18 Days, 6 Matches and Zero Losses for Portland
By Philip Mitchell
Regardless of what the MLS front office and various media organizations have published recently, the Portland Timbers are not on a 15 game streak without a loss. Yes, it is indeed 15 regular season matches in MLS without a loss, but they have also won three US Open Cup matches as well. With the current streak at 18 in all competions, including the win on Wednesday in their USOC match on the road in Dallas, soccer fans have been provided something quite special and unique.
During just the month of June, PTFC has had a run that is mind boggling. The Timbers had 6 matches in 18 days. They outscored the opposition 11 to 4. They won 4 matches, earned a draw in two and lost none. That is pretty impressive but to be fair, other teams have had similar but this is different based on what happened last year and the year prior.
For this article, what I intend to do is to comprehensively discuss why the Portland Timbers have been so dominant and difficult to beat, unlike the team that most of the league got to know over the past two seasons. Before this, something must be said of their latest performance against Colorado.
The match Sunday was full of expectations. On the road in Los Angeles, PTFC was able to muster a draw against the Galaxy. Fans of MLS may recall the thrashing LA gave Seattle a few weeks past. It was one of those games where simply everything went right for Arena’s boys and nothing for Sigi’s. As someone who travelled down to LA for the match, this was in my mind the whole time. To get a draw may not be what I really wanted but it was a fair result but it ultimately led to a must win situation against the Rapids.
The match was not even close when looking at the score. A 3 to 0 victory appears to be a total victory. However it was a fast paced game with over 800 combined passes. Portland connecting 80% while Colorado connected 73% of theirs. On shots, Portland was able to connect 50% of their 6 on frame resulting in 3 goals. This is odd because typically PTFC has something like `19 shots attempted and 5 on frame. This was true however for the Rapids. They had a high amount of attempts. Some of them very close but slightly off target. Of the 18 they launched towards Donovan Ricketts, only 2 were on goal. There were some blocked by some of Portland’s defenders but when Ricketts was asked to do his bidding, he made sure his clean sheet was secure.
Possession was fairly even. Not quite 50 / 50, with Portland edging ahead with 53% of the possession were just enough to get what they needed. Both teams played aggressive when the ball was loose. With a combined 120 duels over the ball, Colorado was the hungrier team. Their counter attack was lethal but as mentioned before; their finishing was poor, flat and only threatening on a few occasions.
So what was the concoction that simply led to Portland’s victory and essentially their overall performance at this stage in the season? Can it easily be answered with the name Rodney Wallace? Sure but that is not just the full picture. There have been other important changes to the roster that have had just as much of an impact. How about the new coach? Porter has been a godsend to the club and their loyal fans. He totally can be considered to be a major factor. But what else could it be? To some this may seem like a bunch of poppycock but we have all seen it in professional sports. Some teams get on a roll. They gain momentum. They get that faith and belief in what they are doing. They become a team. And when that happens, they can be really hard to beat and find all sorts of ways to win.
So who have been the players that have shined on the pitch? Wallace has been the most evident. Soccer By Ives just recently named him their player of the week, and he did not even play on the Wednesday match in LA! His emergence has been quite a renaissance when compared to the past few seasons, when no one in the Timbers Army wanted him in the top 11. Times have changed and has become a fan favorite. His three assists alone can be credited with for the win against Colorado.
At the beginning of the season, team owner Merritt Paulson and GM Gavin Wilkinson gambled by signing Mikael Sylvestre. At the beginning of the season it looked as it was a total folly. His first match against New York was far from acceptable. However after that, he showed how much of an experienced professional he was. He made the players around him appear to play better, especially Andrew Jean Baptiste. Then all of a sudden he was out for the rest of the season with ruptured tendon. The back line was now back to square one and with David Horst also out it looked very bleek, but the team did not falter and they refused to lose. They fought tooth and nail with Futty Danso taking his place. Then as all teams do when they need it most, they found a replacement.
Pa Madou Kah is most likely not a name most people know outside of Portland, unless you have played them. This may appear to cause a stir but his performance in LA and against Colorado was stellar. Dare I say, his addition in skill alone has been more impressive than the man he replaced? No offense to Silvestre, who has been reported as being a very influential player who is also more like a coach. But Kah single handedly shut down Keane and Donovan while in Los Angeles. His presence also led the preservation of a clean sheet in DC and against Colorado Kah was a force unlike any Portlans defender has shown in some time, defensively that is, in Jeld Wen. He is big, strong and loyal to the club. Like Silvestre, he has made Baptiste a better player while on the pitch. His addition should be considered to be a one of the front offices smartest moves since entering MLS.
The backline however is not just Kah and Baptiste. Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington have protected the wings for most of the season quite well and have been strong supporters for the attack as well. Ryan Miller, as a reliable back up or third outside back, has shown that the team has depth where it is needed on the back line. At home, the combination that Porter has given the nod to has been dominant. Not only has the team not lost since week two against Montreal, that was the last league home game that the opposition has scored. In numerical terms that is 6 games without giving up a goal or 540 minutes plus. But there is another reason for this and it is not just the defense or the team’s ability to control the pace and flow of a match. What I am talking about is their goalkeeper.
