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February 27th, 2013 MATTHEW KORFHAGE | Sports
 

Timbers 3.0

Can a new coach with an aggressive scoring strategy give Portland a team that can win?

news3_3917FINDING THE WAY FORWARD: Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri looks to pass in Portland’s 1-1 preseason tie with Swedish team AIK on Feb 23. - IMAGE: Craig Mitchelldyer
Portland Timbers striker Ryan Johnson’s second of three goals against the San Jose Earthquakes on Feb. 17 probably won’t show up on any highlight reels.

But the buildup to Johnson’s score in the preseason match was elegant and simple: two short passes into the center of the penalty box from forward Darlington Nagbe and midfielder Diego Valeri, then a soft chip into the goal by Johnson. The whole thing looked almost routine.

But it’s been far from that for the Timbers, who since joining Major League Soccer in 2011 have struggled to find a way to score consistently. In 2012, under doomed coach John Spencer and interim coach Gavin Wilkinson, the offense was nothing short of miserable: 34 goals in 34 games, worst in the league except for lowly Chivas USA.

The Nagbe-Valeri-Johnson exchange represents the improvement Timbers fans may see in 2013: creating scoring chances by weaving through the center of the pitch with a complexity reflecting the offense under new coach Caleb Porter.

The Timbers open the regular season March 3 at home against the New York Red Bulls, and Portland fans may have to check their game programs to figure out who’s playing. Injuries and trades mean only four familiar faces from last season will probably start for the Timbers: goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, midfielder Diego Chara, and forwards Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan.

So fans are left to wonder: Will this year be any different? And whom should we be watching to see if it is?


Ryan Johnson

An injury to forward Bright Dike—who showed spark late last season—has caused the Timbers’ scoring hopes to again fall largely on a single player this year: Jamaican forward Ryan Johnson.

Timbers fans understand this risk, after seeing their team rely heavily on lone wolves in the past: Kenny Cooper and, last year, on the oversold, languid Kris Boyd.

Porter’s offense promises to open up shooting to more players—especially Nagbe—but keep an eye on the 28-year-old Johnson.

The quick-footed, hard-working striker creates a lot of movement around the box, and is a level-headed presence when it comes to finishing with a soft touch. His preseason hat trick against San Jose gave fans great hope.

But Johnson’s record is inconsistent. After an 11-goal season with the Earthquakes in 2009, he scored only four goals in the next two seasons, and had only slightly better success (seven goals) with Toronto FC last year. He will also probably miss part of the Timbers’ season to fulfill commitments with the Jamaican national team. 

Several Timbers players, says Stumptown Footy’s William Conwell, “can work magic with the ball at their feet. None have shown the ability to take down the ball, hold it up, and bring the rest of the team into the attack that Johnson possesses.”


Diego Valeri

Two of Johnson’s assists against San Jose came from newly acquired Argentinian midfielder Diego Valeri. “Diego is always looking to pass,” Nagbe says, “and Ryan [Johnson] is always looking to finish.”

Valeri, 26, is the type of player the Timbers have not yet possessed as a major-league team: an aggressive, offensively minded midfielder who runs point on the attack. 

As Porter puts it: “Valeri is a playmaker, a guy who’s going to create a lot of goals through his vision and passing. He can unlock teams with precision passing.”

More than any other of the Timbers’ recent acquisitions, Valeri is probably the linchpin of Porter’s new offense.


Will Johnson

Midfielder Will Johnson—Porter’s choice as team captain in multiple preseason games—will be a more undercover presence for the Timbers. 

As captain, he’s quiet. And despite a habit of taking an occasional low-percentage shot from outside the penalty box, Johnson, 26, is less an offensive dynamo than the bulwark for the team’s defense, a box-to-box runner much like Chara. 

“Him and Chara are workhorses,” Porter says.

 

The (Still) Leaky Defense

Defense remains a glaring trouble spot for the Timbers. With two center backs out with injuries—Hanyer Mosquera and David Horst—the biggest weight falls on newly acquired French defender Mikael Silvestre to use his experience to shore up gaps.

“If you’ve got a good center back,” Porter says, “he’s pretty much joysticking the other three [defenders], making sure they’re doing what they need to do.”

Silvestre’s résumé includes 40 games with the French national team and stints with English Premier League giants Manchester United and Arsenal.

But at 35, he is an injury risk and a probable short-term solution; without Silvestre, the green defensive line of Ryan Miller, Dylan Tucker-Gangnes and Andrew Jean-Baptiste has so far shown itself prone to gaffes and collapses.


The Coach

All hope for 2013 begins and ends with Porter and the aggressive style he honed during his successful seven seasons as men’s head coach at the University of Akron.

Porter’s system depends on maintaining possession of the ball and making quick passes to penetrate the opposing team’s defense. 

But it also relies heavily on the defense to push the offense forward, which can leave the team vulnerable to counterattacks—as seen in the 3-3 tie with San Jose, when the Earthquakes scored by breaking down the Timbers’ offense at midfield.

“Porter’s preferred style of play, pushing the team’s outside backs forward into the attack, puts a large amount of responsibility on the center backs to anchor the defense with little support,” Conwell says.

Porter has a more rigid system than a lot of professional coaches. Unlike other teams on which players are left to their own devices, says forward Ryan Johnson, Porter is more likely to drill the team with set plays.

Porter says simply having the players know where and when to make runs is only a small part of it.

“A big part of winning is having the right mentality, that winning fiber,” Porter says. “You can’t bottle it.” 

 
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