July 29th, 2012 by Michael Orr
Bright Dike recorded a hat-trick for the Timbers reserve team in a 4-2 defeat of Chivas USA’s reserves on Sunday afternoon. Nearly 6600 turned out on a beautiful day to see one of the most offensive displays this calendar year by any team without a ‘U23’ stuck on the end. The victory was the third of the season for the Timbers reserves and first since an April 22 win in Vancouver.
Portland used the opportunity to use eight outfield players who have started in the first team this season to work on a more offensive outlook and further develop a 4-3-3 formation. After Gavin Wilkinson referred to an honest three up top in last night’s first team game, the reserves played a classic 4-3-3 against Chivas USA on Sunday afternoon. The two looks are certainly similar, yet Sunday’s approach differed from Saturday’s, mostly due to personnel.
With Kris Boyd a fixture in the center of the forward line in such a formation, the first team could not be as flexible. On Sunday, both Bright Dike and Danny Mwanga played in the middle and out wide. Meanwhile, in the middle of the park, the trio of Freddie Braun, Kalif Alhassan and Sal Zizzo (in that order, moving back to front) provided far more attacking impetus than did the supposedly similar set-up involving Jack Jewsbury, Diego Chará and Darlington Nagbe on Saturday. Chará was explosive in counter attacks on Saturday, mostly in the first half, similar to what Alhassan achieved today. Yet Nagbe had nowhere near the impact as Zizzo.
Against Chivas’ reserves, the Timbers reserves flowed forward with purposeful and coordinated movements. Overlapping attacking players gave Alhassan myriad options from the middle, or provided multiple options in the box for the forward runs of outside backs Rodney Wallace and Mike Chabala. Where the 4-3-3 fell down for the Timbers was in defending, particularly in the spaces between Braun and the back four.
On both first half goals, Chivas was able to get players to the edge of the box without resistance. On the opener, Casey Townsend’s cross brought Tristan Bowen into the box where he was mostly unchallenged, heading easily past Joe Bendik in the 17th minute. Just before half-time, Marco Delgado took a pass from Laurent Courtois and fired a shot that deflected off of Lovel Palmer and softly in off the far post. Each time, additional help in the defensive area of central midfield could have at least made life more difficult for Chivas. Yet with Alhassan and Zizzo pushing forward as often as possible, that task fell to Braun alone.
But back to Portland’s goals, they came from a vigor in attack rarely seen in the first team. Mike Fucito, Mwanga, Dike, Zizzo and Alhassan all powered forward and challenged an under siege Chivas defense, particularly after the opening goal. Dike got his brace in a two-minute span, set up the first time from a feisty Alhassan and the second time by a perfect ball across the goal mouth by Fucito. Both goals were good from Dike, but the credit really belonged to the assisting player in each case.
Alhassan was again the catalyst on Zizzo’s goal in the 38th minute. The through ball sprung Zizzo, usually a right winger, down the left side of the eighteen-yard box. Though Tim Melia saved his initial shot, the ball bounced directly upward and Zizzo ran on to head it cooly across the line.
The second half resembled the first half in that both Portland and Chivas were still playing each other. Formations remained the same but the offensive thrust shown by the visitors in the early moments and by the Timbers through the rest of the first half were far less apparent in the slower second period. Portland did continue to attack, but those chances decreased as Eric Alexander replaced Alhassan at half-time. Alexander was far from poor, but his expressiveness simply cannot match that of Alhassan.
Dike put the game away in the fifty-seventh minute when he collected the ball near midfield, rounded a defender and took off straight down the middle of the park. He made easy work of Melia and celebrated his hat-trick. Bendik made a diving reaction save on a strong header from Townsend two minutes later and that was just about it from Chivas.
Youngsters Sebastián Rincón (57th) and Charles Renken (69th) entered the game in the second half, yet manager Cameron Knowles did not change the overall 4-3-3 formation. Rincón displayed audacity and expression in the final third, providing Dike with a back heel in the box and contributing other sharp passes, but took more than a few minutes to get under control with the rest of his game. Likewise, Renken was a sparkplug in his twenty minutes on the field, apart from when he was counted on for tight marking. Neither Rincón nor Renken made egregious mistakes, and certainly nothing led to another Chivas goal, but both will need to improve considerably in defending and general awareness before Wilkinson gives them the Brent Richards treatment.
Most noteworthy in the second half, after Dike’s third goal, was the slowing of the pace by Portland’s midfielders, in particular. Be it Alexander, Braun or Renken, deliberate passing with a focus on positioning was a clear objective of the final quarter hour. Alexander directed the less experienced central midfielders, sometimes passing on potential through balls (more than once to the dismay of Fucito) in favor of working the ball through tight spaces in the midfield. Though that kind of work may be far less exciting to watch, it is the kind of developmental work that is key to bringing young players closer to first team availability.
Whether the first team Timbers use a similar line-up against FC Dallas next weekend is as yet a complete unknown. Wilkinson has indicated that the coaching staff (of which Sean McAuley is now an elevated member) takes the cliché of taking one game at a time and turn it into practical use. Regardless, Portland will surely take any possible positives from what is the first victory of either the first team or reserves since July 3.