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What went wrong against the Colorado Rapids

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Colorado Rapids’ press and defensive organization gave the Timbers all sorts of trouble on Wednesday.

Colorado Rapids v Portland Timbers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Portland Timbers FC dropped out of the Supporters’ Shield race after falling 1-0 to Colorado Rapids on Wednesday. The Timbers did not have their first choice starting 11 heading into the match, while Colorado had just defeated the Seattle Sounders and were fighting to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Colorado Rapids set up in a very interesting way. Danny Wilson, Lalas Abubakar and Keegan Rosenberry made up the three-man backline. Samuel Vines could join the backline to make it a four-man backline, but he was often deployed as a true wing back. Vines was much more active in the middle of the pitch and going forward.

Cole Bassett and Younes Namli served as central midfielders. Jack Price joined them in the midfield but was the deepest-lying player in the center of the park. Andre Shinyashiki played an interesting role. He was at times a winger and at other times a midfielder or advanced wing back. Nicolas Benezet and Diego Rubio were the two forward-most players. Rubio was the most consistent central attacking presence and Benezet drifted wide and inside to create danger.

The Colorado attack was extremely fluid and caused the Timbers a lot of problems especially in the first half. At times, Benezet, Rubio, Shinyashiki, Vines and Bassett would all be in attacking positions. Namli and Price looked to get the ball wide and Colorado’s players would overlap and underlap to get into dangerous positions on the wings. Because they had so many players forward there were often three players making different runs in the box to create chaos for Portland.

When Colorado turned the ball over in their own attacking third they pressed the Timbers and limited Portland’s options going forward. Their pressing trigger was when one of the many attackers closed down a Portland player at pace or on a Timbers’ throw-in.

The closest Colorado player would sprint to the ball carrier. The other Rapids attackers would pick up a player and go man-to-man, similar to Matias Almeyda’s system with San Jose. But players did not have a specific player to mark. It was based on proximity to Portland’s players. The Rapids press was designed to force the Timbers to turn the ball over in dangerous positions or into long balls.

Price served as a kind of sweeper in the midfield. When the ball went long, Price would try to keep the ball from Diego Chara or Eryk Williamson.

Colorado’s press was not a typical “high press.” They triggered the press at certain times, such as when it was high up the pitch, when the Timbers lost the ball, or when a Portland player had the ball near the sideline. The Rapids would also drop into a mid-block that could look like a 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1 behind the ball.

Colorado’s system was very vulnerable in transition. We saw Steve Clark quickly getting the ball back in play and Portland players taking quick free kicks to exploit the space vacated by Colorado’s extremely offensive approach.

Williamson dropped deeper into midfield next to Chara and Felipe Mora dropped back to help in the build-up and win some of the long balls by overloading the midfield.

The Timbers adjusted to the Rapids press as the match progressed and it was triggered more selectively in the second half. With the introduction of Yimmi Chara and Diego Valeri, the Timbers found more success and really put Colorado under pressure, but they couldn’t find the final ball.

Late in the match, Clark took a free-kick and passed it to Chara. Chara carried the ball forward to the right side of the pitch. The Rapids wanted to anticipate passing lanes and turn the Timbers over in their own half — and that is exactly what they did.

Chara tried to play the ball to Bonilla and the Rapids won the ball. Bonilla recovered and gave it right back to Chara. He then tried to play a simple ball to Valeri, but the Rapids had placed two players equidistant from Valeri. When Chara released the ball, both Colorado players were prepared to close down Valeri. They invited the pass to the Argentine, knowing it would come, and they jumped the passing lane and were off and running. The Timbers were completely unorganized in defense and were exploited in transition on the play. Kellyn Acosta finished to give Colorado the lead at the end of the match.

The Timbers had a heavily rotated lineup due to injury and technical decisions. This is not something that normally happens to Portland. But the number of goals that the Timbers have allowed at the end of matches is concerning. It is also important that the Timbers become flexible and figure out these tactical nuances quicker. With the MLS electing for a single elimination playoff format, it is likely that we will see more of these tactical wrinkles against the Timbers.