Seattle Sounders against Portland Timbers is considered as one of the best rivalry matchups in MLS. Both teams were in terrific form and this battle could’ve decided who deserves the title of “Best in the West”. However, with the teams sharing points after a draw, we’ll have to wait a bit longer until we can make that conclusion.
In this matchup, we had seen a trend of previous clashes which was the Timbers scoring in the first 10 minutes and the Sounders getting the equaliser in stoppage time. Portland looked the better team for almost 90 minutes in this match, but a mistake during their defensive set-pieces situation made them lose the three points.
This tactical analysis piece will analyse the tactics and major talking points that affected the outcome of this match. The analysis also will explain the most prominent aspects of both tactics with the support of statistics for a better understanding of this game.
Before we delve into our analysis, we need to look at both teams’ starting line-ups for this match.
There was no surprise from Brian Schmetzer’s side in this match as he deployed the usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei started between the sticks, with the back four of Kelvin Leerdam, Yeimar Gómez, Shane O’Neill, and Nouhou Tolo. Leerdam was back in the lineup after being rested in the previous match and Nouhou got another start because of Brad Smith’s injury absence. Jordy Delem and João Paulo both played as the double-pivot in front of the defence line with Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris deployed at the flanks. Seattle’s captain and former Ajax player, Nicolás Lodeiro played as the attacking midfielder and Will Bruin started in front of him as a lone centre-forward.
In Portland’s half, Giovanni Savarese used the 4-4-2 formation block with his usual players starting. During the match, this formation sometimes changed into a 4-2-3-1 as one of the forwards dropped down to fill in the centre space. Steve Clark started in goal with protection from Marco Farfan, Larrys Mabiala, Dario Župarić and Jorge Villafaña in defence. The midfield four consisted of Eryk Williamson, Diego Chará, Yimmi Chará, and now-returned Andrés Flores. Flores played his first minutes in over a year, replacing Jeremy Ebobisse who is out due to a concussion. Felipe Mora and Diego Valeri completed the line-up as the centre-forward duo.
Seattle’s pressing strategy and how Portland overcame it
Both Seattle and Portland started this match at a high pace. Both teams had their own individual spells where they looked like the most threatening team. However, it was Savarese’s boys who scored the opening goal.
Seattle as usual applied their pressing tactics for the whole of the game to prevent any attacking build-up from Portland and win the ball quickly inside the opponent’s half. Match statistics show that Seattle Sounders had attempted 9.5 PPDA and 34 recoveries in the opponent half. The image below shows Seattle’s position of recoveries for the whole 90 minutes. Most of the recoveries made by Seattle were either inside Portland’s half or near to the centre line.
However, the Timbers came prepared for this battle. As the match went along, they grew and adapted to Seattle’s pressing tactics. The result was they scored a goal in the early minutes. Before we dissect into how Portland overcame Seattle’s pressing in the first half, we need to study first the pressing itself.
Basically, Seattle’s pressing came from their man-marking structure. They wanted to prevent Portland from build-up from the back, hence every Seattle player needs to man-mark their respective opponents according to their positions. This tactic can be seen in the below image.
Morris and Bruin were marking both Portland’s centre-backs and readied to press if Clark passed to one of the centre-backs. Portland’s full-backs already pushed upwards and are already being marked by Roldan and Delem. Diego Chará dropped down to give his goalkeeper an option but Lodeiro also followed him closely and prepared to press him. Since Clark did not have any options left, he chose to pass the long ball into the middle third in hope of any of his teammates being able to win it aerially.
If the ball was successfully played into the middle third or Seattle lost it during the attacking transition, they applied a risky pressing trap to win it fast. As shown in the image below, Lodeiro left his opponent that he previously marked to press the ball-carrier. Knowing that Diego Chará was free after Lodeiro unmarked him, the ball-carrier, Farfan passed the ball to him. When Lodeiro started to press Farfan, the pressing trap had already been triggered. Delem knew that Farfan was going to receive the ball, he started to press him with Morris marking Delem’s previously marked opponent.
This pressing trap proved successful several times, but they were very risky and dangerous to play. The nearest teammate needed to be quick to cover the free opponent or else he will receive the ball without pressure and proceed to bring it upwards.
Other than that, they needed to be aware of their surroundings to avoid two players marking the same opponent. This would create an unnecessary overload in one area and abandon space in other areas.
Portland noticed these underlying issues, especially the unnecessary overload issue. They capitalised on it in the first half and scored. The image above shows how Portland overcame their pressing with ease. We can see that there were two players pressuring the same player. This created an overload for the ball receiver, which was good, but they also created a big empty space for Villafaña to run into.
After receiving the ball, Valeri gave it to Villafaña with a quick pass. Portland’s no.4 then proceeded to the edge of the box and crossed it into the middle for his forwards to put the ball into the net. This sequence has proved to us how Portland exploited Seattle’s pressing to create a good chance in the final third.
