Scoreless first leg against Sporting brings away goals into focus for Timbers

PORTLAND, Ore. – A 0-0 first leg result can test everything you believe about soccer’s away goal rule – the custom that says come the end of a two-legged series, tie goes to the team that scored more often away from home.  

Ignore that reality, and the Portland Timbers have reason for concern after Sporting Kansas City earned a scoreless draw at Providence Park, during the first leg of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Championship Sunday night. Embrace the rule, though, and the Timbers are right to see a major silver lining after their leg-one draw, one that may give them an edge despite not claiming victory at home.

“I think it’s a great result,” starting left back Jorge Villafaña explained, his brow furrowing at the idea that the lack of a victory could be seen as a negative.

“Going away, there, they have to score,” he explained, “and if we score, it’s going to be tough on them. It’s a great result.”

Portland came closest to scoring on Sunday, seeing Villafaña hit the North End’s right post early while Bill Tuiloma’s late header off a corner kick was caught by a leaping Tim Melia. Sporting had a couple of opportunities, too, with right winger Johnny Russell having the team’s clearest chance shortly into the second half.

In general, though, the night is what you might expect from the first leg of a conference final. After 90 minutes, two closely matched teams left the field with nothing new between them.

“I feel very good,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, about his team’s performance, “because I thought [the Timbers] played a great game. I’m very proud of them. The only thing that was maybe missing was a goal, but we tried. We were a little bit unlucky, but the important part is we didn’t concede.”

Sporting fans will likely see the night differently, and rightly so. After all, their team finished the road leg of their Conference Championship no worse than they were before. The rest of this series, be it for 90 or 120 minutes on Thursday at Children’s Mercy Park, will be played on SKC’s home. Portland may now have the away goals in their corner, but the cold night that awaits both teams in Kansas City may mean an advantage for the hosts.

That view, however, has to be reconciled with the other information gained from Sunday’s performance – information that casts the teams’ regular season games in a new context. If there was any doubt those matches no longer mattered – that the absences of Diego Chara and Liam Ridgewell were key to Sporting claiming four points in two meetings – Sunday provided proof.

“We knew it was going to be a tough game – we’ve got two hard-working defensive teams,” Ridgewell explained. “I think they came here to try to make it so they kept a clean sheet, and it was hard for us to break them down, (but) for a few passes, a post here and there, we might have won the game.”

Sporting averaged 55.1 percent possession per game, this year – the second-highest rate in MLS. On Sunday, though, Portland won the possession battle, limiting SKC to 49.7 percent of the ball. The 74 percent pass-completing rate SKC had (compared to 84, in the regular season) and nine shots (versus 17.1) were each well below the team’s season marks. Those differences may have been a product of playing on the road, but they reflected two teams far more evenly matched than regular-season results told.

“We battled, we hit the post, and a couple of good chances didn’t find the corner …,” goalkeeper Jeff Attinella explained. “It’s 0-0. We’re going to take that as a positive, and we’re expecting another big war on Thursday.”

That the 0-0 mirrors the result the teams played to during last meeting at Providence Park (in June) could be seen as foreshadowing; and if so, the 3-0 win Sporting had over visiting Portland two months later might yet mean something. Sunday, however, was the first time the Timbers could have been said to have outplayed Sporting, this season, something you would expect the home team to do in these two-legged playoffs. In the process, though, Portland showed it had evolved since the last time the teams saw each other.

“They know we can go away and win,” Ridgewell said, bluntly, calling on the team’s recent history to hint way, despite the night’s scoreline, they team might have derived some positive momentum.

“We went and won in Dallas, and we went and won in Seattle,” he explained. “That’s what we need to do. We just keep rolling and playing as a team, and we can win anywhere. So, we’re looking forward to Thursday.”