In his Portland, Post-Match, Post-Mortem, Nick Garner looks at Portland’s 0-0 draw with Real Salt Lake and sees many similarities between the sides.
RSL and Timbers. Two Hearts Beating as One?
by Nick Garner
These are two teams in pretty close to peak condition and form that, with the Supporters Shield, playoff position, and the MLS Cup in contention, had nearly everything to play for. They have similar attacking styles and an emphasis on whole team defense through recovering and maintaining possession.
The Portland Timbers have been unable to defeat Real Salt Lake at their own game this season, with every match coming during a period when the Timbers roster was depleted due to injuries and national team call-ups.
The Timbers have also found mixed success as a counter-attacking team lately, but have seemingly sacrificed goal scoring for goal stopping. The tendency of the backline, particularly Mamadou Danso, to hoof the ball up field, has reduced their possession stats somewhat, but has seemingly helped to keep the ball out of their defensive third.
Porter would probably prefer a back four with more propensity to work the ball forward on the ground, but at this point in the season the defensive capabilities of Danso and Pa Modou Kah – the Great Wall of the Gambia; Mike Harrington; and Club Captain Jack can’t be disputed too much.
Kah and Danso have dialed back on the reckless carelessness and Jewsbury is increasingly getting himself into dangerous offensive positions without neglecting his defensive responsibilities.
This strategy did no favors for Will Johnson and Diego Chara in a midfield clogged with tenacious RSL players. It also left Diego Valeri more isolated and less likely to contribute.
I wonder how much long ball has been adopted recently to protect Valeri, who is recovering from an adductor strain and generally draws a lot of unwanted physical attention from defenders hacking at his legs.
His seeing fewer touches stymies the offense somewhat, but may help keep him healthy for future matches down the line. This seems counterproductive enough that I suspect I’m over-thinking it and will instead blame the conservative defensive approach for the change in strategy.
The Timbers have been fairly criticized for coming out slow in many matches and they answered that with one of their quicker starts this season. RSL still controlled most of the match, especially early on, but the Timbers didn’t look to be caught flat-footed or on their heels like they have many times before.
For their part, RSL looked to exploit the usual Timbers weakness on set pieces, with Ned Grabavoy and forward Alvaro Saborio going down a bit easy on a couple of occasions in an effort to draw free kicks in advantageous positions, particularly from a persistently infringing Chara.
Between teams like this it is key to set the tone of the match early on, lest the physicality get out of hand, and the officials have a difficult task in allowing play to go on versus risking injury to the creative playmakers like Darlington Nagbe, Valeri, Luis Gil, the absent Javier Morales, and others.
The RSL midfield did an exceptional job of breaking up the Timbers rhythmic passing game as well, holding Portland to an unusually low possession percentage, which was also exacerbated by the Timbers own tactics, which sought to go over the top to Jose Valencia or down the wings though Nagbe or Kalif Alhassan rather than through the middle to stretch and unlock the RSL defense.
Seeing former Timber Lovell Palmer in at right back for RSL was unexpected, though he seems to be performing better for his new team than he ever did for the Timbers or the fans who gave up on him. He didn’t especially impress in the role in this match, but he didn’t display one of his patented moon shots for the amusement of the Timbers Army either.
Predictably, Robbie Findley and Alvaro Saborio started up top in the two forward positions, the latter something like the Timbers’ kryptonite at times this season, though muscled into ineffectiveness by a stalwart Timbers defense this time around.
RSL wasn’t able to do much with their possession though, particularly later in the game, as they were allowed precisely zero shots on goal and gradually spent less time in the Timbers’ defensive third.
Their shots often came from headers, which the Timbers have struggled against, and Portland may also be lucky that RSL generally didn’t cause the kind of chaos around the goal that has often led to goals given up on second or third balls.
Relatively poor service by the Timbers on set pieces and crosses may have spared RSL though. The lack of finishing has been cited for their dearth of goal-scoring but sometimes the ball is simply not played in precisely enough for a potential goal-scorer to get on the end of it. That’s not to say that there weren’t exceptions, particularly from Valencia and Jewsbury, but the missed chances can’t always be entirely attributed to the would-be goal scorers.
Valencia looked to be trying to replicate what Maxi Urruti was bringing to the Timbers before he came up lame against Seattle last week, doing an admirable job of terrorizing RSL’s back line to force errant passes and dispossession, while showing still more willingness than he has in the past to look for passing outlets when he finds himself in a knot of defenders.
The story of the match is the outstanding play of RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. His ability to read the game and position himself more than compensates for his lack of height and often makes attackers look profligate in their offensive efforts.
The Timbers missed some quality chances but Rimando, quite literally, single-handedly kept RSL in the match, in what otherwise might have been a 3-0 rout. As much as Timbers fans lament some poor finishing, RSL, particularly Rimando, did have something to say about how the match progressed. Rimando stopping two shots within seconds of each other, both one-handed in the 94th minute, made all the difference for RSL.
All in all, fans of both teams were treated to an even, relatively beautiful game, with a level of excitement that belies the score line. The Timbers certainly would like to have seen more of the ball, more frequent and accurate passes, and results from their shots on goal, but it’s a testament to the skill and discipline of RSL, who have been playing this style as a team longer than the Timbers have, that Portland were forced to accept a draw.
The Timbers have to be more disappointed than RSL though, who should have expected a draw in the circumstances. A win would have really staked a stronger claim on the Supporters Shield, which is still a remote possibility for both sides.
One has to pity poor Chivas USA, who will host both teams in rapid succession next week to close out their beleaguered season.
More from Portland’s Big Weekend
Timbers Tie Real Salt Lake To Stay Top In West (Match Report)