The hits keep coming for D.C. United. First, there was the nightmarish 4-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo at a damp RFK Stadium. Next, United faced FC Dallas - top of the table at the time - on the road and, while playing something close to competently, still lost 2-1. Most recently, the Black-and-Red managed to avoid defeat for the first time since the Nixon administration, putting up a decent 70 minutes before hanging on for dear life to hold Sporting Kansas City to a 1-1 draw.
The common element with all of these opponents is that they can't be ruled out as MLS Cup contenders a third of the way through the season. That's the case, too, for tomorrow's game against the Portland Timbers. You might remember their last visit to RFK back in 2011 as one of the more intense encounters in club history. With our playoff hopes hanging in the balance (and Portland in more or less a similar spot), these two teams combined to attempt 24 shots from the 79th minute onward, a pace that makes indoor soccer look like baseball or golf. Somehow, neither team scored despite going close over and over again. I still don't know if I've recovered from Joseph Ngwenya's game efforts to avoid finishing on the doorstep into an empty net.
The current edition of PT
FC is a different animal than John Spencer's group (and I'm not talking about the Blues Explosion). Those sides had a bunch of bench-quality MLS players being used as starters, and what genuine talent there was ended up being misused. This one has pushed those players either down the bench where they belong or, more often, simply replaced them with better quality players.
Better quality players have been joined by a better quality head coach, as Caleb Porter has gotten his players to buy into his ideas more than Spencer ever did. The hype surrounding "Porterball" has overshadowed the fact that Portland has hardly re-invented the wheel. This isn't an innovative team; it's simply a team doing the right things correctly. Porter's main success has been psychological more than tactical. Unpopular GM Gavin Wilkinson asked his players to do many of the same things during his spell as interim head coach; the difference is that Porter has a much stronger roster and started with a clean slate.
The upgraded roster and the unity throughout the team has quickly borne fruit. The Timbers are unbeaten in 10 matches, with their last loss coming all the way back on March 9th. If that date rings a bell, it's because it's also the last time we won. They're not just doing it against pushovers, either: Wins over Houston, San Jose, and at Kansas City are wins any team would be proud of, while draws on the road against Seattle, Colorado, San Jose, and Dallas are also respectable.
The Timbers are getting those results despite playing with an attacking mindset every single game. This isn't a team that goes on the road to bunker down. That approach has resulted in goals coming from all angles. Will Johnson leads the team with five goals despite playing a holding midfield role, while Ryan Johnson (four), Diego Valeri (three), Darlington Nagbe (three), and Rodney Wallace (three) are all getting their fair share. With that many good scoring threats, it's no surprise that the Timbers have only been shut out once and have scored two or more goals in half of their games in 2013.
In fact, the Timbers have been so good going forward that you can seriously put their front six - the aforementioned Johnson, Nagbe, Valeri, and Wallace, plus combative defensive midfielder Diego Chara - up against any in MLS. The combination of skill on the ball, movement off it, and their ability to force turnovers with pressure is very impressive.
There's a funny thing about soccer, though: You can't just be good up front and in the midfield. The Timbers have a glaring weakness in the back, where none of their first-choice defenders would have a prayer of starting for the other elite MLS clubs. In fact, only Michael Harrington would start for most second-tier sides. The Timbers may play attacking, high-pressure soccer on principle, but they also play it because they have to find some way to protect their weak defense.
Portland figures that you're probably going to score on them - five teams have managed two or more goals on Portland thus far - so they better score more on you. It's fun to watch, but the fact is that teams that can stand up to or disrupt their attack will probably win most games due to a defense that would look right at home down at our end of the table.
Lost in all the hype about Portland's success thus far is the fact that they aren't actually winning that often (four wins out of twelve games). They also tend to leave games hanging in the balance. They've given up two late equalizers already, while also scoring three result-changing goals after the 75th minute. United is going to have to use the same mentality that we saw glimpses of last week, when KC made the game feel like we were getting killed when it was still just 1-1. The Timbers outplaying United for stretches is highly likely, but that's no reason to get discouraged or start playing it too "safe" (i.e. defending deep, playing long ball, etc). Teams that play "safe" against Portland end up getting burned.
