Wins in MLS don’t come easily.
Well — they usually don’t. It was pretty darn easy for the Portland Timbers on Sunday evening as they trounced an overmatched, disorganized, and disinterested Orlando City side. That isn’t to take anything away from the Timbers; they dismantled the Lions just as they should have. But it is to acknowledge that a comfortable three points is exactly what the Timbers should have taken from Sunday’s game.
Still, all points matter at this point of the season, and Sunday’s three for the Timbers keeps them in the thick of the race for a first-round bye. Mission accomplished.
You can question why Orlando City came to Portland with the defensive approach they did, and Lions fans certainly will.
But you can’t question the way the Timbers attacked Orlando City.
The Lions came to Portland and — for some reason — deployed a high line to squeeze the field on the Timbers. As a result, the lion’s share of Orlando’s defensive actions came closer to midfield; at least before things got silly and OCSC was reduced to nine in the 84th minute.
I’m not sure I could craft a defensive approach that is more susceptible to being exploited by the less-than-multi-dimensional Darren Mattocks. But to Mattocks’s and the Timbers’ credit, they gladly took Jason Kreis’s curious decision and used it to brutalize the Lions with through balls and back-shoulder runs.
And like this:
And like this:
And like this:
I think you get the point.
The default approach for defending the Timbers at Providence Park isn’t exactly a secret: Most teams will drop their block fairly low and force the Timbers to play through eight men defending within 30 yards. This approach has had periodic success, which is more than we can say for any other approach against the Timbers in Portland.
The Lions, though, basically did the opposite, and they did it without any true disruptors in a diamond midfield full of misfit, hybridized players. And they did it with the Timbers running out Darren Mattocks — a player uniquely suited to exploit such an approach — with Fanendo Adi still on the shelf. Against a guy like Mattocks (and Dairon Asprilla) a high line quickly turns from proactive to suicidal when a team lacks the ability to disrupt the distribution chains through midfield. Generating that disruption in midfield is no easy task, which it’s why few teams come to Portland (or anywhere else, for that matter) and play that way.
Any coach not named Jesse Marsch or Peter Vermes should be wary of trying to squeeze the Timbers at Providence Park with a high line of confrontation and a high backline. Jason Kreis tried on Sunday, and hoo-boy was it disastrous for Orlando City. Credit to the Timbers for making it so.
Darlington Nagbe, holding midfielder.
No, I don’t mean box-to-box midfielder. I mean holding midfielder. Six.
That’s what he played on Sunday evening, and that’s how he’s played at times this season when paired with Diego Chara. On Sunday, Caleb Porter wanted to free Chara up to harass the middle levels of Orlando’s midfield (and, as he said in his postgame press conference, Yoshi Yotun in particular), and to slip within the Lions’ midfield triangle in transition.
As a result, Darlington Nagbe — collegiate forward turned number-ten turned winger (or wide midfielder, if you want to be hyper-technical) turned box-to-box mid — played largely as a six on Sunday. And here’s the thing: he was really good. No, really:
That’s 68 out of 69 passing or, in other words, another day at the office. It’s also a distribution pattern typical of a true holding midfielder.
The fit isn’t as counter-intuitive as it seems at first glance. Nagbe has always been positionally-disciplined as an eight — to a fault at times — even if he is something short of influential as a ball-winner. Paired with the ball-hawking Diego Chara, however, Nagbe’s discipline-over-disruption approach to playing deeper in midfield is a good fit as a number-six. On top of that, his ability to keep the ball, be clean in possession, and make the simple (read: correct) choices in distribution is a real asset as a holding midfielder.
Given Nagbe’s typical role as an attacking player, deploying him as a six is far from an obvious evolution, and don’t expect for one moment that Nagbe is going to become the Timbers’ full-time holding midfielder.
But, in the context of Nagbe’s unique set of skills, it makes sense that it’s a club in Caleb Porter’s bag. It’s one he played to great effect on Sunday.
Stat of the Game
The Timbers’ 10 shots on goal is their most since 2015. #RCTID— Chris Rifer (@ChrisRifer) September 25, 2017
Lions keeper, Joe Bendik, was excellent on Sunday. And lost 3-0.
That about sums it up.
Man of the Match Poll
Who was your Man of the Match against Orlando?
This poll is closed
- The Timbers now sit third in the West by points per game and second overall with three games to go in the regular season. Of the four teams that remain in the race for the top two spots in the West and a first-round bye, the Timbers have both the easiest remaining schedule and the fewest remaining games. The Vancouver Whitecaps are sitting pretty on 48 points with five games remaining, but four of their last five are on the road including visits to each of the other top-four teams in the West. Sporting Kansas City, meanwhile, sits on 47 points and also has five games remaining, but the Wiz host Vancouver and Houston, and also must visit a surprisingly surging Minnesota United team, the Dynamo, and Real Salt Lake — perhaps the hottest team in the West right now. The Seattle Sounders, meanwhile, trail the pack at 44 points and have four matches remaining, but three of those four are at home and the lone away game is at an already-sunk Philadelphia Union team.
- Fair to say, then, that this remains a four-team logjam atop the West with two teams that have games in hand but a difficult run-in and two teams that have fewer matches but plenty of realistic points on the table. Stay tuned.
- It’s worth revisiting Mattocks’s performance on Sunday because it’s illustrative of both sides of what has been a tantalizing and frustrating coin. Mattocks was, for extended periods of the match, the most dangerous player on the field, in large part because Orlando played in a way that allowed him to be the most dangerous player on the field. But, there are few players in MLS who can terrorize a high backline to the extent that Mattocks did on Sunday. That was very legitimate starting MLS striker stuff.
- Not starting MLS striker stuff? What he did with the bushel full of chances that he played a big part in creating. To be sure, Joe Bendik was nails coming off his line and made matters difficult for Mattocks on multiple occasions. That said, those chances are still ones that need to fall on a pretty consistent basis, and Mattocks failed to do so far too often on Sunday. I harp on looking beyond just a striker’s finishing ability, and on Sunday Mattocks did a lot of really good things in that category. He hasn’t always — and he probably can’t when opponents take a less naive defensive approach — but he deserves tons of credit for doing so on Sunday. Still, the notion that Mattocks can reliably score non-tap-in goals right now is an exercise in faith over recent experience. That’s a big problem for a player who, in light of Fanendo Adi’s surprising absence from the 18 on Sunday, could remain at the top of the Timbers formation for an unknown period of time.