For the second time this year, the Portland Timbers lost to their Western Conference foe, FC Dallas, on Wednesday night. Over the past couple years, the two teams have emerged as some of the best in the MLS, capping with an exciting tie last year in the playoffs. The Timbers have not had nearly as much luck against FC Dallas this year, with the Texans winning both matches, and frankly, doing so pretty easily. Some pieces have been missing from this Timbers team comparing last year to this year: the departures of Rodney Wallace and Jorge Villafana, injuries to mainstays like Alvas Powell and Adam Kwarasey, but the most notable difference has to be the disappearing of a speedy and ruthless counterattack that Portland excelled with last year.
If you go back and look at the playoff tie between the Timbers and FC Dallas last year, especially the first leg in Portland, you saw a team that threw numbers forward on the counterattack and committed players forward.
In the first minute of the home tie, you can see Darlington Nagbe gather the ball in the midfield and explode forward with three other Timbers joining him. After finding Lucas Melano with a beautiful slipped ball in behind the defense, Melano beat his mark and was unfortunately turned away by FC Dallas' goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez. This move stands out though because you can see the willingness to drive forward and put the defense on its heels. Nagbe attacked with speed and vigor. Attacking with speed like this is not only is beneficial going forward, but it also assists the defense as well. If Dallas continually faces counter after counter like this, their outside backs and midfielders might not be as willing to move forward as they know if their team loses the ball, they could be faced with chasing down the pace of Melano, Adi, and Nagbe.
Later on in that home leg of the tie, there was another brilliant example of the Timbers breaking out after an FC Dallas corner kick. Nagbe received the ball deep in his defensive end and continued to drive forward with three other Timbers joining him.
Instead of waiting after gaining possession and choosing to sit on the ball, Nagbe drove into Dallas' half with pace, relying on his teammates to join him. Fanendo Adi, Diego Chara, and Dairon Asprilla all sprinted forward to provide support to the USMNT player. While this Timbers' counterattack did not result in a goal, it provides an excellent example of the commitment needed by the players if they are going to use the counterattack to the fullest; it cannot be one or two players attacking, it needs to come in a full wave.
Comparing the November performances to Wednesday night's game against FC Dallas, you can see that the speed and numbers in the counterattack were lacking. A prime example of this was in the first half as Liam Ridgewell found Darren Mattocks over the top.
After exposing the defense, the Timbers found themselves with possession in the Dallas box. Instead of sprinting forward to offer their support for Mattocks, Adi and Melano lag behind the play, leaving the Jamaican to try a difficult, acrobatic shot over Chris Seitz, the FC Dallas goalkeeper. If the players committed forward to the box, it would offer a more substantial opportunity to score, not a hopeful chip, especially since the numbers would have been equal in the attack.
Later on in the half, the Timbers did find themselves in a quality counterattacking situation, with Nagbe, Mattocks, Adi, and Melano all breaking forward. This time, the team did have the numbers moving forward, however, they did not have the execution.
In games past, Nagbe has done a great job of committing the defense and then playing a perfectly-weighted ball into the space for runners. In this instance, Nagbe's ball led Mattocks too far wide, slowing the attack down.
When Mattocks collects the ball and squares up to the field, the Timbers still have a good opportunity to create a quality opportunity with a 4v4 opportunity in Dallas' 18-yard box. However, the fluidity of last year's attack remains absent. As Mattocks slows down to attempt to beat his man, the small runs that made the Timbers so dangerous last year in these spaces disappear. There seems to be no cohesion or understanding between the front line currently in situations like this. Without the understanding, the players do not know when to make the runs in behind or when to combine with one another. As a result, Mattocks' solo effort resulted in a sharp angle shot and a wasted opportunity.
For the Timbers to find their rhythm once again in the attack, especially their counterattacks, they need to focus on committing numbers forward and doing so with speed. There have been opportunities for this, but the initiative or cohesion has been lacking. As they return to Providence Park on Sunday afternoon to play New York City FC, the Timbers will need to find the counterattack that was so successful for them last year so that they can turn around their two game losing skid.