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Timber Cruise: LA Galaxy 0, Portland Timbers 1

MLS: Portland Timbers at Los Angeles Galaxy Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Points on the road rarely come in dominant fashion. And in many respects, the Portland Timbers’ performance on Sunday at the Stub Hub Center left a lot to be desired.

Except, of course, for one category: Points.

On Sunday the Timbers won their first road MLS game since the 2015 MLS Cup Final. And coming off a 2016 season in which the Timbers failed to win a single league game away from Providence Park, that’s good enough for now.

The points are especially rewarding for the Timbers in light of the circumstances. Already missing Liam Ridgewell and Vytas with injuries, the Timbers lost David Guzman after just 35 minutes to a shoulder injury. Although the Galaxy were at least equally shorthanded (and certainly moreso after Jelle Van Damme was sent off in the first half), any road points missing half of the backline and a key piece of the central midfield are good points.

So the Timbers should come back to Portland happy, even if their performance as a whole was less than memorable.

Spotlight on...

Sebastian Blanco.

And, in particular, the legendary defensive performance that he put in on Sunday.

Sunday wasn’t Blanco’s most prolific attacking outing. Although Blanco certainly had moments where he made a difference in the attack (he lent a hand in the counterattack that led to the decisive goal, for example), he wasn’t the Timbers most dangerous player on the day.

But he may, nonetheless, be the reason the Timbers won.

Blanco’s 18 defensive actions on Sunday (13 recoveries (!!!), 4 tackles, and 1 clearance) were the most of any player on the field. Just take a look at the map of Blanco’s interventions:

It’s not sexy stuff, and it often goes overlooked (as the results of this Twitter poll suggest).

But make no mistake: Tales should be told and songs should be sung about the two-way work that Blanco did on Sunday.

As the Timbers showed at Stub Hub Center, winning on the road often isn’t a terribly sexy proposition. And ultimately it boils down just as much to wingers being bought-in defensively as it does hair-raising attacking sequences.

Blanco showed on Sunday that despite his DP status (and some stereotypes about Argentine attacking players), he’s committed to doing the defensive work that makes the Timbers difficult to break down. If that continues, it’s going to go a long, long way toward ensuring 2017 isn’t another 2016.

Deep Cuts

Coming into the season the question many asked about the Timbers’ attack was where the width would come from. By and large the answer has been the fullbacks, with both Vytas and Alvas Powell stretching the field so the likes of Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, and Sebastian Blanco can do work through the middle and in the channels.

But with (the impressive) Marco Farfan earning his first MLS start at left back and Powell clearly less than 100% on the right — to say nothing of starting a left centerback who joined the team just five days ago — the Timbers really weren’t in a position to be aggressive with their fullbacks on Sunday.

So where did the width come from? Well, it didn’t. At least not in the final third. Look at the Timbers’ distribution chart, and, in particular, the lack of wide play around the box:

The Timbers’ lack of width made them very pinchable, something that played right into the Galaxy’s hands even though they were reduced to ten men.

Whenever a team goes down a man, the shorthanded team’s tactical priority is ordinarily to ensure they keep their numbers centrally. So when the Galaxy lost Van Damme to his second yellow, they replaced Baggio Husidic with centerback Bradley Diallo, and shifted Sebastian Lletget — who started on the right wing — into central midfield alongside Joao Pedro.

The Galaxy, then, had the choice of either shifting Gio dos Santos to the right wing and playing a 4-4-1 or keeping him as a second forward and playing a 4-3-1-1. The Galaxy did the former, with dos Santos (and Emmanuel Boateng when he replaced the Mexican international at halftime) taking up spots on the wing. But dos Santos, in particular, won’t do much in the way of defending (he registered zero defensive actions in his 45 minutes of play), and the Galaxy really couldn’t afford to commit both wingers to two-way roles because that would create a situation in which Jack McBean would be stranded and Curt Onalfo’s side would have no viable outlet.

So the Galaxy were functionally playing with a three-man midfield in defense. And because closing down the middle is the defensive priority in that situation (at least until the second half when the Galaxy were forced to take some risks in search of the equalizer), each of those three midfielders naturally sat pretty centrally.

Consistent with tactical orthodoxy, then, the way for the Timbers to take advantage of the extra man in the attack would be to push their fullbacks and work wide in order to force the Galaxy’s central midfield to rotate to the flanks. But that’s precisely what the Timbers didn’t want to do on Sunday. And even with the potential advantage created by being a man up, they stuck to their guns and kept their fullbacks pinned close to midfield.

Compare, for example, Alvas Powell’s distribution chart against the Galaxy on Sunday with his chart from the season opener against Minnesota United:

So even if the Timbers had the man-advantage for much of the game, they really weren’t in a tactical posture to be able to take full advantage. As a result, Sunday’s game never really felt like the Timbers were playing 11-v-10.

Now — make no mistake — the Timbers absolutely should have found the second goal to put the game away. But there was, nonetheless, a tactical reason why the Timbers didn’t dominate after going a man up.

Stat of the Game

6 -- The number of Timbers points so far in March 2017. That is, of course, only through two games with the Timbers retaining the ability to add to their tally in the coming weeks.

But it’s also a Timbers record in the MLS era for the month of March. The beginning of the season has historically been a bugaboo for the Timbers and, in particular, Caleb Porter’s teams. Porter’s side, however, looks like it could break that trend in 2017.

Finishing Bullets

  • For most of Sunday’s game, Jake Gleeson had kind of a brutal day in goal. Gleeson flapped at multiple crosses and generally struggled to take control of his box. But this is a really, really good save, and ultimately one that preserved two points for the Timbers:
  • Ben Zemanski had something close to a horror show of a preseason, so it was a mild surprise to see him get the call in place of David Guzman. Zemanski wasn’t Guzman by any means, but he also wasn’t a liability in his unexpected 50-minute outing. If the Timbers are going to be without Guzman for a spell (something that remains to be seen), Sunday is at least some assurance that Zemanski can fill in competently for a few weeks.
  • The Timbers also got two solid performances from Roy Miller and Marco Farfan. For the former — just off the plane from Costa Rica — it was an early indication that he could be a respectable backup to Liam Ridgewell at left centerback, and could prove wrong those who decried his signing. For the latter it was a second consecutive MLS-level performance for the Timbers’ homegrown player. Farfan certainly has work to do (as every 18-year-old player does), but the fact that he is playing at an MLS level right now bodes very well for the future.