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Stumptown Breakdown: Defensive compactness is key against Toronto FC

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier in the 2016 season, we saw a Portland Timbers team that unfortunately looked like there was no cohesion. There were issues with the team being stretched, losing runners, and just overall, lacking organization. With eleven days since their last match against San Jose, the Timbers midfield and backline improved upon this in their match on Wednesday night versus the New England Revolution, a theme that will have to continue on Sunday against Toronto FC.

Similar to Toronto FC, the New England squad is known for their strong attacking midfield play. In New England, you have the likes of Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, and Diego Fagundez; in Toronto, you have Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco, and Jonathan Osorio. In the two matches, it is imperative that the Timbers back six, especially the center four, remain tight to help congest the center of the pitch. On Wednesday night on the road, at times, the Timbers excelled at limiting space and getting pressure on the ball. In other instances, the shifts in lines were slow, allowing for New England to create chances and score the tying goal.

Even in the first couple minutes of the match, you could see the focus of Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury cutting down the space around New England’s playmakers.

On this quick counterattack, after some small combinations, you can Lee Nguyen start to breakout, potentially leading to an opportunity. However, as this frame shows, you see Chara and Jewsbury quickly working back applying pressure and the center backs, specifically Nat Borchers, stepping into the space to force Nguyen into a turnover. Diego Chara during his time in Portland has always been known for his continuous hard work and hounding of opposing attackers. Early in the game, it was encouraging to see the whole defensive unit take on that role as well, as well as working as a full unit in the pressure applying.

Later on in the game, the midfield duo partnered with Borchers again to snuff out a "1, 2" on the top of the box between Juan Agudelo and Diego Fagundez. Looking below, the three players, five if you include Zarek Valentin and Jermaine Taylor, are compact when close to goal, not allowing any space for runners.

After New England worked its way to the "D," Jewsbury made sure he tracked Fagundez’ run into the box, while Borchers applied the pressure on Agudelo. The result, a pass hit into Borchers’ shins and a chance initially denied. We have seen times in the past and later on in this game, players not tracking runners in the box: a cardinal sin for defending in the area.  This great work by Captain Jack will need to continue on Sunday against Toronto FC as Giovinco specializes in runs and opportunities like this.

While there were drastic improvements from games past in defensive tracking and compactness, the Timbers still have to continue to focus on their positioning and marking. In the first half, a great chance arose for New England due to the lack of shifting by the defense.

After a run by JeVaughn Watson into the box, due to rotations, the Timbers left Kelyn Rowe open on the top of the box for a shot. Looking at the image below, you can see the space that opens up around the box after Chris Klute was beaten by Watson.

The first thing you notice is how close Borchers and Taylor are: they are sitting on the same man at the top of the six-yard box.  Generally, compactness is positive in a CB pairing. However, while you are in a danger period, you do not need two men on one guy. If Taylor’s original position is more towards the corner of the 6, he can be the man that confronts Taylor, allowing Klute to get back into position. While Taylor takes that position, it eliminates the need for Jewsbury’s cover, allowing him to stay on Rowe and snuffing out the original opportunity.

With the original positioning, other shifts could have occurred to eliminate the shot. The ideal move would be to have Chara slide more towards Jewsbury to provide his cover on Rowe. While he originally starts marking Nguyen in the box, Rowe is the most pressing danger. If he takes that position five yards to his left, it denies Rowe’s opportunity for a shot.  If there are any worries that Watson could find Nguyen on the back post with a ball, any pass over that distance would allow the Timbers to shift across and get into position. In the game, Rowe takes a touch that allows Chara to apply some pressure. On Sunday, a player like Giovinco will be more than willing to hit a ball first time from that distance and punish the Timbers like he did last year in Toronto.

Finally, the goal is another prime example of the Timbers being too late on a shift, similar to the instance above. This time, it cost them the three points on the road.

First in the sequence, as soon as the ball is dropped back to Kelyn Rowe, the entire defense should have been shifting forward, sneaking their way to the top of the 18. That call should be demanded by Jake Gleeson in goal as well as Borchers and Taylor. By not compacting the space, it leaves Chara on an island covering two men. With a matter of steps, he could have been helped out, potentially eliminating the chance. Since Diego Chara is worried about the two players as opposed to just Rowe, he lays off of the UCLA product, allowing him to pick up his head and find Watson on the back post.  Michael Bradley has made a career off of hitting diagonal balls like this from Kelyn Rowe. It is crucial that the Timbers apply pressure in these areas in Portland to deny the USMNT captain those opportunities.

The other core issue in the sequence is the lack of awareness following JeVaughn Watson's run at the back post. Unfortunately, the goal scorer Jack Barnby is left completely unaware as the outside man here and Watson slips in behind and volleys the cross setting up the tying own goal. As a defender, you must always keep your head on a swivel and Barnby appears to never even check over his back shoulder to see if there is a man behind him. Good teams and good players will punish you for ball watching if you do it. Giovinco and Jozy Altidore have the ability and knowledge to peel off the back shoulder and get into blind spots. The Timbers' defense must be aware of all the players for the full 90 minutes on Sunday at Providence Park.

The attacking front of Toronto FC should be a good test for the Timbers defensive unit. Look for them to play similarly to New England with combinations coming forward. Borchers and Taylor will be relied upon to organize the group at home and keep the team's shape with Chara and Jewsbury most likely holding down the fort in front.