The Portland Timbers found a way on Sunday afternoon. On a scorching field, against a packed-in opponent, and with an attack that spent much of the day looking bogged down, the Timbers plugged away to take all three points from the Seattle Sounders.
It would’ve been nice if we didn’t have to endure 87 minutes of water torture before the Timbers broke through, but any win over the Sounders is a good one. And the result of the win is that the Timbers have won four straight, haven’t conceded in 280 minutes, and are sitting in fourth place in the West on 14 points after playing six away games and only three at home.
That is unequivocally good.
The Sounders came into Sunday with one goal in mind: make things difficult on the Timbers. Rolling out a 5-4-1 for the second time this week, the Sounders made little effort to push numbers into the attack. They approached the game like they were okay if they came away with 0.25 expected goals (xG) and, well...
But they were pretty successful in their primary mission. For most of Sunday afternoon the Timbers’ attack was pretty well in check. The Timbers couldn’t break down the Sounders’ nine-man block centrally, and they were reluctant to start thumping in crosses from wide areas into a box filled with white shirts. As a result, chances were few and far between for the Timbers, and when the Gio Savarese’s side could find an entry ball it was most often a cross from deep on the wing into the aforementioned packed penalty area. Look at the Timbers’ distribution map through the first hour on Sunday:
The simple reality is that breaking down a nine-man block is really hard. If the Timbers had come away scoreless on Sunday, they wouldn’t have been the first team to fail to break through Seattle’s parked bus. Just ask Toronto FC. Faced with a visiting opponent who was content to pack the final 30 yards before goal, though, the vast majority of teams give in and settle for whipping the ball in from the touchline.
To their considerable credit, the Timbers didn’t do that. Instead, Gio Savarese’s side picked up its tempo as the game wore on and looked to find pockets of space centrally to play in behind the Sounders’ backline. And as a result, the Timbers found three chances in the last half-hour or so better than anything they’d created in the previous hour: Diego Valeri’s shot that Gustav Svensson heroically blocked, Samuel Armenteros’s unfortunate and unnecessary dive in the 84th minute, and Sebastian Blanco’s winner from Armenteros’s through ball in the 86th.
By staying patient and working to play through the middle, the Timbers prioritized quality over quantity in chance-creation. And as a result, they found a dramatic late-winner for the second week in a row, and catapulted themselves into a strong position in the Western Conference and deepened the Sounders’ early-season woes.
Clint Dempsey (wait, what?), and where he wasn’t getting the ball.
That is, the final third. The above is a map of every attacking action (pass, shot, or take-on) that Dempsey had on the day.
As noted, Brian Schmetzer reprised the Sounders’ 5-4-1 on Sunday, in large part due to the surprising absences of Osvaldo Alonso and Will Bruin from the Sounders’ lineup. A lot of the responsibility in the attack fell to Dempsey, who was deployed as a lone forward — a role in which he has (somewhat notoriously) struggled throughout his career. The Sounders needed Dempsey to not only provide hold up play to allow Seattle to possess and push numbers forward, but also to be their primary goalscoring threat.
Although he did a good amount of the former, Dempsey was virtually MIA in the final third. That’s a huge credit not only to the Timbers’ backline, but to a defensive midfield that closely tracked Dempsey as he tried to transition from checking back to hold the ball up into the box to provide a final-third threat.
Stat of the Game
280 — The number of minutes since the Timbers last conceded. If you’re keeping track, that’s 90 minutes longer than the streak was last week.
Given the Sounders’ approach on Sunday, there’s a decent argument that we shouldn’t read too much into the Timbers’ clean sheet against the Sounders. But at some point giving the Timbers full credit for their shutout streak becomes unavoidable. Yes, they’ve benefitted from some playing a couple offensively-limited teams in the last couple weeks. The Timbers also shut down a top-five attack in NYCFC during that time, though, and three games without conceding is impressive under any circumstances.
- I’m not sure we’re any closer to answering this question after the game than we were beforehand.
