August 24th, 2012 by Kelly McLain
While the Portland Timbers’ offense has been steadily and visibly improving of late (doing things like scoring multiple goals in away games for the first time in their MLS history), the defense has been an issue—particularly on the road. The Timbers have let in an astonishing 25 goals in the past 10 games, 17 of them coming in the 6 away matches played during that stretch.
As a former defender himself, GM and interim manager Gavin Wilkinson knows what it’s like to go through tough stretches where players’ confidence takes a hit and organization among the back line suffers. “At the moment we’re giving up goals,” Wilkinson said. “We’re conceding goals and they’re not goals that I would say are creative goals where we’ve been ripped to pieces and they’ve punished us. It’s defensive errors and lapses in judgment.”
Wilkinson pointed out that allowing opponents to score is not purely the fault of the defenders, although they generally get the blame. “It’s always easier to point the finger at defenders. Generally there’s players in front… it gets to that point for a reason. At the moment it’s easy to identify one or two people, and defenders, they live and die by mistakes. A forward doesn’t get punished for their mistakes, defenders do.”
Two guys at the center of the issue (literally) are David Horst and Hanyer Mosquera. The pair have taken up residence at the two center back spots together for the past four games, and over the past 10 matches Horst has started 8 times and Mosquera 7. The duo are beginning to get a feel for working together. “We’re starting to learn the way each other moves,” Horst said. “There is a language barrier and we’re starting to figure that out as well.”
Although Horst spent time with the Puerto Rico Islanders earlier in his career and picked up some Spanish there, phrases he learned are different compared to what Mosquera brings from Colombia, not to mention that certain lingo simply doesn’t translate well sometimes from one language to another. “Things are still coming out in Spanish sometimes,” Horst said with a smile while speaking about Mosquera’s in-game communication. “It’s tough when it’s in the run of play. Your mind is in the game and you’re not thinking in another language.”
Seamless communication is something all teams and partnerships strive for, and as the Timbers’ defense continues to sort through their unique communication issues in the wake of implementing a new 4-3-3 system mid-season, the team would like to get back to keeping opponents scoreless—something that just might be a little easier to accomplish at home. “Defending is about a mentality, and away from home there has to be a little bit more concentration,” said Wilkinson. “At home it’s easier to keep that concentration where there are constantly fans behind you. When you’re on the road you’re isolated a little bit more. I think we need to mesh a little bit more, but we’ve got good pieces.”
New assistant coach Sean McAuley worked extensively with the defenders this week during training in an effort to reacquire the team’s stingy early-season form. They’ll hope to play some lock-down defense when they return to JELD-WEN Field for a two-game home stint, starting this weekend with Cascadia rival Vancouver Whitecaps. But at the same time, they know they’ll be back out on the road soon enough and will have to find a way to keep opponents at bay during their travels. “We just have to have more confidence defensively,” Horst said. “We’re getting punished for the little things on the road that we don’t exactly get punished for at home. We just have to keep our focus for the ninety minutes. It’s a lot easier at home with the fans. There are a lot of factors that can add up— little things on the road—hopefully we can clean those up for the next road games that we have.”