The Timbers have played seven pre-season matches ahead of Saturday's MLS regular-season opener against the Philadelphia Union. In those games, Portland gave up four goals; two from set pieces and two from penalty kicks. While the concern over set-piece defending has unfortunately carried over from last season---and fans are certainly justified in discussing those concerns---one element has gotten slightly lost in the shuffle (despite the best efforts of Caleb Porter): the squad's run-of-play defense.
Portland hardly gives up chances in the run-of-play, let alone goals, but that fact has been somewhat overshadowed by their generosity in giving up goals from free kicks and corners. The Timbers really are quite stout when it comes to defending (they led the league last season with 15 shutouts, and were second in goals allowed) and Vancouver's penalty from the final tune-up match this past Sunday may provide us with a interesting look at just how much has to happen for an opponent to get even a chance on goal.
The video above is set to begin with the substitution of Ben Zemanski for Maxi Urruti in the 77th minute. This wrinkle is introduced first because it created an adjustment to the lineup that we haven't seen in quite some time. Zemanski paired with Chara in the defensive mid spot and pushed Will Johnson up to the "Valeri Role." It was a curious adjustment for Porter to make as we got a glimpse of that last season in one match and Johnson didn't exactly impress in the #10 spot.
Now, it's not to say that the Timbers can't play with Johnson in the attacking midfield position, but they're certainly not used to it and it's probably not purely coincidental that Vancouver scored their lone goal just two minutes after this particular lineup change. This becomes Portland's first gift to Vancouver.
So Zemanski comes in and a few seconds later Norberto Paparatto intercepts a Whitecaps pass. For those who have been watching throughout the pre-season, you're aware that Papa's distribution has probably been the biggest knock against him thus far. His (perhaps understandable) lack of ability to connect with his new teammates rears it's ugly head again and Paparatto awkwardly tries to clear the ball with the outside of his right foot after looking around nervously for an outlet (incidentally, Zemanski does very little to help Paparotto out). Gift #2.
Vancouver establishes possession and then does something rarely seen by Timbers opponents: they hit a slide-rule pass into the feet of a forward by splitting the holding center mids. In this instance it's Chara and Zemanski, but whatever the pairing, it's fairly uncommon to play a ball between the two into a forward who's found the pocket of space between the midfield and defense. That pocket of space is usually inaccessible to teams trying to play near or through Portland's holding mid pairing. Gift #3.
Next up are the center backs, Kah and Paparatto. Kah gets caught in no-man's land and one touch is all it takes to sidestep him. Papa attempts to stop the ball with some stand-up, 1v1 defending, but he bites on a fake, falls to one knee and needs to resort to a push to mildly impede the onrushing attacker. Gifts #4 and #5.
All is not lost however, for Jack Jewsbury is back to close down on Vancouver's Kekuta Manneh who has received a pass on the left side of the penalty area. Manneh uses nothing more than quickness to get by Jewsbury and to the endline---gift #6.
But after all that, the Whitecaps still haven't found a goal--they haven't even found a shot. But Jewsbury slides from behind and is judged to have taken Manneh down, for which the visitors are awarded a PK.
Even after all that, Vancouver wasn't assured anything, as Ricketts nearly stopped the spot attempt from Sebastian Fernandez (and was visibly upset at himself for not doing so). We'll call that gift # 6.5.
What's it all mean? It means it takes a lot to get one by the Timbers (if it's not on a set piece, that is). Vancouver needed quite a few bits of help from the Timbers to get themselves just an opportunity, and even then they weren't assured of anything. Regardless of how much complaining you've done last season until now about Portland's ability to defend set pieces, you should have no such concerns about their run-of-play form.