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Preview: Portland Timbers vs. San Jose Earthquakes

Timbers look to shore up their defense against a struggling San Jose.

Portland Timbers v Los Angeles FC Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images

Tonight the Portland Timbers will take on the San Jose Earthquakes at Earthquake Stadium. This match was originally slated for the last week of August but was postponed because of the MLS player strike in reaction to the Jacob Blake shooting.

A lot has changed for both teams since the last week of August. The Timbers had a huge wake-up call when they left the bubble. After winning the MLS is Back tournament, they were thrashed 3-0 at Providence Park by Seattle Sounders.

San Jose were also coming off an impressive MLS is Back tournament, scoring loads of goals and advancing to the quarterfinals before being bested by a strong Minnesota United team.

Overall, both teams were excited about their runs in the Orlando bubble and were looking forward to resuming play in home markets. But when they returned, they left their defensive stability in Orlando.

Since returning from the bubble the Timbers have won only one match and have allowed 15 goals in five matches. In seven matches in the bubble they only allowed eight goals.

San Jose has not won since their Round of 16 match at the MLS is Back Tournament against Real Salt Lake and have allowed 16 goals. They lost 3-2 to the LA Galaxy, 5-1 to LAFC and 7-1 to Seattle. They drew against Colorado 1-1 and ended 0-0 in their most recent match against the Galaxy.

When this match was originally scheduled I wrote a preview analyzing Matias Almeyda’s man-marking system and how the Timbers could exploit that. Obviously, things have changed with the injury of Sebastian Blanco, but I think it’s still worth a read heading into the match against the Quakes.

The Quake’s Defensive Woes

SOCCER: SEP 10 MLS San Jose Earthquakes at Seattle Sounders Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

San Jose has struggled tracking runners recently. This was on full display in the defensive debacle against the Sounders. The Quakes allowed seven goals and almost all of them stemmed from a defender losing his man. This normally is not that big of a deal; it happens all the time in matches. But in Almeyda’s man-marking system, losing your man upsets the balance of the defense and forces the other defenders to decide whether to mark their man or step to mark the runner. This allows the man they were originally marking freedom and space to receive the ball.

San Jose was punished only three minutes into the Seattle game by this very situation. Jordan Morris dropped deep into midfield to receive the ball and turned quickly. He outpaced the man marking him and was able to run into space. One defender finally decided to step to Morris, but by then it was too late. They had given Morris too much space and just like that it was 1-0 Seattle.

Variations of this happened throughout the game. Sometimes they were punished by the ball-carrier who had beaten his man and other times a defender stepped to the free Sounders player, leaving a runner unmarked. The pressured ball-carrier just needed to make a good leading pass and the Sounders were through on goal again.

Another weakness that has been exploited lately is the Quake’s vulnerability after losing the ball. In the man-marking system players are allowed much more freedom to roam offensively. When San Jose is in possession, they often only leave two center backs in defensive position. The Los Angeles Football Club took full advantage of that. LAFC is one of the best teams at counter-pressing and were able to win the ball back immediately after losing it. After winning the ball, the San Jose defense was vulnerable and LAFC repeatedly capitalized on transition opportunities.

The Quakes also have struggled to close down their man in the 18-yard box. San Jose has not been aggressive in closing down attackers. If you give talented attackers too much time in the box, they have the quality to punish you. Diego Rossi’s first goal in the 5-1 rout is a perfect example of this.

San Jose’s defense has been responsible for some lop-sided score lines since the return to home markets, but they looked much better in their most recent match against the LA Galaxy. The Galaxy were in search of their fifth straight win but were not only denied by the Quakes. The struggling San Jose defense was even able to keep a clean sheet. San Jose will look to use the Cali Clasico draw as a springboard and will be looking for all three points at home against a Timbers side that has also been vulnerable defensively.

Opportunities for the Timbers

Portland Timbers v Los Angeles FC Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images

The Timbers have the players with pace and individual quality to exploit Almeyda’s man-marking system. Despite their defensive frailty, the Timbers have not struggled finding the back of the net.

Portland must go back to what worked in the bubble. They should sit in a mid-to-low block and stay compact defensively. The Quakes have not scored much recently but are still the team that scored 12 goals in Orlando, although the absence of Magnus Eriksson has slowed production.

Diego Valeri and Eryk Williamson will be key for the Timbers tonight. San Jose is vulnerable in transition and both Valeri and Williamson have the ability to beat their man and play an attacker through into space.

Valeri and Williamson are also able to make dangerous runs from midfield into the box. San Jose has struggled tracking midfield runners which has directly resulted in goals for the opposition. We all know Valeri has the quality to punish any defense, but Williamson has shown his ability to do so as well. He has scored two goals in two games by making these runs from midfield and should look to take advantage of this tonight.