For most of last Saturday evening, the Portland Timbers were unmistakeably the better team at Sporting Park. They almost let the match slip away from them though, in a couple of dead ball situations where their opponents outsmarted them.
Set pieces, as well as the occasional long throw-in, have been giving the Timbers trouble on and off during the first two months of the MLS season. Of the 11 goals the Timbers have conceded, five came as a result of set pieces (including throw-ins): the New York Red Bulls' first and third goals, the Montreal Impact's first goal, and both goals by Sporting Kansas City. There have been other close chances as well, like Marco Di Vaio's point-blank header following a throw-in, only kept out of the net by what would later be voted the Save of the Week.
Sometimes a goal is just a really good piece of work by the opposing team, a "not much they could do about that" situation, but the set piece goals the Timbers have given up were often scored by an unmarked or poorly marked man, gallivanting around the Timbers box as he pleased. Chance Myers' second goal is a prime example.
At about five seconds in, and again in the replay at about 30 seconds, Rodney Wallace leaves Myers alone in the box. To his credit, he is moving in to close down Benny Feilhaber, the recipient of Graham Zusi's short free kick. It still would have been a smarter choice, however, to stick with Myers' as Jack Jewsbury is also stepping up to close off Feilhaber's angle. He is both closer to Feilhaber and not tasked with marking anyone at that moment.
Wallace ends up in no man's land, not marking either Feilhaber or Myers, and Myers seizes the opportunity to get open in the six-yard box, receives a toe poke pass from Aurelien Collin and puts it in the back of the net. Wallace essentially abandons his man in a very dangerous position to mark a man in a less dangerous position who is already being marked. Even then however, the whole thing could be salvaged if Ryan Johnson, standing in the box with no one to mark, were to pick up Myers as he runs past. Johnson, unfortunately, is caught ball-watching.
Moments like this have characterized a lot of the goals and close chances the Timbers' opponents have had from set pieces. Change the names and some other minor details and it's the same story playing out. Jamison Olave is open in the box and Mikael Silvestre arrives just a little to late to stop the cross from reaching his foot. Marco Di Vaio gets on the end of a ball and even though the green shirts outnumber the Impact players in the box, no one is marking him closely enough to even hint at fighting for the header.
I think the issue at hand here is one that a former coach of the Timbers once saw as an opportunity for his team. Back in 2011, the Timbers beat the Columbus Crew 1-0 on a quickly taking free kick. With much of the Crew defense and even some of his own teammates facing away from him as they trudged to the 18-yard box to get into position, Jewsbury slyly laid the ball of for Kalif Alhassan who found Eric Brunner waiting at the far post. The Crew, unprepared for the free kick, could do nothing.
"On set pieces, people turn their backs, switch off," John Spencer told the media after the game. "We actually tell the guys, 'when it's a set piece, make sure you double switch on.'"
That seems to be where the Timbers are going wrong. This team, so much better than its 2011 version in nearly every way, sometimes forgets to double switch on.
I should note that it is truly a privilege to get to nitpick about this. In the grand scheme of things, the Timbers defense has been fairly impressive since sorting out their initial growing pains. In the first four games, the Timbers conceded 8 goals. In the last four, only three goals. But two of those were Chance Myers' set piece goals. Sporting Kansas City was barely even in that game in the first 60 minutes or so, but for those goals. They really had no business snatching the lead--twice.
I think that, combined with the fact that nearly half the goals against the Timbers were scored in a similar manner, makes this worth a little nitpicking,. The Timbers should not let teams find a way back into the game if they don't deserve it. If everyone can learn to double switch on, it will be much harder for teams to rely on set pieces to get themselves back in the picture.