MLS Cup has provided its share of the unpredictable moments in the past. But from Atlanta United’s perspective, there is one thing we know for sure already, the challenge of facing the Portland Timbers at 2018 MLS Cup will be fundamentally different than that of previous playoff opponents New York City FC and New York Red Bulls.
With the exception of Chris Armas’ inexplicable decision to sit back at Mercedes Benz in leg one, the two New York sides tried to implement their style of play in order to nullify Atlanta United’s tactics. But Portland’s approach will be different philosophically. Rather than looking to dictate the tempo, they will sit back and focus on defending first, and then look to get forward quickly through the center of the park on the counter attack, or to create and score from set pieces.
In essence, the road side will invite Atlanta to display the quality needed to break down a compact, disciplined opponent. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be looking to score goals, as well. Let’s take a look at what we can expect from the Timbers this Saturday.
Shape and Style
After mixing and matching formations throughout the season, Timbers manager Giovanni Savarese settled on a 4-2-3-1 towards the end of the regular season, and mostly employed this shape throughout the playoffs. But regardless of formation, the Venezuelan’s side has more or less played with the same basic strategy - invite the other team to keep the ball while the Timbers absorb the pressure, looking to win the ball back and pounce on counter attacking opportunities that should inevitably present themselves.
Let’s take a quick look at how the lineup looks on paper. Below we see how the Timbers lined up in the second leg against Sporting Kansas City.
A major reason for settling on the above formation was the re-emergence of center defensive midfielder (CDM) David Guzmán, who found his form after struggling with injuries and form on top of missing over a month of the season while on World Cup duty for Costa Rica. With Guzmán back to his best, Savarese could comfortably play the Costa Rican and Diego Chara (maybe the best CDM in MLS), side-by-side at the holding midfielder positions (similar to how Tata Martino has often paired Jeff Larentowicz with Eric Remedi, at times).
The CDM pairing provides a crucial safety valve, especially against an Atlanta side that can attack at breathtaking pace. But more importantly, the duo allows Portland’s two most important attackers, Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco(more on these two later), to get forward whenever possible in front of the CDM’s, and not be constricted too much with defensive duties. With Guzmán and Chara protecting the back four, Valeri and Blanco are free to stay high up the pitch while the Timbers defend, hoping to turn over the opposition and find the right time to get forward quickly.
The numbers tell us the story. The Timbers averaged just 47% possession this season but maintained a competent attack. That attack depends mightily on Valeri and Blanco, who scored close to half of the Timbers goals in the regular season.
Interestingly, Portland veered from this 4-2-3-1 and played a 5-3-2 for leg two in Seattle, but their tactics were surely altered drastically by the fact that they visited the Sounders for the second leg defending a 2-1 lead, while the score was 0-0 after one leg before the visit to Kansas City. Regardless of shape, their strategy remained more or less constant, as they sat off the ball, and looked to get forward quickly and play direct, when possible.
Playing against a team that looks to defend and play without the ball can be difficult. And the Timbers’ visit to Atlanta was a perfect example of such.
Portland were not at full strength when the two sides met back in June, and they did spring a bit of a tactical surprise. as Savarese opted to play five at the back. But despite the tweak in shape, his side’s style of play was more or less a conservative version of what it’s been all year. The Timbers had just 30% possession, even lower than usual. They also were outshot 20-12. But a closer look tells us a different story, and maybe gives us a clue into the type of match Portland want in MLS Cup Final.
Despite playing five defenders and being dominated in possession, the Timbers more or less created the same amount of dangerous chances as the hosts. With Atlanta often looking listless and not threatening in possession, the Timbers were able to create chances on the counterattack with Atlanta having committed players forward. Otherwise, there is no way the Timbers are essentially level with Atlanta on xG despite being nearly doubled in shots, and hardly having a sniff of the ball.
And then, there were several chances on set pieces, with Larrys Mabiala goal being the pick of the bunch. As we’ve seen all too often this season, Atlanta United are found lacking on their set piece defending.
