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Stumptown Breakdown: Packing the Middle

Orlando City flummoxed the Timbers by overloading the middle of the field for the purpose of unlocking the Timbers’ flanks. Could NYCFC do the same?

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not a secret that the first half against Orlando City on Sunday wasn’t the Portland Timbers’ best showing.

In fact, far from it. The Lions simply outclassed the Timbers in a way we haven’t seen at Providence Park since the Seattle Sounders blitzed Portland in the friendly confines last August.

In addition to putting in an across-the-board flat performance, however, the Timbers were flummoxed early in the Orlando City game by the Lions breaking from habit and overloading the center of the field.

This is Orlando City’s distribution chart from the first half last Sunday. It isn’t hard to see where the focal point of the Orlando City attack was - the attacking side of the center circle.

But until last weekend, such a central overload wasn’t really in the Lions’ playbook.

Here’s Orlando City’s first half the week before against D.C. United - a positive half for the Lions in its own right. While Orlando City was still quite good, they were much more balanced in the way they approached attacking United, which you can tell by the absence of a passing bird’s nest around the center circle.

Against the Timbers, however, Orlando City didn’t overload the middle against the Timbers to try to create chances from central spaces. In fact, if you look back at the distribution chart from the Timbers-Lions first half, you’ll notice zero key passes (yellow arrows) or assists (blue arrows) coming from central areas.

Rather, as is often the case, Orlando City attacked the Timbers centrally to try to create space elsewhere. And against Portland, Orlando City was remarkably effective at using their central focus to break open the Timbers’ left flank.

The best example of this came in the 5th minute when Lions right back Rafael Ramos found leagues of space to whip a dangerous cross into the box.

The sequence starts with Orlando City working the ball around the back, and the Timbers look like they’re in perfectly fine shape. Fanendo Adi is pressing, Maxi Urruti is filling the hole, and Rodney Wallace and Darlington Nagbe are more or less aware of OCSC’s fullbacks. Ramos is taking a pretty typical fullback’s spot in possession near midfield.

Orlando City works a nice sequence of passes out of the back to pull Urruti out of the hole and get Diego Chara to commit a little bit higher. As a result, OCSC has created a soft spot just on the attacking side of the center circle - exactly the area we discussed a moment ago. Darwin Ceren is quick to recognize this, even if he lacks a measure of subtlety about it. Take note, however, of where Rodney Wallace’s attention has been drawn - he’s looking into that central soft spot.

Oh, and where did Ramos go?

If Ceren wanted the ball to his feet, Okugo had a better idea. Rather than play to Ceren, Okugo skips a level in midfield and plays to Kevin Molino - Orlando City’s nominal right forward. This brings Kaka into the play, as George Fochive had been playing Kaka high to deny the ball from Okugo. Now that Molino is on the ball, Kaka is in that space between the lines number tens adore.

As for the Timbers, the pass pulls both Jorge Villafana and Wallace toward Molino. Although it’s understandable that the Timbers want to react to Molino in this situation (it’s not an area of the field in which you want to let a player pick his head up), the fact that Wallace and Villafana don’t communicate about who is going to step bends the Timbers out of shape. Molino is Villafana’s mark, so it makes some sense to have the left back step up, but only if his winger is covering for him. But, as things appear in this frame, the Timbers don’t look like they’ll be punished.

Again, though, where’s Ramos?

Molino plays the easy combination to the now-open Kaka - who, unfortunately for the Timbers, knows exactly where Ramos is. For the first time in a few frames Wallace knows where Ramos is, too, but by now it’s too late. All the central activity has played on Wallace’s urges to help defensively and, as a result, he’s lost track of his primary job defensive job as a winger - cover his fullback from overlapping runs.

The result is Ramos being released into way, way, way too much space on the byline, allowing him to play a very dangerous ball into the box. Fortunately for the Timbers Ramos’s cross leaves something to be desired, as he cuts it back a yard too deep for Cyle Larin to try to get on the end of it.

But, lack of final ball quality notwithstanding, as the passing schematic of the sequence demonstrates, this is a great example of how the Lions used committing players to central areas to collapse the Portland defense and open the Timbers’ left flank in the first half. To be sure, this wouldn’t have been as easy for Orlando if Wallace had been more aware of Ramos’s threat or if Villafana and Wallace had communicated, but the five players (Okugo, Higuita, Ceren, Kaka, and Molino) Orlando City committed to central areas were too much of a siren song for Wallace to turn away from.

So what does this mean for the Timbers heading into New York City this weekend?

Well, it depends on who Jason Kreis has available for selection on Sunday. If David Villa is available to play as a second forward (he was pulled at halftime midweek against Philadelphia with what was reported to be a hamstring strain), it’s easy to see how NYCFC could create a similar overload with Villa stepping back into midfield as a playmaker. Moreover, Kreis has some selection issues at fullback, with both Josh Williams and Shay Facey also questionable against the Timbers.

But Kreis undoubtedly took note of the Timbers’ difficulty keeping their shape in the face of central buildup, and, with the right personnel, a narrow diamond isn’t a bad setup to exploit that once again.

If NYCFC looks to create a similar dynamic, the Timbers will have to take extra care to cover central spaces while keeping track of overlappers. And whether that can be done with Fochive in central midfield and a struggling Rodney Wallace on the left wing is certainly on Caleb Porter’s mind.