The Portland Timbers' defense has looked as steady through the first three games of 2015 as it has at any time in recent Timbers history. The central-defense pairing of Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell has, as promised, jelled quickly, giving new goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey a relatively comfortable adjustment period.
The one phase of defending where the Timbers have had some trouble, however, is in defending set pieces, with corner kicks being particularly troublesome. This has led supporters to ask one fundamental question about the nature of the Timbers’ corner-kick difficulties: Are the Timbers’ problems a result of a poor system or execution?
Let’s take a look at how the Timbers are setting up for a couple corners and compare them to a few teams around MLS.
This corner-kick situation came in the 9th minute against Sporting Kansas City and gives us a really nice angle on how the Timbers are setting up. In the end, Ike Opara got free for a header that went inches wide.
But let’s look at how Portland is setting up. As a fundamental matter, the Timbers are man-marking each of the Wiz’s five box-attackers with Jorge Villafana, Jack Jewsbury, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, and Nat Borchers on SKC’s most imposing set-piece threat Ike Opara. Dairon Asprilla is on the near post. Although the marking assignments shift just a little bit throughout the game, the man-marking of box attackers and placement of a player on the near post are constants in the Timbers’ corner-kick defending schemes.
Here, Jimmy Medranda has pulled wide to show for the possibility of a short corner. This forces both Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara to respond because now the Timbers have to account for both Medranda and Marcel de Jong, the kick taker, to prevent SKC from executing a short corner. As you can see, this is an easy way for the attacking team to pull two defenders out of the box by committing one additional player to a short corner.
Finally, Liam Ridgewell and Fanendo Adi are free in the box; they have no marking assignments and are just there to react to the ball and win it. Although Caleb Porter frequently does this with a forward, it’s somewhat unusual for a centerback to serve in this role for the Timbers, although in this situation I suspect Ridgewell gets the call because he was assigned to mark Matt Besler, who did not come forward for the corner.
So, with everything accounted for before the kick, what went wrong to give Opara a free header? Really, Opara just beat Borchers. Ridgewell also slightly misjudged the ball to keep him from joining in on the play, but for the most part Opara made the play by winning an individual battle against Borchers.
Now let’s look at the Timbers setup on a later corner. In general, it’s very similar. Chara is now on the post while Adi and Asprilla are free to win the ball. Ridgewell has moved over to mark Dom Dwyer (something I think was probably an adjustment when the Timbers saw Besler wasn’t going to attack corner kicks) while Borchers remains on Opara. Because nobody from SKC has shown short, no Timbers players have to respond wide to cover the short-corner recipient or account for de Jong (because he can’t pass to himself on a corner kick). So the Timbers have a slightly different look based in part on a couple differences in SKC’s setup, but it’s no fundamental difference.
Now let’s look at a few other teams for a point of reference.
Here we have Vancouver setting up to defend an Orlando City corner, and it looks almost identical to the Timbers’ setup. Vancouver has every box attacker man-marked, two free ball-winners (I think it’s both ‘Caps centerbacks Kendall Waston and Diego Rodriguez), and a man on the near post.
Next we have the San Jose Earthquakes setting up to defend a corner against the Chicago Fire in what appears to be more of a hybrid zonal- and man-marking scheme. The Quakes have put a body on every box attacker and have two free defenders in the box to win the ball, but have also placed two zone defenders at the top of the box to track runners coming in from outside the box. Notably, unlike Portland and Vancouver, San Jose doesn’t put a defender on the post, instead assigning that man to top-of-the-box defending. If Vancouver and Portland represent one end of the man-marking spectrum, San Jose’s setup here is a little ways down the spectrum toward zonal marking, something the Timbers (and a few other teams) experimented with to little success in 2014.
What’s notable, however, is this could also be explained as a reaction to the Fire’s approach. Unlike SKC and Orlando City, both of whom had five or six players immediately in or around the box, Chicago has only four players in the box with four more sort of milling around nearby. San Jose doesn’t want to empty the box by man-marking everybody outside the box, but they also can't leave those players unaccounted for. To counter this, the Quakes put zone defenders in the spots the Fire’s outside-of-the-box attackers may run into, allowing San Jose to keep an extra man or two inside the box where the action is likely to be.
Finally, let’s take a look at L.A. Galaxy. The Galaxy, like Vancouver and Portland, are using a primarily man-marking scheme with one defender free as a ball-winner. Like San Jose, the Galaxy don’t put anybody on the post. But L.A. does one thing none of the three teams above do - they sacrifice a defender to have a player in an attacking position to help spark the counter (something that is very, very in-character for Bruce Arena’s Galaxy teams). This is an aggressive setup, as, with Houston showing short, it leaves only one player as a free ball-winner and nobody on the post. But, aside from that wrinkle, the Galaxy’s setup is pretty similar to Portland and Vancouver’s.
But the point here is this: set-piece defending is not tactical rocket science. This is especially true the way the Timbers go about it, which is about as conservative and defensively-oriented as any of the three other examples above.
Although every team has its own wrinkles (not putting a man on the post, having their defenders at the top of the box take zone- rather than man-assignments, pulling one man back to spark the counter, etc.), the basics are, for the most part, pretty similar.
Which really leads to this conclusion: It’s about execution. The Timbers coaching staff certainly needs to run set pieces in training (they do) and make sure assignments are clear in the pregame preparations (they do, a Jorge Villafana assignment mixup against L.A. notwithstanding), but at some point it’s up to the players to execute.
If the defenders win their individual battles, the set piece won’t come of anything. If they don’t, however, it’s going to be a roll of the dice.
And there really aren’t any rocket-science tactical tweaks to change that.