Editor's Note: Inside PTFC is a new weekly column – one each for the Portland Timbers and Thorns FC – from soccer writer Richard Farley that dives deeper into the recent successes and challenges each team has been facing. Tactical looks, statistical analysis, rising players and more, Inside PTFC aims to give a closer look into the two teams.
PORTLAND, Ore. – Maybe it was the state of their attack, depleted by the absences of Will Bruin, Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Victor Rodríguez. Or perhaps it was the success they had mid-week against Toronto FC with their conservative, 5-4-1 approach. Better yet, maybe it was the heat, oppressive under the 1 p.m. sun, that motivated Seattle Sounders FC to play the way they did, trying to take the air out of the ball in their 1-0 loss Sunday at Providence Park.
In those ways, the style of Sunday’s game was unique – something you shouldn’t expect to see more than a couple of times each season. But within the Sounders’ approach there were hints of what the Portland Timbers’ might have to overcome in the future.
As the Timbers’ defense improves, the reward for opponents opening themselves up to Portland’s counterattack begin to diminish. There’s a tipping point in there, one where it no longer makes sense to take as many risks against Diego Valeri, Sebastián Blanco and Fanendo Adi. For some teams, that will mean being more reserved with their attacking shapes, making sure they’re not sacrificing defensive cover. For others, it could mean playing like Seattle.
In both cases, Timbers’ mandate changes from one focused on transition to one that has to execute from a more established setup. That means creating your own space and favorable matchups, and, as head coach Giovanni Savarese said about his team’s performance against Seattle, moving the ball faster, so you can implore the defense into more decisions.
“That was one of the things that we spoke about,” Savarese said, remembering his instructions during the first half against the Sounders, “that if we moved the ball a little bit faster, we could find, sometimes, those balls in between [lines of the defense]. And we did, sometimes, in combination.”
The most glaring examples came in the 59th minute, when Adi’s play with Valeri briefly slipped the latter through on goal, and in the 86th, when Blanco scored the game’s only goal. But the roots of those plays began in the first 10 minutes of the game, when you could see Timbers players tell each other to slow down and be patient with their build up. It continued through the next 20 minutes until, shortly after the hydration break at the 30-minute mark, the Timbers first broke Seattle’s defense:
It took 36 minutes for the Timbers to put together a sequence like that, but when you see the players’ movements, you start to understand why. Notice it’s center back Liam Ridgewell, having taken two touches forward from his already high position, that plays the entry pass into the zone above Seattle’s center backs. Also look at how quickly Zarek Valentin, from the left, releases into the space the Sounders vacate. The pass into the middle collapsed the defense, leaving seven Sounders in that area before Valentin’s played behind.
This type of moment isn’t something a team starts trying at minute zero. In most instances, Valentin can’t come into the game assuming he can release that early in the play, lest he abandon his defensive responsibilities too soon. Likewise, it takes a team time to see that a center back is going to be allowed to step into midfield and make a pass without a striker or attacking midfielder challenging his ball. Once the Timbers defenders saw how conservatively the Sounders were playing, they knew they could take more chances going forward.
Just moments later, Portland created a similar dynamic, albeit by different means. Midfielder Cristhian Paredes, below, takes a Diego Chara pass and makes a great individual play, splitting Seattle’s central midfielders and getting between lines on his own. When he lays off his pass to Valeri, in the right of the penalty area, the one-on-five he created off the dribble turns into a one-on-zero, with Valeri’s ball driven far post just going wide of goal.
These are the type of sequences that, tactically, go beyond theory and formation and rely more on style, evolving matchups, and a team’s intricacy of play. For a Portland squad with some significant turnover and a new coaching staff, the level of difficulty is even higher this early in the season, as familiarity plays an integral part in creating these moments.
When new coaches come in, they typically start at the back, putting much of their energy into how the team will prevent chances. Then the theory of the attack forms, with the team honing its basic mentality as well as how they’ll move the ball. Once that’s in place, teams have to work on these more detailed scenarios, planning for when opponents know enough about their principles to defend against the obvious scenarios.
We saw Portland’s progression on Sunday. Having seen few teams sit back like Seattle, the Timbers aren’t yet fully adept at managing the scenario. The combinations Adi, Blanco and Valeri put together in transition out of the team’s 4-3-2-1 are different than how they connect when a defense is set. Now, with teams more willing to let that Portland’s attack set up, the Timbers’ progress will be tested.
After Sunday’s hydration break, the team started passing their tests, but it wasn’t until the second half that those solutions began bearing fruit. In the 59th minute, Valeri’s movement across the defense creates its own seam, with this wall pass to Adi …
... and, of course, in the 86th minute, Samuel Armenteros finds the space behind Seattle' defense.
These last two GIFs lean more Sounders mistakes as Timbers solutions, but that’s why playing a 5-4-1 and trying to hold out is rarely a productive approach. Asking your defense to play mistake-free soccer for 90 minutes is hard enough, but when you’re abdicating possession and pressing while hoping your opponents’ execution fails, you’re putting your destiny in the other team’s hands.
You’re also betting on your opponents not finding solutions sooner. At this point in the Timbers’ progression, they’re still building their understanding of how to break down teams that play like Sunday’s Sounders. It’s part of a new coaching staff bringing in a new approach. And although Savarese was happy with his team’s patience (the shape they maintained in possession helped limiting Seattle to five shots), he also felt the team should have probed at Seattle’s weaknesses sooner.
“The areas we could have found a little bit easier were the wide areas,” he explained. “Spaces in behind the wide players and getting to the end line. That way the three center backs had to defend running back, because they were going a very good job defending in front.”
“The most important thing,” he said, “is that we couldn’t get frustrated, that we had to be patient - that if we lost balls in areas, we had to recover it and build up again.”
It’s unlikely the Timbers will see such a reserved approach again this season. An opposing coach is going to look at Sunday’s tape, take note of what Seattle did well, but also know that, the next time Portland’s opponents play like this, the solutions will come faster, and more often. It’s part of the path the Timbers have been on since their first session under Savarese, one which now leaves the team capable of breaking down teams that play too far off.
The middle ground, here, is somewhere between this demurred, Seattle approach and the ones Portland saw a month ago. Teams now know they can’t live with the Adi-Blanco-Valeri counter, but they also know they can’t bet on Portland’s lack of execution. Opponents are going to be more multi-dimensional, more nuanced – something which will produce far more entertaining soccer than we saw Sunday at Providence Park.