Tag Archives: Sporting KC

Six Degrees: Kansas City

A few quick thoughts on the Portland Timbers  3-2 win over Sporting Kansas City.

1) Man oh man, it’s good to be a Timbers fan right now, isn’t it?  Each and every week, it seems we prove something new.  This time, we proved we can win on the road.  And not against some chumps, either.  This was against one of the best teams in the league.  And we didn’t steal those 3 points.  We earned them.  We were the better team.

Absolutely amazing, isn’t it?  Such a change from last year.  We’re no longer the loveable losers.  We’re contenders, now.  Legitimate contenders.

2) In last week’s column, I was a grumpy old man, up in arms over the team’s late-game bunkering.  Since then, enough people have argued against me, trying to teach me something about soccer, that I’m starting to question myself.  Yes, maybe our “bunkering” is really just the other team getting desperate and throwing numbers forward.  Maybe our boys are doing the best they can, surviving the onslaught.  I may be willing to concede this point.  Maybe.

But there were still a few times against KC that I thought the Bunker Monster had returned.  Not as bad as at San Jose, but still, it felt a little bunker-ish.  I’ve got one more thought on this matter and then I’ll move on: Frederic Piquionne is an excellent late-game sub, especially if we’ve got the lead and our defense is under siege.  He’s a big target and he’s outstanding 1v1.  When the other team’s sending everything forward and our defense is just trying to clear the ball out of danger, Freddy gets on the end of those deep, desperate clearances, then has the strength and skill to hold onto that ball a good long while.  Heck, he even gets close to a few shots on goal.  The other team has to give him a little attention, which means a little less pressure on our tired, besieged, late-game defense.  I’m not sure we should be starting Piquionne, not when he’s this valuable as an end-of-game sub.

3) Since I’m talking about Piquionne, let’s do some quick hits on a few other players.

Diego Valeri – He sees things other players just don’t.  It’s like he’s playing in slow-motion or something.  Smooth as silk.

Ryan Johnson – I love his work rate, I love his first-goal header, and I want to marry his second-goal assist.

Darlington Nagbe –  Could his goal have been any cooler?  That pass was slightly behind him and he somehow throws his feet backwards to tap it in.  Backwards!

Rodney Wallace – When the guy brings it, he brings it in a big way.  Huge shot from distance.  Fabulous goal while being crunched forward and behind.  Tons of energy.

Diego Chara – He’s short, he’s hard, he’s got a yellow card, and he’s tied for the league lead in assists.  Who’da thunk it?

4) So let’s talk about the improvements we’re seeing from so many players.  The guy next to me at the bar was talking about how everyone looks “so much smarter” this year.  I agree completely.  But why?  Have they really learned so much more from Caleb Porter and his possession-based style?  Or did they already know all this, they just didn’t have a chance to show it?  I imagine it’s a little of both, really.  But whatever the reason, we Timbers fans are the beneficiaries.  This is a team that is fun to watch.  The style of play is so much more attractive.  Even better, when we win, it doesn’t feel lucky.  We’ve become a team that should win.

5) Now, I’m gonna say something a little dangerous here, so please don’t freak out, but I think we have to give some credit to general manager Gavin Wilkinson.  Yes, yes, we may not like him much, but we have to acknowledge what he’s done.

Our current success didn’t begin on opening day.  It didn’t even begin when Caleb Porter finally left Akron and landed at PDX.  No, our team started changing almost as soon as we fired John Spencer mid-season.  From that point on, everything Wilkinson did was about building a “Porterball” team.  Caleb Porter, still coaching at Akron, was able to watch our games, analyze the tape, and tell Wilkinson what kind of changes needed to happen and what sort of players he needed.  Gavin could have fought him, but he didn’t.  Instead, he broke down the old and built up the new.  I am perfectly prepared to give Caleb Porter most of the credit.  He’s the architect.  But he couldn’t have done it without a lot of front office help.  Thanks, Gavin.

