is on the pitch.
his recent goal, however, is the type of goal you would expect from a forward of his calibre. it was not flashy, but very direct and effective. sadly, that goal was reminiscent of kris boyd's first goal for the timbers against aik (or his seattle but without the running). dike ghosted marvell wynn, twisted him the wrong direction, and then tucked behind him. once wynn had committed to attack the cross rather than mark the man, dike had yards of space to finish. a good amount of credit is due to zizzo for his labors to get to the byline as well as his superb cross, but that goal would not have been had dike not made such an intelligent run.
it is not a stretch to say that at the beginning of the season sal and dike were fringe players. frankly, i often questioned the point of having dike on the side--if he was not going to get time, why keep him around. he did not fit the system spencer had in place and seemed to be a training ground wrecking ball rather than a quality prospect. sal was put in for an occassional crowd roar and that was about that. to suggest spencer was creatively insecure and limited in vision is like saying the sky is blue or that hipsters have ironic mustaches and wear cutoff shorts that are entirely too tight and revealing. spencer's lack of imagination certainly prevented the growth of the team and the current key players in the side. so, it is not a shock that franck songoo has found his form since spencer was given the sack, but what is surprising is the way sal and dike have come alive.
i have always supported players who endeavoured to work hard despite their limited talents. sal and dike have undergone more disappointment and frustration than most on the side and have come out better for it--their respective games have improved and as a result so has the team's. and, more importantly, they do not take their position in the side for granted. so, to say i am well chuffed for their recent successes minimizes the pride i feel in watching them play. however, their play is not so beguiling that i am unable to give a realistic assessment of their opportunities next year.
i expect sal will be the more likely of the two to remain under new coach, caleb porter. that does not mean dike will find himself with walking papers in hand, but more likely replaced by a striker with greater footballing attributes than speed and fear. in any discussion of a team's failure to pull out late wins it is often described in terms of no plan b, which is to say, something different than what is already on display. that is where i see dike's relevance in this squad--in the final 20 minutes when defenders are tired coach throws in the wrecking ball.
well, that is about that. i hope your labor day weekend was exceptional.
[note: this was entry was to have been posted yesterday, but the player ratings were far more time sensitive.]