Over the past two months, the Timbers defense – at least in MLS competition – has improved dramatically. After entering the last week of August with a pathetic two shutouts to their name (and none against non-Chivas opposition), the Timbers have posted four clean sheets in their last eight MLS games.
One of the reasons Caleb Porter has consistently cited for the Timbers’ defensive improvement has been the improved commitment of the Portland wingers to defending.
When defending play up the wing, the defense is primarily looking to rotate between three players – the winger on that side, the nearest defensive midfielder, and the fullback on that side. Ideally, the winger will be the highest defender before passing off to the defensive midfielder, leaving the fullback in to cover the backline. In more complex circumstances, however, this will be broken down and the defenders will have to rotate responsibilities over the course of the possession.
Earlier in the season, however, the Timbers often failed fantastically at this – and the primary culprit was most often indifferent defending from the winger creating numerical disadvantages.
Take this play from early August against L.A. Galaxy. At the outset here, the Timbers are already in a world of hurt. Robbie Rogers is playing inside to Robbie Keane with Danny O’Rourke watching him. O’Rourke isn’t a serious defender at this point because if he gets pulled out it’s pretty close to game over. So Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara are essentially responsible for three players – Rogers, Keane, and Landon Donovan.
In this frame the Timbers have already made the first rotation (from winger to defensive midfielder) and essentially have committed to the second (defensive midfielder to fullback) because Jewsbury has stepped up (probably too early) and will have to track one of the runners off of Keane’s ball. The problem, however, is these rotations have taken place very high up the field, leaving a gaping hole in behind Jewsbury. Why did that happen? Notice where the winger is – Kalif Alhassan didn’t track Rogers, which is what forced Chara to rotate and Jewsbury to somewhat hastily react.
As a result, Donovan gets to make an overlapping run that Jewsbury is never going to be able to cover given the amount of space in behind, Donovan’s running start, and Jewsbury’s athleticism disadvantage. This leaves Donovan plenty of room to pick out a cross – which he does, finding a cleverly running Keane at the backpost for a tap-in.
Let’s return to the game against RSL, where Javi Morales has just won a second ball off a Ricketts goal kick and RSL is pushing back into the attack.
In this first frame, the Timbers look like they’re in similar trouble. Jorge Villafana is pulled a little bit upfield marking Sebastian Jaime while RSL have Morales, Luis Gil, and Tony Beltran queued up to run into the same part of the field we just saw the Galaxy exploit.
Except Rodney Wallace – the winger in this instance – recovers. And now the Timbers’ shape is quite good. Morales has come forward, but under the watchful eye of Chara. Beltran has overlapped on the RSL right side, but the Timbers have successfully rotated him from Wallace to Villafana. Meanwhile, Wallace has recovered and is set to track Jaime as the forward makes his way back to the front lines. Meanwhile, Gil has stayed central, but Ben Zemanski is aware of him in case he tries to really overload the right side.
And now the Timbers are in even better shape. Beltran misses a run into the box from Javi Morales – partly because Morales was covered by Chara until Beltran committed to cutting the ball back inside. Instead he plays inside to Gil, who is being watched now by Chara and Zemanski. Villafana, after initially covering the overlapping Beltran, is now able to recover to his left back position because Wallace is fully recovered to cover his positional defensive mark.
But RSL has another wrinkle to throw in. After Zemanski forces Gil back, Kyle Beckerman comes into play and Gil slips the ball through to him. Beckerman slips by Darlington Nagbe, which isn’t ideal, but because Wallace had recovered to take Beltran back from Villafana, Jorge is back in position at left back to come press Beckerman. This prevents Beckerman from playing Morales through, and instead Beckerman very nicely flicks to a cutting-back Morales.
Because Morales cut back, Wallace is able to step in and apply pressure. But, as you can see, Nagbe getting beat a little bit by Beckerman has started a chain of events that’s led to a two-on-one situation, with Wallace being the only player to cover Morales and the overlapping Beltran.
But, unlike the three-on-two in L.A. that happened fifty yards upfield, because the Timbers recovered well and were spot-on with their rotations to this point against RSL, there is so little space that Wallace is able to step to Beltran and block his cross. Wallace isn’t in a totally dissimilar position to Jewsbury in L.A. – he’s stepped to apply pressure on the ball while having an overlapping run about to come across his backside. Unlike Jewsbury, however, Wallace has a chance to cover it because he’s responsible for so much less space. This makes all the difference.
Even after Wallace blocked Beltran’s cross, RSL regained possession and had a chance to rebuild the attack. But notice how good the Timbers’ shape is once again. Beltran and Morales are accounted for on the wing, Villafana is in position and ready to step to anything that comes his way, Chara is accounting for Ned Grabavoy, and the Timbers have three defenders at the top of the box ready to handle anything that coms their way. It’s no wonder that Luis Gil elects just to lump a speculative deep cross into the box that loops its way harmlessly into Donovan Ricketts’ hands – he really had no other options.
But the takeaway here is the value of early team defending, and especially the defending from the wingers that Porter has mentioned multiple times over the past few weeks. What permitted the Timbers to stifle a pretty complex RSL buildup was Wallace’s recovery and engagement at multiple spots in defense, ultimately accounting for, at various times, Jaime, Morales, and Beltran. This is the element that was missing in L.A. and all-too-often earlier in 2014.
And, as Porter has said and this play against RSL proves, this element can often be the difference between being opened up by a relatively routine buildup and shutting down a pretty sophisticated one.