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NYCFC Tactics Time: How to Defeat the Portland Timbers

Can the Blues make it two in a row against the best in the west?

MLS: New York City FC at Portland Timbers
Tommy McNamara celebrates his match-winning goal in Portland
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United’s legendary manager, often mused that 1-0 matches reveal championship form; that they show “we are determined, we’re going to defend, do the right things, and play as a team.”

The adage certainly bodes well for NYCFC.

While I imagine no one will archive Wednesday’s match vs Sporting KC and save it as a example of beautiful soccer for future generations to enjoy, the result garnered the same number of points as a multiple-goal thrashing. Jack Harrison’s late winner finally broke down Tim Melia and SKC’s defense and pushed New York City to a 1-0 victory. Any way you dissect that last game, Patrick Vieira’s team still defeated the best defense in MLS without 9 of their most important squad members.

There is no time for the Boys in Blue to rest on their laurels, however, as a weekend match with the Portland Timbers looms large. Fortunately, NYCFC have reinforcements on the way. Rodney Wallace will be back from international duty, while Alex Ring is set to return from a mild injury.

Portland and Kansas City are about as different tactically and philosophically as soccer clubs can be. While SKC preaches tough defending and organization, Portland boasts a more cavalier, offensive game plan.

Beating the Timbers will take coordination and creativity. These adjustments could prove to be the difference between 3 more points against and elite Western Conference team or a crushing loss at home.

  1. Line Up Like This

4-3-3: Johnson; Sweat, Callens, Brillant, Allen; Pirlo; Moralez, Ring; Wallace, Harrison; Okoli

The back 4 remains unchanged from the previous match. Injuries to starters Maxime Chanot and Ronald Matarrita once again force Ben Sweat and Frederic Brillant into the starting XI. Their quality will really be tested against the pacy, high-octane offense of Portland. Andrea Pirlo returns to the fold as Yangel Herrera is on the mend. Alex Ring, fresh off scoring a wondergoal for his native Finland on international duty, will reclaim his CM spot. Jonathan Lewis had been playing very well in recent weeks, but struggled mightily at rain-soaked Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. As a result (and Lewis not being Vieira’s 1st choice anyway), Rodney Wallace returns to the left wing. Notably, David Villa sustained minor injuries on international duty and will be unavailable. The last thing NYCFC fans would want to see is a potential Golden Boot winner rushed back from injury.

2. Play up-tempo to test out an inexperienced, inconsistent back 4

MLS: Sporting KC at New York City FC
Jack Harrison (left) takes on Kansas City center back Ike Opara (right) on Wednesday
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Portland likely came into the season thinking they had solved their defending issues. Lithuanian international Vytautus Andriuskevicius was firmly entrenched at left back, right back Alvas Powell was going to have a breakout year, and captain and former Birmingham centre back Liam Ridgewell was the glue that would hold it all together. Instead, Andriuskevicius has been inconsistent, Powell is fighting for a starting spot week in, week out, and Ridgewell will be either sidelined or limited with an injury.

In Portland’s last game vs Cascadia rival Seattle, 26 year old Zarek Valentin, who only made his 15th appearance on the season, and 29 year old Larrys Mabiala started at right back and center back, respectively. Seattle, which has a wealth of quality attacking options at its’ disposal, had it’s way with their back line, landing 7 shots on target.

Portland is in a true no-win scenario. They can either deploy Mabiala and Valentin, and sacrifice quality and pace against an NYCFC that mandates your defense have an abundance of both, or rush Ridgewell back from injury and pair him with Powell, who has had his share of defensive mishaps this season.

The attacking trio of Sean Okoli, Jack Harrison, and former Timber Rodney Wallace need to be aggressive, decisive, and relentless in taking it to this back 4. Vieira’s teams don’t operate at the most frenetic pace, but kicking it into a higher gear against a suspect defense might be the best way to counteract the Timbers’ high-powered offense.

3. Make Portland attack with their injured and/or ineffective strikers rather than Diego Valeri

MLS: Portland Timbers at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Valeri, the dynamic Argentine midfielder, is one of the premier attacking talents in MLS. He really has the total package. A fast, accurate passer with clinical finishing and the ability to score off of set pieces, Valeri is the catalyst for one of the scariest attacks in MLS.

On the finishing end of most of Valeri’s passes is super striker Fanendo Adi, a 6’4”, physical player. With Adi’s status for the game in doubt, the Timbers have one of two options. They could either play Jamaican Darren Mattocks, who might be better suited as a winger than a true #9, or play an injured Adi who won’t be anywhere near 100%.

Valeri’s preferred method of attack is to operate centrally, then distribute the ball to the wings. Keeping the ball away from the feet of Valeri is damn near impossible, so forcing him to a wide position would limit the damage he could cause. Making an ineffective Mattocks or an injured Adi carry the load is a much better gameplan that letting Valeri work his magic.


MLS: Minnesota United FC at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

This seems like a great time for the 17 year old Sands to finally make his debut. With the squad depleted, playing their 2nd game in 4 days, and facing a team that can score at the snap of their fingers, the defensive midfield/centre back hybrid may just get his first crack at MLS game time. Sands is by no means a knight in shining armor that will instantly fix any holes on NYCFC’s squad, but he is a promising young player that can play several positions.

Revving up the pace to test a weakened back 4, forcing an injured and below-average striker to shoulder the attacking burden, and thrusting James Sands into the game might see NYCFC keep their unbeaten streak at home and take another one from a top Western Conference Team. What do you think are the keys to victory for the Boys in Blue? Leave us a comment or blow us up on Twitter @hudsonriverblue.