Portland Timbers open the season defending their MLS Cup this weekend and I can’t even begin to imagine the atmosphere we’ll witness.
For those local to Portland – what a day this will be!
For those watching on national TV – I hope the play-by-play is worthy as the atmosphere is sure to be unlike any other! The tingles down my spine are already happening and we haven’t even heard the national anthem (sung by the Timbers Army at every season home opener) yet!
All that said – it’s time for one of my favorite words…. grist – let’s get to the grist of Timbers as this season begins anew.
Defending the Cup!
If you listened to our latest Rose City Soccer Show you know the thoughts from Kip Kesgard, Will Conwell, Dan Adams and myself on some of these topics below relative to 2015 and how they fit into success for 2016:
- Diego Chara becomes lone CDM & Darlington Nagbe shifts to central midfield.
- Timbers find their goal scoring form in the last 10 games.
- Timbers consistency in the back four.
- Timbers bench/depth.
Here’s mine on all four.
Diego Chara becomes the lone CDM and Darlington Nagbe shifts to central midfield:
If anyone expects Caleb Porter to begin the season abandoning the late season success of this tactical change – fahgetaboutit – not going to happen!
I would offer the attacking scheme might not play the same – game in and game out.
If you watched the last pre-season match, against a VERY MUCH IMPROVED Chicago Fire, you would know the Timbers found it extremely difficult to push down the middle. The reason for that was down to the opposing Head Coach – Veljko Paunovic.
Chicago opened in a 5-3-2 defensive scheme (low block in the middle) that switched to a 3-5-2 in attack. A reasonable tactical move but not one seen effectively executed in MLS for awhile.
So if/when an opponent adjusts their defensive scheme, to clog the middle, the Timbers (both players and coaching staff) NEED to read and make attacking tactical adjustments quicker. It wasn’t until the 2nd half where the Timbers began to deliver more (early) crosses from higher and wider up the pitch.
When taking that approach it is believed the early ball will increase the chances of catching the low block (5-3) out of sorts. When that happens unplanned spaces can open up where subsequent passes (from a strong passing team like the Timbers) can take advantage of that space in order to create better chances in scoring a goal.
Bottom line here – a simple transition of Nagbe to the center, with Chara as the single defensive-minded midfielder, is not going to win games just for the sake of winning games. But… it will force opponents to spend more time developing defensive tactics – and that time working their defense efforts takes time away from them developing more attacking schemes.
Timbers find their goal scoring form in the last 10 games:
For me, this is an effect – and the cause of that effect is the first tactical change. Therefore I don’t see this as a positive outcome, of substance, on its own.
Put it this way.
If they didn’t find their goal scoring form in those last ten games (given the tactical change of moving Nagbe more central) we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Instead – we’d probably be talking more about what additional personnel changes were made to fix the paltry scoring habits we saw earlier last year.
I think it’s worthy to remember the Portland Timbers were one of the worst goal scoring teams (up until the final ten games) in MLS.
I, for one, certainly recall a major topic of discussion last year was their inability to score goals. And the problem wasn’t quantity it was quality. When Nagbe moved more central that created more space and time elsewhere. Let’s hope that trend continues this year.
Finally – the move of Nagbe to the center of the pitch wasn’t an independent decision; a good portion of that decision, being an option, was the development of Dairon Asprilla taking over the right wing.
Others may disagree – but I’d offer if Asprilla isn’t ready to take on those right wing duties Caleb Porter really doesn’t have any other choice but to leave Darlington Nagbe on the right side.
Timbers consistency in the back four:
Even with all the clean sheets the Timbers had last year I wouldn’t offer they were consistent – at least man-for-man across the entire back four.
If I had to use the word consistent – the only name that comes to mind (for last year) is Jorge Villafana.
Now that’s not intended to be harsh – I fully get that the regular back four was strong – with that many clean sheets credit is due – but… the credit for clean sheets can also go to the Timbers playing two central defending midfielders as well as having a very strong goal keeper – Adam Kwarasey.
So, for me, from a team perspective, the consistency wasn’t about the back four it was (mostly) about the back seven.
