Portland Timbers 2 fell to their third consecutive defeat under a spectacular sunset at Merlo Field on Friday night to maintain an underwhelming start to their 2016 USL campaign. Where the first game against Swope Park Rangers was a deserved defeat after an appalling performance, the second loss was a somewhat harsh 3-1 reverse against Whitecaps 2 in which the Timbers played a far better brand of football. Match three was somewhere in between.
So what did we learn about this team and what are some recurring themes to address from Friday night?
“A camel makes and elephant feel like a jet plane.”- Jackie Kennedy
Let’s start by dealing with the morbidly obese elephant in the room that is the continued selection of Villyan Bijev over Kharlton Belmar. Once again, an attack that had looked devoid of ideas was instantly revitalized by the introduction of USL’s Rookie of the Year 2015. In fairness, by putting Belmar in at half time Andrew Gregor gave the young striker more time to effect the game than in the previous two encounters.
However, it still defies belief that the Timbers 2 coaching staff can continue to overlook a player that improves the performance of all those around him as well has individually providing a huge threat. Clearly T2 is intended to be a development side (even more so this year than last judging by the average age of the roster) and Gregor handing opportunities to a variety of the potentially exciting newer recruits is entirely justifiable but there is a balance to be had between sacrificing results and blending in new recruits.
By continually ignoring the (currently) most effective attacking option, Gregor risks sapping the confidence of the players picked to toil away up front to no avail. Surely the blending of players into the squad that has its best player creating room for teammates and making things happen in the final third is the far easier and thus the most obvious route to take?
I needn’t outline what is was specifically that Kharlton Belmar brought to the team as anyone who has watched T2 since its inception will be all too familiar with these attributes (and they remain the same from last week where I analyzed them in more depth here. Surely the next game will see the fan favorite start in order to inject life into the attack from the off, as supposed to a desperation tactic when the game has already been lost.
“Familiarity breeds contempt- and children.”- Mark Twain
Speaking of how best to integrate new players, the back line selection seemed rather odd as the team was announced. I was a little critical of Anthony Manning last week (see link above) but what purpose is a development team serving if not to allow young players a safe environment in which to learn from any mistakes and continue to grow? This holds especially true for defenders, whose skills rely on familiarity of teammates and thus continuity of selection.
I understand that a competitive USL side allows full squad members to regain some fitness and, in turn, may have the effect of dislodging players for certain games. But chopping and changing a back line seems an odd way to go about developing payers and/or improving results.
We shall have to wait and see whether this is a recurring theme under Gregor’s leadership, or if he is simply allowing everyone in the squad the chance to impress.
“If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor.”- Albert Einstein
Continuing on from the analysis of the defense, we need to talk about a certain Taylor Peay.
The benefit of his loan to T2 is somewhat lost on me. This is a 24 year old in his third season with Portland. Having featured in a handful of games last season in the first team (and regularly involved in game day squads) Peay has shown adaptability in playing across the backline in his career to date. He appears to be well thought of by the Timbers staff and yet Zarek Valentin is purchased as cover for the first team. A 24 year old versatile defender, albeit one with more experience, looks to put Peay back to where he was two years ago, playing third tier soccer in the US. Is this really going to develop him further as a player?
His experience may well have a positive impact for T2 but is this going to be a wasted year? Developing leadership skills could well prove vital in the long run but his path into the first team looks a little murkier than this time last year.
It did pique my interest that Gregor opted to select Peay at the heart of the defense. In a candid interview with a senior member of the Timbers staff last year I was informed that he was most definitely seen as an outside back. But, with Powell proving so adept at such a young age, is there a change in the long term plan for Peay’s integration into the full squad? Perhaps he is being earmarked as the heir apparent to Nat Borchers.
(For what it’s worth, I’ve always found Taylor Peay an interesting conundrum of a defender. He falls into the “tweener” status being a player who lacks, physically, the ideal traits of both a full back, where explosive pace is becoming more and more vital, and a center back, where strength is a necessity. He is not short a great deal in either category, and both can be improved, but Peay has always struck me as ideally playing as the furthest right in a back three/five. Incidentally I would say the same for Liam Ridgewell, albeit on the left. Food for thought? Probably not.)
“If two wrongs don’t make a right, try three.”- Laurence J. Peter
Onto a more tactical note, a big problem for this T2 side, that has been apparent in the first two games, was still an issue in the third; spacing of the midfield three. The players in question were slightly altered by the enforced absence, through suspension, of Dylan Damraoui. With Seth Casiple selected it meant Andre Lewis was given license to push further in support of the forward line (as the number ten). Interestingly the issues were almost identical, indicating that the players are following a specific set of instructions.
