Thursday, June 11, 2015

A History of Portland Timbers' Forwards, MLS Era

Open minded. Just want goals....
I coveteth a forward from another Major League Soccer club: Sporting Kansas City's Krisztian Nemeth. It started innocently enough, back in the pre-season, when he lit up a club or two in one of the ever-proliferating preseason tournaments. (sorry, no links; KC runs one of MLS’s limited website templates.) Coveting ripened to lust (bosom now heaving) when he put his foot up Chris Hedges' ass in KC's recent rout over FC Dallas (just, FYI, I'm down with master/slave stuff) and so his reputation grew, at least in my eyes. I dream of him winning the Golden Boot, MLS MVP, and possibly MLS Defender of the Year the way a pre-teen girl imagines Zayn Malik strolling into her bedroom. I mean, look at that sick little spin against Hedges (start watching at about 1:30 here). Totes dreamy!

Let's pause there, because I looked up Nemeth's numbers yesterday. They're solid, certainly, and they don’t capture the full scope of Nemeth’s contribution (he passes well, combines a little better, and, to borrow an Armchair Analyst favorite, he's developing reasonable gravity). That said, his level, at least in terms of raw numbers, should translate pretty readily for Portland Timbers fans: Nemeth is exactly one assist better than the oft-slagged Fanendo Adi. Both players have 6 goals; Nemeth just has two assists to Adi's one.

I lead this post on the Portland Timbers'....troubled? Allegedly troubled? Imperfect? A couple steps on the wrong side of paradise? At any rate, I entered into this exploration of the Timbers' history of signing forwards on the premise that none of them really panned out for Portland. But I lead with that note on Nemeth to acknowledge that perception, greed (for goals), and envy play some role in all this. (Also, just real quick: I had hoped to include some data from the USL/A-League days, but those are buried deeper in the internet than I'm willing to dig, at least while I’m on a self-imposed deadline. The only forward from those days who I remember by name is Fadi Afash. He was impressive, too, scoring 27 goals in 53 games for the USL Timbers...he, uh, also embezzled $138,000 from an elderly couple, which puts him squarely in the Timbers All-Time XI for non-violent criminals; um, back to regularly scheduled programming).

All the same, over its five years in MLS, Portland has never signed a forward that caused the rest of the league to cast envying eyes on Stumptown.  The numbers tell the tale: Maximilano Urruti tops the Timbers' all-time, single-season list for all players identified strictly as a forward when he scored 10 goals in league play last season – and he’s the only Timbers forward to hit double digits in goals scored. Two players had nine-goal seasons: Ryan Johnson (in 2013) and Adi (in 2014; which should get one thinking, yes?). Kenny Cooper turned in an eight-goal season at the dawn of (MLS), but, after that, there’s just one seven-goal season (Gaston Fernandez, 2014), a couple sixes, a five maybe, and then some other numbers that suggest nothing more than rare flashes and lack of playing time.

Things take a slightly different shape if you put the numbers together differently. 2014 produced the collective best for Portland forwards – and it's actually pretty impressive, with Urruti, Adi, and Fernandez combining for 26 of Portland's...oh, 61 goals. That’s 43% of the goals for the season, but only if you round up. That's not awful – and it's certainly better than the forwards' combined tally in 2013, which topped out at 24% of goals scored – but, these guys being pros, it seems fair to expect that two top-flight forwards would combine for 26 goals, as opposed to three. The trend might be positive, at least over that two-year cycle (e.g. 2013 to 2014) – hell, it could even be the norm in MLS (another post for another day; say, Saturday) – but that doesn't make the envy go away. Or make me forget that several Soccer Made in Oregon podcasts in 2015 have talked, at some length, about whether, when and how either Fernandez or Adi, or both, will leave the Timbers either this summer or the end of this year.

