Shorthanded: Timbers remain slight favorites for decisive semifinal

Despite pitching a shutout in the first leg, Portland could take the field Sunday against Houston (Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes, MLS Live, 7:30 p.m. ET) trailing by several players.

In the first hour of play, Larrys Mabiala (hip), Diego Chara (broken foot), and Darlington Nagbe (calf) all went down injured and had to be replaced. Thus were three more starters added to the list of missing that already included Daniel Guzman, who sprained a knee in the last regular season game; Sebastian Blanco, sidelined after burning himself in a cooking mishap earlier in the week; and Fanendo Adi, who has yet to recover from a hamstring injury suffered in early August.

Only Chara and Adi are declared out of the second game at Providence Park, where the Timbers have won their last six games and racked up 23 victories -- tops in the league -- during the past two seasons. The Timbers beat Houston, 4-2, at home in mid-March, and the teams played a 2-2 tie in late June at BBVA Compass Stadium.

The availability of several Timbers may not be known until a few hours before kickoff, but Portland is riding momentum on both sides of the ball. It captured the regular-season conference crown on the final day by beating Vancouver, 3-0, at Providence Park, and last Tuesday fought through the wave of injuries to blank Houston on the road.

A creaky back line has been stabilized by the midseason acquisition of Mabiala and recent return from injury of centerback partner Liam Ridgewell. Blanco, a winter signing, finished third on the team in goals and second in assists with eight in each category.

Blanco’s presence drew attention away from Diego Valeri, who set a career high of 21 goals and recorded 11 assists. The MVP finalist had a rather quiet game in the first leg as head coach Caleb Porter resorted more to defensive tactics as his injured players were taken off. During the past season Porter shored up the depth of his squad –- injuries were a major reason the 2015 MLS Cup champion missed the playoffs last year – and that depth looks likely to be tested Sunday.

Among the options are Dairon Asprilla, Darren Mattocks, Amobi Okugo, Lawrence Olum, and Roy Miller. Of that group, only Okugo and Mattocks have started less than 17 games and all have postseason experience. In the first leg, keeper Jeff Attinella showed no excessive nerves in his MLS playoff debut.

“We train as a team every day,” Timbers defender Alvas Powell told oregonlive.com. “Whether guys are out or not, everybody plays a part. It won't be any different if other guys have to step up.”

Said Porter, This group seems to rise to the occasion.”

The game is a big occasion for Houston, which defeated Sporting Kansas City, 1-0, in the Knockout Round in its first playoff appearance since 2013. After the tie at home, its season will end unless it can prevail on the road in a hostile environment.

With the away-goals rule Houston needs to score and get at least a tie after 90 minutes. The Dynamo is riding a remarkable shutout streak of 447 minutes – nearly five full games -- and hasn’t lost in its last eight games, including playoffs. If it doesn’t concede a goal it can do no worse than force penalty kicks.

After the first leg, Dynamo defender Phillipe Senderos said, “It was important not to concede tonight, because we know we have a lot of firepower and can create chances. We saw tonight that they were wary; they knew that we had dangerous players and they didn’t press us that much, but it will be a tough game out there.”

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