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Stumptown Breakdown: Rotate and Cover

Last week against FC Dallas, the Timbers kept Fabian Castillo off the wings by aggressively rotating to close down wide space. But can that strategy work against Orlando City?

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

In 2014 Fabian Castillo transformed himself from a talented youngster into one of MLS’s best wide attacking talents, notching 10 goals and four assists despite missing seven games to injury and suspension.

Castillo’s pace and on-ball technical quality in particular made him arguably the most dangerous player in MLS near the touchline, as the young Colombian can routinely shed defenders, get into space, and wreak havoc on a backline. And that potency hadn’t gone anywhere early in 2015, as Castillo was a consistent threat in the early going this season, racking up a goal and two assists in FC Dallas’s first three games.

And so, with Mauro Diaz sidelined against the Portland Timbers, Castillo represented by far the greatest threat in the Dallas midfield. Even without their primary playmaker, if Castillo could get himself into space in wide areas, he could inflict serious damage.

But against the Timbers he didn't. Here are Castillo’s attacking events against Portland:

A number of things are notable here: One chance created (on a flick 30 yards from goal), one successful pass into the box (barely), and lots of play in the center-right channel well away from the danger area.

But how did the Timbers virtually eliminate Dallas’s dangerman? Let’s take a look at what the Timbers did when Castillo would look to get loose on the wing.

In this first frame here the Timbers are in a little bit of trouble. Castillo is receiving the ball in an area that suits him, with only Jorge Villafana in position to track him. Tesho Akindele is also running in behind Villafana, giving Castillo somebody to link up with, even if the Timbers also have Liam Ridgwell waiting just off screen.

As Castillo presses up the touchline George Fochive recovers, but doesn’t return to a typical defensive-midfield position in front of the centerbacks and alongside Diego Chara. In a typical situation, you’d see Fochive drop closer to where Akindele is running and perhaps even track the former Oredigger. Although the Timbers don’t have defensive help from their left winger, Rodney Wallace, at this point, they also don’t have an overlapping fullback to account for. So, under normal circumstances Villafana’s presence on Castillo and a couple watchful eyes from Liam Ridgewell and George Fochive (who should be ready to rotate to Castillo if need be) would be sufficient.

But these aren’t normal circumstances and Castillo is no normal player. Instead the Timbers have rotated Fochive early to bracket Castillo with Villafana. This leaves a lot of central space the Timbers are conceding, however, with Akindele sitting right in it.

Akindele, however, really isn’t the type to search out space in the center of midfield from which he can get his head up and pick out a pass. In fact, he’s beelining his way out of that space to try to get into the pocket vacated by Villafana staying high to seal the touchline for Castillo. This is classic second forward work from Akindele, but certainly isn’t the kind of thing you’d see from a playmaking number-ten.

Fochive, for his part, has now fully rotated, leaving an even bigger gap in the middle of the field. But, as noted, nobody on the Burn seems terribly keen on taking advantage of that. So, by rotating Fochive early and keeping Villafana high, the Timbers have bottled up Castillo. And Dallas really can’t punish the Timbers for being so aggressive on the wings because Dallas doesn't have anybody suited to take advantage of the acres of central space the Timbers are conceding.

This is what Dallas misses when Diaz is out.

Castillo ultimately has to play to Akindele, who predictably gets turned away by Ridgewell. Castillo thinks he can get into Ridgewell’s vacated space, but Villafana and Fochive have other plans. Akindele’s only real option at this point is to retreat to the open space and try to reset.

He’s able to do so, finding Michel in a pretty harmless central-midfield position. Ridgewell clearly isn't wild about the gap in the Timbers backline, but nobody from Dallas is in a position to take advantage of it. In fact, the most remarkable thing about this moment is how utterly disinterested in attacking everybody in Dallas appears.

With Castillo bottled, it’s standstill defense for the Timbers. Dallas’s only real option is a speculative Michel crack from distance.

By rotating early to press Castillo out on the touchline, then, the Timbers neutralized Dallas’s most dangerous playmaker and dared somebody else to try to unlock a sequence for the Burn. Oscar Pareja, however, really didn’t have that player on the field.

Orlando City, however, won’t be quite so one-dimensional on Sunday. Although the Lions don’t have a winger of anything near Castillo’s quality, they force defensive-mid and fullback rotations in a more traditional way - by working an overlapping fullback (often Brek Shea) into the play to force the defense to account for another player in wide areas. When a fullback overlaps defensive rotations are good provided they’re in the right phase of the attack and right part of the field. Rotating in that situation preserves defensive shape and keeps the team’s best defenders on the attacking team’s most dangerous attackers.

But if Orlando City is successful at forcing high rotations or if the Timbers aren’t sharp in covering the space the rotating player has vacated to ensure big central holes don’t open up, the Lions have the ultimate cudgel to punish Portland: Kaka.

You know that space the Timbers willingly conceded against FC Dallas? That’s the space players like Kaka live for.

Accordingly, the Timbers won’t be able to commit as aggressively to shutting down the wing when Shea overlaps. Instead, they’ll need defensive commitment from their wingers and to take extra care to not allow spaces to open up when they are forced to rotate.