Talking Tactics: Analyzing Vancouver, Portland

New clubs. You never know what they will look like until they get on the field.

And the Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers finally played in competitive matches. Obviously, there will be some situational tweaking in the coming weeks, but now we can recognize the basic way forward, especially for the Whitecaps.

There’s absolutely no reinventing of the wheel at Empire Field. 'Caps coach Teitur Thordarson may have logged most of his previous coaching miles in Norway and Estonia, but his team looks distinctively “British” – a 4-4-2 with a “straight line” midfield arrangement.

With the ball, Thordarson’s men won’t mess around much. They want one of two options:

Find forward Eric Hassli or Atiba Harris. Hassli has better hold-up skills, but both players are physical enough and muscular enough to be a handful for defenders.

[inline_node:330480]Find Davide Chiumiento (at right). The Swiss creator helped arrange two goals in Saturday’s historic 4-2 win.

His teammates looked for him early on the right, where he played on Saturday, a role he wears well. He can cross comfortably or he can maneuver inside to break down defenses on the dribble. (Scary to think what the final score would’ve been if he had not come off at halftime with an injury.)

Playing Chiumiento on the outside leaves Gershon Koffie and Terry Dunfield to do the ball winning and carry more defensive burden from the middle.

Defensively, Vancouver pressed fairly high. Will they be as aggressive on the road? We’ll find out when they travel to Philadelphia on Saturday. Either way, though, it’s clear they defend in two delineated banks of four. It was organized sufficiently on Saturday, although not always as compact as the coaching staff might want.

One thing to remember: Vancouver were playing a relatively feeble side in Toronto FC. The visitors weren’t awful with the ball, which is why they scored twice, but their defense was often shambolic.

Against Philly, Vancouver won’t have such an easy time of it. Danny Califf & Co. will be far better organized, with players more comfortable defending from specific positions. (TFC’s Adrian Cann, for instance, was out of his comfort zone at left back on Saturday, which gave Chiumiento an easier time of it.)

Look for teams to eliminate passing lanes into Chiumiento and pressuring in more organized ways in the midfield. Then we’ll see what the Whitecaps are truly made of.

It is harder to determine exactly how John Spencer’s Timbers want to play, as their assignment was far tougher. Rather than riding the waves of good feelings and historic occasions at home, the Timbers swimming upstream from the get-go, facing the league champs on the road.

Sure enough, the Colorado Rapids strutted their stuff from the opening whistle, while the Timbers looked nervous, missing even the shortest of passes.

[inline_node:331414]Portland employed a 4-4-2 on defense, pressing high in spots or using the two forwards more passively in other spots, asking them to guide possession to the outside into vulnerable areas. On offense, the 4-4-2 turned into a 4-4-1-1, with Kenny Cooper (at right) dropping deeper into the midfield.

When they could navigate their way into Cooper and Jorge Perlaza, who always played higher, things didn’t look too bad. Cooper was usually the initial target. Perlaza, blessed with speed, worked off Cooper effectively at times or looked for something behind the back line.

But getting balls into those two was problematic. Steve Purdy, formerly a center back in Dallas, looked uncomfortable at right back. Rodney Wallace, an attack-minded left back, wanted to get forward but was often pinned back by Omar Cummings’ runs to his side.

The outside midfielders struggled to dribble or pass themselves out of trouble against Colorado’s effective, trapping ways. Neither were Jack Jewsbury, Peter Lowry nor Adam Moffat (who came on at the break) able to solve problems in center midfield.

So Portland’s “possession” turned into lots of hurried clearances (rather than distribution). Teams that can’t hold the ball can’t get numbers into the attack. When they did string together a couple of passes, Jewsbury got forward, leaving Lowry to hold as the straight line turned into a diamond shape on the attack.

Again, we’ll know more when they get into less suffocating games. Colorado can do that to clubs. The Timbers will have better nights.

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