There’s a reason why the MLS schedulers chose to pick this game as the follow-up to the World Cup final. It is one of the top rivalries in the league with two teams who were tipped as title challengers in pre-season. This one lived up to expectations: plenty of quality attacking play, the usual good atmosphere, and some great tactical battles.
The first half was a story about two teams who were very well prepared defensively to stifle how their opponents prefer to attack. The first half was described as “slow” by some. It was certainly slower than the second half, but I think a lot of that was down to a combination of being accustomed to the World Cup’s pace and also the defensive tactics employed by each coach.
Seattle’s key defensive point was how narrow the wide midfielders played when Portland established possession. They simply cut off passing lanes. Portland likes to combine through the middle and Seattle’s plan was to force them to beat them 1v1 out wide. Zakuani was able to find a couple moments to cut inside with the ball, particularly when Neagle was first arriving as supporting defender, but ultimately only forced one save from Frei.
Portland was able to find Nagbe or Valeri in between the lines on occasion, but they were immediately closed down. Nagbe never had the opportunity to run with the ball to find the vein of success he had in the last MLS match between the two sides. Interestingly, it seemed like Anibaba was playing to protect width on defense and force Nagbe and Valeri back into supporting defenders of Scott, Pineda, and Alonso.
Portland’s key defensive tactic was how they chose to mark Pappa and Neagle out wide. When Seattle had established possession, the outside backs would push high to mark Seattle’s wide players. As a result, Pappa started to drift more and more centrally to collect the ball while Neagle simply pushed high into the forward line when Seattle were in possession. Typical behavior of both.
This differed from how Portland dealt with them in transition. The wingers drifted out wide and attempted to cut off the passing lanes and deny them service. That left Jewsbury and Johnson the task of marking Dempsey as he dropped off the line to collect the ball in transition, which they did adequately.
Martins comes into the game
The first half’s key tactics were all about gumming up the works for their opponent’s attack, the second half was all about Obafemi Martins. He made a lot of the same movements as Chad Barrett, but has additional technical ability to keep the ball where Barrett coughed it up. He ran into the channels. He dropped off the center backs when Jewsbury and Johnson were occupied with Deuce. His relative ability over Barrett was clearly on display with his clean touches, holding off defenders, then combining with the other attackers.
Seattle diversifies attacking space in second half
The following two images are the combined passing chalkboards for Dempsey and Pineda in the first half, then the second half. (Note: The general trend holds if you look at all of Seattle's attackers combined, but this image is just cleaner to make the point). Pretty obvious that Seattle’s plan in the first half was to try to go at Villafana and McKenzie. That all changed in the second half when Neagle and Pappa switched sides and continued in their usual mold of Pappa drifting in and Neagle staying higher and wider. This allowed Seattle to have width on both sides of the field with Neagle out left and Yedlin out right. As a result, Dempsey and Pineda both started finding space to collect the ball on the left high in the midfield.
This also caused the space for Portland’s wingbacks to switch from one side to the other. Marco Pappa isn’t exactly known for his defensive prowess (especially in transition) and Portland’s outside backs were clearly given the instruction to get forward if he was on their side. This is how Portland found width on the left in the second half.
The Will Johnson Problem
He’s been getting a lot of hate from my friends who are Timbers fans, so I was paying particular attention to him in this game. He’s moving fast instead of playing fast. He’s always in such a damn hurry to do everything that his touches and passing precision are letting him down. And if that wasn’t enough, he’s destroying Portland’s defensive shape. There were several times in the second half in particular where he didn’t recognize that his team shifted out of the “we’re in transition so pressure the ball” mode and he continued to step out of position to go pressure a ball and left gaps for the likes of Dempsey, Martins, and Pappa to exploit. The Timbers’ captain is clearly feeling the pressure of sitting out of the playoff places and he’s making mistakes trying to force things that aren’t on.
Seattle’s offensive rotations are the most interesting, intricate, and fluid of any MLS team that I can remember… when everyone is on the field together. If they can stay healthy, there is surely at least one trophy that will end up in Seattle. Portland, on the other hand, are making mistakes they don’t need to be making. They have the talent to still snag a playoff spot, especially if Ridgewell can help sort out the defensive positioning of everyone else.