Breaking out of a slump isn’t easy.
Just ask Fanendo Adi, who on Friday night completed his metamorphosis from poor form to being downright snakebit.
But for the Portland Timbers as a team their comprehensive victory over the San Jose Earthquakes could very well serve the purpose of breaking the team out of its late-spring funk. And for all the points the Timbers have dropped over the course of the last month-plus, they wake up Saturday morning just four points (with a game in hand) out of the lead in a Western Conference in which nobody seems all that eager to break away from the peloton.
Make no mistake: The Timbers have a ton of work in front of them. And it’s still a taller task than the Timbers bargained for after their hot start to 2017.
But Friday night was nonetheless an important step to pulling out of their May tailspin in time to be a major force in a very ripe-for-the-picking Western Conference.
Now that’s more like what we expected to see from the 2017 Timbers.
Even without the ball-retention monster that Darlington Nagbe is, the Timbers came out on Friday determined to put their foot on the game and not let the Quakes come up for air.
Even before Darwin Ceren picked up a (debatable) second yellow card late in the first half, the Timbers were all over the Quakes. Pushing Sebastian Blanco to the left and introducing Dairon Asprilla on the right in place of Nagbe, the Timbers were balanced and prolific in the attack.
Pushing Vytas on the left over the top of the channel-filling (and effective) Sebastian Blanco and holding Zarek Valentin in behind a wider-playing Asprilla, the Timbers gave Diego Valeri license to roam from side to side and hunt for spaces in behind a constantly-rotating Quakes’ defensive midfield. And with Diego Chara sitting deeper, David Guzman both pushed into the attack and provided some immediate pressure of the Quakes when the Timbers turned the ball over.
The result was a healthy Timbers attack and a San Jose team that couldn’t find enough rhythm in transition to even sniff the box, much less present any meaningful threat to the Timbers’ goal.
And after Ceren was sent off? Well, it was more of that. And more of it. And more of it. While the Timbers were seemingly everywhere, the ten-man Quakes resorted to sitting deep and playing hopeless thump-and-chase soccer in a not-as-desperate-as-it-should’ve-been attempt to get back into the game.
As a result, the Timbers’ 2-0 win came with some pretty sexy stats. Two-thirds of the game’s possession, 87% passing, 22 shots (eight of which were on-frame), and 542 passes.
That’s Porterball in its most stereotypical form.
Dairon Asprilla and, in particular, his back-from-the-dead performance on Friday.
It’s been an up-or-down season for Asprilla, and recently I’ve been pretty brutal in my criticism of him. And I stand by it.
All too often Asprilla floats out of games, unable to connect with any of his midfield partners, and failing to provide the backside wing box target that should be his bread-and-butter. Asprilla’s decision-making is notoriously glacial and his technical ability is inconsistent, to put it politely.
On Friday? He was very good.
Look at Asprilla’s map of attacking actions (squares with arrows are passes, circles with arrows are shots, and triangles are dribbles):
Although hardly a focal point in possession, Asprilla did enough in midfield to not be a liability in that phase and to allow the Timbers’ more technical attackers to carry the load. That sounds like faint praise — and it is — but it’s a genuine improvement from, for example, his horror show the last time the Timbers played the Earthquakes.
But more encouraging was the rat’s nest of activity he had on the edge of the box. With Adi, Valeri, and Blanco (to say nothing of Guzman) all roaming between the Zone 14 and the left channel, the left side of the Quakes’ backline was always going to be a weak point. And — although not as much of it came off as you’d like — he was dangerous from that spot and was the Timbers’ leading source of penetration on the day.
Perhaps most importantly, however, when San Jose’s defense dropped deep Asprilla consistently either found a soft spot when the Quakes collapsed, or, if the Timbers were building down the left, provided a backpost runner. Watch him do the former here:
To be sure, Asprilla made the wrong decision with the ball (hit your overlapper, for goodness sake), but that’s exactly the right spot for him to sit into with San Jose collapsing central on Adi, et al. And it’s a spot that Asprilla has often not found in his career in Portland.
And now watch Asprilla do the latter, as he provides a target at the backpost after Blanco nicely sprung Vytas down the left side:
He probably didn’t need to push Nick Lima there (although Lima was clearly all-too-pleased to go down under pretty modest contact), but that’s a run from the opposite-side winger that the Timbers have sorely, sorely missed throughout much of 2017.
Now, there’s no question that there are still room for improvement; Asprilla doesn’t always pick the right pass (or pick it in time), and needs to put a couple more of those chances on frame. But he’s also not far off.
And if Asprilla continues to put himself in these spots, good things are going to happen for him and the Timbers.
That “if,” though, has been the challenge for Asprilla.
Stat of the Game
0 — The number of shots and corner kicks San Jose had in the first half. And in case anybody tries to tie this to Ceren being sent off, look at the Quakes’ distribution map from the period before he picked up his second yellow:
They didn’t even come close to being threatening.
Man of the Match Poll
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- The dynamic between Guzman and Chara is still evolving, but in a bit of a reversal of preseason expectations, Chara is starting to sit a little bit deeper as a six while Guzman is playing a bit more advanced as an eight. Look at the Timbers’ passmap (the third picture in the below tweet):
- The players in that passmap are arranged according to their average position on the field, while the size of their dot reflects their overall influence and the thickness of the arrows reflects the number of passes completed between the two players indicated.
- Although Chara struggled as a lone six in the opening third of the 2016 season, he has the tools to be very good in that role when lined up with a defensive-midfield partner. Chara is clean on the ball, rhythmic in his distribution, and — as everybody knows — aggressive in ball-winning. While Guzman also shares many of these qualities, he undoubtedly brings a bit more bite into the attack than Chara, something he is better able to do as a box-to-box eight. The Timbers will be without Guzman for a couple games now as he joins up with Costa Rica on international duty and misses an additional game due to yellow-card accumulation. In Guzman’s absence Chara will reprise his role as an eight in front of Larry Olum, but when Guzman returns it will be worth watching whether this dynamic between the Timbers’ first-choice d-mid pairing continues.
- Fanendo Adi, who just missed multiple chances on the day, had a non-frivolous penalty shout on this late play with David Bingham.
- There is some question as to whether Bingham got a touch on the ball and, even if so, whether it was enough of a touch to justify the contact. More importantly, the contact between Bingham and Adi’s front leg was relatively modest, with Adi looking more than happy to go down in an attempt draw the penalty. For those reasons, it’s probably fair to characterize this as a 50-50 call.
- But 50-50 calls with Adi are typically more like 10-90, which, even if unjust, is something he has to expect and adjust his approach accordingly. Here, it looked like if Adi has looked to play through the contact the chance very well could have still been there for him. Given the only arguable nature of the foul and his history of not getting arguable calls, Adi needs to not settle for selling the contact in situations like this and do what he can to just keep playing.