Match Report: Timbers Take a Step Toward Greatness in L.A.

In many respects, the Portland Timbers were far from great on Wednesday.  They were shut out.  They failed to connect on any number of promising plays in the attacking third.  They did very little to bother the vulnerable Carlo Cudicini.

And yet, Wednesday’s result marks the first time I’ve thought this team has the potential for greatness in 2013.  I don’t mean greatness eventually, or greatness a year or two from now.  I mean the Timbers can win major trophies.  This year.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying they will win the Cup.  Or even that they’re likely to.  Or even that they’re ready to do so right now.  But they can.

Throughout 2013, the Timbers have checked a number of boxes that every good team needs to check.  They’ve shown the ability to win on the road.  They’ve shown the capacity to find goals and results when things aren’t quite clicking.  They’ve proven they can control the tempo, possess the ball, and even bust the nets.

Until Wednesday night, however, Portland had yet to check one vital box – the ability to dominate a good team defensively.  Yet, after a nervous first ten minutes in Carson, that’s exactly what the Timbers did to the L.A. Galaxy on Wednesday.

Over the final eighty minutes at the StubHub Center, the Galaxy had an awkward bouncing header and a small gaggle of half chances to show for their $7 million attack.

The Galaxy’s best chance of the evening came in the 55th minute when Tommy Meyer sent a partially cleared Robbie Rogers corner back into the box.  The ball glanced off Sean Franklin’s head and blooped toward the far post, but ultimately bounced softly off the woodwork to be eventually cleared by the Timbers.

Otherwise, however, the Timbers defense was in control.  Sure, there was a Gyasi Zardes cross here, and a Colin Clark poke there, but every Galaxy mini-chance found its demise on Portland’s disciplined backline.

Perhaps no play epitomized the evening, however, like Robbie Keane’s 91st minute run.  After a pinpoint Clark long ball found Keane at the top of the box, Andrew Jean-Baptiste picked his pocket, shielded him from the ball, and casually played back into the Timbers midfield all while the Irish international searched his boots in vain for the ball.  All the talent in the world couldn’t match Portland’s organization and discipline.

On the other end, there wasn’t a whole lot going for the Timbers offensively.  Portland was conservative in committing numbers to the final third, and the Timbers’ usually potent attackers misfired on a handful of occasions.

But the story is the defensive dominance of Portland’s backline.  This team has and will continue to score goals.  This team has and will continue to control tempo.  This team has and will continue to find results.  But now we know this team can lock down the best opposing attacks in the league.

Simply put, the Timbers showed on Wednesday that they have all the pieces of a championship-caliber team.  If they can put those pieces together in the second half of the season, the Portland Timbers may hoist their fair share of silverware by December.

Notes & Observations

  • While the Timbers didn’t bunker in, they were very conservative in sending players into the final third on Wednesday.  Looking at the heat maps of Kalif Alhassan and Darlington Nagbe – nominal forwards if you buy into the 4-3-3 theory – you’ll notice a lot of time spent around the midfield stripe on Wednesday.  You would expect to see that if Portland was bunkered down in their own box, but that wasn’t the case against the Galaxy, as the Timbers controlled 54% of the ball and completed 455 passes.  Rather, doubtlessly cognizant of the Galaxy’s potent counterattack, the Timbers were very careful in picking their spots going forward.  If one player on a wing ventured into the final third, the other on that side – be it a fullback or a midfielder/forward – would generally hang back.  This substantially limited the Timbers’ ability to combine in the final third and open up a Galaxy defense that has looked openable at times this year, but also allowed the Timbers to kill counterattacks in the midfield and, when Galaxy did look to run, force them into a fully stocked defense.
  • The credit for the defensive performance, then, belongs to more than just Pa Modou Kah and Andrew Jean-Baptiste.  Rather, Ryan Miller, Michael Harrington, Diego Chara, Will Johnson, and even Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan were instrumental in keeping the Galaxy off the board.

Timbers Grades

Donovan Ricketts, 8 – Tremendous once again.  Ricketts controlled his box and put himself in the right places at the right times.  Really didn’t need to do anything heroic on Wednesday, however, as the men in front of him gobbled up almost everything the Galaxy threw at them.

Ryan Miller, 6.5 – Perhaps a surprise inclusion in the starting eleven, Miller justified his inclusion in the team with a very solid defensive outing.  Made his way forward a handful of times as well, but – as we’ve seen in the past – didn’t make a whole lot of it.

