Saturday sees the Timbers host early-season pacesetters Sporting Kansas City at Jeld-Wen with the Timbers on a four-game losing streak, and Sporting on a 100% winning run for 2012. A victory for the home team could be a great kick-start to our season, but overcoming a team with a 12-2 aggregate score for the season will be a tall order.
How do the Timbers beat the so-far unbeatable team? Well, there are a few points that would certainly help.
1 – Play for 90 minutes!
Pretty basic this one, but it’s something that’s caught the Timbers out far too often. Kansas will certainly be alert and active for the full 90, and Portland have to match them in effort and work-rate.
The Timbers have thrown away a couple of matches this season already losing late goals, and Sporting have won two matches with goals in the last few minutes of a match. Concentration and fitness levels will be crucial to prevent more late game woe for the home side.
As well as late goals, Timbers will have to be wary around half time. 5 times Sporting have scored in the five minutes before or just after half time, while the Timber have lost goals jsut either side of half time in the last two matches, as well as going behind in the first minute at New England. Again, it’s about not switching off near the end of a half, and being ready to go at the start of the next. Slow starts and weak finishes will be punished mercilessly by Kansas, make no mistake. This is a fit team, with good players who are capable of capitalising on the slightest drop in Timbers play.
First minute to last, the Timbers need 100%.
2 – Know Your Role!
We’ve seen with Palmer coming on against LA, and Jewsbury’s performance against Chivas that it’s crucial a player knows what they’re supposed to be doing out there, and does it.
Kansas will come at Portland in their usual 4-3-3 formation – it’s got them this far and there’s no reason to change it now.
Zusi and Espinoza in the centre are both great at making late runs, and we’ve seen in the past how a late runner can catch Portland out.
The top picture shows LaBrocca’s late run to head home Chivas’ winner, and the bottom shows a late run by Zusi into the box that resulted in a goal for Sporting.
Sapong, or Bunbury, will play that role at front-man, but expect to see Kamara push inside to make it a front two. With both guys well over six-foot, it’s no surprise that their main threat comes in the air so it’s crucial that both Brunner and Mosquera win those battles. It’s important that Kamara is picked up by one of our centre-backs and isn’t allowed to get a run on them coming off the LB.
The full-backs also have an important role in this match. Much of KC’s play will come down the flanks, and they’ll look to exploit the movement of Kamara and Convey in wide areas to isolate our full-backs, and give their wing-backs an overlap into clear space where they are more than capable of sending in dangerous balls for their strikers to attack. Myers and Sinovic often play, essentially, as auxiliary wingers.
Given how Palmer was brutally exposed by Chivas, it’s vital that we don’t allow our full-backs to be outnumbered in this match. Our wide midfielders have a crucial dual-role in this regard – back up the full-back when needed and, importantly, try and keep Myers and Sinovic pushed back up the field. It’s a delicate balancing act – knowing when the push on, and drop back – and one that will require our wide players all communicating well, and concentrating for the full 90.
I expect the Timbers to line-up in a 4-4-2 like this:
Some of the names may change (Alhassan has been ruled out), but I suspect this will be the shape. We may see Songo’o start, for example. One change that I wouldn’t actually mind seeing would be Wallace starting out left. He knows the full-back role, but his major responsibility wouldn’t be his weakest area – defending – and he would have the energy and work-rate to get up and down the line, helping out Chabala when needed.
The wide men will have the vital role, with Jewsbury and Chara deep to match any runs of Zusi and Espinoza.
It’s crucial that the Timbers are disciplined at all times, and aware of what’s going around them as KC can be clinical at exploiting any space or hesitation in these vital areas.
Last year the Timbers started the season at the set play kings. Jack Jewsbury’s delivery from dead balls was exemplary and won the Timbers many points. This year, KC are the masters of the dead ball. Many of their goals have come directly, or indirectly from set pieces so it’s vital that the Timbers attack the ball when defending set plays, rather than simply matching runs or defending space. KC have a lot of height to throw forward in these situations, and look for them to out-muscle Portland in the box. The Timbers have to stand their ground, and decisively win the ball.
Even if they do get a block in, or a header is saved, the Timbers have to be able to react quickly and win those second balls. Kansas have scored a few goals by reacting first to a loose ball, or a rebound, and it’s not a fluke. It’s about anticipation and reading the play. Too often Timbers players have been caught on their heels, waiting for something to happen – they need to be on their toes, looking to be first to every loose ball in and around the box because Sapong, Kamara, Bunbury – these guys generally don’t need two or three bites at the cherry.
The attacking overlapping runs of Myers and Sinovic offer an attacking threat for Kansas, but could also leave spaces behind for the Timbers to exploit with quick breaks.
Though turning the ball over is easier said than done, it’s of upmost importance and if and when the Timbers manage it, that they’re able to exploit the swathes of real estate left wide open in the KC defence. This is where the wide players need to recognise the potential quickly and get forward, and the strikers have to be ready to react incisively.
Of course, Jeld-Wen isn’t the widest of pitches (© every visiting coach, ever), but there’s still plenty of room to be exploited there, and by getting midfielders forward quickly, it’s possible to create a, to borrow a hockey phrase (damn my hockey-loving wife), powerplay situation.
Nagbe is especially good at getting the ball in these wide pockets of space and committing defences. It’s an area of the pitch I like to call the Nagbe Zone.
Getting the ball quickly and cleanly from defence to attack, allowing Nagbe to do what he does best, at speed, could be a way to get in behind KC and cause chaos in their defence.
Partly because of this, I’d like to see the Timbers play a 4-3-3 formation, with Alexander joining Chara and Jewsbury in the centre. Alexander’s brief would be to range from box-to-box and across the field, giving support to the full-backs in defence, and a late running option from the centre in attack, either exploiting the area left by Julio Cesar (or whoever may play the DM role for Kansas) to close down Nagbe/Perlaza/Boyd or forcing Cesar to hesitate, giving someone like Nagbe the half-second he needs to produce a piece of magic. I’d expect Perlaza and Nagbe to drop out wide when not in possession to exploit any space behind Myers and Sinovic, but quickly move centrally to support Boyd.
But I fully understand the reasoning behind going with a 4-4-2 as it arguably offers better cover in wide areas, and those tend to be the areas that Kansas look to spring attacks from, so that’s what I expect to see on Saturday from the Timbers. It requires the wide midfielders to be highly athletic, and disciplined in their play as both defence and attack will rely heavily on their actions on and off the ball.
Beating Kansas certainly won’t be easy, but it’s far from the realms of the impossible. While they’ve been impressive so far, they’re not invincible and the Timbers have shown in flashes enough quality to punish them, given the chance. They just need to make it stick across the full 90!
Controlling the flanks and dictating the terms of engagement there is vital. We must be wary of their threat, but we can’t be scared to take the game to them at times and force them back.
The central midfielders have to know who they’re picking up and where they are. No more repeats of previous goals lost where players have seemingly wandered into the box without anyone realising they were there.
Brunner and Mosquera have to communicate well – Perkins will be vital in this too – and they have to win their individual battles. They’re going to be sore on Sunday cos Kamara and Sapong will give them a game, but having three points in the bag will make the aches and pains seem so much more bearable.
Concentration, discipline, anticipation and precision will be the key attributes needed.
Onward Rose City…