Following a string of losses, the Portland Timbers appear to have righted the ship, with two wins and one draw, while conceding just one goal over the three games. At home on Saturday night against the Colorado Rapids, Portland put in a complete 90-minute performance, looking the clearly superior team from the opening whistle.
There are caveats, as practically every match has: Colorado is far from an elite team this year, with just 31 goals scored, dead last in Major League Soccer, and with the worst goal differential (-19) in the West. Additionally, the Rapids were missing US international Kellyn Acosta, called up to the USA’s friendly against Brazil, as well as forward Niki Jackson and midfielder Nana Boateng, both due to red card suspension.
On the Timbers’ side, a few pieces were missing as well. Most notably, starting goalkeeper Jeff Attinella and right back Alvas Powell, due to injuries, and David Guzman, who was called up to the Costa Rica national team.
Regardless of missing pieces on both sides, it was an important and encouraging result; even during Portland’s best stretches this season, putting away poor sides or dominating the game from whistle to whistle has not been a regular occurrence.
The breakdown of the game shows a complete performance by the Timbers — one that yields exclusively positive takeaways.
Possession vs Control
One fascinating aspect of soccer is the sound bites from coaches or players about games where both sides assert they “controlled the game.” What control means is highly disputed, but you’ll often see ball possession as a core attribute. As fans and experts alike have observed for a long time, however, possession does not necessarily equate to controlling the match.
Such was the case for Portland against Colorado, a game in which the Rapids out-possessed the Timbers 54.7 to 45.3 percent. Possession is an important and valuable statistic, but it lacks context: It fails to paint an accurate picture of the match. What the possession numbers are is no less important than where the possession is.
The Green Swing
A helpful practice I use when examining data from matches is to load a team’s passing map and look for what I call “the Green Swing,” a web of successful passes along a curved line on the field, where a team consistently rotates the ball between the left flank, central, and right flank. Let’s look at an example:
This is Colorado’s passing map for the first half against Portland, in which they maintained 57.9 percent of possession. Notice the web of successful passes that occur directly below the center circle and to both flanks. That is where the bulk of their passing consisted during the first half of Saturday’s match.
Now, let’s examine the passing map for the Timbers during the same first half of play:
Notice where the Green Swing is — in the attacking half of the pitch, barely overlapping with the center circle. Did Portland get out-possessed? Absolutely. Did Colorado make more passes? In the first half, the Rapids made nearly 100 more passes than the Timbers. But it didn’t matter, because Portland made the bulk of their passes where it mattered most.
Take a look at the second half passing map for Portland as well:
In this one, there’s practically two separate Green Swings: one in the attacking half, and one in the defensive half. There’s a few reasons for that, but part of it was due to Portland slowing the game down and seeking to run out the clock once they had a multiple-goal lead. But again, there’s still a clear curve of successful passes in Colorado’s own half of the field.
So what does it mean? If a game is still competitive — meaning both teams have a reasonable chance to earn points — and the Green Swing is sitting deep in a team’s side of the field, it means that the team is having difficulty holding onto the ball and moving into attack. It shows the ball is being shifted from one side to the other by their center backs, defensive midfielders, and outside backs, who have pulled all the way back for support. Very rarely is a switch along the back line going to open up scoring opportunities.
But when the Green Swing is sitting in the attacking half, it means the midfield, forwards, and outside backs, pushing up in support of the offensive movement, are successfully possessing the ball in dangerous areas. With just one or two passes, a real scoring opportunity opens up. And when the ball is rotated side to side in this area, the margin for error is much smaller for the defense: Get caught out of position and there’s an attacker with a wide open look at goal.
A team doesn’t control the game by passing the ball along their own end line; they control the game by passing the ball on their opponent’s doorstep, with the defense unable to do anything about it.
Blanco’s Very Good Night
Sebastian Blanco is a good player. Correction: Sebastian is a very good player, and he did a fantastic job reminding viewers of that on Saturday, dishing out two assists, possibly one minor concussion to Diego Valeri, and generally being a complete terror to the entire Rapids squad. Here’s his touch map for the game:
Blanco roams everywhere. He’s given free reign to find spaces and make defenses scramble. No player on the team offers quite the same array of skills.
He’s got a strong touch on the ball, but also possesses serious speed with which he blows by defenders. He’s not a strong tackler, but his tenacity allows him to disrupt players on the ball on a semi-regular basis, and he’s a fairly reliable finisher.
Against Colorado, Blanco was in excellent form, creating a seven chances, more than double anyone else on the field, and as many chances as the entire Rapids team combined. Additionally, he had the most touches for Portland aside from Zarek Valentin (more on him later). The man does some serious work, and he was rightfully awarded MLS Player of the Week by the North American Soccer Reporters.
When Portland began struggling with finding the back of the net, Blanco was one of many scapegoats, with people claiming he was underperforming or not worth his contract. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Throughout this year, Blanco has been the most reliable player on the pitch for the Timbers. With Valeri lacking the same burst of speed as we’ve seen in years past, Blanco has been responsible for carrying the majority of the attacking burden, running the wings for outlets, carrying the ball into attack, and, like he did against Colorado, laying off the final ball.
Against New England last week, surrounded by a lackluster attacking corps, Blanco single-handedly created Portland’s open play opportunities. I’m not sure anyone would be more missed from the attack than the fiery Argentinian.
His finishing can be highlighted as the one area where improvement could be made. Blanco would do well to learn how to control his shot a bit more, keeping his body leaning forward and the shot down, or perhaps just passing the ball into the goal, as opposed to unleashing a howler every time, as if he was attempting to blast a hole through the netting.
But, perhaps it’s that aggressive mindset that makes Blanco such a potent weapon across the field.
- Jeremy Ebobisse
I already wrote an article on the young striker’s first start of 2018, so I’ll keep it brief, but the man had himself a wonderful first game of the season. With Armenteros struggling as of late, Portland was missing a forward who could make runs, but also possess the ball and redistribute to midfielders pushing up in attack. Ebobisse completed 11 passes in the attacking half, including one in the build up to his own game-winning goal.
- Andy Polo
The Peruvian international is actually becoming a very reliable two-way player. Polo has the speed to track back defensively, which allows him and Diego Chara to take turns joining in the attack without threatening the defensive integrity of the formation. He’s struggled to score, but it’s not because he’s flat out missing; against the Rapids, Polo placed three out of four shots on frame. His scoring opportunities will likely come.
- Zarek Valentin
Every additional minute I watch Valentin play right back, I’m reminded more and more of how useful it is to play off your strong foot. With each passing game, Valentin becomes more comfortable joining in the attack, and is helping Portland maintain control of the ball. Against Colorado, Valentin lead the team in touches and total passes, while completing 88.3 percent of them.
Portland’s opponent should serve as a grain of salt when measuring the magnitude of the result, but it was more than simply a win — the team won the game by playing the way they wanted to. If the Timbers can replicate their approach and execution, it’ll spell trouble for coming adversaries.