PORTLAND, Ore. – The final goal of Portland Timbers’ 4-4 Saturday draw felt discouraging, and not only because it put a “4” under “Real Salt Lake” on the scoreboard.
From safely clear of the penalty area, RSL’s Corey Baird was allowed six seconds to go one-on-one and back Cristhian Paredes toward the middle of the box. He drew pressure, forced Portland to alter their shape, then found a teammate, Sam Johnson, for a relatively easy goal.
There were failures on the ball. There were failures off. The help that arrived was ineffective. That helped that didn’t? No help at all. It was a six-second treatise in what not to do.
Making matters worse, a similarly poor breakdown happened three minutes earlier, one that allowed another RSL substitute, Giuseppe Rossi, to pull his team within one. Portland entered added time with a two-goal lead and ended it with two points dropped.
“At the end, we didn’t have the resilience to finish the game with a result that should’ve given us three points,” were among Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese’s first words in his postmatch press conference. “We [conceded goals] too easily. When you score four goals at home, you should have a minimum [of] three points.”
In isolation, the RSL performance could be seen as one bad night, but six days earlier, Portland’s defense had also faltered as a match closed. Three goals from Seattle Sounders FC over August 23’s final 18 minutes turned a game that was leaning toward the Timbers into a 3-0 loss.
“Giving up at the end those two goals [against RSL], it goes back to the similar situation against Seattle, giving up three goals at the end,” Savarese said. “We need to be better. It's not good enough. I take full responsibility first of all for the situation, but I think some players need to understand that it's not good enough at the end to give up two goals when you went in 4-2 in the last four minutes. I’m very disappointed about this match, and I’m sure the defense is disappointed as well.”
The Seattle game was different. Over the first half, the Timbers handcuffed the Sounders, holding the team’s fiercest rival to one shot before intermission. It was only at the end, during an onslaught led by two Raúl Ruidíaz goals, that Seattle became unencumbered.
Against Real Salt Lake, the hints were there early, emerging from the moments after an RSL mistake gifted the Timbers an opening goal. From Portland’s errors in possession, to RSL’s occasional ability to break through the Timbers’ midfield, to the crosses that perpetually tested Portland at the far post, the signs of a potential failing were there. The Timbers were going to correct their problems or be undone by them.
Keep all that in mind as we flashback to the night’s first goal. Watch the action at the far post.
RSL has taken three of their most dangerous targets – defender Nedum Onouha, midfielder Demir Kreilach attacker Justin Meram – toward and around Portland’s far defender, Dario Zuparic, who has too many people in his zone to get out to Onuoha. Once the former Premier League center back had a step on his man marker, Jeremy Ebobisse, he was going to win that aerial ball.
As the Timbers react to the second ball, RSL has another trio prepared, this time at the near post. Chaos ensues, and within the sequence, Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala takes a bad touch, directing a ball right to Baird’s foot. You can blame the goal on the last error, but RSL’s success was as much from the play and execution – as well as the pressure RSL kept to draw the set piece’s foul – as it is Mabiala’s touch.
That wasn’t the first time in the half RSL had been so blunt. Between kickoff and breakthrough at 18:34 of the half, Salt Lake had played 10 crosses, according to Opta. That total includes corner kicks and other dead balls, but most of them were from open play. Each was played to the middle of goal or to the far post, with Albert Rusnák and Aaron Herrera responsible for most of the service.
RSL would finish the match with 38 crosses. The Timbers had 14. They’d win 13 corners and score three of their goals from similar circumstances: ball into the middle or to the far post; claimed the second ball; goal on the board.
Here’s their second goal:
The problems before this goal were slightly different. Instead of inaction on a ball headed back across goal, there were too many players contesting the initial corner, leaving no defender to help at the far post. Broadly, the approach is the same. Play a ball in. Win it in the air. See how the Timbers respond.
Here’s the response on the night’s third goal:
Obviously, teams need to be better than this about defending in their penalty box. You’re not going to win every aerial battle, and in large, you would rather teams be playing crosses than execute a more reliable attacking plan. Crosses have been proven to be low-percentage plays. But when your box defending falters, every entry becomes dangerous, and you have to start questioning whether you should allow so many crosses.
On that front, we see another problem with the Timbers’ defending. Many RSL’s crosses weren’t coming from the edge of a set defense, sent into the area as a team’s least worst idea. Instead, RSL was able to break lines through the middle of the field in a way that meant a number of those crosses were coming from more dangerous areas. They were being fired toward unset defenses.
For example, look at this sequence from the first half, …
… as well as this one.
Not all of these sequences resulted in crosses. Some went for corners. Some forced fouls, or shots. Others were eventually dealt with by Portland. Still, it’s been some time since we saw a team move like this through a Timbers defense. When they did – and when they got defenders turned and running toward their own goal – it made it more difficult to get tight to crossers when the ball was rotated back out.
Those plays didn’t result in mere hopefully crosses toward right back Chris Duvall. Having started Meram at left wing, Real Salt Lake appeared to be testing something directly. Of the 38 crosses they played on the night, 29 came from their right flank. Only six of those went near post.
“[Real Salt Lake] found success with balls between our lines because we allowed that,” Savarese said on Monday. “We were not as compact as we should have [been]. We were not as disciplined in doing some other things. We were more reactionary than proactive in the things we had to do …
“We were winning 2-1 when we probably didn’t deserve it in the first half,” he admitted. “But it was more about what we didn’t do than what we did.”
The final element of concern for Portland may be a perfect illustration: their inability to relieve pressure by keeping the ball. In the second half, when the Timbers hit their stride in attack, the counter attacks started to flow, with Portland creating a number of chances to put the game out of reach. Before that, though, the Timbers were making basic mistakes that we’re not accustomed to seeing from them, whether it be via passes like this …
… this …
… or, as we saw ahead of the second goal, this:
These miscues weren’t the chief cause for any of Saturday’s goals, but when coaches ask people to look beyond the backline’s performance on goals allowed, this is what they’re talking about. These are the questions those coaches are asking. How did the opponent get access to dangerous areas? How were they able to regain the ball? What could everybody on the team have done to prevent those chances on goal?
Those questions will need to be answered ahead of Wednesday’s game against the LA Galaxy (7:30pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS (KPDX)). Fortunately for the Timbers, the cures for Saturday’s woes were things they have executed before. They need to be better at keeping the ball. They need to be better at stopping the ball. And if those two things fail, they need to be better at winning the ball.