The Portland Timbers extended their unbeaten streak to 12 games on Sunday, after a 0-0 draw against Western Conference rivals LAFC. They find themselves sitting in fourth place in their conference with two games in hand on the leaders, FC Dallas.
Playing on the road against an LAFC side that averages the most goals per game in MLS, the Timbers were able to keep them scoreless due in large part to their unsung hero, defensive midfielder Diego Chara.
As I watched the World Cup this summer, I noticed how similar Chara’s play is to France’s N’Golo Kante, the newly-crowned world champion. They are the backbone of their respective teams.
The obvious comparison is their physical stature, short and slender but strong. They are pitbulls. But their size has no bearing on their dominance.
These defensive midfielders have a knack of covering a lot of ground and breaking up plays. They can anticipate where the next pass is going and always make it difficult for the player receiving the ball. Because of this they usually spark counterattacks. They're mainly positioned in front of the backline and if a defender steps up to try to cut off a pass, you can count on them to fill in behind for cover.
Their heads are always on a swivel, surveying the field and movements of opposing players. They are aware of their team’s vulnerable spots and are quick to act to diffuse any potential breaks. When they win the ball, it’s quickly off their feet, always making the right decision with the next pass.
In Sunday's match, Chara made his presence felt early with a foul against LAFC’s attacking midfielder Lee Nguyen.
His tenacity and eagerness are a tactic: As inconsequential as the play was, it’s significant in the sense that it mentally challenges the player to be aware of Chara for 90 minutes. The opposition is forced to always look over their shoulder for him. He’s always breathing down your neck.
His ability to read the game leads to countless attacking chances. He understands the options that the opposing players have and is able to close down the space either making an interception or deflection to a teammate. In the video below, he reads Laurent Ciman’s pass to Nguyen, beats Nguyen to the ball and deflects it to Sebastian Blanco, who gets a shot on goal from distance.
It’s an incredible advantage to have a midfielder you can depend on to cut down passing lanes and anticipate the next play. While he is fantastic at intercepting passes, he is equally great with his distribution after he wins a challenge. He quickly finds the open player on his team to get an attack started or to retain possession.
Later in the match you can see him taking a look over his shoulder to see the open LAFC player asking for the ball. He cuts out the pass made by Nguyen and quickly starts a counter. The Timbers lose possession quickly after that, but Chara wins the ball back and allows Portland to win a foul in the midfield.
Chasing down players is what he does best. He never gives up on a play. If there’s a breakdown in marking or a mistimed challenge by a defender, you can be sure to find Chara cleaning up the mess. Even if you’re a step ahead of him, you don’t have the luxury to have a bad touch or hesitation, because he will capitalize.
In the 42nd minute he chases down star forward Carlos Vela, who made his first start since returning from the World Cup with Mexico. Vela was clearly ahead of him on the play, and instead of relying on his cover (Zarek Valentin and Julio Cascante) he continued the chase and made a tremendous sliding tackle to win the ball back.
Diego Chara is not always going to show up on the scoresheet and get the glory, but with his reliable contribution and fighting spirit there’s no questioning his importance to this Timbers team.
CHARLIE DAVIES is a former US national team forward who played six seasons in MLS (D.C. United, Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution). He also starred for Sochaux (France), Hammarby (Sweden) and Randers (Denmark) in Europe. Prior to turning pro, Davies was a MAC Hermann Trophy finalist during his collegiate career at Boston College.