Portland’s defensive structure
After scoring the first goal, Portland decided to sit back and defend the lead in the second half. They intended to soak pressure from Seattle and frustrate them before launching a counter-attack. Their defensive plan was the perfect way to shut down their opposition. Sounders had always struggled with breaking down a team that played similar to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United.
Timbers made 55 interceptions and 22 clearances, more than the number of defensive actions made by Sounders (33 and 18 respectively). They won 36 out of 55 defensive duels with 65% winning accuracy. They also succeeded in nullifying Seattle’s ability to carry the ball through their defence as Seattle’s dribbling accuracy was 44% only. However, Portland only recorded 16.7 PPDA in this game. This means that they sit back together and stay compact rather than engage their opposition, risking their defensive block by giving them a chance to show Seattle’s creativity in unlocking the defence.
Another interesting statistic about this game is that Seattle had attempted zero shots on target out of 12 before Bruin scored the equaliser. Portland minimised the attack, allowing them to have nine shots inside the penalty area and only one into the net.
The numbers prove that they succeeded in building a strong and formidable defence during the defensive phase. For a better understanding of how they achieved those numbers, we need to look at their tactics during the defensive phase.
In the defensive phase, the Timbers deployed a variation of 5-3-2 or 4-4-2, covering the whole space inside their own half, including the wide spaces. This structure gave them numerical superiority on the flanks, with their half-spaces also well protected. They can change their structure from 5-3-2 into 4-4-2 with fluidly without disturbing the whole defensive organisation. The below image explains how they did these structure changes smoothly.
Portland were aware that Seattle wanted to start the attack from their left side. Knowing this, the right midfielder Bonilla, who previously occupied right-back position, needed to close down Morris’ space, so he moved upward into his own position. When Bonilla started to move, all the others shifted to the right, moving synchronously to cover each other’s spaces.
Other than that, this movement also gave them numerical advantages on the side where the ball was played as all players supported each other without losing too many spaces for Seattle to exploit. This fluid movement in the defensive phase helped them to remain compact and well organised in protecting their half.
Besides that, this defensive structure also gave them numerical superiority in important areas such as the flanks and in front of the penalty box. The Sounders are well-known for their decent crossing ability, hence defending in these spaces was their top priority in this game.
As we can observe in the above picture, the defensive structure of the Timbers already changed into 5-3-2 with both lines sat very close to reduce the vertical gap in their defence. Notice in the aforementioned areas, there were six players from both sides. Numerical superiority can be seen here where two Seattle players were against four Portland players in those areas. Roldan cannot proceed into the box as he is being pressured by Yimmi Chará, so he decided to fall back and restart the attacking phase.
Seattle’s attacking play
Even though the Timbers did well in nullifying the attack from the Sounders, Schmetzer’s men still created many opportunities in Portland’s final third. They had 1.79 xGoals throughout the match, with most chances coming in the second half, when they achieved 1.46 xG. As mentioned in the previous section, they had a total of 13 shots with nine coming from inside the 18-yard box while the rest were from the outside.
They missed most of the shots with only one shot on target that came in during stoppage time. But this doesn’t mean that they played badly during the attacking phase. They created good opportunities but with numerical disadvantages inside the penalty box, they had less time and space to shoot.
As we can see from the above graph, 61% of the Sounders’ attacks came from the left flank. They had 27 attacks with an xG of 1.08 by playing through a trio of Morris, Lodeiro, and Nouhou. They also tried to attack through the middle and right flanks but Portland were strong there, hence the reason of 0.01 and 0.69 xG respectively.
Seattle had the most attacks through the left flank due to the strength and speed of Nouhou and Morris. With Lodeiro as a playmaker, Seattle needed a pacey winger and a strong attacking full-back to give support and a new option in creating good opportunities.
The attacking phase on the left side can be observed in the above image. Lodeiro saw an opportunity on the left side as both Morris and Nouhou ran to the edge of the box. He passed it to the latter player for him to carry the ball and inflict damage on the left side. Morris could’ve decided to run into the 18-yard box to overload Portland’s defence but instead, he chose to run behind Nouhou and then Nouhou’s cross hit the defender. It could’ve been a good scoring chance if Morris had better judgement during the attacking phase.
It was yet another goal conceded in stoppage time as the Timbers fans almost got the three points against their biggest rival in MLS. Many of the fans thought that Seattle’s last-minute goal was lucky but it came with their hard work. Savarese’s troops get full credit for this match as their defence was top-notch, while Schmetzer’s men need to go back to the tactical board and improve their tactics on how to break a strong defence.
For the next match, Seattle Sounders will travel to Vancouver for a matchup with Vancouver Whitecaps FC, while Portland Timbers will have six days off until they clash with LA Galaxy in their own stadium.