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Timbers secure point in chaotic New England match

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A strange game reveals interesting facts about Portland’s midfield and center forward positions

MLS: Portland Timbers at New England Revolution David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

After a brutal stretch from August 11th through the 18th that saw the Portland drop three games in eight days, the Timbers came home with a week’s rest to regroup and prepare to run it back again, with another three games in seven days against the Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC, and New England Revolution.

Despite stumbling out of the gate against Seattle in a 1-0 defeat, Portland rallied and beat defending champions Toronto 2-0 at home before making the cross-country trip to take on New England just three days later.

Giovanni Savarese, after playing his preferred starters the large majority of minutes in the previous three game stretch, recognized that sometimes putting your best foot forward for the stretch run means leaving your best feet at home.

”New England is a very physical team, especially at home,” observed Savarese, following the win against Toronto. “We have to have a team that is fresh and ready to be able to compete.”

When the Timbers departed for Massachusetts, they left three of their core players behind and kept a couple others on the bench; All-Star attacking midfielder Diego Valeri, defensive midfielder Diego Chara, and defender Liam Ridgewell stayed home while starting forward Samuel Armenteros sat on the bench along with left back Jorge Villafana.

For a team that is battling for playoff positioning, the decision to leave out key players was difficult but correct. In the last three game stretch, Valeri played 249+ minutes over eight days and Armenteros played 225+ minutes. But Savarese’s decision to exclude them from the game meant that Valeri and Armenteros played just 180 and 172 minutes last week, and along with Diego Chara, have ten days rest before their next game.

In the end, the gamble made by Savarese paid off, with Portland securing an away point to maintain pace in a competitive Western Conference thanks to a rare goal from defensive midfielder Lawrence Olum in the 70th minute.

The game itself took on an interesting tone, looking, at times, more like a middle school soccer game than one played by professional athletes. Due to New England’s aggressive pressing style, Portland’s lineup decisions, and the Revolution’s recent poor run of form, possession was haphazard and inconsistent throughout the match, with balls being volleyed back and forth across the midfield line from team to team with little semblance of control.

“We knew it was going to be a fight,” said goal-scorer Lawrence Olum. “They needed points. I think the boys matched up and we gave it all we could and got away with the point.”

Such a match doesn’t provide large insights into the identity and progression of a team, rather it reflects grit and determination for a squad to earn a result outside of their typical mode of operation. But there are a few interesting developments to observe.

How the Numbers Add Up

First glance at the numbers shows a match that was very much in favor of the Revolution: New England won the possession battle (62.4 to 37.6%), the shots and shots on goal (13/4 to 6/1), and total passes (446 to 279). For the Timbers, part of this was by design, and part was unintentional; Portland opted to revert to a sit and counter approach, due to personnel and New England’s tendency to press aggressively throughout the game. The Timbers stayed disciplined defensively and countered down the wings aggressively.

Outside of a few nervy moments, Portland kept New England from creating high quality opportunities. The Revolution attempted to work the ball in from the wings and send crosses into the box, attempting 31 for the game, but were time and again turned away, only completing one successful open play cross:

NE crosses vs POR
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

Offensively, Portland’s attempts at counter attacking were mixed, at best. The attack, led by Sebastian Blanco, had few outlets throughout the game. By playing a 4-3-2-1 with all three players in front of the back four being pure defensive midfielders, it left just three players in attack. Of those three attackers, Andre Flores is a stretch to be labeled an attacking midfielder, playing more the role of utility man in the midfield than operating in the final third.

That left just Blanco and Dairon Asprilla, reprising the role of center forward at the top of the formation.

Dairon Asprilla as No. 9

One of the most fascinating developments of the 2018 season for Portland is Giovanni Savarese’s decision to utilize Dairon Asprilla as a secondary, or in certain games, primary striker. Such was the case versus New England on Saturday night.

In theory, it’s a reasonable concept to play Asprilla as a forward. He possesses speed to run channels, test the backline and make them hesitate to deploy an offside trap, and will also track back and press the ball defensively along the back line.

In reality, it has been rather poor. Asprilla’s long history of struggling to finish has not improved with the position switch, and he has struggled to utilize space in the middle of the field. A game against the Revolution, a team that presses, thus, can be caught out of position, along with a counter-attacking offensive game plan seems like the perfect game for someone with Asprilla’s skill set.

But on Saturday night, he was practically invisible in the attacking third.

Asprilla passing map vs. NE
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

Throughout the game, Asprilla struggled to make an impact, more comfortable drifting out on the wings, where all his successful touches were, and lacking the instincts to combine with the attacking midfield effectively, mistiming runs and failing to draw attention away from Blanco in the build up.

Additionally, despite Asprilla’s incredible leaping ability, his presence as a crossing target in the box is noticeably lacking.

What happens when you have a center forward who doesn’t run the channels for through balls, drifts to the wings instinctively, and struggles to finish? Usually not great things. Portland earned a result, but off a play set up by a defensive midfielder, redirected by a center back, and finished by a second defensive midfielder.

The scoring contributions by our defensive players have been fantastic, but the attacking options have to do better. With the integration of Lucas Melano, the development of Tomas Conechny, and young strikers Jeremy Ebobisse, and Foster Langsdorf, it may be time to call it a day on the Asprilla experiment.

Portland’s Question in Midfield

Perhaps the least discussed but most interesting tactical issue for Portland through the end of the year and into 2019 is the question of possession in the midfield.

Since the departure of Darlington Nagbe, Portland hasn’t had a midfielder who can hold onto the ball and move it into the attacking half. Valeri can reprise that role, but his strengths are in placing the final ball into the box for an oncoming attacker. Blanco can contribute to possession, but in doing so Portland loses it’s most potent one-on-one attacker. Chara can also fill in that role, but that speaks more to his overall versatility; playing him as a possession midfielder expends energy better spent on his primary responsibilities. The closest thing that Portland has to a possession based midfielder on the roster is Andre Flores, who has been an important role player for Portland, but hasn’t shown the quality to be a regular starting XI player on a playoff team.

The lack of players to hold onto the ball in the midfield and spring attacks became glaringly obvious vs New England, where the pressing style forced Portland’s midfielders into bad passes time and again.

The Timbers completed just 61% of passes in the game, and the middle of the field was left practically untouched by completed passes:

POR’s successful passing map
via MLSsoccer.com and Opta Sports

Portland rosters a solid and improving rotation on the backline, a whole host of defensive midfielders, and a combination of proven and promising attackers. The piece that is missing is someone to link the two sides and maintain possession in the midfield.

Despite questions and concerns, however, Portland’s ability to rest starters and still earn a result means that better answers are to come against Colorado on September 8th at Providence Park, where the Timbers will look to move up the conference standings.