When the whistle blew for half-time, it was met with mix of shell-shocked bemusement and anger. Bemusement, as the Portland Timbers had controlled so much of the game, with over 60% of possession, and yet it was New York who held the 3-1 advantage. Anger because they were the architects of their own downfall.
Despite that possession advantage, the visitors had gotten more shots on target and had made it count, helped by the fact that the Timbers defence, and Mikael Silvestre in particular, had had an absolute shocker.
Silvestre had been pitched straight into the starting line-up days after flying in from France to join up with his new teammates, and looked every bit as jet-lagged as you’d expect. The details of the cavalcade of calamity that unfolded in front of the Timbers Army in that first half will be better summed up by others, but suffice to say that, as passes went astray and runs went unnoticed, it seemed to me that this was a team that was crunching through the gears.
During that first half I felt a sense of nervousness and tension about the Timbers play, which is understandable with so many new faces on the field, as well as a new coach on the sideline. It’s not so far off being an expansion team again, and it’s against that measure that it may be best to judge these early months as there is clearly much that is still a work-in-progress.
The biggest problem I saw in the first half, aside from the defensive lapses, was the failure to bring the attacking players into the game. Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri never felt connected to the rest of the Timbers play for long spells.
Caleb Porter had a big job on his hands during the break at 3-1 down. Many coaches would’ve hooked Silvestre off but Porter stuck with his man, and Silvestre had the courage to put a torrid half behind him and face the music again.
Aside for the Silvestre issue, there was the fact that the tactics just weren’t quite working in the first half. Yes, they had seen more of the ball, but the truth was they weren’t really threatening New York with it. Yet it was not so broken that it needed a entirely new game plan. With a few tweaks to the system the Timbers were transformed in the second half. It was not a dramatic shift – it was the same players, playing broadly in the same shape – but it was enough to bring some bite to back up the Timbers’ first half bark.
I thought that if Silvestre played, the club may have to play a little deeper to compensate for the veteran’s relative lack of pace, and that seemed like the case in first half. And, individual errors aside, New York never really threatened too much in that first half, so on one level the deeper line worked.
Silvestre deserves some time to settle before leaping to judgment, and his improved second half showing seems to point to the first half as being aberrational. Silvestre’s distribution highlights what the Timbers have long been missing at the back – someone comfortable with the ball at his feet. I’d worry about playing him if the club were under the kosh, or faced with a pacey front line as I feel playing deeper to cover his lack of pace leaves the team a little too stretched out, but in matches like these, home games or matches where you would expect to be in control, he adds a lot to the backline.
Andrew Jean-Baptiste was the stand-out on the defence though. Thierry Henry was kept very quiet by the young defender, though there’s a tendency to put the blame on Henry for having a bad game than giving recognition to the guy who made life difficult for him. Jean-Baptiste still has a bit to learn when it comes to what to do with the ball, but he looks like someone Porter can build a defence around.
Both outside backs had solid, if unspectacular games, but I think Timbers fans will take that over what we’ve had for much of the last two years!
Where the deeper line hurt the team wasn’t on the defensive side, but was in stretching the space between defence/midfield and attack.
The issue with Darlington Nagbe is that you don’t, as a general rule, want Nagbe doing the bulk of his work 50 yards from goal. You want him picking it up 30 yards out and driving toward goal. The first half graph shows Nagbe doing a lot of work in deep midfield, but in the second half he was “off the leash” and playing a much more attacking game. It’s no surprise that both the Timbers second half goals benefited from Nagbe picking it up 30 yards or so from goal and running at defenders, as well as Diego Valeri’s preternatural ability to ghost unseen into spaces in key areas.
The problem in the first half was that Portland were struggling to get the ball to Valeri in the areas where he can do the most damage.
Valeri was doing much of his work on the right flank (unsuccessfully, one might add) as he sought to get involved. This was corrected in the second half, and we started to see Valeri getting on the ball centrally, where he could really hurt New York.
Porter was able to affect this change by pushing Nagbe on, which gave the New York midfield a new puzzle to solve, as well as closing up the defense and midfield behind him, allowing the team to play shorter, sharper passes and get the ball moving with some purpose and zip.
Will Johnson and Diego Chara were both terrier-like in the engine room, with Johnson looking every inch the natural captain. The two dovetailed beautifully, with one going and one staying as required, and it was one of the few times I’ve seen Chara play where I didn’t think he was taking the weight of covering his defence all upon his own shoulders as Johnson’s all-action presence beside him freed him up a little. Johnson and Chara complemented each other very well, and between them they ensured that Portland won the midfield battle. There will be few teams that are able to out-muscle or out-hustle Portland in midfield with these two players, that’s for sure.
As you can see, both players were pressing in New York’s half early on, but it never felt focused. After the break both players played with a more deliberate strategy, still giving no quarter but adding some consistency to their pressing game. There’s more to pressing than simply haring after the ball all over the pitch, you have to press at the right time lest you leave a gap behind you and that’s what we saw more of in the second half.
As well as their defensive work, both guys are comfortable on the ball, and displayed some solid passing through-out the match. Both hit over 80% accuracy and they occupied two of the top three spots for players with most passes (Harrington being the other). In fact, 12 of the top 13 were Timbers players (taking in by passes per minute), once more underlining Portland’s dominance of the ball.
Having course corrected during the interval, the Timbers shot figures improved across the board in the second half, and once they had got the second it was only a matter of whether time would run out before they got the equaliser.
This never-say-die attitude was best summed after the Timbers had made it 3-3 when the ball was promptly fished out of the net and returned to the centre spot. To be fair, it was not entirely one-way traffic in the second half, and New York had chances to exploit space on the counter as Portland camped out in New York’s half, but I don’t think anyone could’ve complained about the result had the Timbers won the match in true Hollywood fashion with Ryan Johnson’s late overhead kick.
Possession figures weren’t much changed from the first half to the second, going from 60.6% to 65.5% with accuracy also rising by a single percentage point, yet the Timbers brought a greater purpose to the second half. The shot count rose, and the key players were able to influence the game where it matters.
It took 45 minutes for Portland to find their rhythm, but once they had it was all New York could do to hold on. They weren’t simply stroking the ball along the halfway line and racking up the numbers, they were playing the game in the New York half and that is reflected in the Timbers playing more passes in the opponent’s defensive third than any other club on opening weekend.
New York were hemmed in for long spells, looking to hit on the break. However, such was Portland’s territorial dominance that only Montreal made fewer passes in the opponent’s defensive third than New York.
There have been so many changes around the club this offseason that a few teething pains are to be expected. I don’t think Silvestre, five games into the season, makes the same mistakes as he did, and as the defence build up a better understanding of each other and their roles, someone like Olave isn’t going to go walkabout in the six yard box, completely unchecked by anyone in green.
As well as the fluid football, what was also encouraging to me was, even though it wasn’t quite working in the first half, Caleb Porter was able to tweak it and get a result. The fact that he and his players were still disappointed after their fight back speaks volumes.
The Timbers are here to win, and the rest of the league had better get used to it.
Welcome to Porterland.