After two encouraging Concacaf Champions League matches, the early season Portland Timbers reminded us that they are ... well, the early season Portland Timbers. A dispiriting loss against the Vancouver Whitecaps left a bad taste in our mouths after what was a rather encouraging start to 2021.
Fortunately, they very shortly will have the opportunity to start to right the ship, and earn their first points in MLS play when the Houston Dynamo come to Providence Park for Portland’s home opener in league play on Saturday (7:30 pm PDT, broadcast on KPDX).
What do the Timbers need to do to emerge emerge with three points? Here are three keys to this weekend’s clash:
Exploit the spaces
The Dynamo are in their second season under head coach Tab Ramos, and are featuring a retooled and revamped side. He imparted his side with a greater emphasis on organization, and one of the results with that is a slight tweak in formation and tactical identity. In their match against the San Jose Earthquakes last week, Houston lined up initially in a 3-4-3:
In practice, Boniek Garcia would press forward and join the midfield in the attack, then drop back and serve as a second center back next to Tim Parker in the defense, becoming more of a standard 4-3-3 in defense.
It was an extra wrinkle to Houston’s tactics last Friday, and while it did create more runners and midfield pressure when attacking (more on that in a bit), it also created spaces behind the midfield and defense in transition.
When the ball turned over, Houston’s fullbacks-turned-center backs had to scramble to pressure the ball and close down space. As versatile of a defender as our old friend Zarek Valentin is (still miss you, Z!), he is not the most adept at defending in space, which can also be applied to the rest of Houston’s backline as they’re scrambling.
This type of transitional play was on display last week on what really should have been San Jose’s equalizer
The tweet gives credit to the goalkeeper, but it really was “Man he just can’t shake the Belgium miss, can he” Chris Wondolowski’s shanked effort that saved the Dyanmo in that game.
Spectacular miss or not, that play shows how there will be space behind the back line to exploit when the Timbers win the ball. If they can use the ball well to move the Houston defense around, and spring their attackers, there is grass to be gobbled up and spaces in behind the defense to be hit.
If Yimmi Chara, Felipe Mora, and the rest of Portland’s attacking line can make the most of those spaces, the Timbers will be in business.
Track the runners
Another one of Tab Ramos’ tactical wrinkles for the Dynamo is how they attack and progress the play. As mentioned, when possessing the ball they have a tendency to pull Garcia and the rest of the defense forward to add numbers to the midfield, whether centrally or on the wings, allowing their midfield creators to get on the ball in space, driving towards the goal.
Whether it is Memo Rodriguez or Joe Corona pinching in and creating overloads or balls over the top for their wingers like Fafa Picault to run onto, Houston likes to go direct and go fast. Wherever the ball is coming from, the final stage that the Dynamo like to work themselves into in the final third is putting multiple runners in the box to finish off plays.
This attacking flow can be seen in Houston’s second goal from their season opener, one in which another old friend, Maxi Urruti, was the beneficiary:
Houston has no less than three runners all crashing towards the net on that goal, and the San Jose back line tracks ... uh ... none of them. It’s a recipe for a bad time if you’re the defense, and in this instance it resulted in the eventual game-winner.
Houston does all of this without possessing the ball much. They were pretty squarely out-possessed by San Jose by a nearly 60-40 margin last week despite being at home. On the road, one can definitely expect the possession statistic to be of a similar slant in favor of the Portland Timbers.
Therefore, the Timbers need to be ready to track the Dynamo’s multiple runners that they flood into the box. This is especially true in transition, as Houston is decidedly set up well to exploit those chances, and the Timbers are still wrestling off their 2020 bugaboo of being vulnerable in transitional play.
A moment of losing concentration when tracking a runner doomed the Timbers last week. Doing so against the Dynamo could have similar outcome as well, if the Portland’s defense isn’t prepared.
Finish those darned chances
This one seems obvious and self-explanatory, but that’s just because it’s so dang essential.
According to FBref.com, the Timbers finished last week’s match against the Whitecaps with 1.0 expected goals (xG), a metric which is a measure of how likely a scoring opportunity should result in a goal. One way to interpret that stat is that the cumulative quality of Portland’s chances totaled 1 full expected goal, based on advanced analytics.
A more simpler way to interpret the stat is the Portland should have put the ball in the net at least once last week.
Portland’s attackers need to do a better job in converting the opportunities created for them through the run of play against Houston. Dairon Asprilla alone was responsible for 0.6 xG of Portland’s accumulative total, including a missed free header and a maybe ill-advised overhead kick. Neither of those hit the back of the net, and none of Portland’s other chances did either.
That included the clearest single opportunity on the night — Felipe Mora’s chance in behind after a beauty of a ball in behind from The Godfather Diego Chara that really should have been the equalizer:
The Timbers defense has of yet not shown itself in these early days to be adept enough to buoy the team and win a point on its own, so when opportunities like the above come around, the Timbers need to finish them to give themselves the best chance to win.
The early season Timbers have shown that they can create an abundance of scoring opportunities, even against a team that sits as deep and compact as Vancouver did. It may not be as incredible as a long ball over the top from the defensive midfielder, but Portland will get their clear chances to score on Saturday. There will be moments where we all say “Oh man you have got to score there”.
If you don’t finish chances like that, you probably don’t win soccer games. And if Portland doesn’t finish the chances like that that they will get on Saturday night, then they won’t win. It sounds simple, but at this early stage of the season with the Timber chasing their first MLS result, it really is as simple as that.