FRISCO, Texas – Who could have predicted the Portland Timbers’ decision to rest their starters in Sunday’s regular season finale would prove so valuable? Only a clairvoyant who foresaw a Wednesday red card, one that left the Timbers playing down a man for the final 39 minutes of their 2-1, Western Conference Knockout Round victory at FC Dallas in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs.
The result puts the Timbers in the conference semifinals for the fourth time in six years. With Larrys Mabiala earning a denial of an obvious goalscoring opportunity red in the 58th minute, it took an entire team effort to make Diego Valeri’s two goals hold up.
“It feels great,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, after his first playoff win in Major League Soccer. “It feels great because of the sacrifice every player put into the game when knew we were facing a difficult team away from home. And we knew that we needed to sacrifice and make sure that we were very disciplined, and that we played as a united group. And that’s what we did.”
“The disciplined defending. The way the guys covered for each other. The way we made it very difficult for them to find spaces, I’m very proud of the group.”
Mabiala will now miss the first leg of the next round, which will take place on Sunday at Providence Park against either Sporting Kansas City or Seattle Sounders FC. The short turnaround could lead to fitness questions around other players, too, though the week between semifinals games will certainly help.
Those worries were far from the team’s mind on Wednesday night, with the Timbers eager to get back to Portland was soon as possible. “I’m thinking about today, first,” Savarese said postgame, hours before the team was due to fly home. Set to arrive back in Oregon in Thursday’s early hours, the hasty travel will give the team more time to recover at home.
That they get to tackle that quick turnaround, though, can be attributed to Valeri, whose two goals gave the team breathing room ahead of Matt Hedges’ late stoppage time score; to Jeremy Ebobisse, whose ability to beat Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez to a ball behind the FCD defense to set up Valeri’s insurance goal; to Jeff Attinella, whose second game back from a shoulder injury featured a number of standout stops; and the collective effort of a team who, particularly after it was reduced to 10 men, had to leverage the freshness they stored while rotating against Vancouver.
“I think it showed, at the end of the game, how much [the result] meant to the team,” defender Liam Ridgewell said, when asked about the team’s postseason success in Dallas. The Timbers also left Frisco triumphant in 2015 en route to their MLS title.
“In 2015, it was a huge, huge win,” he remembered, “and coming to Dallas isn’t easy. They’re a good side … You see how [big] of a result this is going into the rest of the playoffs.”
Valeri’s two goals may rightfully become the lasting memory from this match – his first was a perfect, nearly post-brushing free kick from around 25 yards out – but the defining lesson of Wednesday’s match was how the Timbers survived for nearly 40 minutes while down a man. When Mabiala was sent off for his last-ditch efforts on Dallas forward Dominique Badji, the Timbers were up 1-0. Ebobisse’s work allowed the Timbers to double that lead while down a man, but even then, thanks to the prolonged stoppage time added because of Mabiala’s sending off, Dallas had 26 more minutes to find the two goals they needed to force extra time.
Thanks to the Timbers’ defending, Dallas’ first didn’t arrive until the 94th minute. The second that would prolong their season? It never came.
“I thought it was extremely professional,” Attinella said about the team’s performance while down a man. “We have really, really strong veterans. A lot of teams would fold, especially when that happens in the playoffs, on the road. But we lean on our veterans, and we kind of knew what the game was going to turn into, and we did a great job of doing exactly what we needed to.”
The journey’s next step will be undoubtedly more difficult. Dallas, with Wednesday’s defeat, closed their season with four losses in a row. On Sunday, the Timbers will be hosting one of the top two teams in the Western Conference. Sporting has taken four points from the Timbers, this season. Seattle is much improved on the team that was out-played by Portland three times this season.
But that’s how the playoffs work. The challenges don’t get easier. They get more difficult. That the Timbers have a chance to tackle the next challenge is their reward for Wednesday’s work.
“In `15, we had no fear of going anywhere …,” Ridgewell remembered, “The wins that we’ve had away this season – the Real Salt Lake game, to win away and win convincingly, there – it shows the rest of the league that we’re not just coming to lose. We’re coming to win.
“That’s probably a marker down, coming and beating Dallas.”