Portland Timbers Draw Opener, Provide Flashes Of Better Things To Come
Monday, March 09, 2015
While RSL did hold a 55/45 edge in total possession, Portland dominated the run of play for huge stretches and had the far better scoring chances throughout the match. Portland doubled RSL's shot total (18-9) and tripled their shots on goal (6-2) including a frantic 30 seconds in stoppage time with multiple shots blocked and one cleared from the goal line by a RSL defender. At the end of the day, the only stat that matters is that neither team was able to put a ball in the back of the net. With that said, there were a number of standout performances worth taking note of, as well as interesting decisions by Porter that may signal how the Timbers will look going forward.
A dour note was sounded before the game even started, as the Timbers announced that Diego Chara would not be able to suit up, still suffering from a calf contusion that occurred during the final preseason game. With Chara missing, along with Will Johnson and Diego Valeri, this meant that all three of the first-choice midfielders for the Timbers missed the game due to injury. 2nd year player George Fochive stepped into one of the holding midfield positions, alongside veteran jack-of-all-trades Jack Jewsbury. Both performed very well, controlling the midfield for the majority of the game and preventing RSL from building much in the way of an attack. Fochive in particular acquitted himself well, repeatedly sniffing out RSL buildup and keeping talisman Javier Morales from creating any significant chances. Jewsbury had excellent service on dead balls throughout the entire game, with numerous dangerous balls whipped into RSL's box.
Due in part to the excellent play of Fochive and Jewsbury, the defensive triangle of Kwarasey, Borchers, and Ridgewell were not challenged much throughout the game. Borchers did had a couple of key clearances and seemed to pair well with Ridgewell. For his part, Ridgewell seemed to trust Borchers more than any player he was paired with last season, and as a result both maintained a strong back line that Saborio, Garcia, and Morales had no luck against.
Darlington Nagbe spent the first half looking like he was playing FIFA 15 and trying to dribble his way into a goal. He was invisible for long stretches; far too long, frankly, if he is to take on the Valeri playmaking role for the next few weeks. His second half was far more impressive, with multiple purposeful dribbles that left defenders grasping at air. One second-half dribble in particular included a juggle over a defender that led to a dangerous run down the right side. While I'd like to see Nagbe demand the ball more consistently and act as the center of the Timbers attack, his second half performance is something to build on as the Timbers host the defending champion Galaxy next week.
Fanendo Adi was a thorn in the side of RSL all night long. He consistently challenged the RSL back line, creating numerous chances and drawing multiple fouls in dangerous positions. A Rodney Wallace cross in the 29th minute provided a perfect picture of Adi's value to the Timbers. Wallace whips a dangerous ball in to the box that finds an unmarked Dairon Asprilla, who heads it just wide. But how did Asprilla get so open in front of three RSL defenders? Watch the play again and you will see both RSL central backs completely focused on Adi and the danger he presents in the box, and completely ignoring Asprilla's secondary run. Adi may never score goals with the likes of Bradley Wright-Phillips or Dom Dwyer, but his value to the Portland attack this season will be tremendous.
But the player of the game for me was Jamaican right back Alvas Powell. His consistency in the back combined with multiple dangerous runs down the right side added an element to the Timbers that has been sorely lacking in previous seasons. Powell played under control defensively, making no critical mistakes or fouls that would set up RSL in dangerous positions. He was effective in clearance, winning headers and playing the ball from the back into dangerous positions. Offensively, his speed gave RSL midfielders and defenders fits all night long, including one run that left Powell standing alone on the touch line just inside the box. At just 20 years old, Powell is already showing signs of fulfilling the promise he has flashed in the past two seasons and rewarding Caleb Porter's faith. Powell's evolution into a true dual threat at right back, along the lines of former Sounder DeAndre Yedlin, is a development that could change the ceiling of this Timbers team into a true contender for the MLS Cup.
What can be taken from this game is that Caleb Porter seems intent on maintaining his trademark 4-3-3 formation, with two holding midfielders. Despite having to move to his 4th and 5th choices at the position, he maintained the two holding midfielders against other options, such as starting Gaston Fernandez, Max Uruti, or Michael Nanchoff (though all three were brought on as substitutes) and shifting to a more attack-oriented formation. His faith was rewarded through the performances of Fochive and Jewsbury, though Portland was unable to put any balls behind Nick Rimando. While the pair performed admirably against RSL, with reigning league MVP Robbie Keane, Gyasi Zardes, and the champion Galaxy coming to town next week, Porter is surely hoping Diego Chara is fit in time to start in his traditional defensive midfield position.
Porter and the Timbers feel like they deserved three points here, and the run of play suggests they are right to think so. But Rimando and the RSL back line held up well enough, and took valuable home points away from Portland. The Timbers' road only gets more difficult moving forward, with upcoming games against the Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City, both expected to challenge for the Western Conference crown. While this first performance provides a lot to build on, Porter's team will need to take every opportunity for points with Valeri and Johnson missing if they want to keep up with the rest of the Western Conference elite.
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