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Scouting the Portland Timbers’ Center Backs for MLS Cup Final

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How Atlanta United might disrupt Portland’s initial buildup phase

MLS: Seattle Sounders at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

I am rather uncomfortable with my uncertainty about how each of Atlanta United and Portland Timbers is going to line up on Saturday in the MLS Cup Final. The last time these two teams played, Atlanta was in its favored back 4 and Portland did the back 3/5 thing. This time around, if I had to guess, I would say Atlanta will be in it’s now favored back 3/5 thing, and Portland in a back 4. Life travels towards a fellow at pace.

But either way, I want to talk about the Portland Timbers center backs, or “centre halves” depending on whether or not we’re talking about British AF Liam Ridgewell, and specifically I want to talk about what it looks like when they start play from the back, and then guess at what Atlanta might want to do about it.

Portland’s passing

One way to visualize how teams move the ball around is to map out the frequency of each player’s passes by pass angle and distance. Eliot McKinley at American Soccer Analysis generated this plot of the most likely starting lineup of the Portland Timbers. The longer the radial, the more frequently the player passes in that direction. The lighter the radial, the longer his average pass distance is:

If you look closely at Portland’s central defensive partnership you can see some clear differences. While each defender is most likely to pass the ball forward (contrast them with Atlanta’s CB’s here if you like), Ridgewell is much more likely to play it long into the attacking third (or clear it if under pressure). Mabiala’s passes are more often aimed at his central midfielders (perhaps Diego Chara who kickstarts much of what Portland does with the ball) or to his defensive partners, which is one reason he completes 84% of his passes relative to Ridgewell’s 79%. When Ridgewell does pass it short, he’s likely circulating the ball over to Mabiala, or to his fullback partner in Jorge Villafana. For his part, Jeff Attinella, the goalkeeper is prone to play long balls (as many goal keepers are), but when he does play short, he looks more likely to go to the right sided center back to start a possession.

The idea

If the goal is to disrupt Portland’s buildup through Chara, Atlanta United should set up its pressure on goal kicks and other deep restarts to channel the ball to Ridgewell while cutting off passing lanes to Villafana and back to Mabiala. The result should be a (hopefully aimless) long ball. This assumes Atlanta is happy with that result, and most teams would be.

The funny thing about Portland is that we don’t know who Liam Ridgewell’s central partner will be. Mabiala seems most likely, but Bill Tuiloma started the last match, and could get the nod again. If we look across all three defenders and also pull in a visualization showing how successful their passes are across the various angles relative to an average player for the same difficulty of passes, we actually see that Portland’s center backs are above average passers (as evidence by the blue areas below — below average passers are marked with red vectors in the center circle).

Tuiloma’s has fewer minutes than the others, and his sonar has the sort of artifacts that one might for a player who fills in at both left and right center back (which is the case). All three of these guys are above average passing center backs, but importantly this is relative to the types of passes they take. Ridgewell does in fact complete long balls at a slightly above average rate (56% versus an MLS average of 52%), but a 50-50 Ridgewell long ball, may still be a decent buildup outcome for an Atlanta team who likes having the initiative. I don’t think the Five Stripes will be happy if Larrys Mabiala is completing short vertical passes at above average rates on Saturday.

It’s very possible that Jeff Attinella will make much of this sorcery irrelevant by launching goal kicks and other restarts skyward and vertical towards Jeremy Ebobisse, but understanding how Portland’s center backs cycle and advance the ball should be of use to Atlanta United in this Championship match, just as it is useful in a regular season fixture.