It might be do-or-die time now that the MLS Playoffs have begun, but facing pressure-filled, must-win scenarios will not be something new for the two Western Conference clubs that will lock horns on Thursday.
The Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City both went into the final week of the regular season with their campaigns hanging in the balance, and each of them avoided being knocked out of the playoff picture by taking matters into their own hands and coming out victorious. The Timbers routed the Colorado Rapids, 4-1, at home on Sunday to finish in third in the West while Sporting KC simultaneously saw off the LA Galaxy, 2-1, at Sporting Park to lock up the sixth seed.
Now, the two clubs will look to use the confidence gained from those season finales when they meet under similar circumstances at Providence Park in the first round of the postseason on Thursday night (10 p.m., UniMas). Each of them has a distinct advantage, too, as Timbers will be playing at home in front of their boisterous crowd while Sporting KC has a bevy of knowledge for how to get through these kinds of games after having done so numerous times in recent years.
“I think experience is always something that is coveted,” Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes told SBI. “It’s valued very highly because when your players know what it’s like and what to expect I think what it does for you, in those times of trouble or confusion or what have you, that you have some cool heads that can respond in a very intelligent way because they’ve seen it before.”
Sporting KC may have the edge in the experience department, but it is the Timbers who come into this match in better form. After struggling with inconsistent finishing for much of the regular season, the Timbers rattled off three straight wins to punch their ticket to the playoffs. The last two victories have been especially impressive, as the club beat the LA Galaxy, 5-1, before routing the Rapids.
Two attackers have gotten particularly hot during this late stretch, as Darlington Nagbe and Fanendo Adi have both found ways to either set up or score goals. Nagbe and Adi both have netted three times and assisted on another strike in the Timbers’ last two games, and the confidence they are showing has head coach Caleb Porter feeling good about his club’s chances.
Sporting KC also has several dangerous weapons of its own, including Graham Zusi and MLS MVP candidate Benny Feilhaber, but the Timbers believe the best way to help nullify the threat they possess is by continuing to push numbers forward.
“The best some times defense is a good attack, and I think we need to be on the front foot and make them defend and not let them just attack us,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter told SBI. “Interesting enough, in the two games we played them, they had a more conservative approach, and we expect the same. They’ll keep it tight, and look to counter us. They’ll press us and disrupt our rhythm. I don’t think there’ll be too many mysteries in what they do or what we do.”
The last time the two sides met was at the start of October. Sporting KC came out on top, 1-0, at Providence Park thanks to a sensational individual effort from forward Krisztian Nemeth, but the club’s struggles for goals have persisted. Sporting KC has netted just three times in its last four games, and been shut out twice in the process.
Vermes is not concerned by the lack of goals, however, and even sat the playmaking Feilhaber this past weekend vs. the Galaxy because he did not think the midfielder was 90-minutes fit.
“I don’t really think there’s any problem there,” said Vermes of his attack. “I think that we’ve created good chances in games, and it’s been my experience that you’re going to get chances. I think every team in the league, they either wind up creating chances or they get some chances handed to them and the question is, ‘Do you finish them?’
“I think that’s really the big thing. You have to be concentrated and ready for when they do happen so when they do you can take advantage of them.”
The Timbers have expressed a similar sentiment. Having finished the regular season campaign tied for the second-worst output in goals with 41 after regularly failing to convert chances, the club knows it has to keep up its recent trend of finding the back of the net in order to reach the next round of the postseason.
How the Timbers approach this game from a tactical standpoint is yet to be seen, but Porter might be tempted to go with the tactical shift that has worked during the recent offensive explosion. That is, bringing in Nagbe from out wide and deploying him in the playmaking role.
“I think getting Darlington central, getting him on the ball more has definitely helped him and it’s allowed him to produce more. I think in some ways that might have unlocked our team a bit as well,” said Porter. “Obviously the last game with (Diego) Valeri out. We played Nagbe at the (No. 10 spot) and we played two holding mids that game. We have the ability to play a couple of different ways now. We’ve shown that, which gives us some flexibility to throw a wrench into things here in the playoffs.
“Definitely moving Darlington central has been a shift that has changed things a bit.”
The onus might be on what happens in the final third for two sides boasting newfound confidence, but that will not be the only key to the game. The defenses will also have to try and hold their own, with Liam Ridgewell leading the Timbers’ back line and Matt Besler anchoring Sporting KC’s group. Any slip up from either side could prove costly, especially when considering how hot and cold the clubs’ attacks can be.
“You’ve got to have a mental toughness, you have to have concentration, and you have to have solid work ethic throughout the course of the game,” Vermes said. “We understand that they’re going to throw everything at us and they’re in good form right now. They’ve scored quite a few goals here lately, and they’re a team that I’ve always said is going to be incredibly dangerous.
“They have a lot of different attacking weapons on that team that can hurt you. For us, it’s really about concentration and making sure that we’re paying attention and locked into the game.”