Houston goes Scottish, acquires Driver on loan from Hearts

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Between Kris Boyd, Kenny Miller, and Barry Robson, Major League Soccer got its fill of underperforming Scots last season, so there’s reason to raise eyebrows when you see another MLS team go back to the Scottish Premier League well. But there are a couple of big differences between those failed moves and what Houston is doing bringing in Andrew Driver.

The Heart of Midlothian left winger, whose loan was confirmed by Houston today, isn’t coming with the Designated Player tag. He’s just another player, one that will be out of contract with his club in six months. If he works out, great. If not, he’s just something Houston tried. They didn’t have to allocate a DP spot to get him.

But one of the puzzling things about Boyd and Miller’s acquisitions were their relative failures outside Scotland. Despite that, they still garnered big MLS deals. For Driver, this will be his first time playing outside of Scotland. We don’t have that built up data set to reference and wonder.

He’s also not an attacker. Granted, he’s a wide midfielder, so he’s going to have to contribute going forward, but Driver is not going to be defined by his numbers. In Scotland, he was only good for a goal every eight games. If he can be a worker bee, he can be a valuable part of Dom Kinnear’s team. Designated Players need to be more than worker bees.

The winger is also a few years younger than his countrymen. At 25, he’s four years younger than Boyd, the youngest of last year’s trio.

I have no idea if Driver will fit in Houston (surprise, I’m no expert on Hearts), and based on the trouble other SPL imports have had of late, there’s reason to question whether the transition will be a smooth one. But while previous moves have conditioned a knee-jerk reaction concerning Scottish players, there are a number of reasons to give this move the benefit of the doubt.

Driver comes with less risk and commitment. He’s younger. We don’t know yet if he can succeed outside of Scotland, but he’s also not somebody who’ll have to create goals to be a successful player. Plus when you see the words “valuable depth” (below), you know Driver’s not going to be expected to be a star.

In that way, he’s not your “typical” Scottish import. And that’s a good thing.

The word from Kinnear:

“Andrew is good at taking people on, he crosses a good ball and can take set pieces … He is a hard-working player and I think he will definitely fit in with the team. He has a good attitude on the field and is versatile. He can play on the left or right side of midfield.”

From Driver:

“I am very excited about the opportunity to come and play for the Dynamo … I have followed MLS over the years and Houston has stood out as one of the top teams. I know a lot of success has been because of the work of Dominic Kinnear, so I am delighted to have the chance to learn from him and improve as a player under him.”

From Chris Canetti:

“It’s always exciting to add a young international player with talent and experience … Andrew will add valuable depth to the squad at a time when we are set to face a heavy load of games between MLS and Champions League.”

About that Kris Boyd-Portland Timbers debate: nevermind

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Kris Boyd came into Portland with big plans and a big bang introduction – stark contrast to the unsightly end less than a year later. In the end, Boyd’s time ended quietly, ingloriously, with Timbers owner Merritt Paulson cutting a check and cutting ties.

The cynic might say Paulson timed this thing to drop on MLS Draft day so as to partially absorb or deflect the sharpest shrapnel of ridicule. But that would not really be fair, since the news didn’t come out of the Timbers’ office. Rather, Ives Galarcep of Soccer By Ives was the first to report that Boyd and the Timbers had parted ways, doing so from the draft at Indianapolis.

Either way, Boyd’s time is officially done, which can hardly qualify as “surprise” at this point. New manager Caleb Porter clearly didn’t see a place for Boyd in the way he wanted to configure the new-look Timbers. Richard Farley told you recently about that particular little odd duck of a personnel conundrum.

It’s a tough situation, granted. But at this point, was there really any other option?

Boyd clearly wasn’t what Paulson thought he would be. Some of us, including myself, went back and forth with Paulson, engaging in a good-natured Twitter fight last year about how successful he would be in MLS. Scottish strikers, myself and others suggested, had a shaky history in the league, pouring in goals while playing for Celtic or Rangers in the wildly imbalanced Scottish Premier League but then frequently failing to repeat the successful rate of fire here.

