Beautiful Ugly

Football is often called “The Beautiful Game” but those who went looking for it at Jeld-Wen Field on Saturday would’ve been sorely disappointed. The unbeaten juggernaut that is Sporting Kansas City came visiting with the Timbers at a low ebb – four defeats in a row and no wins since the opening day – so it’s little wonder that the match bore more resemblance to trench warfare than Joga Bonito.

In the end, the Timbers stopped their losing run, and put paid to Sporting’s perfect start, with a scrappy, hard-fought 1-0 win. It was an ugly match; the kind of beauty that could only be appreciated by a parent, or in this case, a victor.

The Timbers knew they would face a physical team in Kansas City. They press high, they press hard and they take no prisoners. Any timidity or hesitation and the steamroller would’ve rolled right through Portland and left a team crushed by a fifth defeat on the spin. This was, after all, a match with 28 fouls and a couple of scuffles although, I never really thought it was especially dirty.

The Timbers not only stood up to the challenge, they pushed right back. They were physical and determined right from the first whistle and never allowed their opponents a moment to settle, hunting in packs to close off those in light blue.

In my match preview, I’d talked about Sporting’s effort and work rate, and the Timbers matched that and more, with Spencer taking a risk in his team selection. Injuries perhaps forced his hand to a degree, but the decision to play Lovel Palmer as a defensive midfielder could so easily have been one that backfired on the coach.

Instead, Palmer rose to the challenge with a seasons best performance, snuffing out much of the threat offered centrally by Graham Zusi. Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe played out wide, with Jack Jewsbury offering an extra insurance policy in the centre. Jorge Perlaza and Kris Boyd led the line, with the Scot in particular relishing the battle against Aurélien Collin, who he had faced before in Scotland when Collin was part of the single worst team I have ever seen in the SPL, Gretna. (Honestly – eye-gougingly, breaking out in hives just remembering, dreadful.)

Given the height and physical presence on the Kansas City attack, it’s little wonder that most of their threat came, as Phil Collins once said, in the air tonight but here Eric Brunner and Hanyer Mosquera did very well. Though they didn’t win every header, they were alert to the second phase and, with help from Steve Purdy and Mike Chabala, were able to clear the danger. Sporting thrive on the chaos they can cause in the box, often scoring scrappy goals from rebounds, but they rarely got much of a sniff in the Timbers box and that’s a credit to the defensive organisation of Spencer’s team.

But the defensive side of the Timbers game wasn’t just about winning second balls and hoofing it clear, they also did a fantastic job in nullifying the threat that Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic offer down the flanks. I was worried when I saw the Nagbe was playing out left as his natural inclination to attack could’ve left Chabala wide open to an overlapping Myers run, but Nagbe did fantastically well in keeping Myers out of the game with defensive covering.

Nagbe was also able to force Myers onto the back foot, pinning him back into his own half for much of the game. So much of Sporting’s play is about exploiting the flanks to work the ball across for their big target-men strikers, but Myers wasn’t nearly as effective at this as he has been in the past.

In previous trips to the West Coast, Myers has proven to be a useful attacking outlet, but up against Nagbe and Chabala, he didn’t get many touches of the ball in the final third.

A poor night was compounded for Myers when he headed home the only goal of the match, right in front of the massed ranks of the Timber Army. A hopeful floated cross from Boyd seemed to be going nowhere in particular until Myers nodded past his own keeper at the back post, under a challenge from his own team-mate. Whether it’s an own goal, or a thirty yard screamer into the top corner, all goals count the same and it put the Timbers on their way to an important victory.

The move that led to the goal was started by Diego Chara sweeping up a loose ball. Chara revelled in a role that allowed him to go both ways, rather than just staying back. He was up and down the field all night, even switching flanks at times with Nagbe so that he covered just about every inch of the field in the course of 90 all-action minutes.

There was some confusion over Chara when he was signed. Was he an attacking midfielder, or a defensive one? The truth is I think he’s neither, and yet both at the same time. He’s the guy who’ll nip at heels in defence, win the ball back, and then give and go. He has a great engine, as was shown in a great chance right at the start of the second half.

This was counter-attacking football straight out the text book. The passing was crisp and direct, and the off-the-ball running timed to perfection. Sinovic’s attempt to play the high pressing game backfired on him as Chara simply outpaced him. This running is an aspect of his game we don’t see often enough given he’s usually played in a holding role, but he is deceptively quick – covering a good fifty-sixty yards in six seconds – before delivering a, forgive me, slide rule pass that Boyd got on the end of and probably should’ve done better with.

Chara's defensive work
Chara played his wide role very well, even though it’s clearly not his natural position. This versatility is a great asset for the team. He often ranged in field, as you’d expect, and it’s here that he won most of his tackle and turnovers. He was able to do this, and abandon the flank thanks, in part, to the excellent work of Perlaza.

I got a bit of stick for my defence of Perlaza a while ago – though many more agreed with me, at least on some points, which is always nice to see – but I thought he was magnificent here once more. If anyone did have criticisms about Perlaza before, it was generally along the lines that he does a lot of (often pointless) running but with very little end product, and poor link up play. His link-up play against Sporting was beyond reproach and if he’d been a bit greedier, and willing to stick out his left foot, he could’ve scored from Chara’s pass in the breakaway.

