MLS 2020: Portland Timbers vs Colorado Rapids– tactical analysis

An example of Portland's low block

The MLS is in the home stretch of its 2020 Regular Season campaign as teams focus on qualifying for the playoffs and securing a positive seed in the postseason tournament.  The Western Conference is full of exciting battles and scenarios as there are battles at the top and bottom of the table. This leads to several intriguing matchups in the final matches of the season and this one was no exception. Colorado was looking to confirm their spot in the playoffs while Portland is competing for one of the top seeds in the bracket. Needless to say each side had placed a large amount of significance on this match.

This tactical analysis will analyze both the tactics of the Colorado Rapids and the tactics of the Portland Timbers and analyze the effectiveness of these tactics. In addition, this analysis will analyze which tactics played a key role in this match finishing with a one-nil scoreline featuring a late winner from Colorado star Kelyn Acosta.

Lineups and formations

Both Colorado Rapids and Portland Timbers were in play on the Sunday before this match.  Both sides were victorious on the weekend as Portland defeated Vancouver and Colorado defeated Seattle in Colorado’s first match in almost a month. The flurry of games that MLS sides have faced in 2020 due to COVID-19  has presented managers with the opportunity to rotate the squad frequently and this match was no exception. However, each manager opted to continue with the same side that saw them victorious on the weekend in an effort to continue to gain crucial late season points.

Colorado Rapids Manager Robin Fraser opted to continue with her preferred formation of a 4-1-4-1. He also continued with his strongest 11 that employs William Yarborough in goal with homegrown product Sam Vines, Danny Wislon, Lalas Abubakar and Keegan Rosenberry in defense in front of him. The midfield was made up by Jack Price, Younes Namli and Cole Basset centrally while Nicolas Benezet and Andre Shinyashiki occupied the wide space. The lone striker was Diego Rubio. 

MLS is Back Tournament champions Portland Timbers, led by Head Coach Giovanni Savarese also employed their strongest 11 in this match. MLS Veteran Steve Clark started in goal with Pablo Bonilla, Bill Poni Tuiloma, Dario Zuparic and Marco Farfan in defense. The midfield was made up of club legend Diego Chara accompanied by Andy Polo, Christian Paredes and Andres Flores. The strike partnership featured Eryk Williamson and Felipe Mora. It should be noted that Williamson often dropped deeper into the midfield to act as a playmaker in the #10 role.

Colorado Rapids Build Up Shape

In pursuit of a playoff spot, the Colorado Rapids set out to control this match right from the opening whistle. In the first half, Colorado was able to control the match with their ability to dominate possession, in fact, at halftime the Rapids had held possession at a 60% clip. A large reason for this was the build up shape the Rapids employed that allowed them to create and maintain numerical advantages throughout the field. 

Out of their 4-1-4-1 shape, the Rapids were able to move players into different layers of the field in order to create numerical overloads in key areas. Most often in this match, Colorado shifted to a 3-5-1-1 or 3-5-2 shape in possession. This shape was typically achieved by moving the Colorado Left Back, Sam Vines higher into the wide midfield area with the other 3 defenders all shifting left to create a solid block of 3 to play through. This was important as it maintained a numerical advantage as Portland pressed with their front two players. 

In conjunction with Vines movement, the rest of the Rapids altered their shape to help maximize their effectiveness in possession. In central areas, the Rapids dropped two central midfielders to form a double pivot right in front of their back line. In addition to this the left sided winger often moved into advanced central areas. This allowed Colorado to create a 3v2 numerical advantage in the central midfield while still maintaining their width with Vines pushed higher up on the left flank.  This also allowed for Colorado to often and effectively launch attacks down the left side of their shape. With Vines higher up the field occupying the wide space, it allowed the Rapids left winger to occupy the half space on the left side and cause problems for the Portland defense. Since the half space was almost always occupied on the left hand side by Colorado in possession, it enabled them to attack quickly and effectively when the opportunity presented itself. A good example of this is below.

An example of the Rapids build up shape featuring the left back pushed up high and the winger inverted
This shows the average position for Colorado players throughout the match. Notice how the left back (red) is much more advanced than the other defenders

While the Rapids commonly use this shape in possession, it was particularly important in this match. Due to the Portland Timbers defensive shape and low defensive block (which we will discuss later) it was important that the Rapids were able to insert players into passing lanes in advanced central areas. The Rapids were often able to occupy the space in between the Portland midfield and defensive lines, which typically forced the midfielders to be concerned by the players behind them and limited their ability to apply pressure to the ball. In addition to this, when the Rapids were able to receive the ball in these dangerous areas, they were able to quickly and effectively attack due to the number of players they had in advanced areas. 

