What’s Different About #Portland @Timbersfc this Year?

Caleb Porter left Portland Timbers at the end of 2017.  There were many rumors as to why that happened; I put (some) of my thoughts in writing here:  Porter Pulls out of Portland

I didn’t include everything and still won’t; what happens behind closed-doors should stay behind closed doors.

But here’s what I offered almost half-way through the season (last year) that led me to believe his departure would happen soon:  Getting Hot in Portland

During the off-season Merritt Paulson and Gavin Wilkinson interviewed some folks and selected Giovanni Savarese.

Many good articles and discussion sharing positive thoughts about Giovanni Savarese – none have been inaccurate so far and some, in my opinion, don’t go far enough in singing his praises.

In my five years of following/researching Portland Timbers soccer no head coach has shown a greater positive (team building) environment as well as a greater understanding of the tactical nous needed to earn points, consistently, in this league.

I would go so far as to say he’d be my first (domestic) choice to head coach the United States Men’s National Team now that Jesse Marsch has departed for Europe.

This is simply my way of offering up how good of a coach I think Giovanni Savarese is; others may disagree for one reason or another.


Anyhow, we’ve seen how the Timbers perform this year – most would categorize the Timbers as a top counter-attacking team and I’d agree.

What makes this team so special in counter-attacking is how well they ‘pack’ their defending final third while also having attackers with a great first touch.

Here’s some team performance statistics that may help tell this story a bit better.  The Timbers have:

  • Averaged less possession this year than in any other year from 2014.
  • Averaged the 2nd highest percentage of passing accuracy this year since 2014.
  • Averaged the 2nd highest percentage of penetration this year since 2014.

In other words they have less of the ball – but when they have less they do more with it.

Opponents have had:

  • Greater possession this year than in the past.
  • Greater passing accuracy this year than in the past.
  • Worse penetration this year than three of the last four years.
  • Worse creativity this year than in the past.
  • Worse precision this year than in the past.
  • Worse finishing this year than in the past.

So while the opponents have had more of the ball outside the attacking final third they’ve been less efficient with it.

Tactically the Timbers have offered:

  • Fewer crosses per game this year than in the past.
  • More shots taken than in three of the last four years.
  • More shots on goal than in three of the last four years.

From an attacking standpoint the Timbers aren’t quite as predictable in their approaches to penetrating this year than in the past.

In other words less predictability in how the team penetrates the 18 yard box has resulted in more shots taken and nearly more shots on goal than in any previous year.

Tactically the Timbers have:

  • Averaged fewer fouls per game than in the past.
  • Averaged fewer tackles per game than in the past.
  • Ceded more opponent passes within their defending final third than in the past.
  • Blocked more opponent shots this year than in the past.
  • Had fewer goals scored against them than in three of the last four years – only 2015 was lower.

It’s interesting to me the Timbers have had fewer tackles and fewer fouls while ceding more passes to the opponent.

One of my pet peeves is statisticians who offer that a high volume of tackles means a player is a great defender – I could easily argue the opposite – the fewer tackles a player has the more likely that player has not been caught out of position.

Tell the folks who created the Audi Player Index that. 😉

There is a tactical approach known as “packing and IMPECT” – an approach developed after analysis of team performance soccer statistics in Europe.

  • It was this approach that France used to great effect when winning the World Cup.
  • It should be noted France didn’t win the World Cup strictly through counterattacking – they also won three games by dominating possession too.
  • In a recent home game we saw Savarese switch to a more attacking style when playing San Jose.
  • The Timbers had 59% of the possession and earned three points.
  • This is the first time the Timbers earned three points at home while also exceeding 55% possession this year.

In closing:

While Giovanni Savarese is at the tip of the spear it’s worthy to say both Paulson and Wilkinson have done a great job in selecting him.

You only need to look at Colorado and San Jose to know hiring a new head coach can go horribly wrong.

Here’s a look where the Timbers ranked in the Total Soccer Index after Week 5:

Now. after Week 22:


Final thoughts:

I’m not joking when offering credit to Paulson and Wilkinson – you only need to pick out Colorado Rapids (CRFC) in these same two diagrams.

In Week 5 CRFC were 6th best, at Week 22, they are now 2nd worst.  The team with the other new head coach to start the season, San Jose, is 3rd worst in MLS.

I think bringing Gio Savarese in was a great move.

Best, Chris