Union vs. Portland Timbers Tactical Preview

TACTICAL PREVIEW: Union and Portland meet for first and only time in 2018 season

A fourteen match unbeaten streak does not happen by chance or luck alone, though both certainly play a part when eight of nine wins on that streak are by a single goal. In his first season as the Portland Timbers’ head coach, former New York Cosmos’ man Giovanni Savarese has his team playing an intense, dedicated, and organized style that the rest of the league has struggled to break down. Portland likes to shapeshift, giving up space and adding an additional man to the back line against the firepower of Atlanta, while pushing fullbacks high and leaving only the central defenders deep against Seattle’s somewhat less prolific attack.

Still, all the tactical tweaks would mean little without the wildly consistent attacking prowess of Diego Valeri. The ageless Argentine wonder has formed an immediate and threatening partnership with new striker Samuel Armenteros, and the improved form of Sebastian Blanco has created an attacking core capable of providing that extra push over the line in close games.

If you really get down to the nitty gritty, Portland’s success boils down to this: 1) Winning one goal games, 2) The continual scoring success of their Big Three up front, and 3) adherence to principles of maximum effort and protection of the center of the box defensively.

The Basics

Who. Portland Timbers, 4th in the Western Conference (but 2nd based on points per game)
When. 11:00PM EST on Saturday, August 4th
Where. Providence Park, Portland, OR
Watch. PHL17, streaming on ESPN+

The Stakes

New England and Montreal sit one point above Philly in the standings and both face teams in the bottom three of the Eastern Conference this weekend. Meanwhile, Chicago is four points behind the Union but on the road at Real Salt Lake. Few expect to get three points in Rip City, but with Sebastian Blanco suspended Philly could go for a smash-n-grab if they get on the board early. Even one point would be a huge confidence booster before the Union embark on a six game stretch against Eastern Conference opponents, all but one of whom are in fourth place or below.

Form

Portland can’t lose. They keep winning one goal games and stealing points in matches when they are outplayed, but when Valeri and Armenteros are up front it allows for a flexible system that can become a hardcore counterattacking shape in a pinch. This makes Portland extremely dangerous on the road or when they are ahead and the opponent has to stretch themselves.

Rewind

These teams have yet to play this season. The Union are 0-3-1 all-time in Portland with 3 goals scored and 7 conceded.

Big Picture

Diego Valeri is awesome and has a better beard than James Harden (don’t @ me). But the secret spice has allowed Portland to cook up an undefeated run may be Sebastian Blanco. The 30 year old Argentine offers the flexibility Gio Savarese craves while contributing the goals his team desperately needs. Can you see Samuel Armenteros? Great. What about Valeri? OK, good. You’re safe.

Nope. Here comes Blanco with the late run.

After picking up a caution for an ugly stamp on Eric Alexander last weekend, Blanco is suspended for this Saturday’s showdown with Philly, and there is not anything close to a like-for-like replacement available off the bench.

But that is not to say the Timbers will simply fold. With the Argentine attacker out against Seattle, Portland conjured up a stolid first half that kept the match even then rolled out a few tactical tweaks and turned themselves into a counterattacking menace after the break.

Tree of Timbers

Without Blanco, Portland played in a 4-3-2-1 shape that Savarese has used to great effect a number of times this season. The “Christmas tree” or “just a regular tree” formation creates a strong defensive base of four defenders behind three compact midfielders. A band of two further up the pitch can perform flexible roles trapping play on the wings, dropping into the middle when a holding mid moves wide, or finding space to set up for a counterattack.

One of the potential pitfalls of this shape is a lack of attacking width. Portland compensates by asking their fullbacks to set up high and wide in attack and then recover into a narrow back four defensively. Powell is on the near side here, and he advanced up the wing then immediately retreats into the defensive line when possession changes.

Against Seattle, the Timbers used Alvas Powell and Diego Valeri as first half outlets before switching tactics in the second half. Powell can be very effective going forward, and his freedom is protected by Diego Chara’s excellent field-covering capabilities.

Yet there is opportunity amidst the discipline. When Chara is out of the center, it is far softer. If Philly can find their winger in behind Powell early, pull Chara out and then attack through the middle they will have a far easier time penetrating Portland’s defense. That, of course, is easier said than done.

Methods of attack

The Timbers can be a very direct attacking team, but they do not need to be. When they want to play a slow game, Portland is perfectly happy to play the ball vertically after winning it then cycle play through their midfielders and try to find either Valeri centrally or Powell high up for a cross.