In looking at this year – a direct replacement for Jorge Villafana has yet to take shape – and with Jorge gone can the Timbers sustain their low goals against with only one CDM?
I don’t know – we’ll have to wait and see.
For me this was the single, most critical, aspect to the success of the Timbers last year.
If Dairon Asprilla doesn’t develop…
If Jack Jewsbury doesn’t come in and replace the injured Ben Zemanski and Will Johnson…
If Gaston Fernandez and Maxi Urruti don’t score some late goals in early games…
If Taylor Peay doesn’t come in and shut down the likes of Graham Zusi and others… and
If Norberto Paparatto doesn’t come in and throw a shut-out (Timbers don’t lose any games he starts) I don’t think the Timbers make the playoffs!
Translating the success of last year to this year:
- First and foremost the Timbers need to show that they aren’t 11 deep – Caleb Porter talks about being 18 deep. Now, more than ever, with the expanded schedule that includes CCL games, the Timbers need to be 18 deep.
- When looking at Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe, no-one on the bench is truly a one-for-one swap. In my view, Ned Grabavoy can play the middle but he has neither the speed, nor turning/dribbling ability of Nagbe. Nor does he have, in my view, the vision and deft touches of Valeri. I’d expect him to replace one of those players but not in a like for like situation.
- Taylor Peay s still the guy to replace Alvas Powell so I think we’re okay there and if Taylor or Ridgewell start at left back than Valentin slides in next until Klute gets healthy.
- While the Timbers added Valentin and Taylor it doesn’t appear Valentin will be leveraged at center-back. And if Borchers gets injured it’s likely Ridgewell or Taylor (depending on who starts at fullback) will slide in for Borchers and Valentin will come on to fill the left fullback spot.
- However viewed, while Klute remains unavailable, I don’t think the Timbers are deep in defenders.
In looking at the CDM’s:
- With Fochive gone, Zemanski is most likely a one-for-one swap with Diego. And given Chara’s habit of getting yellow cards it is likely we will see Z-man in that single pivot role quite often.
- If he doesn’t get the call, then we do know Capt Jack can step in – but how long will he continue to have the legs to go a full 90 minutes?
Wingers, wide-outs, and forwards.
- For me, this is where the Timbers bench is the weakest. Word has it the Timbers are trying to bolster that area – in my view the sooner they land another winger the better – especially one who can take on that role in a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, or 4-3-3 tactical scheme.
- Others may disagree but unless one of the younger players (Brett, Seaton, Belmar, or???) show extremely well in training I’m not even sure I can envision who sits the bench to make up the final 18.
- It’s hard with any team in MLs to have more than one predominant striker – the Timbers have Adi – a true number nine in my view. As for McInerney -I still remain unconvinced he will add a quality dimension that matches Maxi.
- Jack does have tons of experience in MLS – but he’s floated from team to team and sometimes I sense his on-field concentration lacks considerably – especially when his team doesn’t have the ball.
- That said, I do feel McInerney will work better as a striker in a two striker formation than Maxi did. Why? I don’t know – just gut instinct for now I guess.
- However viewed, Jack is the only striker who stands out to me as being someone who fits into the first 18. Meaning it will take another youngster, like Peay and Fochive did last year, to step up a challenge for the bench.
- Adam Kwarasey does his job, and if Jake Gleeson can stay healthy it is likely he can step in as needed.
- This most likely means that Grabavoy, Zemanski, Jewsbury, Valentin, McInerney, and Gleeson >>> I may have missed someone but I think that leaves one open bench spot and the position that appears to be missing is a winger. Does that mean Neco Brett gets the head nod in game 1?
As noted after the season last year (Through the Looking Glass – Defending the MLS Cup) moving on and not getting complacent is critical.
In listening to some of the interviews Caleb has had this off-season he seems well entrenched in recognizing that.
I have confidence he will continue to develop his team in order to get to that point where any one of 18 guys can start and execute his game plans. But I don’t think he’s at that point yet.
Fixing the bench may not translate to winning the Western Conference – but as we saw last year – you don’t need to win the Conference to win the Cup!
RCTID! Kickoff in 43 hours 20 minutes and 10, 9, 8 seconds…