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Timbers find breakthrough against Toronto

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The result is a culmination of patience in their approach, Gio says

photo by Kris Lattimore

Zarek Valentin glances over his shoulder, looking for his approaching defender, as Larrys Mabiala rolls the ball to him on the right wing, just a couple feet past the halfway line. Valentin touches it once to gain control as he turns upfield, and then blasts a ground ball up the middle, splitting two defenders and dropping perfectly onto the run of Sebastian Blanco.

With the defense hustling back, Blanco curls his run to settle right behind the pass as it rolls into the 18 yard box, picks his head up to see the runners tearing towards goal and slots a low, gentle cross through the 6 yard box. Toronto FC goalkeeper Clint Irwin scrambles, the crowd rises in nervous anticipation, and then, the blur of Diego Chara as he outruns his defender and pokes the ball across the goal line.

In just seven seconds, all the pressure that had been building up for the past month was released into the moderate air above Providence Park. It’s almost as if you could hear the entire stadium breathe a collective sigh of relief.

For players and coaches of the beautiful game, it’s important but difficult to look beyond the results to how a team is truly performing. When you’re on a stretch of unbeaten games, lackluster performances that still yield results dull the sense of urgency to remedy. And when you’re on a streak of losses—despite sound play—the desire to do something more (or something else) to earn a result can mask a good performance.

It was this reality that the Portland Timbers found themselves in on Wednesday night against reigning MLS Cup holders Toronto FC following a heartbreaking home loss to the Seattle Sounders three nights before. Sunday's result, manager Giovanni Savarese insisted, was indicative of a Portland team which played well, only to be undone by a momentary lapse.

Entering halftime Wednesday, it was evident Savarese was not about to throw the baby out with the bathwater as his side took on a remarkably similar tone to Sunday's derby: Portland held the ball, directed the pace of the game, and found opportunities in the opponent’s 18 yard box. All the while, the Timbers still could not will the ball over the goal line.

The nil-nil scoreline simply added to the growing anxiety within the stadium.

“We were playing well and keeping the ball and things just weren’t dropping,” said defender Liam Ridgewell, “We didn’t get frustrated, we knew it was going to come, and knew that once we got the first goal we’d go on to win the game.”

Indeed, Chara’s breakthrough in the 64th minute started to remove a burdensome weight from off their shoulders. A process which concluded in the 83rd minute thanks to a brilliant individual effort by midfielder David Guzman to seal the victory, thus halting the Timbers losing streak.

For Savarese, the goals in the second half were a culmination of hard work and a mindset that those goals would come if the team continued to play well.

”I thought that the guys did really well, the ball just didn’t go in [during the first half],” Savarese asserted post game. “The important part is that we opened the spaces and created chances.”

Despite recent struggles, Giovanni Savarese has been adamant that the team is progressing down the correct path, and on Wednesday night both the data and the score line reflected that.

How the Numbers Add Up

For the second game in a week, Portland outshot their opponents; this time fifteen to ten. Of those fifteen shots, eight were on target. Generally, when a team averages double digit shots and is north of 50 percent of those shots on target, they should feel good about their odds to score. Against Seattle, Portland had 22 shots with 6 on target, but realistically, about four more shots would have been on frame if not for some tremendous individual defensive efforts by members of Seattle’s back line.

Shot map: POR (green) TOR (red)
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

As for Toronto’s side, the Red’s managed just ten shots for the game with just one being placed on frame. In all fairness it likely should have been two shots on goal, as forward Lucas Janson had a clear opportunity in the 10th minute; Portland was fortunate when Janson’s shot caromed off the outside of the post.

