Three weeks ago, Lucas Melano was the talk of Portland, but for mostly wrong reasons. There was a buzz about the Argentinian returning to his home country on either a loan or transfer. Fans, including myself, were critical of his play at times, pointing about his inability to constantly stay involved in the game. All this was capped off by his ineffective performance against the Chicago Fire in a game where the team needed him to step up. However, after two goals in two games and a strong second half against the Houston Dynamo where he was dynamic and dangerous, Melano seems to be finding his footing in the Rose City.
After their erratic first half, the Timbers found themselves down 2-0 coming out of the locker room and needing to be on the offensive foot a bit more in an effort to get back in the game. Fans saw a team that was willing to commit numbers into the attack a bit more. They saw a small shift in formation by Caleb Porter and the Timbers by sliding Darren Mattocks into a bit more of a central role right alongside Fanendo Adi. But most importantly, and encouragingly, the Timbers Army saw Lucas Melano with more free range all over the field instead of his winger position where he is so often used for the Green & Gold. If you look at the passing layout for Melano's involvement over the two halves, you can see this illustrated.
As you can see from the two comparing pictures, Lucas Melano's movement was all over the pitch in the second half, not just centralized to the right wing like in the first half. With Melano's speed and technical ability, it makes sense to have him popping up all over because he can be a handful when he finds the holes in a defense. If he is just placed on one side, not only does he not consistently become involved in the play, but he becomes the sole focus of one player. In the first half, DeMarcus Beasley was not foraging forward like we used to seem him do for the United States National Team; he was watching Melano closely, essentially eliminating him from the game. In the second half, Melano was moving into the space in all areas.
From this centralized position, we also saw Lucas Melano beautifully time a run to be picked out by Diego Valeri and score the first goal in the Timbers' comeback.
With a great run across the Houston Dynamo defense to stay onside, Melano received the ball running towards goal and calmly slid it past the goalie. In games past, we have seen the Argentinian try to do a bit too much in instances like this, however, his poise here shows growing confidence in his finishing ability.
Additionally, if you look at the comparisons of the two halves, you see a Lucas Melano who is more often looking forward with the ball in the second half than in the first. In the first half, five of his 12 attempted passes when backward; whereas in the second half, three of his 13 passes retreated. While this can partially be attributed to the Timbers trailing the game, but it also illustrates the focus that Melano had on going forward with the ball. We saw him driving at opponents, putting them on the backfoot. He, along with the superb play from Diego Valeri, drove the Timbers forward for the result.
Ten minutes into the second half, we saw a great instance of Lucas Melano looking forward with the ball, finding Darren Mattocks on the counterattack, resulting in a quality scoring opportunity for the Jamaican forward.
In games past, we have seen Lucas Melano just drop that ball back to one of the defenders behind him and then recycle his run. In Sunday's second half, we saw him looking to beat or spin players and be a creator. Melano spun away from Jalil Anibaba and found Mattocks in the space with a 40-yard ball isolated with DeMarcus Beasley. Plays like this are incredibly encouraging to see from the young Argentinian and illustrate the ability he has to influence the game.
So what does this mean moving forward? Obviously, with Darlington Nagbe coming back from Copa America duty, the team will be likely to shift back to having him in the midfield. However, with Lucas Melano starting to hit stride, Caleb Porter could be tempted to shift him into the center of the field to play up top alongside Fanendo Adi. A possible result could be playing a 4-4-2 formation with a tight diamond midfield, similar to that of Real Salt Lake during their heyday. With fullbacks like Alvas Powell, Zarek Valentin, and Taylor Peay, who are athletic enough to get forward and back, the Timbers could rely on them to provide the width for the team.
Potential Future Lineup
Powell (Peay) - Borchers - Ridgewell - Valentin
Nagbe - - Zemanski
Adi - Melano
By sliding Melano into the center of the field, it is far more likely that the Argentinian will be involved in the game as opposed to out on the wing. As we have seen in games past, one of his biggest weaknesses is that he fades out of the game and struggles to find his way back into it. By playing alongside Adi and close to Valeri and Nagbe, Melano should be able to see a lot of the ball and in dangerous positions. Additionally, the addition of Ben Zemanski into the midfield in this formation allows for some additional cover for when Diego Chara or Nagbe maraud forward. A shift towards this formation could lead to a bit more of defensive stability providing some additional cover in the midfield in front of the back four. It will be an interesting decision to see what Caleb Porter decides to do moving forward into the summer and playoff push.