Stats Zone: How Timbers got the better of Crew SC...again

Jaime Valdez -USA TODAY Sports

Columbus dominated possession but yet again fell to the Portland Timbers, 2-1. There's a clear trend there, Chris Rifer writes.

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Gregg Berhalter doesn’t get the “Fool me once...” cliché.

Sunday’s fixture between the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew SC represented the third time that the two teams had faced off since last September.

On Sept. 26, 2015, in Columbus, the Timbers absorbed a lot of pressure from Crew SC, but came away deserving 2-1 winners after creating the better of the chances on the counter.

The story was the same in the 2015 MLS Cup, as the Timbers jumped on Crew SC early and let Gregg Berhalter’s side hold most of the ball, but were the more dangerous side and again came out of Crew Stadium champions by the same 2-1 scoreline.

Fast forward to the season opener on Sunday and, well, we’d seen it before. Crew SC dominated possession (61.2%), passes completed (382 to 220), and crosses (32 to 19).  But the Timbers were more than happy to absorb the pressure and break out on the counter, maintaining some early high pressure but quickly dropping deep into a low defensive block.

As a result, the Crew were forced to largely try to work attacking combinations on the Timbers’ flanks (see those 32 crosses) with aggressive attacking fullback play, but, as a result couldn’t keep from being opened up on the counter.

The result? You got it: 2-1 to the Timbers.

From a tactical perspective, this was nothing new for games between the Timbers and Crew, which leads to the biggest question facing the MLS Cup runners-up: Are they a one-trick pony?

Crew SC plays some beautiful soccer and Sunday was no different. They commit numbers to the attack, they string attacking combinations together, and they find their talisman, Kei Kamara, with regularity in front of goal.

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But if an opponent is able to manage Crew SC’s overloaded attacking sequences and exploit the resulting spaces on the break, Columbus has shown that they have no Plan B.

And, in short, that’s why the Crew have come out on the losing end of three consecutive fixtures against the Timbers and have broken the old adage about being fooled twice. What happens when you’re fooled three times?

Gregg Berhalter better hope the answer isn’t “the rest of MLS catches on.”

The Timbers can win in March, after all

Jaime Valdez -USA TODAY Sports

The Timbers no longer loathe March. (Jaime Valdez -USA TODAY Sports)

Coming into Sunday, Timbers coach Caleb Porter had never won a game in March as the coach of a professional team. During the Caleb Porter era, the Timbers were winless in 12 games in March.

The Timbers’ last win in the season-opening month came under John Spencer on March 12, 2012, when Kalif Alhassan shredded the Philadelphia Union at Providence Park.

For the past three years, the Timbers have played some attractive soccer early in the season but failed to earn the result. And as an organization they’ve paid for it; poor March results in 2013 cost the Timbers the Supporters Shield and a poor start in 2014 denied Portland a spot in the playoffs that year.

Even during the Timbers’ 2015 Cup-winning campaign, considerable doubt as to whether the Timbers would make the playoffs lingered over Portland for much of the regular season before the team caught fire in October.

And for 10 minutes on Sunday, it appeared the Timbers may be in for more of the same in 2016. But Fanendo Adi’s 79th-minute goal changed the script for the home side, who, after one week of the regular season, appear to be picking up right where they left off in 2015.

Porter’s 13th try at winning on March, therefore, may have put the Timbers on a path toward being a big factor in the Western Conference and Supporters Shield race.

Dairon Asprilla isn’t a left winger, but he doesn’t do a bad impression of one

One of the primary questions coming into the season for the Timbers was how they were going to work out their left side in light of the departures of Rodney Wallace and Jorge Villafana.

Throughout preseason, the Timbers put Argentine forward Lucas Melano on the left wing, but, with Chris Klute inching his way back from offseason meniscus surgery, the Green-and-Gold lacked width with no other chalk-stomping left-back option and the right-footed Melano inverting centrally.

So on Sunday, Porter flipped Asprilla and Melano, and let the young Colombian go at Crew right back Harrison Afful.

Against Crew SC, the Timbers used Asprilla frequently as an outlet on the break and as a cog to provide width in the attack on the edge of the final third. The result was the reemergence of the potent, balanced attack that propelled the Timbers to an MLS Cup triumph in 2015.

The duration of Asprilla’s stay on the left is a question with the touchline-friendly Klute rounding into fitness and the inverting Melano being a better fit with an overlapping fullback. But on Sunday, Asprilla played the part more than capably, winning his battle with Afful, providing the Timbers with crucial width, and ultimately setting up Adi’s winner.

Federico Higuain can’t do it by himself

Columbus’s attacking bright spot on Sunday was Higuain, and not just because he scored in fancy-pants fashion.

Higuain is perhaps as positionally flexible as any attacking central midfielder in MLS. One moment Higuain is pulling the strings from Zone 14. The next he is flaring into the channel to provide an overload along with his winger and fullback. Look back again and ‘Pipa’ is pulling wide and deep to facilitate transition.

As a result, Higuain’s attacking dashboard often looks like more that of a team than an individual. But even if Higuain is a bit of a do-it-all No. 10, he can’t do it all for Columbus.

As they did in MLS Cup, the Timbers kept 2015 MLS Best XI selection Ethan Finlay quiet and limited his left-wing counterpart, Hector Jiminez. The Crew like to get the ball wide late in the attack and find Kamara with crosses. In 2015, the Crew led MLS in crosses, a fact that was the veritable egg to the chicken that was Kamara’s 22-goal haul in 2015.

But playing that way requires the active involvement of both wingers, something the Crew simply didn’t get enough of on Sunday evening. So, fantastic as Higuain may have been on Sunday afternoon, the Crew attack came up short in Portland.

Nobody does tifo like the Timbers Army

Simply fantastic.

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