The Morrison Report – The Evolution of Kalif Alhassan Edition

Much has already been written about the Timbers midfield in 2013.  From the arrival of Diego Valeri, to the on-again-off-again brilliance of Darlington Nagbe, to the steady leadership of Will Johnson, a small forest has been slain on the subject of the Timbers’ 2013 midfield.

By comparison to his midfield colleagues, however, Kalif Alhassan has been a model of forestry stewardship.  Through his first three years in Portland, Alhassan has been at times scintillating, but all-too-often frustrating.  After the 2012 home opener, Portland’s resident soccer skeptic John Canzano wrote that Kalif had “a pair of poems for feet.”  Short poems, apparently, because he was rarely heard from again.

Kalif’s reputation in Portland is for being a purveyor of specious flash.  He looks good because he can go on aesthetically pleasing, arm-flailing runs, but they have typically turned into nothing because Kalif, at times, has played for the sensational rather than the prudent.

Then you look at his statistical line in 2013.  4 appearances, 2 starts, 0 goals, 1 assist, 2 shots.  Meh.  And it wouldn’t surprise me if, without reading on, people have a hard time recalling which goal Kalif assisted on.

The reason, however, is Kalif’s play has transformed dramatically for the better in 2013.  Now, don’t get me wrong, he still goes on his signature runs once in a while.  And they often still lead to sweet nothingness, such as against Houston when he dribbled magnificently past several challenging Dynamo players to go straight out of bounds.

But that hasn’t been the story of Kalif’s 2013 campaign.  Despite not seeing much airtime, Kalif has been consistently present, and quietly influential, in some of the Timbers’ most important moments in 2013.

Of the four goals the Timbers have scored with Alhassan on the field in 2013, he’s been a critical, albeit quiet, component in all three.

The most direct example came on the first goal of the regular season.  Everybody remembers Diego Valeri’s juggling splendor that allowed Portland to momentarily erase the early mess made by Donovan Ricketts and Mikael Silvestre.  But who was the guy who flashed into the center to give Will Johnson a positive passing option, then played a simple, albeit perfectly weighed ball into Valeri?  Kalif Alhassan.

Fast-forward forty minutes, and the Timbers are down 3-1.  Everybody remembers Darlington Nagbe’s putback of a dangerous Valeri shot.  What they may not remember, however, is the guy who popped out to allow Nagbe to switch the ball, and then took one touch to play Valeri into space.  Who was he?  Kalif.

And then everybody remembers Nagbe’s steal and through ball to Ryan Johnson for the back end of his brace against the Dynamo.  But who was the guy that, when Nagbe drew the ire of two Dynamo, collected a pass, took three touches, attracted three defenders, and then played Nagbe into the newly vacant area he would run into for the decisive pass?  Well, you get the point.

Five touches of the ball.  Three simple passes.  Three critical moments in the young 2013 campaign.

Whereas Kalif endured long spells of poor production and repeated public criticism under John Spencer, Caleb Porter’s style seems better suited for Kalif as a footballer.  “He’s definitely my type of player,” Porter stated bluntly after practice on Saturday.  Porter continued, “the attacking style is built around having a couple of those type of guys.  We don’t want six of those guys, because now it’s too cute and tricky, but a couple of those guys really add a flavor of things.”

These above instances, then, are indicative of the larger piece Kalif represents in the puzzle that is the Timbers midfield.  Portland’s two primary midfield playmakers, Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe, both like to pick the ball up and move into space to make the final pass or unleash a shot of their own.  As the three moments above indicate, Kalif facilitates that.  As such, while Kalif is creative, he’s not really a creator in Porter’s system.  Rather, he’s been much more of a facilitator.

One player, no matter how creative, moving by himself will rarely get anywhere, as the defense will close him down in a hurry.  Give that player somebody to play a quick combination with, however, and that coveted space suddenly appears for the talisman to take.

On Saturday, Porter said it himself.  “I like to shape my teams up and put it together with a Nagbe and a Kalif type of guy . . . I like the way Kalif and Darlington play off each other, they seem to like to play together.  Darlington is a guy when he gets underneath and gets the ball, he needs a guy to play off of.”

That, then, has been Kalif’s biggest contribution in 2013.  He opens the spaces that allow his now-capable teammates to make their magic.

In one crucial respect, then, Alhassan is the polar opposite of the reputation he’s earned in years past.  Whereas before, Kalif was tantalizing for his specious flare, now Alhassan is making a case for his inclusion in the lineup with another trait – his quiet quality.

And that, so far, represents the evolution of Kalif Alhassan.

Saturday Practice Notes

  • Porter did not sound optimistic about Diego Valeri’s inclusion in the lineup on Saturday, as he has not yet cleared the League’s concussion protocol.  While it is possible he could clear it on Sunday, Porter sounded uncertain if he would play even in that event.  It seems likely, then, that if Valeri can’t go, Porter would elect to play the same front four as in the second half against Houston, with Rodney Wallace wide left, Alhassan nominally on the right, Nagbe floating in a sort of supporting striker role, and Ryan Johnson up top.
  • At this point, it sounds like the center back tandem on Sunday is up in the air.  Both Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Mikael Silvestre missed significant practice time this week with various “niggles.”  On Saturday, Porter said both would be a game time decision, although he did suggest that both playing was within the realm of realistic possibilities.

Onward, Rose City!

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