Match Analysis – Portland Timbers 2 – DC United nil

From the get-go this game was going to be different – not because it’s a new team with another new center-back; I think we are past that point now.  

No; this game was different given the starting line-up and bog-standard (bucket 4-4-2) Portland offered up from kickoff.

To be sure some older purists might consider this the best formation to work from when not having a great idea on what the opponent might offer up themselves.  And whether it’s a result of Valeri being injured is unclear but it did provide a different path forward into the attacking third than we have seen in the past.

More later on that possession approach but for now here’s my rundown working from my match preview…

RFK Stadium – As expected no sold out crowd and perhaps the loudest fans heard and ‘seen’ were members of the Timbers Army East Coast Platoon!.  Plenty of off-field chatter in preparation for this game and a worthy offering by the Army as they cheered the Timbers on to victory!

I’m sure the DC United fans would have appreciated some cheerleaders in that game because they didn’t have much to cheer about given their teams’ performance on the pitch.  Saddening really to see a team that performed so well last year drop so far in just a matter of months… hmmm  seems ironic and really points out how much these two teams are really traveling in different directions.

Weather – As offered – sunny, with some wind perhaps – a bit lower in temperature and the Prescription Athletic Turf (Grass) seemed to hold up though a few players did slip a wee bit getting used to the footing.  Bottom line here – no real impact…

Standings – Portland slid past Real Salt Lake while DC United continued their slide to oblivion and no-doubt a complete revamp “of something” to change the course of that team.  Even Chivas have more points than DC United… wow – who would’ve thought that at the beginning of this season!

Formation – The local pundit for DC United on SB Nation (through Stumptownfooty) got it right – Olsen opened up in a 4-2-3-1 and just like the result against Houston – DC United got thrashed… that’s four games now where Olsen has offered up that formation and style of play — and so far it’s resulted in 8 goals against and no goals for with one point in a nil-nil draw with New York…

I don’t follow DC United that much but it’s hard to imagine why their best player (De Rosario) sat the bench for the first 65 minutes and when he came on he replaced who I would consider to be their second best player (Chris Pontius).

Something isn’t right in our Capitol and I’m not just talking politics here.  How Olsen DOESN’T run a bog-standard 4-4-2 against one of the most aggressive and most successful attacking teams in MLS I don’t know… perhaps DC United fans (the ones that remain faithful) can offer some clues here on that approach by Olsen???

Goals Scored – Major Simplistic here… In case you were asleep Rodney Wallace netted the first of two Timbers goals on a simple pass from Piq out wide as he and Chara made simple moves that pulled their defense in really tight – softly taken with one touch Wallace simply drove the outward swerving shot to the near post past a clearly beaten Hamid…  all from a  harmless and simple throw-in just past the midfield line.

The other goal featured more simple touches – Kah won a header forward that dropped to Will Johnson, a one touch was played to Chara who played a one touch to Nagbe, back to Ryan Johnson who played a simple ball over the top to a moving Nagbe.  Played simply, Nagbe took one touch to his right and slotted home a nut-megging shot past Hamid.

Nothing complicated about those two goals – simple touches and simple passes resulting in simple goals and enough to beat a very simple DC United!

On the other side of the pitch DC united seemed to take complicated shots (bad form really – plenty of leaning and arching backs always seeming to put the ball over the cross-bar) when sometimes the simple – low shot to the far post would have gotten a better result…

Bottom line here is DC United had chances, plenty of them, but simply couldn’t put many shots on goal – in all they had 17 attempts and just two on goal with nil-pwa; both simple saves for Donovan Ricketts.

Curved Air – Ah… one of those indicators that sometimes gives juice and sometimes doesn’t.  For me the long ball is just one way to get penetration and if you recall back in early October an indicator of direct play would be reduced time of possession with roughly the same amount of penetrations.  That held true yesterday and the best diagram to offer to support that is this one…



So what?  Well check out the green bar and line (PTFC vs DC United) and the light blue bar and line (PTFC Average to date); there is a significant difference in overall Time of Possession (TOP) as well as Goal Scoring Opportunities (GSO’s) created.  While I didn’t expect GSO’s to reduce that much in a Direct attacking approach the number of PA3 seems close to games where Portland average more TOP.

Of note as well is the relative closeness of the data points working towards goals scored; clearances by the opponent in the attacking third are near average as are Shots Taken, Shots on Goal and Goals Scored.  Bottom line here is that regardless of what attacking approach is used by Porter Portland are successful in hitting the bottom line… goals scored and three points.

If opponents pay attention to data like this it should cause worry – this is the first time Portland have opened with two traditional center forwards and it didn’t impact their PA3 and it didn’t impact their bottom line…

As for DC United I don’t get it…  at the fifty seven minute mark they were two goals down and even in their last fifteen minutes of play (75′ onwards) they played more short balls from Square 1 than long balls???  What’s with that?

It’s like there was no sense of urgency with this team at any point in this game; more like going through the motions with no added zest…  kind of reminded me how Portland behaved last year on the road when going a goal down under Spencer… no fight… no urgency… and by the midway point a new head coach!  Perhaps Olsen has lost the locker room?

Possession – DC United won the battle of possession and that’s about all they won… again and again possessing the ball does not lead to winning – for the first time this year we got to witness a Portland attack that took more of a shape we might see from San Jose than any other team in MLS… they played tight, sharp and moved about while leveraging the air to get the ball forward.

