The Portland Timbers opened the Rose City Invitational on Sunday evening looking to put on a good performance and give their supporters a taste of the success to come in 2014. While in many respects the boys in green delivered a solid outing, a lack of finishing quality and the old Achilles heel of set piece defending combined to send the Timbers to a 1-0 loss.
The game started as lopsided as any at Providence Park in recent memory. The San Jose Earthquakes – donning their new red kits – couldn’t lay a toenail on the ball for the first five minutes of the game, as the Timbers effortlessly moved the rock through, between, and around the Quakes.
For all the possession, the Timbers were short on genuine chances. All it took for San Jose was one set piece to create their first good look, as an early free kick from the right wing found a very loosely marked Steven Lenhart in the box, only to send his header wide.
Portland looked like they would draw the all-important first blood in the 20th minute, however, until Jon Busch intervened. After the Timbers broke out of a Quakes corner, Darlington Nagbe played Maxi Urruti beautifully through on goal, but Busch got just enough of a deflection on Urruti’s first-time finish to permit Shea Salinas to clear before it crossed the line. Two minutes later, Gaston Fernandez found Nagbe via a give-and-go on the left wing, but Nagbe’s low, hard shot skipped just wide of the near post.
But until dominance is painted on the scoreboard, it can all be rendered moot in an instant. And just that happened on Sunday in all-too-familiar fashion. In the 26th minute, the Earthquakes caught the Timbers napping on a short corner and Sam Cronin found Clarence Goodson with position on Pa Modou Kah at the back post. Goodson nodded the ball across the face of goal where Norberto Paparatto – forced to make a play on the ball by a waiting Lenhart and Chris Wondolowski – could only manage to nod into the back of the net for an own goal in his home debut.
For the ten minutes that followed, San Jose put together their best stretch of football of the night, holding the ball in their attacking end for extended periods and keeping the dominant Timbers midfield on their heels. But the Timbers would find their front foot again, and threaten to level the score going into halftime.
In the 42nd minute, a dangerous ball from Ben Zemanski into the six-yard box was partially cleared only to find the foot of Urruti, but his off-balance putback wasn’t firm enough to pull the Timbers level. Three minutes later, it was Fernandez’s turn to receive a give-and-go from Nagbe that set La Gata free on the left side of the box, but a diving Busch saved his bending back post shot.
While the Timbers strung together some nice play in the first half, they were undone by what had been their biggest defensive weakness in 2013 – set pieces. And for a team that relies upon runs and combinations to open up space, giving up an early goal makes the sledding awful tough against a team that likes to sit deep.
Sitting deep is precisely what San Jose came out to do in the second half, as the Quakes frequently packed eight field players within 30 yards of their own goal. Only occasionally did San Jose look to get out on the break, such as when Salinas found Wondolowski on the left side of the box in the 53rd minute, only to have Wondo’s shot skirt wide of the near post.
Starved for space, the Timbers had a hard time prodding for chances. In the 63rd minute a nice bit of buildup put Nagbe into an inch of space at the top of the box, but Busch was there to capture Darlington’s effort. Ten minutes later, it was Fernandez’s turn to try virtually the same shot, but Busch was all over his far post again.
Despite having played nearly the entire half in the Quakes’ end, the Timbers could never quite find the right combination. The packed-in San Jose defense cut off the final passing lanes and made life difficult for the Timbers to find an opening. And even when they did find a crack, Portland was just a touch off.
Such was the case at the death, when a long ball into the box just eluded Frederic Piquionne but fell to the feet of a surprised Fernandez in front of goal. The ball got caught up in his spokes, however, so not even Gaston could find a way to direct the ball frameward.
A longstanding weakness, a disadvantageous tactical shift, and a little bit of bad luck were the Timbers undoing on Sunday night. On an evening in which Portland just couldn’t quite find the finishing touch, it was a set piece goal that let San Jose pack their box, which gave the Timbers’ mini-mite offense an insurmountably tall task to conquer.
Set Piece Defending
The Timbers showed their new zone set piece marking scheme for the first time at Providence Park on Sunday night to mixed results. Early in the game, there appeared to be some confusion when service was delivered into the grey areas between zones, as the Timbers weren’t nearly aggressive enough in attacking the ball. The result was a lot of lost first balls, not all of which came back to bite the Timbers, but many of which created dangerous situations. When defending a set piece by zone, winning the first ball is especially important because you don’t necessarily have a body on each attacker. Thus, even if you lose the first ball in such a way as to not immediately threaten goal, there are enough loose attackers milling around in the mixer that a header played back in can be much more dangerous than the initial service.
Watch the concession again. Kah loses the first ball at the backpost to Goodson with Lenhart and Wondolowski parked in front of goal. In a man-marking situation, those two guys would have two Timbers draped all over them to contest any ball played back in front of the goalmouth. But as it is, only Paparatto is close to contest the header, and even he has a couple yards of space between them because his primary job is not to mark those men, but to keep his shape, read the play, and react. He does that, but he’s a step too late, as he isn’t able to get inside the ball or high enough to redirect it away from goal.
It’s important to note zone marking has its advantages. First, it’s a lot harder to free attacking players with picks because, well, the defense isn’t man-marking. Simply put, in the Timbers’ second regular season game in Seattle in 2013, Eddie Johnson doesn’t score against a zone-marking scheme. Second, assignments should be a little bit more comfortable for the players because they’re marking the set piece in their usual positions. Third, because there aren’t strict marking assignments, zone marking is less susceptible to pre-kick shenanigans. Finally, because the team is in its shape, the Timbers will be in better position to break out on the counter if they win the first ball, something they should be uniquely set up to take advantage of with their pacey attacking talent.
This last point was demonstrated on the Timbers’ best chance of the day; Maxi Urruti’s 20th minute shot that scooted under Busch, but was cleared off the line. The Timbers somewhat nervily cleared a corner and immediately fed the ball out. Because the Timbers attacking talent was already in position to attack, they were off to the races against a disheveled San Jose defense (left winger Shea Salinas came from the right side of defense to clear the ball off the line, after all) where Nagbe put Urruti through on goal with a beautiful vertical pass.
While I expect the Timbers to struggle somewhat in marking set pieces all year, it’s important to give the team time to iron out some of the wrinkles in their free kick defending. If they can get this system sorted out, it has potential to, perhaps counter-intuitively, make them deadly out of set piece defense. So much of it, however, comes down to winning that first ball, which the Timbers did not do well on Sunday.
I thought Ben Zemanski had an outstanding outing in place of Will Johnson on Sunday. During many of the periods the Timbers had San Jose captive in their own end, it was Zemanski intercepting Quakes passes from his holding midfield position and feeding the ball back into the attack.
While much has been made of the Fernandez-Urruti connection, I’m excited to see the chemistry develop between Gaston and Nagbe. Those two connected a number of times on Sunday, and should have a natural chemistry because they both like to play in the same parts of the field – everywhere. The positional flexibility gives these two the ability to play off of each other anywhere on the field – something which won’t please opposing defenses. I thought the Timbers most creative attack on Sunday came through those two when Fernandez and Nagbe played a give-and-go from an unusual angle deep on the left wing, freeing Fernandez on the left side of the box where he was only denied by a very nice save by Busch. Although the attack was really just a quick give-and-go, the angle at which it came at San Jose’s defense clearly had the Quakes flustered, as they didn’t apply any pressure to either player.
Onward, Rose City!