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Risk versus Reward: Going Three at the Back

The Timbers have dug themselves a hole. Getting out, before time runs out, may require some risk-taking.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

With that unexpectedly elusive first win now out of the way, the Portland Timbers are hoping they can regain some much-needed confidence and start climbing their way up the Western Conference table. Last weekend's 3-2 victory over visiting DC United allowed fans and the organization alike to breath a collective sigh of relief, while at the same time giving us a glimpse into head coach Caleb Porter's tactical thought process and just how precarious the Timbers situation has become.

Tied 2-2 with seven minutes left in regulation, Porter inserted Maxi Urruti into the lineup, replacing Jack Jewsbury and shifting the home side into a 3-man defensive setup. Going three at the back isn't new for the Timbers, but in the past we've generally only seen it when the team is behind and needing to chase a goal. The change during the DC match was a clear signal that Portland is running out of time on the 2014 season.

"Prior to the game one of the things [the coaching staff] talked about and decided on, was with the situation we're in it's worth it to risk a point to go for three," Porter said following the team's Tuesday training session. "Typically when you're tied, you're not gambling like that because you do open yourself up and you perhaps risk losing the game."

It's a risk Porter wasn't willing to take in two previous instances this year when the Timbers were at home and tied heading into the final ten minutes of a match: March 16th against Chicago, and April 12th against Chivas. In both those cases Porter kept the backline unchanged in the final minutes of the match. Both ended in draws, with no overt tactical change to push forward in the hopes of finding a late winner.

But the stakes have changed since those earlier matches. Prior to the DC game, Portland had the fewest points of any team in the entire league. And while the season may still seem young, the DC match marked, essentially, the quarter-pole of the season. No wins and looking upwards at every other team in the league would have put a very big nail in the team's coffin. Porter and his staff recognized the situation they were in and planned accordingly.

"We spend, as a staff, a good couple hours laying out exactly what we're going to do in every scenario," Porter said. "You've got to hedge your bets; how much do you go for a win versus making sure you don't lose."

For now, the risk has paid off. Portland has four points from the last two matches and have moved up the standing a couple spots (although both teams closest to them have multiple games in hand). But the team hasn't gotten out of the hole they dug themselves just yet, and more points are required from the next two home matches if they hope to stay in contention for an eventual playoff spot.

"At this stage it's worth it—especially at home—risking losing a point to get three points. We need to," said Porter. "In the latter stages of games if we need to gamble a bit more, we might."