Analysis

Timbers 3, Sounders 1: How Stats Zone saw Portland's huge victory

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Timbers countered Seattle to perfection, leaving each team's position clear. Richard Farley recaps Sunday's derby:

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Whatever momentum the Seattle Sounders hoped to preserve from Wednesday’s 5-0 rout of FC Dallas was quashed before halftime, covered in dirt by the 50th minute, and placed under a headstone by Sunday’s final whistle. When the teams returned to Providence Park’s locker rooms for the final time, the Portland Timbers having handed ther fiercest rivals a decisive 3-1 loss, the problems Seattle’s tried to solve all season were again laid bare, while the defending-champion Timbers were given hope its squad can muster another second-half turnaround.

That hope was embodied by Diego Valeri, who was making his first start since June 26, when he buried two from the penalty spot to help defeat visiting Houston, 3-2. On Sunday, MLS’ premier No. 10 replicated that goal total, albeit with no help from the referee’s whistle. Finishing a transition chance late in the first half before crafting a goal-of-the-year candidate after intermission, Valeri gave Portland an insurmountable 2-0 lead. Along the way, he ran his season goal total to nine, two short of the career highs he set in 2013 and 2014 (11).

Seattle responded with a Chad Marshall header, converting a 59th-minute corner kick, but an attack which has failed to generate enough chances all season again fell short. Even without Clint Dempsey, the team’s most talented creator, the Sounders looked little different than they have all season: decent on the ball; competent in the middle third; devoid to bite in front of goal. Come Sunday’s final whistle, Wednesday’s outburst at CenturyLink Field felt like even more of an aberration.

As the sides shook hands, there was an air of clarity around both units. Portland, with its own problems going forward, showed it can be dangerous against teams which dare to go blow-for-blow with it’s talent-laden squad. Seattle, however, revealed its limitations once more, with an aging core that’s lacked solutions moving one step closer to the franchise’s first early offseason.

Three talking points from Providence Park:

The return of Diego Valeri

During Valeri’s recent injury absence, Portland went four games without an open-play goal, with its No. 10’s late cameo in Open Cup play against the LA Galaxy unable to keep the Timbers from a 429-minute scoreless drought from open play. The team’s converted corner against Montreal on Wednesday was its only goal between Valeri starts.

Back in the lineup on Sunday, Valeri’s influence was immediate and evident. The number of times Portland’s No. 10 tested the Seattle defense marked a noticeable increase for the Timbers from previous matches. While the Sounders passed most of those tests, its defense also gave Valeri too much room on the ball in the moments before halftime. The ensuing goal gave Portland a lead it’d never relinquish.

When Valeri is hurt, the Timbers have nobody willing to take these risks, something that was painfully evident during the Argentine’s prolonged absence at the beginning of the 2015 season. On Sunday, Valeri reminded us why he remains Portland’s make-or-break player, with his second-half, goal-of-the-year candidate reiterating his importance:

No Dempsey really wasn’t much of a problem

In theory, the absence of Clint Dempsey to a red-card suspension was supposed to be an issue, with Seattle missing it’s most talented player for one of its most important matches of the season. In practice, Dempsey has rarely been effective with Seattle in 2016, with the early-season loss of Obafemi Martins leaving Sigi Schmid to find new combinations for his most-renown star.

To this point, that hasn’t happened, with the forced fit of plopping Dempsey in the middle of the formation often leaving Seattle ponderous and off balance. On Sunday, however, the team was able to start a 4-4-2 formation that played to more of its players strengths, with forward Nelson Valdez and Jordan Morris’ work rates occupying Timbers defenders early on.

Valdez finished the match with four shots, a stark increase from his season average of 1.2 per game. Morris wasn’t as prolific, only mustering two shots, but both of his chances were dangerous: a ball put over the bar from the edge of the six, and a blasted shot from the right of goal that earned a corner.

Ultimately, though, Seattle’s season-long attacking issues remained in focus. Despite collecting 11 shots, the Sounders’ only goal came from a corner kick, and while earning 12 corners over 90 minutes hints at some attacking success, Seattle’s troubles scoring goals continues.

Transition kills the Sounders

It’s rare that teams let the Timbers get out in transition as much as they did against Seattle did on Sunday, with opponents usually willing to sit back and dare Portland to break them down. The change in approach has forced Caleb Porter over the years, leaving too many Timbers games to play out as tactical stalemates, ones decided by individual errors rather than risks and solutions.

Sunday, however, saw Portland earn chances in transition from the opening kickoff, with only a Lucas Melano offside run, an over-hit through ball from Darlington Nagbe, and poor execution on a short-range shot from Melano keeping the Timbers from breaking through sooner. Whether the Sounders were trying to trade chances with Portland or not, the Timbers were able to carry momentum into the Seattle defense far too often.

The first goal was a decent example, as was the second, where Valeri was able to take his chances against a defense still trying to reorganize itself. The third goal, though, was pure transition play, with an open Fanendo Adi able to wait for Stefan Frei to pass through the goal mouth before finishing into the open side.

Recent offseason moves, as well as general aging, have left the Sounders slower and less athletic than most teams. While those changes didn’t show themselves that often in recent matches against Toronto, LA, and a second-choice FC Dallas, the speed of Melano, Adi, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara, as well as the decision-making of Valeri, undid Seattle on Sunday, perhaps giving MLS another example of why you can’t let Portland’s skill players see too much open field.

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Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.