So, that's the problem – assuming, at least one accepts that it's a problem. Excelling by committee isn't a crime in my book; that said, as well as Timbers forwards fared by committee in 2014 (my assessment tops out at "respectable"), they aren't at the same level so far in 2015. And so begins talk of change. The next step involves trying to correct what hasn't worked in the past/current set up. It's here where you ask, what went wrong in the past. It could be nothing for all anyone knows. Lord knows, I've never looked beyond bitching about the latest miss. With that in mind, I'm going to dig in, starting with considering Portland's (apparent) thought process when it comes to signing forwards. I count three over-arching themes (which leaves respected, tragic outliers like, say, Bright Dike out of the picture):

1) Flavor of the Month
While there was a sprinkling of them prior to, a mini-flood of Colombians washed over MLS right around 2010, and the Timbers sloshed around with the rest of the league. It started with Jorge Perlaza (who I once saw Xmas shopping; true story), but it a little group of projects came after him, even as Perlaza hardly panned out. Portland carried a pair of young "promising" forwards like Jose Adolfo Valencia and Sebastian Rincon on the books up to 2013. Around 2014, whoever it is that controls these things shifted the South American end of the pipeline to Argentina. Argentines have popped up in MLS throughout its history, but (no offense to the earlier guys) the talent level goosed upward a bit in recent years, notably with the arrival of purer playmaker like Andres Romero, Ignacio Piatti, Mauro Rosales and, yes, Diego Valeri. A couple other guys walked in with that exodus – Urruti and Fernandez for one.

2) Reclamations
Call it the DC United formula – basically, circumstances within another team frees up a decent forward on that team's roster for convenient pickins'. Portland has never excelled at this sort of cherry-picking, not like DC United has, but this is more or less how Portland picked up Ryan Johnson (from Toronto FC) and, contrary to what's implied above about the Argentine "flood," Maxi Urruti (what's the flood equivalent of an aftershock? That's the word I want here). Kenny Cooper fits this mold, too, at least partially, because he wouldn't have been so desired as he was without his good years with FC Dallas. I want to argue that there's such a premium on "known-quality" forwards (basically, reliable goal-scorers already playing in MLS) within MLS, that they don't move all that easily or often, but, honestly, I haven't looked into it.

3) DPs/Trust in Pedigree
This is the rarest approach of all in Portland's short history, because they've arguably only tried it once – with Kris Boyd. Cooper can sneak in here as well because he punched a ticket to freakin' Germany; even it was a Division 2 club, it was one that bounced between Bundesligas Eine and Zwei. It's somewhat disingenuous to compare the two players because Boyd positively dripped with pedigree. OK, yes, it was the Scottish League, but the man tore it the fudge up – as in all-time leading scorer fudge-tearing. So, no, I don't blame Portland for taking a flier on him...more on that below.

With that frame in place, I'll turn now to examining how the Timbers more noted forwards fared and, arguably (or where applicable), failed in Timbers' green. Only the big names will appear below, as opposed to every forward to ever suit up for the Rose City. So, sadly, this rules out a number of players, among them, Eddie Johnson (no, the other Eddie Johnson). Here goes.

Kenny Cooper (Timbers Career: 8 goals, 2 assists)
The big man who wants to be a small winger, Cooper has frustrated every team he's played on in MLS since Dallas, except the New York Red Bulls during the "Feed-Me-Henry" years. I got the Cooper bug badly as anyone during his Dallas years, so I don't knock the Portland brain-trust for picking him up at all. Still, the evolution of his career presents as a cautionary tale: a player's physical attributes mean nothing if you can't convince him to use them.

Jorge Perlaza (6 goals, 2 assists)
I always viewed Perlaza as a burner, a small quick forward to play off the big man that Portland had hoped Cooper would be. In the end, though, Perlaza's main talent was breaking opposing teams' offside trap. That's it. I mean, it ended there, because he wasn't much of a marksman for the Timbers. And I say that with sympathy because culture shock's a bitch. The Timbers traded him to the Philadelphia Union – a move that I'm sure left mixed feelings all around.