Back Four: Familiar Faces, Some Different Places

Credit for the defensive performance is largely due to a freshly minted back line comprised of Jorge Villafaña, Larrys Mabiala, Liam Ridgewell, and Zarek Valentin. Comprehensively, this is the best backline Portland can run onto the field:

  • Mabiala and Ridgewell have excellent positioning, yet are also athletic enough to press up and cut out balls before the opposition's attack is able to evolve. They also are both versatile enough to cover target forwards and channel runners.
  • Villafaña, although “not fully fit,” according to Savarese, had multiple vital clearances, and joined in the attack with good movements off the ball and passes to spring the attacking midfield. His ability to contribute offensively will grow as his match fitness and familiarity with teammates increases.
  • Valentin made the switch from left back to right back, his natural position, and the difference was tangible. The former University of Akron player moved up and down the right flank with much more confidence and fluidity, joining in the attack willingly and making some key defensive plays once again. While Savarese’s lineup decisions are unpredictable, it’s very possible that Valentin becomes the preferred starting right back with Alvas Powell the secondary option and substitute, especially in situations where Portland is chasing a goal.

This is not a knock on Powell, however, simply a reality of Portland’s scheme. He’s had a very good year, but doesn’t possess the same ability to combine with attacking players with intricate passing sets. When he gets the ball, he drives it at the defense and creates problems while Valentin lends more to Savarese’s possession based offensive approach.

Villafana (4) and Valentin (16) passing and defensive actions
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

This chalkboard is a happy chalkboard. The balance of play between the right and left flank, and the position of passes in the attacking half shows outside backs who are capable of contributing in a balanced fashion to the offense. The clearances, interceptions and recoveries show they are defensively able to backtrack and shut down counters effectively. The days of these maps set largely in the defensive third are hopefully well behind us.

Portland’s Evolution Through Data

I’ve written previously about the evolution that Giovanni Savarese is working through when it comes to the overall style of the team. To reiterate, Savarese wants a disciplined defensive presence with a fluid and ball dominant attacking mindset.

Harping on this point can certainly cause eye-rolls, especially during stretches where the team is struggling to produce results, but let’s compare the data from this game to the same Timber’s team from earlier this year, in what was our best result at the time, a 3-0 win vs New York City FC:

For just their second win of the year, Portland deployed a heavy counter-attacking approach, sitting deep vs a talented and attack minded David Villa-led squad, and took advantage of their opportunities to put the game away. Up until this point in the season, the Timbers had leaked goals, and coach Savarese wasn’t having it. Thus was born the heavy emphasis on strength in the back, and so a 7 man defensive formation became a staple of the Portland side for the next couple of months.

Part one of Savarese’s vision: maintain a disciplined defensive presence. Portland would go on to produce 6 clean sheets through the remainder of their unbeaten run.

As teams began dissecting and solving Portland’s counter attacking approach, the Timbers were already working on part two of the tactical switch, finding a way to become more ball dominant and dynamic in attack. The process wasn’t always pretty, Savarese refers to those issues as “hiccups” during the learning process, but the progress is notable when you compare it to that game vs NYCFC. This was the Timbers movement in April vs New York City:

POR vs NYCFC, April 22nd passing map
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

And this is the Timbers movement in August vs Toronto FC:

POR vs TOR, August 29th passing maps
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

This doesn’t need to be overanalyzed. What you’ll see is a) a dramatic increase in possession, b) a stark increase in passing in the attacking half, and c) a shift from balls over the top and directly down field to a lot of side to side passing movement that stretches the defense and catches them out of position.

In order to achieve the desired tactical approach, the Timbers first instilled a strict defensive presence. Everyone on the field is expected to contribute defensively, and once that’s established, then more players are able to confidently join in the attack. Portland has gone from three or four players pressing into attack, to six or seven players.

What adds even more to the dynamic is the noted switchability of positions through the midfield and attack. Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, and Samuel Armenteros rotated positions throughout the Toronto match. Diego Chara, David Guzman, and Andy Polo switched placement repeatedly as well. It puts significantly more pressure on the defense when not only do the front 3 attackers change roles at will, but the secondary attackers will also crop up at unexpected positions in the box.

Part two, a fluid and ball dominant attack, is beginning to take shape.

It should be noted that Portland still has kinks in the system to work out. The Timbers ceded the majority of possession in the second half, due to Toronto’s substitutions that packed the midfield and defense, and because, as Giovanni Savarese explained, Portland started, “rushing too much to find the killing ball.”

But for now, Portland can take a moment to exhale after earning a vital result and take with them a measure of confidence as the focus shifts to Massachusetts and the New England Revolution on Saturday.