Somebody has broken the Timbers. Last season's Western Conference regular season champions and Conference finalists have, after four games, the worst goal differential in the West. Their three goals in four games puts them on pace for about 25, which would be worse than every team from last season other than historically inept DC United. Yes, the season is young. The Sounders crawled out of an even worse hole to start last season. But just because it's possible to recover from a bad start doesn't mean it's a good idea.
So what's going on? Are they just getting unlucky? There's some of that. . they're tied for second in the league in shots, so they should expect more goals. But there's also something about the shots they're taking.
Caleb Porter's possession soccer has its attractions. The fluid midfield advancing up the pitch with short passes can be impressive to watch, and it means Portland usually outnumbers their opponent around the ball all the way up to the opposing box. And there's the upside that having the ball means your opponent doesn't.
I'm not an expert, but to my eye the Timbers have just looked laborious this season. Still holding possession, but not doing anything dangerous with it. . just holding the ball for its own sake. There's a downside to emphasizing possession, which is that you can lull yourself into not taking advantage of one of the most important weakness in the game: a defense that's stretched and out of position for an attack.
Over the last three years (and change) in MLS, the strike rate on shots shortly after a turnover in the midfield has been substantially higher than the average shot. Up to 15 seconds after a midfield turnover (which I'm defining here as the middle third of the field), the strike rate is around 12%. After that it quickly recedes to the usual 9ish percent. (I'll show my work on this in a future stats article, but for now you have to take my word for it). So taking advantage of those opportunities means a substantially better chance of scoring.
Here are last season's leaders in the rate at which midfield turnovers are turned into shots within 15 seconds:
|%-age of Midfield Turnover Converted to Shots Within 15s, 2013|
The Timbers weren't really known as a counterattacking team last season, but maybe they should have been. Between Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Ryan Johnson, and Khalif Alhassan, they had the speed and skill to turn midfield turnovers (which they generated a lot of) into quick and deadly shots.
Also note the Sounders' place there. Seattle's offensive engine last season was Eddie Johnson, and for all his offensive quality he is not a counterattacker. His first, middle, and last instinct when he got the ball in the middle of the field was to tap it back to a midfielder to set up the attack. That resulted in a lot of looping crosses from Mauro Rosales, which he finished at a good rate. But not a lot of counterattacks.
So what are the rankings this season?
|%-age of Midfield Turnover Converted to Shots Within 15s, 2014|
(Note the much wider variance here is because of the smaller sample size. I would expect these to regress into the 5-8 range as the season continues).
So Portland has gone from the best team in the league at turning midfield turnovers into shots to well below average. It's not that their rate of turnovers has dried up. They're 5th in the league at forcing turnovers in the middle third. And their total number of shots isn't down. . as mentioned above, they're tied for 2nd. They're just not getting the counterattacking shots anymore.
Also fun to note there that Seattle has moved up to 2nd behind Vancouver (who are a very counterattackish team behind the speed of Darren Mattocks and Kekutah Manneh). Kenny Cooper probably isn't as fast as Eddie Johnson, but he has a much stronger instinct to push the ball towards goal when he gets it.
So, laborious Portland. One reason that they may not be getting good shots, other than an increasing comfort with simply knocking the ball around in the midfield, is that their new Argentine lone forward Maximiliano Urruti may be happier spending time on the ground than taking shots. Stumptown Footy writer Kelly McLain did yeoman's work in going back and adding up how many times players went to ground in their game against Dallas. The totals for each player were in a fairly narrow range meandering between 2 and 5 then. . whoops. . there's Urruti with 15. FIFTEEN. And it's not simply that he's getting fouled a lot. Nagbe got the crap kicked out of him and he went down only 4 times. Clearly Urruti has not adjusted to MLS physicality yet and he's coping by going prone early and often. And that's certainly not helping Portland generate counterattacking shots.
He isn't the only thus-far disappointing new Argentine. Center back Norberto Paparatto was supposed to help stabilize a sometimes shaky central defense, but based on early reviews he may now be its shakiest member.
|Diego Valeri||Fulcrum of the Portland offense can provide both goals and assists in bunches.|
|Darlington Nagbe||Brings unique pace and dynamism to the Portland attack cutting in from the wings. But will he play?|
|Diego Chara||Does a decent Alonso impression forcing turnovers in the defensive midfield.|
And they will be without some of their better players as well. They were thrown a bone by the DC, which rescinded a somewhat mysterious red card given to Michael Harrington and chose not to suspend Pah Madou Kah for a pretty blatant studs up tackle into a shin. But even so, Donovan Ricketts is out with an injury that's actually real, leaving recent Sounder Andrew Weber in goal. And it sounds likely that both Nagbe and also-recent-Sounder Steve Zakuani will be out as well. That narrows their significant attacking threat to pretty much Valeri, who still pulls the strings in the attack for them.
Meanwhile, the Sounders will be getting back Clint Dempsey, who played a full 90 midweek for the US against Mexico, but will no doubt be eager to play in an important rivalry game. Seattle played reasonably well without him in a 4-3-3 that would have gone undefeated and earned 4 points in 2 if it hadn't been for that perverse last play from Columbus. With him back, it opens the question of whether Seattle will try to keep roughly the same look with him in front of, say, Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda.. or try to get back to the Asymmetrical Diamond™, which would probably involve moving Lamar Neagle to forward (to everyone's relief) beside Obafemi Martins and Pienda and perhaps Marco Pappa as the side midfielders, moving Kenny Cooper to the bench. Which isn't ideal.
The diamond has some attraction in that Portland struggled against Real Salt Lake's diamond all last season and it helps negate the numbers advantage in central midfield. But the Timbers flank defense is looking a little weak this season, with both fullbacks reined in to help cover the central defenders. So a 4-3-3 with wide forwards also has some attraction, with the possibility of Neagle and Cooper running at Harrington and Jack Jewsbury. Maybe Sigi will flip a coin.
Regardless of the lineup, the keys will be not getting run over in the central midfield — where the Timbers will always have numbers — and Alonso controlling Valeri. Valeri is similar to Federico Higuain — who Seattle did a reasonable job of bottling up last week — except he doesn't run quite as far around the field, which should make the job slightly easier.
There are lot of factors that make this game look like a hard row to hoe for Portland. They're missing key players, they haven't been playing well, their new additions have underwhelmed. But come on. It's the Cascadia rivalry. They're going to be as up for this match as any they will be this regular season. It will be a very difficult road match, and getting out with a draw should feel just fine.