In terms of formation, Porter's team is often said to be in a 433, but this is simply untrue. They're not the only MLS team to oddly claim to be in a 433 when they're clearly not (a trend started by Steve Nicol a few years ago). In actuality, Portland plays what is very obviously a 4231:
The big issue is in central defense. Portland has already lost Mikael Silvestre to a torn ACL and David Horst to a broken leg, and will come to RFK without one-time United trialist Mamadou "Futty" Danso - you're welcome Timbers - due to a DOGSO red card against Vancouver last week. Danso will likely be replaced by new signing Pa Modou Kah (a Norwegian national team player born in Gambia) or even newer signing Rauwshan McKenzie, formerly of RSL and Chivas USA.
Kah made Portland's bench last week after receiving his ITC and work visa, while McKenzie has been on trial with the Timbers on and off for months now, so both are at least somewhat familiar with their new teammates. Either way, what was already a shaky center back pairing now has an element of unfamiliarity. United needs to make sure to attack the middle often. That means Dwayne De Rosario needs to be more of a threat, but it also means that our wingers need to cut inside on the dribble. It's also an invitation for Nick DeLeon to jump into the attack, either to go to goal himself or to set up more give-and-go combinations at the top of the box than we usually produce.
Nagbe left last week's game in the first half after falling awkwardly, but over at Stumptown Footy they seem to think he'll be good to go tomorrow. The question marks here are more about the constant position-swapping he and Valeri engage in. Valeri has spent his career as a central playmaker, but Porter has started him out on the right several times.
Their positioning at the start probably isn't that important, since they'll just rotate back and forth so often. Tracking this movement and adjusting accordingly, as well as avoiding bad habits like ball-watching and leaving gaps (for Valeri to pass through and/or for Nagbe to attack on the dribble) are vital. That said, if Nagbe is held out, look for Kalif Alhassan to come in and play on the right full-time with Valeri staying in the middle. Jose Valencia is also an option after scoring a late equalizer against the Whitecaps, but Porter seems to see the young Colombian as a super-sub only at this point. Striker Frederic Piquionne has also played on the right wing from time to time, but it seems unlikely that Porter will ask the aging veteran to log a starter's minutes out wide.
Something that should jump out when looking at the above diagram is that the Timbers don't play with a true anchor midfielder like just about everyone else does. Neither Chara or W. Johnson are suited for the job, as both are much better at being dynamic and are more comfortable doing their work by out-running rather than out-thinking their opponent.
As such, Porter lets both push further up and join the high press. The Timbers would rather win the ball higher up the field anyway, so he leaves it to the two holding players to sort out who will step further up field and who will stay home. Usually that's Johnson, who seems to be reveling in having a bit more of a license to attack than he did at Real Salt Lake (where his role as "left midfielder" often translated to playing alongside Kyle Beckerman in central midfield while Javier Morales and Andy Williams or Ned Grabavoy was allowed to attack).
Both players are similar in a lot of ways. They're both on the smaller side - Chara is probably only 5'6" - but are still strong, physical players. Both love to get stuck in perhaps a little too much, as Chara tends to pick up yellow cards too often while Johnson absolutely loves being a provocateur. At RSL there seemed to be a leash on that instinct to be a heel, but Porter's Timbers are more brash and up front.
As a result, Johnson is the player you are most likely to boo or yell obscenities at, because he'll be trying to provoke United players all game long and has been known to taunt opposing fans after scoring (see: last week). The former quality in his game is one to keep an eye on, because Johnson is great at avoiding the wrath of referees. He seems to have a sixth sense about when he can expose his studs or flail a forearm into someone's face on a header without getting the card that should come with it.
For United, it's absolutely crucial to not fall in for any of that stuff, because Johnson does it by design. He wants opponents to retaliate and to lose focus on the soccer side of things and get wrapped up in the battle. This Timbers team is too good for DCU to lose focus or pick up avoidable yellow cards.
