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Timber Cruise: Montreal Impact 4, Portland Timbers 1

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MLS: Portland Timbers at Montreal Impact Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers stellar start to 2017 is a distant memory. As is the advantage in the table that they earned in March. All of it has been squandered after six weeks of mediocrity from a team that entered 2017 with trophy ambitions.

And on Saturday afternoon the Timbers compounded their problems by converting a bad break into a tailspin with a lack of discipline and defensive fortitude. And now the Timbers find themselves where they default every year — fighting for their playoff lives.

Deep Cuts

Down a man, down a goal is a bad spot for a reason. A team facing such a desperate situation both needs to come out and press to get the goal back while also tucking an extra attacker in defense to maintain their lines of four.

But that’s exactly the position the Timbers found themselves in after Diego Chara did this:

To be sure Ignacio Piatti embellished the modest contact, but it’s nonetheless a clear and patently unprofessional red card for Chara. Hands to the face are a red card every time. The Timbers were understandably frustrated after referee Jair Marrufo incorrectly awarded an early penalty to the Impact, but it was Chara’s failure to control his emotions that turned that setback into a near-hopeless situation.

From there the Timbers suffered from exactly the problem you’d expect; they couldn’t afford to tuck their attacking midfielders in to defend because they had to push for a goal. The Timbers shifted Darlington Nagbe into a deeper role alongside Guzman, and then essentially freed up both Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco to work with Fanendo Adi to try to generate enough attack to claw back into the game. The Timbers created a pretty impressive share of chances in light of the circumstances, but only because of the risks they took both with their wingers and their defensive midfielders, primarily David Guzman.

The problem, though, was this created gaping holes in transition and soft spots in the channels in defensive states. And few players in MLS punish soft spots in the channel like Ignacio Piatti. Watch the Impact’s third goal:

This was a bit of a chain reaction that started when Liam Ridgewell stepped up to try to disrupt Blerim Dzemaili, but failed to come away with the ball. Dzemaili played to Anthony Jackson-Hamel between the lines, who gathered and dropped to Piatti who has been lurking in the left channel. With no wing support, this created a two-v-one in which Piatti was driving off Alvas Powell’s inside shoulder while Jackson-Hamel used a smart run off Powell’s outside shoulder to trap the Jamaican right back.

If Powell dives in hard on Piatti he’ll likely commit a foul in a dangerous area and/or open Jackson-Hamel for a quick reversal from Piatti that would have put Jackson-Hamel through to pick out one of several runners queued at the top of the box. If, on the other hand, Powell decides to seal the lane from Piatti to Jackson-Hamel and push Piatti central toward the rest of the Timbers’ defense, he’s putting one of the league’s most dangerous wingers in one of his favorite spots from which to shoot.

Powell chose the latter which, if he had help coming from the middle, would’ve absolutely been the right thing to do. But Guzman was slow to recognize the danger and Roy Miller was pinned in by a runner that he couldn’t leave because Ridgewell was still recovering from his failed foray.

By having to push their attacking midfielders high while playing down a man, then, the Timbers were open to being flooded with numbers on the wings. And that soft spot is exactly where Piatti and Dzemaili lived after Chara got himself sent off.

The Timbers’ predictable handicap after Chara’s red card, then, is exactly what did them in. Although David Guzman tried his best to make up for Chara’s absence by putting in an extraordinary amount of hard work both in defense and in the attack, his work-rate couldn’t make up for Chara’s absence and, ultimately, sealed the Timbers’ fate when a visibly tired Guzman cheaply turned over the ball before the Impact’s fourth goal.

Chara has an awful lot to answer for.

Spotlight on...

Darlington Nagbe, and part of the reason why Caleb Porter has gone away from using him as an eight.

During the period in 2015 and 2016 in which Porter shifted Nagbe into a deeper central midfield role, Porter occasionally noted that he wasn’t wild about Nagbe’s tendency in that position to sit deeper than he would like. Even as an eight, Nagbe is still best suited to primarily be an attacking player. While it puts him in an ideal position to help in transition, Nagbe’s defensive chops are decidedly below average for the position. Thus, if he’s going to play as an eight he needs to provide some additional attacking punch from deeper in the midfield.

On Saturday Nagbe made his first appearance at the position after Chara got himself sent off, and his bad habit of sitting too deep very much reared its head.

By comparison, look at the attacking actions chart of David Guzman who, as a natural defensive midfielder, you’d expect to sit noticeably deeper than Nagbe.

This is part of the reason Porter went away from the (nominally) inverted-triangle 4-3-3 in 2016: Nagbe wasn’t strong enough defensively to sit in with Diego Chara and protect the backline, nor was he influential enough in the attack to justify the defensive weakness. And although the Timbers were forced into the move by necessity on Saturday, it was a reminder that there were good reasons to go away from the setup that helped the Timbers win MLS Cup.

Stat of the Game

87% — The percentage of passes completed by Montreal, not a team known for stringing together long spells of possession. That’s the highest opposing pass-completion percentage the Timbers have conceded this season. Losing Chara was really, really bad news.

Finishing Bullets

  • Before Chara put the Timbers in desperate straits, the Impact got the benefit of this terrible penalty call:
  • The contact from Blanco on Dzemaili’s shoulder was nominal, and clearly not enough to make the Swiss international go down. The play is very similar to the play in Dallas for which Dairon Asprilla was fined after we went down in the box under a similarly nominal hand to the chest from Walker Zimmerman. If the MLS Disciplinary Committee is consistent, Dzemaili will also no doubt be in line for a sanction. According to the Committee’s Principles and Parameters, if an act of simulation or embellishment “has a material impact in the match the player will then be suspended and fined.” A “material impact in the match” is defined to include a play in which the action draws a penalty. Thus, although it’s no help for the Timbers, Dzemaili is in line for a suspension against the Red Bulls.
  • It was also clear that Chara’s sending off was causally related to the poor penalty decision. The game became extra chippy after the Timbers feel aggrieved by Marrufo’s decision, with Chara’s red card, a yellow card to David Guzman for a very late challenge, and a petty argument between Sebastian Blanco and the Impact bench coming during that period. But make no mistake, that’s not on Marrufo; that’s on the Timbers. Their unprofessional reaction to the bad break ultimately put them in position to almost certainly lose the game. That’s not even close to good enough from a group of players that has made a big deal out of holding themselves accountable this year.