Commentary

Breaking down Sunday's Timbers-FC Dallas MLS playoff game

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

One of the original MLS teams and a smashing expansion success square off in the Western Conference finals.

Mostly mediocre performances dot the two-decade history of FCD, which lost its only MLS Cup final appearance to Colorado in 2010, but in just the second season under head coach Oscar Pareja FCD captured the regular-season conference title. Since entering MLS in 2011 after several seasons as a minor-league operation, Portland has played to rabid crowds that seldom leave a seat empty. Head coach Caleb Porter has missed the playoffs only once in his three years in charge, and that was by a single point last season.

They are major players in the new age of MLS, that of ambitious organizations seeking to enhance all facets of operations from player development to community outreach. On the competitive front, they are honed for a classic showdown.

Western Conference Final, First Leg
Portland-FC Dallas, Providence Park
Sunday, 7;30 p.m. ET (Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes)

Both teams have already survived penalty-kick shootouts to reach this stage. The Timbers topped Sporting Kansas City in a pulsating knockout game and then blanked Vancouver twice in their semifinal series. FCD lost its first leg semifinal in Seattle but battled back twice at home to force extra time and then PKs.

Portland hosts the first leg without playmaker Diego Valeri and speedy winger Rodney Wallace, a scenario that because of injuries and callups Porter and his players are familiar with. Valeri led the team with eight assists despite playing only 22 games. Wallace was second with seven.
“It’s nothing that we haven’t dealt with, said Porter during a media teleconference call during the week. “We have a very deep team. We’ve had to rotate players for various reasons. We’ve made the decision to rotate players some games and some games it was forced.

“Obviously Valeri and Rodney are very good players. They’re key guys, but we’ve got other players that will step in and do a job.”

The absence of Valeri could open up a spot for Will Johnson and push Darlington Nagbe into Valeri’s spot as offensive orchestrator, though the availability of Lucas Melano or Dairon Asprilla out wide could prompt further tweaks. Fanendo Adi is not the most clever player in the box but can create his own chance if he needs to.

Portland’s revamped midfield will post an interesting test for FC Dallas, which relies on Mauro Diaz to run the attack while Victor Ulloa, one of the team’s three Homegrown players to start in the playoffs, provides cover. Pareja, formerly FCD’s academy director, has promoted several young players into the first team to excellent effect.

“You see that FC Dallas believes in the youth and their academy, and he’s just been that father-figure model for us,” says Ulloa of Pareja, who returned after spending two seasons as Colorado’s head coach. “We want to fight for him and you see that on the field. We run for each other and we’d do anything because of the opportunity that he has given us.”

The Timbers have to cope with blazingly fast Fabian Castillo on the flank; he gives FCD an immediate outlet whenever the ball turns over. On the other side could be Michael Barrios; he has yet to score in the playoffs but bagged two goals in a 4-1 thumping of Portland in late July. The other option is young Canadian Tesho Akindele, who is powerful as well as fast. He scored a vital goal against Seattle in the second leg. Pareja could use Panamanian target man Blas Perez up top, or go for the more mobile David Texeira.

Porter admits that FCD’s counterattacking prowess complicates the task for the Timbers, which prevailed in the semifinals by scoring in Vancouver after a 0-0 tie in Portland. Blanking FCD, even in a roiling Providence Park, will be a much tougher task.

“With Dallas, we have to be very patient going for the win,” said Porter. “Knowing our priorities for the game… But No. 2 is to keep a clean sheet. We’re not going to play for a draw, but if we can win and get a clean sheet that puts us in a really good spot going into the second leg.”
English defender Liam Ridgewell, who joined the Timbers last year, is still figuring out the MLS playoffs but knows the cat-and-mouse process of containing a potent foe while still pushing the action.

“To be honest, people are asking questions about how we’ll stop them, but what we’ll be doing is imposing ourselves on the game and making sure we worry about us,” said Ridgewell, who has formed a solid central partnership with MLS veteran defender Nat Borchers since a trade with RSL during the offseason. “They’re a very good team and they’ve done well to get here, but we’ll be looking to impose ourselves on the team and try to nullify their attacking players and try to make a stamp on the game that we can.”
 
Regular-Season Meetings:
April 4 -- Portland 3 (Borchers, Urruti, Chara), FC Dallas 1 (Akindele).
July 25 -- FC Dallas 4 (Barrios 2, Acosta, Diaz), Portland 1 (Adi).
 
Playoff results
Oct. 29 -- Portland 2 (Wallace, Urruti), Sporting KC 2 (Ellis, Nemeth).
(Portland wins 7-6 on penalty kicks.)
Nov. 1 -- Vancouver 0, Portland 0.
Nov. 8 -- Portland 2 (Adi, Chara), Vancouver 0.
(Aggregate: 2-0.)
 
Nov. 1 – Seattle 2 (Ivanschitz, Dempsey), FC Dallas 1 (Castillo).
Nov. 8 – FC Dallas 2 (Akindele, Zimmerman), Seattle 1 (Marshall).
(Aggregate 3-3; FCD wins 4-2 on penalty kicks)

Stat Leaders (including playoffs)
Portland – Fanendo Adi 17 goals, Diego Valeri 10 assists, Adam Kwarasey 83 saves.
FC Dallas – Fabian Castillo 10 goals, Mauro Diaz 11 assists, Jesse Gonzalez 45 saves.

Suspended
Portland – Diego Valeri, Rodney Wallace.
 
Yellow Cards
Portland –  Liam Ridgewell, George Fochive. Lucas Melano.
FC Dallas --Mauro Diaz; Blas Perez.
 
Bottom Line
A tie would be a great result for FCD, yet it is potent enough to prevail against a shorthanded foe. How well the Timbers play on the flanks at both ends of the field probably determines the outcome. 
 
Prediction
Portland 1 FC Dallas 2.
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