Sunday, October 10, 2010

Crushed Aggregate

Well, it wasn't enough.

Our Portland Timbers met the Vancouver Whitecaps at Merlo Field up here in North Portland tonight in the second leg of the first-round playoff for the USL championship.The Timbers always seem to have tremendous trouble with Vancouver. Back when we were all in the Second Division with Seattle it was the damn 'Caps, not the better-known Seattle Sounders, who won the "Cascadia Cup" thrice (for the record, the Timbers never won the season series until the Sounders went up). The last couple of years the Portland team seemed to have less difficulty dispatching Vancouver in the regular season, But once the league ended and the playoffs began the same old troubles commenced.

(Let me add here my irritation with the whole "playoffs" thing. Yes, I understand that the league needs to make money. Yes, I understand that American fans want a "post-season". Fuck that. Soccer should be a game where the league table means something other than to decide which handful of teams are NOT in contention to win the league. You win the most games over a season, you win the league. It's that simple. Practically every other place in the world does it that way, U.S. What the fuck is our problem?)

This year was no exception. We mishandled the Whitecaps handily during the season, handing them losses both here and at Swangard, and drawing them twice home and away.

But less than a week after the final home draw for the Canadians we traveled up to British Columbia for the first leg of the playoff series and got handed a humiliating 2-0 loss. The game was really worse than the scoreline indicates; the Timbers were terrible at the back, clueless at the front, and run through all across the pitch. We looked utterly adrift, unable to manage a convincing spell of possession and lucky to have avoided several more goals denied by the woodwork.

So tonight's game was written from the start; Portland needed to come out attacking furiously and constantly to erase the two goal deficit. Vancouver, already a brutal defensive team, merely needed to sit back and defend.

Well, the one team certainly read the script; Vancouver barely ventured forward all night. Their defending was tight, swarming, and pretty thuggish. The received quite a bit of assistance from the officials, who seemed convinced that soccer would be improved if the players were allowed to knock each other over at random.

But our Timbers had no-one to blame. They needed to play like their hair was on fire; they didn't. They needed to go to the ball and take chances; they didn't. They needed three goals, and got only one.It was a lovely goal, a fine header by James Marcelin. And the defense was solid, keeping the 'Caps off the scoresheet.

But in the end it wasn't enough, and the looks on the faces of the players at the end of the night told me that they knew they hadn't had it in them.

But worse, I think, was the coaching of Gavin Wilkenson. Gav' knew what the boys had to do. And he stood there as they couldn't get it done for forty-five minutes and did nothing. No substitutions. No changes of plan. No fresh ideas. Instead the Timbers played like they had all season, playing the counter, playing cautiously. Playing, effectively, just well enough to lose.

Tonight's game summed up, for me, the way Gavin has coached and the way the owner, Merrit Paulson, has run the team this year. This team has never had the horses. We are thin, thin up front, thin in midfield, thin in the back. Our keeper Cronin is decent at this level but not really a First Division player. We have one effective striker, Bright Dike. Our midfield neither holds nor distributes particularly well. Our one active midfielder, Marcelin, is a tall, skinny guy who is not likely to be big or strong enough to play against MLS midfielders. Our backline is not bad but not outstandingly deft, and we have several centerbacks that can't mark.

Through a combination of toughness and individual effort, first from Ryan Pore and then from Dike the team stayed in contention this year, but couldn't find itself - again - against Vancouver.

But next year we're going up.

And as luck would have it, I watched about half of the Seattle-Salt Lake game just before going to the match last Saturday in Vancouver. Both teams passed the ball on the ground with accuracy. Both made well-timed runs, passed to open space, and created good opportunities. Both teams marked well, and played solid team football.

The difference was really frightening.

Next year we're going to see teams like Seattle and Salt Lake and LA and Chicago. All of these teams will be able to play like that. I will be cruel and say that I cannot see any of this years' Timbers being able to play with them, other than perhaps Dike.

So I will be watching the transfer wire and the club news intently this winter. We have until March to refashion and retrain our club to play at the next level.

I love my team, and I believe we can do this.

I only hope that the management and coaching staff do, too. But it means that Gavin as technical director needs to go shopping, and soon, and Merrit needs to open up his checkbook, and wide.


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