The Portland Timbers advanced to the MLS is Back final through clinical counter-attacking and solid defense, despite giving away five penalties throughout the tournament. One of the best defensive performances came in the final against Nani and Orlando City, who advanced to the final against all odds.
Orlando City has been somewhat of the laughing-stock of MLS for the past few seasons. Almost every team’s fans seemed to look at the Lions on the schedule and consider it a W. Unless those fans supported the Portland Timbers. Orlando City has had Portland’s number since entering MLS. Before the final Orlando City had won three and drawn one of the five total matches between the two.
The perception of Orlando City was completely changed during this tournament. They won two and drew one of their group stage matches and made their way to the final by beating Montreal, tournament favorites LAFC, and a dangerous Minnesota United squad.
After being complete outsiders, many viewed Orlando City as the favorites headed into the final. Nani and Mauricio Pereyra were pulling the strings in front of a very disciplined defense. The Portuguese was a strong candidate for Player of the Tournament, scoring three goals and assisting five throughout the tournament.
Orlando City seemed to be hitting their stride and were highly motivated to secure their first MLS silverware while Portland was consistently outperforming their xG and continued giving away penalties and late opportunities.
Portland coach Giovanni Savarese was tasked with how to slow down Oscar Pareja’s men while allowing his team to create more offensively. Savarese did this by solidifying his defense and, despite the lack of great goalscoring opportunities, set-pieces and individual brilliance got Portland over the line.
Throughout the tournament, the Timbers sat in a mid to low block defensively. In the final, they primarily sat in a low block. The backline of Chirs Duvall, Larrys Mabiala, Dario Zuparic and Jorge Villafana sat just in front of the Timbers’ 18-yard box, but when pressured they dropped deeper.
Portland typically had a defensive double-pivot of Diego Chara and Eryk Williamson, but instead of a two-man midfield, Marvin Loria and Sebastian Blanco helped form another line of four in front of the defense. Usually, these two are much further up the pitch and Blanco sometimes serves as the only real outlet for the Timbers defense. But Savarese switched it up in the final, giving Loria and Blanco more defensive responsibilities while Diego Valeri and Jeremy Ebobisse were positioned as the front two in defense, rounding out the 4-4-2.
The Timbers have thrived when Blanco and Valeri have more free roles behind the strikers. By dropping Blanco and Loria deeper in the final they lost some offensive creativity, but solidified defensively. The two lines of four also allowed them to press in a way that disrupted Orlando’s creative players.
For example, Nani received the ball on the left and was instantly swarmed by Duvall, Loria, Chara and Mabiala, and the whole defensive structure shifted to compensate. This potentially leaves the right side wide open for a cross-field pass, but the defensive overloads plug passing lanes, limit space to dribble and suffocate offensive options, usually resulting in a turnover or a backward pass to recycle possession. If the pass went backward, the Timbers immediately restructured into their low-block.
This type of pressure was not sustainable for the entire match. They picked and chose their moments and they usually pressed when Nani, Chris Mueller or Tesho Akindele got the ball out wide. The Timbers would also press Pereyra in these positions, but the lack of space in the middle of the park often caused him to drop deep to receive the ball.
The compact midfield not only forced Pereyra and Nani deep to receive the ball, but it also limited their progressive passing. There was little space between the lines and Mabiala and Zuparic did well to deal with the few runs in behind. The dominance of the center backs forced Akindele and Mueller to make runs outside rather than in the dangerous areas between center backs.
Portland continued to try to force the ball inside when Orlando got it on the wings. Savarese knew that Orlando had the talent that could win one-one-ones and punish the Timbers so they attempted to force Orlando, and Nani in particular, into the compact midfield where he would not only have to deal with Duvall but also with Williamson and Chara.
The tactical decision to line-up more defensively was also visible on set pieces. Blanco and a striker typically did not defend set-pieces in the previous games, but from the outset, the Timbers had every single player defending on set-pieces to make sure Orlando would have to break down their defense rather than take advantage of set-plays.
The defensive set-up broke down four times and resulted in four goalscoring opportunities. In the 19th minute, the back four shifted right while Pereyra had the ball in the Timbers’ half. This shift left Nani on Duvall’s back shoulder in space. The Portuguese made a great run and Pereyra was allowed to make a better pass because Blanco switched off and did not pressure the ball carrier.
Nani looked to be one on one with Steve Clark, but instead of taking it first-time, he tried to bring it down. Duvall recovered well and had the speed to get back and put in a well-timed challenge.
The Timbers’ defense fell asleep again in the 39th minute. Nani got the better of Duvall and put in a good ball. Williamson made a decent challenge but the ball stayed at the feet of Pereyra who calmly slotted it home to tie the match at ones.
A similar situation occurred at the end of the first half. Pereyra got the ball in the 18-yard box and he had the option to pick out three different runners. He chose Mueller, who slipped as his shot went wide.
The last real opportunity came when Nani played in Mendez who made a good run into the box from midfield, but Mabiala made an impressive sliding block to keep the shot off target.
Despite a few break downs, the Timbers dominated the match without the ball. Portland only had 37% of the possession, but also only allowed one shot on target. They were eight of 12 on tackles (ten of which were attempted in the defensive third), blocked eight shots, made 10 interceptions and 21 clearances.
The Timbers frustrated Nani constantly and kept him quiet for the most part. He had his third-lowest amount of touches in the tournament, most of which were in midfield. Nani took two shots with neither being on target. Pereyra was also held to two shots with the one that was on target ending up in the back of the net.
The Timbers were able to limit the space of Orlando City’s playmakers with their compact defensive structure and limited who had become one of the most dangerous teams in the tournament to 0.9 xG. Savarese’s game plan may have looked similar to other MLS is Back Tournament performances, but the tactical decisions he made limited Orlando’s offensive opportunities.
Portland’s individual quality produced goals out of nothing throughout the competition. On the night it took a beautiful delivery from Valeri and two good finishes from center backs to score. But sometimes a moment of brilliance is all you need when your defensive structure suffocates all of the opponent’s attacking options.