It was oh-so-easy for the Portland Timbers Saturday against Chivas USA. The Timbers strolled in the park for 90 easy minutes, and no one needed to put up a fight, except a brave ball-boy against a petulant and ill-tempered Mario de Luna. It was an effervescent victory delivered with panache and without a drop of sweat.
At times it looked like Manchester United was playing Reading. The gulf in class between the Timbers and Chivas USA couldn’t have been summed up by the team’s respective places in the Western Conference standings, or the fact that the most experienced of Chivas’ back-three was former Timbers fringe player Steve Purdy. It was one of the most lopsided games in that you will ever see in Major League Soccer.
That had a lot to do with the coaching. Chivas’ eccentric coach “El Chelis” Jose Luis Sanchez Sola operates his team like a five year old in a toy store, getting distracted by new players and formations and styles of play every other minute. It’s amusing to watch as an outsider, but for Chivas’ unfortunate players, El Chelis devotion to basing a coaching style off whims must be impossible to navigate game-to-game.
Despite not being fancied to make any impact in MLS, Chivas had a winning start to the year by playing attacking, free-flowing soccer. But by the time they came to Portland, El Chelis had his team in an odd, caved-in defensive formation, with man-markers for Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe – an unusual tactic that disrupts shape and spacing. By the time they left Portland, Chivas had shipped nine goals in their last three games and been outscored 7-0 in their last two outings.
This is in stark contrast to Caleb Porter, who must be a front-runner for MLS coach of the year. Porter’s gives his team clarity and direction – he has a set starting 11, a set style of play, and a steady attitude.
This was a big game for Portland, sandwiched in-between four road games. Portland hadn’t won in their previous two outings, frustrating draws against New England and Dallas. Beating the reeling Goats was a must, and with that in mind, Porter rested Ryan Johnson and Rodney Wallace for the game in Dallas, despite that being a game against the first-place team in the conference and the only team ahead of the Timbers in the West.
Porter’s grasp of the set-up of the schedule made Portland look the fresher team on Sunday, despite the Timbers having played in midweek while their opposition hadn’t played since the previous weekend. That wasn’t the only helpful prong of Porter’s squad management – Wallace looked absolutely buoyant after his off-day in Frisco.
Perhaps no player is benefiting as much from Porter’s reign as Wallace, who was an oft-derided figure in his first two seasons in Portland for his failings at right-back. Porter has filled Wallace with confidence – the Costa Rican has finally held a place in the 11, and at a position, on the wing, where he can really shine.
Wallace is a player that must have confidence to be successful, and so it’s no wonder that his best games for Portland in 2011 were at the start of the season when he was a starter, and he trailed off as the Timbers’ traded his best friend Jeremy Hall, and he got benched.
In 2012, Wallace was inconsistently used, and when Spencer made his comment about “square pegs in round holes”, he could have looked at his own use of Wallace, who never fit as a fullback, rather than a winger.
Porter has put Wallace in a position to be successful, and coached him up – Porter pays more attention to Wallace than any other player on the field during matches. Wallace offers the Timbers’ attack a different dimension – while he doesn’t have the tic-tac skill of Porter’s central midfield, Wallace’s strong, darting runs into the box and directness on the ball have made the Timbers more multi-dimensional and dangerous.
Wallace is clearly playing with an abundance of verve. His goal came off a perfect run matched with a perfect feed from the also well-rested Ryan Johnson, and he capped it off with a guileful finish that only in-form players put away. Wallace also tacked on an assist on Diego Valeri’s goal.
Valeri is another player who was at his best Sunday. Frustrated after going weeks without hitting his peak, Valeri made a statement of intent against Chivas. His smooth vision on the ball – combined with a cold-blooded lust for a goal put Chivas’ obviously overmatched back-three in knots all day, while Will Johnson’s strike to finish the game with gusto gave the Timbers the 3-0 victory they deserved.
It really was too easy for the Timbers. El Chelis’ decision to only play three at the back was unintentional suicide. Chivas’ back three were overrun by the Timbers attacking six, and there were gaping holes in the Goats’ backline that couldn’t be closed.
Chivas also made the mistake of man-marking Valeri and Nagbe, which for one thing, did nothing to stop the players they were paying so much attention to. Valeri played his best game since New York on opening day. It also let the Timbers take complete control of the midfield, which means taking complete control of the ball, because there was not enough Chivas players in the middle of the park to stop the Timbers.
It was, deservedly, the Timbers largest margin of victory in an MLS game. Three goals, and it’s possible the final score-line didn’t fully reflect the home side’s dominance. For as well as the Timbers have played this year, they have far more draws than wins, and it was nice to be able to get a victory before the team embarks on a three-game road-swing that will take them into the summer.
The Mothers’ Day win brought back memories of the feel-good stretch in 2011 when the Timbers couldn’t be beat in Portland after the opening of Jeld-Wen Field. Except then, we were all wondering when it was going to get worse, when the flash in the pan would go dark.
This year, it could just get better from here. In his post-match comments, Porter said this team is only scratching the surface of what it could be. I believe him. After the Chivas demolition, it’s hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t believe.