Monday MLS Breakdown: Weighing the playoff implications of Seattle's victory over Portland

The anticipation and the pressure of these derby meetings forces both teams out of their preferred approaches. Those lessons could prove useful as both prepare for the playoffs.
It isn't a matter of whether either team can impose its will for the duration of the affair. Most of the time, that sort of dominance isn't possible in a situation where both sets of players are so ardently committed to procuring a result.

In those sorts of circumstances, the ideal scenario involves controlling periods of the game and taking advantage of those sequences to turn the outcome of the encounter. The importance of adapting to the demands of the particular night and grasping those opportunities with both hands rose to the fore once more in Seattle's 1-0 victory over Portland on Sunday night.

Portland traveled north to play in front of a sellout crowd at CenturyLink Field without the services of Diego Chara (suspended) and Will Johnson (shoulder) in midfield. Timbers coach Caleb Porter adjusted his formation astutely (a more defensive 4-1-4-1 shape to provide cover for the industry usually contributed by Chara and Johnson) and watched his players edge the first half with a diligent performance.

By acquiring possession in good areas with high pressure and breaking quickly through Darlington Nagbe and Rodney Wallace, Portland created significant duress for the Sounders FC back four with quick work in transition (important with Osvaldo Alonso partnered with the hobbling Shalrie Joseph in central midfield) and opened up operating room for the influential Diego Valeri. The Argentine playmaker stood head and shoulders above the rest of his compatriots in the first half by posing problems at every opportunity.

Valeri's influence stemmed from his ability to influence the game in a variety of ways. He functions best as the central playmaker, a conduit capable of ripping apart the opposition with one pass (see: the defense-splitting feed to prompt Ryan Johnson's spurned opportunity), but he isn't limited to picking passes. If those lanes close quickly, he can drift into wider areas and provide service (see: a wonderful, curling cross for Johnson shortly before the interval), move the ball in quicker combination play (particularly with Nagbe) or unleash a shot with minimal space (see: the stellar effort off the far post).

Portland's first half emphasis on defensive shape and direct work through midfield (46.5 percent of possession before the interval, according to Opta statistics) flummoxed Seattle without carrying the corresponding punishment. Johnson's wastefulness (a lingering concern, even with his ample and critical off-the-ball work as the center forward) left the Timbers without a tangible advantage to take from the opening stanza and paved the way for Seattle to adjust in the second half.

Seattle, by and large, works best when it expands the field horizontally through productive wide play and uses the pace of Eddie Johnson to stretch teams vertically. The arrival of Clint Dempsey exacerbates the need to lean on those preferences because opposing teams will continually collapse on him and limit his time and space in dangerous areas. Dempsey's peripheral influence in the first half (aside from passing to an offside Johnson when he should have taken a crack on goal) against a combative and resolute Timbers back four underscored the perils of failing to open those channels.

Sounders FC boss Sigi Schmid cleverly amended his midfield shortly after play resumed by inserting Mauro Rosales for Shalrie Joseph. Rosales immediately provided balance and service on the right flank (though the canny operator obviously functions differently than the fleet Lamar Neagle on the left) and supplied the added bonus of allowing Brad Evans to slide into central midfield. The front five – including Evans, probably the best natural partner for Alonso given the ground he covers and his willingness to make those late runs into the penalty area to meet those inviting crosses – asked persistent questions of the Timbers in the second half and ultimately broke through by leaning on Seattle's primary strengths in open space.

Evans tracked back to win the ball for Rosales on the edge of Seattle's defensive third. Rosales worked the ball to Neagle on the left side of midfield as Sounders FC – as it should whenever possible – moved briskly with inviting space ahead. Neagle played a vertical ball into Johnson's clever diagonal run. Johnson forced Pa Modou Kah (a bit too earnest in the tackle on this night) to concede a free kick on the left wing to snuff out the threat (and risk a dismissal in the process). And Rosales capped the sequence with a wonderful free kick Johnson headed inside the far post.

