Portland Timbers 2 completed their two-game California road trip on Saturday night as they took on a red-hot Fresno FC team that hasn’t lost in their last six matches.
The last time they played the Foxes, Smith scored a late equalizer to snatch an important home point. On Saturday night, it didn’t go as well for T2 as they fell victim to the home sides’ fast, precise, and deadly counter-attacks in a 2-1 defeat.
There would be no late equalizer this time. Ryan Sierakowski nicked a goal for T2 early in the second half, but it wasn’t enough as they fell to the dynamic Foxes in a high tempo match.
Ramon Del Campo (6’)
The Foxes broke through early, scoring the opening goal off of a set-piece. With men skewed towards keeper Aljaz Ivacic’s right in a zonal marking scheme, Del Campo was able to find enough space to flick in a low header to the far post before Ivacic could react.
It was a disappointing goal to concede so early in the game and it left T2 fighting an uphill battle throughout the rest of the night.
Arun Basuljevic (19’)
It only took about ten minutes for Fresno to double their lead via an amazing piece of solo play that beat Ivacic to his top right corner.
The Foxes went route one as keeper C.J Cochran sent a direct ball three-quarters up the field to forward Jaime Chavez. Chavez then laid-off the ball to Basuljevic who completely juked Nathan Smith before taking a touch away from goal and firing it into the top corner.
It was a magnificent piece of skill by the young midfielder that put T2 in a significant two-goal hole. With over sixty minutes to go, there was still plenty of time remaining to get back into the game, but giving up such a direct, three-pass goal was surely a shot to the players’ confidence.
Ryan Sierakowski (47’)
Basuljevic’s goal may have been demoralizing, but it didn’t completely sink T2, and the team came out and showed that right after the break.
This time it was T2 going direct. The play started right after a Fresno player hit the post after being alone with Ivacic. The ball was sent forward by Max Ornstil and corralled by Foster Langsdorf who did a great job of bringing the ball down in traffic before playing it through to a charging Sierakowski who slotted the ball home.
Langsdorf did well to control the ball in that situation, but what made the play was Sierakowski’s run which comes from deeeeeep in the midfield and catches his marker in midfield by surprise. It was a great team goal and one that allowed T2 to find their way back into the game after nearly going down by three goals.
Pushing too far up
T2 is a team that enjoys out-possessing their opponent. In a tight game, they would much rather probe the opposing defense in search of a line-breaking pass versus sitting back and waiting for the play to get to them. It’s a sound strategy that has been proven capable of carrying T2 to a win, but maybe an away game against Fresno FC wasn’t the best time to employ it. The Foxes are one of the best teams in the league when it comes to breaking on the counter, and they made T2 pay the price.
T2 out-possessed Fresno 55.9 percent to 44.1 percent, but they often played into their opponent’s hands as they frequently got caught up in possession way too high in their attacking half, especially in the first half. When T2 turned the ball over in possession, the Foxes were already on the break and frankly should have put a few more goals into the back of the net.
Shown below is Fresno’s chalkboard map from the first half. As you can see, most of their balls were played long, often-direct, and forward. However, it can also be observed that they didn’t connect on many passes in their own attacking third and that’s what T2 seemed to exploit in the second half. Instead of playing for possession, coach Cameron Knowles had his team sit back more and launch balls forward. While that strategy led to more turnover of possession, it proved to be effective as that’s how they got their goal while also taking away some of Fresno’s most dangerous opportunities.
At the end of the day, if T2 want to play with heavy possession against a team that likes to counter, they will need to be able to find that killer final ball; on Saturday night they just weren’t able to.
Lack of continuity
T2 have seemed to form a lot of worrying trends in their recent six-game winless streak, but the biggest issue seems to be their lack of continuity. What sucks is that continuity is one of the only things that the team cannot fully control.
Being a feeder team to a bigger MLS side has its advantages. Being able to field a team’s brightest young prospects is great, and they often have a great infrastructure built up. The biggest downside is that when a player really performs well, he will most likely be called up, leaving the USL side without some of its best players at a moments notice. This is not an issue that an independent club like Fresno FC faces. While this may be a great tool for an entire organization and is much preferable to having young players stagnate in the second-division, it undoubtedly hurts the USL side.
In their 19 matches so far, thirteen different players have scored which speaks to the lack of focus on any one player. Asprilla has six goals, Brayan Hurtado has five, Modou Jadama has four; none of those players played against Fresno.
Continuity helps any team, but it is especially important for T2 as their offense relies on build-up play and finding a line-breaking pass. With similar lineups, the players will know one another’s runs and will more frequently be on the same page.
Obviously, continuity isn’t a possibility, so Knowles will have to find some way-- perhaps tactically-- to play winning soccer despite a lack of continuity. For a team that has scored just two goals in its last three games, that will need to be a focus as the players look for their first win in over a month.
Fighting an uphill battle
At first, it was a hiccup, then it was a worry, and now it’s an unwelcome trend. In each of the past four games, T2 has given up the opening goal.
While it might not be the biggest of problems, it does not help to begin each game on the back foot while being forced to react to the opponent instead of dictating their play. Going back to the theme of the night, T2 is a team that enjoys having possession, a tactic that relies on being in control of the game. However, T2 hasn’t led in over 298 minutes and have been forced to react a lot. Throughout the season, T2 has been at their best when they have a comfortable lead and can dictate play.
The worst part of consistently falling behind early is the fact that it completely changes the team’s approach for the rest of the night. Conceding first allows the opponent to sit back and force T2 to make the next move; if they fail, they most likely will face a dangerous counter-attack as they did against the Foxes. This all comes back to square one and the point above: if T2 cannot find that killer final ball, they will have a hard time coming out on top on any given night.
T2 are now 0-4-1 in their last five games and find themselves in seventh place in the west after slipping down another three places. They will play again next Sunday at Providence Park against Los Angeles Galaxy 2 with kickoff slated for 6 p.m.
“We’ve got to get back in the win column and there’s no better place to do it than at home,” Knowles said after the game. “Once we get it going again, we’re going to be a very dangerous team coming into the latter part of the season.”