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Tactical Analysis

Portland's Shrewd Defense Led Team to 2015 MLS Cup

Yes, the Portland Timbers scored two goals in the opening seven minutes in Sunday's MLS Cup final. But as Sam Polak shows here in this GIF-filled piece, Caleb Porter's men played great defense too.
BY Sam Polak Posted
December 12, 2015
2:00 PM

WITHOUT A DOUBT the craziness of the first 20 minutes of the 2015 MLS Cup final—two early goals for the Timbers and a goal in the 17th minute for the Crew—set the tone for the match and rightfully dominated the headlines.

After that first flurry of activity, however, Portland established itself as the better team—and its defense in particular stood out in two very specific ways. For starters, the Timbers’ press caused the Crew all sorts of trouble as the hosts tried to build out of the back. Equally important, the Timbers demonstrated an ability to quickly regain its shape with great defensive interchanges whenever the Crew bypassed the first line of Portland’s press.

Several times when Columbus had possession in its own third Wil Trapp tracked back and sat between Gaston Sauro and Michael Parkhurst. This pushed the two center backs wider, allowing the fullbacks to move forward. And then Tony Tchani positioned himself in front of Trapp and the two center backs as this quartet sought to push the ball forward.

The Timbers attempted to disrupt the Crew's build-up with Fanendo Adi and its two attacking midfielders, Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe, jumping into the fray.


Let's first examine how the Timbers three-man press disrupted Columbus’ efforts to play through Tchani’s feet. Seen below, Adi was able to isolate the Crew defender and force a pass into Tchani, and with Tchani in trouble and his back to goal, the three Timbers players work together to win the ball back with only minimal distance to goal. Behind this trio, it's important to note, the remaining Timbers’ midfielders formed a block of three providing additional defensive support.

You can see below how effective this was press was in another sequence. Here, Columbus does not lose possession but it is clear that if Portland is going to be broken down, it will not be by the feet a Columbus midfielder.

During sequences when Portland prevented Tchani from receiving the ball or Tchani did not check back, Portland could bait the Crew into trying to play longer passes. In these instances, Nagbe could drop back and connect with his fellow midfielders, which forced the Columbus passer to be incredibly precise with his delivery. While you could argue that this is simply a poor pass below, the Timbers' defensive organization lured the Crew into a low percentage gambit.

Trapp was not the only victim of this same defensive tactic. Below, Tchani is marked out of the play and Adi forces the ball forward rather than allowing it to go back and circulate around the Crew’s defenders to the other side. Parkhurst plays a long ball and the result is the same—the Timbers back four claimed possession.  

For a good stretch of time Portland's' press simply bamboozed Columbus. The Crew eventually found more success after intermission thanks to some better decision-making, substitutions, and the fact that the Timbers' first line of confrontation moved back toward it own goal at times.

Even after its press lost some of its effectiveness, Portland’s defense was arguably even more impressive and definitely just as influential. In the 70th minute, Columbus strung together one of its best sequences thanks to some great movement and several quick passes. But Portland's defense quickly recovered its defensive shape—as you can see below. 

Portland's ability to work as a collective unit created defensive stability with the unlikely back four of Nagbe (an attacking midfielder) at right back, Powell (a left back) coming in to play center back, Borchers shifting from the right side to play left center back, and Ridgewell (a left center back) playing left back.

Columbus fans might argue that it was the Crew’s lackluster play and poor offense that led to Portland’s victory. But Caleb Porter's defensive schemes worked perfectly, neutralizing a lethal Crew attack and leading Portland to a well-deserved league title.

This is Sam Polak's first article for American Soccer Now. 

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