There was lightning in the sky. There were fireworks out on the Delaware River. The Sons of Ben and a visiting contingent of the Timbers Army were doing a drumline-style chant war on the concourse underneath the stadium. There was a lot going on at PPL Park Saturday night, especially with a storm delay at halftime thrown into the mix.
There just wasn't much happening on the scoreboard. Or the field.
Saturday's 0-0 draw with the visiting Portland Timbers was a point that, at least on the surface, many within the Philadelphia camp seemed content to take. This Portland team are notoriously tough to beat on the road, with that being their eighth draw in 11 road fixtures this year. Before a halftime storm delay, it had been Portland's game. After the delay, the Union saw more of the ball in the second half. A few great saves from Donovan Ricketts denied the Union maximum points.
A closer look though, and this game had other takeways to consider as well. Portland bossed the match--as the visitors. The Union resorted to long balls to kickstart their attack. The midfield issue again reared its head. Connecting to the front two (welcome back, Jack) was missing. It was failure to take points from a top side once again.
A lot to discuss, for sure.
1. PORTLAND'S MIDFIELD IS AS GOOD AS ADVERTISED
Caleb Porter's revolution in Portland didn't exactly start rosy. (Yes, that pun was intended. Sorry.) But he's found the players, depth, and system to make this squad a force in Major League Soccer. Make no mistake about it: this Portland team is the real deal. Exhibit A: Their midfield.
Call it a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, or whatever you will, but Porter's system puts the Timbers' midfield talent on full display. Using skillful, possession-oriented midfielders who can play a killer ball and rotate with each other, the middle of the park is without question Portland's strength in terms of team play. The parts they have are all impressive and each one functions effectively.
Diego Chara was accurately described as a "buzzsaw" by one of my colleagues in the press box Saturday, and it's pretty easy to see why when he's on the field. Though not the biggest player by any stretch, he can effectively get around all across the middle of the field to sniff out attacks and take on the best attacking mids. His speed and tenacity make time on the ball limited. Plus, he's not so bad going forward either.
His game was a very active one. Here's the job he did defensively, which will get touched on a little more later:
Will Johnson was not as influential as he normally is, which was somewhat understandable given his recent return from playing for Canada at the Gold Cup. But like Chara, he will tend to sit a little deeper within Portland's midfield and make defense his number one priority. Frequently though, Johnson will pick timely moments to make runs into the attack. In fact, he is third on the team in total shots for the season and has outshot forward Ryan Johnson 35-28 (though he has played almost 300 more minutes). Here's a shining example of his attacking mentality from earlier this season, which illustrates the strong play he's displayed as captain.
The attacking portion of Portland's midfield is where things get even more complicated and where some of the best ebb and flow of this team takes place. Darlington Nagbe may technically line up as the central attacker in the midfield, but there were frequent times where he would peel off to the right and switch places with the dynamic Diego Valeri. Both of them can play the central position very well, while also providing a lot of speed and ideas from the wing. Valeri showed his capability throughout the night (especially here and here...though he lacked a finishing touch), while Nagbe is very good at leading or creating counterattacks for the Timbers.
Here are some numbers to go with all of the above points. The four main players I mentioned above completed 40.7% of the Timbers' total passes in the match. (Counting substitute Ben Zemanski and seldom-passing R. Johnson, it was 48.6% for the whole midfield.) Johnson completed 35 passes from his deeper role, while Chara also knocked in a healthy 21. Valeri and Nagbe both had 37 passes completed, and combined to knock 18 passes amongst themselves (11 from Nagbe to Valeri, 7 in return--the highest combined amount among teammates from either side).
In their 20 games played this season, including the one with Philadelphia, Portland have been out-possessed a mere three times. (Sporting Kansas City in a 3-2 road win, D.C. United--yes, really--in a 2-0 road win, and the LA Galaxy in their recent 2-1 home win.) All of those margins of losing the possession battle were extremely narrow. Want to know why Caleb Porter's team is so good at getting road results and being tough to beat at home? They keep the ball and their mentality is to take the game on their terms, starting with a competent midfield.
(Brief side note here: I got some of those numbers from mlssoccer's new "Matchcenter" feature called "Golazo!" that is now in Beta. It literally came up for the first time when I was at the Union-Timbers game and it's fantastic. If you get a chance, pull it up next time there's an MLS game. Lots of great stats on there to glean from.)
2. MISCASTING RYAN JOHNSON WAS A BOOST TO THE UNION DEFENSE
The one flaw Portland had with their swashbuckling, smooth attack against the Union was that they put Ryan Johnson out on the left wing instead of down the middle in his familiar striker's role. Playing both Frederic Piquionne and Johnson up front had some thinking Portland would deploy more of a 4-3-1-2 formation, but that was not the case and it helped the Union defense a great deal.
