Kevin Alexander wonders if the Timbers greatest defensive strength is also the root of their downfall against Real Salt Lake.
Confession time. I had Real Salt Lake as my pick to win the West from long before the Timbers made a late run towards first (I had us down for 4th or 5th, so shows what I know), and even Portland’s triumph didn’t shake me of my belief that Jason Kreis’ side was the best team in the league.
Of course, tables don’t lie, and the Timbers bested RSL over 34 games, and yet in five matches across all competitions RSL have proven stubbornly resistant to defeat, winning three and drawing the other two. There’s just something about this team that is kryptonite to Caleb Porter, Portland’s mild-mannered soccer head coach.
Javier Morales’ goal, Salt Lake’s fourth on the night, put him on 3 against the Timbers, scoring in each of the MLS matches he dressed for, and equaled the tally of Camilo and Eddie Johnson. The recent clean sheet that Portland kept against RSL came in a match that Morales sat out, and his presence in the team is one that Portland seem to have real problems legislating for.
Morales’ heatmap is interesting for the way it weaves its way around the average location of the Timbers starting XI, and perhaps indicates part of the problem Portland have had picking him up and removing his influence from the proceedings.
This chart shows the relative bias clubs gave to playing through the centre in the opposing half. The Vancouver and RSL games stand out as being those with a lower focus of playing through the middle. 51% of Vancouver’s attacking play came down their right, while RSL focussed 47% down the left and 37% down the right in the latest defeat. You might also remember that the Whitecaps’ Camilo was another of the trio who have scored three times against Portland.
In many ways, this could seen as a result of the Timbers own success. They have finally settled upon a steady back line with Will Johnson and Diego Chara earning plaudits for their play in the engine room. Johnson’s 3 goals in the last 4 games shows there is more to the pairing that their defensive work, but it’s this “graft” that has no gone unnoticed.
Part of the reason for such a difference in performance between the games against Seattle and RSL is the way both teams tackled the problem of how to get past Johnson and Chara. Seattle used brute force, flooding the area with bodies; Salt Lake used a keen understanding of the value of space. Kreis and Morales knew that if Portland were going to restrict the space in the center that meant that there would be space elsewhere, and a smart player on a good team with the time to get his head up and pick a pass can hurt you as surely from within spitting distance of the sideline as he can in the middle.
The first couple of goals can be chalked up to defensive errors on the part of Futty Danso, who was beaten too easily for the header on the first, and managed to beat himself for the second. That’s unfortunate, but to be expected. The Great Wall of Gambia has held firm over the past few weeks, but it’s far from impregnable as the ever-increasing number of Ricketts Wonder Saves (TM) would attest to. That Porter has gotten as much stability as he has from what must be, at best, Plan G in defence is a great credit to all involved, but in the recent lauding of the effect that Futty’s return has had on the team, what has perhaps been lost is the value of an arguably more important line of defence ahead of them. The reason that finding a way past Johnson and Chara is so important, and why Sigi’s boys had to make do with consolation goals whereas Vancouver’s and Salt Lake’s goals matter, is that it is a given that you’ll get chances against Kah and Futty. I mean no disrespect to guys who give their all for the tam and will go down in the annals for their efforts over this year (and beyond), but to borrow the words of Pa Modou Kah, if they were that good, they wouldn’t be playing here.
Aerially, they are imposing, but neither are particularly clever footballers, it is here that Silvestre is most keenly missed, now are they fast. Johnson and Chara provide a screen in front that stops most of the balls down the channels that would get Danso and Kah turning, but in a match where the opponents aren’t looking to play through the middle, those defences can be broken down by a couple of passes.
This kind of play exploits the spaces left in the flanks by Porter’s team as they seek to press the ball up the pitch and use the full-backs to add width to the attack. The pressing allows Real Salt Lake to open up space between the defence and midfield, with Morales drifting into position from wide.
The way Portland are set up is built upon there being two distinct Timbers XI’s out there at all times. In defence, the lines are tight, four at the back, two in front, the wide attackers pressing the flanks and Valeri and the striker adding nuisance value where applicable. In attack the full-backs can operate as withdrawn wide midfielders or as overlapping wingers, with the attacking wide players narrowing to overload the centre and work tight, quick passes with each other and Valeri, and Johnson or Chara taking it turns to sit or go.
This strategy works well, except it seems where teams cede that central space to Portland and exploit the spaces left out wide to stretch a defence that is prone to cracking under pressure and work the ball into the box, bypassing Fortress Midfield. Finding a way to plug the holes without leaving other areas exposed may be the key to Portland turning round a two-goal deficit back in Portland, and they can be thankful that they have two weeks to work on it.