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Timber Cruise: Portland Timbers 3, New York City FC 0

MLS: New York City FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Well that was unexpected.

Coming into Sunday afternoon, NYCFC was near-universally regarded as the best team in MLS to date, and had showed the ability to compete with — and largely dominate — excellent opposition on the road. The Portland Timbers, on the other hand, were off to a poor start that raised significant questions about the backline and the team’s ability to see out a full 90-minute performance.

So naturally the Timbers beat NYCFC at a canter on Sunday.

Let’s cruise.

Deep Cuts

At the time that it happened, we hoped the draw at FC Dallas would be a turning point for the Timbers’ season. Frustrating results the following weeks at Chicago and Orlando, however, put the Timbers’ hard-earned draw in Frisco pretty well in the rear-view mirror. With a couple more games of perspective and considerably lower frustration levels, however, it’s worth taking another look back at the impact of that draw in Dallas.

After a two-game opening stretch in which the Timbers looked lost while trying to install Gio Savarese’s preferred high-press-oriented system, the new coach had to give in. In order to get a result, he needed to solidify the backline. And in order to solidify the backline, he had to drop into a deep block and a hyper-conservative 4-3-2-1.

But it wasn’t just about Savarese giving in to the reality of a team whose personnel didn’t neatly fit the new coach’s preferred system. It was also about a team responding to what its new coach was trying to get them to do. The problems in the first two games weren’t limited to the Timbers’ physical limitations as they related to their ability to effectively press; they were also about the team’s lack of understanding of how to execute its coach’s tactics.

The radical change going into Dallas, then, also served as a veritable swat of the newspaper across the Timbers’ nose. It didn’t hurt the team, but it got their attention. In order to effectuate the changes they needed to make going into Dallas, the Timbers had to pay attention to Savarese and engage with the tactics he put in front of them.

It worked.

And it worked again the following week in Chicago when Savarese changed the 4-3-2-1 from being a shield to protect the backline into a tool to overrun the central midfield. And it worked the following week, when the Timbers ran roughshod over Orlando for 80 minutes after Savarese turned the 4-3-2-1 into a hybrid 4-3-2-1/4-2-3-1 with Andy Polo playing as either a box-to-box midfielder or a winger depending on the phase of possession.

To be sure, the results didn’t immediately follow, and both team and coach made mistakes that cost the Timbers points in Chicago and Orlando. But unlike at LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls, team and coach were on the same page. Even if there were in-game problems that ultimately kept the Timbers from taking the full reward, the team was executing what their coach set out for them to do.

On Sunday, Savarese changed things up again. After the 4-3-2-1 turned stale in the second half last week against Minnesota, Savarese went to a 4-4-1-1 in the second half against the Loons to pretty limited effect.

Given a week of work, however, it came off to great effect. The Timbers were compact in their banks of four, but they were hardly bunkered. They gave up an awful lot of the ball to NYCFC, but gave the Pigeons almost nothing in terms of looks at goal.

At the same time, with Patrick Vieira’s team stretching their fullbacks (and even at times centerbacks) into the attack, the Timbers let NYCFC open themselves up and Savarese’s side used their quality up front to clinically pick apart the remnants of New York City’s backline on the counterattack. It was, in short, a stunningly comprehensive performance from a team carrying out its manager’s instructions with the precision of a military parade.

Savarese’s tactical swat on the nose before Dallas, then, got his team’s attention. And in doing so, the Timbers have become a much better version of what we initially thought they would be under Savarese: A well-drilled, but tactically-flexible side.

Forget (at least for now) the high-press. Savarese’s calling card is his practicality and flexibility. And the Timbers are starting to show signs of being a Gio Savarese team.

Spotlight on...

Cristhian Paredes, who has to be the Timbers’ new starting box-to-box midfielder.

Central to the Timbers success on Sunday was their ability to disrupt NYCFC in midfield and force the Cityzens wide as they entered the final third. Look at NYCFC’s insanely prolific passmap and note, in particular, how the Timbers shut down central areas not just in and around the box, but also made things more difficult for City 35 or 40 yards from goal.

In a game in which Vieira’s side attempted a staggering 761 passes and registered a 91% completion rate, the Timbers were committed to making it difficult for City centrally and forcing them to push wide to their fullbacks and wingers early in their buildup. There are a lot of players who deserve credit for the Timbers’ defensive performance, to the extent that the “Spotlight on...” segment isn’t entirely fair after Sunday’s triumph.

But if you’d described to me the Timbers’ approach on Sunday, I would’ve had concerns about Paredes, whose contributions on the defensive side of the ball to date have lagged behind his attacking and possession prowess. Yet, on Sunday, Paredes was excellent. As Savarese noted postgame, he repeatedly made the right decisions in deciding when to push into the attack and when to stay at home, and wound up registering a tied-for-game-high three interceptions and (for a field player) six recoveries.

A week after picking up a pair of assists against Minnesota United, Paredes had his best game of his Timbers career on Sunday — a distinction that I’m increasingly confident will only stand for a mater of weeks. The relationship between Paredes and Chara, although still very young, is blossoming before our eyes. And even though he’s still only 19, Paredes is individually developing at an impressive rate.

In light of his progressive late-2017 and early-2018 downturn, then, it’s hard to see how David Guzman gets back into the regular starting eleven as long as Paredes is playing and advancing as well as he is.

Stat of the Game

15 — The total number of passes Diego Valeri attempted on Sunday. That’s the lowest number of passes Valeri has attempted in a game in which he played at least 45 minutes for the Timbers. This is, mind you, largely a function of the Timbers conceding so, so much of the ball to NYCFC. Still, it’s a pretty jarring demonstration of how little the Timbers held the ball in the final third . . . and just how efficient they were with it.

Second lowest on that list, by the way? Valeri’s 17 passes in the Timbers’ 3-0 win over Sporting Kansas City in 2016. This is little coincidence:

Finishing Bullets

  • Liam Ridgewell’s much ballyhooed return on Sunday was a major success, as the defense showed in spades the organization and coherence that Ridgewell was brought in to provide back in 2014. Given his performance, it’s almost certain that Ridgewell will take up the starting spot at left centerback, likely even when Bill Tuiloma recovers from the knee injury he suffered midweek. Still, even if the on-field product from Ridgewell was much better on Sunday, from this video by The Oregonian’s Jamie Goldberg, it’s clear the relationship between he and Savarese is strained.
  • Perhaps nothing shows how committed (and at times over-committed) NYCFC was in the back better than the distribution map their left centerback, Alexander Callens.
  • Even for a team that dominated possession like NYCFC, that is an insane number of passes from a left centerback originating from the attacking half. Although NYCFC did a better job of maintaining balance in the second half by dropping Alexander Ring deeper to fill the hole, the risks Vieira took with his fullbacks and Callens opened the door for the Timbers to counter.