MLS Playoff Final – Portland Timbers vs. New York City FC – Tactical Analysis

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After a demanding eight month season, Major League Soccer has officially come to a close for 2021, with New York City FC taking the crown as playoff winners. The final match was a highly contested affair between two teams scrapping every minute to claim victory for their team. While New York City FC dominated the majority of the match, they couldn’t stop Portland from scoring a dramatic last minute equalizer, sending the match into extra time and later penalty kicks. Here is our analysis of the enthralling final MLS encounter of 2021.

PORTLAND TIMBERS – 4-2-3-1

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Steve Clark (GK), Josecarlos Van Rankin (RB), Larrys Mabiala (CB), Dario Zuparic (CB), Claudio Bravo (LB), Diego Chara (DM), George Fochive (DM), Yimmi Chara (RW), Sebastian Blanco (AM), Dairon Asprilla (LW), Felipe Mora (CF)


The Portland Timbers set up in their favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, changing and adapting their shape with and without the ball. Out of possession, they blocked in a 4-4-2, but did not press diligently during NYCFC’s build-up phases. They instead opted for central compactness, limiting New York’s ability to play through the thirds and find their attacking midfielders further up the pitch. In attack, Savarese’s team changed shape to a 2-4-4. The two fullbacks pushed higher than the two defensive midfielders as part of the second line of four, with Chara and Fochive/Paredes reserved and ready to defend against counter attacks. The two fullbacks had a particularly important role to play in attack, given Portland’s desire to play down the wings and engage their wingers on the overlap. Portland relied heavily on crossing into the box throughout the game, sometimes even delivering before an adequate number of players had joined the attack.

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They attempted 38 crosses during the 120 minutes of action, 17 more than NYCFC. This incessant desire to cross the ball worked in their favour at times, as it presented the opportunity for more crosses into the box since New York’s defenders were often caught off guard and could only half clear the ball away. And as they crossed early into the box, more numbers could then venture forward and look to get on the end of second balls. They essentially used the time that the ball was floating aimlessly in the air to allow more men to join the attack and get the team closer to the goal.

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Beyond crossing, Portland looked to create chances through the individual skill of their players, as opposed to the more intricate combination play seen by NYCFC. The likes of Yimmi Chara and Santiago Moreno took their moments to drive and dribble at New York’s defense, looking to carry the ball into the eighteen. While both players had bright moments, they couldn’t spark any real life into Portland until the dying moments of the game. It was at that time when the Timbers threw everyone forward to try and grab a goal, including their 6’2 defender Larrys Mabiala, who ended up winning the header for Mora’s late goal. At times it was just Diego Chara staying back in defense, and luckily for the Timbers, the Colombian star was excellent in defensive transitions to keep New York at bay. But realistically speaking, Savarese’s team looked inferior to New York throughout the opening 60 minutes. The manager’s substitutions around that time sparked more energy and life into a nervous Portland attack, and they kept pushing the envelope until they scored in the last minute. But it wasn’t the most elegant of performances from Portland, and for long spells of the game they struggled to break down a resilient New York defense.

NEW YORK CITY FC – 4-2-3-1

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Sean Johnson (GK), Tayvon Gray (RB), Maxime Chanot (CB), Alexander Callens (CB), Gudmundur Thórarinsson (LB), Alfredo Morales (DM), James Sands (DM), Jesus Medina (RW), Maxi Moralez (AM), Santiago Rodriguez (LW), Valentin Castellanos (CF)


New York City FC also set up in their favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, implementing better adaptations of the same 2-4-4 and 4-4-2 structures. Their press was slightly more intense and coordinated, with less depth in between the lines and greater organization. When defending from the front, the wingers tucked inside and angled their bodies to allow the pass to come into the fullback, where they would then press. In doing this, they limited Portland’s ability to carry out the ball from the back or play into half spaces. They also forced the Timbers wide, where the touchline could act as another defender and the ball could be moved further away from goal. This approach was successful in forcing the Timbers out of bounds on more than a few occasions, and NYCFC edged the Timbers when it came to tackles won and pressures applied.

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In attack, NYCFC’s 2-4-4 allowed the fullbacks to venture high and create overloads in the wide areas. All four of New York’s highest members often roamed in central channels in possession, which allowed the fullbacks to be the ones retaining width. It was only in rare moments where Tayvon Gray would drive inside with the ball that Jesus Medina would hold a wider position. Otherwise, the Paraguyan attacker would roam centrally. Santiago Rodriguez would do the same on the other side as the superb Gudmundur Thórarinsson overlapped, which in theory should have allowed NYCFC better options at playing through the thirds and breaking the lines. But this was not the case. Portland defended well with a lot of central compaction, completely stunting New York’s progress forward.

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With James Sands dropping in between the two centre-backs during build-up phases and Portland sitting off New York, their inability to adequately break the lines was all the more puzzling. The Boys in Blue resorted instead to longer, diagonal passes from one half space to the other to try and open up the game, which were usually ineffective at breaking Portland’s locked defense. They built out down the left more often, utilizing these diagonals to switch play to the right and then attack down that same side with Gray and Medina. But it was actually Gudmundur Thórarinsson who had a more successful day at the office at both creating and crossing, and it was a slight surprise when he was taken off the field just before Portland’s equalizer. In addition to the team’s lack of success in taking advantage of the switches of play down the right, Portland’s physicality and narrowness meant NYCFC took on more long shots than would have likely been wise, and only scored from a set-piece. They were certainly the more dangerous attacking outfit throughout the game and both Moralez and Valentin Castellanos had bright moments, but like Portland, they struggled to create anything of real note beyond their goal.

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Out of possession, New York defended well and limited Portland to their wide attacks and hopeful crosses that resulted in nothing. Deila’s men pressed well in their 4-4-2 shape, with Moralez joining the striker and Jesus Medina probing in-field if the ball found its way into central channels behind the front two. Their biggest mistake was perhaps in stopping this high press and soaking up pressure at the end of the ninety minutes. They started to sit off Portland all the more in favour of a mid to low block, where the Timbers were able to throw their big men at the back into the attack and play route one football. Sean Johnson was called upon more times than New York would have liked in the second half, and Deila’s team can certainly thank the American goalkeeper greatly for his role in the big win. When you consider the role Johnson played in the penultimate penalty kick shootout in saving the first two spot-kicks, New York certainly showcased the importance of having one of the league’s best keepers in order to win on the biggest stage. But while Johnson was important on the day, it was a hard-fought team victory by the Boys and Blue, and one that gives Ronny Deila his first major trophy in the MLS.


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So there it is! A tactical analysis of the MLS Playoff Final between Portland and NYCFC. Be sure to check out more of our tactical analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. If you enjoyed this article, also consider becoming a paid subscriber to TheMastermindSite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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