On July 4th, the Portland Timbers headed into Dick's Sporting Goods Park to take on the Colorado Rapids, the first place team in the Western Conference. With two of their leaders in Liam Ridgewell and Diego Valeri out due to injury, while also playing in one of the toughest environments in the MLS due to altitude, the Timbers turned in one of their best performances of the season, despite only leaving Denver with a point. While the game saw players like Fanendo Adi and Lucas Melano stand out on the attacking end, the highlight of the match was how organized the team was defensively, a point that has been an issue at times for the Timbers. Looking forward to this week's match on the road against the New York Red Bulls, the team must continue to build upon this positive result.
The Colorado Rapids play a tight 4-2-3-1 formation with an attacking four of Marlon Hairston, Jermaine Jones, Shkelzen Gashi, and Kevin Doyle all remaining pretty compact in the center of the field. They look to get their outside backs forward into the attack, however, they mostly look to combine and slip runners in through the middle. To counteract the strengths and goals of the Rapids, you saw a Timbers team that was extremely disciplined and organized in their defensive block. For most of the game, you saw a block of four defenders that remained inside the width of the 18-yard box with Diego Chara and Ben Zemanski stacked on top. With this alignment, it proved extremely hard for the Rapids to breakdown.
In the first half, you saw a great example of this defensive block being set up. As the Rapids launched a counter attack in the 16th minute, the ball was forced wide to Mekeil Williams and Alvas Powell stepped forward to apply the pressure.
As Powell steps out, you can see you have six other Timbers players behind the ball, including Darren Mattocks covering Powell's outside back position. As the ball is worked back across to the other side of the field, the defensive shape shifts while keeping compact and organized.
As the ball is worked over to his side, you see Lucas Melano tracking back into the defensive shape, committing to get behind the ball. Additionally, you see the two solid lines of four, the midfield and the defensive, finding their shape and spacing. When teams are organized like this, they are extremely difficult to breakdown. In this particular result, the Colorado Rapids ended up going backward with the ball and recycling their attack as they could not find any holes in the Portland shape.
In addition to the excellent Portland Timbers shape, the team's commitment, especially the attacking players, to tracking back and back pressing allowed for the team to win the ball numerous times from the Colorado Rapids. In circumstances where the ball was played through defensive lines, whether it's through the forwards or midfield, those players quickly turned and applied the pressure on the ball, making things difficult for the attackers.
In the second half, you saw a great example of this. While the Timbers were in their defensive shape, Jermaine Jones found the feet of Kevin Doyle just outside of the 18-yard box.
The response from the two midfielders here is excellent. Once the ball is played through their line, both Zemanski and Chara turn to apply pressure on Doyle.
As a result, Kevin Doyle's options are limited and Nat Borchers is able to win the ball off of him. Back pressure like this is extremely important, especially when a team is looking to play through the middle of the pitch like the Colorado Rapids. When players converge down on the attacking players, it limits their options, often forcing them to play bad passes or turn the ball over. While it requires commitment from everyone on the field, when successful, like the game on Monday, it is extremely difficult to break down.
As the Portland Timbers look forward to their game on Sunday against the Red Bulls, they will need to focus on building this defensive shape once again. The Red Bulls have a strong midfield presence with Sasha Kljestan and Dax McCarty running the field. They operate very similarly to the Rapids at times, looking to find the feet of Bradley Wright-Phillips and work their way off of him. Additionally, the Red Bulls have the width in players like Mike Grella, Alex Muyl, and Gonzalo Verón that they will look to stretch out the field with, forcing the Timbers to adapt. The Green and Gold will have to make sure that they keep their shape, have enough pressure on the ball, and provide coverage or else the talented players of New York will be able to find the gaps and expose the holes in the defense. With the Timbers' firepower going forward the goals will come and provide opportunities to win games. If the team continue to perform defensively like they did against Colorado, they will see a second half surge up the table like last year.