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Timber Cruise: Portland Timbers 0, Sporting Kansas City 1

MLS: Sporting KC at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers came up against their Providence Park kryptonite on Saturday night. In the Caleb Porter Era, the Timbers now sit 1-3-1 against SKC in the Rose City.

Aside from the Timbers’ ten-v-ten 3-0 home drubbing of the Wiz on August 7, 2016, the Timbers have one point from the other four games against Kansas City at Providence Park. And get this: In those four games the Timbers have scored a combined zero goals.

Zero goals in four of five home games against SKC in the Porter Era. An era, mind you, when the Timbers have typically featured one of the more prolific attacks in MLS.

There comes a point when you just have to tip your cap to Peter Vermes and his team. They know how to play against this team in this building.

And there also comes a point when the Timbers need to figure out how to solve that problem.

Deep Cuts

So why does this happen? Why is SKC so effective against the Timbers at Providence Park?

Everything Sporting Kansas City does is based on disruption. They play a true 4-3-3, with two high wingers supported by an inverted central-midfield triangle of a true six and, in effect, two eights. Although Benny Feilhaber can certainly be a ten-like playmaking presence in the attack at times, he defends like an eight alongside Ilie Sanchez (the six) and Roger Espinoza (a true eight).

As a result, SKC brings defensive numbers to shut down the middle and to support the flanks while, because of the work-rate of Dom Dwyer and the playmaking ability of Benny Feilhaber, maintaining a much more legitimate attacking unit than you typically see from three defensive-midfielder systems.

But that’s not it. When it comes to wide players, Peter Vermes very much as a type: Workhorses.

Vermes pushes both of his fullbacks high into the attack, while expecting them to be able to cover the ground necessary to quickly close holes in behind and to bring a physicality necessary to prevent teams from breaking out on the counter in the first instance. And in order to play at SKC, Vermes requires his wingers to be maniacally-working, two-way players, pushing high and wide in the attack but covering the fullbacks in defense in order to — in combination with the three-man central midfield — create a block of nine defenders.

That work-rate form the wide players, in particular, is what people are referring to when they talk about “Sporting Fit.”

And it’s really hard to break down. With the extra central-midfield defender, though, typically the place to attack SKC will be wide where the numbers are normal and where Vermes asks a lot of his players in both the attack and in defense.

But, quite simply, the Timbers weren’t good in wide attacking areas on Saturday. With two wingers who like to play in from the channels and in, the Timbers rely on their fullbacks for attacking width. But neither Marco Farfan nor Alvas Powell got into threatening attacking spots with any regularity on Saturday, which pushed the Timbers into the middle of the field and the teeth of the SKC defense.

That’s basically the way it worked for Sporting on Saturday. They were aggressive and physical with the Timbers in transition, packed the middle in defense, and worked their butts off on the wings. As a result — and to Sporting’s credit — they stymied the Timbers. And as the game went along, errors that SKC forced the Timbers into with their pressure and work-rate turned into unforced errors caused by the lack of rhythm in the game.

And, really, so it’s been between these two teams at Providence Park in the Caleb Porter Era.

There’s real risk to the way SKC plays, though, which is why Vermes’s death-march formula hasn’t really caught on elsewhere.

Since SKC won MLS Cup in 2013, Sporting has showed signs that the physical demands of Vermes’s system wears on the team over the course of the season. Despite qualifying for the playoffs every year, Kansas City hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2013 MLS Cup Final. And during that period SKC sports a downright terrible 8-16-6 record in the last 10 games of those three regular seasons.

Vermes, then, treads a fine line between winning with a system of overwhelming pressure built on the work-rate of his striker, wingers, and fullbacks, and running his team into the ground. In 2013, Vermes pulled off the former. But in 2014, 2015, and 2016, Sporting Fit became Sporting Flat by the time the fall rolled around.

It just so happens, however, that SKC’s disruptive approach gives the Timbers fits at Providence Park, where they like to dictate the flow of games by playing on the front-foot. To be sure, the Timbers have to find a way to draw points from games in which SKC comes into Portland to churn up the waters. But, as Caleb Porter put it postgame, there’s no real magic bullet to that in the type of game that Sporting brings to Providence Park.

We gotta find way to win this type of game. It’s that simple. And how do you want this type of game? You keep your composure, you find a bit of quality, you score off a set piece, you gotta find that precision in the final third. There’s no magic formula how you do that.

Spotlight On...

Fanendo Adi, who had a rough, rough go of things on Saturday.

With SKC applying pressure all over the field, the Timbers very much needed Adi to be a release valve, win a good number of the balls pumped forward to him, and distribute from there to trigger the attack. They didn’t get it, however, as Matt Besler and Ike Opara got the better of their matchup with Adi.

Until the Timbers brought extra numbers into the attack with their subs starting in the 70th minute, Adi downright struggled with only modest success in the holdup game and almost no presence in and around the box. Adi came into the game a bit more after the Timbers threw caution to the wind, but up until that point Adi put in by far his least influential performance in 2017 at perhaps the most inopportune moment of the season to date.

Stat of the Game

43-65 — The margin by which the Timbers lost the duels battle on Saturday. If it felt like SKC was first to every ball, it’s because they were to the lion’s share of them.

Finishing Bullets

  • Marco Farfan has been playing well, and he was far from at fault for the Timbers’ loss on Saturday. In hindsight, however, the Timbers very much missed Vytas’s quality in the final third on Saturday. The Timbers certainly need to get Farfan his fair share of starts, but there are going to be certain matchups where Vytas makes more sense. Saturday certainly appeared to be one of those.
  • In spite of the Timbers’ sloppiness throughout much of the game, they had their chances to draw level. In particular, Tim Melia spectacularly saved Darlington Nagbe’s hit from distance and Roger Espinoza cleared Alvas Powell’s header off the line. But this from the first half is the one the Timbers will regret:
  • When trailing, the aggressiveness with which SKC plays can quickly turn into chasing, especially late in the game when Sporting is forced to ratchet up the risks they take and expose themselves at the back. So getting that first goal, while always important, is especially so against a team like SKC because it would have allowed the Timbers to absorb a bit more of SKC’s pressure and pick their spots to hit Sporting on the counter. More often than not, Adi buries that feed from Valeri inside the far post. And if he had done so against Kansas City, Saturday likely would’ve played out very differently.