Strong's Notes: Possession is 9/10th of the Law

John Strong breaks down how the Timbers can win

Jack Jewsbury, Timbers vs. Red Bulls, 6.19.11

Photo Credit: 
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

The three game losing streak is over, as is the two game goalless run, but there wasn’t much celebrating going on last Sunday night at JELD-WEN Field. The Timbers ended one of the wilder games in MLS this year in a 3-3 tie with New York, having been down 1-0 after 5 minutes, and 3-1 up with 20 minutes left. But, as ever, it’s about keeping that even keel, learning from what went wrong against the Red Bulls, but focusing more on doing it right in the next outing.

That next outing comes against perhaps the best team in the league over the last two months, FC Dallas. Since their 3-2 loss in Portland in mid-April, Dallas rattled off a nine-game unbeaten run, put together the fifth longest shutout streak in league history, and has won seven of their past 11 overall. Oh, and all this without their best player—more on that in a minute.

Ewing Theory in Effect
For those who aren’t fans of Bill Simmons, the idea here is that when your best player, the league’s MVP from a year ago, has his ankle broken, you should struggle. You should not, for instance, go the next eight games without a loss, and shoot up the standings. And yet, that’s exactly what FC Dallas did when David Ferreira got hurt against Vancouver back in April.

How did they do that? First, it was their defense: goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, who already holds MLS records for just about every goalkeeping stat imaginable, surpassed 100 career shutouts as he and his defense kept clean sheets over a run of six out of seven games, including a staggering 521 straight minutes.

Instead of relying on Ferreira to create their chances, I’m noticing more large, sweeping attacking movements from Dallas, where they’re committing huge numbers forward. An example of that is how proficient their midfield has been in front of goal, accounting for 13 of the 20 goals they’ve scored this year (as compared to just four of 18 for the Timbers—all Cap’n Jack Jewsbury’s).

Also worth mentioning is Brek Shea. The 21-year-old fringe U.S. national teamer has flourished since his experiment in defense was ended, scoring in three of his last five games, leading the team with six goals, and providing Goal of the Week candidates along the way as well. Their other eye-popping attacking talent, Fabian Castillo, will not be in action against the Timbers however, as he’s been abruptly called up to the Colombian pre-tournament camp for the upcoming U-20 World Cup.

It’s 9/10ths Of The Law
Not that it’s ever easy to play 90 minutes of soccer in Dallas, Texas, when the forecast calls for just-under-100-degree temperatures, but when you’ve been living, training, and playing in the second-wettest—and, as a result, coolest—spring in Portland weather history, it’s that much harder. Talking about the heat isn’t a matter of creating readymade excuses, I think it’s just being honest about one of the challenges that comes in playing in a country with such varied climates.

So, possession becomes key; the less time you have to spend defending, running around, chasing the ball, the better. The more time you can spend knocking it around, letting the ball do the work, and forcing your opponents to run, the better. Possession is often talked about, perhaps sometimes given too much credit, but it’s still important, especially in these kind of conditions.

Dallas has an odd “feast or famine” thing going on with possession right now: in five of their last seven games, they’ve enjoyed less than 40 percent of the ball—including a staggering 27% vs. 73% discrepancy versus Chivas USA last week. The other two in that stretch? More than sixty percent. The more the Timbers can keep the ball, and keep from running as much, the more they’ll have in the tank at the end.

First Five and Last Five
Coaches often talk about the key five minute stretches of games, which are generally the first and last five minutes of each half, and the five minutes after a goal is scored. This is where momentum, and games themselves, is so often won or lost. As we’ve seen in the last two weeks, the Timbers haven’t been at their best at the end, and that needs to improve; but I want to focus on the start.

Just as it’s important to not be chasing the game and getting tired in the heat in terms of possession, it’s equally important to not be chasing around because you’re in an early hole. The Timbers did exceptionally well to bounce back from a fifth minute goal against in the New York game to take a 3-1 second half lead, but that same goal could be killer against Dallas.

Consider this stat: the Timbers and Hoops combined are 12-0-1 when scoring the first goal, and 1-10-6 without it. That should tell you all you need to know about how crucial the opener might be to the Timbers’ hopes of earning their first away win of the season.

The Captain Is Amazing, But What About His Lieutenants?
Timbers captain Jack Jewsbury is starting to get national attention as not just maybe the most improved player in MLS this year, but also maybe the best transaction any team made in the offseason. He’s leading the team in both goals and assists, and has been involved in nine of their last 11 goals. So, you can probably guess where I’m going: it’s time for his teammates to re-assert themselves in the attack.

Kenny Cooper hasn’t scored in the last seven games; Kalif Alhassan has just one assist in his last seven; Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara have yet to record a goal or assist this year. It’s not in doubt how incredibly talented all those players are, and yet they’ve been unable to fully show off those skills this year. It’s not to discount the amount of work they do off the ball to create situations where others are scoring or producing assists, but just to say they’re capable of even greater things.

Keep an eye on Cooper in this one: he went to high school in Dallas, and spent three-and-a-half seasons with FC Dallas, scoring 40 goals in 90 games. He’ll have friends and family in attendance Saturday, and I’m sure he’s beyond sick and tired of schlubs like me talking about how he’s not scoring. Isn’t that a perfect brew for a breakout game? Here’s hoping . . .