The Thin Red Line: Timbers vs. San Jose Earthquakes

San Jose's sojourn to the Rose City must yield one thing and one thing only: a win for the home team.

By Mike Schwartz September 5, 2014

The Timbers are in the playoffs!

Well, they’re currently in a playoff position, albeit by one point, ahead of a team with a game in hand, but that’s neither here nor there. The most important take-home is that, for the first time this year, Portland is over the elusive red line, courtesy of a 3-0 victory at Our House in the Middle of B.C.

And what a game it was. Caleb Porter called it “playing the way we want to play”, and who is prepared to disagree? Goals came from a variety of sources:  leading scorer Maxi Urruti bagged his ninth, and Rodney Wallace welcomed himself back to his 2013 form, finishing off a beautiful pass from Darlington Nagbe. But it was the first career marker from Alvas Powell that gave Portland a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Powell genuinely stole the show, using his speed and youthful gall to spearhead the Portland attack and bewilder Whitecap defenders. Again, to quote the coach: ”The light bulb has gone on… I’ve seen this a lot with young players, sometimes they just can’t get into a groove and can’t figure it out and all of a sudden they turn a corner.”

The light bulb is indeed on, and it picked a fine time to flicker into full brightness, because there is no longer any margin for error.

What seems like forever ago, we asked a simple question: what constitutes a big game? While visiting San Jose are lowly, goonish, and as sexy a draw as Columbus, their sojourn in the Rose City must yield one thing, and one thing only: a win for the home team.

In what has become typical MLS scheduling folly, the Timbers and Quakes have yet to meet this year, so  now they will clash three times in the next month, including a home-and-home on October 4 and 8. The visiting Goonies are, well, not your older sibling’s Goonies. While good ol’ Chris Wondolowski has 10 goals, more than any Timber, he won’t be dancing in the TA-facing penalty area in anticipation of a goal scoring record this year. No other Quake has more than 3 goals, and the two that do are both likely to not play. One is walking wounded midfielder Yannick Djaló, who scored two in two matches, then promptly got injured (calf strain) and hasn’t played since. The other is forward Atiba Harris, who is away on International duty with (can’t make this up) St. Kitts and Nevis for the 2014 CFU Caribbean Cup.

Luckily for San Jose, their second-most dangerous attacking option—Shea Salinas—is healthy, and one of the better crossers of the ball in MLS. Wondo’s head will undoubtedly be looking to get on the receiving end of a few.

This all begs an important question: which Timbers defense will show up? Will it be the out-of-sorts group that got torched for four goals on August 24th, or the stellar bunch that dominated—and shut out—Vancouver in their own building? Tactically speaking, it should be the latter. Take a look at the two formations: 

Left: Timbers versus Seattle on August 24; Right: Timbers versus Vancouver on August 31.

It’s difficult to question Caleb Porter’s decision to go with the more experienced fullbacks, Harrington and O’Rourke, in a testy home derby, against a veteran group, but the results speak for themselves: the slower, less dynamic fullbacks got caught on the counter, leaving Ridgewell and Paparatto stranded. Not only did they concede four goals, but three of them were on the counter attack.

So why did the team on the right have so much more success? The core group—Ricketts/Ridgewell/Chara/Johnson/Nagbe/Valeri—is consistent, but everywhere else, there are massive differences in personnel, age, speed, and style. In need of a spark, Caleb started the group on the right at B.C. Place, up against more raw speed and flair. The result was Portland’s best defensive performance of the season, maybe in years.

For argument’s sake, take a look at the essentially unchanged Vancouver group that hit for four goals at Providence Park back on June 1: 

The only change in Vancouver’s attack is a negligible one, Koffie for Tiebert. But look at that Portland group. Injecting the experienced field general, Ridgewell, to pair with Villafaña allowed the young fullback to get forward, knowing his bacon was covered. Ditto for Alvas Powell, who had the experienced Kah for cover. The result was Alvas Powell’s best game as a pro, and three points for Portland.

Considering Portland’s home form this year (3W, 3L, 6D), getting three points is far from a guarantee. Does anyone remember 1-1 draws with Philadelphia, Chicago, and Chivas?  Or 2-2 with Dallas, or the 3-3 with Columbus? These were all beyond winnable games where Portland didn’t get the job done. The hindsight machine states correctly that one or two of these moved over to the W column would see Portland in a very different, much more secure place, but tactical analysis shows that the Timbers are more prepared to play a complete game than they have been all year.

So yes, this is a big game. This is a huge game. 

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