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Home or away? Against the Sounders, that proves to be a difficult question to answer

The Timbers’ recent history against Seattle proves that home-field advantage isn’t an end-all-be-all, at least tactically.

Kris Lattimore

When it comes to sports, much is made of having a “home-field advantage.” The theory checks out: When at home, a player gets to sleep in their own bed, enjoy their own routine, and play in front of thousands of fans that are there to cheer them on. When on the road, players are subject to multiple uncontrolled variables, such as staying in a hotel, being around unfamiliar surroundings, and facing the noise of opposing fans. Easy decision, right? However, soccer is a different beast, a sport in which being the home team might entirely change how a team approaches a game. In soccer, having home-field advantage can be important, but sometimes it serves as more of a disadvantage, at least tactically. The best example of this theory lies within Cascadia between the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders.

Before Friday night, the last time these two teams faced off came back in July at Centurylink Field, where the Timbers took a 2-1 victory thanks to a Brian Fernandez brace. In that game, the Sounders opened themselves up and became more stretched both in attack and defense, which played right to the Timbers’ strength: defending deep and counter-attacking.

Multiple factors caused the Sounders to play that way, but the general thinking is that in front of the home fans, a team might feel more pressure to come out, attack, and play with the ball. On the road, the pressure is on the opponent, which allows a team to sit back and defend while playing a low-risk, high-reward game plan.

Recent records between the two sides back this up. With Giovanni Savarese at the wheel, the Timbers have never lost in Seattle (4-0-1 in the past five games), but they have fallen to Seattle twice at Providence Park in that span.

Under Caleb Porter, the Timbers never seemed able to buy a win in the Emerald City, but now Savarese can’t seem to lose. Why is that? It goes back to the aforementioned tactical tweaks and game plans that both coaches have employed during their time in Portland. Porter liked to play more attractive soccer from the jump, opening up the team right from the opening kick. In other words, he enjoyed playing a high-risk, high-reward game plan that suited the team at home with the Timbers Army in full force behind them, but made them much too easy to play through on the road. Savarese, on the other hand, is much more practical and plays a more cautious brand of soccer. Regardless of the opponent, he likes his team to sit back in a compact low-block and attack teams in transition. This is great in Seattle when they can play more compact and feel no pressure to come out of their shape. In Portland, the pressure to have possession is more significant, which forces the Timbers to play in a way that they don’t want to.

This was on full display on Friday night. The Timbers seemed to be playing much higher up the field than usual and sent both fullbacks (Zarek Valentin and Jorge Villafana) deep into the attack. At times, Bill Tuiloma or Julio Cascante wandered up the pitch in attack, which forced Diego Chara to play make-shift center back some of the night. Seattle took advantage of a Portland side, playing out of its element throughout much of the game. The Timbers had a lot of possession in and around the top of the Sounders box, which provided multiple dangerous opportunities from crosses, but they could never take advantage. On the other side, whenever the Sounders won the ball, they would look to play direct and take advantage of the space that the Timbers left behind — and that ultimately led to the two goals, which both played out similarly. Both times, Valentin got beaten for pace on the flank by Jordan Morris, who sent in crosses that both Cristian Roldan and Raul Ruidiaz were able to finish.

While goals such as these still might be given up in Seattle, it is far less likely. That is because the Timbers have to be much more cautious; the last thing they want to do is open the game up. Instead of attempting to press high up the field, the fullbacks would most likely stay back farther, and the team’s shape would remain more compact while hedging towards the defensive third.

We can extrapolate this concept to other games as well. Earlier this season the Timbers drew against teams such as Orlando City and Colorado at home while being the first team to win in both Yankee Stadium and Banc of California Stadium this season. In 2018–19, the Timbers have won six road games, its most since 2015.

On Friday night, the Timbers’ lone goal came the way you might expect after reading this column: through transition. Portland players were able to break and were awarded a dangerous set-piece opportunity for their efforts, one that Diego Valeri fired into the back of the net. These types of opportunities are still available at home — and the Timbers have been able to find some — but they are few and far between.

While sitting back and counter-attacking might not be the most appealing brand of soccer to watch, it has proven effective for Savarese and the Timbers. It is a strategy that is much harder to effectively pull off at home and yields fewer opportunities as a whole, but also produces the opportunities with the most expected goals. The key is putting those “big opportunities” away, and the Timbers did not do that against the Sounders on Friday night.