There was undeniable progress made by the Portland Timbers on Sunday, particularly when you compared their underlying play against Seattle Sounders FC to the two games that proceeded it, lopsided losses to D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City.
Thanks to a late, game-deciding own goal, though, few players wanted to talk about that progress. Still, head coach Giovanni Savarese was right to say, after the match, that the Timbers had dominated. In terms of chances. In terms of tempo, In terms of control.
Unfortunately, though, not in terms of the scoreboard.
“We were completely dominating this match,” he offered, unequivocally, after the match. “We were working very hard; we had [Seattle] all over the place. Credit to them, they defended well, but they created nothing until the moment that they scored the goal – we gave it away.”
Perhaps it’s a sign of the Timbers’ progress that the qualifiers seem meaningless. Controlling the match? Who cares? After three straight losses, a fall toward the Western Conference’s playoff line, and a run of form that has resurfaced uncertainties dormant since April, Sunday felt like a no-excuses scenario.
Did Portland outplay the Sounders? Undoubtedly. Did they deserve to win, in the sense some conflate control with “just” results? Certainly, for whatever that’s worth. But the Sounders found a way to win their seventh in a row, a radiant indicator of that team’s new direction.
In the same breath, the Timbers sit on four-straight losses, having dropped below the Western Conferences’ playoff line while only seeing a sliver’s hope of retaining the Cascadia Cup.
The reason for that loss truly comes down to one moment – the 76th minute concession that summarized the occasionally, utterly brutal mood of the game we love.
If you control an NBA basketball game for four-fifths of the clock, you likely enter that last 20 percent with an insurmountable lead. Same for football. You win the first 50 minutes? You’re probably up something like 28-3 going into the final 10 minutes. Any comeback you endure becomes story number one on the next edition of Sportscenter. It’s aberrational, if not absurd.
Not soccer. In soccer, this happens so often, players know how to react. That’s a canned response. “That’s soccer,” is all they have to say, two words that tell us nothing and, to those who have watched the sport their whole lives, tell us everything. All you really need to know about a demonstrably inferior team getting the same rewards as a team that blows out their opponents? Well, that’s soccer.
And in Sunday’s 76th minute, soccer happened. It happened loud. It happened clear. And it happened because of four key factors.
First, moments before Seattle’s attack, Sebastián Blanco’s leg had started acting up. He had asked out of the game, and by the time this sequence, below, started, Dairon Asprilla had handed in his substitute’s card. But he wasn’t in the game when Blanco had to pull up and let Seattle left-center back Kim Kee-Hee continue down the flank.
That put left back Zarek Valentin in a tough spot, but we’ll deal with that in a moment, because the second key factor in this goal is Andy Polo. In Portland’s defensive scheme, Polo has to be in position to either prevent or challenge Kim’s ball to Nicolas Lodeiro. Instead, Seattle’s key playmaker not only has time on the ball but time to take a pretty poor first touch. He pops the ball in the air but still has time let it fall before playing Kim behind the defense. He should have never had that room.
But that led to the third key factor in this goal, and that’s the no-man’s land Valentin found himself in. Is Blanco going to track Kim? Does Lodeiro have too much space? Was that touch poor enough to try to win that ball? All those factors left Valentin in the worst place any defender can be: a place where they can’t impact the play. Valentin is passed around as play continues down his flank, and once Lodeiro plays Kim in, the Seattle defender has 20 yards of space between himself and Liam Ridgewell.
The fourth key factor, though, can be summed up by goalkeeper Jeff Attinella’s description. The defense did well to wait, not commit and open any more space, but with his time on the ball, Kim “drove a hard ball across,” emphasis mine. He was able to hit a ball at Cascante that became an almost no-win scenario for the Timbers defender.
Could Cascante have done more with that ball? That would have been a huge ask, given his momentum, positioning, and balance when that ball comes across the box. The best case, there, might have been merely jumping and letting the ball run – run right to Seattle’s Raúl Ruidíaz, who likely puts away the goal. Or, perhaps Cascante could have just touched the ball, hoping Attinella would fall on it, but given the defender’s reaction to the cross, we might have to accept there was little he could do.
As Portland’s 22-6 edge in shots suggests, there are clearly two sides to Sunday’s coin, the positive reflecting the plan the Portland brought into the match. When the game ends with a “0” under your name on the scoreboard, it’s difficult to be too adulatory about a team’s approach, but within the nuts and bolts of the derby’s performance were some legitimate positives, particularly compared to the showing the Timbers had at D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City.
“If we do the same thing that we did today and we're able to stay focused the entire match, then most likely we're going to win against a tough Toronto team,” Savarese said, alluding to Portland’s Wednesday performance. “In the MLS, every game is tough; everybody is going to bring you something different. From what I saw today, I saw a lot of good things up until the moment of the goal.”