Stack that on top of his obvious lack of stylistic accord with Porter and, well, the writing was the Jeld-Wen Field Wall.

At this point, keeping Boyd would have been awkward and almost certainly unproductive for all, straining to save some face and salvage something from an arrangement that simply wasn’t going to bear fruit.

Severing ties and starting with a truly clean slate for Porter – as opposed to a “mostly” clean slate and a square peg of a striker matched with a round hole of a system – was best for all.

And from Boyd’s side, it’s best for him, too. What would be the point of staying around, trying to convince a manager who clearly has little faith in the Timbers’ DP.

It’s not Boyd’s fault that he got chopped up in a maelstrom of conflicting ideas and poor personnel choices. He was, by all accounts, a good teammate, a decent fellow and a worthy representative of the Timbers brand.

Pulling the band-aide off quickly does smart for a minute – but it’s the better way to go about it, as we all know.

Circling back on Kris Boyd’s place under Caleb Porter

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Despite missing eight games last season, Kris Boyd was the Portland Timbers’ leading scorer, albeit with a modest seven goals. And while that status is augmented his place as the club’s highest paid player, the former Rangers star finds himself out of his team’s plans before his first training session with new head coach Caleb Porter, the situation creating a quandary for both player and club.

At least, that’s the situation the sides find themselves in after a surprisingly blunt assessment during Porter’s introductory press conference.

The 29-year-old striker was signed as a Designated Player during last year’s preseason, his $1.5 million total compensation dwarfing the salaries of a team whose next-highest 2012 earner made $356,250 (Danny Mwanga). For that, the Timbers expected a player who would be among the league’s leading scorers. Instead, they got a striker who failed to have a consistent impact on games, head coach John Spencer unable to forge a connection between his countryman and Darlington Nagbe.

By the time Gavin Wilkinson stepped in for Spencer at the beginning of July, Boyd was losing his place in the team. Bright Dike started seeing the bulk of time as the Timbers started auditions for Porter’ eventual arrival.

With their formation shifting from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3, Boyd no longer fit. He finished the year injured and out of the team.

In that respect, it’s not surprising Boyd doesn’t seem to be in Porter’s plans. What is surprising is the nature in which the news was revealed.

During his Tuesday introduction, the tone seemed to change when a reporter asked about Boyd. Porter paused, seemed to consider how blunt he wanted to be, and then offered a euphemism before laying the truth bare, providing a startlingly frank assessment that gave the room pause.

Here’s the full question and response:

Q: Coach, can you tell me how Kris Boyd fits into your plans?

A: Kris Boyd is obviously contracted to be a member of the Portland Timbers. But what I will say is after watching him play quite a bit — and I have watched this team play quite a bit — Kris Boyd is a player that I think will have a hard time playing the way that we want to play.

That’s no knock on Kris. He would fit in a lot of different systems, but with what I want out of my strikers, it’s going to be very difficult for him to offer what I’m looking for in that position.

At the same time, if he comes back and proves that he can offer those things, then certainly he’ll be given the chance to play like anybody else. But based on what I’ve seen, based on certainly what he’s shown as a player, it’s going to be difficult for him to fit in.

Later, Porter was asked to describe what he looks for from his strikers:

Q: What do you need out of your striker?

A: I like … (my strikers) to score goals.

Q: But there are things that lead to that, obviously.

A: Yes. The striker, to me, is more than that, actually – than (just) scoring goals. They need to fit into the team. They need to be the first line of pressure when we’re defending. They need to be obviously a guy that can also be a linking player when we’re playing through them. They help with our connection with the midfielders in combination play. They need to be a guy first and foremost who’s threatening to the back line.

Ultimately, I prefer a bit more pace-y, athletic, powerful, presence in the striker position. But ultimately, they need to score goals, too.