The main issue I have for the central triumvirate is the spacing and connectivity. My complaints previously have been based around the fact that the team seems to play somewhere between a 4-3-3 (with a true holding midfielder) and a 4-2-3-1 (i.e. a double pivot operating behind a designated central attacking midfielder). With Nick Beseler often dropping so deep as to essentially begin moving the ball through midfield from the defensive line between the center backs, the two more advanced midfielders have to both work hard in order to offer a passing option. However, too often in this game Lewis (and previously Damraoui) remained too far up field.
I have gone into more detail on this topic on the aforementioned fan post for Stumptownfooty, but this week suggested that this set up was more deliberate. The team seemed to want to play the double pivot in possession and single pivot defensively (and through the first phase of possession after retrieving the ball). This is all very well but it is going to take significant work on the training field.
Interestingly I have noticed a similar intention for the first team that has also caused a lack of fluidity at times this season.
“It’s not the hair on your head that matters. It’s the kind of hair you have inside.”- Garry Shandling
As a brief aside, in spite of some tactical issues from the first two games, Dylan Damraoui has excited fans with some neat touches and purposeful play (especially in match two). He was certainly missed against Rio Grande. Andre Lewis is not a bad player, but lacks the intelligence on the ball as well as the lateral movement offered by the young Belgian.
Whether his future lies as a number ten or number eight – his energy and enthusiasm have me leaning toward the latter – remains to be seen. As of yet he has proved the most imaginative player from the midfield, and that alone is invaluable to this T2 team struggling for creativity.
“The only thing I’m afraid of is bees. I don’t like bees. I’m allergic to them.”- Kobe Bryant
After providing one of the few bright sparks over the course of the first two games this was not a great night for Nick Besler. Although calm and measured when afforded time, Besler struggles with even the simplest passing when hurried, which is not a great look for our truest defensive midfielder.
Given the lack of experience of those around him, Besler is looked to as senior member of this squad, even with only one year at this level. One game is far from enough evidence to conclude that Besler lacks the requisite skills to cut it at the very top, but after disappointing in his maiden season last year, there is no doubt that this season is a big one for the younger brother of the USMNT defender.
“The victor belongs to the spoils.”- F. Scott Fitzgerald
After gaining a fair amount of hype for his cameo last time out against Whitecaps 2, Victor Arboleda was given an opportunity to impress in place of Ben Polk on the wing. Although he did little wrong, Arboleda struggled to have a significant impact on the game, especially in a first half where Timbers 2 failed to put any meaningful attacks together.
Once again, another tactical issue I have with the way Andrew Gregor has his team playing is the lack of involvement from the wings. In all three games the wide forwards have remained isolated on their touchline, even if the ball is on the opposite side of the field. I assume that the intention is to stretch the field of play which is all well and good when the ball is deep, in the center of the field for quick, long passes, but when looking to build attacks through cohesive passing there is consistently a numerical disadvantage to encouraging both wingers to always stay wide.
So whilst it may well have been in part down to tactics, Arboleda’s starting debut tempered expectations a little.
“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…I have others.” – Groucho Marx
Slightly concerning is the distinct lack of cohesion about the principles of the team’s play. In the previous home game it looked as though Timbers 2 seemed intent on dominating possession of the ball. This was less obvious against Rio Grande Valley (although this may be down to a simple inability to do so rather than a change of principle), but what still remains a mystery is what the intention is behind how the team looks to defend.
At various times on Friday night players looked torn between stepping up and pressing the ball and retaining their shape. This goes for those at the front as well as through the spine. Bijev in particular seemed completely lost out of possession (a little lost in possession too in all honesty) neither cutting off passing lanes by shielding opposition players in his cover shadow or aggressively going for the ball.
Of course some teething issues in the team set-up are to be expected with a high turnover of playing staff and change of head coach, but signs of improved cohesion are required to at least understand the direction the team is looking to move in.
“Patience is bitter, but it’s fruit is sweet.”- Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Overall, given the obvious improvements in game two, this match was a little underwhelming and a reminder of just how difficult this process can be.
As with anything you’ll read about Timbers 2 from people who, at the very least, know slightly what they’re talking about, patience is key and results are second to performance.
That being said, progress must be demanded over the course of the campaign. The season is, like this team, yet young and conclusions at this stage are merely aspects to think about. At the very least following this team throughout the season promises to be very intriguing.
Supporting this inexperienced team (and staff) is only going to aid their development and I encourage those of you that haven’t yet made the trip to the University of Portland to do so. And if the weather remains as it was on Friday, what better way could you ask to spend a couple of hours than sipping a local brewed beer overlooking the scenic bluffs as the smug cloud of being in Portland washes over.