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What We Learned from Real Salt Lake’s dismantling of the Portland Timbers

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In the wake of Real Salt Lake’s 4-2, opening leg win over Portland, here’s What We Learned after leg one of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference final:

  • Javier Morales is no Clint Dempsey

Where Portland did a reasonable job of containing Seattle’s focal point in the conference semifinals, they completely failed to restrain Javier Morales – a player who has mastered the tip of a diamond midfield in Major League Soccer. The Argentine attacker played a part in three of his team’s goals, finishing the night with one score and two helpers. As much as any performance since his 2011 ankle injury, this was classic Javier Morales, creating seven scoring chances while leading his team in passes (49).

So why was he so successful where Dempsey wasn’t? It didn’t appear as if Portland gave him less attention than they showed Dempsey. Of course, whereas Seattle’d been playing their diamond for about a month, Real Salt Lake’s been doing so for years, leaving them far more familiar with how to deal with the Timbers’ pressure. Sometimes that resulted in Morales dropping deep to spur connections around Portland’s pressing. Other times that meant running into space behind the midfield, making himself into an outlet for Kyle Beckerman, Tony Beltran, and rest of the RSL players tasked with handling Portland’s pursuit.

Bottom line: Morales was much more effective than Dempsey. For Portland, the difference was huge.

[MORE: Real Salt Lake Man of the Match: Javier Morales]

  • Short passing out of problems

The virtues of Real Salt Lake’s approach paid off on Sunday, their skill on the ball helping them exploit Portland’s pressure. Numerous times we saw play, particularly down RSL’s right, connect two or three short passes in succession, pulling Will Johnson or Diego Chara toward the ball before a teammate was found higher up. Putting theory into practice, RSL used Portland’s pursuit against them.

The team’s first and third goals provide examples. Play down the right side just past the half-hour mark ended with Javier Morales behind Portland left back Michael Harrington, who was helping to apply pressure higher up. Morales won the corner, delivered a perfect ball to Chris Schuler, and saw his team go up one.

On the team’s third goal, Diego Chara missed Rodney Wallace with a pass, and as Portland pursued a quick turnover, the play went from Luis Gil wide to Tony Beltran and in to Javier Morales, who quickly found Robbie Findley making a run deep on the right. This time, however, Findley gets his cross through the box to Devon Sandoval, who gives RSL a two-goal lead.

[MORE: Four-goal night leaves Real Salt Lake up two on Portland after West’s first leg]

  • source: Getty Images
    Real Salt Lake forward Robbie Findley took advantage of Portland’s Futty Danso for his team’s second goal. (Photo: Getty Images.)

    There’s only so much midfielders, goalkeepers can do to  protect defenders

As the Timbers went from mild curiosity to MLS Cup contender, many looked at their star-deprived defense and asked how they produced the second-best goal prevention record in Major League Soccer. Futty Danso was a backup on last year’s team. Pa Modou Kah was an emergency, mid-season signing. How did a team that lost their top two central defenders forge such a great defensive?

Will Johnson, that’s how. And Diego Chara. And Donovan Ricketts. Provide protection in front, cover their mistakes at the back, and a central pairing can look a lot better than they actually are.

But there’s only so much a midfield or goalkeeper can do. In one-on-one assignments on set pieces, defenders have to do better than Danso did on Chris Schuler. And that Kyle Beckerman long ball minutes later? Danso can not make that into a goal scoring chance for Robbie Findley. You don’t get assists on the other team’s goals.

Danso picked a bad time to have his worst night of the season, and while you’d like to give RSL some credit on those first two goals, those scores are on Portland’s central defender. In both cases, those goals are prevented by most MLS central defenders.

  • 2013 postseason = Chris Schuler’s coming out party?

Real Salt Lake conceded twice, but neither can be hung on the 26-year-old defender, who is playing at a national team-caliber level. That seems knee-jerk given Schuler only played 16 games in the regular season, but this is a player whose talent has been evident for some time. It allowed Real Salt Lake to trade Jamison Olave this offseason, and this postseason, it’s allowed Schuler to be MLS’s best defender.

It goes beyond the two goals he’s scored, though those help. Of the three goals RSL’s allowed this postseason, he had a part in none, while his discipline has allowed him to make crucial clearances against Los Angeles (leg one), help contain the league’s best counter (also leg one), and co-anchor a defense that held the Galaxy to two shots on goal in an elimination game. Tonight, Schuler made a game co-leading three interceptions, his effort helping hold Portland to three shots on Nick Rimando.

