Tactical analysis Portland Timbers San Jose Earthquakes 3-1 MLS

Portland Timbers – San Jose Earthquakes: Portland Comfortably Advance To The Playoffs After Beating San Jose (3-1)

Neither team had a superiority in the beginning of the match. Both sides had a defensive plan with flaws and Portland showed how to exploit the weaknesses of their opponents better. In the end, it was a comfortable and deserved win for Portland to secure their Playoff place.

Tactical analysis and match report by Jonas G.

Portland Timbers and San Jose Earthquakes met in the Providence Park on the final matchday of the regular season in the MLS to play for the last Playoff place in the Western Conference. Both teams had their problems in the last weeks and failed to secure their place in the postseason earlier. Portland went into this game on a winless streak of five games now, having lost two and drawn three. Things looked even worse for San Jose. After a good run through June and July, the team lost eight of their last ten games and dropped out of the Playoff places. Therefore, the mission for this game is clear. They have to win to overcome Portland, or their season will end with this game. 

Portland manager Giovanni Savarese changed his team on five positions as well as the formation. Instead of the 4-2-3-1 shape they used last week, they played in a 4-3-3 formation. In defense, Larrys Mabiala and Jorge Moreira came in. In addition to that, Renzo Zambrano, Marvin Loría and the suspended Brian Fernández were replaced by Christhian Paredes, Dairon Asprilla and Jeremy Ebobisse. 

Despite their loss against Seattle Sounders last week, Matias Almeyda made only two changes to his starting lineup. The suspended right back Tommy Thompson was replaced by left back Marcos López, the usual left back Nick Lima therefore had to play on the right side. Instead of a 4-4-2 formation, Almeyda opted for a 4-2-3-1 shape. Chris Wondolowski was the only striker with Magnus Eriksson in the number ten position. Defensive midfielder Judson came in for Danny Hoesen.

Few chances in a balanced game

Against the ball, Portland used a medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. and a 4-3-3 formation, the wingers stayed narrow to close the center. However, despite having lots of players in the central channels, Portland lacked access to the defensive midfielders and center-backs, because Sebastian Blanco and Asprilla were not overly involved in the defensive phase. Ebobisse’s behavior was not optimal as well – he stayed too man-oriented against one defensive midfielder and did not shift if the ball moved past him. The opposition’s center-backs were not pressured at all.

In their buildup, San Jose used a very wide structure. Both wingers and fullbacks occupied each wing, the defensive midfielders stayed deep. Number ten Eriksson looked to support the attacks on the wing with his positioning in the halfspaces If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. – he could be seen on the right side more often. That is why San Jose’s best attacks in the first half came from the right. With his movement to right, Eriksson created a triangle with Lima and Cristian Espinoza. All in all, they combined quite well in this triangle, but lacked the connection to the defensive midfielders or the striker. Therefore, the attacks remained harmless. 

San Jose used the open wings to progress with the ball. Eriksson supported on the wingers and fullbacks to create triangles.

San Jose used the open wings to progress with the ball. Eriksson supported on the wingers and fullbacks to create triangles.

San Jose should have used these situations better, as Portland had problems defending the wings. As said, the defensive involvement of the wingers was low and the central midfielders had to shift to the wings. Behind them, spaces opened up that were not constantly occupied by San Jose’s midfielders.

In their own defensive phase, San Jose used a heavy man-marking structure. Every player on the pitch looked for a direct opponent. One of Portland’s center-backs first remained free and was pressured by one of the central midfielders. Portland showed good ideas how to overcome this man-marking scheme, they profited from a vertical incompact shape as well. The center-backs often looked for the deep passes into one of the strikers to overplay the opposition’s midfield. 

Because the space between San Jose’s midfielders and defenders was very big, the strikers could drop, receive the ball between the lines and dribble past their opponents. To complicate things for San Jose’s defenders, the players moved a lot and switched positions, which is a useful tool against man-marking. The defenders have to decide whether to follow their direct opponents and leave their space or to stay in their position and let the opponent free.

However, despite showing good attempts to overcome the man-marking scheme, Portland’s offense stayed harmless most of the time. It did not come as a surprise that both teams needed a set piece to score their goals.  Mabiala opened the score for Portland from a recycled possession cross after an indirect free kick initially got cleared. Soon after, San Jose striker Wondolowski equalized with a header from a corner.

Portland dominates the start of the second half

Portland looked like the better team for the majority of the first half, but this did not result in a favorable score. The 1-1 draw was still risky, because San Jose needed only one goal to end Portland’s season. Therefore, Savarese’s side went out of half-time and used a high block A high block refers to a team that regularly leaves their own half out of possession, to disrupt their opponents far into the attacking half. to pressure their opponent’s buildup. This high pressing could also be seen in the end of the first half but was then constantly deployed in the second half.

The pressing scheme was man-oriented, as the wingers pressured the center-backs. On the wings, Jorge Villafaña and Moreira moved up to pressure the opposition’s fullbacks. This resulted in a lot of turnovers in the opposition’s half. Eventually, Portland used their dominance to score the second goal. This goal did not result from a turnover, but a nicely used possession spell. 

Bill Tuiloma received the ball after Portland evaded the pressure on the right wing. The central midfielders in front of him moved away from him to pull their opponents with them, which resulted in a lot of space Tuiloma used to drive the ball forward. Ebobisse dropped back from the striker position, protected the ball against his opponent and played it to Asprilla on the right. The winger had a one-versus-one situation against Florian Jungwirth, who he dribbled past to score the goal. This situation also underlined the weaknesses of a man-marking structure. San Jose were very reactive in this scene. 

Portland exploited San Jose’s defensive structure with opposite movements from the central midfielders and Ebobisse.

Portland exploited San Jose’s defensive structure with opposite movements from the central midfielders and Ebobisse.

San Jose’s desperate attacks lead to numerous counters

After the goal, Portland dropped back to a medium block and allowed San Jose to have longer possession spells. However, Almeyda’s team played worse than in the first half. They did not calmly switch the ball from wing to wing and looked for spaces to open, but played more direct through one side. This approach led to several turnovers and counterattacking situations for Portland. Portland were wasteful with their opportunities but eventually scored the decisive goal in the 75th minute. Blanco scored from a direct freekick that arose from a counterattack. 

San Jose brought in Hoesen among others and switched to a 4-4-2 formation. Hoesen played as a left winger but moved to the center a lot. They desperately tried to create dangerous situations with long balls and crosses but failed to do so. In the end, the win was never at risk for Portland. 


In a mediocre game, both teams showed promising situations to exploit the defensive weaknesses of their opponents. In the end, San Jose’s defensive system was more vulnerable and Portland did well to exploit it. Therefore, San Jose’s season is over now after six losses in a row that saw them drop out of the playoff places.

Portland ended their winless streak just in time to secure for the Playoffs. Their possession game look good, but they failed to create good chances from open play. Savarese’s priority for the upcoming Playoff game against Real Salt Lake should be to improve the work in the medium block.  

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