6) Maybe the biggest thing I love about this year’s team are the intangibles.  Let’s count them off: We’ve got leadership, both from the coach and from the captains.  We’ve got a united locker room.  We’ve got young players making strides.  We’ve got cagey veterans, showing them the way.  We’ve got an over-arching philosophy, and we stick to it.  We can adjust tactics, whether it’s week-to-week or half-to-half.  We’re even-keeled.  We’re scrappy.  We never, ever give up.

A few weeks ago, I predicted playoffs for this team and got a little guff about it.  “Playoffs?” they said.  “So soon?  I’ll be happy with just improving.”

Well, I’m making the same prediction now, folks, and I don’t see how anyone can argue against me.  Barring a major slew of injuries, this team is going to the playoffs.  And I don’t they’re sneaking in, either.  I think they’re a top-3 seed.

With our new coach, new system, and new players, everyone thought we’d have a rough time of it early.  We’d take our lumps, slowly improve, and then start climbing out of the cellar.  By the end of the year, maybe we’d be a mid-table team.

Well, here it is, people.  We’ve taken our lumps, yes.  We’ve slowly improved, yes.   But we’re not in the cellar.  We’ve got the sixth best record in the league.  And we just beat KC on the road.

You’re not rooting for a loveable loser anymore, Portland.  You’re rooting for a contender.

Feels good, doesn’t it?

Defending By Numbers

Football, at it’s core, is a really simple game. So simple that the key to winning football matches can be easily summed up in two points:

1 – Score more goals than the other team.

2 – See point 1.

But that simplicity masks the complexity that makes football such an addictive sport. Yes, the goal is to outscore the opponents, but there is almost no end to the ways you can set a team up to do that, with the Kevin Keegan at Newcastle, “we’ll beat you 4-3” approach and the George Graham school that looks to grind out 1-0s at either pole.

As the game has become more athletic and technical, teams are increasingly looking to sports science and performance analysis to give themselves some kind of advantage. This move towards a more analytical approach can be seen in the increasing investment in such areas by top clubs around the world. MLS will be rolling out the adidas miCoach system to all clubs in 2013, while OPTA and ProZone continue to carve out a lucrative niche in statistical analysis. Caleb Porter is an avowed disciple of this more modern, analytical approach and the Timbers recently announced the hiring of a performance analyst as they seek to find that edge that will turn hard-fought draws into a well-deserved wins.
Football isn’t a game that lends itself readily to statistical analysis in the way that, for example, baseball does. There are few equivalents of the 1-on-1, pitcher vs batter, battles that baseball throws up as 22 players on a 8500 sq yard pitch for over 90 minutes simply throws up too many variables to be distilled succinctly into a neat column of easily digestible figures.

Yet, such a study isn’t an entirely fruitless endeavor. Mining the numbers can still throw some light into the darkness, even though it always pays to remember that it isn’t an exact science, and much remains for individual interpretation of the numbers.

Soccer Analytics is growing, with sites such as Zonal Marking, Soccer By The Numbers and Soccer Analysts good examples in this field.

While I don’t think that analytics gives all the answers, I do believe it can, and should, be part of the discussion we have as it has much to inform our “gut” reaction. There have been plenty of times when I’ve come away from a match thinking that this player or that has had a stinker, then when I look at the numbers, they seem to tell a different story. By taking both and playing them off each other, and seeing what each can tell you about the other, you can come closer to the “truth” of it, if such thing is even possible in football.

So, accepting that finding answers in soccer analytics is more complex than simply drawing up a table and seeing who ranks top, let’s see what the numbers can tell us about how and why teams do that most crucial of things – score goals.

Well, actually, before doing that let’s take a detour by first of all looking at the problem from the other side – stopping the other team scoring.

The Upgrade Revisited

In my previous post I took a look at the Timbers goalkeepers as I tried to judge whether the front office had called their “upgrade” right. Such an approach was never going give a definitive answer, but the figures certainly seemed to suggest that Donovan Ricketts had delivered some performance improvements over Troy Perkins, though Perkins’ figures would subsequently rocket in Montreal and cast a shadow over Ricketts’.

There are too many intangibles to definitively call one way or the other. The change in style from John Spencer to Gavin Wilkinson, the fact the figures don’t take into account the quality of chances, or a goalkeeper’s distribution and communication with the defence in front of him. Respective ability of cross balls, or quickness off the line, or agility, or, well, the list goes on.