More succinctly: Schuler is doing everything you want. From his distribution to his positioning, his reads and his execution, he has been one of the postseason’s standouts, giving RSL a central pairing capable of carrying them to a title.

source: Getty Images
Caleb Porter, seen talking to an official Sunday night, saw his team concede four goals for the second time this season. Both times, it was against RSL. (Photo: Getty Images.)
  • Portland still have no plan for Real Salt Lake

After eliminating Seattle, Portland’s players downplayed RSL’s dominance of the teams’ season series. Some didn’t even realize the Timbers haven’t beaten RSL since 2011. The postseason’s different, the general feeling held. Whatever happened before is irrelevant now.

As such, it’s worth noting the similarities between tonight’s game and the 4-2 loss Portland suffered in Utah on Aug. 30. Those are the only times Portland’s given up four goals under Caleb Porter, and each time late consolation prevented the scoreline from being worse. The games were more one-sided than the final scores say.

Even if we don’t know the exact cause, it’s naive to think there isn’t something special about RSL – a characteristic that makes them particularly difficult for Portland to conquer. Of the seven losses the Timbers have suffered this season, three have been to Jason Kreis’s team, who’ve failed to lose to Portland in five 2013 meetings (counting Open Cup).

My theory: A stylistic like-for-like leaves the side with years’ experience in their system at a huge advantage over a team that’s played together for eight months. RSL’s players know Portland’s tendencies because the teams are of the same mind. They know where the Timbers can be exploited, and they have the experience to execute.

How does Caleb Porter beat that? He can’t fast forward his team’s progress. He can’t jump to the point where his team is as familiar with this approach as Real Salt Lake.

For all the talk of Plan As and Plan Bs, there may be no plan for RSL. Porter may need a master stroke.

The changing identity of … Portland Timbers FC

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In a cold, scientific sense, Seattle’s acquisition of Clint Dempsey shouldn’t affect the Portland Timbers any more than it affects Major League Soccer’s eight other Western Conference teams, who only feel a slightly more acute impact than the 10 teams in the East. The emboldened Sounders only affect other teams in so much as they keep them from achieving their goals. With Dempsey in Seattle, each team is a little less likely to win against the Sounders and ever so slightly less likely to make the playoffs.

Portland’s relationship with Seattle is neither cold nor scientific. Even more so than the teams’ link to fellow Cascadia rival Vancouver, the Sounders and Timbers are judged relative to each other. As Seattle succeed in their first three seasons, they set an implicit benchmark for the Timbers. When Portland claimed last year’s Cascadia Cup, they dealt a significant blow to the playoff-bound Sounders. When the Timbers succeeded at the beginning of 2013 while Seattle struggled, the dynamic between the two northwest neighbors subtly began to shift.

[MORE: In pictures: Clint Dempsey, Seattle celebrate Deuce’s arrival.]

That’s why, after considering Seattle’s side of the Dempsey equation, people naturally looked to Portland, asking a series of questions: What will the fans think of this? How could the Timbers let this happen? Were they in the picture to get Clint? What happened to the allocation order?

How will Timbers owner Merritt Paulson react?

You can’t be familiar with soccer in the northwest without imagining Paulson’s reaction to this news. He’s never shied away from the rivalry, and in bringing Caleb Porter, he took a big step toward gaining a foothold in it. For much of the season, Portland was the right track team, Seattle was the wrong. But with one signing, Seattle has completely reversed that momentum, whether the standings reflect that or not.

Did Adrian Hanauer’s coup take Portland by surprise? If so, who’ll bear the brunt of the blame? Or was Portland, like so many around MLS, in tune with the whispers and just unable to compete with the Sounders’ financial might?

And if that’s what’s happened in some form, you couldn’t blame Portland if they tried to turn their cheek, go about their business, and golf clap their rivals in front of clenched teeth. Yet judging by their fans’ reaction, that’s easier said than done. Hardcore Timbers supporters across social media were incredulous as to how the allocation order was bypassed to allow Seattle to sign Dempsey. Even after MLS attempted to clarify the standing of Designated Players relative to allocation, there was the feeling that something other than Seattle ingenuity saw Dempsey land on Puget Sound.

[MORE: The changing identity of … Seattle Sounders FC.]

To those fans, the balance that was starting to be established between the Sounders and Timbers has been thrown off by forces beyond Cascadia. After two inconsistent years, Portland’s own ingenuity had led them toward the top of the Western Conference. At the same time, Seattle was having a down season. Now somebody else has greased the wheels to give the Sounders another leg up. Combine a supporter’s intensity with the conflict in Major League Soccer’s published rules, and the fans’ anguish makes sense.

