After two impressive performances which translated to two less than fulfilling results, the Portland Timbers head on the road to Seattle with questions surrounding the feasibility of winning with their current tactics.
While the Timbers’ flood of the midfield has resulted in impressive possession statistics, and substantially limited the number of shots allowed, it has resulted in the backline being exposed on numerous occasions.
In light of the frequent concessions and the rehabilitation of Jack Jewsbury’s hamstring, the Timbers may be looking at a change of tactics in Seattle, if not in the coming weeks.
During the first week of practice, Caleb Porter often lined the Timbers’ presumptive starters up in a diamond midfield formation during short-sided games, with Jewsbury in the first choice team. This lasted five minutes into the first preseason game against Colorado, when Jewsbury pulled his hamstring.
And so the experimentation began. The result was a 4-2-3-1 with a gaggle of Timbers in the central midfield. Kalif Alhassan, who at times last year looked a breath away from sending his career into the wilderness, stepped in to give the Timbers an intriguing attacking look in the 4-2-3-1.
Intrigue turned to concern, however, after the Timbers conceded nine goals in their first four first team games at Jeld-Wen Field in 2013.
Conceding goals at that rate at home is troublesome. Conceding goals at that rate on the road is fatal.
The reality is, regardless of how many players the Timbers pack into the midfield, they’re not going to hold 65% of the ball and limit opponents to 10 shots on the road with any consistency. A change in tactics, then, if perhaps advisable at home, is an absolute necessity if the Timbers want to have a prayer on the road.
We return to Porter’s first-choice diamond 4-4-2, then. Traditionally, a 4-2-3-1 will be wider up top than a diamond 4-4-2, as it typically features two traditional wings in the higher midfield level. Portland’s 4-2-3-1, however, was very narrow, as all three players in the advanced level like to play centrally.
The result was the Timbers relied on their fullbacks to provide width in the offense and as the only real flank defense. Because the fullbacks played so high in the offense, they were often caught upfield. In that instance, Diego Chara and Will Johnson were often faced a difficult choice of either covering the flank and opening up the middle, or holding their position and opening up the wide areas. While the correct choice was probably to cover the flank more often than they did, doing so wasn’t without risk.
While the diamond 4-4-2, as the Timbers would play it, is no wider offensively, it provides a little bit more cover for the fullbacks when they do venture forward to provide width. With Jack Jewsbury back to health, he’s likely to feature if Portland goes to the more traditional look, as Ben Zemanski has struggled when asked to play inside. With Chara and Johnson playing narrow wings, Jack can sit in the hole and play a more defensive role. Will and Diego will play a little bit wider than in the 4-2-3-1, which will increase their defensive range slightly closer to the touchline.
More importantly, however, the change would remove the tough decision for Chara and Johnson. Knowing Jewsbury is there to cover the middle, Chara and Johnson can rest assured the middle is covered if they look up to see Michael Harrington or Ryan Miller upfield.
In this way, even though a diamond 4-4-2 typically puts more pressure on fullbacks to cover ground, it may not for the Timbers considering the narrowness of their 4-2-3-1. To the contrary, it may actually relieve some of that pressure by freeing up Johnson and Chara to cover.
Nonetheless, considering the vulnerability thus far, Porter is likely to hold the fullbacks – or at least one of them at a time – farther back on Saturday. The unavoidable result is the loss of some width in the attack. That, though, is the price you pay for defensive cover.
Expect the Timbers, however, to try to generate width in creative ways. In his role as second striker, Darlington Nagbe will have license to wander wherever he feels, including out wide if the situation calls for it. We’ve seen Darlington do this from time to time over the past couple weeks, often combining well with Michael Harrington in such a role.
Ryan Johnson has also shown the capacity and willingness to float wide on the left side, something the Timbers could benefit from considering he is one of the few roster players that can hit a cross with his left foot. Don’t be surprised, then, if the Timbers mix up their front a little bit, and send Nagbe and Valeri into the box to receive Johnson crosses once in a while.
The diamond 4-4-2, however, does somewhat mitigate the Timbers flood of the center of midfield, however. Instead of five players in the middle, Portland will most often feature four – Chara, Will Johnson, Valeri, and Nagbe. While that combination certainly wouldn’t show the dynamism of the past several weeks, its fluidity and quick passing may be enough to keep the Sounders’ defense on its toes, occupy a good amount of Ozzie Alonso’s energy, and – ideally – force the Sounders’ wings inside to defend. If the Timbers’ midfield can accomplish those three things, and especially the last, they may be able to escape the Clink with a result.
If not, however, a struggling Timbers backline may be tested early and often. That, considering how frequently Portland has been giving up goals on opponents’ chances, could lead to a very, very long night.
Onward, Rose City!
 It would be hard not to. Against the Impact last week, one Montreal writer understandably mistook Ryan Miller for a forward when he was taken down in the box.