A change in formation, a change in personnel and a change in luck all contributed to the first points in more than a month for the Portland Timbers. John Spencer singled out Graham Zusi as Sporting Kansas City’s most important player and devised a scheme featuring Lovel Palmer to limit his creative opportunities. In doing so, Portland greatly reduced the effectiveness of Sporting’s much ballyhooed 4-3-3 formation. That defensive mindset also limited the Timbers’ ability to generate attacking situations, which is where luck came in. A bizarre own-goal from Chance Myers gave Portland the lead in the 41st minute and provided enough for the Timbers to escape with all three points.
Before getting too carried away in labeling this victory as a turning point in the season, it is worth noting that the Timbers remain at the bottom of the Western Conference table. With that out of the way, the most encouraging aspect of Portland’s performance against Sporting was a strict adherence to a game plan. The plan was to avoid losing, at the risk of failing to win. Through formation, roles and even substitutions, Spencer’s plan was enacted just well enough to complete the upset victory and end a pair of lengthy streaks.
Afterward, Spencer explained that Palmer was not man-marking Zusi but defending an area, a comment that seemed much more true of the second half than the first. For the first forty-five minutes, Palmer shadowed Zusi wherever he went, even running away from the ball and/or goal to follow. As the unquestioned hub of Sporting’s multi-pronged attack, corralling Zusi, or at least frustrating him with a constant nuisance, stunted the normal fluidity that so defines this Kansas City team. The 4-1-3-2 formation employed by Spencer provided almost no natural central creativity as Palmer chased Zusi and Jack Jewsbury, the middle of the midfield three, dropped back frequently, particularly in the second half. That central pairing pushed Diego Chará out to the left (and later the right), a scheme employed several times before but never to any effect. The tactic worked better against Sporting because of the narrow midfield triangle the visitors employ. Both Chará and Darlington Nagbe were able to drift inward to help defensively or break out on the wings when the opportunities came. In short, Spencer turned his team into a defensive-minded version of Sporting.
Because Chará and Nagbe are so potentially dangerous on the wings, neither Seth Sinovic nor Myers were able to get forward and support the Sporting attack in the ways that so often yield results. While the Timbers ceded the attacking ground in the middle, Portland was able to create its few chances through Chará and Nagbe, feeding Kris Boyd. Spencer’s team also looked to be playing three at the back in many instances as Mike Chabala was a constant part of the Timbers’ forward movements in a way that his opposite, Steve Purdy, rarely was. With Chabala forward, particularly after the 30th minute midfield switch, Nagbe could play more freely, providing options in the middle or getting forward himself. Spencer deserves credit for making a tactical switch of his wide players, instead of the usual switching for the sake of ‘changing things up.’ Nagbe’s presence through the middle was far more effective than Chará’s, and Purdy’s position behind Chará gave the Colombian the freedom to play the box-to-box role that is so often attributed to him but rarely actually performed. That movement put quite a bit of pressure on Hanyer Mosquera and Eric Brunner in central defense, particularly in marking forwards with such contrasting styles as CJ Sapong, Kei Kamara and at the end, Teal Bunbury. Again, the Timbers did just enough to keep the sheet clean.
The tactical overhaul did show a sign of Spencer usually hidden – a manager willing to adopt a plan specific to the opponent. So often, Spencer tries to make his system work regardless of opponent or its style. Spencer’s changes were also an admission that his usual players and roles were not going to cut it against a team like Sporting. While its true that most clubs in MLS are not as good or consistent as Kansas City, to see such a defensive style at home would likely have been widely questioned had, for example, Mosquera not cleaned up after Troy Perkins dropped yet another ball in injury time. What’s important for the Timbers is that in the end, the changes did work. Where Spencer goes from here is the question, though, as last night’s formation and personnel combination is very unlikely to ever appear again, at least at the same time.
That the match ended with a 1-0 score line for the Timbers was an added bonus for a night aimed at not losing. A 0-0 final would not have been unjust for either side, but for once Portland managed to take all three points when only one was probably the deserved total. Myers’ inexplicable (and fantastic) headed own-goal was the lucky break the Timbers needed to get out of the losing streak that has so defined the first two months of the season. Whether that carries over as Portland play four more games against Eastern Conference opponents remains unknown. But with three of the next five games at home and more roster changes coming in the next week, it is very possible that the victory over Sporting could propel the Timbers toward a run of positive results. More will be understood when, presumably, Spencer goes back to his usual 4-4-2 against Montreal Impact next weekend. Until then, an end to the club’s longest MLS losing streak is at least a starting point.