FRISCO, Texas – Two days in the Lone Star state leave the Portland Timbers settled and prepared ahead of their most important game of the season.
That, at least, is the feeling around the squad heading into Wednesday’s Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Knockout Round playoff against FC Dallas (6:30pm PT, Presented by Spirit Mountain Casino, ROOT SPORTS). Though the team is coming off a Sunday regular-season finale loss in Vancouver – and though the squad had only 18 hours in Portland between games 34 and 35 of their season – the air around the group is one of preparedness. Everything that is happening now, the Timbers had readied themselves for a week ago. That was the upshot of how they approached Whitecaps FC. That is the benefit of balancing their goals.
Still, that benefit doesn’t diminish the challenge of going on the road, facing a good team, and knowing a poor performance will mark the end of the season, even if nobody is talking about those worst-case scenarios. Instead, the fact that everything is going according to plan – that the team had over a week to wrap their head around this potential scenario – has allowed the players to embrace the potential positives. Instead of wallowing in their travel misfortunes, the Timbers were already steeled for the challenge.
That steel gets tested tonight at Toyota Stadium, where FC Dallas stands reap the same reward: a Sunday match at home in the Western Conference semifinals. Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report:
1. Who gets the call in goal?
The lineup, as a whole? We can talk about that in a moment, because when you drill down on who is likely to be in Giovanni Savarese’s starting XI, there is one big question mark. And that question determines who will wear the gloves in Portland’s goal.
Jeff Attinella, since the sixth game of the regular season, has been the Timbers’ No. 1, and as, earlier this season, he ushered the team’s 15-game unbeaten run through its final moments, the 30-year-old solidified his place as not only a first-choice MLS `keeper but, amid the league’s array of goalkeeping possibilities, a demonstrably above-average option. Just as he had come the end of the 2017 season, Attinella had cemented his place on the field.
Then one injury happened, a hamstring pull in New England. The match he returned, he separated his shoulder. Twice. In stepped Steve Clark – a late-season, waiver wire acquisition – and a debate was born. Clark’s performance in Game 33 against Real Salt Lake was one of the biggest reasons why Portland, that day, sealed their playoff spot.
To wedge the options into an old model, this looks like the hot hand versus the steady one. Right now, Clark has that hot-hand energy, having come up with two huge saves in his last performance. Attinella, however, is the man who got the team here, guiding them through their season’s best stretches, proving that a healthy version of himself is part of Portland’s best version of themselves.
On Sunday, Attinella returned to the field, showing no signs that his shoulder would hinder him. But did he do enough to show the coaching staff that he, right now, is the team’s best option?
2. And the rest of the starting XI?
Savarese wasn’t coy about it on Sunday, in the moments after Portland’s loss in Vancouver. The team chose a changed lineup for their season finale, prompting questions about the head coach’s approach. The XI that started the week before against RSL, he explained, had been rested, put on a different training timeline, and saved for the reality of the Knockout Round. Rest, the coach implied, was prioritized ahead of Vancouver.
By implication, we have a good idea of who might start Wednesday in Frisco, mostly because we saw who started against RSL. Clark was in goal, but ahead of him, a line of Zarek Valentin (right back), Larrys Mabiala, Liam Ridgewell (central defenders) and Jorge Villafaña (left back) was all rested in Vancouver. Same for Diego Chará and David Guzmán in the middle; Andy Polo (right wing), Diego Valeri (center) and Sebastián Blanco (left) ahead of the, though Polo and Blanco saw minutes as substitutes; as well as Jeremy Ebobisse up top (another Sunday sub).
There’s no guarantee each of those 10 field players will return in Frisco, but as Savarese implied, that’s the starting point. Any tweaks to that base will also hint at how Portland will approach FC Dallas.
3. Overcoming home field
The Oregonian’s Jamie Goldberg brought up the statistic earlier this week: 75 percent. ESPN Soccer Today’s Steve Davis shared the raw record on his podcast: 9-3. That’s how home teams have performed in the Knockout Round since Major League Soccer went to the current playoff format. Short rest, on the road? It’s proved a bad combination for teams venturing away from home.
What about that 25 percent, though, allowed teams to overcome their road obstacle? We need look no farther than last year, when two road teams advanced in the Eastern Conference. Columbus Crew SC, thanks in large part to the magic of head coach Gregg Berhalter, went into Atlanta and defeated a heavily favorited United FC, while the New York Red Bulls also ousted a hosting Chicago Fire. The Chicago match – pitting a sliding team that had spent much of the season at the top of their conference – seems particularly informative, as most favored the traveling Red Bulls ahead of that match at Toyota Park.
FC Dallas has lost three games in a row. They have been outscored six to one over that time, and they haven’t beaten a playoff team since July 28. Since Mauro Díaz moved to the Middle East, the team has lacked an identity, and come Wednesday’s kickoff, FC Dallas will still be searching for solutions. The hope is something will click over the ensuing 90 minutes (or, with extra time, two hours), but until that happens, Portland has to be viewed as the better team.
Is that enough to make victory a given? Of course not. Good teams lose on the road all the time in this league. Over the last three months, Portland has been reminded of that far too often. If the Timbers are to advance past Wednesday, they’ll need to learn the lessons from Houston (4-1 loss) and Minnesota (3-2 loss). They’ll need to prove their 4-1 win at Real Salt Lake wasn’t a fluke.