Ozzie slide tackles Yimmi Chara
© Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond the Box: Punching Back

Mike Tyson once famously said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. For soccer teams, it seems like the plan before every season is to play possession-based soccer, to control the middle of the field, to put pressure on the other team with the ball. And then they get punched in the mouth.

The Portland Timbers have long been a team notorious for absorbing the opposing team’s energy and relying on the tough, heady play of Diego Chara in the defensive midfield to redirect it back up the pitch on the counter. That approach, though, has often exposed their own defense to counterattack. Prior to the season opener against Minnesota United, captain Diego Valeri emphasized the team’s desire to hold on to more of the ball and build the attack.

“We are looking to attack from the flanks,” he said, “and put a lot of numbers forward in the middle, too.”

On Sunday night, the first half played out with Portland getting the better of the chances as Minnesota worked to gain and keep possession. In doing so, the Loons never really looked dangerous, but they survived a few slips of communication and focus. When the scoring opened in the second half off a counterattack against the run of play and led by Ethan Finlay down the right flank, the teams fell back on punch and counterpunch for the rest of the game. In the end, Minnesota sat on the right side of a 3-1 win with contributions headlined by the likes of Finlay with two assists and Kevin Molino with two goals.

But the unheralded element that helped push MNUFC over the top was the contribution of the defense and players like Osvaldo Alonso and particularly Michael Boxall to keep the defense’s shape intact as the team pushed forward for goals. By way of contrast, the Timbers often found themselves struggling to regain their shape when they lost possession — a point which Portland Head Coach Gio Savarese emphasized in his postgame comments about how the team needs to improve moving forward.

“Stay disciplined in what we work and the things we needed to do and if we stay disciplined, and if we do the things that we have to do, then you don’t see those things,” he said. “So what we have to do is make sure that things are a little bit more organized in those moments.”

To Minnesota’s credit, they did stay organized. Alonso held down the defensive midfield with authority, allowing Jan Gregus to range deeper into Portland’s territory and Robin Lod often dropped back from his attacking position on the wing to shore up the left side as Chase Gasper pushed up. Throwing numbers forward in a hurry can disrupt the defense but as Head Coach Adrian Heath observed after the game, “All the hard work they put in preseason actually showed with our defensive shape.” Chaos can create opportunities, but it can also threaten the team’s defensive integrity if the players aren’t able to coalesce back into shape when the attack subsides, which is what Savarese saw looking at his squad.

“Just an unbalanced team that allowed moments to the other team to be able to be dangerous,” he said. “Created those moments in which you have to sacrifice defensively and you leave things to hope. Sometimes hope is not enough.”

With a mixture of hope and solid defensive organization, the Loons had enough to put together a 3-1 win — the first in Providence Park by the visiting team in MLS history — and start the season at the top of the table.