BEAVERTON, Ore. — For a few weeks, it seemed the Portland Timbers had a winning formula: Get the ball wide. Let players such as Kalif Alhassan use their speed and craftiness to break down defenses, creating scoring chances and drawing fouls.
The thing about winning formulas is that opponents are inclined to decipher and disrupt them.
So it’s hardly a surprise that in consecutive losses to D.C. United and Chivas USA, the opportunities for the Timbers to fly up the wings, or for Alhassan and Sal Zizzo to go at defenders one on one, have been limited. Opponents now seem to be forcing Portland to play up the middle.
“Teams are shutting us down,” said veteran goalkeeper Troy Perkins, who has been consistently forced to drop-kick the ball upfield instead of distributing a short pass to start the offense. “They’re making us hit it long, and they’re battling for the second ball and obviously winning those balls more than we are. It’s something where we’ve got to be more creative. We’ve got to think our way through it now.”
Tactically, the solution probably requires more patience than the Timbers have shown.
They need to be willing to possess the ball in available space, rather than hurry it up the field with every touch.
“We just have to do a better job of keeping the ball,” said Jeremy Hall, who has been involved in the wide play both in his current role at right back, and as a midfield wing player. “I think there’s been a couple of times when we’re panicking and just dumping it long instead of being composed, being patient on the ball, working it to the middle, and then getting it outside.”
Understanding tactics, and how to counter an opponent’s approach, is part of the learning curve for young players. But the more fundamental challenge, coach John Spencer said, is for players to understand their own weaknesses and work to improve them.
“It’s a growth process with every player. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 22 or 32, people are going to scout you,” Spencer said. “People will know your strengths and weaknesses.”
It’s a message the Timbers coaches have been repeating since training camp.
When Alhassan, for example, produced three assists in the Timbers first two home games, the coach was quick to remind the 20-year-old rookie that his work was just beginning.
“You like to shoot with your right foot? Well, what are you going to do when people push you on to your left foot?” Spencer said, speaking about not only Alhassan, but every player.
“That’s why you have to practice day in and day out to make yourself a complete player so that you’re impossible to shut down,” Spencer said. “And if they shut you down, you’ve still got to have that mentality that you’re going to work hard” and have a positive influence on the match.
In other words, in Major League Soccer, there is no magic formula for success.