During the normally raucous atmosphere of Saturday’s Cascadia Derby, you could almost sense something was off. With Vancouver employing a physical approach early, the game’s style may have fostered that perception. Or maybe the feeling was pure confirmation bias. Regardless, when Portland unveiled their “ML$ TRANSPARENCY = LEGITIMACY” banner in the second half, you knew not even a visit from the rival Whitecaps could take Dempsey off the Timbers’ Army’s mind.

There’s the potential here to cause a bit of an identity crisis; at least, in comparison to the identity Portland had cultivated from March through July. Then, the Timbers’ were one of Major League Soccer’s 2013 darlings. Now, not only is there the potential for the Timbers to be pushed back into Seattle’s shadow, climbing out is even more difficult. If Seattle is your rival, and like it or not you are defined in terms of their relative success, then how do you realistically top the acquisition of the captain of the U.S. Men’s National Team? Try to sign Landon Donovan when his deal expires this winter?

[MORE: The changing identify of … Major League Soccer.]

Ultimately, the answer is to beat Seattle on the field, which was the goal all along. With Dempsey up north, that becomes more difficult, but he’s only one player. Particularly if the Timbers keep adding Diego Valeri-esque talents, that gap can disappear.

What can’t disappear is Portland’s connection to Seattle, one which may have become more difficult to reconcile on Saturday night. After the Sounders made one of the most notable acquisitions in league history, the Timbers are left with a bunch of questions. To the extent the answers change perceptions of the team remains to be seen.

Two Ryan Johnson goals give Timbers first win of Caleb Porter era

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PORTLAND, Ore. — One week after their worst performance of the season, Portland broke through for the first win of the Caleb Porter era, getting two second half goals from Ryan Johnson to hand the visiting Houston Dynamo a 2-0 loss.

In the process, Portland showed a threat they never had to exhibit to show through Porter’s first four games. When Johnson redirected a 55th cross from Diego Chara past Tally Hall, the Timbers had their first lead of the season, surprising given the team came into Saturday’s match with seven goals. Once they were ahead, the Timbers were able to take advantage of a side chasing the game, eventually countering their way to a two-goal lead.

It was that sparked the effort out of halftime, a turnover of his making creating a gilt-edged chance for Darlington Nagbe early in the half. Moments later, Chara’s run behind Corey Ashe set up the opening goal. Rodney Wallace then blasted a 20-yard shot off the crossbar and right post before Portland finally bought their insurance.

In the 73rd minute, Nagbe forced a turnover just inside Portland half before getting a return ball from Kalif Alhassan. Laying off into the left of Houston’s area, Nagbe set up Johnson for the game’s final goal.

It was a deserved result for a team that dominated after an even first half. Houston withstood an initial Timber push that opened to game to control the heart of the opening period. Though the Timbers had the better of play before half time, the teams went into intermission goalless in what looked destined to devolve into a war of attrition.

Portland had lost David Horst to a knee injury after 18 minutes. At the 29-minute mark, Diego Valeri left with what appeared to be concussion-like symptoms. For Houston, Giles Barnes picked up a knock through a Mikael Silvestre challenge before halftime, while Corey Ashe appeared to hurt his ankle in the second half.

It was in that second half that Porter turned the match. After Valeri left, Porter initially persisted with a 4-2-3-1 formation that used Nagbe in the playmaker’s role. But the young attacker appeared lost, unable to establish the fluidity Valeri promotes. In the second half, Porter moved Nagbe into a more natural supporting striker’s role, shifting his formation to a 4-4-2.

The move created space behind the forwards, an area Chara dominated from the onset of the second. Jumping from deep midfield to win balls coming out of Houston’s end, Chara transformed Portland’s attack from reliant on traditional buildup to menacing through counters. His run behind Ashe created the first goal in the 55th minute, while another Portland counter put the match away in the 73rd.

For Houston, the match had to feel like a typical, everything against us road game – the type of circumstance that happens two or three times over the course of the season. They were without Will Bruin, and in the days before the match, Boniek Garcia was also ruled out. Under a persistent Portland rain shower, Jeld-Wen’s FieldTurf was slicker than BBVA Compass Stadium’s could ever play. Even the first goal held hints of bad luck, hitting off a sprawling Tally Hall before eventually dropping over the line.

