March 17th, 2013 by Michael Orr
For the first time this season, Caleb Porter’s main focus was not offense. From the manager whose explanations usually come in offensive terms came a mostly defensively oriented post-game press conference. Interestingly, instead of sharing detailed statistics just minutes after the final whistle, Porter relied more heavily on clichés to describe his team’s defensive performance in the 1-1 draw against Seattle Sounders on Saturday evening.
To be fair, the Portland Timbers’ first away game of 2013 was its best defensive performance and very clearly the most defensively oriented on-field arrangement in this young season. The inclusion of Jack Jewsbury as a holding midfielder just in front of Andrew Jean-Bapitste and Mikaël Silvestre provided an extra layer of cover that was missing in the team’s first two games. Using a player so deep also necessarily changed the Timbers’ attacking thrust, rendering the usual lively attack less successful at CenturyLink Field.
“A little bit of a safety net there if we get on the counter, get broken down or whatever I can be there to fill in some spots. Whether that’s in front of the center backs or if Mikey [Harrington] or Ben [Zemanski] have taken off, I can slide over and cover and we can fill that hole,” Jewsbury explained in the locker room afterward.
That cover changed the Timbers’ shape but allowed both Harrington and Zemanski the freedom to get forward when necessary. It also put even less pressure on either Darlington Nagbe or Diego Valeri to defend, freeing them to explore various routes to goal. Porter was adamant that while the defensive set-up was different, the overall plan was the same:
“One of the things I told the guys is that I think a big mistake in going on the road is psyching yourself out. Really, it shouldn’t be a lot different. There’s still twenty-two guys and one ball…But a lot of teams and coaches psych their teams out by playing differently in going on the road and acting inferior. So that’s one of the things we didn’t want to do in this game. We wanted to still be confident and play our style. We made a few tweaks to be pragmatic with our group and to deal with Seattle, which I think helped. I thought we were better defensively because of it.”
Part of that improvement came simply from a better relationship between Harrington and Zemanski than had been on display when Ryan Miller was at right back. Said Harrington after the game, “I feel like in the first couple of games, me and Ryan were both getting a little too high and not see-sawing enough. I think me and Ben did a very good job with that tonight. When Ben would go forward, we’d make sure to have those other three guys back and vice versa.” Jewsbury’s presence, Harrington said, “helps us balance. Absolutely. The entry passes into the strikers, Jack can cut those passing lanes off and give a bit more balance.”
Jewsbury’s position also helped Portland when Porter overloaded the left side of the field in the second half. Though the formation was always a bit lopsided, the second half again showed the manager’s willingness to eschew symmetry and play to his strengths, namely Nagbe. The absence of a midfielder on the right side through most of the second half put the onus on Zemanski to get forward and made Jewsbury responsible for covering behind him.
Though there were specific positional and rotational changes that Porter used against Seattle that differed from most of the first 180 minutes of play this season, a string of clichés filled his praise for a defensive effort that allowed only the one counter-attacking goal. For example, regarding the inclusions of Jewsbury and Zemanski, Porter said, “We wanted a couple more guys on the field that bring a little bit of fight and bite and grit.”
Regarding the entire team: “I understand why we were getting criticized: we were giving up goals. We gave up bad goals. But I knew this team had it in them to defend well. Not only are they organized when they need to be, but more importantly, they have the fight and the mentality. This team, I think at the end of the game we got a point because we out-fought them.”
He opened the press conference by saying, “I’m most proud of our effort defensively. We dug deep. We gave up a goal, obviously it was a counter again, and we got punished for it. But overall, over 90 minutes, we defended very well against that team. That’s a dynamic team with a lot of attacking talent. We did a good job limiting their chances over 90 minutes.”
The rah-rah descriptions seem less natural for Porter, who is normally so analytical. While the praise of his defense was not unwarranted, it highlighted an avoidance of statistics that are so much a part of Porter’s usual explanations. Compare the above selections with Porter’s comments after the Timbers’ loss to Montreal last weekend:
“It’s disappointing that we let them hurt us twice in moments that we prepared for all week, and it’s disappointing to give up two goals on only seven shots…They weren’t easy to breakdown; we had plenty of shots and a lot of possession. They’re a team that if they get up on you, they can bunker down even more. Unfortunately, they got the first goal and that played into their hands.”
Shots, shots on target, possession: the hallmarks of a conversation with Porter. Yet they were completely absent last night. Perhaps that was because those categories each came as the lowest of the season so far for the Timbers. Only two shots on target and 55% of possession were far below previous totals. To be fair, Porter’s set-up was always going to produce slightly less attacking given the loss of an offense-only player in Kalif Alhassan for a mostly defensive player in Jewsbury.
Yet Porter was clear that he expects the same level of execution from his offensive players, regardless of the set-up or scenario, saying, “That’s one of the nice things about playing the way we play. If we go down a goal, nothing changes. We’re still going to have the ball, we’re still going to push the game. You’re going to see an even better level when we’re up goals. But I never underestimate this team, I really don’t.”
Porter did finally concede that the attack just wasn’t good enough, amid his praise for the defense: “To win games in this league it’s got to start with the defensive side. It’s got to start with fight because the attack isn’t always going to be clicking. There were times today where the attack wasn’t clicking. But when that wasn’t clicking, we were still fighting, we were still defending and we were digging deep.”
The Timbers’ defense did indeed ward off the few Seattle threats that came after Eddie Johnson’s goal. It was a stronger performance that can be used to build confidence toward future road games. But to hear Porter focus so much on that side of the ball says more about the Timbers’ inability to compete offensively in the manner they displayed in their first two games. By no means is that evidence that the attack is weak and cannot recover. But Caleb Porter’s scheme starts with the offensive side. If they cannot possess the ball, threaten opposing goalkeepers or shield the defense from direct attacks, draws might continue to be the best Portland can achieve.