March 5th, 2013 by Kelly McLain
There seemed to be an overwhelming perception following the first half of Portland’s 3-3 draw against New York on Sunday evening that the Timbers had some major issues on the defensive side of the ball. On Twitter and everywhere else online, and even in the press box, I felt I was alone in my defense of the Portland defense. Simply put, I don’t get what everyone is so worried about. The defense was fine. Let me explain…
The Timbers got scored on three times, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the defense, or the back line, or a particular player, are in shambles. Most situations in sport, and life, require attention to detail without forgetting about the bigger picture. It’s also a good idea to not overreact to small, isolated incidences. Two of New York’s goals came down to individual error on the part of the Timbers. Mikael Silvestre was certainly at fault on the Red Bull’s second goal, and he combined with goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts to open the way for the visitor’s first goal. Those were both major blunders which are, a) not likely to happen again this season, and b) not related to Portland’s overall defensive scheme.
Under new head coach Caleb Porter the Timbers want to apply pressure quickly all over the pitch to try and win the ball as quickly as possible. While they’re certainly capable of slowing things down, getting numbers back behind the ball, and being patient, that’s not their primary defensive strategy. They want to go high pressure and get the ball back; that’s their defensive system. So let’s look at how that system worked during the first 45 minutes of Sunday’s match. Below is a list of numbers representing the number of completed passes in each of New York’s possessions throughout the half. The league’s official Opta stats have New York completing 143 passes in the first half. My total was 142, so I was off by one pass (and no, I’m not going back and re-watching the entire first half to count again!)
4 (kickoff), 1, 2, 2, 4, 1, 3, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2 (NY goal, 9′), 1, 1, 3, 6, 5, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1, 4, 2, 1, 2, 9 (NY goal, 24′), 1, 1, 2, 2 (NY goal, 28′), 1, 1, 3, 15, 4, 1, 1, 2, 3, 1, 1, 1, 4, 2, 3, 8, 3, 1, 5, 3.
Now, ask yourself, do those sequences of passes look like a team that can’t string anything together because they’re constantly under pressure? It sure does. And this list doesn’t include the zeros. Sprinkle in about 10 or so zeros for all the times NY players tried to complete a first pass, but couldn’t even connect once.
The next thing to consider is what chances NY created for themselves. How about the first goal? No. Portland left a ball just sitting atop the six yard box due to poor communication. How about the second? Again, Portland provided them the opportunity by completely whiffing on a routine play 40 yards out from goal. The third goal? OK, go ahead and give the Red Bulls credit for creating the corner kick and subsequent goal, but that’s something very specific that can be addressed in training. Other than that, New York had just one other shot on target, and that was a free kick. The other chances that New York created for themsleves? One shot attempt from Henry and one from Espindola that were both blocked.
So, to recap: New York was given two wonderful opportunities on fluke plays that I don’t think anyone seriously believes will happen again this season, and they punished Portland for poor set piece defending (which can certainly be worked on). In addition, NY put one free kick on target and created two other shots that were both blocked.
So what exactly is everyone’s problem with the Portland defense? Take away the two miscues (which, again, I don’t think anyone believes will happen any more–or at least not consistently), and it was a well-executed defensive game plan. The Red Bulls created one legitimate goal, I’ll concede that, and Porter needs to address that issue. But aside from that, the Timbers played suffocating, lock-down, turnover-inducing defense that conceded a free kick and two blocked shots. That’s nothing to get all riled up over. I certainly won’t.