Portland walked into the locker room at Providence Park after a physical, frustrating, and at times perplexing 90 minutes against conference-leading FC Dallas with a nil-nil draw that left them squarely in position for a postseason berth.
Despite what was technically a positive result, the game did little to address growing concerns about the team’s form following their historic 15-game unbeaten streak; the Timbers are averaging a paltry 1.0 point per game since the undefeated run.
Portland has struggled significantly away from home, with uncharacteristically shaky defensive performances, and few positive results to show over the last two months, while at home maintaining decent but underwhelming performances during a soft schedule.
In the face of mounting pressure, within the club there’s a consensus that it’s business as usual. Coach Gio Savarese insisted that he’s not worried about the offensive output of the team, despite Samuel Armenteros’ poor run of form, while Diego Valeri stated he believed the tactical changes to compensate for Sebastian Blanco’s absence (due to yellow card accumulation) worked as anticipated, even though the team registered just three shots on target.
However confident the team is internally, their performance raises serious questions about the team’s on-field identity. For a large stretch of the season, Portland deployed a compact, defensive, sit-and-counter approach, frustrating attack-minded opponents and allowing the individual skill of Valeri, Armenteros, Blanco, and others to create offensive opportunities in open space.
Following the end of the winning streak, Portland shifted more towards the possession-based offense that Savarese had envisioned in the offseason. The change to a more controlling style of play may be a wise decision, but the team has not produced while holding possession. In a 2-0 home win against Toronto FC, the Timbers held 52 percent of possession in the first half, but the score remained level at 0-0. In the second half, Portland held just 36 percent of possession but walked away 2-0 winners.
Against Columbus Crew SC, Portland held just under 46 percent of possession over the course of the game, but between the 10th and 40th minute, during which Portland outplayed and outscored the Crew 2-0, their possession dropped to 41 percent.
Playing away at Minnesota United, the Timbers held over 52 percent possession in the first half, during which they fell behind by three goals, but in the second half, when they scored two goals to make it a competitive game in the final minutes, they held just under 39 percent of possession.
While Portland has made a concerted effort to hold the ball, their most productive soccer in recent games has been played while ceding possession to their opponents.
So where does that leave the Timbers? With three games left, Portland may have to choose between maintaining a competitive edge by reverting to an approach that yields results, or continuing to develop their system and risk an early exit from competition.
Blanco’s absence felt
As previously noted, Sebastian Blanco sat out of the game against Dallas after picking up a fifth yellow card against Minnesota. Over the course of the season, Blanco has been arguably Portland’s most important player, with the speed to carry the ball on counters and the ability to create his own shot or lay off the final ball for a teammate.
To compensate for his absence, Savarese fielded two strikers in the starting 11, with Jeremy Ebobisse playing as a hold up No. 9 underneath Samuel Armenteros in the attack. Without Blanco to carry the ball forward into danger zones, Portland opted to play the ball directly up the pitch in hopes of Ebobisse being able to hold off attackers and set up Armenteros or an onrushing midfielder.
Unfortunately, FC Dallas is an excellent and physical defensive team, and their backline intercepted passes and disrupted Ebobisse’s ability to gather the ball effectively. Take a look at the map below:
This touch map highlights the unsuccessful passes made centrally to the top of the 18-yard box, where Ebobisse spent most of his time. Dallas gave him very little breathing room, and it was reflected in limited opportunities on goal over the course of the game.
Armenteros’ poor form continues
Since his mid-season hot streak, the Swedish striker has had a difficult time finding the back of the net. The blame doesn’t rest squarely on his shoulders, as the entire team has been inconsistent in attack, but when a club struggles to score, most of the attention is focused on the striker. Saturday night against Dallas was another game in which Armenteros didn’t merely struggle to score, but was hard pressed to find opportunities to pull the trigger.
This is Armenteros’ shot and passing map. With just one shot from outside of the box, he struggled to find space against a harassing Dallas defense, and had to track far back down the field to even get touches on the ball. Armenteros is a striker who needs space to use his handle on the ball to create opportunities, and this was another game in which Portland struggled to give him those opportunities.
Andy Polo, Diego Chara and defensive midfield
The other notable formation adjustment against Dallas was the utilization of the 4-4-2 diamond, with Chara and Polo playing on the left and right sides of the midfield diamond. Below is their defensive actions over the course of the game against Dallas:
Defensive midfield has been a question mark all year, with Portland rostering a host of competent yet flawed midfielders who have rotated in and out. Let’s break down some factors concerning the lineup decisions.
Diego Chara is an excellent player across the board, with the ability to play possibly eight or nine positions if called upon. But his versatility doesn’t detract from the fact that he is truly elite when playing as a No. 6 defensive midfielder, shielding the backline. While he’s able to make a defensive impact across the pitch, playing him in a wide role sacrifices his ability to contribute to the defense on both sides of the pitch without catching Portland out of formation. While the desire to allow Chara to contribute more in attack is understandable, the reality is that the Colombian midfielder has always been able to impact attacking movements, despite his defensive assignments.
Andy Polo is also a very versatile player, and one who is perhaps underrated as an addition this year because his statistics don’t jump out at you. His true position is in a more attacking role, either at the 8 or on the wing, but he’s been asked by Savarese to adapt to a more defensive role, and he’s done quite well. But again, Portland needs to find a way to put their players in their best positions. Starting Polo up top in the midfield as a No. 8 in front of Chara allows him to more consistently contribute to attack, and allows both Chara and Polo to impact both sides of the field defensively.
In a 4-4-2 diamond, that would mean pushing Valeri out wide, where he may have more space, and swapping Lawrence Olum with David Guzman, or perhaps another more attack-minded player, but the versatility of Chara and Polo in a more natural position should compensate defensively.
Portland has the ingredients to be a very successful team—we’ve seen that proven already this season—but the dip in performance raises concerns about the direction of the club moving forward, and the answers must come quickly with the postseason looming.