The Portland Timbers come into tomorrow's match against Real Salt Lake with a big hole in the center of the pitch; three of the team's five holding midfielders are out injured, leaving Diego Chara and George Fochive as the team's only fully healthy options at the position. Ben Zemanski, despite making strides in recent weeks, is still recovering from his torn ACL, Will Johnson is working his way back from a surgery to remove the screws put in his tibia after breaking his leg last September, and Jack Jewsbury, who was expected to play alongside Chara in the midfield, suffered an unspecified foot injury and is "uncertain" for the upcoming match.
So, the Timbers find themselves with three options: play Diego Chara and George Fochive at holding midfield, play Diego Chara and someone else at holding midfield, or switch things up entirely and go with just a single defensive midfielder for the match. The safe bet is Chara and Fochive -- although that will leave the Timbers with either nobody or Nick Besler as the team's reinforcements on the bench -- and the Timbers have generally been a safe bet kind of team when it comes to changing things up this year, but if there was ever a time to bet big it is now, with the season hanging in the balance.
Diego Chara and George Fochive
The problem with this particular approach is that we have seen it before and the results were uneven at best. The pair played together in a three game run early in the Timbers' season: the 2-1 road loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps, 3-1 home win against FC Dallas, and 2-0 home loss to Orlando City SC. All three results are far removed from the Timbers' current worries, and Fochive has certainly improved his game since then, but let's take a look at them and what worked or what didn't in each match.
Against the Whitecaps, in the Timbers' first loss of the 2015 season, Fochive and Chara were at the center of one of the Timbers' few forays into an out and out 4-4-2, leaving Fochive as primarily a defensive shield ahead of the back line and Chara in a more free-roaming mode. Unfortunately, it was this high-low set up that lead to the Whitecaps' first goal of the match. With Chara committed high up the pitch, Whitecaps striker Octavio Rivero was able to get the ball down with Fochive between him and goal then turn on the inexperienced midfielder -- this was Fochive's second MLS start -- before being taken down a few yards outside the box by Fochive when he tried to recover. From there all it took was a curled free kick from Nicolas Mezquida to put the 'Caps up. As the game went on the pairing solidified, but never quite took control of the match, particularly with Fochive getting caught up field alongside Chara on several occasions, betraying his box to box tendencies and eventually getting him pulled in the 75th minute as the Timbers went for the win. Of course, the move would backfire in the final minutes in the match as the Timbers' gave up the game winner when a terrible bit of miscommunication between center backs Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers put Robert Earnshaw in on goal one on one.
The next week saw the Timbers grab the team's first win of the season as they beat top-of-the-league FC Dallas 3-1, again with Chara and Fochive in the center of the pitch. This match again featured a 4-4-2 formation from the Timbers. Again the Timbers saw Chara playing up high and Fochive down low, but, with Dallas missing their star No. 10, Mauro Diaz, and their defensive midfielders struggling to control the center of the pitch, Chara was able to spend most of his time on the ball, rather than chasing it, a situation that paid immediate dividends for the Timbers. With Chara and Darlington Nagbe pulling the strings in the center of the pitch, the Timbers put in their most effective attacking match of the season, pinning FCD back for large stretches or hitting them quickly on the break. Late in the game Chara's ability to put on high defensive pressure paid off even more directly as he and Fanendo Adi managed to turn over the Dallas back line and go on the break, with Chara simply slipping a ball into the corner of the net for his only goal of the year so far. In this one it was the Timbers ability to keep Dallas on the back foot and keep pressure off Fochive that allowed the team to thrive. When asked to step up, Fochive was equal to the task in this one, ally cleaning up the fractured Dallas attack.
The final match that the pair played together, the 2-0 loss to Orlando, is, unfortunately, the one that most stands out in the memory of Timbers fans. Losses at home are rare, but it was the extent to which the Timbers' midfield was dissected by Kaka and company that makes this one stick out. Chara and Fochive are, by nature, aggressive players and even though Fochive had taken a more defensive role in his previous appearances a player like Kaka on a team with a good game plan can certainly take advantage of that, particularly without a player who is more prone to organizing the midfield like Jewsbury or Johnson. Throughout the first half of the match, the Timbers found themselves repeatedly out of sorts as the Orlando attack would spread the ball around the pitch, pull Chara and Fochive out wide, then make use of the vacated space in the center of the pitch to create dangerous chances for the side. The failure to adjust from Chara and Fochive was apparent and Fochive was pulled in the 45th minute for Jewsbury, who would stake his claim to the spot until the return of Johnson several months later.
