March 10th, 2013 by Michael Orr
A common refrain bounced around the internet late last night and into this morning in Portland, and it goes something like this: Oh great, Montreal just gave the rest of the league the blueprint for defeating the Timbers in Portland. Aside from the all too frequent phenomenon of assuming the most recent game is the most important in determining the fate of a team for an entire season, this falsehood requires debunking.
Like most overly simplistic explanations, this new worry is based on some truth. Namely, Montreal’s tactics produced a win against Portland at Jeld-Wen Field. But applying last night’s circumstances to another game does not automatically translate. For example, the notion that sitting deep and trying to use counter attacking is the way to defeat the Timbers in Portland only applies to 50% of the home games so far in 2013. Most observers of Portland’s season-opening 3-3 draw with Red Bull New York noted that the Timbers’ attack came to life exactly when the visitors ceased their offensive thrust and sat back to defend their two-goal lead. If the Impact’s game plan was the best possible way to win in Portland, then surely New York would’ve left with three points as well.
Snark aside, there is another flaw in the argument. Most teams will not set up as defensively as Montreal, and those who did will be unlikely to possess such a perfect complement of players as to carry out the defensive tasks. Marco Schällibaum’s group expertly employed a rigid defensive shape but also had the wherewithal to cover for each other in key moments. The spacing between defenders was almost uniformly appropriate, as was Patrice Bernier’s presence in Diego Valeri’s preferred area of the pitch. It’s true that other teams could field a player specifically tasked with man-marking Valeri, just as John Spencer did in 2012 with Lovel Palmer eliminating Graham Zusi. Yet Bernier’s job on Valeri was not the sole reason for Montreal’s success.
It is certainly possible that other clubs will try to replicate the Impact’s winning formula. After all, it didn’t just work against Portland but also quelled Seattle’s supposedly high flying attack. But most clubs are going to look more like New York than Montreal when setting up so defensively. Surely some will try to play that way, especially if the Timbers continue to give up the first goal. Perhaps that is an area of focus for the sky is falling crowd. Opponents are far more likely to play to their own strengths and direct that toward Portland’s weakness.
Frustration in the Timbers’ performance is justified. Suggesting that one club’s plan can be replicated by every other team in the league is nonsense. Caleb Porter will improve Portland’s response to similar defenses and opponents will continue to identify weaknesses to try to exploit. This is the reality of MLS and it’s no different than was the case last week.