Right from the get-go on Saturday night, it was apparent that part of Montreal's defense first approach to the game was to devote special attention to midfielder Diego Valeri, who had been one of the stars of the home opener the week before. Montreal's defensive strategy in general—and their strategy of handling Valeri specifically—was unquestionably a success.
The teams' formations had Valeri lined up against Patrice Bernier, who was the man sitting behind the midfield four in Montreal's 4-1-4-1. Bernier appeared to devote particularly close attention to Valeri, sticking close pretty much anytime Valeri got the ball in the Montreal's half. On numerous occasions, Valeri was trying to get a pass off to a teammate while also trying to shield the ball away from Bernier.
When the special attendant devoted to Valeri wasn't enough, Montreal threw two or three defenders at him. The Impact are such a well drilled team defensively that they nearly always won the ball in these situations, so there was no risk posed by Valeri finding the teammates those players left open.
The situation only got worse for Valeri and the Timbers after the Impact scored and had nothing to lose by packing all ten players behind the ball. At one almost comical moment shortly after the goal, Valeri received the ball just over the midfield line and was immediately surrounded by four blue jerseys. Needless to say, it was hard for him to catch a break.
A couple other factors played to Valeri's disadvantage Saturday night. The first was Valeri himself. He did not seem to be quite as "on" as he was for the home opener. Perhaps he was discouraged by Bernier trailing him so closely and making it difficult for him to find his teammates, but whatever the reason, he gave up on a few loose balls and runaway passes that March 3rd's Valeri would have pounced on.
Another problem was that the Timbers gave up on the middle too easily. With the Montreal defense packed into the box and holding their shape well, the Timbers tried to take a shortcut to the goal by sending in lots of crosses from the wings, a style of play that really benefited no one on the Timbers. The fullbacks were not providing good crosses and the Timbers forwards and midfielders were easily beat in the air. With the exception of the goal, their best play actually happened when they tried to build up through the middle, although the last pass often let them down.
While playing amateur tactician, a couple of things jumped out. One of the only times Valeri managed to get the ball in space was on the rare counterattack opportunity, when Montreal was pressing into the Timbers' half a little more. One of the most promising attacking plays by the Timbers came when Valeri received a pass from Jose Valencia, got away from Bernier, and got all the way to the top of Montreal's box before he was finally stopped by the defense. Unfortunately, Valeri tried to take the shot himself instead of laying it off for Valencia (who had caught up to him after making a blazing run up the right side of the field) and had his shot blocked. The Timbers obviously are not going to sit back and wait for the counter; from the preseason and the two leagues game it is abundantly clear that is not the style Porter wants the team to play. However, counterattacks are goal-scoring opportunities and the Timbers need to make the most of them. Even teams like Montreal will get pulled up enough to provide a chance for that.
Another thing that stood out was where other Timbers were able to find space. In the second half especially, when the outside backs had bombed up the field and then found themselves at a dead end, generally they would either send in a poor cross, or cut the ball back to Will Johnson and Diego Chara, playing about midway between the box and the center circle. There, the Impact were happy to cede lots of space to the Timbers and Chara and Johnson had plenty of time to pick out a pass and get things moving again.
Unfortunately, that usually led to a bit of a cycle: the outside backs eventually got the ball when the Timbers gave up on the middle and either went for the cross or sent it back to their DMs. Valeri, on the other hand, would have had the vision and the skill set to play it that space and see the more dangerous plays—maybe a through-ball to Nagbe, a chip over the defense to Ryan Johnson, or a shot from distance. As time wound down and the Timbers were searching for a goal or two, Valeri was often in the box, right in the thick of things. By dropping back just a little, Valeri probably would have either found some empty space to operate or pulled an Impact player or two out of the box, opening up more space for the rest of the attack.
Other teams will try this approach when playing the Timbers, especially if the offense mostly resembles the New York match, not the game with Montreal. Not every team has Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari anchoring their back line, but some could likely still pull off the general strategy with some success. After all, even the 2012 Timbers managed to end Sporting Kansas City's 7-game winning streak by assigning Lovel Palmer to track Graham Zusi. However they do it, the Timbers will need to find a way around teams like Montreal who try to neutralize Valeri.