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The Key to the Portland Timbers' Success: Finding the Right Role

A key to Portland's success on the field this year was finding the right role for the players currently on the roster. An in depth look at how a role can revitalize a career.


Part 1 of a indepth look at how a change in role can revitalize a team and a player.

In 2013 there have been a lot of pleasant surprises and a few careers which may be revitalized. Some of these surprises have come from players who are new to the team within the last year and needed a change of scenery. Others have come from Timbers who have been with the club since its MLS inception. Diego Chara is one such player who has reprised his role in the central midfield spot.

Chara was trumpeted as Portland's first ever designated player and as a player with technical ability only surpassed by his amazing work ethic. Gavin Wilkinson described Diego as a player who "possesses a tireless work ethic, speed and exceptional technical ability." Gavin also used the phrase "attack-minded" as one of the many reasons the Portland Timbers used their first ever DP slot on the wee Colombian.

The Timbers Coach at the time, John Spencer, used these glowing words to describe Diego:

"His abilities and work rate will make him the perfect box-to-box midfielder for us. I believe that he will not only make us a better team, but once we get him accustomed to the league, culture and system, I believe he could be one of the best midfielders in the league"

In hearing such phrases as "box to box midfielder", "attack-minded" and "exceptional technical ability" the Portland fan base eagerly anticipated their first glimpse of Diego Chara. On April, 23, 2011 they got their wish as Portland was at LA Galaxy. It was an inauspicious start for Diego, mainly because Portland gave up two goals in the first 15 minutes and Diego came on as a second half substitute.

What the Portland fans saw from Diego was a player who worked hard and put out fires defensively but offensively he sat behind Jack Jewsbury. Here are four heatmaps from 2011 to illustrate that Diego was playing more of a Defensive Midfielder role rather than a Box to Box Midfielder.

Diego Chara 2011 heatmaps

The heatmap certainly shows how far back Diego Chara sat in order to help ease the burden on a porous defense (Portland gave up 48 goals in 2011). Even in a game in which he scored, against the New England Revolution, you can see how far back he sat. Added to this was the lack of involvement offensively, you can see this by the distinct lack of dark orange/red.

In 2012 it was much the same except for the fact that Diego had to expend a lot more energy defensively. It is not too much of a stretch to say that without Diego there would have been a lot more lopsided games during the 2012 season. However we still did not see the "box to box" midfielder he was promised to be.

Going into the 2013 season it was easy to expect to see much of the same from Chara but all of that was thrown out the window because of two changes. First, Caleb Porter was hired. The second change was the acquisition of Will Johnson. The additions of Porter and Johnson has allowed Diego to break out of his DM role and become the Box to Box Midfielder he was heralded to be. Caleb's preliminary assessment was this:

"Well, I watched him a lot before I got the job. Really thought he had good potential...We found a good role for him where he can do what he does best and that is go box to box, win balls and cover ground, and get on the ball and slash forward at times. He can play other roles but I think the role we are playing him in right now brings him to life."

The transition from a defense mid role to a box to box has indeed brought new life to Chara. You can see Chara has a bounce to his step. He no longer looks like he has a weight on his shoulders to continually work to clean up defensive errors.

His heatmaps are also vastly different.

Diego Chara 2013 heatmaps

The darker orange and red shows you how much more involved in the game Chara is compared to 2011. You can also see he does play just a little farther up the field. Of course by changing Chara's role other players' roles changed.

"You know it's a real balance ...because you get one guy feeling right and his role is right but maybe another guy's not. Ideally can you get 11 guys put together in the right way where everybody's playing to their strengths and feeling good about their impact in the team." - Caleb Porter

Not only has Porter found the right role for Diego Chara but he has also transitioned Jack Jewsbury to the right back position. He has moved Rodney Wallace from wasting away at the left back position to a left forward/mid position goal scoring machine. He has also taken a keeper who was seen as over the hill and given him an elixir from the fountain of youth.

Caleb has done a masterful job of finding the round pegs to go in the round holes and because of this Portland is over achieving. What is scary to think of is: The Portland Timbers have yet to play their best soccer on a consistent basis. There is still room to grow.

In Part 2 we will talk to the players themselves about their role changes