The winner provided a perfect template for how Seattle operates most neatly: obtain possession in the defensive half with the opposition committed into the attack, string together the passes required to counter quickly through Johnson (or Obafemi Martins, though he missed out through injury) and wait for one or two of those moments to yield a goal. If the goal never arrives, the tendencies at least provide an opportunity for others – Dempsey, for example – to float into the space created by stretching the field vertically and horizontally and probe for alternative routes to goal.

As this match showed, the prospect of devising alternatives remains a primary consideration for both of these sides moving forward. The season won't end with this derby, though it might feel like it given the emotion and the energy expended. Both teams harbor significant postseason aspirations and possess the tools to secure the berth required to pursue them. The ultimate success or failure of those endeavors hinges on whether either team can address its weaknesses (hint: they start in the middle of the back four for both outfits) and find ways to compensate when other opponents identify and neutralize their strengths in time for the playoffs.

Five Points – Week 26

1. Another team in search of alternatives – Sporting Kansas City: The defeat at Chicago on Friday night offered yet another example of the struggles ahead if Sporting cannot find other ways to break teams down. Chicago relied on the tried and tested method to frustrate Sporting – adopt a considered posture, soak up the pressure and wait for the right moment to pounce – and secured a much-needed 1-0 victory at Toyota Park. If Sporting cannot concoct another way through before the end of the season and use its possession more potently, then the current favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference might find themselves consigned to another early playoff exit.

2. Persistent movement leaves Houston at a loss: Montréal puzzled the Dynamo from the outset of its staggering 5-0 victory at Stade Saputo with its frequent interchanging through the middle (Justin Mapp, in particular, created all sorts of problems) and the final thirds. Houston failed to track the runners (Marco Di Vaio, in particular, thrived with those little inside-out runs along the line) and lost its defensive shape time and time again in a bid to compensate for the movement. The entire night represented a rare deviation from the usually stout Dynamo defensive practices and showed the Impact's considerable ability to create confusion when all of its pieces are moving in concert.

3. Victor Bernárdez deserves a lengthy ban: There are simply no excuses for Bernárdez's decision to stomp on Kenny Cooper's back during the second half of San Jose's 2-2 draw at FC Dallas on Saturday night. It is exactly the sort of behavior MLS must eradicate from its fields with decisive and stern punishment from its Disciplinary Committee.

4. Don't mince any words, Mike Petke: “Listen, I apologize to everybody watching out there,” the Red Bulls coach told MSG in a candid post-match interview after the 3-2 defeat at Chivas USA on Sunday afternoon. “I apologize for that loss. We lost to one of the worst teams in the league. We had many chances. We didn't capitalize on them, we made some mistakes and we had no creativity in the second half. We looked like we were confused out there.”

5. Tough decision sends Philadelphia spiraling to heavy defeat at New England: Philadelphia CEO Nick Sakiewicz (“Watch the replays,” he said as he passed by a group of assembled reporters) and coach John Hackworth fumed about two adverse decisions in the wake of the Union's 5-1 defeat at New England on Sunday night. Both men had a point a point. The second of those sequences – the inexplicable calls by Allen Chapman to determine Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis held possession over a ball clearly not in his control and rule out Conor Casey's apparent goal to hand the Union a 2-1 lead 10 minutes after halftime – certainly broke against the Union and could have changed the course of the proceedings substantially.

One problem with that particular interpretation of events: the poor call did not excuse the generally suspect work from the visitors for most of the night. New England asserted control over the match in the early stages and left the Union searching for answers. The one-goal Revolution lead at halftime could have hit two or three with better finishing in the final third. Credit the Union for a good response after the interval to equalize, but the utter disintegration in the wake of the second disallowed goal (Sebastien Le Toux was correctly ruled offside on the first point of contention, according to the replays) applied a rather rough finish to the evening and underscored the need to focus on improvement, not the referees, in the wake of this defeat.