364 days after the announcement of his arrival, Kenny Cooper was traded to Red Bull New York. The return is a 2013 first round draft pick and allocation money. That move, first reported about thirty minutes ahead of the SuperDraft, completely changes the outlook for the 2012 Portland Timbers. While the allocation money gained is likely to help fund the acquisition of one (or more) international defenders and/or midfielders, the effect is likely to be more drastic along the forward line. The addition of neither Andrew Jean-Baptiste nor Brendan King, today’s draft class, will have the impact of the departure of Cooper. Whereas before the trade we were looking at a similar team with the hope of improvements at various positions, the outlook is now quite open.
Looking back to a post I made just ten days ago, the possibilities of formational change or at least movement of players within the existing formation, were slim. Again, excepting upgrades at the back, the thrust of the Timbers’ attack looked very much unchanged from the often vapid performances of a year ago. There were certainly moments where Portland inspired but less often than I would like to remember, the offensive game plan and output were lacking. When John Spencer benched Cooper in favor of Eddie Johnson midway through 2011, and then later when Darlington Nagbe was allowed to play in his natural role as a withdrawn forward, the Timbers lurched to life offensively. Unfortunately for Johnson, his concussions prevented his ascent, though he did play very well in friendlies and against Toronto. Nagbe revealed how great he can be when playing as a forward, though he did actually combine with Cooper better than he did with Jorge Perlaza.
Removing the necessity to start, or play Cooper (he was the only player in the squad to appear in all thirty-four league matches in 2011) gives Spencer license to more freely adjust to game-by-game circumstances. For example, more than a few away games could have been more easily managed if the Timbers could have at least tried playing a 4-5-1. Cooper is unsuited to that role and Perlaza is not physical enough to pull it off either. Johnson did a nice job when Spencer moved to a full-time 4-5-1 (or 4-3-3 if you’re a dreamer, like me) for several matches as he could hold up play in the center circle and allow an attack to build around him. With four additional away games against LA Galaxy (0-3), FC Dallas (0-4), Real Salt Lake (1-1) and Colorado Rapids (1-3) in 2012, a 4-5-1 might need to be used in order to salvage draws or even possibly steal three points. Regardless of what other moves happen, it seems the Timbers could be quite a good counter-attacking team. In fairness, this was a strength of Cooper’s that will be missed (see his goal away to Vancouver) but not having his slow, deliberate play forty yards from goal should enhance Portland’s ability to hit on the break in away matches.
Perhaps the most important facet of Cooper’s departure is the possibility of seeing more of Nagbe in a forward role. Though he only scored once from that position (his header against New England), Nagbe was clearly most comfortable with the ball at his feet in the middle of the park. Combining with Diego Chará to build an attack through the middle, rather than defaulting to poorly executed overlapping runs on the wings, greatly enhanced the Timbers’ attacking ability, not to mention making them less predictable. His inclusion as a roaming presence beneath another forward (presumably Perlaza to start) gives the furthest man forward no confusion as to his role and allows more natural wingers to take up their positions on the flanks. Sal Zizzo‘s ACL injury could hamper this process and it would not be a surprise to see Nagbe on the wing to start the season, but hopefully that is not the case. Not because Nagbe isn’t good on the wing but because he is better further upfield.
It should be pointed out that Cooper was the team’s leading scorer in 2011. The goals he scored the only goals in games that provided three points against Real Salt Lake and Vancouver and goals that brought draws against San Jose (twice) and DC United. That’s nine points directly attributable to Cooper, not to mention goals he scored in wins against Dallas and New England, and of course the club’s first ever goal in the loss at Colorado. His struggles in mid-season have been well documented but it does seem his successes have been slightly overlooked. Replacing that output, even if just eight goals, will not be an easy task for the Timbers in 2012. The hope is that goals will actually be provided by outside midfielders (just one was scored in 2011 – Nagbe’s Goal of the Year against Sporting) and that Perlaza and Nagbe can pick up some of the slack.
Though the move probably had to be made, Cooper’s departure means training camp will be even more important than it was in 2011, at least relative to the forward position. Given the money paid to Cooper and Perlaza, it is no surprise to see how much they played in the inaugural MLS season. Without the burden of Cooper’s contract and status, relative to his previous MLS tenure, Spencer should not feel as burdened when selecting his starting XI and substitutes. Bright Dike and Johnson were retained, presumably for depth, and Brent Richards was added, not to mention Young Designated Player José Valencia. The latter seems destined to work his way into the side as he adjusts to MLS and North America. Dike will have his chance, before Trencito is fully acclimated, to make his case as a regular in the 18. For Johnson, the same is true. If he is fully healthy, he will be given every opportunity to be the first forward off the bench – perhaps starting in situations where a 4-5-1 is apt. And Richards should be a reserve player, unless Spencer moves him to the wing, as was suggested today by Merritt Paulson. My hope is that he is not forced into an unnatural position but given a chance in the reserves to show what talent he has as a forward. Lest he become the next Brian Umony – eternally destined to play out of position in the reserves.