It is no secret that soccer is a low scoring game. Over the course of 90 minutes, the modern game And so while goals may be the point of the game, you cannot boil a game down to its goals. There is so much more that takes place than the ball hitting the net, and that is important. Each match has its own flow and shape, and the goals that are scored largely occur within that frame. The majority of possessions, the majority of chances do not result in goals. But the game typically belongs to the side that can create more, better chances. A manager can’t score goals for his team, but he can put his players in the best spaces to do so.
On Saturday night, the Portland Timbers traveled across the country to face the New England Revolution. Both teams find themselves on the outside of the playoff spots in MLS, so both were looking for three points. The game finished 1-1, but that’s an oversimplification of what actually happened. Here’s how that result came to be.
In many ways, the style of the game was illustrated early on. In the eighth minute, Portland displayed a dangerous sequence of one-touch passing. Rodney Wallace plays the ball into Fanendo Adi’s feet, Adi taps in back for Gaston Fernandez, who threads a pass into space for Diego Valeri…
Gaston Fernandez’s pass just has too much pace on it, and Bobby Shuttleworth was able to clear it without incident. But over the course of a game, if Portland are afforded chances like that, they will cause damage. There are a few ways to defend against an attack like this. The simplest is to sit back, and never let Portland get in behind the defense. But this results in ceding possession and control of the game. New England are desperate for three points, so they opted instead for the riskier tactic of playing a high line and hoping to catch Portland offside. For the most part, it worked.
Portland were caught offside 9 times to New England’s two, mostly in the first half. And as New England compressed the space in which the Timbers could play, the first half an hour took place largely in Portland’s half of the field. That, obviously, favored the Revs; it’s easier to create chances when the ball is closer to the opposition’s goal.
Here Scott Caldwell’s cross is cleared away athletically by Liam Ridgewell. But New England kept knocking on that door. Here Andrew Farrell uses his skill to find space out wide, and he plays a more accurate cross. Diego Fagundez just couldn’t get much power when he turned it towards goal.
Perhaps their best piece of attacking movement didn’t even result in a shot. As Fagundez is given time and space to advance with the ball, watch how Charlie Davies’ run drags Ridgewell out of position. Lee Nguyen storms into that empty space, and to Ridgewell’s credit, he was able to get back to get a foot in.
Amidst all of this dominance came the first goal. Here you see the danger of not following the runner. Portland’s back line tries to give the Revs a taste of their own medicine by catching Davies offside. But he’s just onside, and Fagundez finds him. Though the angle is tough, he fires the ball past Donovan Ricketts and into the far post for a goal.
I mentioned earlier that the offside trap and the high defensive line are risky. It requires a defense that is perpetually alert, always jumping forward to catch the strikers offside. And if you don’t accompany that high line with pressure on the ball, skilled midfielders (e.g. the ones on the Timbers) will be able to time their passes and create chances in behind the defense. Down 1-0, the Timbers started seeing more of the ball, and they started beating the high line.
New England got lucky there; Valeri will usually bury a chance like that. Nevertheless, it signaled a shift in the game’s shape. Suddenly, Portland were the side pushing forward, and New England defending. Some of that is natural, given that the Revs now had the lead, and some of it might be the startled realization that, with the lead, the high line was an unnecessary risk. Whatever the case, Portland took over after the opening 35 minutes, and they came storming out of halftime. In case the point needed reinforcing, Ridgewell was able to find Adi in behind with a long ball early in the second half.
Here you see New England’s defense playing about as deep as they possibly can. So Diego Valeri finds space not in behind, but right at the top of the box. Again, the goal doesn’t come, but the Revs were playing with fire.
The goal came from an unlikely source, but it had been coming since halftime. Continued pressure eventually causes defensive cracks and mistakes. In this case, the mistake is assuming that Ridgewell, as a centerback, will eventually pass the ball. No one makes a serious attempt to close him down, and he waltzes through the defense before scoring from a similar angle to Davies’ goal. It starts with Ridgewell’s reaction. He attacks the loose ball, blowing by Davies, and that provides him the forward momentum to carry on through a static defense.
To make matters worse for the Revs’ defense, Ridgewell warned them. In the minutes before his goal, he twice lingered upfield to insert himself in Portland’s attack. First, following a corner kick, he found an acre of space on the left wing, received the ball from Diego Chara, and fired in a cross.
Less than thirty seconds later, he found that same acre. Again he served as an outlet on the left wing, and this time he cut the ball back to Will Johnson, who probably should’ve done better with the chance. In truth, Portland’s finishing may have cost them this game; they wasted too many good chances.
With the scoreline level, New England’s back line ventured forward again. It nearly cost them. Valeri split the defense with a pass into space, and the Timbers had two players in on goal. But in a cruel bit of irony, they can’t blame the high line for being offside on what was nearly the second goal. Fernandez simply had to stay behind the ball, and his failure to do so wasted perhaps the best chance of the game.
New England appeared a bit shellshocked at this point, but they didn’t allow themselves to get run over. To an extent, the game lost its shape. Both sides went for the three points, but neither could find much in terms of rhythm or control. The best chance fell to Portland’s Max Urruti. Should he have made the extra pass to find Will Johnson, standing there with his arms in the air?
Soccer is a game about creating chances. But you can create the best chances in the world and come away with nothing to show for it if you don’t execute. Goals go on the scoreboard, not chances. And so Portland would have been a bit disappointed when the game ended on Saturday night. A point on the road is nothing to scoff at, but they had opportunities to win this match.