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Through the Looking Glass: Back to Square One

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While the phrase "back to square one" was associated with soccer more in the old days, when the pitch was split into a smaller number of 'boxes', than it is now, it is still a worthy reflection on how the Portland Timbers should consider playing in order to win today.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Most should be aware that in 2013 the Timbers were a possession-based team that controlled the game by controlling the ball. That is no longer the case.

Of the top five teams in MLS soccer this year, based on points per game, only two exceed 50% possession on average; that team up north and the Red Bulls of New York have both held the majority of the possession in their games this year. Meanwhile, the FC Dallas, D.C. United, and New England Revolution averages are just 45.4%, 49.8%, and 49% possession, respectively.

When only looking at winning efforts, that team up north actually averages below 50% possession (49.96%) and the Red Bulls average 50.98%.

When looking at the rest of the top ten teams, again looking exclusively at wins, only the Columbus Crew (54.4%) actually exceed 51% possession.

All told, if you want to win in MLS this year then you need to have a quick counterattacking capability while playing deeper in defending: all of which is intended to increase opportunity given the opponent making mistakes in attacking.

Said another way: the teams who like to possess the ball, to control the ball, to control the game, are more likely to lose in MLS this year.

Go figure.

So why did Portland look to try to play a higher press and control more of the game against the craftily led Dynamo team of Owen Coyle, a manager who has VAST experience in winning games where his team does not possess the ball a whole lot?

I'm not sure.

Walking through the goals against in the Timbers' 3-1 loss to the Houston Dynamo:

1-0 Houston: Alvas Powell made a rash tackle as he was out of position given the style of penetration by Houston; (when you make lots of tackles it is likely some of them will not be good ones) hence lots of tackles is NOT always a good thing.

So is it worthy for some media types, particularly on the telly, to keep talking about how good it is that Powell leads the league in tackles?

The ensuing free kick sees one of the tallest and slowest Dynamo attackers getting a clear (free) header.

2-1 Houston: The back six - which should have been the back eight with all four midfielders and all four defenders given the time Houston had possession in the Timbers defending final third - were left watching and scrambling while Houston had a kick-about in the Timbers 18 yard box.

In essence, given the proximity of the goal mouth the Timbers simply did not clog the 18 yard box with midfielders and defenders. It's highly likely that any time an opponent has a four-on-four in the 18 yard box they will score as opposed to seeing their shot blocked.

A low-block defensive posture almost ensures you'll have at least six people defending inside the 18 yard box when the opponent has four attackers; no low-block, means no clogging the 18 yard box, and an increased chance the opponent will score.

3-1 Houston: Nat Borchers is caught flat-footed (about the only way Will Bruin actually blows past anyone) as he watches Alvas Powell slightly miss a flick on back to Adam Kwarasey. What's not offered there is the slightly higher positioning that Borchers has as that long ball was offered by Jermaine Taylor, well deep within the Houston midfield.

***

As for all that possession the Timbers had, let's not forget that up until the 85th minute the Timbers had just three shots taken: one off target at the 40 minute mark, one blocked at the 30 minute mark and one goal scored at the 48 minute mark.

In other words, for a considerable amount of the game the Timbers had considerable possession with no purpose.

Some may view this as a bit harsh, but a clear wake up call is needed in order to see this team play a FULL 90+ minutes of mistake free football.

And, for me, it's not just about an isolated mistake by one, two, five or six Timbers players, it appears to have been the wrong tactical approach and the brace by Bruin only serves to be an end-state example of just how bad the tactical nuance of this game was.

As for the humidity - bollocks - and shame on KPTV and others for going on and on and on about the heat and humidity.

Questions need to be asked; not just in attacking but defending. The game plan didn't work.

The Timbers need to fix this, and fix this quickly.

Best, Chris