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What we learned about Portland’s new fullbacks from the CCL opener

Tuesday showed us the promise — and potential gaps — of the Timbers’ two new high profile members of the backline.

Craig Mitchelldyer- Portland Timbers

In our first glimpse of Josecarlos Van Rankin and Claudio Bravo on Tuesday, we saw everything that the Portland Timbers’ centerpiece offseason signings could bring. We saw the dynamism and attacking verve that pushed the Timbers to make the signings to boost their squad, which culminated in an assist for Portland’s first goal of 2021.

And we also saw some of their initial defensive deficiencies that lead to Portland giving up an equalizer, and may create some short term headaches for the Timbers as the two players adjust and settle to their new team.

Both of the above were on display in Tuesday’s 2-2 draw in the first leg of Portland’s Round of 16 matchup with CD Marathon in the Concacaf Champions League, and they gave a preview for how this year for the fullbacks may go.

Usual caveats are abound with Tuesday’s match. It was just one game, played in very challenging and unusual conditions — particularly with how slow the ball seemed to roll on the field. This was also both players’ first real competitive game with the Timbers, and the first competitive fixture for the team after a long four-month offseason layoff.

But this was the first chance we got to start to assess the two newest pieces of the back line, and gave insight into what their trajectory in Portland may be.

Let’s start with how the fullbacks looked moving forward and joining in with the attack. With Portland’s game plan clearly focused around trying to dominate possession, control the game, and play directly, both players were given license to drive forward, and they both used it liberally.

Particularly In the first half, the fullbacks weren’t afraid to try to make things happen. Bravo had one assertive and mazy run where he drove forward from his fullback spot and beat multiple defenders before losing the ball at the top of the box. Van Rankin specifically had instances of being a facilitator. It was his combination play that sprung Yimmi Chara to chip in a ball for Diego Valeri at the near post, which was nearly flicked home, and he also chipped in the ball into the box that lead to Eryk Williamson’s volley in the first half, which was just saved.

But perhaps nothing was more illustrative of Van Rankin and Bravo’s benefit to the attack than their actions that lead to Portland’s opening goal. Van Rankin initially collected the ball on the right side, and drove centrally toward the top of the box looking for an outlet. He instead laid the ball of for Bravo, who then moved to drive centrally himself. Crucially, Van Rankin had continued his run and was an option for a through ball, which he immediately received from Bravo. He then beat his man and carried the ball into the half-space on the left side of the box, and chipped in a ball (with his weaker foot) for Felipe Mora to collect and slot home.

If you wanted a play that was close to the ideal of “This is what we want these guys to do all the time,” that goal is a pretty good candidate. Giovanni Savarese’s attacking system values assertive and attacking fullbacks who are proactive about getting involved in exploiting spaces and linking up play. Both Bravo and Van Rankin look like very good fits for that bill.

They also look like they are two more names to enter into into the “Oh wow, they leave a lot of space behind them and might have to defend one-on-one a lot” book. Their penchant for getting forward amplifies the attack, but leaves a lot of room on the field behind them, which they consequently are frequently asked to track back and cover, often in the form of individually defending attackers on the endline.

Ultimately this creates more gaps in Portland’s back line, and both of these issues were on display for Marathon’s first equalizer:

That clip starts with Van Rankin scrambling to catch up with Edwin Solano, the Marathon winger, and then trying to defend him one-on-one. Van Rankin doesn’t quite close down the space quick enough, allowing Solano to get a cross away for Brayan Castillo who is unmarked at the far post to calmly volley home.

Why was Castillo unmarked? Because Bravo was slow in tracking back, and doesn’t recognize that he needs to shift over and cover the far post until it’s too late. His tendency to set up in an advanced position creates the potential to get burned by an attacker if he doesn’t react quick enough, and that appears to be exactly what happened on Castillo’s goal.

The upshot is that these deficiencies can be corrected with time. Van Rankin’s individual defending will likely improve with familiarity with the rest of the back line, and Bravo will sure receive some coaching in training about tracking attackers and shifting to cover the back line. And the rest of the back line, along with the defensive midfield, will in turn familiarize themselves with both player’s tendencies and learn to cover for them.

So what we learned on Tuesday is that both Josecarlos Van Rankin and Claudio Bravo will be very natural fits for Portland’s attacking system, and have the capacity to be difference makers for the team moving forward. We also learned that as it stands, their tendencies can put the defense in a bind and on the back foot, and neither was able to properly cover for those tendencies.

If the Timbers wants to be successful in their second leg next week and advance, they’ll have to focus on amplifying the strengths of their new fullbacks while covering for their drawbacks. And if the team wants to be successful this year, they’ll have to hope that both players can grow to become more reliable defensive pieces while owning their roles as key attacking cogs.