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Timber Cruise: Portland Timbers 3, Minnesota United 2

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

More than anything the Portland Timbers needed points on Saturday night. And they got them — all three of them. It’s a big result for coach Gio Savarese, and it’s an important monkey off the Timbers’ back after a failed season-opening road trip.

But by twice letting Minnesota United back in the game after taking two-goal leads, it also wasn’t a terribly reassuring performance from a team that has been wasteful with leads and stop-start in the attack. The Timbers are going to have to be much better if they want a similar — or any kind of — result next week against NYCFC.

Let’s cruise.

Deep Cuts

We may have watched the end of the Timbers’ 4-3-2-1 as a primary set on Saturday.

Brought in against Dallas as a way to solidify the midfield in front of the backline, and reprised against Chicago as a way to dominate central midfield, Savarese went to a sort of hybrid 4-3-2-1/4-2-3-1 against Orlando with Andy Polo serving as a de facto eight in defense and to some extent in transition, but a winger in the final third.

Notwithstanding the late-game meltdown in Orlando, Savarese saw enough from his quasi-4-3-2-1 to roll it back out on Saturday evening. As the game went along, however, the attacking limitations inherent in even the quasi-4-3-2-1 started to be too much to ignore.

Because a true 4-3-2-1 is played virtually without wingers, any team in the Christmas tree is going to need — I emphasize, need — their fullbacks to be influential in the attack in order to have enough width to open central spaces for the attacking midfielders and striker. If the fullbacks don’t provide a genuine threat, everything becomes very narrow and the attack has to try to break down a hyper-compact defense. That’s usually close to a death sentence.

In the first half, the Timbers got that width — at least on one side — in the form of Alvas Powell, who had a spectacular goal and an assist to show for his efforts. Look at the Timbers’ distribution map from the first half.

Note not only how much Powell was responsible for on the right wing (his assist on Valeri’s goal looks to be erroneously classified as an unsuccessful cross), but also at the Timbers’ lack of presence on the left wing where Zarek Valentin, as a right-footed left back, doesn’t provide much in the way of final-third width.

In addition to being the goalscorer on the first goal and the assistant on the second, Powell was as indispensable part of the Timbers’ attacking system. It wasn’t that Powell needed to be stringing passes together from near the byline on the right wing, but he had to be a threat. And in the first half he very much was.

That turned into a problem in the second half, however, when Powell stopped providing the final-third width that powered the Timbers before intermission. Compare Powell’s first- and second-half attacking actions.

This isn’t really Powell’s fault — it was mostly a result of the game state. Down two goals coming out of the locker room, the Loons had to push numbers and take some risks in an effort to get back into the game. When that happens, fullbacks naturally aren’t able to take as many risks on the attacking side of the ball for greater fear of being caught out. The width in those instances — at least in phases in which the leading team doesn’t have a long spell of possession — needs to come from wingers and flaring attacking midfielders.

The Timbers, though, weren’t playing with wingers and neither of their attacking midfielders are best deployed as bona fide wide players. The result: In the 15 or 20 minutes after halftime, the Timbers’ attack ground to a halt and Minnesota United blitzed their way into a competitive game.

Of the Timbers’ ten measly attacking actions within 30 yards of the byline during that 15-minute stretch, eight came from a single sequence in the 47th minute. Otherwise: Bumpkis.

Savarese, to his credit, saw the problem relatively quickly in the second half, and abandoned the hybrid 4-3-2-1 for a 4-4-1-1 shortly after the hour by pulling Blanco out to the left wing and briefly moving Polo into a full-time position on the right before going to Andres Flores in that position.

That 4-4-1-1 was far from perfect — the Timbers still didn’t see nearly enough of a ball as the game progressed and the backline remained the same backline that has coughed up goals late in games the previous two weeks. But look at the ultimate winner: It’s a releasing pass to Sebastian Blanco playing as a left winger, a ball into the box where the striker (Adi) and second forward (Valeri) are waiting, and a volley from a late-running number-eight. That’s very 4-4-1-1 stuff.

