The Morrison Report: Ride the Horse That Brought You Edition

Barring a catastrophic collapse from the Timbers, Caleb Porter should and will be MLS Coach of the Year.  Jason Kreis is the only other coach whose name reasonably should be on the ballot, but considering the Timbers’ cupboard was almost entirely bare a year ago, Porter is the clear choice.

So it goes without saying that Caleb Porter has done a tremendous job as manager for the Portland Timbers in 2013.  But he hasn’t been perfect – most especially lately.

As the Timbers have made their up-and-down stretch run, Porter has made some tactical decisions that have come back to bite the boys in green.  And in almost every case, it was about overthinking the tactical matchups.

Three examples bear this out.  First, as was thoroughly discussed at the time, Porter’s short-lived experiment with a 3-4-3 in Salt Lake went south quickly.  Second, against Chivas USA a little more than a week ago, Porter built the functional right side of the Timbers formation out of Kalif Alhassan and Sal Zizzo, making that side a vulnerability that the Goats exploited to some success.

Finally, and this one merits some discussion, Porter tapped Maxi Urruti to start at striker over Ryan Johnson and Jose Valencia against Colorado.  While I have no reason not to agree with Porter that Urruti is a promising young striker, his lack of aerial prowess and holdup ability caused significant problems for the Timbers in breaking down Colorado’s pressure and holding the ball in attacking areas.

In the 30 minutes after Ryan Johnson came on, the Timbers held 51.5% of the ball despite the Rapids becoming increasingly desperate for an equalizer.  In the 60 minutes during which Urruti was on the field, Portland only held the ball 47.2% of the time.  In his hour-long stint, Urruti completed three passes in the attacking third.  In half the time, Johnson had five.  Despite having several passes come his way aerially via Route One, Urruti only won one header in his hour, whereas Johnson won six in half-an-hour.

The result of Urruti struggling to win long balls and hold up play was that the Timbers had a hard time formulating much in the way of sustained offense.  Portland had to send long balls forward because Colorado were being very aggressive in pressing high.  There were spaces, then, for the Timbers to exploit, but only if they had a target man who could win the ball and hold it until the midfielders who were sucked into defense and trying to beat the high pressure could release.  Urruti couldn’t buy them the ball or that amount of time, however, so Portland’s long balls often turned into glorified clearances.

Simply put, Porter put the wrong personnel on the field to play the direct game Colorado was begging the Timbers to play.  The selection of Urruti, then, was another unexpected wrinkle that backfired.

Now, it’s possible Porter was surprised by Colorado’s high pressure, and was caught needing to play a direct game with a tiki-taka oriented team.  Either way, however, he’s outthought himself again.  After all, he’s seen this tactic from Colorado before.

Rewind three months to June 23, 2013.  Everybody remembers that Portland won that game 3-0.  Indeed, Colorado came to Portland as a reeling team, so the result wasn’t all that surprising.  But rather than lie down and get whooped, as I expected, the Rapids actually came out firing, pressing the Timbers high and forcing them to play direct.  Yeah, basically the same general strategy the Rapids employed on Friday.

In that game, however, the Timbers were set up for it, with a backline of four guys who naturally stay at home – Jack Jewsbury and Ryan Miller at fullback – and Frederic Piquionne at striker.  So when Colorado forced the Timbers to bypass the midfield to some extent, they played right into the Timbers’ hands.  Piquionne was a beast, winning nine headers in 60 minutes, effectively holding the ball up, completing a gaggle of passes in attacking areas, and notching his first – and, to date, only – MLS goal.

The Timbers won 3-0 despite a stat sheet that was shockingly to the September rematch.  In June, Colorado outshot Portland 18-6 (!), had 19 open play crosses to the Timbers’ 11, earned five corners to Portland’s two, and held 47.3% of the ball, which at the time was the highest Portland had allowed at Jeld-Wen Field.  In September, Colorado outshot Portland 13-9, won open play crosses 18-10, earned 9 corners to the Timbers’ three, and held 50.9% of possession.

The decision to put Urruti up front on Friday, then, yielded considerably poorer results against a Colorado team that essentially doubled down on the general strategy that the Timbers easily handled three months earlier.

Three times in recent weeks, then, Porter has made moves for games that haven’t quite come off, and while he got away with it against Colorado, the same can’t be said for the road trips to Chivas and RSL.

Now, to be sure, the Chivas and RSL moves were at least in part motivated by injuries that limited Porter’s options.  Given a full roster, he never plays a 3-4-3 against RSL or Zizzo at right back – or Alhassan at right mid, for that matter – against Chivas.

But in both games, he opted for counterintuitive selections, injuries notwithstanding.  Against RSL, conventional wisdom was that Portland would play their 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 with Zemanski at right back.  Against Chivas, Porter could have either put Zemanski at right back – a position at which he has considerable experience from season’s past and a few capable appearances early in 2013 – or moved Nagbe to the right (where he normally plays) and put Alhassan in the center (where he normally appears in relief) which would have given Zizzo the additional cover of Nagbe’s superior wing defense.

What we’ve seen from Porter recently, then, is a tendency to get too fancy with the wrinkles he introduces into the game plan.

As we saw in the last half hour on Friday, and as we’ve seen over and over this year, when the Timbers set up relatively conventionally, they’re usually very good.  The system Porter has installed and the footballing habits he’s instilled in this team can take them a long way.

But recently, when Caleb overthinks the game plans and his selections, he’s gotten himself in trouble and has put the team in precarious positions.  Instead, Porter just needs to ride the horse that brought him.

If he does that, you can count on Caleb winning Coach of the Year, and the Timbers making a lot of noise in the playoffs.

Onward, Rose City!

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