But that point of view overlooks a Timber performance that finally lived up to the hype. The Timbers held 62 percent of the match’s possession and put six shots on goal to Houston’s two. The second half was basically one-way traffic.

It was the breakthrough the Timbers had hoped for last week in Colorado, but with the team finally in the win column, Portland’s first month’s struggles will gain a new perspective. They’ve got their first win under Porter.

It may only be preseason, but Portland, Porter right to be confident

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Had the score reflected the unbalanced play, people outside of Portland may have taken notice: The Caleb Porter Project is starting to yield early returns for the Timbers. True, his defense was mistake-prone and made what should have been a comfortable victory into what appears to be a shootout, but for 90 minutes against the Supporters’ Shield holders, Porter’s product was as advertised. His team passed, pressed, ran and rocked the visiting Earthquakes onto their heels, leaving 14,229 at Jeld-Wen Field with a performance that transcended the result.

“In the end I think we proved to ourselves and each other that we’re capable of beating anybody in Major League Soccer,” was Porter’s bold assessment after the 3-3 result, a game highlighted by a hat trick by new Timber Ryan Johnson. It also featured three defensive mistakes which allowed San Jose to earn a draw.

“There were some moments in the game that we need to address,” Porter conceded. “The nice thing is that those are things that are easily addressable.”

The first goal, three minutes in, came after a ball-to-hand in the box. Chris Wondolowski buried the opener from the spot. A midfield foul and a converted set piece allowed Victor Bernardez to score San Jose’s second, while chaos in the penalty area let former Timber Mike Fucito give the Earthquakes a late equalizer.

The goals weren’t enough to cloud Porter’s standout Jeld-Wen debut, one that allowed his team to show the stylistic revolution anticipated from the former Akron boss is more than some hyperbolic fable. Returning from their four-game stretch in Arizona, the difference between Porter’s teams and the style of former coach John Spencer’s was drastic. The Timbers dominated possession, relied on short passing that capitalized on constant off-the-ball movement, and were steadily throwing players at the defense.

The first goal, two minutes after San Jose’s opener, illustrated the approach. San Jose left back Justin Morrow had been drawn in, leaving Portland fullback Ryan Miller — advanced to play along San Jose’s line — space to receive and play a pass toward the byline. Kalif Alhassen ran through the channel and onto the ball, providing a perfect near-post cross to Ryan Johnson. The Jamaican international’s looping header pulled Portland even.

Portland opened up San Jose’s midfield for the second, Diego Valeri given too much time to threat a ball behind Bernardez for Ryan Johnson, while the third saw Johnson chip Jon Busch to complete a Portland counter.

(MORE: Ryan Johnson hits for three in Jeld-Wen debut – HIGHLIGHTS)

It may have just a preseason game, but San Jose started seven regulars. Portland started nine players who are likely parts of Porter’s First Kick XI, but their setup was slightly different than the one we’re likely see against New York on March 3. The relatively flat midfield in Sunday’s setup should give away to a midfield diamond, with newly acquired Ben Zemanski playing at its base.

But with time running out on the preseason, it’s time to start drawing some conclusions about teams’ preparedness. And in that regard, Portland is far ahead of the game. You can see Valeri will be their playmaker, Johnson their push, and (eventually) Nagbe their poacher. You can see a narrow midfield giving way for fullbacks to provide width and pressure.

You can see the chemistry developing among players learning to read each other’s movements, and you can see players bursting from midfield seeking to exploit the space exposed by their passing game. It’s shocking how much the team is playing to the Caleb Porter hype.

source: Getty ImagesIt’s the type of approach a stylistic homogenous, tactically risk-averse MLS rarely sees. That was evident by San Jose’s reaction. The Earthquakes, playing a standard MLS 4-4-2, saw their midfield flattened and rooted by the Timbers’ movement, with the home side habitually breaking down the Earthquakes’ left flank. Even after Frank Yallop switched loanee John Bostock with starting right midfielder Shea Salinas, San Jose couldn’t stop right back Ryan Miller and right midfielder Kalif Alhassan from teaming with forwards Johnson and Diego Valeri (right) to breach that side. The Timbers’ new passing and movement was going to take more than 90 minutes for San Jose to get used to.

“That’s going to be a strength of our team,” Porter said of his side’s style, sentiments that have been echoed since his mid-winter introduction. “We want to be an aggressive team … a proactive team. We want to be on the front foot, and we want teams to have to deal with us. San Jose had to deal with us tonight.”

