While the result, and how that result was achieved, will certainly not be lost on the soccer world I do feel and think there is a cause for concern to consider as the Timbers prepare for Vancouver, and beyond, this Sunday.
The decision to replace Lucas Melano with George Fochive in the 85th minute.
As a caveat, this view is not intended to be a player-specific critic – but more about the general team performance (reaction) given the substitution, what might be drawn from it, and how the impact of that substitution might influence decisions made as the playoff run continues.
And no – no heat maps or passing charts – you need video analysis for this assessment.
In watching the overall tenor of the game (before and after the 85th minute) I’d say the ability of Sporting to possess and penetrate was better, not worse, after George Fochive came on.
And for most of us this shouldn’t be a surprise.
Throughout the course of this season the Timbers have played somewhat deeper (ceding possession) in working a double-pivot tactical strategy that plays more to counter-attacking than possession-based attacking.
This approach has been a two-edged sword; usually the opponent comes away without scoring a goal, but alas, so it also goes for the Timbers.
That said, unfortunately, we have seen some teams win – and win big – (Philadelphia, FC Dallas, and LA Galaxy come to mind).
So should we really be surprised that Sporting got the equalizer near stoppage time and a second goal in extra time?
I don’t think so, and that remains a cause of concern for me as the Timbers move forward against Vancouver, and beyond.
First off – I sense it is reasonable to expect that over the course of a season, when playing one basic tactical approach, players will develop patterns of behavior (on field habits) that they’ll play to, regardless of some finite, tactical adjustments made by the head coach during the game.
In addition, it’s my belief that the tactical move to replace Melano had a negative impact on Darlington Nagbe’s ability to influence the game – if the Timbers are working towards more attacking, and possession-based ball movement with five attackers, then it stands to reason they’ll be doing less of that with four attackers.
Meaning Sporting is going to have more of the ball.
So, when you’re up one goal with less than 15 minutes to go, at home, do you really want to set the conditions for the opponent to tactically, by default, and through general pattern of behaviour, have more of the ball? Not really…
In thinking about this game it brings to mind an example of what I mean.
Recall the devastating draw the US Men’s National Team had with Portugal in the 2014 World Cup.
Jurgen Klinsmann made (in my view) a decision that was also cause for concern, that many missed.
He pulled Graham Zusi and replaced him with Omar Gonzalez – in other words he pulled an attacking midfield player, on the left side, and replaced him with a central defender.
This decision meant (tactically) the US Men’s National Team had no-one occupying, and therefore defending, the same exact zone where Ronaldo delivered the cross that got Portugal the equalizer.
Almost the exact same thing happened last night…
Melano got pulled and replaced with Fochive.
In turn, after the initial corner ball was cleared (to the zone one might expect Melano to patrol after a defensive clearance) Zusi delivered an equalizing cross where he was under absolutely no pressure – he had clear time and space to deliver his cross just like Ronaldo had against the US Men’s National Team!
But the real issue here isn’t that specific example, it’s bigger than that and also cause for concern; especially if this (up one goal) scenario occurs again.
So while all the hoopla goes towards the stunning, and heart stopping result, of yesterday Caleb Porter has much to consider.
For me, I think it’s worthy that the Timbers will be conducting some in-depth video analysis to better understand (throughout the entire game) how the impact (and influence) that Melano had on the game compared and contrasted with the impact (and influence) Fochive had on the game.
And I don’t mean with respect to the individual player’s and their execution but with respect to the overall tenor of team performance, in attacking and defending, for both Portland and Kansas City.
Bottom line here:
The game had a great scoreline, with the players and tactics used up to the 85th minute. Did the change in tactics (with that player substitution) alter the construct of the game enough to create a condition where Sporting may have been more likely to score a goal?
I think it did but my view isn’t the one that matters. So as an analyst – I would submit that question needs to be asked – and I sense Caleb will do that.
Perhaps another, less talked about decision, was Caleb Porter’s decision to open in a single-pivot.
For me, that sets the stage on his intent to continue with that approach, as a first choice option; others may view that differently.
And while I think and feel that is a very reasonable path forward, in battling the teams who like to counter-attack, I also think it’s sets the stage for future player decisions.
By that I mean, if you run (by choice) a single-pivot, do you really need five central defending midfielders on your roster?
And can you sustain a reasonable attacking path forward with just two players (Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri) who can command the attacking responsibilities associated with that approach?
I’d say no…
So all the while the playoffs are happening there oughta be someone in the front office looking at attacking central midfielders to shore up what appears to be a very good tactical shift on the part of Caleb Porter.