MLS 2019: Portland Timbers vs San Jose Earthquakes – tactical analysis

MLS 2019: Portland Timbers vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the tactical benefits of dribbling.

Heading into this MLS matchup, Matias Almeyda and his San Jose Earthquakes were on a resurgent wave of results. A result against Portland Timbers would top off a brilliant season from the Goodies.

On the other hand, Portland Timbers haven’t given up many goals at home and as such, it was always going to be a difficult match. Giovanni Savarese and his bruised Timbers were not going to go down without a fight.

As such, we will show you in this tactical analysis a close look at the tactics and provide analysis on just how Portland Timbers triumphed over San Jose Earthquakes.


MLS 2019: Portland Timbers vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis tactics

Portland Timbers made three changes to the side that drew to Sporting KC. Renzo Zambrano was replaced by Cristhian Paredes. Attacker Marvin Loría was replaced by attacker Dairon Asprilla. Finally, Brian Fernández, who obtained a red card, was replaced by forward Jeremy Ebobisse.

On the other side, defender Tommy Thompson, who obtained a red card against Seattle Sounders, was replaced by Marcos López. Finally, Danny Hoesen was rested for Danny Hoesen.

Portland’s dribbles open up San Jose

A key feature of Portland’s attack was the strategy to utilise dribbles to open up the wings of the San Jose Earthquakes.

Dribbling, as a normal tactic, attracts nearby opposition players and therefore disrupts the defensive structure of a team. This skill is why dribblers are often highly valued in a team. Their ability to glide through opposition allows them to carve open space.

Portland Timbers normally play equally through the centre of the pitch. 31% of their attacks come through the middle, while 33% and 36% of the attacks come through the left and right-wing flanks respectively. However, the action converges in the middle, with 63% of Timbers’ shots coming through the centre.

Keeping in line with this trend, the Timbers attacked from the inside out, starting their attacks in the centre and branching outwards. This flow pattern allowed Timbers’ full-backs to get involved in the attack and attack inwards with creativity.

To create space for their full-backs, Timbers used a structural dribbling tactic that allowed their full-backs to get free on multiple occasions. Simply put, deeper players within the Portland squad would start dribbling inwards.

At this point, the forwards would drop slightly deep which allowed the full-backs to bomb forward and receive a free pass.

MLS 2019: FC Dallas vs Sporting KC - Tactical Analysis tactics
Here we see the tactical benefits of dribbling

Here the dribbling in the centre of the pitch has attracted the defence to the central structure shown in red. This has vacated a sizeable gap, highlighted with green lines, between the centre-back and the full-back.

This wide space near the flank is used by the wide attacker who meets the pass and dribbles inside the corridor shown. This corridor yields enough space for him to attack and eventually score a goal. As such, dribbling in the centre opened space on the wide which allowed Portland Timbers to stretch the defence and score.

The Timbers used this strategy frequently as they recorded 24 dribbles in the game, all of them occurring in the centre. The frequency and location of dribbles meant that central defenders and midfielders were drawn inwards.

At the same time, the forwards dropped in narrow. This is evident when one looks at the heatmaps of the three attackers of the Timbers.

MLS 2019: Portland Timbers vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the heatmap of the three forwards

Here the heat map proves that the forwards of the Timbers stay narrow, concentrating their efforts in the centre. This allows the full-backs to have more space on the wing spaces.

As such, there should be no surprise when one sees that the Timbers recorded the most crosses, 24, in the game with the full-backs contributing a sizeable chunk of the statistic.

San Jose struggle with Portland’s aggressive press in the first half

San Jose Earthquakes struggled in the first half in their progression of attacks. This stemmed from their inefficiency and inability to progress the ball from their midfield line to the attacking line.

This inefficiency translated to the fact that their forward men had relatively few touches and action on the ball when compared to their activity in the second half.

The reason behind the Earthquakes’ inability to progress the ball upwards resulted from Portland Timber’s well-structured pressing structure.

A well-structured pressing and defensive structure allowed the opposition team to have control over the movements of the home team. In this case, the Timbers were able to control the attacking progression from the Earthquakes in the first half.

Before we talk about how Portland pressed the Earthquakes, it is important to discuss how Earthquakes lined themselves up.

When building up, as is custom now, two of the centre-backs split and form a line with the goalkeeper. After that, one midfielder drops to be an outlet from this deeper line. This structure allows the team to entice more opponents to commit forward, which then allows the team to have a much better situation near the goal as the opposition defenders are left exposed.

Further upfield, the Goonies stationed another midfielder along with two full-backs in another line. This line allowed the Goonies to aid their lone midfielder if he encountered any problems in buildup while also providing width in the form of the full-backs.

However, there is one big problem with this structure. The space between the deepest line and the midfield line is too big for one midfielder to cover. If the buildup doesn’t execute correctly, then the opposition team can take advantage and counterattack.

MLS 2019: Portland Timbers vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the buildup pattern of San Jose

Here, we see the buildup pattern of San Jose Earthquakes. We see the two centre-backs split up and the midfield and fullbacks varied.

Normally, San Jose would be able to get out of a press. However, a team which blocks the passing lanes to the teammates can allow for the creation of counterattacks and winning the ball higher up the field.

This is exactly what the Timbers did, lining their squad in a particular way to ensure that the Quakes’ buildup did not go smoothly.

Portland stationed their striker on the lone midfielder. This blocked one of Earthquakes’ passing options. Then, to disrupt their movement on the wings, Portland used their two additional forwards to start from covering the full-backs and then moving on to the two centre-backs.

