It was noticeable watching the game. But it really jumped off the stat sheet.
276 total passes.
That’s all the Portland Timbers attempted on Saturday against Real Salt Lake, a staggeringly low number for a team that has averaged around 415 passes per game during the Porter Era. In fact, the Timbers’ 276 passes against RSL is 34 below the previous MLS low for a Caleb Porter Timbers team. Moreover, the Timbers have eclipsed 276 total passes in a single half ten times in Porter’s tenure on Morrison Street.
So what was apparent throughout the game turned out to be historic on the stat sheet: The Timbers were more direct on Saturday than they ever have been during Porter’s reign in the manager’s office.
To understand why, it’s useful to look to a point of reference for how the Timbers normally try to attack, in this case the Timbers’ first goal against Montreal in 2014. The Timbers won 3-2 at Montreal in a game in which they attempted 433 passes, a bit above the Porter Era average, but not extraordinarily so.
Start off with the video of the sequence, and then we’ll break it down.
This is what the Timbers look like when they’re playing from the back and through the middle - they rely on movement, quick passing, and flooding numbers into midfield to create passing lanes and advance in the attack.
The sequence starts with Diego Chara receiving a pass from Darlington Nagbe just across midfield. It’s hard to tell exactly, but by the presence of Montreal striker Jack McInerney just behind Chara, it appears the Impact have ten men behind the ball. Note, however, that both Timbers defensive midfielders are fully engaged in the attack.
By this next frame, Chara has played a semi-brilliant ball forward to Will Johnson, who is fully committed to the attack. Chara’s work here is done, but Johnson will continue on to provide an additional man going forward.
Johnson’s next play is pretty obvious - Nagbe has moved into newly open space between the Impact backline and defensive midfield. This is prime real estate if you’re an attacker because you put immediate pressure on the backline and attract their attention. At the same time, however, the backline should be reluctant to step to Nagbe because of the very real possibility of setting a runner free in the box. But the temptation is certainly there.
Nagbe, like he does, takes a few positive touches toward the Impact backline and, well, you see what happens to poor Felipe. At the same time, Futty has succumbed to the temptation to step to Nagbe, putting Heath Pearce in a world of hurt. Maxi Urruti is running off Pearce’s front side while Johnson - remember him - is running behind a distracted Maxim Tissot and is headed to Pearce’s backside. The Timbers’ movement and addition of a defensive midfielder to the buildup has created a situation in which Montreal’s lone remaining centerback has two runners to cover.
Pearce drops to cut off the passing lane to Johnson’s run, so Nagbe plays the ball through to Urruti.
Short, quick passing. Sharp movement. Defensive midfielders in the attack. Arrow life. That’s sort of the Porter formula in its ideal form.
On Saturday against RSL, however, the Timbers didn’t have either of their defensive midfielders from the attack in Montreal or their mainstay maestro, Diego Valeri. So Porter changed his formula more than he has at any time since taking the Timbers’ helm.
Playing MLS debutante George Fochive and veteran utilityman Jack Jewsbury at defensive midfield against RSL’s inverted-traiangle midfield 4-3-3, Porter couldn’t afford to be as aggressive in letting his defensive midfielders join into the attack as he was against Montreal. If either Jewsbury or Fochive got caught upfield (which wouldn’t be out of the question in light of Jewsbury’s lack of athleticism and Fochive’s inexperience) Portland would likely be in, at best, a 5 v 5 situation with RSL having their three forwards (Sebastian Jaime, Alvaro Saborio, and Olmes Garcia) as well as their two attacking midfielders (Javier Morales and Luis Gil) poised in the attack against one defensive midfielder and the Timbers’ exposed backline.
Because of the presence of Gil and Morales in the RSL attacking midfield, Porter couldn’t afford to commit either Fochive or Jewsbury to the crucial role Johnson played in the Montreal buildup. Add to that the fact that Valeri is still recovering from a torn ACL, and it’s hard to see how the Timbers could execute Porter’s ideal formula with the personnel they had available on Saturday.
Which is why Porter went more direct than he ever has. The weakness in RSL’s inverted-triangle midfield is, of course, that it only has one holding midfielder. So it’s going to be more vulnerable on the flanks.
Now let’s watch the buildup to Dairon Asprilla’s narrowly missed header in the first half against RSL.
We start by winding this back an extra bit to the origins of the play - with Adam Kwarasey having the ball in front of the Timbers’ goal. Notice that both Gil and Morales are committed well upfield.
Kwarasey plays a very precise long ball (Donovan Ricketts he is not) upfield to Jorge Villafana, who is already behind the two-man level of RSL’s three-man midfield. With one pass the Timbers have set up the favorable numerical situation they had in Montreal, but without exposing their defensive midfielders. And note the space RSL has left exposed on their right flank.
