“They [Chivas USA] might have watched the game tape against Salt Lake and thought, ‘you know what, they’ve got weaknesses.’ They might not come and play a 4-5-1 defensively. They might come and say ‘we’re going to attack them because they can’t stop giving up goals and they don’t stop giving up chances.’ They may not have that respect for us.” – John Spencer after training on Friday April 6
The assumption all week in most local media outlets was that Chivas USA would come to Portland, sit deep in a defensive formation and try to hit Portland on the break. Having scored just one goal in four games, the prevailing mindset about Chivas was that the visitors would be content with a point in Portland. Portland’s owner, Merritt Paulson, went as far as writing on Twitter, “Tough when teams don’t even think about offense. Hope for lucky counter and pray for one point. Likely game plan Saturday.” That line of reasoning surely did not affect the players or coaches but gave Timbers fans a false sense of security, despite Spencer’s claims.
To counter what Spencer knew could be a midfield full of playmakers, Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chará reversed roles with the former playing forward and the latter set deeper for most of the match. Presumably this tweak was employed to take advantage of Chará’s quickness and ball-winning in defense against a formidable line of midfielders. The point, one has to assume, is that Chará would be better in aiding the wide midfielders in tracking back than would Jewsbury, and more effective in patrolling the top of the box as the likes of Alejandro Moreno, Cesar Romero and Nick LaBrocca passed through. Unfortunately for the Timbers, even Chará could not help corral Ryan Smith and too often, the aforementioned central players for Chivas did just pass through, unmarked.
The other half of the equation saw Jewsbury playing forward, supposedly part of the Timbers’ attack. With Franck Songo’o and Eric Alexander playing wide, and Jewsbury incapable of switching for even a few moments, the Timbers were once again locked into an inflexible central pairing. Jewsbury could do little against Ecuadorian international Oswaldo Minda. Despite picking up a yellow card within twenty-six minutes for overly agressive play, Minda was able to completely eliminate Jewsbury as an attacking threat. Whereas Darlington Nagbe was able to create from a central role against Real Salt Lake, the middle of the park was devoid of any valuable possession or chances against the Goats.
Spencer’s plan made sense in theory but required top form from both Chará and Jewsbury. Instead, Chará was often too deep to be effective enough offensively and Jewsbury is ill equipped for the attacking role. Likewise, the constant flipping of Songo’o and Alexander on the wings did little to generate consistent threats, leaving the former to launch shots from outside the box and the latter reduced to a role far less incisive than what he showed on the left against Salt Lake. Playing Nagbe as a forward sounded like a good idea, particularly given Jorge Perlaza‘s struggles to hit the target the previous weekend, but for the most part, Minda was able to reduce Nagbe’s effectiveness when playing below Boyd and just above the midfield three.
That Smith repeatedly strolled past Lovel Palmer was a function of the defender’s utter inability to compete with wingers of even above average pace as well as poor help from the midfielders on his side of the field. On the equalizing goal, Songo’o lazily jogged back instead of giving Palmer any assistance, and on a later cross, Alexander combined with Palmer in a calamitous attempt to force Smith to his weaker right foot. Palmer was then let down by Spencer’s formation on the match-winner as Ben Zemanski slipped into the gaping hole between Jewsbury and Chará, fed Smith wide to the left and the winger sent in the cross to LaBrocca on his first touch, taking advantage of the space Palmer gave him after being beaten so often before. The second half set up was expertly played by Smith and through manager Robin Fraser. That Portland did nothing at all to address what was an obvious mismatch, particularly after the 48th minute equalizer, is a damning indictment of the Portland coaching staff’s inflexibility regarding in-game tactical adjustments. The first-time cross was also a cruel reminder of exactly what Palmer either cannot, or will not do when he is played forward.
I will not echo claims that the Timbers players did not try hard enough or gave up in the second half. Yet there is clearly an issue in the execution of roles. That is either an inability of players to adapt to the instruction of Spencer and the coaching staff, or an inability of Spencer and the coaching staff to best identify the correct roles for individual players. Regardless, the results are bearing out a deficiency of one or the other, or perhaps both. The worst part for the Timbers is that the injury list that has grown so long early in this season does not promise to return any players to the areas where the team is most lacking. While overall depth has improved, particularly at center back (ignoring injuries for a moment) and outside midfield, Spencer and his front office cohorts have yet to successfully create competition at the other positions. That issue is more troubling even than the recent results.