Armchair Analyst: Reason to think Portland's 4-3-3 can work
Over the next three weeks, MLSsoccer.com will take a look back at the 2012 season that was for all 19 clubs in Major League Soccer, starting with Toronto FC and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. You can find the schedule and comprehensive reviews for each team here.
2012 record: 8-16-10 (34 points); 34 GF / 56 GA (-22 GD)
The Portland Timbers swore they were competing for a playoff spot in Year 2. And a lot of people believed them.
On opening night, there seemed to be no reason to think John Spencer & Co. were wrong. New Designated Player striker Kris Boyd got his first goal (and subsequent log slice), Kalif Alhassan was unstoppable, and a sold-out JELD-WEN Field sang through a 3-1 win of the Philadelphia Union.
That was the high point of the season for both of those players and the now-former coach.
Spencer wanted to play pinball on the tiny JELD-WEN pitch, which meant that every time his team went on the road, they were subjected to radically new dimensions and had to bend to a new style. That meant a lack of cohesion, lack of spacing in midfield, and – subsequently – a ton of unmolested service into the box.
All of those faults might not have been magnified as significantly had Eric Brunner (traded to Houston on Tuesday), who was dominant in the air in 2011, not gone down early in the year with a litany of injuries. He’d made up for a lot of mistakes in Portland’s expansion season, and without him as both clean-up man and organizer this past year, things got ugly often.
But even with him, they were kind of hopeless from the start. Boyd complained about a lack of service, though the truth is he had plenty of looks. So did Jorge Perlaza and, really, everyone else they tried up top. They just didn’t finish.
Nagbe scores spectacular goal vs. RSL
When midseason came, Spencer was ousted and Caleb Porter hired in absentia. While you can’t give him credit for any sort of turnaround, his finger prints were all over the 4-3-3 that the Timbers played from July onward (with a couple of empty bucket exceptions vs. San Jose), and the fact that they played it fairly well should hold some hope for the future.
The biggest discovery was journeyman target forward Bright Dike as a MLS-caliber starter. He scored five goals from mid-August onward, ended up getting his first cap with Nigeria, and basically looks the part of a true No. 9 that crafty wingers (Sal Zizzo being one, while the other is probably Franck Songo'o) can both set up and play off of.
Another reason to think the 4-3-3 can work in Portland is the presence of Darlington Nagbe, who Porter once called the best player he’d coached at Akron, and who I personally have on a weekly “OMG did he just really do that?!!?” watch.
It’s not just the goals – and yeah, you remember his ridiculous Goal of the Year winner from 2011. Nagbe’s first touch, balance, vision and reading of the game are all elite, which means he gets out of trouble that would have other players fetal. It also means his pass completion percentage in the final third is off the charts.
Problem is, he’s never had the confidence to get after it for 90 minutes a game, week after week. And he too often chooses the safe pass instead of pressing the issue.
With his old college coach in town, there’s hope that’ll change.
Even if it does, though, and even with the addition of Will Johnson from Real Salt Lake, the season ahead is going to be rough. There are no easy answers in the center of defense, and it's unclear whether the fullbacks they have on the roster will be any better at denying service in 2013 than they were in 2012. When those are the questions you're facing as a first-year coach, life gets hard fast.
Oh, and those slick new third kits? They're cursed. Burn them. Burn them with fire.