Kris Boyd (7 goals, 1 assist)
Remember how excited you felt when on hearing that the Scottish Premier League's (SPL) all-time leading scorer was coming to Portland? I mean, holy fanfare, right? Remember the way your soul deflated into your stomach on learning that his bag of tricks started and ended with a quick run to the near post on set-pieces? Yep, that was Boyd's brief, lucrative run in the Rose City. Competitive disparity within the SPL aside, one has to wonder how Boyd scored 167 goals there, while scoring only 7 in Portland. Could Gavin Wilkinson have played him differently? Because Boyd stopped playing after John Spencer left town...

Ryan Johnson (9 goals, 4 assists)
By my interpretation, one of the few strikers to pass through the Timbers line-up with his reputation somewhat intact...and that could be down to the fact he was only with Portland for one respectably productive year. To be blunt about it, Johnson wasn't the best finisher – personal proof thereof came when I saw him break in alone in Mexico's goal in a World Cup qualifier and, on seeing it was Johnson breaking through, I didn't even bother to watch the rest of the play. But Johnson brought a lot to the Timbers – a lot of the stuff the club still needs. His hold-up play was never replicated and Johnson could stretch a defense with the best of 'em. So, maybe he's rightly missed.

Maxi Urruti (13 goals, 3 assists)
Urruti brings the discussion into the modern era, but he's not all that different from Johnson: a big(ish), fast, pain-in-the-ass, who never stops running. Here's a fun bit of trivia: Urruti joined Portland in 2013 – and, still, the numbers above are all the numbers he’s got. For all that, I'm still in Club Urruti and I've got company; for one, he's the only name I have yet to hear connected with moving on. He's a second forward, for me, a classic pest that keeps a defense honest, but, with the rest of you, I've seen him finish good goals...just fewer than I first thought.

Gaston Fernandez (8 goals, 3 assists)
Though quite possibly the most attractive man to ever pull a Timbers jersey over his (is it?) rippling chest, Fernandez has been among the most puzzling of the Timbers' forwards. And it's no wonder because he's a bit of a tough fit. Neither fast, nor tall, nor strong, Fernandez's chief upside is sneakiness...which explains why he scored most of his goals for Portland in 2014 standing on the opposition's goal-line. He has been recently called upon to do some interpretation of Valeri's job for the Timbers and, by common consent, he's done it pretty well. The $64,000 question is what happens to Fernandez's new gig when Valeri comes back.

Fanendo Adi (15 goals, 5 assists)
Review the numbers after everyone's name above and you might notice a pattern: by raw numbers, Adi is the best forward in Timbers' history. No, the numbers aren't great, but still, the man gets a lot of grief for doing better than everyone before him. There's no question there are a lot of things he doesn't do well – e.g. dribble, hold-up play, passing, generally – but, put him in front of goal, facing it, with the ball at his feet, and he's not half-bad, at least as a pure poacher. And he's only 24.

So, there it is: some history, and ample framing. What does it all amount to? Here's my take: first, the trends with Portland's forwards are better than commonly acknowledged. Compare Perlaza, Cooper and Boyd to Fernandez, Urruti and Adi and the overall upgrade is pretty clear (and, yes, I'm adjusting mentally for upgrades in personnel, quality and experience behind them; plus, how many more goals did deeper players score in 2012, 2013 and 2014?). Sensitive as I am to the fact that Portland has never had a true star leading the line, I feel like that's worth pointing out.

Overall, though, this experiment has argued in favor of treading lightly when it comes to grasping at upgrades. Maybe Ryan Johnson should live on in Portland Timbers lore as a cautionary tale – e.g. the guy who produced good numbers and generally did good things (except finish often and well), but who the club cashed out on before his expiration date. The point is, if the Timbers upgrade, I hope they're genuinely cautious when they do it. This isn't a great club, but it's a good one that's developed some reasonable understanding. That's not to be broken up lightly.

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