I was delighted to see that sunshine had taken on the vexing question of Eric Alexander yesterday. I had been thinking that I might get stuck with the task, and I just don’t know how I could have generated 1100 words about the guy. I kind of imagine him being the subject of the following exchange:
Merritt Paulson: Who is that young hellcat sitting manfully on the bench, Wilkinson?
Gavin Wilkinson: That’s Eric Alexander, sir, one of the carbon blobs from sector 7-G.
In all seriousness, I kind of like Alexander. Or, at least, he has certain qualities that I appreciate. Not the least of which is his work rate. He’s another one of those guys about whose level of effort there is never any question. Of course, if that were the only measure of a footballer I’d be starting for Arsenal and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Unfortunately for both of us (and perhaps for all of you) it isn’t. Mr. Alexander is a hard worker, but he’s a B grade footballer. He’s useful to have around as a utility man, but there just isn’t a place on the park where you’d want him to be starting, and experience has shown that he doesn’t do well off the bench.
Well, in the words of the Bard, so much for him. The real topic for today is Frank Songo’o. As everyone reading this will likely remember, Songo’o made an impressive cameo in preseason before getting crocked and missing the first part of the campaign. There was a lot of fanfare around his signing, and why not? He’d been to La Masia, the famed Barcelona football academy, and even though he didn’t make it up through the ranks the fact that there was any interest at all indicates that Songo’o was a player of quality. He came to us after spending most of his playing days in the Spanish Secunda (most recently with Albacete). From the off he showed himself to have excellent technical ability. More importantly, he was a wide midfielder who was anxious to get at defenders and force them to make uncomfortable decisions.
Then there was the ankle injury that he suffered in a preseason scrimmage, and an enforced trip back to Spain to get his visa sorted out. All of this put his integration into the team back a few steps. When he did get it all together it still seemed like he was lacking in fitness. His touch was good, but he didn’t seem to be able to go for more than 45 good minutes before having to be substituted, often for the soldierly but less than ideal Eric Alexander. It took him rather a long time to play himself into form, part of which has to do with the structure of this league. If he’d been playing in Europe there would have been a lot more opportunities for him to get extensive run outs in reserve matches and the like. This just isn’t a common in North America (partly because of the distances involved but for other reasons as well). In any case, it seemed like Songo’o remained a work in progress for quite a while.
When he finally reached full fitness, Songo’o really began to shine. He’s a guy who thrives on direct confrontation with opposing defenders, and he also knows to keep moving without the ball. He worked more effectively with Steven Smith than anyone else on that side, although there were still a few moments in their collaboration where Smith was left with a look on his face that said, “Would somebody please move into space!?” Songo’o emergence from the long nightmare of unfitness brought a flair and dynamism to the left side of midfield that simply wasn’t in evidence when Alexander or Wallace were playing out there.
However, there was one major problem. The offense (such as it was) was really designed to work around Boyd. While Songo’o has many positive qualities he’s simply not the greatest crosser of the ball. Moreover, his favored angle of attack is a bisection of the corner of the penalty area. If you watch the available footage you will most often see that he wants to be a defender one on one and then head in toward the goal on the most direct vector. He’s not a guy who instinctively wants to get to the byline, which is fine except that that caused a bit of a problem in terms of our offense.
Songo’o’s skills, prodigious as they are, were not terribly well matched to the actual personnel that we were using…until Boyd got benched. Then Songo’o really emerged. He’s not a bad passer, and with more mobile figures able to move into the box for Portland his propensity to attack became much more of an asset. This of course didn’t mean that things magically improved for the Timbers. This had a much to do with the defensive posture of the team in the final months of the season as anything else. Even if Songo’o was going to beat defenders there usually weren’t enough of his teammates in attacking positions to really take advantage of this.
Songo’o was one of the real bright spots for this team in an otherwise rather dreary campaign. I have a strong suspicion that he will fit in well with Caleb Porter’s approach, based as it is on quick movement and dominance in midfield. I am anxious to see what Songo’o can do with a full preseason not marred by injury. With the proper level of fitness and with time in practice to work with a firmed up formation Songo’o has the tools to be a star in this league. An important question will be: who will feature around him? The answer to that will tell us a lot about how things will go next time around.