A goal would’ve been fine reward for his performance but even without that tangible reward, his running kept the Kansas City back line wary, and that was a crucial cog in the Timbers defensive strategy. The best defence begins at the front.

And in a quirky little statistic that I like to throw out on twitter from time to time, Perlaza has now started in 12 of Timbers’ 13 MLS wins – the most of any player on the roster, and has a win rate of 40%, compared to the Timbers own 31.7%. Funny, that.

Perlaza's heat map
Collin was given the unenviable task of marshalling Boyd – a fascinating duel within a duel there that would probably have resulted in a marginal points victory to Boyd – which left Besler to pick up Perlaza, except Perlaza often pulled out wide right leaving Besler with little to do. The man-marking of Boyd seems to be an emerging trend this year, and having someone with the mobility of Perlaza is ideal to exploit this close attention on his strike partner.

Perlaza’s shift to wider areas had the effect of keeping Sinovic in check and with Convey having a pretty poor game and his replacement, Teal Bunbury, not being a natural wide man, it cut Kansas City off from their own left flank.

The sterling work out wide forced Kansas City to try and play through the centre, where the Timbers had numbers in their favour. They were reduced to looking to long range efforts or set plays for their best chances, and the Timbers did a good job of defending these – again dominating the second ball and forcing it clear of the danger area before a Sporting player could pounce.

As I wrote about in the preview, exploiting the space behind Myers and Sinovic was going to be the key that unlocked the Kansas City defence, and that’s what Chara saw with his run round the outside of Sinovic for the earlier chance. It was a route the Timbers tried to take a number of times and with a bit of luck, could’ve profited from.

A look at the Timbers passing from their own half just shows how often they would look for the direct ball out of defence in an attempt to spring a quick counter on Sporting.

What should also be noted is these weren’t simply hit-and-hopes or wild clearances. You can clearly see the targeting of the passes towards the wide areas.

I’ve given John Spencer some stick over the last few weeks, and I maintain every word was warranted, but tonight he played a perfect game. He set his team up to cancel out the threats of Kansas City, got some outstanding performances from his players, and had a clear counter-punching strategy that was effective.

It was a strategy that gave a lot of possession of the ball to Kansas City, but in all honesty possession is overrated. It’s actually a very poor indicator of victory. The assumed correlation of possession and goals scored is one of the great myths of football. It’s not how long you have the ball, or how many passes you string together, it’s where you do it that counts and the Timbers were all about denying Sporting access to those areas, whilst looking to go direct in exploiting them in return.

Jack Jewsbury’s got a bit of stick here too, but I thought he was much improved. Perhaps having Palmer behind him gave him the confidence to play a little more freely, but whatever it was, he looked like a player with a weight off his shoulders.

One result doesn’t make a season – Timbers are still bottom of the Western Conference – but it has stopped a slide that was threatening to effectively end Timbers play-off hopes before we’d even hit May. With a match against Montreal Impact next week, this is a great chance for the team to turn the momentum round and start climbing the table again.

It was also pleasing to see the team do everything I hoped they would do…

Okay, I got the minute wrong, and the body part, but close enough!

Oh, and in terms of Man of the Match, it’s Chara for me. The team as a whole played well, so it’s difficult picking one out, but I loved Chara’s industry and guile.

It’s only one win, a scrappy three points thanks to an own goal, but there’s heart back in the Rose City, and if they can build upon this, it could be looked back on as the catalyst for a famous year for Cascadia’s finest.

You cannot stop us.

2 thoughts on “Beautiful Ugly

  1. As usual, your commentary is compelling and insightful. I might add two things: (1) Spencer’s in-game substitutions were sensible and timely for a change. I believe he helped the team maintain their energy level for the last 15 minutes (unlike the past few outings); and (2) the referee was better than we’re accustomed to, even if he had no trouble detecting our dives while taking all theirs at face value.

    I look forward to your posts ahead of all others. Thank you!

  2. I also wonder if having his old teammates come visit didn’t help Cap’n Jack find his Inner Gattuso. Whatever it was, he looked an order of magnitude better last Saturday than he had in the preceding three matches.

    Wonderfully unexpected, bizarre win. Down in Section 109 we were still stunned ninety minutes on at the own-goal; although many of us are old-fashioned enough to deplore the “assist” as a football statistic we all felt that Boyd deserved one for the pure perverse self-destruction his cross provoked…

    And Kris provided the other great moment from that match, when (after Collin went to ground, again – he was positively Italianate in his diving) Boyd walked over and simply hoisted him to his feet and patted him on the shoulder. You could almost hear Kris saying “Gerrup, ya soft pillock, you’ll no’ get me a yella for that weak sauce…”

    One little ray of gloom in the sunshine, though; I would have liked to see yet more organization in the back. At one point in one of the more desperate scrambles in the second half I looked downfield to see Mosquera making a tackle about five yards past the midfield stripe on the left sideline! Probably because Steve Purdy had been ballchasing and was pulled out of position… I’m glad the Boys covered each other and were willing to leave their positions to win challenges, but it’d be even better to see more coordination and patience in defense; still don’t see Perkins earning the part of his pay that reads “runs the backline”. And let’s don’t get started on “safe hands”…

    But still wearing the manic grin from Saturday evening; RCTID!

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