I’m of two minds about how this went down. There’s no doubt Boyd doesn’t fit in Portland. He didn’t fit under Spencer or Wilkinson, and he’s even less likely to fit under Porter. He hasn’t contributed anything beyond his modest goal total, has none of the qualities Porter wants in a striker, and seemed an inferior option to Dike, a player who spent part of the summer in USL Pro. Boyd just wasn’t very good, and with one of Major League Soccer’s few million dollar salaries, he’s practically untradeable.

Still, there is an element of message-sending to Porter’s response that’s disconcerting. An introductory press conference seems a poor venue for singling out spare parts, particularly considering Porter has yet to meet or train with his full team. The coach said he has been in touch with almost all of his players, but he’s still a week away from his first practice.

source: Getty ImagesThis hugely expensive asset, this player that’s “contracted to be a member of the Portland Timbers” – Porter hasn’t evaluated him in person, yet. While Portland’s new coach eventually said Boyd will have a chance to impress him, the comment seemed more a concession than legitimate opportunity.

But judging Boyd is not the problem here. Porter has also passed judgments on Will Johnson, Michael Harrington, Ryan Johnson, and Diego Valeri – the new Timbers who will to help where Boyd could not. Nobody can begrudge a coach’s right to evaluate somebody outside of practice, regardless of whether those evaluations are positive or negative.

How that judgment was delivered is the problem. Whether he was effective or not, Boyd put forth effort for the Timbers last year. Even at the end of the season, when he’d been out of the team for some time, Boyd was reportedly willing to come back an help the team play out a string of inconsequential games. That willingness may seem obligatory given his lucrative contract, but the attitude underscored Boyd’s commitment.

In time, we may see this kind of honesty as one of Caleb Porter’s virtues. Perhaps he is intent on being open and forthright while trusting us to process the information correctly.

Even by that standard, there was still something strange about how Porter’s comments. He made it very clear the Timbers organization wants to move on from their expensive mistake. While that’s an understandable position, an introductory press conference may not have been the right platform for that message.

Caleb Porter finally unveiled as Portland Timbers head coach

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PORTLAND, Ore. — It took five months for him to finally touchdown in the Rose City, but once he did new head coach Caleb Porter laid out an unambiguous vision for the Portland Timbers’ future. Sitting next to a general manager (Gavin Wilkinson) who described his club as having “very, very high expectations and lofty ambitions,” Porter was unflinching while playing into the hope his new hiring’s created.

He addressed the skepticism born of the U-23 failing. He talked about his reputation for playing attractive soccer. He talked about why he chose Portland and the futures of high-profile players Kris Boyd and Darlington Nagbe.

Here are some of the big takeaways:

Portland was the right fit at the right time.

“In some ways, I was uncomforatble being comfortable at Akron,” Porter said, a unique way of saying it was time for him to go.

The move was the culmination of a 13-year journey he knew would end in Major League Soccer.

“As I started my coaching career 13 years ago, in the back of my mind I had the goal of getting back here to be a professional coach in Major League Soccer. I didn’t know if it would happen. I didn’t know when it would happen or how it would happen. But that was always a goal that I had in mind.”

But as D.C. United found out three years ago, Porter wasn’t going to leave Akron for just any opportunity. Portland, however, was the complete package for the Porter family.

“I certainly had a few other opportunities, but this was the one that was the best situation for me and my family, to come and join this wonderful community. For a lot of reasons, this was the right fit.

“We have the most passionate supporters in Major League Soccer. That was very attractive to me. We have a owner/president and a general manager who have a long term vision for success. Their philosophy, their vision was in line with my philosophy and vision. That’s very important to have that right marriage.”

What problems from 2012 need to be addressed first?

Porter tried not to speak of the past, but in talking about the changes he planned to bring to the team, comparing goals to failures was unavoidable.

“We need a little bit more experienced — not a little bit, a lot more experienced — locker room,” Porter said after initially explaining a reluctance to dwell on 2012. “Where you have guys who have been through this very unique league and season, where there’s a lot of travel, different climates, altitude. It’s not easy.”

Bringing in Will Johnson? Michael Harrington? Ryan Johnson? It addresses that need.

“These are guys that have been six, seven year pros in Major League Soccer. You know what you get out of them.”

source:  How will Portland play?