While Fochive has certainly grown as a player since these matches, it is hard to tell if the issue that most plagued the pairing, the similarity of their most basic styles of play, has changed at all. If the pair are going to work together against RSL, the Timbers will need a strong and effective midfield, particularly one able to deal with quick and inventive play high up the pitch from players like Javier Morales, Sebastian Jaime, and Joao Plata. To that end, the Timbers know what they are going to get out of Chara, but how Fochive has been able to adapt his game to playing alongside Chara rather than a player like Jewsbury will determine how this pairing might work out this time around.
The Single Pivot
Since Caleb Porter took over the Timbers back in 2013, the team has played with a pair of defensive midfielders. For just as long there have been calls for a single pivot -- a single holding midfielder in the mold of RSL's Kyle Beckerman -- in the midfield. Who that should be has never quite been decided on by the disparate voices calling for the change; Chara is perhaps the most common nominee, but there have been calls for Johnson, Jewsbury, and Zemanski as well.
There are plenty of reasons why the Timbers have not given this a try so far, but the only one that has been remarked on by Porter came all the way back in 2013 when he told the press that with players of the quality of Johnson, Chara, Nagbe, Diego Valeri, and others in the side, the double pivot got the team's best players on the pitch. It was only a brief statement, but it highlights the central problem for the Timbers: Johnson and Chara, when healthy, are both excellent midfielder and both are capable of playing all over the midfield, but both are also hard to define in terms of where they should play.
Johnson is a tenacious and committed defender, but has shown over the years that he has a strong attacking bent as well, both in his late arriving runs out of the midfield for the Timbers and during his time with Real Salt Lake when he made regular appearances out wide on the left wing. Chara, meanwhile, is a player who, no matter where he plays, seems to be getting on the ball; whether harrying the opposition on defense or providing the outlet in the center of the pitch for this team's break out, Chara tends to be everywhere and his skill set can translate to any position on the pitch.
At the same time, neither player's skills quite match up with what a team typically needs out of a lone holding midfielder. In a single pivot, the defensive midfield needs to provide support for the defense and distribution in the attack, structure on defense and vision for the attack. Chara, while providing definite grit on defense, tends toward a more wide ranging style of play that could result in some unfortunate matches in the center of the pitch if he leaves his space. On the attack Chara is certainly effective, but his best moments tend to come on the break, rather than playing an unlocking pass from deep within the Timbers' half after recovering the ball. Short and simple are Chara's bread and butter on the ball, but, as we have seen this year, his long passing game is not consistent.
Johnson, meanwhile, is a little closer to the Platonic ideal of a single pivot holding midfielder: he tends to be somewhat more positionally restricted and has the vision and the accuracy and the vision to spring long passes and distribute well from the back without being restricted to a slow build. Still, Johnson's tendency to hold the ball for just a little too long under pressure, revealed this season as he has been a step slower while coming back from the broken tibia and fibula he suffered last year, and occasional but regular misplaced short passes are real problems for a lone holding midfielder.
Fochive, who has been decidedly outside this conversation until perhaps his most recent appearances, might have the skills and mentality to split the difference between Johnson and Chara, but his inexperience makes him a scary prospect for the team to lean on in a position that is central to how a team utilizing it operates.
Beyond the question of who would be the ideal single pivot, however, lies the question of what to do with the player displaced by the switch. The simple truth of this match is that, if the Timbers were ever to deploy such a set up, this match and the team's bevy of injured midfielders eliminates that question, allowing the team to potentially play a 4-4-2 diamond or a 4-1-4-1 or whatever other option Porter might come upon without worrying where Johnson or Chara might be slotted in as the team tries to keep their best players on the pitch.
The Mystery Partner
The final option, and realistically the least likely one, is to partner another player with Diego Chara in the center of the pitch. This is another instance where any number of players have been put forward as possibilities to line up in the center of the pitch. Potential converted holding midfielders include Norberto Paparatto, Rodney Wallace, and regular calls from a vocal minority for Nagbe.
None of the above seem terribly likely. Paparatto and Wallace both have experience playing in defensive midfield roles earlier in their careers, but since moving him to the wing in early 2013 Porter has not shown any inclination toward putting Wallace back in the holding midfield spot and Paparatto has not so much as sniffed the center of the pitch except on his occasional runs forward with the ball out of the back line. Nagbe has deployed in a position somewhat along these lines with some regularity this year, but that has universally been when the Timbers are chasing the game and looking to get as many attacking players forward as possible.
Paparatto, an aggressive ball winner with surprisingly good passing out of the back, could make for an intriguing holding midfielder for the Timbers and perhaps should even be mentioned in the above discussion of potential midfielders in the single pivot, but the wight of history is against a big change like this even more so than any of the other potential changes that Porter could make.
What do you think the Timbers will do against Real Salt Lake? What do you think they should do? Did you actually read all of this?