by Niall McCusker
The Portland Timbers had to come from a goal behind again on Sunday, earning their second 1-1 tie of the season. This is a point more than they had after their first two games last season, but the expectations from the fans and the players have increased by orders of magnitude since then.
Porter called the first half ‘lethargic’; it is hard to argue with that assessment since the visiting keeper was not called into action at all until almost halftime. By then the home team had fallen behind on a penalty kick.
Paparatto failed to clear a long, hopeful free-kick and compounded his error by running over Amarikwa. In the previous five minutes Amarikwa had been causing all kinds of problems for the center backs, getting behind them on the left and attempting to chip Ricketts, before beating Paparatto on the right to fire in a dangerous cross.
Amarikwa and Alex started the game very well, but they would not be regarded as one of the top strike pairings in MLS, or perhaps even in Chicago, so it will of some concern to the Timbers that it took a long time for the central defenders get on top of them.
However, this was only Paparatto’s second regular season appearance in MLS and he had a different partner beside him, so there will be no question of Porter considering changes at this point.
What he will be considering is the best way to deploy his forward resources. Fernandez, Valeri and Nagbe had started from left to right as per the season opener, but at halftime Porter switched Fernandez to the center with Nagbe on the left and Valeri on the right. Porter said he ‘lit a fire under them’ at halftime, so whether it was his words or the shift in formation, the Timbers started to look more dangerous in the second half.
Valeri was not good in the center during the first half, whether he has some residual physical issues after his off-season surgery or it is simply a question of match sharpness, Porter will seek to let him play his way back into form. It did seem like the best place for him to do that could be on the right side where he got a little more time on the ball and started to pick out some good passes.
The new players surrounding Valeri are also part of the attacking conundrum, his best work last year was feeding direct runners such as Rodney Wallace and Ryan Johnson. Fernandez is very different to Wallace on the left, coming more central, often looking to slow the game down a little more and being essentially a second playmaker.
With Nagbe also liking to drift to the center, it looked a little congested at times. They do swap positions occasionally, which will be confusing for defenders if they perfect this interchange, but it may be throwing their own game off as much as their opponents at the moment.
Then there is Urruti, who likes to make more diagonal than direct runs and has so far lacked the physique to hold the ball up and lay it back to the midfielders like Ryan Johnson did in his best moments last season.
Urruti’s tenacious work in closing down defenders is regarded by Porter as absolutely integral to Portland’s possession based philosophy and he does win his share of free kicks in dangerous positions, but it would be nice to see him threaten the goal a little more often.
Porter withdrew Urruti on the hour, moving Fernandez up front, with Nagbe going central and Zakuani coming in on the left. Zakuani’s touch was understandably a little rusty after his layoff but his pace got him to the end line several times. His work kept the Chicago defense honest and their shift in attention to the left side could have been responsible for creating room on the right which the Timbers exploited late in the game.
Nagbe looked good in the center and made some powerful runs from deep, with the abundance of attacking midfield options at Porter’s disposal, if Johnson or Chara are ever forced out due to injury or suspension, it might be interesting to see how Nagbe would fare in a deeper role, given the continued improvement to the defensive side of his game.
Jewsbury had been making himself available offensively all game, but as with Harrington on the other side, the lack of a true winger ahead of him meant he could only swing in diagonal, aerial crosses, which are low percentage balls for this relatively small Portland line-up. In the last ten minutes with Valeri staying further wide and Chara switching the play into their corner, Jewsbury was able to release Valeri and his low, cutback to Nagbe led to the equalizer.
Porter mentioned crosses not necessarily needing to be high or to be met by a big player (which is good as they are in short supply in the Rose City!), this kind of penetration to the end-line and low central cut-backs had led to some great chances in the opening game as well and should be an avenue the Timbers continue to look to exploit.
This will require cover for the full-backs if they are to push forward further and really make other teams think twice about offering Portland the wide areas while they choke the middle.
As Zakuani continues to return to full fitness, the four who started at the front today will likely continue to be the primary option, perhaps with some tweaks in how they line-up. Chicago had conceded three to Chivas the previous week and unlike Philadelphia don’t look like a team set to make a challenge for the play-offs this year, so this was certainly a disappointing result.
Fans should remember that it took quite a few games last year for Nagbe and Valeri to really find the best way to work together, and while the addition of Fernandez is going to be complicated, there is no reason at this point to suggest that the end result will not be worth the patience required as Portland work out the early season kinks.