Soccer has a concept dubbed “the right of the weak,” a turn of phrase coined by 20th-century Russian writer Lev Filatov and elevated in modern times by Jonathan Wilson in the epochal book “Inverting the Pyramid.”
In short, the idea is that defensive tactics like bunkering, delaying and chopping up a game’s rhythm are a natural and understandable response to an underdog’s challenge against superior opposition.
In this context, it was hard to tell who were the unheralded expansion team, and who were the perennial power at home in one of the league’s loudest and most atmospheric venues, when Nashville SC visited the Portland Timbers on Sunday for their second-ever MLS match.
Across MLS’s history, established teams have often approached home dates with expansion sides like a wolf staring at a bloody T-bone. So when Diego Valeri broke the deadlock with a magical side volley just 12 minutes in, an observer lacking in context might well have expected the proverbial hounds to be loosed on a Nashville squad still learning who and what they are.
Not so much.
FT: Portland 1, Nashville 0. "This will be our ugliest win ever," said a man in the stands behind me. Which feels slightly hyberbolic, but still, something still does seem off about these Timbers #PORvNSH— Matt Pentz (@mattpentz) March 9, 2020
As ESPN’s broadcast duo of John Champion and Taylor Twellman discussed during the game, Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese had labeled this a must-win game despite it being only Week 2, thanks to his team’s extended run of unsatisfying results at Providence Park. Coming into this one, the Rose City outfit had picked up just 14 of the 30 points on offer in their last 10 home matches, a skid in striking contrast to the club’s long history of spirited support.
PTFC have generally been more effective in a reactive posture than a proactive one under Savarese, and so instead of trying to open the floodgates, they sat on their early lead. And sat. And sat.
0 - @TimbersFC did not attempt a shot in the second half of a home match for just the second time in their MLS history (also in a 1-0 win over San Jose in June 2016). Eke.— OptaJack⚽️ (@OptaJack) March 9, 2020
For their part NSC looked relatively comfortable grabbing the initiative ceded to them here. With Hany Mukhtar and Anibal Godoy orchestrating, the boys in blue were fluid and fun at times – at least until they got to Portland’s penalty box, where Nashville’s finishing deserted them and rendered all that good approach work moot.
Who will score the goals? This was the big question hanging over the Music City side as they entered MLS, and now a national-television audience has seen why. Whether they can summon a solution internally or must go and find one on the transfer market remains to be seen.
In the meantime coach Gary Smith does at least have some building blocks to work with despite their 0-2 start, with his XI showing reasonably well in the back and middle thirds of the pitch.
Nashville were the better side in just about every aspect, save the final product. Really rough to dominate a Western Conference on the road like that and come away with nothing. #PORvNSH pic.twitter.com/rrJKfB272W— Ben Wright (@benwright) March 9, 2020
Portland didn’t exactly assuage their most pressing concerns on Sunday, either. You can argue, as our very own Armchair Analyst did, that this was simply a good, pragmatic decision by the Timbers to lean on the familiar in a time of trouble.
While the resulting spectacle was far from the most compelling entertainment product of the weekend for neutrals, it might also be a promising sign of the growing importance of every single MLS regular-season game that they felt they simply couldn’t bear to risk another home L like the one Minnesota United thumb-tacked onto their chests a week ago. NSC’s expansion siblings Inter Miami encountered something similar from D.C. United at Audi Field a day before.
The Timbers got the win here, and clearly that’s what they desperately wanted and needed above all. But the manner of it reflects their flaws rather than their strengths. I personally saw a team riding their luck and watching the clock rather than the confident execution of clever catenaccio.
“We don’t need to do anything offensively. What we need to do, maybe, is in the second half, keep the ball a little more, try to move it,” said Savarese postgame. “But the moments we were able to get in the box, we created opportunities. We created chances ... We know that we’re a team that can score goals. Important thing for us today was make sure there were no goals against and that we got a win, and that’s what the guys were able to accomplish.”
The unspoken corollary of Filatov’s “right of the weak” is that this way of playing looks quite different when deployed by teams bigger, stronger and richer than their adversaries. It may yet prove to be PTFC’s best way forward, even on home turf, and don’t be surprised to see Nashville utilize it themselves in the days to come.
But I suspect both will need to carve out something more assertive if they are to climb into the reckoning at the business end of a rugged Western Conference this season.