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POR 4 - RSL 1: Timbers rediscover identity against Real Salt Lake

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A return to the tried-and-true approach unlocks the attack and three points for Portland

MLS: Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Peeking downfield, Sebastian Blanco spies his midfield partner Diego Valeri making a run between Real Salt Lake’s two center backs into the 18-yard box. Seba chips a lofted ball towards Diego, but immediately recognizes the pass lacks the pace needed to reach his teammate, and gives chase. Defender Justin Glad heads the ball away, towards midfielder Sunny, but Blanco beats him to the spot and gathers the ball. A cut to the right, forcing defenders to collapse in, a cut to the left, creating separation, the Argentine is in on goal, firing a low, skipping shot past goalkeeper Nick Rimando and pinging off the far post and into the net.

Blanco races to the sideline, lifting his hands to the sky in the shape of a heart as teammates gather to celebrate. 2-1, Portland Timbers.

In a critical game in a packed Western Conference playoffs race, Portland walked out of Rio Tinto Stadium with a resounding 4-1 win and three points in their pocket. The win cemented the Timbers’ hold on the fourth seed, and assures that Portland only needs two points from their remaining two games to clinch a playoff spot.

Beyond the postseason implications, the game against Salt Lake was a return to form and formation. It was the first time since Portland’s win against the San Jose Earthquakes in the US Open Cup that the team has started with a true 4-2-3-1 formation.

The difference was noticeable, with Blanco and Andy Polo’s speed on the wings creating width and leaving space for Valeri in the center of the field. Stylistically, Portland also reverted to the approach that was key to their unbeaten streak, maintaining a strong defensive shape and breaking on the counter to create scoring opportunities.

“We played compact, aggressive and patient,” Blanco noted after the game. “We waited for our moments. Today we played like a very strong team.”

The patience was perhaps the most noticeable change. Over the past two months, coach Gio Savarese has sought to instill a more possession-based offense, but that approach — as we examined in last week’s game analysis — has so far not lead to strong results. Put simply, the Timbers attack is more productive when the team cedes possession and uses open space to break teams down.

On Saturday night, Portland executed that style again, for perhaps their most comprehensive win of the season. Over the course of the game, Savarese’s side held barely more than 40 percent of possession, but held the edge on shots and shots on goal. Possession-based play may be the Timbers’ future, but defend-and-counter is how they’ll achieve results now.

The result couldn’t have come at a better time, with Portland averaging just one point per game from their past 11 matches, and questions mounting, but the Timbers offered a strong case that they have found the answers.

The Timbers’ depth has struggled to make an impact? Bill Tuiloma stepped in for a suspended Liam Ridgewell for a solid shift guarding the back line. Portland’s offensive creativity is suspect? The Timbers placed eight of 13 shots on target, with clinical finishing. The team can’t get results against good teams on the road? Portland earned their first road win since June 30, against an RSL side that had only lost once at home all season, and scored more goals on the road than they have in three years.

The last road win by this margin was October 18, 2015, in a 5-2 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy, a game that many point to as a catalyst for Portland’s postseason run.

Supporters of the team have watched the club fluctuate from exceptional to competent to lacking, and back again, so this result by no means guarantees future success. But if the formula can be bottled and reproduced, it may be just in time for Portland to make some real noise in the playoffs.

Blanco proves his worth (again)

Coming off his yellow card accumulation suspension, Blanco reminded everyone why he is Portland’s most potent attacking player. The man nicknamed “Chucky” now has nine goals and ten assists on the season, and he is rounding into form, with three goals and two assists in his last three games.

Blanco’s best position is very much dependent on formation and style of play. In a possession-based offense, Blanco works best as a No. 10, with freedom to roam the field and probe the defense for weaknesses in attack. When he plays out on the wing in a possession offense, it allows the defense to pack in and give him meaningless space out wide, with little window to pull the trigger on a dangerous pass or shot.

But when countering, Blanco is deadly on the wing. With Andy Polo on the opposite side, runs by Blanco, with or without the ball, force the defenders to spread out to the flanks to mark him, because he has the speed to get past and around the back line. This opens up windows in the center of the pitch for the No. 10 and No. 9 to find scoring opportunities.

Take a look at his action map below:

POR’s Blanco action map vs. RSL
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

The data here doesn’t do justice to Blanco’s impact, but the passing points show his ability to place dangerous balls into the attacking third for Valeri and Jeremy Ebobisse, while still assisting left back Jorge Villafana defensively, and the shots show the tremendous individual moments he creates: four shots — three on target — and two goals.

Ebobisse continues to flash potential

Jeremy Ebobisse had another strong, and probably underrated night. The 21-year-old forward opened the scoring in the 33rd minute, lunging in on a cross from Blanco and tapping it in. He also tacked on an assist for his contribution to the build up on Blanco’s top-corner blast to make it 3-1. Ebobisse now has three goals and four assists in 671 minutes of MLS play.

It’s important, however, to exercise cautious optimism. To this point, Ebobisse has shown himself to be a solid poaching forward, and can perform hold-up play adequately. Where he has not proven himself is with man-marked defenses and the ability to create his own shot. Oftentimes a new forward can do well to start, but their production fades as opponents discover their weaknesses. Ebobisse has performed with the playing time he’s been given, but he’ll need to continue to evolve his game to solidify himself as a regular starter.

Below is Ebobisse’s action map:

POR’s Ebobisse action map vs. RSL
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

The first thing that’s noticeable is his relatively poor 61 percent pass-completion rate. The ability to complete passes in the midfield to build the attack is important for Ebobisse to nail down, although to his credit, he did have two key passes.

The second thing to notice is his shots. One shot, one shot on frame, one goal. That’s some good, poaching play by Portland’s young striker, and it’s consistent with his professional career to date: Ebobisse has taken just 14 shots all-time, with three goals, a 21.4 percent scoring rate. It’s unlikely such an average will hold, but for a team that has struggled with creating opportunities during extended stretches, a striker who puts away the chances he’s given is valuable.

Diego Chara and David Guzman’s double pivot

The hot topic last week revolved around Chara and his best role for Portland. Saturday night saw the return of the double pivot in the defensive midfield, and Chara’s return to the No. 6, alongside Guzman who played more as a No. 8. Below are their successful passes, and defensive actions:

POR’s Chara, Guzman successful passes and defensive actions vs RSL
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

Chara’s fit at the 6 is about more than what he’s capable of — it’s about what his role changes for teammates. No defensive midfielder on the roster can play the deep defensive midfielder individually, so in his absence Portland is forced to take a committee approach, which pulls numbers out of the attack.

Paired in the midfield, Chara frees Guzman to think more offensively. Guzman’s biggest struggle defensively is maintaining pace with the faster opposing attackers. With Chara present to snuff out quick counters, Guzman is able to play the passing channels and look to move the ball upfield.

Guzman has been playing better over the last couple of months, and his partnership with Chara on Saturday seemed to magnify that. The double pivot, if used in the future, locks down the midfield while freeing an extra player to move more confidently into the attack.

Where Portland goes from here is beyond a mystery. Savarese has been unpredictable, to say the least, in his decisions around formation and personnel, but the results speak volumes: If Portland seeks to win this year, their counter-attacking style is their best chance.

Beyond their success this year, a disciplined defensive approach that seeks to frustrate opponents, open space, and trust big-name players to create chances is a style that can hold up through the rigors of a playoff run.