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.”

Who is Kenny Saief, and other USMNT Gold Cup personnel questions

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Kenny Saief is an 23-year-old American left-sided player with UEFA Champions League experience.

So why do we know so little about the Miami-born man?

The answer is pretty straight-forward: Saief’s entire career has been under-the-radar. After coming up through a series of Israeli teams, he moved to KAA Gent in Belgium. None of those matches, even adding in his representing the full Israel national team twice, got a ton of play on American soil.

[ MORE: Saul scores stunner for Spain U-21s ]

So when Saief filed his one-time switch to represent the United States, paving the way for a USMNT call-up for this summer’s Gold Cup, even those of us who’d followed his career from afar had put a limited amount of actual observation on match footage.

So here’s the long-and-short:

  • Saief turns 24 in December.
  • He moved to Gent from Israeli second tier side Ramat haSharon in 2014.
  • Played a total of 35 minutes in friendlies versus Serbia and Croatia.
  • Saief has 20 total appearances between the Europa and Champions Leagues.
  • Posted a UCL assist versus Wolfsburg in the 2015-16 Round of 16.
  • Had goal, 2 assists in UEL this season, played 180 mins vs. Spurs.
  • Has 15 goals, 9 assists in 107 apps for Gent.

Saief should get an opportunity to make an impact for Bruce Arena’s USMNT, perhaps as soon as Saturday’s friendly against Ghana in East Hartford.

Who else stands a chance to gain the most from this tournament?

Joe Corona — The 26-year-old made his thirst-inducing name in American soccer circles by scoring a pair of goals in the 2013 Gold Cup, but has just 17 caps to his name. His call-up over veterans like Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan either shows how high he’s risen or how far those veterans have fallen.

Cristian Roldan — Seattle’s hard-nosed midfielder was playing college ball at Washington just three years ago, and it’s not crazy to think strong performances could boost him onto the radar of bigger clubs abroad (let alone make him a mainstay along Kellyn Acosta with the USMNT).

Dom Dwyer — If Roldan’s rise is surprising, Dwyer’s really is astounding. It’s easy to forget that the Sporting KC star forward was playing junior college soccer in 2010 before spending one season of Division I soccer with South Florida. Now he has 57 MLS goals and a look at becoming the clinical finisher the American side has wanted for some time.

Justin Morrow and Eric Lichaj — The 29- and 28-year-old fullbacks would love to prove their mettle is as good if not better than Jorge Villafana, the current front-runner to start at left back should the Yanks complete their revitalized run to the World Cup. Lichaj, a Nottingham Forest veteran, is also adept at right back.

This isn’t to say that Juan Agudelo and Kelyn Rowe won’t benefit from strong tournaments, but the names above have either been rescued from soccer’s scrap heap or at least Jurgen Klinsmann’s prison.

PODCAST: Bob Bradley talks MLS past, USMNT

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Scott Nicholls and Otis Earle welcomed Bob Bradley to their “Beyond The Pitch” podcast to discuss his time coaching the Chicago Fire, the Fire’s current squad, how MLS has evolved, the new generation of players coming into the USMNT and more.

Perhaps most interesting is Bradley talking about previous losses with stinging emotion that sounds like they happened yesterday, including the 2000 MLS Cup.

[ MORE: Latest Men In Blazers pod ]

Since being fired from Swansea City after less than 100 days, Bradley has been linked with the Norway national team gig as well as a return to Los Angeles. Keep up with the U.S. coach here, and check out the podcast here:

U.S. Open Cup preview: Which underdog has best odds?

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Every dog has its day, and the three lower-tier clubs remaining in the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup are hoping for a second.

Miami FC, Sacramento Republic, and FC Cincinnati enjoyed wins over Major League Soccer sides in the fourth round, and now get further MLS tests in this week’s fifth round.

[ MORE: Lampard linked with manager opening ]

Once FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids tangle on Tuesday, attention turns to the underdogs on Wednesday. Who has the best chance to advance?

  1. Miami FC vs. Atlanta United — Playing an MLS expansion side at Riccardo Silva Stadium will give Miami a bit of confidence, and this is also a side with some good experience in pressure spots. Whether it’s manager Alessandro Nesta or MLS vets Michel, Gabriel Farfan, and Michael Lahoud, MFC won’t shy away. Upset chance: Solid.
  2. FC Cincinnati vs. Chicago Fire — The visitors are having a heck of a season in MLS and don’t have a group which will be worried by a huge crowd, but there’s no debating that 25,000-plus in Southern Ohio give FCC more than a puncher’s chance. Upset chance: Improbable, but possible
  3. LA Galaxy vs. Sacramento Republic — If LA puts something close to its best side out there, Sacramento will struggle to stop its attack.  Upset chance: Long shot.

Elsewhere on Wednesday, New England hosts DC United, Philadelphia visits the Red Bulls, Seattle is off to San Jose, and Houston hosts Sporting KC.

WATCH: Spain’s Saul smashes a shot past Italy’s Donnarumma

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Since returning from a loan at Rayo Vallecano, Saul Niguez has been a somewhat under the radar star at Atletico Madrid.

Coming off his best season with Atleti, the 22-year-old Saul is making an even bigger name for himself at the U-21 EURO this summer.

Spain’s Saul scored a hat trick past Gianluigi Donnarumma and Italy on Tuesday, and the second goal was laced with venom.

Getting onto the ball from 30-plus yards out, Saul smashed his shot with enough power that the ball barely had occasion to rotate.

Saul is under contract at the Vicente Calderon through 2022, and has three caps for Spain’s senior team, too. He was rated Atleti’s third-best performer by WhoScored this season.