Timbers system provides new challenge for Sounders FC

Rapids, Whitecaps and Timbers all use a variant of the 4-3-3. Shape is where the similarity ends.

Those last two matches were pretty rough. One could generalize that the same technique was used by both the Colorado Rapids and the Vancouver Whitecaps to beat Sounders FC. Both generally sat their midfields back to cover the backline and sprung speedy, athletic young attacking players as Seattle pushed numbers forward.

It was a path that pulled Seattle out of the Supporters’ Shield lead and forced the club into a must-win on Sunday to earn the Cascadia Cup. Winning in Portland is quite rare for road teams this year. With the quality the Timbers have there is cause for concern. They, like the Rapids and Whitecaps, use a version of a 4-3-3 most often. That could be another cause for worry.

But, the things that Vancouver and Colorado did are not things that Portland usually does. While their shapes are similar their tactics are not.

Portland is very much a possession based squad. They are 3rd in MLS in possession per match. Colorado sits right in the middle of the league and the Whitecaps are the 4th worst in MLS. Possession on its own is not an indicator of chances at victory. All three of the clubs could make the playoffs. They span the full range of possession.

How do the last two opponents and the next use that possession?

The Rapids and Whitecaps transitioned past their midfield as part of their plan to defeat Seattle. Rennie’s squad used long balls for more than 20% of their passes. Peraja’s men also used long balls more than 20% of the time.

Caleb Porter’s Portland squad has gotten away from the long ball Timbers of the past. This season only 13% of their passes are classified as long. The defense is unlikely to be on an island as often as they were in the two losses.

Portland is the type of team that most often plays in the spaces where Seattle plays, if still differently. They play an even distribution in their own half, the middle half and the attacking end. They lean to their left. Their short passing will often have numbers on their side due to the shape of the team, but up and over is not a common practice. The players and the coach believe in short passes, triangles and bringing the ball through the field not over it.

Seattle will have to play better than they have, but they will be challenged in different ways. Colorado’s elevation will not be in Portland, instead it will be the passionate crowd of JELD-WEN Field. Instead of the desperation of a Vancouver side that demanded points in order to stay alive in the playoff race the Timbers are in the hunt for the Shield as well.

Results can not be promised due to these many differences in style. The game will not be easier because of it. But problems in the two losses were not related to shape. Instead the recent issues are about how the club reacted to the use of the shape. Sunday’s match will have new challenges. The Cascadia Cup and Supporters’ Shield remain in reach. All it takes is doing like Vancouver did to Seattle and picking up a road victory inside a stadium that is defined by passion from a team within sight of the Shield.

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