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With the win last Friday the Portland Timbers finally climbed out of the cellar; now they need to get a result on the road to stay out of it. Colorado has not been a place Portland has looked forward to traveling to, having allowed three goals in each game they have played at the Dick. If Portland is to earn a result -- a win would be nice but a tie wouldn't be terrible -- they need to take use last game as an example of what to do and what not to do.
Portland arguably had their best game as a defensive unit in a long time on Friday. The biggest reason for this was their defensive shape. Portland defenders have a tendency to stare at the ball at times, and that obviously ruins any defensive shape Portland has. But when they refrain from ball-watching, this is what the defense looks like (photo after the jump):
The only defender you can't see in this screen shot is Smith, but as you look at the back line you can see that all of the defenders are in what I call "contact" with each other. This means they are able to recover if one of the defenders is beaten with a run or a pass is played to space. Here is another picture to illustrate the shape of the defense:
This picture was taken after a Portland turnover near Colorado's box led to a Rapids counter. With the ball out wide and Portland's midfield not back defensively -- except for Captain Jack Jewsbury -- the defenders have to slow up the Colorado Rapids' counter. They do so by applying light pressure on the ball while staying in contact with their defensive partners. Captain Jack is helping to apply a little pressure but also making sure he sees any runners coming up to join the attack.
With the defense now positioned the way they are, Colorado is forced to either hit a long ball to Conor Casey, who can then be marked by both the CBs, or hold the ball and wait for others to join the attack. If they elect for others to join the attack, Portland's midfielders are then able to get back defensively.
If Portland can continue to hold their shape like they did last game and force a lot of long balls out of Colorado they will stand a good chance of winning the game.
Friday's match was not the best for the midfielders, especially the CMs, which was due to Colorado's shape and defensive work. Colorado is a team that likes to be physical and clog the center of the pitch. By doing so they create turnovers, followed by potentially punishing counters. Portland struggled to use Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara to facilitate a lot of possession, and the picture below illustrates why:
Nagbe received the ball after a Colorado turnover, but was immediately closed down and left with very little in terms of options. Colorado routinely put 10 players behind the ball and forced Portland to try and break them down. All of this combined for a ugly game and did not allow the central players to shine. One more picture to illustrate this point:
Portland needs to figure out how to unlock the bunker mentality of Colorado and do it with possession. Last Friday the midfield broke Colorado down with a great counter attack, but to truly be dangerous on the road, Portland needs to impose their own style on the game. This is what the midfielders need to figure out, how to force Colorado to play Portland's style.
With playing only o central forward, more if others pushed up the field, it was left to Bright Dike to create something. Dike did this by making runs into space behind the defense, trying to get on the end of passes usually played from the back line. In the picture above you can see Colorado has men behind the ball and Smith is forced to either play it back to the CB or long to Franck Songo'o or Dike. In this case he elects to hit it long to Dike and the result of the play is below:
Dike did a great job of winning this ball in the air with a defender draped all over him. The long ball forced the defenders to move deep into their half and opened up space that was not there before. Having won the ball, Dike fell into this space and set up a secondary run.
Chara was the one who is able to fill the space and won the second ball, which forced the defense to react again, creating potential holes in their defensive shape. One such hole is the right back, who was sucked into the center of the pitch, leaving Songo'o open for Chara's pass.
The negative to this type of play is that it usually takes a lot of long balls to finally create a successful one like the play above. Dike needs to not only make these types of runs but also to show for the ball to be played to his feet. If the ball is played to his feet the midfielders and wings can then make runs into space.
My initial thought is Portland should go to a 4-4-2 which will help eliminate some of the problems caused by Colorado's midfield. However this is not the formation that has been working for Portland and may throw them off even more. I have a feeling Portland will lose 1-0. I hope I am wrong.