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.

BYxAdwOCQAAzcUeMorales’ 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.

Hard CenterThis 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.

Leaving The Middle Ground

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.

Stretching The Centre From The Wing

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.

Problems In The Hole

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.

7 thoughts on “Strength

  1. What do you think would happen if Porter started Alvas Powell instead of Jack and told him to bomb forward as often as possible? Would chasing Powell throw RSL off their game?

    1. I must admit, after I saw Jack slip for what seemed like the third time, I starting thinking Powell needed to come in. Jack provides a more cerebral and experienced presence, as opposed to Powell who I’ve seen make some rash decisions, but he didn’t seem to have the speed to keep up on the outside.
      And then Jack played that ball into Piq at the death and I started thinking maybe it was a good thing he stayed in.

      1. When Powell came in, he was a breath of fresh air. Rash, as you say, but athletic in a way that Jack simply isn’t able to be and his first start came after the Timbers’ 2nd defeat in 4 games. Jewsbury had started at right-back for those four and the team’s defense wasn’t bad – 4 conceded – but the attack was suffering – we scored 3 – so Powell’s extra lung allowed us to switch things up a bit and the team scored 6 in the first 3 games he started, culminating in the 3-3 draw with RSL. We only won one of those four games Powell started, and that was against FC Dallas, so with a run of tougher games ahead, it made sense to go back to Jack. The team didn’t score many more than before with Jack reinstated – 5 in 5 (until Chivas skews things) – but we only conceded twice.

        Given that we need to, by necessity, be on the front foot, there’s a case for putting Powell back in, but Jack’s ability to make up for the 20 yards he loses to Powell in pace by making the ball do the work for him is an asset that Porter won’t overlook. Plus, I’d worry about the space we’d leave on the counter for Morales to attack behind Powell. The less we have to give our centerbacks to think about, the happier I feel about our chances, and I mean that in the nicest possible sense!

  2. I’ve been wondering if it’s worthwhile also looking at the losses RSL suffered later in the season to see if there’s anything consistent about the way their opponents broke them down.

    on 8/17 LA beat them 4-2 on a Keane hat trick. From the recap it sounds like the two sides were pretty evenly matched but Keane was on fire and Saborio was marked out of the match.

    9/13 Seattle beat them 2-nil; Saborio was out and the recap makes it sound like Seattle went up in the third minute and forced RSL to chase, packed back and picked up the second goal on a counter.

    9/21, San Jose beat them 2-1 on two Lenhart setpieces. Again, the recap talks about the “compact defense” that allowed SJ lots of possession but few decent opportunities.

    10/1 DC United took the Open Cup 1-nil; again, the recap says that RSL controlled most of the run of play but that DCU packed the back and played for the counter.

    And their last loss was the 11/3 first leg of the semis, where LA beat them 1-nil; RSL went with a 4-5-1 to try and neutralize LA’s attack but doesn’t seem to have done that well, with Donovan and Keane giving them stick in the first half before Franklin did a Will Johnson and curled a strike in from 30 yards…

    So I’m not sure what the lesson learned here is. Defend in depth and play the counter, yeah, but needing three goals I’m not sure we can do that. And if we’re going to defend we have to get better performances out of everyone back of midfield than we saw on Sunday…I’m sure we can do that, but not that it’ll be enough to pull back those two goals.

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