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Splintered: DC United vs. Portland

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An analytical breakdown of Portland’s 4-1 loss to DC United

MLS: Portland Timbers at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday evening in our nation’s capital, a message was delivered to the Timbers’ sideline during the second half that read simply this: “Reports of Wayne Rooney’s death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Or, something to that effect. Wednesday night, despite deploying a first-choice lineup against DC United, Portland was, quite simply, run out of the building by the previously bottom-dwelling team from the District of Columbia.

The sobering loss comes on the heels of a frustrating end to a 15 game unbeaten run just a few days prior at the hands of the Vancouver Whitecaps, and while there are certainly areas of concern, short rest and the hangover of a long stretch of strong play should be accounted for before we use one game to frame an entire season. Analyze the statistics below, but do so with a grain of salt. And maybe a lime and some tequila, if that helps.

An analytical look at this game could could be be kept incredible short: D.C. outplayed Portland. That pretty much covers it. But with the amount of reaction and dissatisfaction from supporters, let’s examine the game more specifically.

DC Offense and Portland Defense

Gio ran out a a 3-5-2 lineup at Audi Field, but for most of the night it looked more like a 3-4-3 formation. The semantics aren’t important, but a couple notable aspects are worth exploring: First, most of the starting XI played heavy minutes on Saturday vs Vancouver. Second, Portland was again playing with 5 along the back line. And third, after consistently playing with either 2 or 3 defensive midfielders, Coach Savarese opted for just a single DM in Diego Chara. It can be argued that tactically Andy Polo was his defensive partner, but based on the flow of the game, Polo was asked to push up in attack much more than he was spending time patrolling the midfield.

So how’d the battle for the midfield fair for the Timbers? In a word, poorly:

DC’s Acosta and Rooney’s passing
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

Above are the successful and unsuccessful passes by DCU’s tandem of Lucian Acosta and Wayne Rooney. In short, they roamed the midfield with a great deal of success. Expand the data out to include the rest of the DC midfield and you get a veritable tapestry of green with just a few red threads.

Compare that to Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco’s passing and you can see that DC had significantly more success navigating the ball through the midfield and in the attacking half:

POR’s Valeri and Blanco passing
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

The question is raised about how much the quick turnaround from Saturday’s game had an impact on Portland’s quality of play. Valeri, Blanco, and Chara all went 90 minutes against Vancouver, as did Julio Cascante, Larrys Mabiala, and Alvas Powell. Tired legs and minds lead to individual errors and underwhelming effort, which we saw a great deal of on Wednesday.

It’s easy to praise a coach when things are going well and then criticize them the moment’s things start going poorly. Gio has earned the benefit of the doubt, and with that, time to figure out adjustments. But from a tactical standpoint, a mid-week game vs a weak eastern conference opponent wedged between two in-conference playoff contenders seemed an ideal time for serious squad rotation. Risking dropping points against DC isn’t best case scenario, but it would allow for Portland to put their best foot forward against western conference contenders. Instead, the Timbers are 23 of the way through a brutal week with 0 points, a starting XI with two games in four days, and 4,000 miles logged. Not great.

But back to Rooney and Company: DC United didn’t merely maintain idle possession in the midfield, they turned that into real opportunities:

DCU’s key passes
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

DC repeatedly placed key passes at the feet of attackers facing goal, especially on Portland’s left side of the defense, and that lead to goals:

DCU (black) POR (green) shots
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

For the game, Portland took 10 shots, and placed 2 on frame (both by Armenteros) for 1 goal scored. DC took 16 shots, and placed 5 on frame for 4 goals. That’s a mediocre shot performance by the Timbers, and a very, very good shot performance by United.

But how much of the credit is due to a brilliant offensive display by DC, and how much blame is on Portland’s disappointing defensive play?

On Rooney’s first goal, the former Premier League No. 9 finished a clinical ball around Portland goalkeeper Jeff Attinella. But a failure of communication between Diego Chara, who was lazily pursuing Rooney, and Cascante, who hesitated as he saw Rooney begin to make his run, made sure the opportunity was much easier than it should have been.

For the second goal, Luciano Acosta drove the ball in the heart of the defense and dragged no less than 5 defenders with him as he danced and dribbled his way until creating a wide open opportunity on frame that Oniel Fisher put away. One of Diego Chara, Larrys Mabiala, Lawrence Olum, Julio Cascante and Andy Polo should have stopped Acosta’s dribble, but even after, Zarek Valentin, who has had a poor last two games, let Fisher drift unmarked into the box for the finishing piece.

On the third goal, Rooney took the free kick up and over the wall and past Attinella. It wasn’t a particularly stellar kick, but a solid one. Attinella’s vision was hampered by a bit of clever gamesmanship by the DC side so that he didn’t catch a glimpse of the ball until it was over the wall.

And on the last goal, I’m not even sure what to say. Darren Mattocks, with the ball at his feet, nutmegged Alvas Powell, shouldered off Valentin, and then had the presence of mind to chip Attinella for the icing on the cake. The only thing this tells me is that, given time, even Mattocks will display a total statistical outlier like that.

Coach Savarese said that Portland played too casually after the opening goal, and that may be, but just as valid of a question is if the defense is simply getting burnt out. The amount of squad rotation is noticeably lower than I anticipated, and the demand on a handful of defensive players is incredibly high. Regardless of the answer, the issue is clear: Portland’s defense got outworked on Wednesday night.

Portland’s Offense

There’s not too much incredibly exciting to discuss concerning Portland’s offense. It was poor, and outside of Samuel Armenteros, no one in the attack showed up. Take a look at the map of the team’s key passes:

POR’s key passes
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

It’s a fairly underwhelming passing map. And remove Valeri’s two set pieces, and you see how muted the Portland attack truly was.

Speaking of Valeri, he was noticeably poor vs DC on Wednesday. No dribbles completed, and only 3 successful passes in the final third. That’s simply not good enough from our Maestro. The harsh reality is that Diego Valeri is no longer at a stage in his career where he can go 90 minutes game in and game out. He may not even be able to go 60 minutes game in and out. Is he still capable of being the best player on the field? Absolutely, but it means that other players need to step up.

On a more positive note, the young Argentine Tomas Conechny got his first playing time with the senior team, and while his appearance was overshadowed by the lopsided result, Conechny did show promise in his short amount of time on the field:

POR’s Conechny passing
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

Conechny was quick on the ball, found players in space, and also completed the only successful open play cross of the evening for the Timbers. In a game riddled with dead legs by the 60th minute, Conechny infused a little energy into the play.

With the string of games coming up, one can’t help but wonder how and when Portland will gamble on some of their depth and youth. Conechny saw the field, but a previous starting XI defensive midfielder Cristhian Paredes hasn’t seen the field in some time. Marco Farfan saw just a few minutes in the loss to Vancouver, and forwards Jeremy Ebobisse and Foster Langsdorf haven’t sniffed the pitch. That doesn’t even take into account Timbers 2 standouts Marvin Loria and Renzo Zambrano, or US U-20 star Eryk Williamson. The loss to DCU and the lack of energy displayed has to be exhibit 1A in the petition to play the kids.

Conclusion

Wednesday night in the District of Columbia was simply a better, more motivated, more prepared team exerting their game plan over a lesser team. That isn’t to say that DC United is better than the Portland Timbers, but for 90 minutes they were.

Even the very best teams have bad showings. This year, Portland has enjoyed an excellent run of success, but now they appear to be stumbling. The loss raises questions, but questions that are better asked and answered now before the games make or break a club’s entire season. Coach Gio, you’re on the clock.