As you can see, the shape the Colorado Rapids employed enabled them to dominate possession and pin Portland deep into their own half. In addition, the numbers that Colorado were able to push into advanced areas allowed them to occupy several Portland defenders and consistently ask questions of them defensively. Lastly, the consistent occupation of the half space on the left side allowed for the Rapids to launch several dangerous attacks down the left side.

This diagram shows the attacks and danger level of the attacks through each flank

Portland Timbers Low Defensive Block

As has become common under Giovanni Savarese, the Timbers employed a low and compact defensive block for the majority of this game. The Timbers typically choose to do this against sides that look to use an expansive shape in possession of the ball, like Colorado Rapids. Savarese and the Timbers are often looking to keep a compact shape and draw their opponents out, before winning the ball and launching a counterattack into the space behind their opponents.  Below you can see the formation line of Portland throughout the match. 

Portlands formation line throughout the match

The Timbers typically use a 4-4-2 defensive shape and this match was no exception. The Timbers often choose this shape for a variety of reasons. The 4-4-2 shape allows them to have two solid banks of 4 defenders and 4 midfielders deep in their defensive block. Having these two banks of 4 allows them to shift together and cover most of the passing lanes available to the player on the ball. In addition, it also enables the members of the banks of four to have significant cover behind them which allows them to apply pressure quickly and effectively to the ball. In addition to this, the 2 forwards to help control and shift the play to one side of the field. The forwards typically achieve this by taking away options to switch the ball for players on the same line as the player in possession. For example, if the ball is with the Right Center Back, one of the forwards will work to eliminate the Left Center Back from receiving. This action allows for the rest of the team to shift to one side to eliminate passing options without having to worry about the ball being played into the opposite side quickly. In addition to the defensive benefits, this shape also helps Portland in attack. An example of Portland’s defensive shape is below.

An example of Portland’s low block

Portland is able to strengthen their attacking prowess with the use of a low defensive block. As mentioned previously, the low defensive block often draws an opponent out of their own half which creates space for Portland to exploit. Reminiscent of Chelsea’s 2012 Champions League campaign, Portland is often able to exploit this space through the pace they have in wide areas, in this match it was Andy Polo and Andres Flores. In addition to this pace out wide, Portland also typically have two strikers ready to join the attack when they win the ball back. With the advanced strikers and the pace of the wide players in attack, Portland are able to consistently create chances on the break.  As you can see below, the Timbers were able to launch 6 counterattacks in this match compared to the Rapids 2. This amount of attacking opportunities while limiting their opponents opportunities on the break is a direct reflection of their low block strategy. 

This shows the counterattacks Portland was able to launch in this match.

Colorado Rapids Effective Press

The Rapids identity as a team is based around having possession of the ball as much as possible. While they were successful in their build up strategy as mentioned previously, they were also very successful in frustrating Portland when Portland was in possession of the ball.

The Rapids defensive shape was well suited to frustrate Portland when they were in possession. Due to their man advantage in the midfield, the Rapids made it very hard to play through the middle third of the field. Since they held a man advantage in the midfield, they were able to pick up both Portland midfielders as well as use their cover shadow to block passing lanes into the front line of the Timbers. In addition, the extra Colorado midfielder was well suited to pick up any runs made by Portland strikers back into the midfield third. This was important as it allowed Colorado to retain a good defensive shape in their backline, instead of stepping into the midfield and leaving potential gaps in the backline. 

Additionally, the Colorado wingers played an important role in this press as well. The Colorado wingers often were able to match up with Portland outside backs, which was beneficial for two reasons. Firstly, the Colorado wingers were often able to eliminate the Portland outside backs as passing options for the Portland player in possession of the ball. If they were unable to deny the pass into the outside back, then they made sure to apply good pressure to the ball and force the ball to go backwards as they eliminated forward passing options. Secondly, since Portland were unsuccessful in playing through wide channels, it forced them to try and play in central areas, where Colorado held a numerical advantage as discussed. A good example of this shape is below.

An example of the Rapids defensive shape
The PPDA graph from this match shows how regularly Colorado was able to win the ball

As you can see from the above graph, Colorado were able to use this shape to maintain a low PPDA throughout the majority of the match. The only drop off coming after they had scored what proved to be the winner.



To conclude, both sides were effective in executing their respective game plans which led to this being a tightly contested match. The Rapids were able to influence the game through their effective attacking shape that saw their left back Sam Vines move into the midfield to create a 3-5-2 shape. This increase in focus on the left side led to the Rapids creating often from this side. In addition, the Rapids were able to frustrate Portland and effectively win the ball back quickly due to their defensive shape that emphasized numerical superiority in midfield. Portland however, were able to create chances through the use of their low defensive block, all while frustrating their opponents in possession.

Both sides look to gain three more valuable points on MLS “Decision Day” this Sunday. As each side has clinched a postseason berth, they will both be looking to achieve the highest possible seeding entering the tournament.