San Jose couldn’t say the same of Portland. For most of the night they were without the ball and forced to rely on transition for opportunities. Yet with three goals that came decidedly against the run of play, the Earthquakes highlighted why Portland’s 2012 defense ranked 17th in Major League Soccer. Giveaways, soft fouls, and lapses in focus — all correctable offenses — kept the Timbers from victory.

“It’s easier to clean up the defensive side,” Porter said of his team’s progress. “It’s easier to sort out a giveaway that can’t happen. It’s easier to sort out getting your back four tightened up. It’s easier to sort out marking a guy on a set piece. Those things will be sorted out …”

Even if the defense stays problematic, Sunday’s game represented a huge step forward for the Timbers. Not only do they seem better than last year, but their style of soccer is much improved. That entertainment value is something owner Merritt Paulson has stressed since the Timbers entered Major League Soccer. Even if Portland can’t challenge for a playoff spot, a new, more ambitious tactical approach will be a reprieve for Timbers’ fans.

source: Getty Images“I was pleased because there were moments where we showed Portland Timbers football and our identity and what it’s going to be,” Porter said. “We also showed we’re adjustable as well, and we do what we need to win games.

“That’s a mark of a good team in MLS. You know who you are but you also can adjust and be flexible at times if you need to.

This all assumes the team that showed up on Sunday is for real. It could have just been a good night against a team that’s not as far along in their preseason preparation. Until Portland can transfer this production onto a regular season game, the revolution’s yet to start.

Ultimately, it was just an exhibition, though it was one that will inspire a lot of conviction.

“[San Jose] was the best team in the regular season last year. We went toe-to-toe with this team, and in the end, I thought we were the aggressor looking to win.

“If we would have cleaned up a few mistakes, the game would have been ours. So we take a lot of belief and confidence from this game. “

Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Portland Timbers

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(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

Portland failed in 2012, and they know it. From the moment owner Merritt Paulson fired coach John Spencer, he set about making it clear to fans: Last season – a year in which he’d asked for a playoff appearance – was not acceptable. While Portland was only four points out of a playoff spot at the time of Spencer’s departure, the Timbers spent the rest of the season near the bottom of the west preparing for the arrival of Caleb Porter.

Change is already evident in Portland. There’s no air of disappointment lingering from last season. Instead, a new coach and an entirely different approach has restored the optimism. They may not be saying it out loud, but for the second year in a row, the Timbers plan to compete for the postseason.

Here are three (of many) questions they’ll need to answer this winter if they’re going to make waves:

  • Can Porter adapt?

On Tuesday, former Zip Darlington Nagbe was asked if he was having flashbacks to college training. Surprisingly, he said no. All of the drills Portland’s done this week are brand new to the somebody who played under Porter at Akron.

So Porter’s already adjusting. Whether that translates to wins is all that matters, something we won’t know until (at least) March, even if early returns are encouraging. The Timbers are training like a team ready to play to the strengths of Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Will Johnson, and Diego Chara. That fit may ultimately be the magic that justifies Porter’s hype.

  • Is Diego Valeri worth the label?

We’ve seen a lot of Designated Players come and go, most of which haven’t met the expectations that come with the label. We should adjust our views on the high-priced talents, but still, when you hear a team is bringing in a new designated player, you rightfully assume they think very highly of him.

And so we have Portland’s Argentinine import Diego Valeri, a loanee from Lanus brought in to orchestrate the attack. Even on the nights he can’t generate goals, he’s doing to be tasked with managing a possession-based passing game that should take pressure off the defense.

As with Porter, early returns are encouraging, but on an expensive loan deal (and with little pedigree outside of Argentina to recommend him one way or another), fans would be right to reserve judgment. In case you missed it, the last DP didn’t work out so well.

  • Can Darlington Nagbe reach his potential?

We don’t even know where he’ll play, so it’s hard to predict what he’ll do in 2013, but with the acquisition of Valeri, Nagbe looks set to assume a more goal-scoring role. He started in one last season when John Spencer paired him with Kris Boyd up top in a 4-4-2, but when Gavin Wilkinson took over and switched to a 4-3-3, Nagbe had to orchestrate the transition.

While he’s capable of doing that, Nagbe is the Timbers’ best goal scorer. His skill and instincts in the penalty area (along with the acquisition of Valeri) suggest he should be moved back forward. Given the paucity of scoring threats on Portland’s rost, the move’s almost necessary if the Timbers are going to score enough goals.

If the chance produces a much-needed double-digit goal scorer, Portland will have solved their biggest problem.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: Real Salt Lake