In the clip below, you can see Valeri seeking to create space on the right flank for Powell by tugging at the vision of the left fullback. Valeri checks the space in front of him then moves into the Seattle defensive line, opening the right flank for Powell.

On the other hand, when they want to break, the Timbers can really break. A big reason they are successful at counterattacking is the initial positioning of the attackers. Portland can start with two men high then switch to leaving three men upfield and catch defenses asleep. When those players remain high, they are particularly intelligent with their positioning, looking to remain in spaces between defenders so they can take a touch before being close down and take off upfield.

In the clip below, look at the three Portland players ahead of the ball. All have already created space before their team wins the ball back.

Big battles

Borek Dockal/Ale Bedoya vs Timbers’ midfield. Philly is likely to rest players, but Dockal or Bedoya will probably start at the attacking midfield role. It is incredibly difficult to find space between the lines against Portland, so Philly’s attacking mid is going to need to move creatively, perhaps taking up wide positions and helping to maintain possession so one of the deeper mids can roll forward. This is, of course, quite dangerous because once the Union release a deeper midfielder they are opening space for the counterattack. Pay close attention to how the attacking midfielder moves, then, and whether he can find space in the center.

Timbers transition attack vs Union middle four. If they can pull a team’s holding midfielders out of the middle, the Timbers can be destructive on the counter. The Union are unlikely to use all three of their typical midfield, and they may even rest more than one with Chicago and New England on the horizon. Resting a single player likely means adding Warren Creavalle to the mix and playing in a more inverted triangle shape going forward. Resting two may mean minutes for someone like Derrick Jones, who can dominate as a box-to-boxer at the USL level but may interpret the role more conservatively at the MLS level. Positioning and reading when to step to stay close to Valeri and when to sit to block lanes to Armenteros will be a huge task for whoever starts because Portland is so good at starting transitions.  

Set piece showdown. The Timbers are one of the better teams on dead balls, scoring from a set piece on average about once every three games. They can dominate man-to-man matchups in the box, and Larrys Mabiala’s four goals is fourth on the team this season. With Blanco out, the home side will be even more reliant on counterattacks and set plays for offense.  

Big questions

Who will play for the Union? Three games in eight days and the latter two are most important… it’s a good bet Philly will look to show off its depth on Saturday, and Jim Curtin implied as much in his midweek presser. But how that depth will manifest is a more complex question. Curtin has rotated CJ Sapong and Cory Burke the last four games, and with Burke already on a season-long hat trick against Chicago it’s a good bet Sapong gets the nod up front. Beyond that it’s a guessing game. The Union dropped two of three earlier this year when Haris Medunjanin was out, but they outplayed Toronto before falling behind and fell on the road to the best team in the west, so context matters.

Additionally, Philly can rotate at least one fullback with Fabinho as depth, and they have Jack Elliott available in the center. Curtin said in his press conference that the homegrown match was like a practice for Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty, but he could still opt to give one of them mental recovery time after what was sure to be a whirlwind experience in Atlanta. The wingers… does it matter that much? Beyond Fafa Picault, the Union have not had a consistent threat out wide, so Curtin can go with whoever has a good week in practice and switch things up as the game unfolds.

Can Philly convert an early chance? Forcing Portland to come out of its defensive shape is difficult because they will wait as long as possible before stretching the game, confident in Valeri’s ability to turn nothing into goals. The Union have often been on top early in matches but have not always turned that dominance into leads. They will likely struggle to break Portland down if they fall behind, so taking advantage of an early chance is key.

Will the Union avoid midfield turnovers? For all the focus on their defensive shape, the Timbers are also quite good at counterpressing, a tactic that allows them to recover into an organized structure. Only about 50% of opponents’ first passes are forward after a recovery, suggesting Portland is getting to the ball quickly after they lose it. If Philly turns the ball over in their own half, Diego Valeri will be in space, and likely where you least expect him. That is a recipe for one-ingredient troublecake, and the Union will need to be in full-on scramble mode to avoid falling prey to what LA pulled on them a few weeks ago.

Conclusion

The Union are looking for their fourth road win of the year, but it will be a tough one to get. Portland has yet to lose at home this season and their defensive organization is real and formidable. Philly will likely avoid an overly high press but instead look to keep compact spacing and force the Timbers to work for their chances. An early goal will make this one extremely interesting.

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