Johnson has come into his own very nicely this season with the Timbers, tied for the team lead in goals with six and also chipping in four assists as a part of Portland's extremely well-balanced attack. However, he's done his best work coming down the middle of the field and holding up at striker. On the wing, his effectiveness and influence was extremely limited:
Sheanon Williams didn't even have to do terribly much on Johnson because his mobility isn't the best. The only times where Johnson was able to threaten were when Portland was coming on the break, which wasn't very frequent. It still shocks me that he had just four completed passes and only eight attempts...and most of those were chipped or crossed.
Meanwhile, Frederic Piquionne was handed the start up front, just his sixth in league play this season. While he has just one goal to his name, he's also picked up four assists in that short time. The only issue is that it seems both Johnson and Piquionne can't be on the field together at the same time with the way Porter's system runs. Both are solid up front, but Johnson's not as pacy or influential in his passing as someone in that wider role would need to be.
Piquionne's other problem was a failure to keep the ball. He lost it a team-high 17 times, including 13 unsuccessful passes, due in large part to Amobi Okugo and Jeff Parke keeping him quiet up front. There were a few instances where his runs troubled the centerback duo of the Union, but the two of them teamed up to do a strong job limiting him to just two headed attempts at goal and one free kick shot.
The combination of Johnson on the wing and Piquionne struggling to hold up front made the Portland attack a bit more direct, making things a little easier for the Union backline despite the pressure. With Brian Carroll parked right ahead of the front two, they were able to bunker down and keep Piquionne tied up while limiting Portland's effectiveness in the final third. Valeri was the danger man as far as fashioning chances, but Portland broke down trying to go through Piquionne in the middle.
3. DANNY BOY: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
What a night for Danny Cruz.
Brief summary of his opening half hour: lost the ball the first few times he was on it, rarely played a pass or saw the ball afterward, looked for a couple of fouls, sub-sequentially was on the deck a good three times or so, and got decked by Donovan Ricketts in a 50-50 challenge in the box. There was no foul, by the way, and it was the right call.
And then this happened roughly between the 30th and 40th minutes:
The collision with Ricketts turned Cruz into a one-man wrecking ball. He manically took on Jack Jewsbury on multiple occasions (leaving the helpless, out of place left back in serious trouble), skirted past two defenders before firing wide from the edge of the box, then forced Ricketts into a sprawling save after a shot on his LEFT foot after racing by Jewsbury.
How crazy and telling was this sequence from Cruz? Diego Chara was having to track over to Jewsbury's side just so that he could help offset the threat Cruz was showing down the Union left. Additionally, it brought Michael Farfan into the left-sided fray in order to give Cruz some extra support and a guy to play off of. The game literally revolved around the enigmatic, sometimes maddening winger for ten minutes.
Of course, from the end of that stint all the way through when he got subbed off for Fabinho with ten minutes left, Cruz dropped back into relative obscurity and ineffectiveness. He did not see the ball as frequently, nor did he get opportunities to go at Jewsbury like he had earlier. Perhaps he exhausted himself with that one burst; perhaps Jewsbury got some support on that side; more likely, the Union were probably unable to distribute the ball consistently to his side because of their ineffectiveness in keeping possession.
The point is, this is exactly what you get from Danny Cruz. As he showed us against Seattle, he is capable of turning on a few minutes of absolute brilliance, where it seems he can do no wrong. He has pace, heart, and is a complete nightmare for a defender. He'll give you his body (literally) for the cause with the things he does. At the same time though, he will give you maddening stretches where he shows that he has no first touch, cannot sustain possession, won't deliver crosses, does not have a good left foot, and will shoot on sight with a low-percentage shot rather than keeping the ball and looking for an opening.
What John Hackworth fails to realize is that such energy can be best served by bringing him off the bench. In such a role, Cruz could utilize such short spurts in a small period of time near the end of the game when opposition defenders are tired and he can exploit them. Unfortunately, Hackworth has not seemed to consider this as an option, leaving Cruz in the starting eleven in a spot where he is out of position and shows very erratic form and contribution just about every single night. What happened to giving Don Anding a look on the wing? Could Fabinho get a start out there possibly?
It's worth a try for at least one game--Cruz could be a terrific impact sub for the Union, a role that probably fits him better than giving spurts during his consistent starts he is always handed.
