Armchair Analyst: A quick note on why Shalrie Joseph played center forward – and why it didn't work

My friends over at /r/MLS asked a good question, and since they're not the only ones asking it, I figured it'd be smart to answer here.

The query:

Care to shed some light on Sigi starting Shalrie Joseph at forward last night? I just don't get it. Why take such a risk in a game with that much on the line?

Honest answer: I don't know. It was a little bit crazy from a coach who's been reliably pragmatic over the years.

Here's my take from the tactical lookahead I wrote on Wednesday night:

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...

The reason it was essential for Martins to start is because he (and Neagle, when he's eligible) stretches the field with speed and clever movement away from the central channels. You need a player like that to keep the opposing central defense out of their comfort zones.

Look at how all over the place Neagle's touches were against the Rapids last week:

And here's Robbie Findley's touches – he plays the same "stretch the field" role in RSL's diamond – from their second-leg win over LA on Thursday night:

He was less involved, though he did fill largely the same role. And it doesn't even matter (that much) that he was kind of careless with the ball, and didn't directly create much danger. What mattered was getting Omar Gonzalez out of the middle. That was the key to RSL coming back into that series, and eventually knocking out the two-time defending champs.

Meanwhile, here's Shalrie's touches:

He was lost and ineffective out there, and – even worse – he ended up dropping deep into the midfield, dragging defenders toward Dempsey and compressing the amount of space for Seattle's main playmaker. He did the same for Eddie Johnson, who had to change his role and move to spots where he's not comfortable.

Schmid addressed this directly after the game, admitting the whole thing didn't work.

So why'd he do it in the first place?

Like I said, I honestly don't know. But if I were forced to guess, I'd say "physical matchup and set pieces." Joseph moonlighted as a target forward for the Revs waaay back in the 2000s, specifically when they needed to match up against a physical backline. He was able to dominate defenders back then, more often than not createing space for the likes of Taylor Twellman and Steve Ralston.

The "set pieces" part of the equation speaks for itself, after Joseph got a flick-on assist at the end of the first leg.

That was probably the plan, with the idea that Joseph would occupy one of Futty Danso or Pa Modou Kah, giving Dempsey and Johnson one less body to worry about.

It didn't work because Shalrie instead dragged the defenders closer to his fellow attackers, and because the Portland midfield (Diego Chara and Will Johnson especially) swarmed the ball and covered insane amounts of ground.

Sigi took a risk, and it was a bad one. And now the Timbers march on.