I’m not sure that approach is the approach that best suits Nagbe but he had freedom to run the pitch while also looking to stay at home if-when DC United tried to get forward.  All told Nagbe took that unique ‘floating role’ that is more nuance and deception than pure positional play… a unique player playing a unique style of football against a very simple team… it’s no wonder Nagbe had a great game yesterday…

So here’s how the possession based info took shape in fifteen minute increments this game.



Irony of ironies – in probably the most least productive 15 minute period in Timbers play this year they score a goal!  The beauty of direct attacking football.  In that one stretch where Nagbe scored Portland penetrated the DC United defending 1/3rd twice and generated only one GSO (the one where Nagbe scored).

If I were Olsen I would be livid – absolutely bloody livid and if I were Porter I’d be grinning from ear to ear… kind of like the Cheshire cat grin we get to see from time to time with Chara…

So with this info how did the overall efficiency of both teams present itself when evaluating all the seven data points relative to points in the table?  Here’s that for your consideration.



As anticipated Portland was more efficient and of note is that their overall efficiency in running this bog-standard bucket 4-4-2 was their fifth most efficient game this year.

And even though they had just as few GSO’s this game as they did against San Jose (in San Jose) their attacking output far exceeded that in Buck Shaw Stadium… might this slight change in approach offer up another tactical strategy for Porter to leverage in more away games against Western Conference opponents this year?  I hope so – variation is critical.

So what about a few other tidbits relative to this attacking approach?  I won’t got into diagram type detail here but I would offer that Portland should look to balance their penetrations and where they tried to generate goal scoring opportunities… it won’t take long to work out a defensive strategy if the pattern used against DC United continues…

With respect to DC United… First up their PA3 locations and next up their crossing information…



Not much of a surprise here; they had the tendency of drifting down the right for penetration prior to this game and not much changed… lacks vision really from an MLS team that their choice of penetration can be picked out so easily by someone who’s not even a scout in this league… if DC United are going to get better they should get better at variation…

Perhaps Olsen has lost some confidence in himself?  If so some unsolicited advice would be to take DC United back to basics… the flat back 4-4-2 – which just so happens to be the most successful formation and systematic approach DC United have had this year…



Bottom line on their crossing – again no surprise here.

They opened in a 4-2-3-1 like they did against Houston (at home) and looked to penetrate down the right (like they did against Houston) and as indicated above they crossed the ball more frequently from the right (like they did against Houston).

I really wish Portland played these guys three times this year… wow; talk about simple tactics…  net result again for DC United — Thrashed.  They won the battle of possession but that’s about all.

And while I personally don’t know Caleb Porter it seems reasonable to me after watching these guys, to date, that Porter may have willingly looked to cede possession somewhat so that he could test out how his team performed working within a two-striker formation.  Nuance and deception… love it!

So after 13 games played here’s how things stand with Portland in the overall attacking efficiency compared to their opponents…



There isn’t one category where Portland lag in this multiple indicator… it’s no wonder this team rides so high in the standings… shame I can’t get other analysts in other cities to research their own teams using this approach… perhaps my approach, used elsewhere, might highlight teams who are more lucky than good in the current playoff race?

Defense – As offered up in my match preview consistency has been the mainstay of the DC United defense – again that consistency is simply playing poor spatial football.  While Porter isn’t into “statement games”, as such, he doesn’t need to be – it’s the players who stamp their influence on a game when playing and this game was unusual for both Wallace and Nagbe.

They didn’t have that ‘always there’ additional central attacking midfielder (Valeri) to link up with – they had to work hard to change tack and link in with Ryan Johnson and Freddy Piq… all four did well in their roles while Diego Chara and Will Johnson controlled the center.

As for our back-four?  Kah is a step up for sure… he read the game well and ran the back line – on many occasions his new leadership on the pitch helped Portland control when potential panic might have set in…

As for our full-backs; I’m not totally convinced Jack Jewsbury has the right skill base to work within the bucket 4-4-2 and against a faster side there may have been issues.  But when you got two guys like Chara and Johnson manning the center and dropping back deep right or left perhaps a lack of speed in the full-backs is okay.

I would offer though that we probably won’t see that approach in games against Seattle or LA; Portland probably needs to add another two or three players to the stable before doing that; perhaps others have a different view???

Wild Things – Apart from  the time wasting yellow to Kah and the inane yellow (youngster type yellow) for Valencia this game was pretty tame – nothing nasty and a bit fortunate Baptiste didn’t get booked for his hand-ball…  that would have led to a PK…

As for DC United – they pretty much hit their average for home games this year and looked to me like they lacked overall aggression across the entire pitch… surprising really that they don’t play more aggressive in protecting their home pitch…  perhaps another indicator that Olsen has lost the locker room?

Substitutes – As for DC United – again I have no clue — just can’t seem to wrap my head around De Rosario not starting and certainly not coming on in a direct swap for Chris Pontius… perhaps there are injuries???  It almost seems like Olsen is leading the team in ‘non-urgency’…???  Something needs to change there – not sure what but that team just looks and plays ‘off-key’…  perhaps others have a different view???

In considering Portland – solid substitutions especially bringing on Zemanski for a center forward to bulk up the midfield…  not much else to offer here.

In closing – No rocket science – Portland continues their unbeaten run by adding three solid points on the road at DC United.

They should have won and they did win… a different style and formation yet still three points… well done and a great confidence builder for the Cup match Wednesday… welcome home Portland Timbers!

You can follow me on twitter at @chrisgluckptfc

Next up Match Preview Portland take on Wilmington Hammerheads…



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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