I’m off to a bit of a late start this morning, having spent the last two hours in the company of sunshine, watching Arsenal lose at home to Chelsea. I won’t bore you with the details (since if you really cared about that match you probably wouldn’t be reading this in the first place) except to say that I suppose I took a certain amount of solace with respect to Portland’s form this season. To wit, it’s somewhat comforting to see that even teams at the very highest level of the game will give up amateur hour goals from time to time. Then again, that’s not really all that comforting.
Today we get our one and only meeting with D.C. United. Once again I am reminded how much I hate the unbalanced schedule. Playing teams twice in a season gives one a bit of background, a basis on which to judge what might happen. Given our current circumstances, what is available is, basically, an assessment of the recent form of the respective sides and some kind of educated guess at how form and personnel will interact. It would be much better if one had some actual data on how our players and theirs had matched up.
It’s hard to know what to make of D.C.’s current form. Their last five matches have included a draw against the Energy Drinks, a loss away to FSL, and three wins in a row against some bottom feeding sides (New England, Los Bimbos, and Chivas). They are currently running third in the league, and what is clear about his team is that they can really generate offense. Chris Pontius is having a pretty fine season, and De Rosario was too, before he got crocked. They’ve got the fourth highest total in the league at this point, but their goal differential is on +8, which I think tells you a little something about how they roll. They tend to leak goals, especially on the road. Their differential on the road is actually -11, and since home is the place where we tend to do our business (when we do it at all) there is at least some reason to hope that we can make something happen tonight.
A look into the world of D.C. fandom tells us that at least their supporters are taking this one seriously. And why not? As their leading fan blog notes, the top two teams in each division have come to grief here at the JW.
As for our side, I think the main question is whether Chará will be fit to go, or whether his adductor strain will keep him out of the match. The lack of Chará is always a bad thing, since he’s really the straw that stirs the drink as far as our midfield is concerned. If he’s out then it’s going to fall to Jewsbury to patrol (and ideally to control) the middle of the park. Experience shows that this is not the best option for us, but it’s the only serious one on offer just now. Speaking of the crocked, I’ve been kind of assuming that it would be Bendik in goal for us tonight, but I’ve talked to a couple of people who suggested that Ricketts might be fit again. Since we’re all inhabiting a vacuum in terms of actual information I suppose that there’s not much point in speculating. Personally, I don’t think that there is really much drop off in terms of quality between the two.
Gav came out this week with some talk about what is at stake in this match. To sum up, the three motivating factors that he sites are self-preservation, pride, and integrity. He’s not wrong, but let’s be clear that the first one should really be most prominent in the minds of our players. Thanks to everybody who responded to the query that I put out the other day about what needed to be changed. Although there were a lot of opinions expressed (not surprisingly given our current unsatisfactory condition) the common theme in the vast majority of the responses was the changes are needed at the back. I couldn’t agree more. The play along the back, especially out wide, has run the gamut from mediocre to absolutely dire, with a heavy emphasis on the latter. I appears to me that things have improved somewhat since the team started playing a bit higher line. This has as much to do with the fact that it has allowed Chará and Nagbe to work together effectively rather than being separated by wide stretches of pitch. When you see Chará whacking people’s ankles, the reason most often is that he’s isolated and being forced to chase.
Problems at fullback have beset this team all season. From the very first match when we allowed a mediocre New England team free play in the wide areas of the pitch, it has all too often been the case that we either conceded too much space or committed sophomoric errors in terms of man to man defense. To be fair to Smith and Kimura (and to the serious of lesser lights who how spent time in those positions), it has quite often been the case that our wings have not provided sufficient cover. When the wing tracks back it considerably reduces the choices for which the fullback has to be responsible. On the other hand, in the modern game fullbacks are obligated to get forward, to work effectively by providing options for moving the ball through midfield, and to add to the attack in wide areas. This function has been signally lacking in Portland’s play for the vast majority of the season. Instead, we’ve been treated to an unappetizing mix of slow play and negative passing. As a result our offense has really been neutered all term.
I tend to think that that things might have gone differently this season if we had not spent the first half in the process of empirically investigating Kris Boyd’s failings. Irrespective of whether the fault lies in the system that we tried to play, or in Boyd’s own deficiencies, or in some combination of the two, spending so much time beating our collective head against a wall prevented us from exploring other, more profitable approaches. There is reason to believe that we have attackers that, while they are not world beaters, can be effective in this league…if we could just get ourselves sorted out at the back. For my money, that’s where the change must come.