Let’s run back Sunday one more time, because gosh dang it felt good:
Alright, everyone enjoy that? Got your fill? Good - because it’s time to put it back on the shelf and move on.
That’s the job the Portland Timbers have to do Friday night when they travel to face the Houston Dynamo. The win in Seattle was a very good and gritty win which got the Timbers’ season off the mat. But it doesn’t mean much if Portland can’t capitalize on it and start building some momentum and consistency while continuing to earn positive results.
That all starts on Friday against a Dynamo team that hasn’t won since May. But don’t let the record fool you - Houston is still, as they have always been, a tricky out for Portland. The Timbers will have to go to a place they have literally never won an MLS match and play well if they hope to truly get their 2021 season back on track.
Here are three keys to them doing so:
Stay tight, stay focused
A major area of concern for the Timbers over 2021 has been their inability to apply enough pressure to opposing attackers, particularly in the midfield, and the ensuing gaps that form from poor defensive rotations.
Against Seattle on Sunday, Portland improved in both areas.
Below is Portland’s passing network from the away match against the Sounders. The numbers are the average positions on the field for each player and the thickness of lines between them represents the frequency of passes between players:
And here’s Seattle’s corresponding passing network. Take note of the lack of forward penetration, and how wide Seattle’s players had to stretch to find any kind of attacking purchase:
Contrast those with Portland’s passing network from their recent away outing against Austin FC, and Austin’s much more expansive corresponding passing network:
The first pair of passing networks is from a 2-0 win. The second pair is from a 3-1 loss. Austin was able to find and exploit the gaps Portland’s midfield that were made readily available. The midfield was more tight and alert in Seattle which made it more difficult for the Sounders to penetrate centrally.
Those passing networks demonstrate, at least in part, how Portland was able to get their midfield set up well (or at least better) in Seattle. The entire team stayed connected and compact.
Usual caveats apply here, such as this just being a data point of Portland’s performances and Seattle and Austin attacking in distinctly different ways. These passing networks are not indicative of Portland’s overall performance or defensive rotations.
But I think these networks do reflect part of a tactical setup and show the difference proper execution can make. Most importantly, they show that if the Timbers can remain tight and focused in their on-field balance, it leads to better defensive performances. And that is where any conversation of what will make Portland successful in Houston starts and ends.
A key part of that conversation is also...
Corner kicks - defend them better!
This one should be pretty obvious to everyone. The Timbers really need to defend corner kicks better. We all saw how many times Seattle came close to scoring off corner kicks on Sunday, and how many times Portland was saved by the fortunate intervention of the post or by a fortuitous placement of Diego Chara on the back post.
To put numbers to it, Seattle had eight headers toward the Timbers’ goal from dead ball situations on Sunday. Three of those hit the woodwork. Portland did benefit from a little luck in their last outing, but their set-piece defending, particularlly on corners kicks, left them open and susceptible.
Giovanni Savarese clearly understands this and has made it a point of emphasis for the team during the week. “We have to get better in some areas, especially on defending corners,” Savarese said in a press conference previewing Friday’s match.
On how the poor defending manifested and what can be done to start to improve it, Savarese shared, “I think we allowed [Seattle] to get [too easily] into some spaces. I think the coaching staff can do better as well, and I think [we need] a little bit more commitment from everyone to make that adjustment. Maybe a little bit more commitment to make sure we are better at those moments of defending set-pieces”
Portland improving and showing the commitment Savarese wants will be key to helping the Timbers keep the Dynamo off the scoresheet. A struggling team can often lean on set-pieces as a way to gain a foothold in a match and Portland doesn’t need to give Houston any favors on Friday night. The Timbers shouldn’t test lady luck again.
It would also be a huge help if Portland could try to...
Generate clear cut scoring chances - and, y’know, score them
Sunday’s win was a stereotypical “smash and grab” type game. Portland focused on limiting Seattle’s scoring opportunities and then sought to capitalize on any chances that came their way. Seattle’s defense was keen to oblige on Sunday, and Portland (specifically Felipe Mora) was more than happy to take advantage of their errors.
That type of game plan probably isn’t the most sustainable moving forward. Portland will need to generate its own offense in a somewhat reliable fashion if they are to find success in Houston.
The Dynamo has only been held scoreless at home once all season. Portland can stay compact in the midfield, but I suspect Houston will find the net at least once on Friday. So Portland will have to be prepared to respond in kind.
That becomes concerning when you look at Portland’s underlying attacking numbers on the road. Over their past five away games, Portland has averaged only 1.02 expected goals, according to FBref. Scoring on the road in MLS is hard (Seattle, who has the best away record in the league, is only averaging 1.26 xG). Portland has struggled to put in good road performances all year so it is of increasing importance that they generate good scoring opportunities, especially considering this anticipated situation against Houston.
Whether they create chances via wide play, or via a counter attack, like the ones that served Portland well in their last bout against Houston, the Timbers will have to put effort toward creating their own chances. Because if they want to make last week a true turning point, they won’t be able to do so by sitting on their heels.