Passing, passing passing. Call it what you want: Tiki-taka, Barcelona-esque, or just possesion-based soccer, it is a strong element of Real Salt Lake’s game. Purveyors of some of the best possession football in the league, the Claret-and-Blue are stocked with a talented roster of players who look to find that perfect opening.
In March, we talked here about RSL’s penchant for running the left channel as they look to cut back into the goal box. While they are sure to continue that method on Saturday as they host Portland (6 pm PT, KPDX, Timbers Television Network; 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940), the Timbers come into the game fresh from a scintillating victory over Western Conference-leading San Jose Earthquakes.
Tuesday’s match showcased some of Portland’s best soccer of the season with speed and verve. Head coach John Spencer has always favored an attacking form of direct play, whereupon the wingbacks look to counter and overlap the midfield, the midfield directs traffic in the middle and they all look to get balls pushed to the center forwards quickly. It is a style predicated on quickness and athleticism.
That push to rush will come up against a patient RSL side. How the two teams will best utilize their talents with their respective systems brings us to Timbers soccer analyst Robbie Earle’s KeyBank Match-up.
|Timbers' Fast-Paced Attack||vs.||
RSL's Possession-based Passing
Much has been made about the benefits of possession. The theory goes that the more you have the ball, the better chance you have to score with it. And in many cases, that’s true. But as MLSsoccer.com’s Central Winger column points out, possession is more effective in keeping the ball away from your opponent thus preventing more goals against.
For a team like RSL, that’s a big element of their plan to be sure and you can see it in their game against Seattle Sounders earlier this week. Salt Lake strung together 431 successful passes according to Opta in their 0-0 draw. Their Opta Chalkboard chart (below left) shows a flurry of activity near the middle of their backline.
Contrast that with the Timbers who had 236 successful passes in their midweek 2-1 win over San Jose with much of their activity along the wings (Opta Chalkboard above right). To put that in some perspective, Real Salt Lake’s central midfielder Kyle Beckerman had 64 successful passes against Seattle alone—more than a quarter of Portland’s total vs. SJ.
And yet, Real Salt Lake remained scoreless in their match.
GOAL: Mwanga finishes off counter
For Portland, the San Jose game was a particularly good example of a fast-paced attack—nowhere more evident than in Danny Mwanga’s 29th minute goal. The play started way back in the Timbers’ defensive third as Franck Songo’o stripped the ball from San Jose’s Rafael Baca and flew down the right flank. A give-and-go with Eric Alexander who had tucked into the middle brought Songo’o to the Quakes’ right corner whereupon he slipped in a perfect pass to a streaking Mwanga. The young forward timed his run through the defensive line perfectly and nailed the shot into the top right corner.
Moreover, after the Timbers increased their lead to two, the team continued to press high into the San Jose end. Their energy remained solid throughout and it kept San Jose—a team armed with the league’s leading scorer in Chris Wondolowski—often pinned back unable to crack out. They passed all across the middle and apart from a set piece goal, they were stuck.
With RSL, their patience on the ball will be one of the biggest challenges come Saturday. In the two team’s earlier match in March, one could see elements of the clash of styles. Darlington Nagbe showed attacking ruthlessness to score a brace with goals only 17 minutes apart only to be undone by Salt Lake’s ability to calmly search for an opening and score two late goals and steal a 3-2 win.
The match at Rio Tinto will be similar but with its own unique variables. Songo’o is listed as out on the latest injury report but Portland acquired a new right back from Colorado in Kosuke Kimura. RSL have new additions Kevin Mansally and Kwame Watson-Siriboe at their disposal.
In the end though, it will come down to—as it often does—whichever team is able to execute their game plan most effectively will be the one most likely to end up with the coveted three points.