Portland Timbers Sporting Kansas City MLS Western Conference Final Playoffs Tactical Analysis

They’re almost here: the MLS Conference Finals. Having focused on MLS’ Eastern Conference last week, today I will be looking at what should encourage Portland Timbers in the west. They’ll be facing the very much liked Sporting Kansas City on Sunday.

But how could they come out on top in a battle against one of the best MLS teams of the year? Find out here in my tactical analysis which will cover how Portland can impose themselves on SKC.

Midfield Balance: Grit

Portland have a very strong spine going through team and that is shown as they favour a 4-3-2-1 formation. This formation sees them play without out-and-out wingers, but creators Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco have licence to roam.

What this formation also brings is stability in defence. It makes it harder for teams to break through the middle of the pitch and forces them to create out wide. A key part to this has been Diego Chara. The 32-year-old has been impressive in the Portland midfield this year.

Averaging 2.6 tackles and 1.3 interceptions per 90 minutes (WhoScored), its clear the impact Chara has in midfield which is only reinforced by visuals in his heatmap below:

Portland Timbers Sporting Kansas City MLS Western Conference Final Playoffs Tactical Analysis
Diego Chara’s MLS heatmap for the 2018 season.

The numbers and visuals look good, however, this could do Chara a disservice. Not only is he great at stopping attacks but the manner in which he does this is commendable. His timing and recovery speed are phenomenal as seen below:

Portland Timbers Sporting Kansas City MLS Western Conference Final Playoffs Tactical Analysis
The player initially dribbles past Chara but the Colombian gets back to match his strides. Despite being behind the player, Chara’s challenge is so well timed and executed that he wins the ball without touching the player.
Portland Timbers Sporting Kansas City MLS Western Conference Final Playoffs Tactical Analysis
This then allows him to recover the ball quickly and start an attack.

This sequence is one that isn’t foreign to Portland fans. Throughout the season, Chara has been great at winning tackles and coming out with the ball which could prove vital for Portland.

Midfield Balance: Creativity

Often, once he regains possession for Portland, Chara passes to another Diego: Valeri. Also an integral part of the Timbers midfield, Valeri is their creative spark. This is backed up by his 12 goals and 12 assists this MLS season.

The 32-year-old Argentinian will be the main focus over the two legs with those numbers. However, here’s how he’s shown that he has the bottle in this play-off run so far:

Portland Timbers Sporting Kansas City MLS Western Conference Final Playoffs Tactical Analysis
As soon as Portland win possession back, Valeri is scanning. This allows him to paint a picture in his head so he knows what to do before the ball reaches him. Picking up a great space, he knows he has time to execute.
Portland Timbers Sporting Kansas City MLS Western Conference Final Playoffs Tactical Analysis
As Chara plays the ball into him, Valeri allows the ball to run across his body. With his first touch, he then strokes the ball in behind to put Ebboisse through.
Portland Timbers Sporting Kansas City MLS Western Conference Final Playoffs Tactical Analysis
Ebboisse doesn’t have to break stride as the pass is weighted perfectly. He chips Frei to add one of the goals that brought Portland to this stage.

The intuition Valeri has is a game changer. Thinking a couple of steps ahead is what allows him to continue to produce so regularly at his age. If he’s able to find a groove on Sunday, then SKC could find themselves in big trouble. Especially looking at what he’s done for Portland in the play-offs so far.

But as you can expect Portland may find themselves in trouble during the two legs. Here’s how I believe they should look to combat SKC to limit damage:

Combating Sporting Kansas City: Wide Areas

Thankfully for Portland, Diego Rubio, who bagged a brace against them in August will be absent due to suspension. However, they will still have to combat an incredible SKC team.

Last time the sides met, SKC won 3-0. What also happened on that matchday was that Portland played in a 3-5-2. This is something I don’t think will happen on Sunday, but here’s something that should be taken from that match:

Portland Timbers Sporting Kansas City MLS Western Conference Final Playoffs Tactical Analysis
SKC were very good at moving the ball into wide areas to start and finish attacks. With Portland’s 4-3-2-1 also quite narrow, how will they combat this?

Well, here’s how they aimed to protect wide areas in against Seattle a few weeks ago:

Portland Timbers Sporting Kansas City MLS Western Conference Final Playoffs Tactical Analysis
This is an early phase of Seattle’s attack. As the player lays the ball off, he runs into the highlighted space to receive a return pass down the line.
Portland Timbers Sporting Kansas City MLS Western Conference Final Playoffs Tactical Analysis
However, Portland’s midfield and defence do well to crowd out and deny access to that area of the pitch. This forces Seattle to restart the attack.
Portland Timbers Sporting Kansas City MLS Western Conference Final Playoffs Tactical Analysis
To do this, they switch the play to the right wing. Due to the nature of the formation, Portland don’t have players stationed there naturally so their central players have to cover the ground.
Portland Timbers Sporting Kansas City MLS Western Conference Final Playoffs Tactical Analysis
Although they make a good effort, altogether the efforts are wasted. The Seattle player has two viable passing options. Luckily for Portland, the pass was miscontrolled.

This is an area where Portland must improve if they want to advance to the MLS Cup final. Looking at the strength of SKC’s wide players this should be a great cause for concern, and there should be plans to plug those gaps as often as possible.

Considering the pacey Gerso Fernandes could replace Diego Rubio in the front line, this could be even more important.

Summary

Portland Timbers will believe they can advance to the MLS Cup final and they should. However, personally, I believe SKC will have too much for them over the two legs. They have more ways to attack Portland than Portland can attack them and I think that’ll be the deciding factor.

However, as shown above, Portland have a very could midfield who could control that area of the pitch. That along with the speed of Valeri’s play could put them on the front foot, especially in the first leg which is at home. Whether that’ll be good enough to beat SKC, however, we’ll see.


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