To that end, consider what the Timbers were able to do to win Saturday’s midfield battle, something that will always be important when your teams’ two main creators are Diego Valeri and Blanco. Below, it’s hard to tell without a side-to-side comparison with what other teams do, but early in Sunday’s game, it was apparent that Osvaldo Alonso and Gustav Svensson – the two Sounders midfielders deployed in front of that team’s back line – were willing to drift away from each other, give the Timbers too much space in midfield:
That may explain Savarese’s small shift in approach. Whereas the Timbers have played a 4-3-2-1 formation many times this season, Sunday’s setup – one that could be portrayed as the same shape – was more like a true 4-3-3, albeit with inside forwards instead of wingers. Valeri and Blanco were farther away from their typical, No. 10 roles than they usually are. Here, they are both wide, above the defense’s fullback-centerback channels, drawing each Seattle midfielder wider than a 4-2-3-1’s pivot midfielders would normally sit. All of that contribute to that valuable (circled) space in the middle of the park.
The screenshot, above, is in the match’s opening moments, but even in this still, you can start imagining the implications. Samuel Armenteros – with his skill on the ball with his back to goal – can drop into that and get receive play out of the back, providing Valeri and Blanco keep splitting those midfielders. If one of Seattle’s central defenders followed Armenteros, Valeri and Blanco would be in a position to run into the vacated space. When Blanco or Valeri used the room in midfield, players like Diego Chara and Polo could get forward and into the openings created. Even if Seattle dealt with those things well, being able to easily get the ball into the middle space meant reaching players like Alvas Powell wide, if Seattle collapsed to the middle.
Side-by-side, this is how often the Timbers and Sounders, via their defenders and deep midfielders, accessed the middle of the park. These chalkboard looks like chaos when you’re not used to evaluating at them, but just notice the density of successful actions the Timbers have in the first half with their chalkboard (left). Then, compare that to the Sounders.
And remember: The Sounders actually out-possessed Portland in the first half, too, going into intermission with a roughly 52-48 edge on the ball. Despite that the Timbers were much more effective in working from one of the field's most dangerous spots.
This may explain why, despite facing one of the best defenses in the league, both Valeri and Blanco were able to exceed their season average in terms of pass completion percentage. Each also completed more passes than they usually do in a given game. Valeri’s eight chances may have been fueled by corner kicks, but he normally averages 3.4. Eight is a huge jump.
Judging by preparation, formation, tactics and execution, Savarese seemed to suspect the space in midfield would be there. Based on the movements of Chara, Polo and others, he designed ways to exploit it. Ultimately, though, those ways never worked, and while the Timbers produced near chances like this …
… and like this, in transition, …
… come full time, they had only put three of their 22 shots on target.
And, the bad, still
After the Sounders scored their 76th-minute goal, the Timbers were still in the game, and particularly given how those first 75 minutes played out, Portland would have been right to expect an equalizer. The team had been on the verge of a breakthrough all night. Surely, some desperation would only help?
But in that moment of desperation, the team only gave itself so many options. Asprilla, the one attacker Portland had on the bench, was already scheduled to come into the game, and did so before the ensuing kickoff. The other subs? Central midfielder for central midfielder (Andrés Flores for Polo) and deep-lying midfielder for deep-lying midfielder (David Guzmán for Lawrence Olum). There was no Fanendo Adi to turn to, nor were there any Jeremy Ebobisses, Lucas Melanos, Tomás Conechnys or Foster Langsdorfs.
Revisiting the Adi trade to FC Cincinnati makes little sense, as it was a move whose logic goes well beyond depth charts. The risk of having a Designated Player with diminished trade value (had he rode out the season on the bench) under contract for future seasons was untenable, particularly with the club’s other options.
That none of those options have materialized, as of now, is the real cause for concern. Asprilla is unduly derided by those who focus on only one aspect of his play, but over the last 15 minutes of Sunday’s game, that one aspect has supremely important. Has Portland put itself in a situation where it is relying on Asprilla for goals? On Sunday, the answer to that question was, “Yes.”
So, what of a player like Ebobisse, who traveled and trained with the team during last week’s road trip? Savarese elected to pick three midfielders for his bench (Flores, Guzmán and Cristhian Paredes) rather than dress Ebobisse as a second striker. Langdorf’s minutes continue to be allocated to T2, and having gone a full 90 on Wednesday at Merlo Field against Orange County, Conechny’s time was also allocated to USL.
For now, the forward depth chart continues to evolve beyond the public eye, in the training sessions that lead to decisions like dressing only Asprilla as a reserve forward option.
“For us, practice is very important,” Savarese explained last week, when asked about the role training sessions play in his lineup decisions, “because it gives us a sense of understanding where [the players are] at: how their mind is; how the spirit is; how they’re going to be able to perform. I think practice can lead, in a good way, to understanding what the player is going to be able to give you, and that’s how we make the selection.
“The fact that, now, everybody is an option – because when you think and you look around, everybody can contribute to the team – I think, at least, we’ve done something positive, and I think that’s a credit to the players, as well, that everybody is engaged and wanting to play.”
It is too soon to know where Melano fits into the equation, but increasingly, it looks like the team will need him to play a significant part. Either that, or one of the other four non-Armenteros options will have to emerge from their current place on the depth chart. Regardless, the Timbers are still hurting from the loss of Adi, and as Sunday’s game showed, that hurt may be having a real impact on the points column.