Armchair Analyst: Tactical lookahead to #PORvSEA in the Western Conference Semifinals

There are two fanbases on the precipice right now, two groups of Cascadians staring into the abyss. By the end of the Thursday night's Western Conference Semifinals second leg (11 pm ET; NBCSN, Uni. Deportes, TSN2 in Canada), one group will have taken the plunge, and the other will have around 60-ish hours to celebrate before a date with either RSL or the LA Galaxy.

The Portland Timbers, who are unbeaten since August, hold all the cards after that 2-1 win in the first leg. The Seattle Sounders are desperate.

Let's start there:

Stick with the diamond or fan out?

I've been fairly impressed with Seattle's diamond midfield since the switch a few weeks back, even if the results have been hit and miss. What struggles they had in the first leg against the Timbers seemed to be less about structure and more about the combination of fatigue and lack of sharpness following last Wednesday's Knockout Round win against the Rapids.

Here are their key passes (passes that lead to shots) from the first 70 minutes of the Portland game. "Good distribution with a real thrust up the middle" is how I'd describe it:

It shouldn't be lost on anyone that the 20 shots Seattle generated were the most the Timbers have given up in a single game this year. Caleb Porter has said that was at least partially by design – and there's no question that the Timbers have become a resolute team at defending inside the 18 over the past couple of months – but I think there's plenty here for Sigi Schmid to be happy about. His team has shown in three consecutive games now that they can build chances against pretty solid defenses.

They just can't finish them.

Now, if there was a structural concern, it's clearly on the defensive side for Seattle. When you play the diamond, you give up the flanks – and so this happened:

Even that, however, could have been snuffed out by better tracking from the central defensive pairing of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Djimi Traore. They'll both need to be better.

All this talk of the diamond, by the way, is predicated upon the assumption that Obafemi Martins will be fit enough to go from the start for Seattle (which seems increasingly likely), a must since Lamar Neagle is suspended on yellow-card accumulation. Martins and Eddie Johnson have not been a good pairing thus far, but they are unquestionably both true forwards who would pose matchup problems for a somewhat immoble Portland central defense.

Now, if Martins can't go, then Clint Dempsey probably gets moved up top, and the diamond goes up in smoke. Schmid will be forced to go with more of a flat-four midfield, which has the bonus of getting Mauro Rosales on the field from the start, but the detriment of changing much of what's been a successful shape for the Rave Green over the past couple of weeks.

Will Portland play for the counterattack?

It's not really their nature to sit back – they finished third in the league with over 54 percent of possession this year, and completed the second-most passes in the opponent's half – but Porter has clearly made it a point to add the counter to their arsenal. It's been a real weapon for them against teams pushing up the field in search of a goal (which the Sounders will be), and featured as early as April:

  • It makes sense to sit back some and let the Seattle defense come up the pitch, opening up space behind them for the likes of Johnson and Darlington Nagbe.
  • It also makes sense for Porter to try to protect his players' energy reserves – playing from a position of strength means they can keep at least a little bit of focus on having something left in the tank for the weekend.
  • More to the point, though: Diego Valeri is hurt. He's been a warrior who's gutted through an adductor strain for the better part of a season, and it's probably beyond him to play the kind of frenetic, pressing midfield game that made the Timbers invincible in late spring and early summer. Porter asked him to do less in the first leg, and will very probably do the same in the second leg as well.

What does this all mean for the shape of the game?

I honestly think this one will play out much as the first leg did, in terms of rhythm and spacing. Seattle are desperate – 90 minutes from an offseason abyss – and probably too proud to sit and hope to steal a goal off a set piece.

Portland are confident, and too smart to give 'em one.

Haymakers for 90 minutes, folks. And then for one group of fans, the abyss truly stares back.


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