One #narrative for me before the game: Do the Timbers know how to really dictate a game? The Sounders are going to let them today. We’ve seen PTFC be opportunistic and become very effective at limiting opponents. We really haven’t seen them not let an opponent up for air. #RCTID— Chris Rifer (@ChrisRifer) May 13, 2018
- As I implied in that tweet, I think Gio Savarese has proven that he’s an estimable chess player who can craft game plans to neutralize different types of opposition. This is an important attribute in a coach, and it’s one Timbers fans should be excited about in their new manager. If asked what it is the Timbers do to bury overmatched opposition, though, I’m not sure I could tell you nine games into the season. It’s understandable that it’s taking some time for the Timbers to find this part of their identity under Savarese (Caleb Porter’s teams often didn’t show this consistently until the fall, after all), and it’s encouraging that the Timbers are now over 1.5 points per game notwithstanding a slew of road games and their still-incomplete identity. But it’s also something they’re going to have to find sooner or later.
- One of the big talking points from Sunday’s game was referee Robert Sibiga’s decisions note to issue a red card to Seattle’s Jordy Delem in the first half on Sunday. Here’s the play:
- That’s a red card. Every single time. The fact that the VAR did not deem it a “clear and obvious error” not to issue a red card should give Timbers fans flashbacks to Orlando and re-raise questions about the inconsistently with which the standard is applied and, ultimately, whether VAR is truly value-added to the game.
- Sibiga’s decision not to send Delem off for that challenge, however, had ramifications well beyond this moment. Most directly, it was felt when Liam Ridgewell did this to Delem not long after Delem’s challenge on Valeri:
- And even here late in the game with Sebastian Blanco:
Call is reviewed. Blanco's challenged ruled a yellow card offense pic.twitter.com/2HGUJhAeAg— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) May 13, 2018
- By failing to issue straight red to Delem, Sibiga took the red card out of his own pocket. Ridgewell’s challenge was also clearly red-card worthy, but it wasn’t as egregious as Delem’s. Still, moments after letting Delem off the hook, there was no way Sibiga could come back and appropriately punish Ridgewell’s tackle. Moreover, even though Sibiga went to the monitor to take a second look at Blanco’s tackle (also on Delem, who had a rough go after he took his pound of flesh from Valeri), he really couldn’t issue a red card for what was pretty clearly only the third-worst challenge on the day. You’re not going to find a much clearer example of a referee losing control of a game by botching an early call than we saw with Sibiga on Sunday.
- There’s another element to Ridgewell’s tackle that’s notable from the Timbers’ perspective. First, let’s be clear: Although it wasn’t as dangerous as Delem’s challenge before it, Ridgewell’s tackle wasn’t safe, and it at very least toed the line of what is acceptable in any game. If you take the position that there isn’t any place in the game for Ridgewell’s challenge, I can’t really disagree with you. But in a season in which there have been bona fide questions about Ridgewell’s commitment to the team, you can bet more than a few players in the Timbers’ locker room will take note of that play. Make no mistake, Ridgewell remembered it was Delem who cleaned out Valeri moments before when he saw an opportunity to put a tackle in on the Sounders’ midfielder and knew Sibiga couldn’t send him off for anything short of a de Jong-style horror challenge. Ridgewell, in short, knew exactly what he was doing when he went in hard and two-footed on Delem. If there was any question in the locker room about whether Ridgewell was invested in the team (and I can all-but guarantee there was), that play — regardless whether you think it’s a fair one for Ridgewell to make — will help put those questions to rest in the minds of at least some of Ridgewell’s teammates.
- Samuel Armenteros had an eventful, but ultimately effective 13-minute run on Sunday during which he frittered away a good chance by going down far too easy and made up for it by brilliantly playing Blanco through for the winner. Armenteros wasn’t perfect on Sunday, and there were moments in which he was far from it. But he changed the game and had a huge hand in earning the Timbers the result. Fanendo Adi didn’t have his worst day at the office on Sunday, but the difference in the energy and movement that Armenteros brought in the final 13 minutes was notable. When asked about the status of the competition after the game, Gio Savarese responded with the coaching equivalent of “I love all my children equally.” But with a game-changing performance on Sunday against the Sounders, we may be getting close to seeing Armenteros get another shot at starting.
- I don’t know how to explain this, but it really is something else.
- And this profoundly disturbs me.
- I’m more okay with this, though.