A good point was raised in the comments of that article by “Thunderbear” (I assume that’s his/her surname and not their first name) that “Perkins was traded just after Spencer was fired and after a couple of miserable team performances like the 5-0 loss in Dallas and the whipping in Utah that really affected Perkins’ statistics”.

In the five matches Perkins played under Wilkinson, the team shipped 13 goals. In the previous 17 starts, Perkins conceded 22. That’s quite a jump, I’m sure you’ll agree. The drop in shot stopping after Spencer left is really quite stark – the overall figure drops from 70.8% to 47.8%, with an In-Box Save rate (IBSv%) of 38.5% for those five games.

Even expunging those games from Perkins’ record, there is never more than a few percentage points between his save percentages and those of Ricketts in Portland, suggesting again that, at worst, the front office broke even (on the pitch at least, the salary debate is a whole other issue).


There is unlikely to be any single reason why Perkins numbers dipped so badly in these few games. The removal of a head coach is bound to unsettle some, and the change in formation and playing style wouldn’t have helped, in the short term at least.

Yet Perkins faced the same number of shots per game, with slightly more coming as In-Box Shots (IBSh) than Long Range (LRSh), but not a great leap. Certainly not in the order that might go someway to explaining why the goals just rained in.

This brings us to the part of the discussion that was missing in the previous post – the defence.

Analyzing The Defence

Analyzing defensive performance, and measuring the difference between a “good” defence and a “bad” defence is more difficult than it may seem at first glance. The bottom-line metric for any defence is the goals against column, and on that measure you could confidently, and correctly, declare that in 2012 Sporting Kansas City had a good defence, while Toronto FC had a bad one.

But it’s not that simple. Perhaps a defence was let down by poor protection from their midfield. Luck is a factor too, as in the defender who pulls off a great last-ditch sliding tackle, only to see the ball richochet off a teammate and into the path of another attacker for an easy goal, or the player who never scores hitting that one-in-a-million screamer into the top corner from 35 yards. There’s tactical issues – was the coach leaving his defenders exposed by pushing on his full-backs, or playing too wide or narrow?

However, given that a defence is ultimately there to prevent goals being conceded, it’s against that baseline they must be measured.

Taking the clearances, blocks, interceptions, recoveries and fouls as examples of “defensive action” we can see if there is any relation between how busy (and where) a team is defensively effects the number of goals they concede. Note, I haven’t included tackles as I’m not really happy with how OPTA measure them in terms on tackles won/lost, and I’d have to go through every game to judge for myself whether it was a “good” tackle or not, and then there’s the old truism that the best defenders finish the game without grass stains on their shorts because they never need to go to ground in the first place. So, yes, it’s not a comprehensive tally of every Defensive Action, by any means.

There is also the issue of defensive distribution of the ball, which is something I hope to return to in future, but for now let’s set it aside and judge a “good” defence purely on stopping the other team getting on the scoreboard.


As you can see, broadly speaking the more Defensive Actions (DfAc) a team performs, the less likely they are to concede goals, though it’s by no means definitive, especially with only 19 data points to work with. Still, it does seem to point towards some link between the two factors.

If you take Recoveries out of the equation, then the trend is more pronounced.


Backing up this link is that of the six best defences in terms of goals against (Kansas City, Seattle, Real Salt Lake, Chicago, Vancouver, Houston), three occupy spots in the top five of most Defensive Actions (minus Recoveries) – Chicago (4th GA / 3rd DfAc), Seattle (2nd / 1st), Vancouver (4th / 5th).


The big anomaly is Kansas City who are 18th in terms of DA, but are 1st in goals against. Kansas City had a high proportion of their DfAc in the back four (71.41% against the league-wide average of 66%) and, interestingly, they were 3rd in terms of fouls committed with, again, a higher than average proportion of these fouls being committed in defence (37.1% vs 30.8%). This would suggest a lot of pressing and a no-nonsense, physical approach to winning the ball back. This is largely due to keeping shots against to a minimum. No team conceded fewer shots than Sporting, and they were also good at keeping teams at distance with only 47.3% of shots conceded coming from within their own box – only Vancouver have a better record in this regard with a 46% IB:LR balance.

