The Portland Timbers really like to cross the ball this season. Through 9 games, the Timbers crossed the ball 235 times. This number is nearly half of the total number of attempted crosses the Timbers tried the entire season in 2012 (482 in 34 games).
Portland Timbers Crosses Per Game By Season
2015 - 26 crosses per game
2014 - 19 crosses per game
2013 - 20 crosses per game
2012 - 14 crosses per game
2011 - ?? ( Numbers are unavailable through any website that I could find. Even if you try to go to the match recaps and tabulate all the crosses like I did with 2012, they don't indicate crosses in the stats.)
I would argue that the 2012 team was terrible at generating offense in any way, so the jump from 14 to 20 per game (2012 to 2013) could be attributed to a better style of play and more defined roles with better players. However, the jump from 2013 and 2014 to 2015 is a clear delineation of tactics that moves far away from the pass and move stylings of 2013. Whether this is up to the lack of a competent attacking midfielder to generate passes and possession through the middle of the field or an intentional long term shift towards punting the ball into the box is to be seen.
In the recent 5/2/2015 draw against Vancouver, the Timbers attempted 41 crosses according to official opta stats. The total number of successful crosses from this game was 5. The Whitecaps had a total of 39 clearances in the game.
In the 3/28/2015 loss against Vancouver, the Timbers attempted 48 crosses according to official opta stats. The total number of successful crosses from this game was 4. The Whitecaps had a total of 29 clearances in the game.
Even after the entrance of Valeri, in the recent draw, the Timbers attempted to cross the ball over and over again as a tactic. Many will say that Valeri is going to fix everything and the Timbers are going to revert to the way in which the played in 2013 (ignoring Porter's interview about his tactical evolution), but how much can you really depend on a player for the future who has been critically injured in both the seasons he has played for the team? I sincerely hope that Valeri stays healthy for a long time, but it is clear that the Timbers are very, very different team without him. Other teams in the league have shown their ability to weather the loss of an important player in a way that the Timbers have not shown. If the Timbers play through the middle with Valeri and in the air without him, they will need a forward who is a target forward to convert the crosses coming into him. I also remain unconvinced that Valeri's re-birth from injury will change the way that Porter conducts his tactics. He is another cog in Porters system (albeit a very special and electric cog), one that may (as well) find himself funneling the ball to the outside and crossing into the box.
The distribution map for 5-2-2015 shows this tactic of crossing the ball in clear form.
The middle of the field above the 18 yard box is nearly abandoned from a distribution standpoint and everything is pushed to the left with some to the right. This "overload" is a classic Porter strategy, although the number of crosses is a clear increase from his previous seasons in charge. Twice in 2015 this strategy has not worked against the Whitecaps as it plays to the strengths of Vancouver. It will be interesting to see if Porter tries it again when playing Vancouver next.
Perhaps Porter believes that Adi and Urutti are competent headers of the ball and an aerial threat, but that has very clearly not born itself out. Of course, regardless of whether Porter believes that Adi or Urutti are threats for headed goals, the issue is that it doesn't matter whether they are good or not. The team doesn't have another forward on the roster (other than Gaston Fernandez who appears to be half way out the door and is being used as a midfielder despite his protestations) so whether they can head the ball in the net is incidental, Adi and Urutti will continue to be used because PTFC have no one else. They are going to get played, up until the Timbers acquire a new player or call up a player from their USL affiliate. This is what happens when a tactical shift occurs in the way a team plays in a salary capped league with poor depth decisions. It remains extremely difficult to change your tactics in Major League Soccer given the roster setup and financial restrictions by ownership and league, of that we can be certain. Despite that, though, the galling thing is that the Timbers had 6 months to plan how to combat these upcoming issues on offense and failed to do anything other than signing more wingers on loan that can punt the ball into the box.
Make no mistake that injury combined with poor player personnel decisions by the ownership of the Timbers have collaborated along with Porters seeming stylistic evolution to prompt a tactical change from the coach of the Timbers. The combination of Paulson, Wilkinson, and Porter built a team over the previous two seasons to attempt to play like Guardiola in a salary capped league where player value to your playing ideals is paramount and player movement is insanely restricted by arcane rules and finances. They succeeded in one season and failed in another. Now they appear to be switching methodologies again by looking to explore the idea of sacrificing offensive prowess for defensive stability, getting the ball up field faster and not being exposed at the back. With the rumors of Adi being sold swirling, the Timbers may soon play their hand as they move towards a system highly divorced from 2013.
If Porter has really taken to heart the more defensive and less free-flowing tendencies of Mourinho and Allardyce (as indicated by him in an interview), then the team makeup must soon reflect this. The Timbers, as currently constructed, simply cannot keep lobbing in crosses to players more defined by their ability to play with their feet and think this will reflect a successful season in the end. These problems are on the Timbers ownership, front office staff, and coaching staff who are responsible for ensuring that the team structure reflects the mindset of what the coach wants to do and ensuring that he have the available talent to do so.
Otherwise the ownership, front office staff and coaching staff are absolutely perpetuating the idiom of "Square Pegs, Round Holes".