Regular Season Begins Sunday – Final thoughts as PTFC prepare for NYRB

Bout bloody time the pre-season is over; tons of activity in both player transactions and on the pitch changes in tactics and starters between last year and this year.

It’s not like some wholesale changes weren’t predicted back in October; this team was, after all, third worst in total record, third worst in goals scored and third worst in goals against.

If you’ve been following my methods for tracking success of Portland Timbers, as this year unfolds, you’ll know that my focus is on possession with purpose (PWP).  PWP tracking this year doesn’t just apply to Portland, it also applies to their opponent; with even more emphasis on those teams we play three times, this year, as opposed to once.

So when evaluating PWP it has relevance to the defensive posture as much as the attacking posture.  The most telling statistics in that area are time of possession and penetrations into the attacking third.  The more possession time and penetrations the opponent has the less effective the defense is in closing down and applying pressure to win that ball back.

Possession of the ball outside of the attacking third also provides at least two things, time to store energy in this high paced game and simply put, possession, when you have the ball the opponent doesn’t (a form of defense).

All else aside the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) is that the team that scores more goals wins.  Caleb isn’t advocating coming to a game with a draw in mind; he wants three points.

To do that there must be penetration and creation of goal scoring opportunities.  Penetration comes in three forms – long ball, short ball or turnover.  The quickest way to create a GSO is through turnover.  That is why we see Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe, Kalif Alhassan and Diego Valeri closing down at the earliest opportunity in the opponent defending third.

And the beauty of short passes is that if there is a turnover (by us). in the opponents attacking third. there is less time and space needed for our attackers to get that ball back quicker.  The longer the pass the greater the distance a Portland player may have to move to close down and try and win it back.

With all that said the changes this off-season are intended to get better in defense and increase the opportunity for getting wins (home and away); a huge challenge to this team the last two years.

With PWP statistics many can now visualize (perhaps see the unseen) the difference between games under the leadership and direction of Spencer “and” Wilkinson versus Caleb Porter.  As far as total wins this year, hopefully Portland can win at least 60% (20) of their (34) games.

If so, that gives them roughly 60 points in the Western Conference – enough to finish second place last year.  Is that likely, unclear at this time, but a combination of wins and draws that garners 50 points should be enough to grab a wildcard spot.

All said and done what remains are the games to be played and all the internal tactics and strategies Caleb Porter uses in leveraging his squad to get the job done.

In considering the build-up leading to the first game there is no question, from what I have seen, that the overall tactics have changed.  The last game against AIK, being the freshest in memory, provided a great example of the firepower PTFC may have at its disposal this year.  Stretch targets envisioned based upon last years performance were shattered; can PTFC carry that to the regular season?

The roster… who finally fits into the regular season roster remains a question that should be answered pretty quickly in the next few days.  Franck Songo’o and Chris Taylor are now gone; no surprise but perhaps some disappointment from fans about Songo’o leaving.  As indicated by Gavin Wilkinson salary cap issues influenced that decision.

Other players remain on trial, injured, or recovering from surgery so perhaps a few more roster moves before this weekend.

Speaking of this weekend; the first test comes against a formidable and rich MLS team blessed with one of the top performers in MLS; Thierry Henry.  Talk about baptism by fire and immediate pressure on the back-four; PTFC have it from day 1.

So what might we see against New York?

A great dynamic in this game will be the refresh for Henry and Silvestre as these Frenchmen renew an old Arsenal v Man United rivalry from the mid 2000’s.  To go with that there is the mix of having Kimura (who appears to be the starting right fullback) and Alexander (subs bench?) returning to JELD-WEN while Will Johnson will also be facing some old teammates in Espindola and Olave.

So while each team is fielding a number of new players there will be a number of guys who are very familiar with each other (their strengths and weaknesses).  With this dynamic and it being a nationally televised season opener, at a sold out JELD-WEN, tension will be high.

With all that nervous energy the first 15-30 minutes might be very wicked indeed.  An opportune time for either team to take advantage of individual mistakes that might drive an outcome (a win) more than controlled possession with purpose.

I expect to see Harrington and Miller both press forward, but perhaps not as deep as we saw against AIK.  Thierry Henry, Espindola, Cahill and set-piece specialist (Juninho) will cause issues with the back four.  Maintaining a tight back four will be critical.

The center-backs and full backs should try to remain as tight as possible; the further out Miller and Harrington get pulled away from the 18 yard box edge the more Chara and Johnson need to back-fill those voids.  Henry will probably look to drag the center-backs up high as well.

AJ Baptiste will really need to stay in tune with Silvestre.  Any change in space created by Henry will influence play elsewhere and Will Johnson can speak quite accurately on how Espindola might take advantage of Henry around the 18 yard box

However viewed, all three midfielders as well as Nagbe and Alhassan will need to close down and apply pressure / get behind the ball as appropriate.

In closing…

Caleb Porter announced that Will Johnson is the Team Captain this year.  That is a great challenge for Will and one he won’t take lightly.

You should know my views on leadership; this quality plays just as much of a role in how I evaluate individual player performance as does overall teamwork.

Will not only needs to consider how his individual actions impact current activities but he also needs to consider how the individual actions of others impact current activities.

A huge burden and one that might make him appear to be providing less than more.  I would submit that, at appropriate times, less is better than more so that he can take some time to evaluate on-field conditions that others may need to adjust to.

Coaches pace the sideline sometimes to make immediate correction where appropriate; this has value but the most ideal person to help the team make adjustments, as appropriate, is the Captain.

My offering is that Will Johnson completely gets Caleb Porters approach and his leadership by example in getting that approach will maximize his teammates ability to execute their role.

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Chris Gluck

Chris Gluck

I have been covering the Portland Timbers and Major League Soccer, as a community blogger/analyst for the Columbian Newspaper, since June, 2012. Since then my involvement in soccer analysis has expanded to include participating in the Regional Emmy Award Winning Soccer City PDX TV Show (Comcast Sports Northwest). My unique analytical approach has been published in Europe and presented at the World Conference on Science and Soccer 2014. I also appear regularly as a co-host on Rose City Soccer Show and the Yellowcarded Podcast. You can find my work on, PTFC Collective and Prost Amerika.

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