A few times each season I end up covering the other team in a Timbers game for an out-of-town publication or website. Such was the case on Saturday night, so here are a few things I noticed about Portland while watching Philadelphia.
There was some question going into Saturday night's game as to exactly how the Philadelphia Union would arrange its central midfield. John Hackworth opted for look that very much resembles Portland's 4-2-3-1 set up, with Maurice Edu and Brian Carroll set deep and Cristian Maidana free to move about in an attacking role. While it would be an oversimplification to say the Union arrived ready to play the same style as the Timbers, the bodies in midfield made life difficult for Portland in the way that Caleb Porter likes to attack his opponents.
What that frequently meant was pulling Will Johnson and/or Diego Chara just far enough forward to slip Maidana in behind to create chances between midfield and defense. The lure of space between Maidana and the Edu/Carroll pairing seemed to draw Johnson and particularly Chara into a bit of a no-man's land. The set up required strong play by Philadelphia's center backs Amobi Okugo and Austin Berry, but when they were able to squeeze out service to Portland's advanced players, suddenly there was extra space for counter attacking in quick bursts.
Maidana was so successful in beating either of Portland's central midfielders off the dribble that those quick bursts frequently became dangerous situations and eventually Porter had to recall Michael Harrington for extra defensive cover. To be fair, the Timbers successfully dealt with the Union's transitions, only allowing a goal on a set piece. But the threat was very real, especially in the instances when Edu could get forward to join in the attack. The 20th minute sequence that led to Maidana and Le Toux (though Edu was offside before his lay off) shots is a perfect example of how even while employing what amounts to a six-man defense, the Timbers were still unable to account for the Union's four attackers, plus Edu.
The effectiveness of the Union's central midfield, until Carroll's disastrous touch to end the game, neutralized what is so often Portland's strength. Philadelphia could have, and probably should have won the game at Providence Park. The natural question is whether or not Hackworth's arrangement is a template for how to disrupt the Timbers going forward. Though the same question was asked after the San Jose Earthquakes' win in the Rose City Invitational. There is no single way to defeat Portland, let alone one every single team in the league can effectively employ. But on a night where the attacking combinations were just a bit off and the defensive cover was spread a bit thin, the risks were certainly visible, even if few in Portland thought Philadelphia would be the team to expose them.