Former United defender/midfielder and local product Rodney Wallace is finally being used correctly full-time as a left winger in Portland. In DC, Wallace had his best moments on the left side of our 3412; as a left back in a 442, his positioning was always an issue. When Tom Soehn, out of desperation, used him as a defensive midfielder, he gave the ball away far too often.
Closer to goal and out of the middle, Wallace's weaknesses are not much of an issue. His risky passing is not a problem being high up in the attack, where you're supposed to gamble with the ball. His defensive positioning doesn't become an issue as much because he's got two layers behind him to cover for his mistakes. Meanwhile, being a true winger allows Wallace's ability as a goal threat to shine through.
Watching Portland throughout the season, it's clear that they've worked on some simple but hard to stop movements to free Wallace up in the box. The Timbers are strongly right-sided in the attack due to the skill of Valeri and Nagbe, which means Wallace is often making the second run off of R. Johnson up top. Normally, that would mean Johnson going near post and Wallace coming in at the back post, but Portland doesn't play it so straightforward. At least half of the time, Wallace makes a hard run across goal to the near post, while Johnson either stays central or drifts to the back post.
It's a simple movement, but the speed and conviction Wallace makes it with has caused trouble for plenty of teams. United's defense will need to be very sharp in terms of anticipation and communication, either with Chris Korb following the run all the way from our right side or a center back picking Wallace up as his run comes through the middle. All the while, United needs someone else to stick with Johnson, who is better at finishing in the air than he is on the ground.
Portland's game is all about being on the front foot, so the first 20 minutes will be even more important than usual. The Timbers have the skill and speed to convert an early 1-0 lead into plenty of chances on the counter, and they can also play a more patient style based on long spells of possession (thus forcing opponents to run themselves to death). However, teams that survive the opening spell tend to find a frustrated Timbers side. It was no major shock to me to see Vancouver weather the storm and then produce a goal soon thereafter; this is a stretch of the game where Portland is vulnerable. United finally got through the opening portion of a game without conceding last week; this week it's time to build on that.
The Timbers are an interesting contrast to Sporting KC. Both teams are built around pressure, but the execution is different. KC is not at all subtle about what they're doing, pressuring higher than any team in MLS and relying on brute strength and physicality to make it work. Portland's press isn't as withering, nor do they have the brawn to win a ton of physical challenges.
FC's first line of pressure sets up the second wave in the midfield, which is where they force most of their turnovers. It's simple math: KC will push a line of three followed by another group of three or four depending on the fullbacks, while Portland will usually be able to call on five or even six in their second level (see why I insisted that the Timbers aren't in a 433?). Portland has more skill spread throughout their front six than KC, who are rather reliant on Graham Zusi to make things work. With the Timbers, it can be pretty much anyone playing the important pass; only Wallace has below-average technical ability for an attacking player.
Going forward, United can't just focus on the center backs. Jack Jewsbury is probably the slowest first-choice fullback in MLS, and forcing him to do a lot of 1v1 defending and a lot of chasing on balls over the top would be great. We've seen Houston pick on us repeatedly by attacking the now-retired Robbie Russell, and this is a similar situation. On the other side, Harrington looks beatable when exposed, but gets lots of help from W. Johnson and Wallace. United should look to spread things around, but more emphasis should be placed on getting after Jewsbury and the center backs than they do on trying to find a way to attack Harrington.
This game may end up as a test of character for United. Portland believes they're good enough to be worthy of their ten game unbeaten streak, and that usually matters a hell of a lot more than whether that's actually true. Belief can carry a team further than they should be reasonably capable of, in case you've forgotten what United did last fall. Even with our improved team defending and the boost in quality we've seen in the last two games going forward, this will be a very tough game to succeed in if we don't continue to grow in terms of mentality. Portland will test United on the mental side of things (especially focus and composure). Those are problems we've had all season, but we're getting better. This is a chance to make the next step.