Andrew Jean-Baptiste, 8.5 – Hard to have a much better game from a center back.  Made one or two small mistakes, but they’re easily washed out in light of his physical dominance and outstanding anticipation.

Pa Modou Kah, 8 – It would have been easy for Kah to play conservatively after picking up a soft early yellow card, but instead he came through with big tackle after big tackle.

Michael Harrington, 6 – Another solid game brought to a disappointing finish by his injury after a late collision.  Harrington may have been in line for a day off on Sunday in any case, but lacking many other options on the left, the Timbers will need Mikey back soon.

Diego Chara, 7 – One of the most consistent presences in the Timbers’ sputtering offense on Wednesday, Chara’s grade is primarily justified by his defensive work.  The Timbers’ defensive central midfield did a great job of cutting out Galaxy counterattacks before they had a chance to materialize.

Will Johnson, 7 – Although he wasn’t as involved in the offense, Johnson was maybe even a step better than Chara defensively, with seven recoveries.  Both Johnson and Chara completed better than 90% of their passes, as well, serving to further limit L.A.’s opportunities to break.

Darlington Nagbe, 5.5 – Perhaps nobody’s postgame line reveals the Timbers’ offensive conservatism more than Nagbe’s.  His eight recoveries led the team, and his heat map reveals he spent much more time around midfield than usual.  Nagbe showed some of the best defense we’ve seen from him as a Timber, but still found time to create one of the Timbers’ best chances with a swerving 25 yard shot.

Diego Valeri, 4 – The Timbers isolated Valeri and Ryan Johnson up top, with only occasional help from underlying areas.  This shifted a lot of responsibility to Valeri to be the creator.  He had a difficult job and didn’t quite pull it off.  Diego also didn’t make the most of his service on a handful of dangerous set pieces – a rare area in which the Timbers have struggled in 2013.

Kalif Alhassan, 4.5 – He was actually a little bit better than my first impression led me to believe.  Perhaps starting from a deeper lying position than he’s used to, Kalif didn’t make the most of a few moments, but on the whole wasn’t terrible.  That said, Wednesday underscores Kalif’s strength by omission – operating as a facilitator for multiple teammates joining the attack.  He wasn’t really able to do that against L.A., however, in light of the Timbers holding numbers back.

Ryan Johnson, 5.5 – Felt like he had to go it alone most of the night, and did well to win his share of balls and create a couple half chances from nothing.  That’s a tough job for any striker, to say nothing of one that lacks blazing speed.

Frederic Piquionne, 4 – It was always going to be difficult for Piquionne to make much of an impact.  Porter’s thought was likely to go more direct with Piquionne and Ryan Johnson up top, and let them play off each other, but they never really had the chance.

Ben Zemanski, 5.5 – A short appearance for Zemanski, but an effective one.  Gathered a few key clearances and relieved a good amount of pressure on the backline late in the game.  Was a good chunk of the reason the Galaxy could never get set to shell Portland’s defense in the waning moments.

Sal Zizzo, INC.

Preseason Prediction: Galaxy 2, Timbers 0. Magee, Juninho.
Actual Result: Timbers 0, Galaxy 0.

Onward, Rose City!

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One Response to Match Report: Timbers Take a Step Toward Greatness in L.A.

  1. sagcat says:

    This is excellent work, Chris. I know there’s a lot of people who get down on things like Player ratings and power rankings. For many writers, those formulas are used in place of content and analysis. But when used as a frame on which to organize a thoughtful narrative, as we have here, it’s actually very informative. I watched the game and read recaps, but I feel like I have a better understanding now of how the game played out thanks to your use of statistics and accurate descriptions as to what the various players were doing out there.

    What I’ve been thinking about for the last several weeks is how much the Timbers frustrate opponents with our incredible midfield. Will Johnson, Chara & Valeri must give opposing coaches nightmares in preparation. They just have everything you could want in a 4-3-3 midfield, with an extra dose of tenacious D. I wondered early if Will Johnson would duplicate Chara in too many ways, but what we’ve seen instead is that because they both are such effective & reliable holding mids, both have been allowed to do much more than that simple role. Those two are the central lynchpin holding together our possession game, which is crucial to everything we do. I just love watching all three of them play together.

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