When a trade with Montreal brought Ricketts to Portland last season, it was not taken lightly. Fans staged public protest over the move. This year there is still some negative vibes over it but what no one will disagree with is Ricketts has been a virtual wall while in goal. He is still one of the leagues best net minders. Winning save of the week is nice. It is something to smile about and be proud to see your team’s keeper get recognition. However, Ricketts has won it 6 times this season. His efforts have saved the Timbers posteriors quite often and there are sometimes where his amazing acrobatic saves are not noticed outside of Portland. But you can see it in his eyes. He cares. He wants to win. Sometimes he follies and hands a gift to the opposition, but no one can argue that his saves are why the team has 9 draws and 1 loss.
Defense is not the only major factor that has led to Portland’s rise so far this season. It is one of the most important factors but what has mattered just as much has been goals; and the team has scored a lot of them. At the moment of the season they are leading the league with 28 goals. Last season they struggled and were only able to knock in 34. They will surpass that number with ease at the rate they are scoring thanks to the midfield’s ability to distribute the ball downfield and provide the proper service to whoever is in place to take a shot at the goal.
Leading the team at the moment in goals is league veteran and team captain Will Johnson. His 6 league goals are two behind Kenny Cooper for the most ever for the club in the MLS era. Behind him with 5 are Ryan Johnson and Darlington Nagbe. Trailing behind them with 4 goals each are Wallace and Diego Valeri. Simply said, the Timbers have a team approach to scoring. For opposing teams, it must be hard at the moment. Focusing extra attention on one player exposes another that has shown to be a threat on offense. They are the only team in the league with this many players with 4 goals or more.
The combination of players in the midfield has been the main reason why the goals mentioned above are being scored. No longer are the Timbers trying to employ the long ball at the rate as seen in the past. The combination of Valeri, W. Johnson, Nagbe, Wallace and Diego Chara has found their mojo. Their counter attack is lethal. What happened in Dallas is a fine example. Two goals in less than three minutes by Nagbe and Valeri was a bit of a shock, even for Timbers fans. It was pure joy for the fans but ask any of them about 1 goal leads. They are not safe and with a bit of luck, Dallas gave up a gift to Frederic Piquionne and he thanked them with the third and game winning goal to send Portland to the semi-final round of the USOC.
On the bench, players such as Ben Zemanski and Kalif Alhassan have also found success while being given the chance to play as well. Both have either scored or been a part of an attack that led to goals as starters or substitutes. Together as a midfield unit, the short passing scheme has made them a force difficult to control. By attacking the space and passing through the proper channels available, Valeri has made himself standout as being the maestro of the orchestra while W. Johnson has led the team as a whole as somewhat of lead performer. The music they have made together, with the assistance of the rest of the midfield depth chart have made the style played in Portland as a must see.
Playing under a philosophy possession with a purpose has been something Caleb Porter has briefly discussed. It makes sense. No longer is possession simply as basic as to go score. Now possession, in the style of play PTFC has shared on the pitch is about control of the momentum and the overall mood and tone of the match. Indeed, possession of the ball does not equate victory if you have it for 80% of the match. It could but what this idea simply says is when you have the ball, what do you do with it? Each pass and choice made should be to ultimately score but there is also an element of not allowing your opponent to dictate what you or your team does with it. That is where the tactical changes have occurred with this squad.
The constant shifting and swapping of positions dictated by Porter is another major element of this style. Controlling the flow of the match and be ahead of the opponent’s movements and adjustments to defend or attack the space of the pitch (depending on whether you have the ball) has improved this team beyond the dreams of many in Portland (authors note: I did not think it was going to be like this at all). At one time in the match you may see Valeri streaking up the right flank and minutes later he will be doing the same up the left. The same can be said of Nagbe. Once a matchup has seemed to plug the leak, Porter finds a new place in his opponents wall to create a new one and he does this over and over and over. He says his players find new ways to win. I think the same about him as well. He finds what needs to be fixed or exploited and he attacks with precision. So far, it has worked.
So where do they go from here? June was a brutal month. Overall, they have had 6 games in 18 consecutive days. Does it get any easier? No, but a two week hiatus of consecutive bye weeks will be much appreciated by the players. It could backfire due to lacking game pace situations that training can fail to provide, but July will be very busy and the players will be sleeping in quite a few hotel rooms. Can they do it? Sure the question is how much longer?
Being tied for third place for their current undefeated league streak is quite an achievement. The current MLS league record is 19 games. Does it matter? Some may say only if they stop drawing matches. They have 9 at the moment, which is a league high for the season. If so, the Timbers need to dig deep during July. They face some tough competition. In addition, they will also lose key players (Wallace, Piquionne, Will Johnson and maybe more) when CONCACAF hosts the Gold Cup. Most of the matches in July will be on the road, which is going to be tough despite leading the league in away goals. Facing foes such as Columbus, San Jose and Philladelphia on the road and hosting the Galaxy for their only face off in Portland will be 1000s of miles travelled to and from Portland.
What do you think? Will the idea of possession with a purpose and keeping as consistent line up as possible, with the proper rotation to prevent exhaustion work for the Timbers to stay in a 1st place tie in points with Real Salt Lake? What do you think needs to happen or not happen? I believe their magic is real and a force to reckon with. Let me know your take on it?