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Dissecting a Portland Timbers counterattack

The Portland Timbers are known for being lethal in transition, but what exactly makes them so effective?

Kris Lattimore

Only eight minutes had elapsed in a 2017 match-up against the Los Angeles Galaxy when the Portland Timbers’ winger Sebastian Blanco glanced up and decided to switch the ball from deep in the defense towards a sprinting Diego Chara, who had acres of space to run into. From there, it seemed as if everything switched to slow motion. The Timbers’ defensive midfielder chested the ball into the path of Diego Valeri, continued his own run, and tapped in the ensuing squared ball, helping the Timbers secure a valuable, early-season 1-0 win against a Western Conference foe.

“I think that is one of my best memories of a goal that I scored,” Chara said shortly after this Tuesday’s training session. “It was in LA, and when we had the ball, [Sebastian] Blanco gave me the long pass, and I passed with my head to Valeri and we go to finish. I think that was a great example of how to finish a counterattack.”

From seemingly no space to work in and dealing with constant defensive pressure to a picture-perfect counterattacking goal in under five passes. The goal against the Galaxy was the epitome of a Portland counterattack — an ideal play for an athletic team that has built an identity over recent seasons of thriving in those transition moments.

Chara’s goal against the Galaxy is one that 23-year-old striker Jeremy Ebobisse still recalls from his first season with the first team. The goal took place during his second game on the sidelines and provided a sterling example of what the expectation is when suiting up in green and gold.

“That was my first introduction to the team really; seeing that commitment to get the goal,” Ebobisse said. “Chara’s our holding mid, and he was the one that finished in the box. That exemplified what’s expected in those moments — when you see vulnerability, you want to take advantage.”

Of course that simple, counterattacking score was just another flash-in-the-pan moment for a team that thrives on those transition opportunities throughout a season. While the opportunities to get out and run are unpredictable, most players have a mental checklist that they go through in seconds when the ball turns over — and even the slowest of games turns into a track meet.

Valeri, often heralded as one of the most lethal transition players in all of MLS, says that what he does depends on where on the field the ball is turned over.

“My role is to think what is best to do,” Valeri said. When I see that a counterattack is coming, first thing is I look up higher on the field to see if I have some people moving, where are the spaces to attack. And then, if I don’t have the ball, knowing where to move to occupy what we call ‘the three spaces.’ The three lanes in a counterattack is one in the middle, one on the left, and one on the right. If you connect well, move well, and you’re precise with the ball, it’s hard for the opponent to stop that because you have the advantage. What I do is a quick reading of the situation without the ball. Where’s the space? How do I manage the space? How do I manage the ball?”

“The counterattack could be from your box, in the middle, or higher on the field,” Valeri added. “The most important thing is to be efficient in those opportunities when you do not have a lot of time. To be precise in the reading of what to do and the decision-making, that’s the most important. And then executing with precision.”

Last season, Valeri scored his own textbook counterattacking goal against the Galaxy. Whereas Chara played off of two teammates, Valeri did most of the heavy work in the final third himself and ultimately finished with what Fox Sports’ Stu Holden described as “filfth of the highest order.”

“That’s a counterattack coming from the box,” Valeri said. “We all made the right decision, and when we broke the line in the middle, Seba [Blanco] played me a ball where the space was, I ran onto it, and then if you think about it I was on the left. Someone in the middle, someone on the right was attracting people, and then you’re one-versus-one in the box and then it’s just trying to be creative and execute it.”

While Valeri is often that cog in the middle of the field, tasked with orchestrating the counter, Ebobisse knows that his role involves keeping track of different things. Instead of needing to play that perfect, line-splitting ball, he needs to know when to hold his run or when to drag opponents away.

“[What I am thinking] depends on where I am at on the field,” Ebobisse said. “If It’s high and central, then it’s about putting myself in a position to be an option for the guy running. From the moment that I determine he doesn’t need my help, then it’s about putting my body position in a shape that is ready to attack the goal — whether it is getting the ball and shooting, whether it’s making a run for a cross, or ultimately playing that ball and getting into an attacking position.”

These days, Ebobisse is pretty clinical in transition himself. Over the past few seasons he has finished off many counterattacking opportunities, including a vital goal in the 2018 playoffs against the Seattle Sounders.

“It’s just a quick turnover and from that moment it’s about acknowledging where people are on the field,” Ebobisse said. “Diego [Valeri] is in the half-space, and I know that when Diego has time and space on the ball, he’s going to look up and forward and his game is about feeding the strikers, feeding the wingers, putting them in positions to get goals and assists.”

“From that moment, I made my run in behind, timed it as perfectly as I can, and he played a perfectly weighted pass. Again, it’s about that body shape. Is my body in a position where I’m ready to shoot first time because, in that position if I’m taking a touch, Stephen Frei’s probably closing down every angle and the defenders are getting back and covering the goal, so body shape and being prepared was crucial.”

And then there’s Diego Chara, the one-man wrecking ball capable of putting out fires and starting devastating Timbers’ counterattacks all on his own. There’s the goal against the Galaxy, but there's also that more recent goal in Portland’s 3-1 win against Real Salt Lake at the end of the 2018 season.

“I feel in those moments that it’s always an option to create opportunities to score,” Chara said. “In my opinion, with the team that we have and the players, my goal is to create the spaces and try to do it at the right times. [Steve] Clark plays really well with the ball at his feet, and we are always looking at those spaces to go forwards.”

Finding these counterattacking moments happens to be one of the most effective ways to devastate an opponent. A team could be passing the ball around the back or struggling to get it out of their own end for minutes at a time — and then, boom, just a few seconds later that team is celebrating after a score. However, like with any tactic, relying on the counterattack has a few setbacks.

Many of those drawbacks were evident during the long run of home games last season when opposing teams allowed the Timbers to have the ball, making those transition moments even harder to find. Head coach, Giovanni Savarese, acknowledged that, while being strong in transition is helpful, he also wants his team to be more diverse in how they attack and noted the importance of being able to play multiple ways.

“[Counterattacking] has been our style in the past two years predominantly, especially when we play away from home,” Savarese said. “When we came back home last year, we changed. We tried to be a little more offensive-minded, we attacked more, we saw teams setting themselves more defensively. I think we’re growing to make sure that we’re a team that can play both ways and be strong. I think this year we have more depth that will allow us to achieve that.”

“I think we showed against Vancouver that we can be an attacking team,” Savarese continued. “We can counter, but we can also keep possession and unbalance the opposition, and that is one thing that we have been working on. That we are a team that can be flexible and be confident playing the two ways.”

Portland might try to control possession more this season, and maybe they’ll be more effective with the ball in the final third, but no matter what they do, those transition opportunities will ultimately present themselves. This is Portland, and counterattacking is a part of the team’s DNA; so, no matter how opponents choose to play them, they will always have to be wary of that lethal Timbers counterattack. After all, you never know when it might strike.