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How Vancouver Stole 3 Points at Providence Park

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers’ 15-game undefeated streak came to an unceremonious end Saturday night in a 2-1 loss to Cascadia rival Vancouver Whitecaps at Providence Park. All good things must come to an end, but the manner in which Portland lost, and the opponent they lost to, will leave a bitter taste in the club’s mouth.

Let’s examine the noteworthy data from the week 23 matchup.

On the surface, the statistics from Portland vs. Vancouver look favorable for the home team: PTFC possessed a whopping 69.2% of the ball, out-passed the Whitecaps 488-222, out-dribbled them 20-11, and out-touched 733-459.

The shot chart looks even better, take a look at this beauty (Portland in Green, Vancouver in Blue):

Data from MLSsoccer.com via Opta Sports

That’s 26 shots for Portland to just 13 for Vancouver. Those 26 strikes is 5th most in the league this season, and 3rd most in the club’s history as well. But as we know, the Portland attack was ultimately futile.

Vancouver did an excellent job bunkering deep and making it difficult for Portland’s threatening players to get touches or open opportunities on goal. Look at Diego Valeri’s touch map:

Data from WhoScored.com

That’s just 9 touches for El Maestro, and just 1 shot (off target) in open play within the box, not enough for the MVP.

It’s a similar story for Sebastian Blanco:

Data from WhoScored.com

7 touches for Seba inside the 18 yard box, and 1 shot on goal (saved).

Dairon Asprilla didn’t do much better:

Data from WhoScored.com

12 touches inside the box, and 2 shots (1 blocked, 1 missed).

And our last primary attacking player, Samuel Armenteros, had a night to forget:

Data from WhoScored.com

In case you have trouble counting up those dots, that’s just 2 touches in the penalty box and 0 shots.

For a team that relies so much on working the ball into the box for shot opportunities (63%), Portland struggled mightily to find openings. The tandem of Valeri, Blanco, Asprilla, Armenteros and Polo simply couldn’t successfully pass the ball into the box:

Data from MLSsoccer.com via Opta Sports

Above shows the successful passes by those five attacking players. There is a noticeable lack of green arrows going into the 18 yard box.

Contrast that with the unsuccessful passes and crosses by those same 5 players:

Data from MLSsoccer.com via Opta Sports

Vancouver’s backline, spearheaded by Costa Rican international Kendall Waston, stayed compact and clogged the 18 yard box. That tactic, alone, would not have sunk the Timbers. After all, Portland has dealt with teams that clog the back with the passing of their talented midfield; they probe and rotate until an opportunity presents itself. But Vancouver paired their structured defense with an aggressive pressing style in an attempt to disrupt Portland’s ability to settle the ball and look for opportunities upfield, and it worked:

Data from WhoScored.com

Portland was dispossessed 37 times in the match, 35 of them in the attacking half and the large majority in the final third; spots on the field where the midfield is looking to make key passes to spring the attack. Vancouver had a game plan and executed it wonderfully.

Now this isn’t a magic formula that will doom Portland; the Timbers share blame in the result as much as the Whitecaps deserve credit. Attinella is an excellent keeper who doesn’t frequently make mistakes like he did to concede the opener, Diego Valeri isn’t likely to continue shanking penalty kicks, and the team’s expected goal differential shows that not all was lost in attack:

However, the outcome highlights concerns that have been masked by Portland’s recent run of form: Where does Portland look for goals when the defense keys on their 3 scorers? Outside of the dynamic trio of Valeri, Armenteros, and Blanco, only Larrys Mabiala has scored multiple goals. How does the midfield compensate for an aggressive press if they have to pull numbers back to cover the backline? Portland has yet to show they can control ball and tempo in a manner that yields positive results. And will Portland figure out how to overcome their sluggish starts to matches (just 12 first half goals in 21 games)?

Giovanni Savarese is a strong tactical coach and he will compensate. Fifteen games unbeaten is nothing to turn your nose up to, and reinforcements are coming, but Portland has questions that need to be answered.