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Three keys for the Timbers to stymie the Sounders

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The greatest rivalry in North American soccer heats up again on Sunday. Here’s what the Timbers have to do to get past the league leaders.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Soccer is a game where you have to have a short memory. Whether a match goes well or poorly, there’s always the next one coming soon, so a successful team and its players need to leave that result behind and focus on the next opponent.

The Portland Timbers will have to exercise that mindset this weekend. They have little time to lick their wounds from their Concacaf Champions League exit, as their biggest rivals the Seattle Sounders are coming to Providence Park on Sunday (kickoff set for 12 p.m. PST, broadcast on ABC).

Seattle is riding high, as they stand at the top of the table three weeks into this MLS season. With two home wins and a respectable road draw against LAFC, they remain undefeated. It will be a tough task, but here are three keys to the Timbers coming out on top and handing the Sounders their first loss of the season.

Watch the wingbacks

Seattle has shifted formations this season, and it has given them a brand new attacking identity. Long adherent to the school of 4-2-3-1, Sounders coach Brian Schemtzer has set up his team primarily in some variation a 3-5-2/ 3-4-1-2 this season. It has allowed them to make up for the loss of pace with Jordan Morris — who is out for the season with an ACL tear — and also allowed them to capitalize on their quality at the forward position by getting multiple strikers on the field.

Another huge advantage it has given Seattle is allowing them to bomb their wingbacks, normally Brad Smith and Alex Roldan, way up the field, and cause nightmares for defenses. The wingbacks provide the primary attacking width and pressure in Seattle’s buildup, and both players have proved very capable and creating shooting opportunities for the likes of Raul Ruidiaz up top.

Joe Lowery had a great writeup for MLS Soccer on what makes Seattle’s new formation so effective, which I am borrowing a bit from here. He points out that their wingbacks have been very effective at setting up shots with their passing, specifically in utilizing their width to stretch defenses. And it is inevitably leading to goals for Seattle.

All of the above means that Portland’s primary concern in shutting down Seattle’s attack has to be keeping track of Seattle’s wingbacks. The likes of Claudio Bravo, Josecarlos Van Rankin, and any defensive midfielder who rotates over for support have to be smart about when to press to ball and when to stay compact and track runners. If Portland steps too soon or gets stretched, then there’s room for Seattle’s forwards or a late runner to finish. Stay too narrow, and you allow the wingback to cut in and score, as Smith has done on two occasions this season. It’s a tricky challenge, and how well Portland handles it will go a long way to telling how well they do in the match.

Win the midfield battle, spring the attackers

Another key to Seattle’s formation revelation has been the role the midfield plays in combination play, in particular the role of Cristian Roldan. I’m again borrowing from Matthew Doyle’s analysis piece for MLS Soccer from last weekend, but he highlights how Roldan’s role as a floating facilitator allows Seattle to create overloads with their wingbacks. In addition, the ability of Roldan and others in the middle of the pitch to collect the ball and circulate it quickly to the wingbacks help keeps Seattle’s attack humming, and opposing defenses on their toes.

The Timbers will have to be prepared for those midfield combinations, and be primed to disrupt them. Putting pressure on Roldan et al in the buildup will force their wingbacks to stay honest, and not allow Portland’s wide areas to be exploited (which has been, uh, a problem for Portland thus far in 2021).

In addition, it allows Portland to exploit space in behind the midfield and backline of the Sounders. Seattle likes to push their midfield and center backs higher up the field in order to force turnovers and attack quickly. That’s space that the likes of Yimmi Chara or Dairon Asprilla can feast off of to get in behind the wingbacks, which is the main defensive weakness of the 3-5-2.

I don’t anticipate Seattle pushing their line as high on Sunday as they have in recent matches, but the balance in the midfield will still remain true. They will still look to create overloads in the attack, which will indeed mean there’s gaps to be found.

If Diego Chara and Eryk Williamson can win the midfield battle and Williamson and Diego Valeri can quickly spring attackers or drive at the Seattle defense, it will allow the Timbers to take advantage of those gaps and find scoring positions for their attackers.

Whoever starts at forward … score a goal please

Out of the twelve goals Portland has scored this season, only two have been scored by a center forward, one of those being a penalty.

That forward is Felipe Mora, and both of those goals have been in the CCL. Mora is still on the mark in league play, and despite having some quite good chances to score in the matches against Vancouver and Houston, he has yet to net for the Timbers against an MLS side in 2021.

There may be multiple reasons for his lack of production — fatigue due to unavailable players, a lack of competition at the moment, early season rust — but the fact remains that the position Portland is expecting to get goals from hasn’t been giving them thus far. Based on expected goals models, Portland’s has been leaving goals on the table, as you can see from the xG flow from Wednesday night’s CCL match:

The orange vertical lines are the measure of how likely a chance should have been a goal. You can see that outside of the penalty Portland had two fairly decent chances to put the ball in the net. They weren’t able to in either of them. Part of that falls on the feet of Portland’s attacking rotations, but part of it falls squarely at the feet of Felipe Mora for being unable to finish off his chances.

That has to change on Sunday if Portland wants to stand a chance. Whether it’s Mora or Jeremy Ebobisse up top on Sunday, somebody has to be better about finishing off plays. Portland has shown thus far in 2021 that they can create some pretty decent chances from the run of the play, and thus far their attacking Achilles’ heel has been their lack of sharpness to turn those chances into goals.

In order to put their CCL disappointment behind them, the Timbers will have to demonstrate that they have that decisive instinct to put the ball in the net, and a lot of that starts with the players leading the line. It may be obvious, but it’s still critical; if the Timbers want to have another fish gutting party in Portland, it starts and ends with scoring goals.