Let’s get the pre-rehearsed statement out of the way:
The Portland Timbers have the potential to be absolute assassins on a big field.
Ok, are you good with that? Let’s continue and examine.
With a 110x70 yard pitch for the first two seasons of MLS, the Timbers attempted to meld the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City philosophy into one team. John Spencer wanted his team to be a quick playing, defensively stout team that played frenetically to the forward position and wings on offense and, for a few months, the Timbers fit the methodology imposed by Spencer.
Portland used the lack of width of the field (ala Dom Kinnear) to attempt to congest the play defensively, and then spring the attack out to the wing. This attempted playing style was often done in the empty bucket 4-4-2 formation which relied on Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury (often) attempting to break up the attack and shuttle the ball to a streaking wing player who would then charge to the endline before humping a ball into the 18 yard box, where hopefully a forward would be standing.
The atmosphere of Jeld Wen, the size of the field and the players understanding the bounces of the turf allowed the Timbers to create a decent home record. However, the failures on the road of 3 wins in two years showed some of the issues with a narrow system built for a specific pitch size.
The Timbers were dependent on attempting to maintain defensive positioning, but on the large field of LA Galaxy (120X75) the center backs, fullbacks and central defensive midfield were all frequently pulled out of position leaving large gaps in the defense and players isolated one on one. With the skill of players like David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane on one side, these gaps would inevitably result in goals.
With the Timbers playing a quick trigger offense, too often the ball would be turned over and the team would then go back into a defensive shell of attempting to simultaneously stay physical (an attribute that the team tended to lack) and positioned correctly (another attribute that the team had trouble with).
Certainly teams like Houston (pitch size 115x70 or same width but 5 yards longer than Portland’s old pitch size) are able to positively implement their system with great result. However, Houston only won two games on the road in 2011 and 4 games on the road in 2012. Their key was a sterling home record that is one of the best in Major League Soccer. In 2011 Houston had the best home record in the East. In 2012 they never lost a game at home. As a matter of fact, since moving into BBVA Compass Stadium the Dynamo have won or tied every single one of their games at home. Houston, as well, have tried to move away from that extremely physical style to one built around the connections in midfield and the stellar left foot of Brad Davis.
Now, for the Timbers, enter Caleb Porter.
This offseason the Timbers began moving into a new direction of possession with purpose. After the dramatic tie against Red Bull New York, we can see the initial stages of the Porterization of the Timbers. We can also begin to draw some very basic conclusions from the match, and one of those is that this team is built for possession through their central hub of Diego Valeri.
With the new system of the Timbers, Portland should have the ability to make use of the “slightly larger than Jeld Wen” fields in MLS by paper-cutting teams to death. Slowly, link by link, pass by pass, PTFC can draw out opponents, create mistakes, pass the ball across the field, and make their opposition chase the play. This was evident on the newly widened (110X74) field on Sunday as the Timbers were able to keep possession and simply tire Red Bull out by making them chase the ball.
When I say “the Timbers were able to keep possession” and we are talking about a home game it is worth noting that a smaller width pitch makes it easier for defenses of BOTH teams to press in an attempt to get the ball back in midfield. Visitor and home teams alike can obtain a benefit from this. There is just simply less room for individual players than there is in New York or Montreal. With the expansion of the field to a width more consistent with the rest of MLS, the Timbers should be more familiar with their team spacing on the road as it will be very close to their positioning and width at home.
The large fields in Montreal (120x77), Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Harrison, and Kansas City (all 120x75) should give the new look Timbers even more room to move, both horizontally as well as from top to bottom. This should give them the ability, not seen last year, to compete on these fields and control the game.
The win that clinched the Cascadia Cup in Vancouver, British Colombia was highlighted by the aerial flight of the ball and the anti-soccer that, at times, Portland utilized. To be certain, Vancouver didn’t really attempt to play on the ground either, but Portland were simply content with stepping to a Whitecap player, stopping their forward momentum and then retreating.
This season, there can be a small amount of hope that, on the road, the Timbers will attempt to utilize their skill and movement to keep the ball moving and defenses running. As with anything written before it happens, this theory remains to be seen, but the mood can only be positive as the season rolls into the second week and beyond. Of course, the very first test of this new system on the road will come in very hostile environments as the first away game for the Timbers will be in their derby against Seattle (114x74). However, what better environment to have as a test to the ability of your team to control the balance of play than in an environment on the road likely more charged than just about any other road game during the season.
In the meantime, the Timbers will attempt to ply their system on Montreal at home against an Impact side that spent a good solid 60 minutes cobbling together well organized defensive lines capable of thwarting Seattle’s attempts at goal.
There will be growing pains for Portland this season. There will be unexpected issues as well as those very expected issues. However the expectations get tempered, it appears that Portland are headed towards a very interesting campaign in 2013, especially with their road performances.