Those that do get through are met by a keeper in Jimmy Nielsen who performs above average in all areas of shot-stopping.


This perfect combination of tight defence and excellent shot-stopper combined to produce the fewest goals conceded in the regular season in 2012.

The Difference Makers

Sean Johnson of Chicago Fire actually posted very similar figures to Nielsen, yet whereas Nielsen let in 27 in 34 starts, the leakier Fire defence meant that Johnson conceded 38 in 31 starts as his goal was peppered by 40% more shots than Nielsen’s. So, the value of a tight defence is clear.

Yet Chicago “worked harder” in defence, with vastly more Defensive Actions than Kansas City. Where the teams also differed markedly, and perhaps this gives us an insight into the wild swing in shots against, is in possession of the ball.

I have my issues with the way OPTA measure possession, but as a metric of “ball control” it can be generally relied upon. It’s still a poor measure of which team is “better”, and terrible in terms of predicting outcomes – 17 of the 19 teams posted higher average possession rates in matches they lost than those they won – but it can tell us which team was controlling the ball, even if it can’t say where and how they were doing it.


Kansas City posted the 5th highest possession rate at 52.1%, while Chicago were 17th on 46.8%. This would seem to indicate that Sporting operated with a “keep ball” philosophy, seeking to minimise the opposition’s time on the ball. Chicago on the other hand worked best when they could spring fast attacks, giving up possession and, it would seem, inviting teams onto them, leading to an increase in shots and goals against. Only Vancouver and Toronto saw less of the ball than the Fire in 2012.

By taking Kansas City’s high possession and their high foul rate and defensive work mentioned previously, you can start to build up a blueprint for why the Sporting defence was so effective. They choked other teams of possession, and created a high number of chances (though they were actually very wasteful in converting these chances, but we’ll come to that in a future post), but when they did lose the ball, they were efficient, yet physical, in their attempts to win it back. Through this pressing and harrying they limited shots against to the minimum, but had one of the league’s best goalkeepers to take care of what did get through.

This all serves to underline how difficult it is to apply analytics to soccer in a straightforward, “the numbers don’t lie” manner. It requires a more holistic approach where a number of factors and measures can be combined and torn apart to indicate towards conclusions.

As we saw with Johnson and Nielsen, the value of a good defence cannot be under-estimated. If you were to take an “average keeper” and put him behind the Kansas City and Toronto defences, you would expect to see a difference of 20-22 goals per season, from around 29 goals to 51. Yet both keepers would perform identically.

This is all very simplicity, and ignores many of the intangibles that I’ve talked about already, but it can at least give us an idea of the importance of a good defence.

If we were to flip it around and take an “average defence” and put it in front of two keepers at either end of the scale in shot-stopping the swing would be in the order of 15-18 goals per season, from 36 to 52 goals against.

The difference between best defence & best keeper and worst/worst would be from 25 goals to 63. In actuality Kansas City conceded 27; Toronto FC conceded 62.

Looking at the other end of the table, Toronto bottomed out in both goals against and DA. As I said in the previous article on Timbers keepers, Milos Kocic actually performed reasonably well – marginally better than Ricketts across all of 2012 – but when your team allows more shots at goal than all but 2 teams in 2012, you’re going to struggle to keep them out. Indeed, even the heroic Nielsen would’ve expected to concede upwards of 40 goals when faced with the barrage Kocic did.

The two clubs that allowed more shots than Toronto were Chivas USA and Columbus Crew, however Andy Gruenebaum posted numbers than ran Nielson close in shot-stopping whereas Dan Kennedy’s were good, rather than great. Gruenebaum conceded 13 fewer than Kennedy. A very valuable keeper!

The other factor is that Chivas conceded the highest proportion of IBsh:LRSh (55.5%). Given the importance of preventing IBSh – teams are almost 4 times as likely to score in the box than out of it – each percentage point increase in IBSh:LRSh represents something in the order of an increase of 1% in goals against.

