Timbers Shake the Quakes – Again

In perhaps their best team performance all year the Portland Timbers defeated the San Jose Earthquakes, in the fourth round of the US Open Cup, at Providence Park last night 2 – nil.

I don’t offer that lightly – the Timbers have struggled on both sides of the ball this year – not only in finishing chances but in denying chances.  As evidence – their lack of clean sheets on the back-end and a rather low number of goals scored per shots taken on the front end.

If this game shows the tenor of things to come for Portland this year the rest of Major League Soccer needs to take notice!

In particular – many times we hear that a player is a great defender because they have higher than average numbers of tackles – this couldn’t be further from the truth.

A solid defender is a person who shuts down penetration and forces the opponent to move the ball elsewhere.  Jorge Villafana was superb in doing that last year and Zarek Valentin stepped in last night and did the same.

Rarely did you see him have to tackle or leave his feet –  if memory serves I don’t recall him doing that once last night.  And I can only recall Taylor Peay doing it once himself.

When you want to give yourself a solid chance at a clean sheet you need your fullbacks to shut down the wings and force the opponent to play in low-percentage crosses.  A good indicator to support that theory is the high level of clearances last night with a high level of crosses.

Depth:

Amobi Okugo:  With the acquisition of Amobi Okugo the Timbers have shored up what I thought was a waning center-back weakness with the departure of Norberto Paparatto.  Okugo impressed me when I saw him play for Philadelphia Union, a few years ago, and that positive impression remains.  A solid defender who knows his positional role and how to support others around him.  A great awareness to be sure.

Taylor Peay:  As referenced earlier Taylor, like last year, continues to progress.  He’s shown well against the likes of Graham Zusi and others last year and apart from one instance against Shea Salinas – one of the quicker players on San Jose – he showed well again last night.

Jack Barmby:  Jack Barmby has shown good pace and quick feet since joining the Timbers – others, like Lucas Melano, have shown the same.  The difference, in my view, is that Barmby actually understood and understands how his positional play impacts and influences the play and space generated for others.  In addition, his first touch is far better.

Many may view my opinion about Lucas Melano as a personal affront – it’s not.

The youthful Lucas shows great strength in spreading the defenders wider with  his speed.  But with his considerably higher salary, and slow development of a good first touch (at least on turf), his continued role is tenable as a starter.  So the sooner Barmby matures on the pitch the better.

Others may disagree, but in my view, there is no room in MLS for highly paid players who don’t provide specific, attributable, results relative to team success on a consistent basis.

Bottom line is Lucas Melano hasn’t shown consistent value given his salary.  Perhaps a return to South America does suit Lucas better?

Tenor of tactics:

In thinking about gravitational pull – this is all about playing without the ball as much as playing with the ball.  Nearly 95% of the game a player plays without the ball.  Last night, for me, was a great example on how effective the entire team was in playing without the ball.

I think much of that has to do with what Caleb Porter touched on in his post game presser – the tenor of the Timbers attack has moved on this year.

With always trying to play a 4-3-3 Timbers players movement without the ball became predictable – if you don’t know what I mean just watch Columbus Crew.  Meaning, as advocated very early this year – the Timbers needed to move on and develop more flexible ways to attack.

Note the increased level of passing these last few games and the interaction/rotation of players within the attacking half.  All of this is to the good and should be fair warning to scouts tracking the Timbers that their penetration schemes are diverse and more dangerous – less predictable!

Improvement on the pitch:

Jack McInerney:  When I first watched Jack McInerney I didn’t think he showed a lot of grist in applying pressure or shifting about to create openings elsewhere on the pitch.  I won’t say that now – in the last few games his rotational play and finishing has been superb.  His improvement on the pitch simply makes other players more effective.  I wonder how well he’d work with Fenando Adi in a two-striker format for 75+ minutes?

The basic/bucket 4-4-2 can be quite boring at times but when it comes down to it – it’s probably one of the most fundamentally sound formations in soccer.  The greater your team is in executing the 4-4-2 (with all its nuances) the more effective other formations become.

Dairon Asprilla:   As for Dairon Asprilla – from day one he’s impressed me with his first touch and ability to play all sides of the pitch while also understanding his positional role relative to his teammates.  My concern has been his chippy mentality – like we witnessed two weeks ago.  But I don’t think it’s that chippy-ness, on the pitch, that got in his way of minutes earlier this year.

I think it’s his chippy-ness in seeing a teammate, like Lucas Melano, getting more minutes when Dairon has strong feelings/emotions that his performance on the pitch was just as good – if not better – than Melano’s.  That (might?) sound a bit dubious but players can be quite sensitive at times – especially when you need an ego to play.

A Head coach never wants a player who doesn’t show passion – the challenge for the players and team leadership is moderating that passion when not selected… his performance last night was strong – very strong – it’s good to see Dairon do well – I think he will have a key role in this team being successful this year.

And if Lucas Melano can keep things more simple and just rely on his instincts, and a better first touch, I’m sure he can add greater value too.  But if you’re going to maximize flexibility in attack it’s likely we won’t see Dairon Asprilla and Lucas Melano on the pitch at the same time… especially if Jack Barmby and Darren Mattocks improve.

Moving forward:

Nineteen games remain – max points equals 57 – an unlikely target but I’d bet every game the Timbers play will begin with the intent to get three points.

Flexibility and shifting players (in-game) to maximize different ways and means to penetrate, create, and score goals is critical – but not as critical as holding the opponent scoreless.  The defensive side of this team has not been good so far – it NEEDS to improve.

One game is not a trend, but this latest litmus test shows that fullbacks on the Timbers are getting better at locking down the wing penetration – can they sustain that lock down?

The weekend game against Real Salt Lake is the next test – can they continue?

Best, Chris

 

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