Defensive approach fails Whitecaps in derby vs. Timbers

Portland Timbers' Darlington Nagbe, left, fights to get free before scoring a first-half goal against the Vancouver Whitecaps. (Pete Christopher/The Oregonian via AP)

You can understand why the Vancouver Whitecaps approached Saturday’s match against the Portland Timbers the way they did, but the defensive tactics did little to slow down Major League Soccer’s most explosive offence.

With Portland soaring at the moment at the top of the MLS standings, while registering a league-high 16 goals ahead of this match, this was always going to be a tremendous challenge for Vancouver, who ultimately fell 2-1 thanks to goals from Darlington Nagbe and ex-Cap Darren Mattocks.

In an attempt to stifle the Timbers, ‘Caps coach Carl Robinson set his team up primarily with an eye to disrupting his opponent, rather than engaging in a back-and-forth affair against a side with arguably stronger firepower, or at the very least a team simply in better form.

With that in mind, Robinson tinkered with a formula that seemed to work last match – instead of playing Christian Bolanos in the No. 10 role in behind Fredy Montero, he slotted the Costa Rica international on the left wing.

Robinson then dropped Russell Teibert from central midfield, bringing Tony Tchani and Andrew Jacobson in to play with Matias Laba. The idea here was clear: set up a strong spine with Tchani, Jacobson and Laba, and let any creativity come from Bolanos and Cristian Techera on the wings.

In theory, it’s an approach that makes sense. You certainly can’t accuse Robinson of being naïve with this choice of tactics. It seems the plan was to defend for as long as possible, and then bring on the likes of Alphonso Davies and Nicolas Mezquida late on if a goal was needed. While the Whitecaps probably could have squeaked out a draw had they been more opportunistic with the chances they generated, a loss was probably what they deserved.

Let’s look at some of the things that went wrong, before touching on some of the positives.

Tactical misstep

The way the Whitecaps lined up, it seemed as if the team was playing for a draw at best. In the first half, especially, Vancouver found itself chasing the Timbers and caught on the back foot. The Timbers were allowed to control the play far too much, and didn’t seem to have the pace to counter with any real threat.

If you’re going to lose the possession battle but don’t have the speed to quickly go up the field the other way and catch a team out, generating opportunities is always going to be a challenge.

While Robinson continues to play Montero alone up front, and the Colombian continues to make the most of the scraps on offer, there’s a sense that he could be more effective with a true forward partner – even a target man like Kyle Greig whom he could play off of, with the big forward winning headers or flicking the ball on to him.

The tactics to start weren’t necessarily a botch job, but the best coaches make a change when things aren’t going right, perhaps by making a sub, even in the first half, or simply tinkering with the formation.

That didn’t happen and the ‘Caps found themselves in a big hole down 2-0 going into the second half.

Did it have to be Darren Mattocks?

When Portland’s team sheet came up on the screen, all Whitecaps fans surely had that feeling of dread creep in. It wasn’t intimidation they felt at seeing Darren Mattocks name; the Jamaican missed far more opportunities than he took in a Whitecaps jersey, but that feeling of just knowing he’d be up for playing against his former team.

And sure enough, Mattocks scored what would ultimately be the game winning goal in his first start of this MLS campaign, making an excellent run into the box, bursting past Kendall Waston.

Perhaps Waston didn’t have the pace to keep up with Mattocks on the play, and you could argue Sheanon Williams could have come over to support him. But bottom line, one of those players should have been together to Mattocks on that play, a point Robinson will surely be making to his charges this week during training sessions.

Can’t keep the ball

The Whitecaps have been out-possessed in every single MLS match this season, and it happened once again on Saturday. Some teams can play the counterattack effectively.

But this particular edition of the ‘Caps, when Davies and Erik Hurtado are not on the pitch, doesn’t have the breakaway speed to punish teams who push too high up. Soccer is a possession game and if the opponents always have more of the ball, the percentages are not in your favour.

Now let’s look at some of the positives the team should take from this match.

Montero in full flight

Playing up top alone is difficult for any forward, but Montero put in a fine showing in this match, making the most of limited opportunities. His penalty was atrocious and his follow-up finish wasn’t much better, although it crossed the goal-line for Vancouver’s only goal of the match.

It’s one of those rare times you can say he put in a great performance apart from his goal.

Learning what doesn’t work

There’s a quote generally attributed to the inventor Thomas Edison that goes something like: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

I suspect given the inability of Jacobson, Tchani and Laba to protect the back four – while offering little going forward – means we won’t be seeing this combination again any time soon.

Bolanos’ productivity

It’s been a relatively strong start for Bolanos, who seems to be enjoying greater responsibility on the creative side with the departure of Pedro Morales in the off-season.

Shunted out on the left side he was a bit more isolated in this match than he has been in the No. 10 role, but he still managed to generate the penalty which ultimately led to Montero’s goal with a nice bit of individual skill

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