In his brief stint as Portland Timbers manager, Caleb Porter’s job has been to make choices. Does he trade all of John Spencer players for allocation money or bury them in the Willamette River? Does he laugh at his general manager’s eagerness to bring in Belize’s best for a trial or does he placate him? Does he bust out the sweater vest and blazer combination for the AIK match or save it for a nationally televised game?
In some cases he has had choices made for him by circumstance. What to do with Jack Jewsbury’s armband and playing time? Give them away and claim injury as the reason. Who to choose as number one striker, Ryan Johnson or Bright Dike? Put Dike under the knife and watch Johnson net a preseason hat trick to make everyone forget about Dike’s existence.
Porter now faces another choice, which will be influenced by circumstances, but is a tough one nevertheless. Who to start next to Andrew Jean-Baptiste at center back against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday? For a team whose roster is overflowing with center backs, the choices are surprisingly slim: an untested rookie who has barely paired with AJB in training, an old timer who has spent more time since Feb. 8 at a rum festival in London than he has training with the Timbers, or a player who has fallen so far out of favor that he wasn’t even on the bench against AIK to observe the sweater vest in person?
To further complicate Porter’s choice between Dylan Tucker-Gangnes, Mikael Silvestre, and Futty Danso, the Timbers are facing a team whose attack includes Thierry Henry, Juninho, and Fabian Espindola.
Good thing we always win 6-5.
This is more than just an issue for the New York game. There are a couple of reasons why the Timbers have had so many center backs in training camp. The first is that in Porter’s high pressing, possession system, the center backs are mission critical. While Messrs. Harrington and Miller are being asked to push forward into the attack, the men in the middle are being asked to provide cover. They have to cover a lot of territory. At the same time, they are expected to value possession of the ball. In other words, simply recovering and clearing the ball is fine from time to time, but not on a regular basis. Recover and then find a teammate.
Sounds simple enough, but as Porter works his ways through the varied center backs on his roster he likely sees deficiencies in either the ability to cover the ground or the ability to connect a pass department. Hence the acquisition of Silvestre. Hence the drafting of Tucker-Gangnes. Hence the elevation of AJB. Hence the apparent free fall of Mosquera and Futty.
It will be interesting to see where Horst figures in all this since he developed into a mainstay a season ago and hasn’t had an opportunity to show his ability to adapt to Porter’s center back demands. For now, Porter is left with the less than ideal choice of gambling on Silvestre’s fitness for Sunday or gambling on a pair of players with 426 combined MLS minutes to their hyphenated names.
“We don’t have a lot of options. You work with what you’ve got,” Porter said. “(Tuesday) we worked with Dylan and Baptiste. The same two guys we worked with against AIK and they’re young players and they’re gaining experience.”
Hardly a ringing endorsement, that one.