The challenge for the last two Western Conference teams standing is similar while also distinct.
Both FC Dallas and the Portland Timbers enter their series with the goal of advancing to the MLS Cup final, but the former has to move on from an emotionally-draining match while the latter has to play without two of its top players.
FC Dallas and the Timbers will meet on Sunday (7:30 pm, Fox Sports 1) in the first leg of the Western Conference Finals at Providence Park. The two clubs had a week off to rest and recover from their series in the last round thanks to the international break, but the Timbers will still be at less than full strength for their home game because of the absences of Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace.
Both Valeri and Wallace are out after picking up yellow cards in the 2-0 road win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on Nov. 8, leaving Timbers head coach Caleb Porter to have to fill two spots in his lineup. The loss of the duo may be an advantage for FC Dallas, but the Texan club knows the Timbers have players that can step up and fill the void.
“We have plans for players that you have to control, players that are important,” said FC Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja. “For us and for our group, it always has been the most important to prepare ourselves. Just to take care of what we can control. Not having Valeri or Wallace in the game, obviously, they are players that are important. We will be concentrating on what we can (control).
“Portland has excellent players that can step up, it has happened before. (We don’t want) to concentrate much on the players who are not going play, but to prepare for the ones that will.”
Missing Valeri and Wallace certainly hurts, but the Timbers still have a talented attack that has continued to get better over the last few weeks of the regular season and in the playoffs. Recent U.S. Men’s National Team call-up Darlington Nagbe has been playing well in a central role, and forward Fanendo Adi has been finding the back of the net with more regularity as of late.
Still, the Timbers know that their defense will have to get the job done against a talented attack that includes Fabian Castillo, Mauro Diaz and Tesho Akindele. The good news for the Timbers is that their defense has been stout throughout the year, but they still expect a tough challenge over the course of the 180 minutes.
“We’ve played them a lot over the last two years. They’re a very good side, very good defensively and very good on the counter attack” said Timbers centerback Liam Ridgewell. “They’ve got a lot of good players on that team. I think we’ve shown this year, certainly in the games we’ve played against them, that we can certainly deal with that counter attack.
“To be honest, people are asking questions about how we’ll stop them, but what we’ll be doing is imposing ourselves on the game and making sure we worry about us. They’re a very good team and they’ve done well to get here, but we’ll be looking to impose ourselves on the team and try to nullify their attacking players and try to make a stamp on the game that we can.”
FC Dallas has played some attractive soccer this postseason, but a portion of its success has come on the counter through the likes of Castillo. It is on a play in transition that FC Dallas scored an important goal on the road in the first leg of its semifinals series vs. the Seattle Sounders.
With away goals again coming into play here, Pareja’s side could take a similar approach. That might invite the Timbers to have the bulk of the possession, but they will also have to be smart in their approach and cautious as to where they lose the ball, all while managing the emotions of being spurred on by their rowdy crowd.
“We have to be very careful not to get wrapped up,” said Timbers head coach Caleb Porter. “We have to stay patient and organized. We want to do that in a way that’s aggressive where we’re hopefully on the ball, we’re forcing Dallas to defend, we’re taking away their transition game, and a lot of those things are very similar to how we approached Vancouver.
“We were smart and organized, and yet we were aggressive and looking to score in attack and managed the transition phase.”
Their approaches might be different, but both clubs will be aiming to pick up a victory in the first half of this 180-minute battle. Still, the onus is on the Timbers to come out on top and win at home against.
Even if they are missing a couple of key starters.