The two top scorers across the entire MLS 2020 season clashed over the weekend, with Portland Timbers leaving it extremely late to cancel out Los Angeles FC’s early goal. Former Premier League and La Liga player Carlos Vela was unsurprisingly the goalscorer for the hosts, while former Ajax goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer managed to keep the visitors from netting earlier in the game than they did. This tactical analysis will take a look at the defensive and offensive approaches of both sides, in a bid to uncover why LAFC held the lead for so long, yet could not kill the game off.
Experienced coach Bob Bradley set his side up in a 4-3-3 shape, with a deeper midfielder in Eduard Atuesta, whose defensive support allowed more of an attacking freedom for Latif Blessing and Jose Cifuentes. Diego Rossi led the line, with wide support from Carlos Vela and Christian Torres.
Visitors Portland Timbers went with the 4-2-3-1 formation, with the aim of having two deeper midfielders, Cristhian Paredes and Eryk Williamson, providing defensive security for the back four. This essentially left them with a primary front shape of four on the attack, with lone striker Felipe Mora being supported by Diego Valeri, Marvin Loria, and Diego Chara.
LAFC’s Defence vs Portland’s Attack
One element of off-the-ball work we saw from the offset from the hosts was counterpressing to try and win the ball back as fast as possible after a turnover. While they actually recorded less direct recoveries than Portland did during the game, LA found a lot of success in using this method to force Timbers into making a mistake or forcing their play backwards.
The analysis above gives an example of how LAFC applied the counterpress from the opening few minutes, limit the number of dangerous possession Timbers had. We see four LA players quickly swarm Paredes, giving him very little time and space to work in – this press and the resulting tackle gave LAFC a throw-in. Just 15 times during the game did a Timbers’ portion of possession reach the penalty area, and this defensive method is part of the reason why. They were presented with a difficulty to work in tight areas quickly, with deeper midfielders for LAFC offering even more defensive security, ready to press a nearby attacker if/when necessary.
Above is another example of some key counterpressing from LAFC, which actually took place just minutes after the first example. After Portland got sloppy with possession near their own penalty area, LA players acted quickly to apply even more pressure, with Latif Blessing taking the ball through and attempting a shot. The shot was parried, only into the path of Carlos Vela, who met the ball to slot the rebound home. While this ended up in a goal for LA, it was their pressing action that made it all possible
While neither team really dominated the game or looked particularly threatening for a sustained period during the game, Portland Timbers enjoyed some of their best football in the 60-75 minute mark, averaging 55% possession and 0.60 attacks per minute.
The image above came in a period where Portland Timbers were committing to attacks a little more than they were previously in the game. Their attacks were most successful from a wide area – they recorded an xG of 0 from a central position, and found moderate chance creation from the left. Individual quality let them down in the example above. Firstly, they were outnumbering the LAFC defence in the box, with four attacking towards the back post. Valeri attempted a one-two pass with Paredes, but the return pass was poor, allowing the LAFC defender to cut it out and kill the attack. It is situations in attack like these where players need concentration, composure, and quality – had Paredes got that pass right, Valeria would likely have either scored himself or set up a teammate. But, as mentioned, their lack of quality limited their chances on goal. Out of a total 40 attacks, just 5 of them resulted in a shot, showing that on the day, they were not at their best in an attacking sense.
We see another example here of Portland looking to get back into the game, allowing themselves more players to go forward, meaning LAFC had to call for defensive reinforcements to assist. They have seven players in the shot above, all either in a ready position in attack or in a position where they can help the maintaining of possession. This particular attack is being constructed down the right flank, which is where they found the most success throughout the match. They made 18 attacks down the right, with an xG of 0.71 – better than their left or central attacks. A combination of defensive solidarity from LAFC and a lack of attacking innovation from Portland meant they struggled to break through often.
As mentioned, Portland’s best attacking work came from the right flank, so it comes as no surprise that their late equaliser came from that wing. After a turnover in possession inside their own half, they transitioned into attack quickly, allowing them to build a dangerous attack with LAFC’s defensive unorganised. As the cross goes in from Valeri, he is clearly trying to pick out the eventual goal-scorer, Villafana, at the back post. It is worth noting that the two attacking players for Portland in the middle of the box draws the defenders’ attention away from any late runs, like Villafana’s, leaving him free to put away the equaliser.
Portland’s Defence vs LAFC’s Attack
For large parts of the game, we would see an approach to winning the ball back by Portland that different to the intense counterpress of LAFC, instead opting for a more patient and positional approach, by packing out the midfield, making it hard for the player in possession to progress the attack.
The analysis above shows a well-executed midfield set-up from Portland. With the entire midfield unit in place at a mid-block level with a narrow shape, LAFC must either risk a forward pass that is likely to result in a turnover in possession or retreat to possession in defence, which is what happened in this and most occasions. While this method offers strength in numbers in the centre of the park, LAFC are the type of team who are capable of exploring different attacking avenues or patiently recycling possession until there is a chance to attack centrally.
LAFC attempted a total of 48 attacks during the game, and are clearly more confident and capable of finding success through the middle, despite the defensive efforts of Portland. 16 of those attacks did come from the middle, and they recorded an xG rating of 1.13. In comparison, their left flank attack xG was 0.34, while their xG going down the right was 0, quite surprising when arguably their most talented player, Carlos Vela, occupied the right flank.
As we can see here, Vela likes to drift into a more central position to overload these dangerous areas, especially when the defensive set up by Portland was applied somewhat lazily. While the back four is positioned fairly well, the location of the midfield unit offers very little assistance. There is no immediate pressure on Vela, who had time to walk the ball a number of yards before picking his pass. The distance between the two highlighted Portland midfielders are also poor – almost like they wanted Vela to make that dangerous pass. So, a lack of midfield presence and positioning allowed LAFC to attack centrally, but individual Portland errors also contributed in this instance. The left of the two midfielders, Williamson, can be seen in the shot looking away from Vela, seemingly in communication with a teammate further up the field. This awful lapse in concentration was the opening Vela needed, who slotted the ball through to his teammate, who then added a pass to the wide area, but a nice central combination occurred.
Just moments before LAFC were hit on the break, leading to the equalising goal, they had a good chance to finish the game off after some impressive combination play down the left flank. Harvey executed a one-two pass with Vela, leaving Harvey in a good position to put in a promising cross towards Rodriguez, highlighted at the edge of the box. Rodriguez had made a well-timed run into space, but the cross had just a little too much pace on it, meaning he had to worry more about controlling the resulting volley – worry about getting it on target, rather than being able to unleash a deadly volleyed strike to make it 2-0. Despite this, the attack was put together on the flank at an impressive pace against unsuspecting opposition defence. However, LAFC’s gutsy decision to send plenty of players forward came back to bite them shortly after.
This was an extremely close encounter with very little to separate the two sides. Neither team displayed any real weaknesses in their play that would be detrimental to a season, but in this fixture, no side showed enough to make them look more dangerous than the other. With 14 efforts on goal, LAFC will feel like, in parts, they did enough to warrant the victory, but their overall game was just not strong enough to be convincing. The first half belonged to LAFC but Portland Timbers showed their strengths in the second period, meaning a draw was probably the fair result.