The Portland Timbers finished the 2019 season 14-13-7. They finished in sixth place in the Western Conference and underperformed their expectations. Fast forward to now and the Timbers are set to play in the MLS is Back Tournament Final on Tuesday against Orlando City. This is a drastic turn around in form, especially when you look at the Timbers’ start to 2020.
In their first match of 2020, they were drummed 3-1 by Minnesota United. Their second fixture was against expansion club Nashville SC in which Portland scraped out a 1-0 victory. Diego Valeri was the only player to score in the first two matches of the 2020 season and one of those goals came from the penalty spot.
The Timbers have advanced to the final of the tournament through enormous offensive contributions from Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Jeremy Ebobisse. But how did Giovanni Savarese lead his men to make the transition from sixth in the Western Conference to potential MLS is Back Tournament Champions? He cracked the code by finding the right midfielder to pair with Diego Chara in a double pivot.
In the 2019 season, Cristhian Paredes primarily started alongside Chara in the midfield. Savarese rotated Andy Polo, Andres Flores and Eryk Williamson into the midfield. The coach opted for Paredes in a double pivot with Chara for the majority of matches but also tried Chara as a single pivot in a 4-3-3. But none of these combinations yielded consistent results.
After MLS returned from the Covid-19 induced break, Savarese had found his perfect midfield pairing. Williamson started alongside Chara in a double pivot in their first match against the LA Galaxy and it yielded immediate results.
Chara led the team in defensive pressures which is something that he does consistently. Defensive pressures are the number of times a defending player applies pressure to an opposing player who is receiving the ball. Defensive pressures are crucial for the Timbers both offensively and defensively because a successful defensive pressure means the team regains possession within five seconds of applying pressure. A successful defensive pressure can result in a key defensive intervention while also kick-starting potential transition opportunities.
Williamson completed all four of his attempted tackles and was three for three against dribblers. He also added 11 defensive pressures and one interception.
The two midfielders were crucial for Portland. They won five of 11 of the Timbers’ successful tackles, were responsible for 33 of 89 total defensive pressures and completed a fourth of the team’s interceptions.
Portland started the MLS is Back Tournament Group Stage with an impressive 2-1 victory over the Galaxy, holding them to 1.8 expected goals (xG) and 1.0 non-penalty expected goals (npxG).
Savarese selected Williamson and Chara again in their second match against the Houston Dynamo. Chara had the most defensive pressures on the team, again, with 31 and Williamson added 12. The double pivot was also responsible for one-third of the team’s interceptions.
Portland beat Houston 2-1, allowing an xG of 2.1 and a npxG of 1.4. The Timbers had put in another decent defensive performance and Savarese had found his dynamic duo in midfield.
Williamson was rested for the knockout rounds in the final Group Stage match against LAFC, playing only 22 minutes. But Chara was ever present and continued to show his importance to the Timbers. For the third match in a row he led in defensive pressures with 32 and completed five of his six attempted tackles in a 2-2 draw with the tournament favorites.
In the knockout rounds, Savarese stuck by his main men in all three of the matches. Williamson and Chara combined to win half of the team’s successful tackles, 60% of the interceptions and were ranked one and two in defensive pressures against FC Cincinnati.
In the quarter-final match against NYCFC, Chara led the team in defensive pressures, won three of his four tackles and added one interception. Williamson was quiet defensively, but the Timbers won 3-1, in what was statistically their best game defensively. They held NYFC to a npxG of 0.4.
Chara looked to have rolled back the years in the semifinal against Philadelphia. His defensive interventions and game-high 21 pressures showed he was all over the pitch. He also made multiple lung-busting runs to join the attack.
Chara’s defensive freedom is successful because Williamson is able to cover for him and has the chemistry with Chara to make sure neither of the midfielders is caught out in transition. Chara’s confidence in Williamson allows the Colombian to constantly pressure the opposition and jump passing lanes, which creates transition opportunity for the Timbers.
The defensive prowess of the midfielders makes Portland one of the most dangerous teams offensively because it lessens the defensive responsibilities of Valeri and Blanco. Both Argentines are creative playmakers who thrive with the ball at their feet and make their biggest impact offensively. Because of the stability of the Timbers’ double pivot, Valeri and Blanco can make a greater impact offensively and it has paid dividends. Blanco has notched three goals and five assists and Valeri has added two goals and one assist.
The double pivot of Williamson and Chara is key for the Timbers defensively and allows their playmakers more freedom offensively. But the midfielders are also great at controlling the tempo of the match and can make an offensive impact of their own. Chara has completed 93.0% of his 299 passes in the MLS is Back Tournament. He has also progressed the ball well with four completed dribbles and seven shot-creating actions.
Williamson has completed 86.7% of his 225 passes and has been even more potent than Chara in the attack. The American midfielder has completed nine dribbles while also creating 13 shot-creating actions and two goal goal-scoring actions.
Chara has played over 300 matches for the Portland Timbers. He has been Savarese’s go-to and the Timbers’ main man for years. His quality is recognized throughout the league. After Philadelphia’s semifinal elimination, coach Jim Curtain was asked about what makes playing Portland so difficult.
“Diego Chara, I would say, would be a good starting point,” said Curtain. “[He’s] probably the best defensive midfielder our league has ever had.”
Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin (#DOOP) when asked about how Portland makes it so difficult:— Jonathan Sigal (@JonathanSigal) August 6, 2020
"Diego Chara I would say would be a good starting point. Probably the best defensive midfielder our league’s ever had." #RCTID https://t.co/5uOU9Ri8Fn
The Colombian’s quality has never been in question, but Savarese needed a midfielder that complemented Chara to get the best out of him and all of Portland’s attacking options. Throughout this tournament, it has become clear that Chara’s ideal midfield partner is the young Williamson.
Williamson played a sporadic 234 minutes in the 2019 season and is on track to play more than double that in this tournament alone. He rose through the ranks at Timbers 2 and now has a protagonistic role in this organized and lethal Portland Timbers starting line-up.
It took Savarese some time to find the midfield pairing that he was looking for, but he has found it with the veteran Chara and youthful Williamson. They complement each other well, solidify the Timbers’ defensive structure, allow playmakers more freedom and are able to dictate the tempo of the match and progress the offense. The American and Colombian have combined to form Portland’s perfect double pivot and have commanded the center of the park during the MLS is Back Tournament with and without the ball.
Statistics retrieved from FBref.com.