Since the introduction of Caleb Porter, most of the tactical and personnel talk has centered around the midfield and strikeforce. After conceding a net-busting 56 goals in 2012, however, the defense needed as much work as anything. How did the FO do? Well, we’ll see.
Of the players returning from 2012, nobody seems to be a mortal lock to start on opening day at this point. Conventional wisdom heading into camp was that David Horst and Hanyer Mosquera would be the starting center backs, but injuries, rust, and solid play from Andrew Jean-Baptiste called that a little bit into question.
As it stands right now, the fullback positions seem the most stable, with Ryan Miller and Michael Harrington – if perhaps by default – almost certain to occupy their respective spots on the flanks come March 3rd.
The battle for the center back spots is a little bit more fluid now, however. The Timbers’ depth at the position left with Eric Brunner. The club made up for the departure of Brunner by adding veteran French international Mikael Silvestre.
At the moment, the race for the starting center back positions is wide open, as Andrew Jean-Baptiste has made an interesting case for himself in training and the Tucson friendlies, but faltered some against San Jose on Sunday. AJB has shown improved – although still imperfect – decision making, and surprisingly good feet. While Bright Dike is the best known L.A. loan success story, it is clear the time in L.A. greatly benefitted Jean-Baptiste, who, in a year, has transformed himself from a raw talent to a viable – perhaps promising – option in the first eleven.
In many ways, Jean-Baptiste is a better fit for Porter’s system than David Horst. The risk in playing a high-pressure style is that you leave your backline a little bit more exposed, especially to attack coming at you with pace. Simply put, because your midfield is trying to win the ball back higher up, if the opponent gets through they’ll likely be running at your defense with a little more intent than if you sat back a little bit more.
Say what you will about David Horst, but that isn’t his style of defending. When Horst is forced to defend on the run he has a tendency to take questionable risks to try to compensate for his slight athletic disadvantage. The result is often disastrous missed tackles. When Horst can sit in his box and organize it, he can be dominant. But pull him outside and force him to defend in space, and Horst becomes beatable.
Now, I’m not sure AJB is much better than Horst in this respect right now. But his superior athleticism gives him more potential in this regard, and if his development continues, he may become a more and more attractive option as the season progresses. In any case, Jean-Baptiste has shown himself to be an interesting option in the apparently likely event either Mosco or Horst aren’t ready to go.
Whereas the center back ranks right now are largely populated by returners – one of the few positions on the field for which you can say that – the fullback positions look to be filled by newbies.
Ryan Miller came in as a likely – though not certain – starter at right back and has put a stranglehold on the position in camp. While Miller has struggled early on to meaningfully contribute to the attack, his defense on the right flank has been as good as any the Timbers have had in the past two seasons. While he’s been protected to an extent by a dominant central midfield, Miller’s work in shutting down Steve Zakuani was impressive in the first half against Seattle. On Sunday against San Jose Miller had a little bit of an offensive renaissance, getting forward with regularity early on and assisting on Ryan Johnson’s first goal.
The left back spot seems similarly locked down, although in somewhat less impressive fashion. Michael Harrington came into camp as the anointed one at left back, and has done nothing to talk Caleb Porter out of that, but has hardly affirmed the Timbers’ faith in him. The left side of Portland’s defense, through the three matches at least, has been its weakest point and frequently been the target of counterattacking opponents.
That said, we’re all of four matches into Harrington’s Timbers career. Considering his largely reserve role with Sporting Kansas City last year, it wouldn’t be surprising if Harrington just needs a little bit of time to work his way back into being the man at fullback. Nonetheless, considering left back became a point of strength at the end of 2012 with stellar play from Steven Smith, Harrington’s early lukewarm impression should give Timbers supporters a very little bit of concern heading into 2013.
The backup spots at fullback have some familiar faces for the Timbers, however. Rodney Wallace, one of the longest serving Timbers with two years of service, looks to be the second choice at left back. On the right, captain Jack Jewsbury, when healthy, seems to be the likely backup. If Ben Zemanski fails to catch on in the midfield – either in the center or on the right – he could wind up being the backup right back considering his experience there for Chivas USA.
On Tuesday Merritt Paulson finally addressed the elephant in the room when he announced the signing of Mikael Silvestre. I approach the Silvestre situation with a little bit more trepidation than most. Nothing that I’ve seen thus far makes me think he’s any more than an average MLS center back. His distribution in Tucson was good, and his defense was solid, if his a little hairy at times. Given the Timbers’ congested sounding 2014 salary cap situation, it is a little bit troublesome that the Timbers are bringing a 35-year-old defender for a “reported” $230,000 per year for two years with a team option for a third. The risk is somewhat mitigated, however, considering the Timbers have shed many of their high risk contracts and will have another free offseason buyout next year.
At his point, however, it’s hard to call the Timbers 2013 offseason successful in upgrading the defense. The primary area of concern was fullback, and the results there are mixed. While the disaster at right back appears to be somewhat ameliorated, it’s hard to imagine Harrington matching Smith’s late 2012 form anytime soon.
In some ways more disconcerting, however, is that the center back situation is more uncertain than anybody expected at this point. Yes, ALJ has been a positive, but Mosquera and Horst’s disappointing preseason introduces uncertainty to one of the few positions that seemed settled coming out of 2012.
And additional uncertainty is not what this defense needed.
Left Back Depth Chart
1. Michael Harrington
2. Rodney Wallace
3. Chris Taylor
Center Back Depth Chart
1. David Horst
2. Mikael Silvestre
3. Hanyer Mosquera
4. Andrew Jean-Baptiste
5. Dylan Tucker-Gangnes
Right Back Depth Chart
1. Ryan Miller
2. Jack Jewsbury
3. Ben Zemanski
4. Ryan Kawulok
Onward, Rose City!