Make no mistake about it – Porter is bringing his much-discussed philosophy with him to Portland. While he said he’s not going to be “naive” about making hasty changes, Porter made it clear that a possession game intent on “dominant” play is the goal.

“We’re going to approach every game from the standpoint of what do we need to do in this game to win.”

But the Timbers will work toward playing the Porter way.

“Any good coach should have a philsosophy of how they approach the game, of how they approach training, and that’s a big part of the blue print, every single day.”

“Blue print” came up a lot on Tuesday, as did formulas and identities.

“If you look in Major League Soccer, the most successful teams have continuity. They have a formula they follow. They have a clear identity, and we will have a clear identiy here. We will have a formula we will be following, and you will see continuity. You’ll see consistency and ultimately, every decision we make will be based on that way we are going to be playing.”

“If we’re going to be a team that’s consistenly winning games, we need to move in a direction where we are the dominant team. … if you control major portions of the game, you increase your chances of winning consistently, and that’s the only reason I believe in the philosophy that I have.”

Does that mean the Zips’ formation will come with him from Akron?

What formation?

As Porter pointed out in the press conference, he adjusted formations as his personnel fit. For five years, he played a 4-4-2. For two others, he played a 4-3-3, a formation that’s erroneously been linked to his style of play.

Looking at the moves Portland’s made this offseason, the Timbers are setting up as a 4-4-2/4-3-1-2 (midfield diamond) team. But Porter made it clear he’d like to develop multiple options.

As Darlington Nagbe described it early last season (before Porter was announced as head coach of the Timbers), Porter’s is a philosophy that adapts the formation to the available players. When Nagbe was at Akron, he played a playmaker’s role that took advantage of the talents of Steve Zakuani and Darron Mattocks.

It’s not difficult to see a similar provider’s role crafted behind Ryan Johnson and Bright Dike, a role that could leave the Timbers looking like Will Johnson’s former Real Salt Lake team.

What does that mean for Darlington Nagbe?

Clearly the most talented player on the Timbers, Nagbe was a big part of Tuesday’s conversation. Is Caleb Porter the man that can bring the young star to his full potential?

Porter never said those words, but he did say he feels he has “buttons” he can push to get Nagbe to where he can be. And while the new coach was mostly complimentary of what Nagbe’s accomplished in over two MLS seasons, his former Akron coach is going to expect more out of him in 2013.

“In some ways, the youth of this team put more pressure on him to produce and perform, and he maybe hasn’t handled that as well as he should have, in terms of carrying the team. But he’s also a young player. There needs to be a little bit of patience for that, as well.”

“Going into his third year, [there are] going to be high expectations of him. I certainly expect him to perform.”

“I do know his talent. I do know what he’s capable of. There’s a trust there.”

source:  And where does Kris Boyd fit in all of this?

He’s the club’s most expensive player ever, but Kris Boyd has no role in Porter’s system. That Porter even addressed the touchy subject — let alone showed some brutal honestly while doing so — as a signal to Boyd, his representation, and the league. Kris Boyd won’t fit in Portland.

“After watching him play quite a bit, and I have watched this team play quite a bit, Kris Boyd is a player that I think will have a hard time playing the way we want to play,” Porter confessed. “With what I want out of my strikers, it’s going to be very difficult for him to offer what I’m looking for in that position.”

It’s no surprise. Nobody is going to mistake Boyd’s style for Zakuani’s or Mattocks’.

Though Porter didn’t close the door (later saying Boyd can prove him wrong), he might as well have. It was a shockingly frank confession within the context of an introductory press conference.

Yes, coach, but what about Nashville?

It was one of the first topics that came up once the press conference was open for questions, the one blemish on Caleb Porter’s otherwise stellar coaching record: Why didn’t the U.S. U-23s make it out of their first Olympic qualifying group, let alone challenge for a spot in the Summer Olympics?

