Portland Timbers have two spectacular Diegos on the roster, and what both Caleb Porter and Giovanni Savarese have found is that the job of a coach in the Pacific Northwest is to get everyone on the same page and then unleash those supertalents. To do so successfully requires the coach to compromise his ideals — adios Porterball, sayonara the full-field aggression with which Savarese began 2018 — and inject their key strategic principles into a system that fits everyone else on the roster.
For Savarese, the principles he won't abandon include intense focus in the defensive third, particularly when it comes to defending the middle of the box, and verticality in attack, which means looking to play forward immediately after winning the ball back. The former Cosmos head man would like to aggressively attack the ball further up the pitch than his team can right now, but he gave up on that and focused on his defense's strengths: Big bodies in the box and Alvas Powell's intelligence and athleticism breaking forward.
Holding their own but no breakthrough
The first half of Saturday's match went very much according to expectations. Philly, with an unfamiliar partnership at the base of midfield, played conservatively. Although they found moments to attack through CJ Sapong, who often freed himself in space in front of the Timbers' back line, the focus on preventing counterattacks meant there often were not enough bodies forward to make the most of those breakouts. On this play, Sapong has room to attack the defense but no support above him.
In this next clip, you can see how Borek Dockal's deep positioning meant Sapong dropped deep himself. While at times this allowed Sapong to carry the ball into the final third, it also led to moments where nobody was available to push against the back line following a turnover. This is not a terrible strategy on the road by any means, but it did mean the Union struggled to get at Portland before the Timbers could reset their formidable defensive shape.
That shape, however, is not impenetrable. Recall the US Open Cup match against New York Red Bulls, when Ale Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin often attempted to beat the first man pressing and move into the space left behind to draw defenders in. The Union found space when they could do the same thing to Portland, but balancing the need to keep shape against counterattacks with a desire to put bodies behind the Timbers' midfield meant there was often nowhere to go with the ball after beating the first man. Below, Derrick Jones beats his man, but Borek Dockal has rolled out to the left to facilitate the play and CJ Sapong has pulled far off to the right, so nobody is making the run into space behind the defender that steps to Dockal.
Jones shows well
There is so much to like about Ale Bedoya's game this season, but the secret blend of spices he adds to the Union attack is the ability to move the ball through midfield with his range of passing. Bedoya can play long horizontals, penetrating balls to Dockal, or combine quickly with his winger and fullback on the right.
Derrick Jones does not have that variety of passes at his disposal, but his size and footskills mean he can play as a shuttler that advances the ball upfield with his dribble, holding off the first presser and playing behind the next man to step. That is an incredibly valuable skill set, but it is extremely difficult to utilize without giving up turnovers that put your team in trouble. Jones handled the responsibility well on Saturday, and he showed good focus to also track runs and snuff out counterattacks.
In the second half, Jones was asked to take up more advanced positions in order to put bodies inside of Portland's defensive shape. He did so, though found it harder to get involved in the penetrating combinations that Bedoya creates so well.
Aside from his well-taken strike at goal, Jones also had this nifty move that nearly broke Zarek Valentin.
Keeping the big guys in check
The Timbers looked to create space between Keegan Rosenberry and Jack Elliott for Diego Valeri to attack with late runs. They first pulled this card out of their deck in the third minute, and they used it again in the 34th to free Chara into the box. Watch as Elliott steps high and Chara immediately fills the space behind him.
These moves involved solid timing and overloading the left by pushing Valentin high. They are far from the Timbers preferred mode of attack because Valentin does not have the same recovery ability as Powell on the right. The asymmetrical attack Portland prefers allows Valentin to sit deeper and provide a wide outlet when the Timbers want to draw defenders out of the center so Valeri can operate. Asking their left wingback to do this higher up the pitch comes with additional risk, and that contributed to the Union's best attacks coming down that side.
Overall, though, Philly did a good job keeping Portland's best players from getting good looks at goal. Armenteros found space hard to come by and Valeri only created space for himself near the box three times all match.
Holding the Timbers without a goal from open play is something of a Pyrrhic victory for the Union, but Jim Curtin can point to a few positives to draw from the match. Fabian Herbers put himself in good positions throughout the night, and if he picks out Borek Dockal in the 29th minute rather than pulling back for Sapong this is a far different match. Additionally, Jones' solid play and one of the stronger showings from Sapong this season give reason to believe the Union can put together a run of games that keep them firmly in the playoff hunt before a difficult final stretch of the schedule sees them face a revitalized Seattle side, Sporting KC, and a double dip in New York to end the season.