And then there were four. It's time to get hyped for the Conference Championships, with the first legs kicking off Sunday, Nov. 25. Over the next week, we're diving deep into New York Red Bulls vs. Atlanta United and Sporting KC vs. Portland Timbers to see where each side can find an edge in their matchup. With the help of columnists Matt Doyle and Bobby Warshaw, we're parsing all facets of both Conference Championship clashes, one day at a time. On Wednesday, we started with the goalkeepers, today we continue with the defenders.
With a renewed focus on attacking fervor, SKC have taken more risks. Meanwhile, the Timbers trotted a few different tactical plans this season, but have firmly locked in an ethos of defend-deep-and-counter, which makes their defensive unit difficult to break down. According to WhoScored, the Timbers held the fourth-fewest average possession during the regular season at 47.2% while SKC had the league's second-most possession at 54.6%.
That's just a fancy way of conveying that SKC are likely to have more of the ball, meaning Portland will do more defending. But when the Timbers regain possession, SKC's defenders are liable to be exposed in more open spaces.
Of course, 2017 MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara and club captain Matt Besler returned this season, while last year's newly minted fullback extraordinaire Graham Zusi has had more time to get comfortable in his new surroundings in defense than attack. Even with that new lease on scoring goals, the team has conceded the league's third-fewest goals. It was still 11 more than last season but it led to the club gaining 13 more points. Balance!
As for Portland, Larrys Mabiala has been their defensive rock with stalwart Liam Ridgewell cycled in and out of the team this year. They have a trio of strong fullbacks between Zarek Valentin, Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana. It certainly doesn't hurt that Diego Chara shields this unit.
Which way do you rule on each side's defensive prowess, Matt and Bobby?
It’s been weird watching Sporting – arguably the best defensive team in MLS history last year – come apart again and again in 2018. It’s not because of their talent, though. It’s because they play a high-risk style with the ball that asks a ton of the d-mid and entire backline. That’s the trade-off for becoming an attacking juggernaut.
Portland have tinkered a lot in 2018 with their formation, their personnel and how high a line they play, but settled into something comfortable and familiar: They’re a deep-block counterattacking side. This doesn’t ask much of the backline except to keep play in front of them, and given they are somewhat lacking in terms of raw talent, it’s an ask that makes sense.
On paper, it’s SKC. Besler, Opara, and Zusi are all elite talents, and Seth Sinovic does all of the little things that make him vital to their team.
When I think about the question “who’s less likely to concede”, though, I’d pick Portland. The Timbers play a system that prioritizes not conceding above all else. Conversely, SKC consider themselves a proactive team that pass and use the ball, which naturally leaves a team vulnerable defensively at times.
Talent? SKC. System? Portland. Overall? Even.