Drilling down on: at Portland 2, San Jose 1

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Man of the Match:¬†Involved in both of Portland’s goals, Franck Songo’o may have had his best match of the year. Portland’s right midfielder was surprisingly effective in possession through the middle. In the 29th minute, Songo’o won the individual battle that started the Timbers’ goal-scoring counter, eventually providing the final ball on the opener. In the 59th minute, his restart from 50 yards – hit right to the edge of the six-yard box – led to Portland’s winning goal.

Packaged for takeaway:

  • Both teams played 4-4-2 formations that would have cancelled each other out without a few tweaks. Both teams wanted to play one midfielder high (Darlington Nagbe for Portland, Khari Stephenson for San Jose), but their defensive shapes were practically flat across the middle.
  • After an initial spell where Portland seemed bothered by San Jose’s pressure, the Timbers started to generate the match’s first opportunities – chances that resulted from a couple of twists in the midfield battle.
    • San Jose started with Rafael Baca on their left. Throughout the year, this set-up’s turned out to be an advantage for the Earthquakes. Naturally a central midfielder, Baca’s been able to come inside, giving San Jose a numerical advantage against two-man midfields (which, with Nagbe and Lovel Palmer, Portland played on Tuesday).
    • Portland, however, played wide midfielders Eric Alexander and Songo’o very narrow. A couple of early Portland goal kicks saw the teams’ 20 outfield players lined up within 25-30 yards of each other across the width of pitch.
    • Within that confined space, Alexander and Songo’o put in some of their finest soccer of the season, leaving Sam Cronin, Khari Stephenson, and Baca outgunned through the middle.
    • Portland used this advantage to generate chances down their right, with right back Jack Jewsbury given free rein to streak unmarked into attack.
  • This is, however, highlighted one of the limitations to putting Jewsbury, a natural midfielder, at right back. Portland coach John Spencer wants to keep his captain in the team, even though there are no spots in midfield for him. After early season troubles at the full back positions, Jewsbury’s been moved into defense. The switch has provided some needed stability; however, Jewsbury doesn’t offer much on the ball when attacking from wide positions. Given multiple, uncontested chances to get dangerous passes into the box, Jewbury failed to pick out a man. Despite an interesting tactical battle in midfield, Portland didn’t have the personnel to make it pay off.
  • Instead, their goal came on one of the season’s better counterattacks, one you might see in one of the hundreds of tactics texts you can get on Amazon. Its six key parts:
    • A corner from the right of goal from Shea Salinas targeted Alan Gordon far post. Futty Danso did enough to move Gordon off the ball, …
    • leaving the cross to go through the box to Baca, who had it taken from him by Songo’o.
    • A couple of dribbles and some quick touches between Kris Boyd and Alexander, and Songo’o was alone on the ball streaking down the right flank.
    • As Songo’o approached the area, Danny Mwanga made an early run far post.
    • Alexander went far post, drawing a man that didn’t matter.
    • Mwanga’s early, decisive run beat his man, was easily picked out by Songo’o, and gave Portland the opening goal.
  • It was Mwanga’s first goal since being traded to Portland; his first goal of the season; and his first goal in over a year.
  • The goal came at a pivotal moment of the half. San Jose had seemed to weather the home team’s opening “storm” (never testing goalkeeper David Bingham, it was more of a mild shower than full-fledged storm). They’d started one-touching their way through Portland’s midfield with relative ease, having adjusted to the rhythm of the match. Those adjustments created the corner off which Portland countered, the goal restoring momentum to the Timbers.
  • Halftime cooled that momentum, and the sides started the second on even footing. Fourteen minutes into the half, an aberrational goal hand the night to the Timbers:
  • A foul just inside San Jose’s half saw a Songo’o restart target the right post. At the edge of the six, Bingham collided with Danso, the ball spilled across the face of goal. Jewsbury won the race to the ball, sliding onto the Timbers’ second goal.
  • It was a goal which some referees may have waved off, though it was unclear Danso had committed a foul. Often goalkeepers are given the benefit of the doubt when they get their hands to the ball, though it didn’t look like Danso had necessarily¬†initiated contact. By the book, it was unclear the winner should have stood. By convention, it was a rare goal to see stand.
  • The shock of the goal left San Jose momentarily bewildered, but 15 minutes later, the Earthquakes pulled themselves back into the match. A cross from Justin Morrow was headed clear by Lovel Palmer, though a lurking Marvin Chavez pumped a shot back in from 19 yards out. The ball deflected off Alan Gordon and into the middle of Troy Perkins’ net – another late goal given up by the Timbers.
  • Shortly before the goal, Songo’o had to be stretchered from the field, with Timbers medical staff taking im straight to the locker room.
  • The match’s last quarter hour saw a nervy Timbers desperately keep San Jose at arms length, though Portland again looked like a team that doesn’t quite know how to get to full time with a lead. Though they got there tonight, the way they reached full time won’t inspire much confidence.
  • Confidence, however, is not a column in MLS’s standings, which now have the Timbers on the edge of a playoff spot. Portland now sits on 19 points, only three short of fifth-place Colorado in the West.
  • For San Jose, it’s their fourth loss of the season, though the Quakes maintain the league’s best record and a four-point lead in the West.
  • Perhaps more importantly, the match didn’t provide any real reason for concern. Though Frank Yallop may be beyond such condolences, his team didn’t play badly. While they may have never truly hit top gear, they also were undone by a couple of surprise goal – a counter attack and a aberrational set piece turned good. Going forward, the counters against them won’t be executed as well, and the set pieces won’t be as freakish.