As the attackers moved on to press the centre-backs, the midfield pushed up to cover the spaces between the deepest and midfield line. This occupation of space meant that Portland could easily collapse on the ball carrier and press more efficiently.

This often meant that the option of passing into the midfield or playing through the centre was too risky. Therefore the goalkeeper had to post long balls towards the forwards or whenever the full-back could get high.

MLS 2019: Portland Timbers vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the pressing structure from Portland Timbers

Here is the classic structure of the buildup. San Jose line up their buildup with the blue line, positioning team members widely on the pitch and staggering them to achieve better positional play.

Portland Timbers line their press in a certain way. Each player is in close proximity to their marker which effectively blocks any passing options to the player. Additionally, notice how the staggering of this press occurs.

They are positioned so that if the goalkeeper tries to play in the middle, there are players ready to collapse on to them. As such, these midfield areas, shown in yellow, are also areas where no passing can be made so the only option for the goalkeeper here is to go long.

Since this was a deviation from the game plan, the forwards – at the start – were slow to these long balls. Thus Portland could challenge for the ball and retrieve possession. Even when the strikers had gotten accustomed to dropping deep, Portland’s structure ensured the forwards were kept under control.

Since Portland were not doing a strict man-marking press, the pressing in the midfield area allowed the full-backs to be free to get one on one with the dropping forwards. As such, the Earthquakes struggled immensely to progress the ball from their half into the opposition half.

This inactivity from the forwards can be clearly seen through their heatmaps and their touches map. This can be also seen from San Jose’s shot activity. Before the first half, the Goonies only recorded 5 shots.

MLS 2019: Portland Timbers vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the heatmaps of the attackers of San Jose

As can be noticed in the heatmap above, their activity is severely lacking in the centre of the box and overall play. Their activity is concentrated in areas away from the goal, an indicator of their inactivity.

Earthquakes find an alternative and attack through in the second half

With the score 1-1, the San Jose Earthquakes needed to try to find a breakthrough. The first step in accomplishing this was trying to connect the attack and the midfield line, a task they had failed in the first half.

In the second half, San Jose Earthquakes took advantage of Portland’s attacking structure. As described before, Portland attacked through the wings, using their dribbling to open the wing spaces. As such, the Quakes took advantage of Portland’s usually high full-backs to facilitate their attacking progression.

The Goonies used buildup to attack through the wings. This partly facilitated to Portland’s new structure for defence. During the second half, Portland gradually stepped off pressing with numerical tactics and started using positional tactics.

This meant that Portland were not pressing as high and were not directly pressing the defensive lines with much personnel. In fact, during the second half, Portland’s midfield switched to a diamond.

While this conserves central rigidity, it does give way for teams to exploit the wing spaces and this is exactly what the Quakes utilised.

Instead of passing it long, the centre-backs had a safe passing outlet: the full-backs. With the midfielders and attackers coming in narrow, the full-backs were allowed free possession of the ball. Since they could now get involved in the attack, the Earthquakes’ midfield came more into existence.

MLS 2019: Portland Timbers vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the diamond nature of Portland Timbers

Here, as seen in black, Portland Timbers are lining up in a 4-4-2 with a diamond in the middle. This congests the centre but allows wing play to happen freely. This is visible from the amount of free space contained on the wing flanks, shown in red lines.

The full-backs and wingers can progress the team forwards, allowing ample time for the midfield to get settled and contribute to the attacking progression. As such, this structure allowed San Jose to inch their way back into the game.

One of the main pathways that San Jose took in this new attacking structure was the use of right-wing flank. This use was characterised, most aptly, by the presence of attacker Cristian Espinoza. Analysing his heatmap shows that for most of the game, he was concentrated on the right-wing flank.

MLS 2019: Portland Timbers vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the heatmap of Espinoza

Espinoza’s heatmap is unusually concentrated on the right-hand flank, showing his activity there.

His presence on the flank was a major part in San Jose creating chances. Firstly, Espinoza repeatedly dribbled in that wing, disrupting the structure of Portland and creating spaces for his teammate. Additionally, his creative flair allowed San Jose to penetrate the final third more frequently. This is evident one when considers Espinoza had 33 of his passes going into the final third, the most in the San Jose squad.

MLS 2019: Portland Timbers vs San Jose Earthquakes - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the creative aspects of Espinoza

In this picture, we see an example of Espinoza’s creative abilities. Here, instead of dribbling aimlessly, he passes the ball inwards. This draws in the defenders which allows the strikers to set up a through ball, shown in pink, to the overlapping full-back.

These creative movements stemmed mainly from the creative incision who brought life into San Jose’s right-wing flank.

This utilisation of the wing is also seen with an increase in crosses. In the first half, San Jose only created six crosses. However, with the use of a new tactic, San Jose succeeded in 13 crosses which contrasts with Portland’s seven.

Moreover, this tactic, in general terms, was more effective as the Goonies recorded 7 shots. This increase in attacking statistics and play meant that San Jose were succeeding in attacking Portland.

However, Goonie’s lack of a central presence meant that the wide play was unable to translate into goals. The forward of San Jose, Chris Wondolowski, only recorded 17 touches with most of them coming in the middle of the pitch.


Both sides will come from this game feeling some parts proud and some parts deflated. For Portland Timbers, they will be happy for a win and finally some rest to an injured squad. On the other hand, San Jose Earthquakes will come off feeling that they could have nicked a result had some of their chances gone in.

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