Portland Timbers thriving after unexpected death of ‘Porterball’

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Part of the lore around Portland’s rise is the concept of Porterball, a term the Timbers’ head coach will never own. NBC’s Kyle Martino brought the moniker to national attention this summer, but it’d been whispered for some time, even if Caleb Porter’s always bristled at any implication such a term could transcend the team itself.

But with a focus on style evident from early on — when the coach himself would focus on shots, passes and possession as indicators of the team’s progress — it’s no wonder a style that’s so different than John Spencer’s became a focal point. It’s not only that Porter likes an approach emphasizing possession, pressing and movement, it’s that the difference in philosophy brought such a drastic change in the standings.

So as Portland enters Thursday’s second leg on a nine-game unbeaten run, it’s worth asking what’s happened to Porterball. Most people may not have noticed it’s wane, but it was evident on Saturday. While beating Seattle 2-1, the Timbers ceded 60 percent of the possession and 20 shots, seemingly by choice. It just doesn’t fit the Porterball narrative.

[MORE: Johnson, Nagbe goals allow Portland to take edge out of Seattle]

“[Seattle] had a little bit more of the ball, but that was a part of the game plan,” Porter said on Saturday, clearly happy with the result. “We wanted them to have a bit of the ball so we could roast them on counter-attacks, and I thought we were very dangerous on the counter all day long and I thought we were organized.”

The roasting may have been confined to a handful of moments, but it’s hard to argue with the results. The one goal conceded? It was off a long throw. Beyond Seattle’s goal, their best chance was a late corner that Clint Dempsey put of the crossbar from just over six yards out. Everything else was pretty well-controlled, including a Dempsey shot in the fist half which, though it grazed the crossbar, would have nailed Donovan Ricketts’ hand had it not led to a goal kick. Though Seattle racked up low percentage shots, the game’s next-best chance was probably Ryan Johnson’s, who was unable to convert a late second half breakaway that would have left Portland up three.

“They had some shots from distance. They didn’t have a ton of great looks where they got in behind us,” Porter said. “I thought we were very organized and played a very pragmatic game plan, and it’s a win on the road.”

source: AP
Portland’s fans were introduced to Caleb Porters’ style by a team that played a different game that John Spencer’s. Come the end of the season, however, “pragmatism” is something for which Porter has strived. (Photo: AP)

The premature death of ‘Porterball’

Pragmatic? Conceding possession? Willing to lose the shots battle? When the heck did this happen? This isn’t Caleb ‘Porterball’ Porter, guardian of the next era of American soccer’s approach. These are the words of Bruce Arena or Dominic Kinnear after they’ve lulled their opponents into mistakes.

The change isn’t about Seattle, necessarily. It’s been happening since early September, with the results apparent after Portland returned from Carson after a disappointing 1-1 draw with Chivas USA (Sept. 14). They’d go on to win their next two games 1-0 (Colorado and Los Angeles), finishing second in possession, shots and total passes each time. Over their next five games, Portland would only score more than two goals once (a 5-0 at Chivas to close the season) while conceding multiple goals on only one occasion:

Date Opponent Final Possession Shots Shots
on Goal
Passes
Sept. 20 Colorado 1-0 49-51 9-13 2-1 397-412
Sept. 29 LA Galaxy 1-0 47-54 5-9 3-2 413-465
Oct. 6 at Vancouver 2-2 51-49 14-16 3-8 435-410
Oct. 13 Seattle 1-0 49-51 15-11 3-3 409-418
Oct. 19 Real Salt Lake 0-0 44-56 9-8 4-0 371-476
Oct. 26 at Chivas USA 5-0 53-47 17-12 9-4 462-405
Nov. 2 at Seattle 2-1 40-60 10-20 5-5 325-483

These are the last seven games of Portland’s unbeaten run (first Chivas result left out). If you toss out the two games against the non-playoff teams, you see some consistent outcomes – a complete change from the early season’s possession-based approach.

Portland losses the possession battle every time. They almost always get outshot and out-passed, but they’re never giving up more shots on goal. For all of Sigi Schmid’s hopes that Seattle’s quantity of chances will come good in Seattle, his team’s performance on Saturday just fits the bigger picture. They’re playing Portland’s game; not the other way around.

“I’ve prepared [my team] for Plan A or Plan B,” Porter said after the Oct. 13 win over Seattle, his team having used their “Plan B” to even the season series with their rivals. “When you’re playing good teams, you have to prepare for that …”

“The reality is when you have two teams playing each other who both want to do the same thing, they’re going to have moments when they’ll have us deeper,” Porter explained. “I’ve tried to prepare these guys to be composed and mature when we’re playing with a lower block …”

source: AP
Porter concedes that Portland’s early approach needed to adapt, observing his team was either controlling games or “getting run through.” (Photo:AP)

Learning from early season mistakes

It’s a change that’s about more than versatility. Interspersed with Portland’s five losses and 15 draws were moments were being too aggressive had cost the Timbers points, often from winning positions. They wanted to press. They wanted to play in the opponent’s half. But they were also giving up key goals.

“Earlier in the year we were up the field, pushing and playing well, or we were just getting run through,” Porter conceded, after the 1-0 win over Seattle. “We’ve kind of down shifted just a little bit to balance our team. Just a little bit.

“We’re a little bit more setup to win games this time of year. This time of year, [they’re] going to be tight games.”

Now when the Timbers gain a lead (another point of emphasis within the team), they have a way to hold on, and when they claim an early lead, the numbers look very non-Porterball. Before earning their second goal on Saturday, Portland had held 48 percent of the possession, while the Galaxy were also able to pad their statistical edges after the Timbers went up 1-0.

As his playoff debut showed, Porter made the right decision, siding with pragmatism over idealism. But what does this mean for Porterball? Does all the talk about possession soccer, pressing and playing in the other team’s half take a back seat to a more conventional approach?

Not entirely. Like Porter says, it’s about having a Plan A and an alternative, and if he has to step back from some of the high-minded talk from earlier in the season, so be it.

“When I fail, I look at it and correct it,” Porter said. “Same with [my team]. I think that’s a big reason why we’re winning these games now.”

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

[ MORE: Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho transfer ]

The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

[ MORE: LA Galaxy send Van Damme back to Belgium ]

But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.