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Tactical Analysis

Here's How, and Why, the Sounders beat Portland 2-0

Major League Soccer shrewdly scheduled a Cascadia Cup clash a few hours after Sunday's World Cup final, and Seattle showed why it is the best team in the league right now.
BY Blake Thomsen Posted
July 14, 2014
12:39 PM
IT WASN'T A VINTAGE Timbers-Sounders classic, but the bitter Northwest rivals still combined to put on a good show in front of a typically raucous Seattle crowd. The Sounders struggled to get going in the first half, but a much-improved second half performance gave the home team the 2-0 win it fully deserved.

Let’s take a look at how it all went down from a tactical standpoint.


Obafemi Martins wasn’t quite fit enough to play more than a half, so Seattle was robbed of its lethal Martins-Clint Dempsey pairing from the start. Sigi Schmid opted for something of a true 4-4-2, with a classic target man/withdrawn forward setup in Chad Barrett and Dempsey up top. Martins came on for Barrett in the 51st minute and vastly changed the game, helping swing a then relatively even contest heavily in Seattle’s favor.


Caleb Porter’s 4-2-3-1 hinted at plenty of attacking promise, with the big Nigerian Fanendo Adi at the tip of the speark in front of the trio of Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, and former Sounder Steve Zakuani. But this setup proved far more defensive—and far less potent—than the 4-3-3 that Portland used away to the Galaxy last weekend.


The first half was, to be candid, a bit of a snoozefest. Each team’s midfield somewhat canceled the other out, and neither side had many good scoring chances as a result.

Barrett worked hard but failed to link up well with Dempsey, who failed to get his usual share of touches near the goal, diminishing his effectiveness. Seattle’s other returning World Cup star—DeAndre Yedlin—also failed to make much of an impact, hardly seeing the ball in the type of wide areas where he was so dangerous in Brazil.

The Timbers deserve credit for defending resolutely in the first 45 minutes, which contributed to Seattle’s limited offensive impact. Offensively, however, the visitors left much to be desired.

What looked like an attacking 4-2-3-1 from Portland at kickoff proved to be more of a defensive 4-4-1-1, which consistently defended with two banks of four. That meant that Adi didn’t have nearly enough support up front as a target man—Nagbe didn’t provide much help in an unnatural No. 10 role, and wide midfielders Zakuani and Valeri were even farther away.

Adi could have helped his cause by being more unpredictable and dynamic with his movement. Instead, he tried to establish his “post-up” game from the first minute, which plays far more toward his strengths. It’s not a bad strategy when he has support from onrushing attacking midfielders, as he does when Portland is at its best. But the support never materialized in the first half on Sunday. And to be honest, it didn’t get much better in the second half, either.

This is obviously an exaggerated graphic, but it often felt a little like this from a Timbers standpoint.


After halftime, Portland came out in the same defensive setup as it did in the first half. This proved effective for five minutes, or until Seattle brought on the fit-again Martins. The Nigerian’s introduction completely changed the game, as Seattle burst to life from an attacking standpoint.

Martins instantly did a much better job of dropping deep to receive the ball than Barrett did, which proved to be the missing link against the bunkered-in Portland defense. With Martins occupying defenders farther out with clever movement (as well as quality distribution), Dempsey was able to find much more space closer to the goal. It is in the pocket in the center of the attacking third where Dempsey is most dangerous, and he suddenly found himself there with increasing frequency.

Dempsey’s more advanced position helped Seattle maintain considerable territorial dominance, as much of the second half was played deep in Portland’s half. This, along with Portland’s lack of threat on the counterattack, invited wide midfielders Marco Pappa and Lamar Neagle—as well as Yedlin—to get higher up the field.

Those three whipped in a series of dangerous crosses from the flanks and also managed several efforts at goal. Seattle’s dominance gradually wore the Timbers down, and the Sounders finally broke the deadlock through Clint Dempsey’s opportunistic finish in the 71st minute. Donovan Ricketts produced a genuinely absurd double save, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to stop Deuce from scoring a trademark scrappy goal.


After staying in two banks of four for almost 75 minutes, the Timbers were forced to break out of its shell and try to take the game to Seattle following Dempsey’s opener. But the team never looked capable of doing that against a strong Seattle defense, anchored by Osvaldo Alonso in midfield and Chad Marshall on the back line.

The Timbers struggled to create scoring chances—Gaston Fernandez’s outrageous, against-the-run-of-play long shot off the post aside—and to make matters worse, the huge numbers Porter threw forward left huge gaps to exploit on the counter.

The Sounders narrowly missed out on a few promising chances—thanks to more heroics from Ricketts—but eventually the dam broke, and Seattle sealed the game via a composed Pappa effort. Look for a few things in the below video:

  • The huge space left by Portland’s defense.

  • The clever near post movement from Martins and Dempsey, which drew all of Portland’s remaining defenders, leaving Pappa wide open and with enough time to submit his new ASN 100 ballot before his cool finish.


    This game played out as one might expect when the first-place team in the conference hosts the eighth-place team. Far better teams than Portland already have and will continue to fall at CenturyLink Field, but it must be said that the Timbers final 15 minutes was particularly disappointing. The side never really looked a threat to equalize, which is, of course, far from ideal. But worse still was the ease with which they allowed the Sounders through on goal again and again.

    On another night—or with a less in-form keeper—this could have gotten out of hand late, perhaps even 4-0 or 5-0 in favor of Seattle.

    What did you think of the match? Tell us below.

    Blake Thomsen is an ASN contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter.
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