To Portland

Portland were 17th in GA, and their IBSh:LRSh rate of 52%, above average, gives some idea of their problems in 2012. Despite putting in a lot of “defensive work” – they rank 8th in DA – and being “midtable” in terms of total shots against, where they really struggled was in preventing teams getting shots on target.

There would be little surprise to Timbers fans to learn that Portland were one of only 6 clubs to commit over 50% of their fouls in midfield, with Diego Chara the main culprit. Of those six clubs, only DC had a goals against record that ranked in the Top 10. Instinct may tell us that committing a foul in defence, on the edge of the box, may be more dangerous than committing a foul in midfield, but to score from 20 yards out direct from a free kick requires great skill. It is why, to me, someone like David Beckham is so feted – merely decent-to-good in most areas, where he excels is in those kind of dead ball situations.

In fact, the three goals against records in the league were from team that committed a higher than average proportion of their fouls in defence.

From 35 or 40 yards, the dynamic changes. A team can then throw forward their big guys, and a decent delivery, rather than pin-point in the case of getting a ball up-and-over or round a wall in limited space, can be good enough for someone to get on the end of it, and serve up a great opportunity to score.

There are certainly cases where the foul is preferable, and a team would rather take their chances defending a set play, but in general terms, giving away so many opportunities for a team to put the ball into the box to be attacked by numbers cannot be a good thing.

Blocking, pressuring, or generally employing sound defence can go a long way to making it difficult for the opposition to get a shot on frame. Only Colorado Rapids were worse than the Timbers at keeping opponents off target, but Matt Pickens did a better job than Perkins/Ricketts in keeping shots out and so the Rapids conceded 6 fewer over the season.


Even though the Timbers took a similar number of shots as they conceded, when you compare the accuracy rates you start to get a good idea of the Timbers problems in 2012 – 36.5% of shots against called the Timbers keeper into action but only 31.1% of the Timbers’ shots were on frame. The figures are even worse in the crucial IBSh category – 41.9% to 32.7%.

Given how long this post is already though, I’ll return to the attacking sphere in a future post.

In terms of possession, as you saw in the chart above, the Timbers came in 13th with an average of 47.85%. Under Spencer that figure was 45.38%, which would’ve dropped them to 17th. It rose to 50.16% when Wilkinson took over – around LA Galaxy level of ball control.

So what you had in Portland was a team that didn’t really control the ball particularly well, and didn’t do a good job of preventing opponents from getting shots on frame. The goalies performed adequately, but when your defence is leaking chance after chance, adequate simply isn’t going to be enough.


Well, the conclusion is that it’s difficult, nay, foolhardy to draw firm conclusions from data alone! There needs to a be a dialogue between the figures and what we see on the pitch with our own eyes. That instinct for what you’re seeing is a valuable commodity.

By drawing from both wells, we can draw a couple of fairly obvious conclusions off the bat. A good defence makes a big difference. A good goalkeeper also makes a difference, though perhaps not as much as the guys in front of him. A case could be made for seeking value in goal, while ensuring that the big bucks are reserved for shoring up the backline. In Kocic the Timbers have value at the back, but it remains to be seen whether investments in the defence and midfield will bring about marked improvements. It’s here that the leaps forward will have to be made if the Timbers are to progress in 2013.

The mid-season change wasn’t ideal. For whatever reason, it really seemed to throw off the defence and Troy Perkins, but the ship was steadied somewhat by the arrival of Donovan Ricketts. However, as a whole, the team underperformed. They let too many shots in, and from crucial areas, to expect much more than the 3rd worst defensive record.

A “better” keeper may have helped somewhat, but the key factors were repeated breakdowns in defence and midfield. There was a 71% drop between DA on the back four and DA in midfield, where in 4 of the 6 most miserly defences the drop was less than 60%, suggesting the better defences defended more as a whole rather than two distinct groups. This disjointed approach to defence led directly to a disappointing, but predictable, outcome. There is also the issue of too many fouls being committed in midfield, inviting teams to throw the ball into the box and put our defence to the test. A test the Timbers defence ultimately failed.

