You often see me just rip the Timbers, no matter the result, in the weekly recap and that is because they play physical, brutish, and boring soccer. It is the boring hold possession to lull your opponent to sleep and score. It is play keep away, turn it over, then counter attack every now and then. Draw and create fouls to prevent a flow from starting and then add in some flops. This game will be intense after what happened in the US Open Cup and I'd expect to see a few Timbers players try to get under the Sounders skin, early and often. But what is their style, how can we exploit them? Keep reading:
This team is built to counter. They have good pace in the middle of the park, fast wingers, and a couple of good target strikers to play at the top of their 4-5-1. Defensively they are more sound this year than any other, more on how this game will be different later. They are able to stop attacks, boot it to Fernando Adi or Maximilliano Urruti who can hold it up and send Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla, or Darlington Nagbe running. Portland is good at getting attacks, they are not good at finishing. Portland averages about 72 long balls a match, which is about 16% of their passes, with most of these being to start a counter attack.
The counter is always dangerous and with attacking fullbacks you are always at risk to get beat. What makes them possibly more dangerous is that Nagbe is the most unselfish player and it infuriates Portland fans. He can make the run and will pass it, almost every time, to get someone else the shot. This has cost Portland more than it helps them but it does mean that if Nagbe gets the ball he keeps his head up and as opposed to beat a man and shoot that a lot of CAMs will do. It kills about half of the chances they have but his shooting might ruin half of them as well.
It's a theme in the matches we've played, isn't it? By now you are thinking I just probably copy and paste the cross section each time and change the names and boy that would be faster but no. The Splinters cross about 5% (same as the Union) but this equates to about 24-26 a match (24 average and 26 at home). Portland, like San Jose did, love to get down the sideline on counters and cross it in to the big man Adi (or Urruti). You'll see Wallace or Asprilla cut inside but about 7 of every 10 times, they'll send in a cross. Adi is fast enough to hold up play, play them to the corner, and get in for a header from the penalty spot. It works great, Adi is a big body and the long ball draws at least one CB out wide especially when the full back gets caught in the attack.
Portland fans love to get on Adi for not scoring enough but in 10 matches he has six goals. He is a big guy who can do some pretty athletic things but he does score a lot less than you want from a DP striker with the amount of chances he gets. If our fullbacks can get back and Marshall and Evans can react to the incoming ball on crosses, the striker position will be neutralized and the counter attack shots and crosses will dry up.
There's no way to do a Portland scouting report without talking about this. While the scorecard does not always show it, they foul a lot. They are extremely physical. The team averages 11.8 fouls a game but it jumps to 12.4 per home game. They've seen 24 yellows and one red this season, which is just over one per game. Pair this with Jair Marrufo who averages just under three yellows a game this season and expect a foul and card heavy match.
There are few numbers to quantify this style of play but watch any Portland game and you'll see that fouls are strategic. They break up counters and long spells of possession. They do not want teams to get into a rhythm and you can do this one of three ways: 1. Hold possession. 2. Have a lot of interceptions. 3. Foul. The Timbers try to do the first one but their offense is not designed to hold the ball and means that often in "Porter Ball" it turns into a long ball and just beat 'em down the sideline. Diego Chara and typically Will Johnson or Jack Jewsbury try but their 15.5 a match are the 3rd lowest in the league (the Sounders are last with 13.7, but they allow a lot less passes than PDX). So they have to settle for the third and foul players.
They will do it and it gets under players skins and force them to commit errors, fouls, and receive cards. We've seen it before against the Sounders and Will Johnson is one of the best at it. In addition to committing fouls the team flops. If you've watched any of their matches this year, you see them do it seemingly every time they get near contact. It works, they draw fouls and cards. We saw a few seasons ago Ozzie Alonso see red when he did throw an elbow but barely graced Will Johnson, who flopped to the ground like he had Alonso had hit him with an uppercut.
How to Exploit Them
Portland defends very narrow. The Sounders will be able to have free reign out wide. Dylan Remick and Tyrone Mears will have a license to roam forward, if they can get back to cover the counter. The Sounders have been poor at attacking with possession and just breaking through without Clinfemi and Chara will be able to stop Marco Pappa and Cristian Roldan from holding possession and passing around the middle. This means the Sounders will need to attack with speed which is something they can easily beat Portland with.
Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana are speedy backs (for the most part) but will get forward. That being said, the Sounders do not have a good target in the middle for crosses, meaning that going down the middle and beating the CBs with long balls is where to go. If Chad Barrett can start, as Sigi indicated he may, then Lamar Neagle can streak behind the defense while Barrett holds up play which puts both players in their better position.
Portland will be without DP centerback Liam Ridgewell who cleated Alan Gordon in the back of the leg and saw red midweek. They'll start Noberto Paparatto, a very aggressive CB, next to Nat "The Beard" Borchers. Borchers is a conservative defender, more like Chad Marshall, while Paparatto will try to jump passes. The good news, our Pappa, can slot the ball perfectly passed a defender like that and Neagle can beat Borchers 1v1 in a foot race.
The Sounders hopefully start a 4-4-2 with Barrett and Neagle up top (or Jones) and Ozzie should be back in the middle. These pairing should lead to the Sounders being able to exploit a Ridgewell-less back line and get at least the one goal they'll need for the defense.
Players to Watch
1. Darlington Nagbe- I know I said he will always pass out of the attack. He will be creative but never wants to be in the spotlight. You need players like this, but they should never be your CAM. Nagbe has all the talent to be dangerous but not the attitude for it but if he decides to make the game his, he'll take control. The balls he can play make him always dangerous and can exploit Brad Evans/Zach Scott while Marshall runs with Adi/Urruti if he gets space. He'll still likely pass or cross out of it, but he'll get everyone else in a good position for something to happen.
2. Will Johnson- Expect the prick to play. He had been hurt ,something I do not want to see but I enjoy him not being on the field. He is a good enough defensive midfielder, a serviceable free kick taker, but he makes this list because of how he gets other players to act out. He is a great instigator. He can get players to commit bad ugly fouls, retaliatory fouls but get away with no call or card while Sounders players get angry and rack up yellows. He does it almost every time out in Cascadia matches and in most matches anyway, expect him to do it again.
3. Noberto Paparatto-Not because he is an impact player which typically the players to watch are but because the game will go by how does he replace Ridgewell. If he fails as the replacement, it will be a long long night for Adam Kwarasey. If he steps up admirably, the Sounders could get shutout and will be under pressure for a lot of the night.
Dairon Asprilla is questionable and it may not start while Ben Zemanski is out for a few more months. This is one of the healthiest matches for the Timbers this season, just our luck. Expect the club to consider a few changes after LA gave them a 5-nil drubbing midweek but overall they tend to have a stable starting XI (lucky asshats...).
I'm tempted to disagree with Portland's answer to the Three Questions this week but they do not have any other options at full back, where I could see them changing after their poor defensive performance, and Porter would be crazy to bench Diego Valeri. Nagbe slides out wide if Valeri plays and Asprilla slides to the bench (even if he is healthy). After not scoring a goal in LA, Urutti will see the bench.