Since the transformation of the Portland Timbers’ lineup and formation last year, there have been some incredible games where fans have witnessed movement and passing that few teams can match in the MLS, just like we saw against Toronto FC on May 1st at Providence Park. Unfortunately, on the flip side, we have also seen the Green and Gold struggle with teams who compact the midfield and defense, just like the Vancouver Whitecaps did on Saturday. As a result, we saw two different results, with the Timbers being on opposite sides of 2-1 score lines.
Against Toronto FC, the Portland Timbers and fans were treated to a maestro performance from Diego Valeri as he returned from his one-game suspension. One of Valeri’s strongest attributes as a player is his ability to combine with his teammates in small areas to get out of pressure points. We have seen him do this time after time at Providence Park, often with dangerous results. Early on in the Sunday match was no different.
The Timbers' first goal came off of more combination play involving Valeri. In the 17th minute, Valeri combined with the two left-sided players on the day, Chris Klute and Darren Mattocks, to help set up Adi's goal. Starting with some smart work in the corner, Valeri and Klute combined around Toronto's Steven Beitashour and Marky Delgado resulting in Valeri cutting in on the top of the 18-yard box.
Valeri found Mattocks at the top of the box, who slyly returned the ball to the forward running Argentinian. Valeri's movement behind the Toronto defense took advantage of those who were ball-watching. The Timbers' maestro was able to receive the ball deep in the box and he smartly picked out Fanendo Adi for an easy tap-in and a Timbers' lead. With movement like this around the box, it constantly forces the defense to be aware and alter their shape to keep with the runners. If they do not, spaces open up and opportunities arise. The first goal illustrated the importance of movement and selfless play, something that fans can hope continues from their team.
In addition to his ability to run off the ball, Valeri opened up the Toronto FC defense countless times with his vision. Here in the first half, we find Valeri being compressed by three TFC defenders in the midfield third. With his first and second touch, he is able to get out of the triangular pressure and find the speedy Melano on a run into the far corner.
For a team like the Timbers, who have thrived on their ability to absorb some pressure from their opponents and then breakout with pace, a player like Valeri and his vision is crucial to their success. This is just one example from the game, but Valeri was able to consistently find the runs of Mattocks, Adi, and Melano during the afternoon, helping relieve the pressure on the defense and helping the Timbers breakout with pace.
The movement and quick combinations that Diego Valeri, and the rest of the team for that matter, exhibited so well against Toronto FC seemed to disappear against the Whitecaps in Vancouver for a majority of the game. It was there at times, including a great goal scored by Nat Borchers, but too often, the play was lacking energy, passing was slow, and the players were stagnant.
The goal that the Timbers scored was a quality example of the combinations and attacking that was on exhibit during the Toronto FC game. Darlington Nagbe drove at the heart of the Vancouver defense with pace and vigor. Adi checked into space away from his defender and offered a quality flick into space for Nagbe to run back onto and the move finished with Borchers tucking the ball away at the back post. It was a creative move that was done with pace, not a methodical build up with no motives.
This was not the norm for the game, however. Too often, the Timbers chose the wrong pass or forced the ball into the wrong situations. In the first half, we saw Liam Ridgewell play Chara into high pressure from Masato Kudo that resulted in a quality goal-scoring opportunity for the Whitecaps.
While playing the around the back, there is no reason that Ridgewell should play Chara in that situation. As you can see in the image, the Whitecaps came high with both Kudo and Nicolás Mezquida. With the two 'Caps players high and in the center of the field, that means that there is some space in behind them or to the sides of them. Ridgewell could have used the left flank to attack the space, hit a switch to Borchers on the other side of the field, or found Jake Gleeson as a release valve. Instead, he forced the ball into Chara's feet, where the Whitecaps' pressure focused. The pressured pass was the wrong decision.
Later on in the second half, we saw the Timbers break out with a great 3 vs 2 opportunity with Melano, Nagbe, and Valeri on the counterattack. In a numbers up opportunity, with a chance to extend their lead, the Timbers needed a better outcome than a blocked cross for a corner kick.
Instead of taking on his man with his pace, or finding the simple slip ball through to Nagbe, Melano attempted to play the difficult clip ball into Valeri behind the defense. This play was all too symptomatic of the overall performance in the match. The Timbers seemed to lack cohesion on the ball. There were too many times where the passes the players chose were the wrong ones. Either the players were trying to do too much on the ball and playing difficult passes, instead of finding the easy option and then working to run off of that pass, or they were forcing the ball into tight situations which were destined for turnovers.
Since switching to their new formation with Nagbe joining Valeri and Chara in the midfield, the Timbers have been a team that combines and counters so well. We saw it on display on Sunday against Toronto FC, where they were ruthless with their attacks. On Saturday, against their Cascadia rivals, the Timbers lacked the edge to break down the Vancouver defense. We have seen the Timbers perform at that high level, it now just seems to be a matter of doing it with consistency.