How Ben Olsen & D.C. United Can Copy Portland To End Road Woes At Columbus

New York City FC picked up their first win of the season on Sunday against D.C. United at Audi Field, but they were weren’t the only team to secure their first victory of the 2019 season over the weekend. The Portland Timbers have had an abysmal start to the year, but they strolled into Ohio and secured their first win at the hands of the Columbus Crew, who host the Black-and-Red on Wednesday at MAPFRE Stadium.

The Crew dropped their second match on the bounce and Coach Caleb Porter is left scratching his head a bit after a solid start. Nevertheless, they remain one of the better sides in the Eastern Conference and sit just a point behind D.C., alongside Toronto FC and the Philadelphia Union.

United travel to take on the Crew in a midweek matchup at MAPFRE Stadium, where they haven’t won in regular season play since August of 2007. Wednesday’s fixture is the first of two meetings this year, with the second edition coming just ten days later back in the District. There’s also a bit of revenge at stake for the Black-and-Red. Columbus ousted D.C. from the 2018 playoffs in a penalty shootout the last time these teams met. Here are a few takeaways from Portland’s triumph in Columbus that D.C. can look to ahead of their visit.

More Possession, More Struggles In The Final Third

At eight goals scored, only Atlanta (5) and New England (6) have produced less in the East. This puts the Crew at an average of a goal a game, a decrease from last year’s output when they struggled and averaged 1.2 per outing. The story on Saturday was not a lack of time on the ball but rather an inability to produce the quality needed in the final third, particularly near and around the top of the box.

The pass map from Columbus' loss to Portland.

Few teams average more possession in the league, and the home side enjoyed the lion’s share of the ball once again at 57.6 percent. They thoroughly dominated in the first half hour and nearly found a breakthrough on several occasions, but failing to convert allowed their opponent to gain a foothold. Once the Timbers settled into the match, they were able to find ways to attack dangerously on the counter while rendering much of the Crew’s possession ineffective.

No player attempted more passes than Columbus midfielder Wil Trapp (97), illustrating his side’s lopsided time on the ball, but he admitted after the game that Portland were able to frustrate the home side over time.

“I think a little bit of patience really was key in that time because we gave up the goal, yes, but what we were doing I thought creating chances in a lot of ways with being patient, passing the ball side to side and getting them to come out of their shell a little bit because they wanted to sit deeper. So, I think we started to be a little bit antsy and forcing things we didn’t need to.”

Substitutions Not Getting The Job Done

As much as the Columbus starters have struggled to find the back of net, reinforcements have found it even more difficult to impact the game when coming on in the second half. The Crew are known for their tactical discipline and can dictate the game like few other teams, but there seems to be no plan B at the moment for Porter’s men. Portland head coach Gio Savarese picked up on this and praised his players for figuring out how to break them down.

“This is a team we know very well. They’ve played the same way for years and we knew what to expect,” Savarese noted. It’s a team that is very disciplined. Tactically very organized. They have patterned plays that they do exactly. Good mobility. And we knew what to expect. And our guys just did the job that we asked them to do.” 

As the Massive Report’s Patrick Guldan noted, two of Porter’s changes came very late on Saturday and offered very little in the closing stages of the match. No substitute has scored for the Crew through eight matches, which should cause plenty of concern considering Gyasi Zardes’ slow start following his career-best 19 goals in 2018.

Cracks On Set Pieces?

The Crew have been one of the best in the league in the early going at set pieces on both the offensive and defensive ends of the field. Before Saturday they had scored three of their eight from dead ball situations, while not allowing a single goal on the other end.

Saturday’s performance will give D.C. confidence that they can exploit the Crew with quality delivery and positioning on set pieces. The first goal came from a relatively simple free kick to the back post. Diego Valeri delivered a wonderfully weighted ball, and the Crew back line was unable to deal with Larrys Mabiala at the back post.

While the final goal of the game didn’t come from a free kick, a stoppage of play led to Jorge Moreira’s blast in stoppage time. The Timbers utilized a through a throw-in from the corner to quickly move the ball across the box and clinch the win with a third goal.

Portland gave D.C. plenty to chew on ahead of their visit to MAPFRE Stadium, and the Black-and-Red just may look to some of their successes as they and the Crew aim to return to winning ways.

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