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Timbers make pitch for recent changes

New coach's kick in the pants turns into second-half magic


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: NICK FOCHTMAN - Diego Valeri, Portland Timbers midfielder, celebrates with teammates after scoring the team's first goal of the MLS season in last week's 3-3 draw at home against New York.Nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems on opening day. That is especially true for the Portland Timbers.

As former Portland coach John Spencer was fond of saying, the Timbers Army never has an off day. However, the Army always is louder and more intense than usual during the home opener.

The Timbers’ 3-3 come-from-behind draw with the New York Red Bulls last Sunday was an adrenaline pounding ride. But two of the last three Timbers home openers have been as well. As the season progresses, the highs and the lows will — theoretically — become more even.

With that in mind, here is a game of “praise and criticism” for the Timbers after their first outing under new coach Caleb Porter:

Praise

For much of the night, the Timbers’ offense was gorgeous. Playing in Portland’s new possession oriented system, the Timbers were dynamic with the ball at their feet, and they bombarded the Red Bulls’ back line with sharp crosses and stealthy runs into the box. Portland scored three goals and, had things gone a little differently, they could have scored three more.

You can point to a number of players who looked phenomenal on offense: Diego Valeri had a check-your-eyes goal in the first half. Kalif Alhassan looked like he had stardust in his feet as he dribbled down the pitch. Ryan Johnson was a constant threat to score.

The player who fans should keep your eyes on the most, though, is Darlington Nagbe.

Nagbe had been solid, if unremarkable, in his first two seasons with the Timbers after being selected with the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2011.

But you always got the feeling that Spencer never quite knew what to do with Nagbe. Spencer played Nagbe mostly in the midfield and occasionally moved him up to striker. Whatever Spencer did, Nagbe never looked like the Hermann Trophy winner he had been in college.

Enter Porter, who coached Nagbe at Akron. This is a dream scenario for Nagbe. Porter knows where to play Nagbe to get the most out of him. Porter also has been coaching Nagbe since the latter was 17 years old. Porter knows how to get inside Nagbe’s head and push all the right buttons.

During halftime of the Red Bulls match, Porter did just that.

“Sometimes with Darlington, you got to give him a kick in the ass in a positive way — pump him up,” Porter said. “I had a few words with him, and he was a handful the second half.”

Nagbe certainly was. He flew around the pitch and scored a second-half goal.

Since coming into MLS, Nagbe has never lacked for potential. Porter seems like the perfect man to tap into that potential.

Criticism

Portland’s defense was just atrocious during the first half-hour on Sunday.

The major culprits were 35-year-old defender Mikael Silvestre and 35-year-old goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts.

Silvestre played an enormous part in two of the Red Bulls’ goals. In the ninth minute, he tried to kick a ball back to Ricketts. Ricketts spilled the ball, and the Red Bulls were able to score. Then, in the 24th minute, Silvestre misplayed a ball, let it get behind him, and the Red Bulls had a second goal.

Porter excused Silvestre’s performance, citing how quick of a turnaround it had been for the Frenchman between signing with the Timbers and playing his first regular-season MLS match with them.

“Mikael made a couple of mistakes,” Porter said. “He knows it. Some of it might have to do with the fact that two days ago he was in Paris. He was still getting his legs underneath him.”

Perhaps that is a justifiable excuse and Silvestre will prove that he still has enough spring in his old legs to be a positive addition to Portland.

Ricketts, on the other hand, does not look as though he has much left. While Silvestre trying to pass the ball back to the former Jamaican national team goalie in the ninth minute was inadvisable, Ricketts appeared to have difficulty bending down quickly to scoop up the ball. On the Red Bulls’ third goal in the 28th minute, Ricketts was far too slow off his line when he tried to defend a cross and left the net open.

After the match, Porter was indignant when asked a question about the play of his goalkeeper.

“You guys (media) see goals and think that it’s the goalkeeper’s fault,” Porter said.

It never quite made sense that the Timbers would make a midseason trade last year for Ricketts, offering up 31-year-old goalkeeper Troy Perkins — thought by many to be the team’s most valuable player. The theory floating around is that Porter — who had yet to take over the Timbers at that point — had something to do with the trade.

It will be interesting to compare the two goalkeepers, Ricketts versus Perkins, on Saturday when the Timbers play host to the Montreal Impact at 7:30 p.m.