4. WHEN ROUTE ONE FAILS...THEN WHAT?
This Chalkboard graphic below shows the combined defensive work of Timbers centerbacks Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Pa-Modou Kah against the Union:
Clearly, Route One was shut down in a major way Saturday night. One of the main soft spots this season for Portland has been their centerbacks--with players going down injured and a lot of youth having to be served in the back, it's been messy. But Kah and Jean-Baptiste stood tall Saturday and made life very difficult for the Union.
Conor Casey's run of great performances was effectively brought to an end, as his size was well countered by the two Timbers in the middle of the park. Just about every header was theirs, and Casey could do absolutely nothing about it all evening. Instead of another powerful, influential display, Casey was largely absent from the match, and without effective service coming from the midfield, could not establish himself or imprint himself on the match up front.
The same could definitely be said of returnee Jack McInerney. There were a few moments where his movement yielded him space and time to be effective on the ball, and given his early blast that went high, I figured we were going to see a very active performance from Jack on his return to Chester--instead, he too was shut down by the effective play of the centerback duo, as well as Portland's covering midfielders. It was a tight space to work with, and since the Union want to play the long balls from the back within their Stoke City-esque system, such defending was going to make such play hard to accomplish.
Sebastien Le Toux's crosses, normally fairly accurate this season, where an absolute mess against Portland. He gave away possession with great frequency and had lots of issues going against Michael Harrington of Portland. Here's his distribution:
Yikes...goes to show just how much everything was being cut out in the middle and how much of a struggle it was to play the way the Union want.
It brings up a very good point though: when the Union's play to play long balls and hit the other team quickly fails, what do you do then? Portland came to PPL Park as the visiting side, yet they controlled possession and were the clear aggressor for half the match. They had 59.6% possession. Michael Farfan led the Union with 28 passes completed--the Timbers had six players who completed more than that. It was a homestyle performance from the road team.
Given how much the Union have pressed teams recently at PPL Park (albeit, with the help of some red cards), it's shocking that they'd allow the opposition to dictate the tempo like that. At the same time though, it's indicative of the problem facing the Union and their system that they want to play.
This "Philly tough" mentality may please Philadelphia sports fans who like hard workers who are going to be tough and give it all they have got for the team. I have absolutely no problem with this mentality--there need to be more teams out there who have players committed to being passionate and giving their heart and soul for the team and city they play for. But when it bleeds into soccer so much that it becomes more about having a direct, Route One team that relies on athletes over truly good, technical soccer players, that's where it becomes a problem.
The Portland Timbers are a very good, technical team and they showed it at PPL Park despite a few flaws in who was playing where on the field. They are also a deep team, with several different guys who can slide in at a given time and some rotation that has taken place this season. Caleb Porter understands how to run a true football club effectively by utilizing all of the players he has, running a tight ship tactically that plays good soccer, and being able to get the most out of his teams by seizing the initiative on the road rather than bunkering in for a point. That is how you make yourself an MLS Cup contender, which they absolutely are.
The Union? They do not have a "Plan B", as the Portland game grimly showed. It was an ugly game, and despite the fact that the Union created three more shots than the Timbers, it was a very grinding, uncreative display from the home side. This team needs a Plan B (or maybe even making it Plan A) that relies on good, technical soccer and players who can effectively execute it. Having some flair and individual ability like a Diego Valeri-type couldn't hurt either--are people seriously complaining over Leo Fernandes wanting to do stepovers? Seriously? This team needs some of that creativity in their midfield because they are lacking it right now.
I've said it several times before: Philadelphia may be content to secure a playoff spot this season, and it certainly seems they are on the path to do just that. But if they are going to be some sort of threat to win MLS Cup (and given the unstable nature of the Eastern Conference, they very well could get there), they need to find a plan outside of the "dump and chase/run the wing athletically/hope we can get away with a few guys out of position and no midfield connect" reality that we have seen manifest itself over the course of this season.
More than ever, the Portland game solidified the notion that the Philadelphia Union need a true, two-way functioning midfield that is technical, creative, keeps the ball, and also knows how to break another team's attack down. If there's another signing on the cards, as John Hackworth has alluded to in recent weeks, he needs to be a midfield game-changer: whether it's on the wing or through the middle as an attacker. Right now, the Union need one, or we're going to see the dump and run get them to a certain point before the wheels fall off.
Is it worthwhile to sacrifice a portion of this "Philly tough" and athletic player notion for technical players and strategy? Obviously, you still want commitment and passion, but this is a question worth evaluation and consideration, especially if it means the difference between a decent team and an MLS Cup contender.
Thoughts on the match and/or this column? Comment below with your analysis and/or tweet to @BrotherlyGame or myself directly @JoelHoover.