Deja vu? We’ve come off the back of a hard-earned win against the top team in our conference. Just over two weeks ago, we came out bruised, battered and hungover from our derby against Seattle, to face Colorado. Unfortunately, we stuttered, and the team seemed to run on empty with out the North Stand roar behind them. Futty in particular looking like he’d over-refreshed himself during the weeks celebrations.
In my preview of that game, I’d noted that the main threat Colorado possessed was the ability to retain the ball in midfield, using their contemporary, fluid 4 man midfield (with one striker dropping deep). It was our naïvety on the flanks that let to Hunter Freeman and Brian Mullan combining so well to kill us off in the first half.
Well, guess what? We’re up against another team that like to use and retain the ball. In their last 5 games, they rack up an average pass success rate of 80.5%, averaging 431 successful passes to 104 unsuccessful. Portland, on the other hand, average a pass rate of 71.3%, which breaks down as 296 successful passes over 116 unsuccessful. We, or at least I, have been attributing that to our slightly out-dated 4 pronged diamond midfield. The way we use it, I feel it leaves each of the ‘prongs’ detached from the others. A lack of cohesion if you will. Real Salt Lake use the same diamond formation. What they have over our system though, is an important and key partnership in Kyle Beckerman (playing DM) and Javier Morales (sitting in the hole).
In Kyle Beckerman, they have my favourite player outside of Portland. I can’t really quantify that yet, apart from the fact it’s unusual for me to like a person (never mind opposition player) with white-man dreads. So, he must’ve done something to turn my eye. His cohort, Javier Morales, sits in front of him, but is similar in his distribution of the ball. They will look to control the tempo of the game and most of the play will filter through these two first. In Wednesday’s 0-0 draw at home to Seattle, Beckerman and Morales had a combined pass success rate of 84.8%. Beckerman won 3 tackles and made 9 recoveries, whilst Morales completed 2 successful crosses and played in 3 key passes. They both perform their specific duties to a modicum of success. They’re helped out by Fabian Espindola, who scored 2 against Chivas and created 2 against LA. Luckily for us, he’s out suspended.
However, Real Salt Lake have not won in the last 4 games. Their last win was a 3-0 supposed rout at home to Chivas USA on June 16th. I say “supposed” because the stats show Chivas dominating in some areas that RSL don’t usually let their opponents. For example, Chivas attempted 25 crosses from open play, 14 of which were successful. They also had 52% of the possession and made 10 key passes. However, they only managed 11 attempts on goal with 3 ending up on target. RSL had only 1 successful cross from 11 attempted, 5 shots on target, and less of the possession. They made an astonishing 27 clearances in total, and (of course) had a better pass success rate at 78.4%. They made 11 key passes however, and made the most of their chances, helped by poor Chivas defending. The first goal was a fantastic, deep cross assist from Beckerman, Espindola getting behind Califf and heading in. The 2nd goal was again, a slow-break from their own half, using precise and effective passing, Espindola finishing off well for a well taken, but ostensibly soft goal. The third, in the 93 minute of the game, was a combination of some cool, close control, awareness, but again, poor defending.
In their games against Columbus, Seattle, San Jose and LA, they dominated possession, didn’t once let their pass success rate drop below78%, created more crosses from open play (28 against San Jose), and more key passes, than every one of their opponents. But they only picked up 1 point – against Seattle. In each game they lost (LA, SJ, CLB), there is one telling stat – they won less ‘duels’ than their opponents, by quite some way. Over the 3 games they lost, their opponents beat them in 17 more duels. If we hark back to the opening 20 minutes of our game against San Jose, we were more than happy to ruffle some feathers.
Moving on, take a look at the type of goals they concede:
Alan Gordon makes it 1-0 to San Jose
Wondolowski wins it for San Jose
Tchani makes it 1-0 to Columbus
Landon Donovan brings LA back from 2-0
Every goal begins with a lofted ball over the top of one, or both, RSL center-backs.
Statistically, Nat Borchers has been strong – especially against Columbus, where he hit a 89.2% pass succession rate (51 out of 56 completed), made 7 clearances, 5 recovering tackles, 3 interceptions, all whilst conceding 0 fouls. However, he has not had a consistent partner. Olave played alongside him against Chivas USA and LA, Chris Wingert then came against Columbus and San Jose, and for Seattle, Borchers partnered Kwame Watson-Siriboe. Hardly consistent. Could this be to blame for some of the costly lapses in concentration? Don’t forget, Wingert predominantely plays left-back.
You find that the best defences know instinctively where one another are going to be. That’s why we’ve struggled since Mosquera’s suspension – Horst and Futty haven’t quite clicked. They did withstand quite some onslaught from Wondo and Gordon this Tuesday though. I think if we play a little more withdrawn, and counter on the break to exploit the weaknesses in the RSL defence, and we may come out with a result.
I think the main battle of this game will be that of midfield. It’s where both teams strengths currently lie, RSL retain the ball well, we are able to break relatively quickly – when ‘on game’. With the returning Diego Chara, we have one of the best Defensive Midfielders in the MLS. Especially given the amount of work he’s had to do at times this season. Hopefully, the enforced break and the arrival of Kosuke Kimura will shore up our shaky back four, and lend a bit of steel to our midfield. With Kimura slotting straight in as our new RB, we suddenly gain another body in midfield – Jack Jewsbury. I remarked that Eric Alexander had a strong game against San Jose, even if we lost an attacking threat from the left-wing. Hopefully, Spencer will see that playing two out-and-out wingers is not the way to go, especially for a team struggling on the road. I doubt Spencer will drop his diamond preference, but I do hope that if Alexander does not retain his starting place, then Jewsbury joins Chara and Nagbe in the middle. Keeping two up top is too much of a luxury given our away form. There have been countless times when either Boyd (mainly Boyd), Mwanga or Fucito have disappeared from the game altogether – this body would be best utilised in midfield.
Given the error-prone defence we’re coming up against, I’d like to see Mwanga given the nod ahead of Boyd, purely for his pace and energy. I think we’re going to need to hit them on the break, and hit them behind their backline. If playing Alhassan and Zizzo as supporting wingers to a lone Boyd or Mwanga up top is a step too far, and he does persist with two strikers and pushes Nagbe out wide, then it’s imperative that Mwanga drops deeper and lends some support to the midfield. Too many times have we seen 2 men leading the line, when only 1 is required.
It’s fair to say that injuries, form and the addition of Kimura has given Spencer a selection headache. For someone who’s probably been a bit hard on him of late, unless we have a real meltdown (or stick with the same old shit), I’m giving him this game to try and mix it up a little. To attack or not is the big question. Do we go after a Real Salt Lake team on a poor run of form? Or do we take baby steps, and try and consolidate our position, and keep that momentum rolling over.
I think we’ll see a tight game, 1-0 either way. Over here, in the UK, the odds are for Real Salt Lake – currently sitting at 8/15. The odds on a draw are currently at 11/4. Unfortunately, for a Timbers win, the bookmakers are giving 9/2. In saying that, I won fuck all on the Premier League last year thanks to the sheer unpredictability of that league… I wouldn’t want to start gambling on MLS games.