Friday, April 20, 2012

Soccernomics: Timbers Practice Facility and Field Size

Photo Credit: Bruce Ely / The Oregonian
Because it is Friday and Timbers game-day is tomorrow I shall cease to worry about the economy and its many woes and instead turn to much sunnier pursuits (especially tomorrow if the weather report is to be believed) - soccer!

So the Timbers unveiled their training facility to the media yesterday and it looks great.  I hope it will be a big help in recruiting and retaining players.  I was also delighted to read last week that they hired a conditioning coach as fitness seems to be a real problem for the Timbers - lack of energy late in games has been a killer.

Anyway the facility looks great and it seems to be a nice public/private partnership - as someone who plays soccer and who has two soccer playing boys, any new turf field in the Portland area is something to celebrate.  But I thought this passage from Geoff Arnold's story on the facility was incredible:
One of the highlights of the facility are the two full size soccer fields - a grass field designated for exclusive use by the Timbers and a second artificial turf field that will be used by the public. The dimensions of each practice field is the same - 70x110 yards - as Jeld-Wen Field.
The whole idea of a grass field is to be able to better prepare for playing the entire MLS away from home (with the exception of Seattle, Vancouver and New England who play on turf) just about all of whom have much bigger fields.  Why don't you have a practice grass field that is of similar dimensions to the actual pitches you'll be playing on?  Odd.  Though any pitch between 70 and 80 yards wide and 110 and 120 yards long is within FIFA regulations, the modern standard is 75 x 115.  Almost all new stadiums built for soccer are using this standard.  Of course the Timbers have opted to make their pitch as small as is allowed by FIFA.  Doesn't sound like a lot but the difference is 12% more space to play in, which is a lot.

What is also interesting is that you hear a lot about how the Timbers want to utilize their speed to their advantage.  But this completely contrary to the size of their pitch.  With such a small area in which to work there just aren't the spaces to run on to.  Now, you can be like the Arsenal of the late 1990s and 2000s, who played on a tiny pitch at Highbury but played a quick passing game which the present day Timbers are trying to emulate.  But this is speed in a very different sense (quick passing and movement in confined spaces and quickness of thought) and requires a supremely high degree of technical ability.  Most importantly it requires exceptionally talented and creative midfielders like Pires, Fabregas and Ljungberg and a withdrawn striker of the Dennis Bergkamp type.  Just watch tomorrow how slowly the Timber switch the ball through the back or through the midfield and you'll see what I am talking about.

In fact most teams that play on a small pitch play a compact defensive style that relies on counter-attacks.  Stoke City famously shrunk their pitch to be able to compete better in the Premiership with a team of limited skill and flair so it is interesting that the Timbers are trying to emphasize skill and flair and yet maintain a tiny little pitch.  Perhaps it is possible to end up playing the Arsenal way in Portland, but I doubt the ability of an MLS team to be able to pay enough to attract a critical mass of players at that level.  I think we are already seeing how a Franck Songo'o, who possesses great technical ability, could end up at the Timbers after a trial: his play and passion are seemingly very inconsistent - at least so far.  Too early to judge, but...

I have accepted that grass is just not going to work at Jeld-Wen but I fail to understand the Timbers dogged insistence on such a small field.  But this is all an exercise in nit-picking.  The Timbers are great the stadium is great and it is great to have them in MLS.  Let's hope they can put in a great performance tomorrow and get back to winning ways.

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