It was one of his longest answers of the day, but one Porter was honest about, forthright, and prepared to give:

“There as a lot I took away from it. It was a five-month process. I knew it was going to be a high-profile, high-pressure job. I knew it was a tricky qualifying format. But again, I don’t avoid challenges. For me, it was an opportunity. I look at not what could go wrong, but what could go right.

“And in the end, it didn’t go right. I take responsibility for that. We failed. We didn’t qualify, and in my role as the coach, I take responsibility for that.

“But there was a lot of the process that went well. Overall, our record was 6-1-2, believe it or not. A lot of people wouldn’t remember that, nor would I want them to. Obviously, they’re going to remember the end. Including friendlies and everything, we were 6-1-2.

“In the qualify format, which is very tricky to be able to navigate, three games in five days, we were 1-1-1. That meant we got four points and that meant we didn’t go through.

“And that made it very difficult because the process was comfortable. It did go very well. Those are things that no one will know other than the players. But again, I think if you ask the players they’d say it went very well. They were prepared thoroughly. They were on boeard 100 percent.

“The Mexico game – the game we won 2-0, even though it was a friendly – they were the eventually Olympic champions, and not only did we win 2-0 but we controlled a majority of the match. For me, that was reinforcement of all the positive things that were going on.

“There were certainly things that I would do differently. Like any good coach, you’re continually eventuating yourself, your team, things that you can do better. There always needs to be a reflection, and there was a reflection on this process. I put together an extensive technical report that I presented to US Soccer with all those details.

“There were a lot of things that yes I would do differently. A lot of things I learned in the process. But there were a lot of things that went very well, too, a lot of things I would do the same. Overall, it was a great experience, one that will certainly helped me make this move.

Downward spiral: Fans criticize, are under criticism in Vancouver

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Fans express concerns about struggling team. Writer tells fans to check themselves. Player tacitly endorses writer’s shot at supporters.

Can you tell the Vancouver season’s starting to spiral downward?

Thankfully, as Marc Weber (writer for The Province in Vancouver) points out, the Whitecaps are still in prime position to secure their first Major League Soccer playoff spot. Until then, though, expect fans to continue to question what Weber calls “this whole Scottish experiment.”

Here’s a summary of the issues, as Weber outlines them: Last year, Whitecaps supporters criticized the organization for their lack of patience with original head coach Teitur Thordarson, who lasted only 12 games. Now, as Weber sees it, the fans lack patience with Martin Rennie’s mid-season shake up. Hypocrisy anyone?

Jay DeMerit seems to agree, retweeting Weber’s piece to his 32,650 followers:

source:

Weber makes a number of good, perspective-providing points about what Vancouver’s accomplished this season, though the contention that fans are being hypocritical may be a bit strong. Vancouver fans may not be pro-patience as much as they are anti-bad ideas, with last year’s call for patience their justification for seeing Thordarson’s dismissal as a poor choice. This year, they may not be willing to wait out the struggles of Kenny Miller and (to a lesser extent) Barry Robson because they see those signings as part of a flawed process.

It’s not an original thought – the idea that some in the league are overpaying for Scottish talent. It’s no secret that the Scottish Premier League is not what it once was, and when you see players like Miller and Portland’s Kris Boyd have a dramatic drop off in goal scoring when moving from the SPL to places like the English Championship and Turkey, it doesn’t take John Nash to figure out Scotland may not be the best place to mine designated players.

That argument may not be absolute, but it’s certainly viable, and it’s most likely why Vancouver fans aren’t taking a wait-and-see approach with Miller and Robson. Those players may still come off and be productive (Robson certainly has had a series of encouraging moments), but the process is flawed. When we see coaches and executives (many who have links to Scotland) treat products from that league as if the circuit was as strong as it was 20 years ago, it begs fan skepticism.

Perhaps Whitecaps’ fans should be a little more patient, but in the face of a big downturn in results, criticism is not uncalled for. It may not be right, but it’s fair.

And it’s not necessarily hypocritical. Vancouver’s fans may merely be anti-bad idea, and based on the what the SPL’s products have done outside of Scotland (particularly, Miller and Boyd), fans are justified in their skepticism.