I’d expect to see a more cohesive approach to defence under Caleb Porter. We’re starting to see that in preseason, as the team look to press high and in numbers. I think the signing of Ryan Johnson is particularly significant in this regard as no forward player was more defensively active than Johnson was in 2012. He’s there to do more than just score goals or provide assists. The more I look at the numbers, the more his signing seems like it could be potentially the single most significant move the Front Office have made in the offseason.

Denying teams space in and around the box will be key as neither Kocic nor Ricketts have shown themselves to be especially proficient at short range.

I’d also expect to see the team climb the possession table. It is noticeable that, of the top six possession teams in 2012, five made it to the post season. Possession of the ball doesn’t guarantee goals, but the old adage that the other team can’t score if they don’t have the ball seems to hold true. Porter will seek to do more than simply keep the ball though, he’ll seek to use it with purpose in attack, and it’s to the attack that I’ll look in a future post.

Portland Timbers kick off the MLS offseason with a flurry of activity

Twitter has been buzzing with anticipation for days and right at the stroke of noon, the Portland Timbers made their first official MLS offseason announcement. Here’s a rundown of the transactions:

* Timbers acquire allocation money (what jersey # will allocation money wear?) and the rights to homegrown player and current Akron Zips defender, Bryan Gallego, from the New York Bulls in exchange for Kosuke Kimura and a 2013 2nd round draft pick.

Rumors of Kimura being sent to the Red Bulls came to light on Sunday afternoon. The rest of this deal though didn’t become clear until the Timbers dropped the press release. Word is the Timbers received over $100,000 in allocation money (not confirmed) along with a promising defender who is very familiar with incoming coach Caleb Porter. It remains to be seen whether Gallego, who will turn 20 in March, will forego returning to Zips for his junior year. To get anything promising in return for Kimura who, despite his love for the badge, really struggled from day one with Portland, is a positive takeaway as far as I’m concerned.

 * Timbers acquire defender Michael Harrington from Sporting KC in exchange for allocation money.

In a league not known for strong fullbacks, Harrington had the unfortunate luck to try and crack a starting lineup with two of the better performers in the league: Seth Sinovic and Chance Myers. Harrington carries a steeper price tag than I would like ($125,000), but if he can solidify a position that’s been weak for the Timbers since coming to MLS, it just might be worth it.

 * Timbers acquire allocation money from the Houston Dynamo in exchange for defender Eric Brunner

This one stings a bit. If there was a guy you could count on to bring it in every match he played it was Eric Brunner. It was a difficult 2012 campaign for Brunner has he spent over three months out of the lineup while recovering from a concussion he suffered in a May match against Vancouver. General Manager Gavin Wilkinson, not always known for his appropriate goodbyes to players, had nothing but praise for Brunner:

“Eric is a great person and quality player, and these types of decisions are never easy. We very much appreciate his service to the club over the past two seasons, both on and off the field. The opportunity in Houston for Eric is one that he is excited about. He is well-liked and will be missed”

* Timbers acquire Will Johnson from Real Salt Lake in exchange for allocation money

The news of this move was broken on Sunday as well, and even with the other news today, this is by far the most exciting of the transactions.

Johnson is one of those players you love to hate — as long as he’s on the other team. Johnson will provide some much-needed tenacity as well as some outstanding skill on the ball. This is clearly a move orchestrated by Caleb Porter, who likely sees Johnson playing a huge role as a winger or attacking center midfielder in his possession-based attack.

While he is a Canadian international, Johnson does not occupy an international slot on the Timbers roster.

* Finally, in other moves

The Timbers declined the options on defenders Lovel Palmer and Steve Purdy. Both will be eligible to participate in the MLS Re-Entry Draft this coming Friday.

It also appears that left back Steven Smith will not be rejoining the team in 2013. Nothing has been announced by the team, but Smith did post this on Twitter:

We’ll have more about the Steven Smith move once it’s officially announced by the Timbers.

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.

There Won’t Be A Fifth

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.

3 – Defend Set Plays & Win The Second Ball!

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.

4 – Break Fast & Use The Width!

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!

Key Areas

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…