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The Knighted Front: Q&A on Portland Timbers 2 with Saalih Muhammad

We know we can beat them. So, it’s not a question of if we can beat them, its if we can put in the necessary effort and focus in, in order to beat them.

By Chris Walker | Photo: Josh Lane/NM United

I sat down with New Mexico United Midfielder Saalih Muhammad this week to discuss his match week preparation and club’s readiness for tonight’s match against Portland Timbers 2.

Following the match with Austin Bold, what did you do on your days off?

SM: I went up to the San Antonio Hot Springs and spent two days there to just relax and get my mind off of soccer a bit. I didn’t have any cell coverage so my phone was clearly unusable. I think after the last two games, we did okay. But having tied, I left a little disappointed. Because we want to win, we want to move up the table and get to those top 3 positions and in order to do that we’ve got to win, especially at home. Really, the time I spent at the Hot Springs was to remove any doubts and focus in on what’s ahead with Portland and what steps I need to take going into next week.

What steps did you take to be prepared for the week?

SM: I need to go into the gym. I need to hold down consistent stretching at night. I need to make sure I am physically ready. (Also) doing extra technical work, reading, and meditating consistently.

MLS side Portland Timbers is out of the Open Cup. This means, it’s possible for them to send down Dairon Asprilla and other players for the match. How much of the week’s preparation was geared towards that sort of roster movement?

SM: We just prepare for their style really because (with) those teams its hard (and) you never know who you are going to get. They rotate so often. Its harder to prepare for one specific player so we just prepare for the style of play. We watch video so we can understand and be able to anticipate the way they build up, the way they attack, the way they intend to get to the goal, and how we can exploit them offensively.

Eryk Williamson and Todd Wharton are their main chance creators. Could you describe how you will look to disrupt their efforts tactically?

SM: I think its really just commitment defensively. (We have) to double down, shift together, close down space, and not allow gaps. When you come up against clubs that are good offensively, these things are being keyed-in for a full 90 minutes. We have to try to allow very little chances as possible. This means shifting side to side defensively, constant communication, closing down gaps, stepping the line up and just engaging really.

Passing in the opponent’s half has not been the club’s strongest attribute under pressure. What adjustments is the club making to improve the accuracy and quality of passes in the opponent’s half?

SM: Movement off the ball and making sure defenders always have options. You know as defenders; they don’t want to make a mistake especially with them being the last people on the ball. If they make a mistake it could lead to a goal. I think we just really have to move off the ball, give them angles, help them feel comfortable, and through constantly moving. If we are trying to find gaps, they can either advance the ball on a dribble or deliver a pass if they feel comfortable enough. Schmitty (Justin Schmidt) and Rash (Rashid Tetteh) deliver a good pass so they just need options.

Portland has speed up front, where do you anticipate most balls being won against them defensively?

SM: The midfield. We will be making sure our strikers and midfielders are connected so that we can force them into playing long balls and then we focus on getting the second balls. I think a lot of times its just forcing them into making uncomfortable passes and putting their defenders in uncomfortable situations. We want the defenders to have the ball. We do that by closing the gaps down from the back line to the midfield line and then with our two attackers putting pressure on the center backs so they end up going long and we can get on the ball and calm it down and advance it up the field.

What did you take away from the last match with Portland?

SM: We definitely dominated the early parts of the game.  We let the game get away from us though. You know, it was unfortunate that one of the goals was from a ball that took a weird deflection. Something that we struggled with early in the year was keeping consistency and holding a steady level for a full 90 minutes. I think it’s something we’re getting better at and that’s the biggest take away. We know we can beat them. So, it’s not a question of if we can beat them, its if we can put in the necessary effort and focus in, in order to beat them. I remember the energy throughout the stadium was good. I think that was one of our most exciting matches at Isotopes Park for sure.

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