Portland Timbers Sporting Kansas City MLS Cup 2018 Tactical Analysis

This post initially featured on our dedicated analysis site for football around the globe, totalfootballanalysis.com

We finally know the 2018 MLS Cup finalists, Portland Timbers and Atlanta United. In this tactical analysis, I will look at how Portland Timbers booked their place in the MLS Cup final.

To do this, they had to travel to Sporting Kansas City. A tough ask after a goalless draw in the first leg of their MLS Western Conference final. In a second leg that ebbed and flowed, however, they were able to come out 3-2 winners. I examine the trends of the match and how they came out on top below.

Portland Timbers going compact

From the off, Portland were clear in their game plan. They weren’t going to dictate possession but let Sporting Kansas City do that. Instead, they’d look to force errors, make life difficult and hit SKC on the break.

Here’s an early example of how that was implemented.

MLS 2018: Sporting Kansas City vs Portland Timbers Tactical Analysis Statistics
Here we can see how Portland have locked off the middle of the pitch. SKC, therefore, need to find a new way into their half.
MLS 2018: Sporting Kansas City vs Portland Timbers Tactical Analysis Statistics
However, the more advanced Portland players continue to apply the squeeze. As well as closing space, this forces SKC to play the ball long.

This worked early on during the match, however, as expected SKC were able to solve that problem. We can see how below.

Sporting Kansas City taking control

For SKC, the solving of this problem came with the speed of which they moved the ball. To create bigger spaces in attacks they would restart attacks fairly often if one had already run its course.

By restarting attacks I mean play the ball back to the defence who then relocate the point of attack. This was somewhat effective for them.

MLS 2018: Sporting Kansas City vs Portland Timbers Tactical Analysis Statistics
Here, the ball has come from the right-hand side. The Portland players end up being too central leaving the left back Sinovic in great space.
MLS 2018: Sporting Kansas City vs Portland Timbers Tactical Analysis Statistics
Sinovic plays the ball to Salloi who is also in space on the wing. This draws out the Portland right back and Felipe Gutierrez attacks the space in behind.
MLS 2018: Sporting Kansas City vs Portland Timbers Tactical Analysis Statistics
Gutierrez is able to cross the ball into the box but Johnny Russell can’t quite meet it.

Although the move may not have worked on that occasion, getting in behind Portland’s full-backs was how SKC opened the scoring:

Portland First-Half Struggles

SKC went into the break 1-0 and although they were very good going forward, Portland also had something to do with that. They were too naïve and were almost too compact. This is because as the first-half grew on, SKC’s attacks grew further and further up the pitch. This didn’t allow Portland to break well once possession was won as we see below:

MLS 2018: Sporting Kansas City vs Portland Timbers Tactical Analysis Statistics
Here, Sebastian Blanco, one of Portland’s main attacking threats receives the ball in his defensive third. Being chased he finds Portland talisman Diego Valeri a little further up the pitch.
MLS 2018: Sporting Kansas City vs Portland Timbers Tactical Analysis Statistics
However, with just one supporting player, SKC are able to deal with the counter and Portland fail to cross the halfway line.

Thankfully for Portland, they saw a much different performance in the second-half. They were still very solid through the middle of the pitch, but also picked up higher positions. Also, their movement off the ball improved massively as we’ll see shortly.

Sebastian Blanco Getting Higher Up The Pitch

Most importantly, however, Blanco was picking up the ball in higher positions. This proved to be crucial as it led to him being directly involved in the goals which swung the momentum in Portland’s favour.

MLS 2018: Sporting Kansas City vs Portland Timbers Tactical Analysis Statistics
Blanco’s positioning right on the touchline is great to start. But Villafana wrapping around helps put doubt into the heads of SKC’s defence.
MLS 2018: Sporting Kansas City vs Portland Timbers Tactical Analysis Statistics
Blanco uses this as a decoy. As the SKC midfield comes across to double up, Blanco feints and bursts into the highlighted space.

Blanco uses this as a decoy. As the SKC midfield comes across to double up, Blanco feints and bursts into the highlighted space.

Once in this space, I’m pretty sure everybody knows what happened:

That off the ball movement and spatial awareness was clear once again for Portland’s second goal.

MLS 2018: Sporting Kansas City vs Portland Timbers Tactical Analysis Statistics
This time, Portland are attacking SKC at pace. But in the midst of this, Blanco halts, see the SKC running by him and drops into the space that’s vacated. Ebobissie continues his run to the box.
MLS 2018: Sporting Kansas City vs Portland Timbers Tactical Analysis Statistics
Now he is wide open to receives the pass and draws the attention of the SKC defence.

Already having a picture of his surroundings, Blanco knows what he is going to do next. As the defenders rush towards him, he creates a goal out of nothing:

Summary

The difference in first-half and second-half performances should not go unnoticed. Its clear that Portland manager, Giovanni Savarese’s half time messages held up and were effective. He was able to identify what was going wrong and rectify that, which is why Portland are heading to Atlanta.

However, in the MLS Cup final, they’ll need to be at it from the first minute. Whether Atlanta lost some momentum with that second leg loss to the Red Bulls will be seen but that can’t be counted on. Either way, it’ll be an interesting match on December 8th.


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