They also ranked one-two among conference teams in goals scored, with Portland (60) edging Houston (57) by a hat trick. One of the tallest Timbers, Diego Valeri (21 goals, 11 assists), has played a direct role in more than one-half of Portland’s goals and will be vital once more with forward Fanendo Adi (10 goals in 22 games) still hobbled by a hamstring injury he suffered in early August.
In its 1-0 defeat of Sporting Kansas City in the Knockout Round, Houston squelched the playmaking of Benny Feilhaber and kept the SKC forwards in check, with keeper Tyler Deric responding well on the few occasions that needed a big save. The task is to be tougher against Portland; Sebastian Blanco (8 goals, 8 assists) is adept at finding spaces left by opponents wary of Valeri, Darren Mattocks (4 goals, 2 assists) is a speedy, unpredictable foe, and Darlington Nagbe (3 goals, 5 assists) specializes in jaw-dropping strikes.
Houston started the season in searing fashion -- at least at home -- and fought through a bumpy patch of three losses in four games before finishing strong at 3-0-3. During that stretch one win and one tie came against SKC; by beating that team again, 1-0, with a goal by Alberth Elis early in extra time on Thursday did Houston merely confirm its superiority over a specific foe, or did it lay the groundwork for an upset of the conference champion?
The blanking of SKC was its third in a row, and followed a pair of 2-1 victories over Minnesota United and SKC. Deric has played a major role in the team’s stingier persona, but so has centerback Leonardo – mostly maligned during his seasons with the Galaxy – as well as veterans DaMarcus Beasley and Ricardo Clark. Combined, the latter pair has played 42 MLS playoff games. But their combined ages are 69, so they probably can’t go the distance in a run-and-gun series.
In his first season as Dynamo head coach, Wilmer Cabrera has transformed Houston from a conference doormat that won just seven of 34 games last year into a very solid squad with a record of 13-10-11 (W-L-T) and 50 points, an increase of 16 from 2016. On a badly, rutted field it patiently held off SKC until substitute Vicente Sanchez broke loose down the right side to center a ball Elis deftly controlled and drilled into the net for his 11th goal of the season.
Portland is just two years removed from its lifting of the MLS Cup, and in retrospect missing the playoffs in 2016 looks more like a blip than regression to mediocrity. It is not nearly as rock-solid as that team -- Portland conceded more goals, 50, than any playoff team aside from easily riddled San Jose (60) -- but it played about one-half the season without centerback and captain Liam Ridgewell, who was sidelined several times by injuries.
After conceding 43 goals in its first 25 games, Portland posted four shutouts in its last nine games with Ridgewell back in the lineup alongside midseason signing Larrys Mabiala. Behind them, keeper Jeff Attinella, who took over the starting job in midseason, will be appearing in his first MLS playoff game.
To slow down the pace of Elis and Romell Quioto and shut off the supply lines provided by Alex to Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres and Mauro Manotas, the Timbers need central mids David Guzman and Diego Chara to plug up lanes and avoid fouls.
During its run to the 2015
title, after a spectacular penalty-kick (7-6) defeat of SKC in the knockout round, Portland reached the MLS Cup final via different routes. In the conference semis against Vancouver, it overcame a 0-0
tie at home in the first leg by winning the second game away, 2-0. It started the finals on the road and stunned FC Dallas, 3-1, before securing a 2-2 tie at Providence Park to advance on aggregate,
“We don’t want to go in tentative, playing for a draw, playing for a tight loss,” said head coach Caleb Porter when asked about the strategy of playing the first leg of a two-game series on the road. “With the away goals rule, coming in trying to score goals and trying to win is the approach we’re going to have.”