Villafana sees this and wastes no time driving directly into the open space on RSL’s flank and forcing Kyle Beckerman into a very early half-rotation to watch Villafana while Jaime makes a relatively heroic recovery run. Notice that Jewsbury is still well behind the play and shows little impetus to beat Morales and Gil into the Timbers’ attack. This is intentional; Jewsbury may make a very late run into the play if the opportunity presents itself, but for now his job is to hold shape and make sure he doesn’t expose the Timbers’ backline in case of a turnover.
Villafana plays to Wallace on the touchline where Tony Beltran is on a bit of an island. So much so, in fact, that Jaime runs right past Villafana to try to help Beltran. At this point Beckerman is stuck because he has to watch Nagbe. Adi is occupying the centerbacks. And Asprilla is occupying Kenny Mansally. So the Timbers still have everybody in RSL’s defense occupied with Villafana essentially running free. All the while, Jewsbury and Fochive are twiddling their thumbs maintaining the Timbers’ shape.
Wallace heads to the corner and earns enough space on the byline (despite Jaime and Beltran both defending him) to whip a cross into the box. This isn’t a bad idea because the box looks pretty ripe to send a ball into. With Jamison Olave’s attention attracted out wide and Chris Schuler tied up with Fanendo Adi, Wallace has a pretty good size target area to hit in which Asprilla will be able to get head to the ball first.
Wallace’s cross is a good one and that target area is exactly where the ball finds Asprilla for a free header. Unfortunately for the Timbers Asprilla’s finish goes wide of a hopelessly wrong-footed Nick Rimando’s post. But the execution to that point shows how the Timbers didn’t need to commit their defensive midfielders to create numbers problems for RSL and take advantage of Salt Lake’s gaps on the flank. Whereas in Montreal the Timbers needed quick passing, movement, and numbers to create their advantage, here all the Timbers needed to do was be fast (i.e., direct) and wide.
But let’s go back one frame to look at one last thing. The Timbers’ (specifically Wallace’s) execution wasn’t perfect here. If Wallace sending a deep cross into the box was a good idea, Villafana actually had a better one.
Villafana is running into the space now behind Beltran and Jaime and in front of Beckerman and Olave. If, instead of whipping that cross to Asprilla, Wallace had cut the ball back to Villafana, in light of the fact their attention is drawn out wide, the smart money says both Beckerman and Olave collapse toward Sueno. If Wallace finds Villafana with a good ball, Jorge can likely play a one-touch pass to Nagbe who would then be waltzing into the box a free man.
In all, you have to give the Timbers a fairly enthusiastic passing grade in the way they attacked against RSL. Considering it is early season (when goals and chances are few and far between across the league) and the Timbers are without their primary playmaker and top three defensive midfielders, the at least four pretty clear cut chances Portland created aren’t bad at all. And even moreso when you consider they were playing what for them is a very unusual style. Frankly, even with some execution that could use a little fine-tuning, the Timbers were unlucky not to score and come away with three points.
But Wallace’s choice to whip the ball into the box brings to the fore a criticism about the Timbers’ attack on Saturday: They were a little bit too willing to settle for deep crosses. All but two of the Timbers’ 19 run-of-play crosses came from pretty wide areas of the field. Deep crosses can be dangerous, just as Wallace’s certainly was. But far more dangerous are entry passes coming from more immediately around the box.
Against Los Angeles this coming Sunday, however, the Timbers will be facing a team that plays two defensive midfielders. In addition, the Timbers will likely have Chara back in the lineup alongside Jewsbury. Accordingly, much of the incentive to be quite so direct will be gone, as the Galaxy will have one fewer player with which to press the Timbers’ defensive midfielders and it won’t be as easy for Portland to exploit wide spaces with the Galaxy’s shape. In addition, Chara’s skill-set certainly lends itself well to a greater role in the attack, as we saw at the beginning on the Montreal sequence.
So the Timbers probably won’t be as direct against the Galaxy as they were against RSL.
On the other hand, however, the Galaxy have established themselves as the preeminent counterattacking team in MLS (sorry I’m not sorry, Seattle). So there remains considerable risk in becoming overexposed against the Galaxy.
Also, consider this chart of the five games in which the Timbers have attempted the fewest passes in the Porter Era:
|Total Passes||Game||Timbers’ Result|
|276||RSL 3/7/15||Draw 0-0|
|310||LAG 5/11/14||Draw 1-1|
|317||@ LAG 8/2/14||Loss 3-1|
|321||@ RSL 8/30/13||Loss 4-2|
|323||@ RSL 6/7/14||Win 3-1|
So while the Timbers may not be as direct against the Galaxy as they were against RSL, don’t expect Porter and the Timbers to revert to their base formula just yet.