While counters and direct play will be the name of the game in attack, expect Portland to also try and generate attack via set pieces. After all, they finished third in the league in set piece goals this season.
A Deeper Look
Portland’s approach in the postseason, especially away from home, has more or less seen Savarese double down on his philosophies, as they’ve looked to absorb pressure and use the quality of Valeri and Blanco to spark the counter. Just check out the game stats from their Western Conference Final leg 2 victories in Kansas City and Seattle.
Even though Portland employed different shapes in the two matches, Savarese’s side were happy to concede possession. And they continued to rely heavily on Blanco and Valeri to score and create - the duo have had a hand in all nine of Portland’s goals over the playoffs.
But with Portland setting up defensively, how do they hope to attack? Obviously playing without the ball they are looking to counter. But how do they go about it specifically? A look at the average positions from their past two playoff road matches speaks volumes.
Even with the change in formation, we can look at Blanco (No. 10) and Valeri (No. 8) to see that Portland’s designed initiative to counter stays relatively the same.
In both shapes, Portland’s other eight field players seem to playing tactically sound and disciplined roles, depending on whether they are playing from in front or behind. But regardless of the overall setup between the two drastically different matches, Valeri and Blanco are in the exact same average position.
Valeri is clearly not playing the “winger” or “center attacking midfielder” role he’s listed as in the lineups from earlier. In fact, he’s given free reign to drift inside, looking to find pockets of space and essentially become a second striker behind Ebobisse. Meanwhile, Blanco preferred to drift to his left (very similar to Miguel Almirón), and combine with left back Jorge Villafaña.
Everyone should know the exploits of 2017 MVP Valeri, one of the best to ever set foot in MLS. But Blanco is the straw that stirs the drink, in many ways. Oh, and also, he is kinda good.
This goal doesn’t come from a counter, as Portland were chasing the match at the time, and having longer spells of possession. But we see a perfect example of Blanco’s effectiveness and movement. He sneakily stays on the left touchline, getting just a bit of space to receive the ball while Villafaña occupies the defense’s attention on the left side.
But it was Portland’s next goal that really showed where they can be dangerous.
This goal is vintage Portland. Check out the movement from Blanco and Valeri. With the rest playing conventional roles, these two roam about the pitch, looking to get things started. Blanco starts away from the play, once again standing in space wide on the left, just like on the first goal. But then, he moves forward alongside striker Jeremy Ebobisse, and it’s from there that he checks into space in the left half, receiving the ball from Villafaña yet again, before showing great quality to play Ebobisse in behind.
Meanwhile, Valeri starts the attack after receiving a pass from Chara (who we see staying well behind the ball alongside Guzman, as instructed) and trails the play, keeping an eye on the ball and waiting for the right time to make an incisive run into space.
Simply put, Savarese allows these two almost complete freedom on the pitch, while the rest mostly play disciplined and stick to their positions.
Simple. But not Easy.
On the one hand, Atlanta United might be able to take a breath of fresh air against a team that will not play aggressively. Unlike the delayed press and possession play of NYCFC, or the furious high pressure of the Red Bulls (other than the first leg where Chris Armas forgot how to manage), Portland will allow Atlanta to do as they please until they near goal.
But on the other hand, Atlanta’s style against NYCFC and NYRB (exploiting space when the opposition get too aggressive) won’t work as often against Portland. Instead, they’ll have to break down a compact and disciplined attack through immense 1-on-1 quality, quick ball movement, and if they’re lucky, an error from the Timbers defense.
As we’ve seen for even the world’s best sides, breaking down a team like Portland can be very frustrating. And it’s that exact frustration that Portand will look to capitalize on to create their offense, looking to counter through the class of Valeri and Blanco should Atlanta lose the ball with bodies committed to the attack.
In all, MLS Cup sets up for a clash of two opposing styles - Atlanta’s fast-paced attack looking to take the game the opponent, and Portland’s defensive setup meant to frustrate the opposition. We’ll see which of the two styles wins out on Saturday night in Mercedez Benz Stadium.