Since their winless streak to open 2014 ended, the Timbers have been one of the better teams in MLS. This isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of fact. Since the beginning of May, the Timbers’ 1.67 points per game have been fourth best in the league, and arguably more impressive than D.C. United’s marginally better number against competition from a much thinner Eastern Conference.
The reason, obviously, has been the Timbers prolific offense. While the defense has let the team down on multiple occasions – though there are beginning to be signs of real progress in that respect, too – the offense has been among the MLS elite, currently carrying an eight-game multiple-goal scoring streak. That’s the best in MLS this year. The Timbers have averaged 2.08 goals per game since May, a pace only bested by L.A. Galaxy’s season average of 2.13.
This elite attacking form was on display late in the first half on Wednesday, as the Timbers’ opener against the San Jose Earthquakes produced one of the best team-attacking goals of the season.
The sequence begins after the Timbers work the ball around to Norberto Paparatto after a throw in. Although San Jose are certainly not known as a hard-pressing team, Papa has all the time and space he wants to pick out his pass, here electing to play a long ball to Fanendo Adi. This, however, is a great example of how important at least nominal pressure on an opposing backline can be. Paparatto is not known as a great distributor – to say the least – but given virtually endless time and space he is able to pick out and accurately send a deep pass to Adi.
Adi wins the ball in a challenge against Jason Hernandez. At this point, it’s an easy decision for Hernandez to step up to challenge Adi for the ball. The Timbers don’t have that many numbers committed, Hernandez isn’t that far upfield, and Hernandez can’t let Adi win the ball with time and space to turn at the defense.
When Rodney Wallace gathers the ball off Adi’s chest and plays it back to the Nigerian striker, however, you can see that Hernandez has even further committed himself. This is the classic center-half’s dilemma when the opposing number nine drops between the lines to receive and distribute the ball. While initially the correct decision on Hernandez’s part, his subsequent choice to challenge Wallace and, in turn, Adi again opens San Jose’s defense. That said, however, Hernandez isn’t entirely blameworthy here, as nobody else is in genuine position to challenge Wallace or Adi and it’s far from desirable to let these guys roam free on the edge of the attacking third.
After receiving the ball from Wallace, Adi cuts three defenders out of the play – Shea Salinas, Hernandez, and Sam Cronin – with a terrific turn, dribble, and pass to a deeper-dropping Diego Valeri. As Ty Harden follows Valeri back between the lines it becomes apparent the Quakes are in a world of hurt. Both centerbacks have been pulled out – one irretrievably so. The Timbers have three pretty good attackers – Adi, Nagbe, and Valeri – actively engaged against a backline that is badly out of shape.
Oh, and where you going, Rodney?
As Valeri gets to Adi’s pass and redirects to Nagbe, San Jose’s woes are obvious. Only Shaun Francis and J.J. Koval remain between Nagbe, Adi, and goal. And even they are about to be eliminated by some excellent Timbers movement.
Rather than go straight at goal, where Francis’s positioning would likely force a left-footed shot, Nagbe cuts against the grain – and against Adi’s run – and looks to the left side of the box. As a result, Francis and Koval get tied up with Adi, and the Quakes backline has entirely crumbled. All this time Wallace has been making another thinking-two-moves-ahead backside run and is completely free on the left side of the box.
Let’s pause for a moment to recognize Wallace. Each of the past three weeks we’ve prominently featured excellent off-ball movement from Wallace in this space. When asked about Wallace’s qualities, I think many would point to his athleticism, efficient finishing, and solid defending as strengths. But since reestablishing himself in the Timbers lineup, his movement away from the ball has been tremendous, and the foresight involved in many of his runs shows that, in addition to his other qualities, Wallace is also a very intelligent attacking player.
The ball from Nagbe is a good one, and Wallace is able to take a touch to get the ball on his favored left foot before striking a sliding finish past Jon Busch into the back of the net. The result?
But before the hugs, the Timbers did an awful lot right. From Paparatto’s long ball to Adi’s win and holdup play, to Nagbe’s run against the grain, to Wallace’s movement on the backside, the Timbers’ first goal on Wednesday was a textbook example of how to break down and open up a backline.