But the reason Savarese had to go away from the quasi-4-3-2-1 is a pretty fundamental weakness with the setup, and one that is made all the more exploitable since in Powell and Valentin the Timbers only have one fullback who is really capable of providing meaningful width. Against a better opponent, it wouldn’t have taken until the Timbers were 2-0 up to figure out a way to break Savarese’s system by forcing Powell to defend.

Bungled results notwithstanding, the 4-3-2-1 has served its purpose for Savarese’s side in turning the Timbers into a competitive MLS side. It’s time, though, may be up.

Spotlight on...

Andy Polo, and what he’s going to need to start doing to keep his starting spot when the Timbers move back to a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 setup.

On Saturday evening, Polo reprised his hybrid box-to-box/wide midfielder role. As we discussed last week, this is a role from which Polo completed all but one pass in the Timbers’ loss to Orlando. Those passes, however, were far more geared toward working in transition and keeping possession than they were to breaking down the Lions in the attacking third.

Well, Saturday was more of the same for Polo, who again competently helped the Timbers in the middle third, but did little to provide a meaningful playmaking, line-stretching, or goalscoring threat. Here are Polo’s attacking actions against Minnesota:

Again, for the role Savarese deployed Polo in on Saturday, this is competent — if pretty unspectacular — work. More of those passing arrows need to be pointing in a more proactive direction, but Polo has at least been helpful when it comes to retaining possession.

That said — if, as I very much think — the 4-3-2-1 is living on borrowed time, Polo’s impact won’t continue to be enough going forward. If Polo wants to win Savarese’s confidence as a winger as he has in his current hybridized role, he’s going to need to be able to do the things he was brought to Portland to do: Stretch backlines with (at least the threat of) runs in behind, help in combination play in the final third, and when the Timbers can’t push their fullbacks, provide some width.

Polo hasn’t done virtually any of this to date, which makes the quality of his addition still very much up in the air.

Stat of the Game

Five out of six — The number of games this season in which the Timbers have conceded two or more goals. The only time the Timbers have put in an even solid defensive performance was against FC Dallas, when they showed up to bunker. That’s not even close to good enough. If the Timbers can’t defend competently without taking a Davy Crockett approach to the game, they’re going to find themselves nowhere near playoff position come season’s end.

Finishing Bullets

  • There was an interesting moment in the second half in which Alvas Powell cleared a ball, but caught Darwin Quintero with some force on the follow-through.
  • This is an unusual situation in which you can make a credible argument that it should have been (a) not even a foul (as the referee determined), or (b) a straight red card. The argument for the former relies on the fact that Powell caught Quintero on the follow-through of a fairly and cleanly-made clearance — Powell wasn’t going into a challenge, per se, but rather he was kicking the ball. And the contact wasn’t with excessive force; it was only with the natural force of clearing the ball, a completely legal play. The counterargument, though, is pretty straightforward: Powell is responsible for his body even if the play was otherwise legal, and in this instance he wound up putting his studs into Quintero’s shin. Regardless of Powell’s intent (which in this instance was clearly innocent), it’s not hard to see how one could conclude he sufficiently endangered Quintero’s safety to warrant a sending off.
  • Because of the ambivalent nature of the play, I’m doubtful the Disciplinary Committee will act in this instance. But it’s worth pointing out that the Timbers were fairly fortunate that both referee Jose Carlos Rivero and the VAR ascribed to the former interpretation of the play, and not the latter.
  • After an opening five games in which Jake Gleeson was generally okay, he had the kind of up-and-down day on Saturday that makes it hard to see him as the Timbers’ longterm solution at goalkeeper. In the first hour, Gleeson was a net-positive for the Timbers. He wasn’t perfect, but his excellent saves on Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez far overshadowed any mistakes.
  • In the last half-hour, though, Gleeson was a mess. After Darwin Quintero beat him with an eminently savable shot right across the face of the goal, Gleeson lost control of his penalty area, repeatedly coming out for a ball unsuccessfully and leaving his defense to defend an open net. It’s probably time that Jeff Attinella gets a run out in goal, with an eye toward upgrading the position in the summer transfer window.