If the Portland Timbers want to reach the Western Conference finals for the second time in three seasons, they may have to do something they have been unable to accomplish all season — a win against Cascadia rivals Vancouver Whitecaps.
The Whitecaps, who have never reached the conference finals in their short MLS history, will host the Timbers during the second leg of the conference semifinals in the MLS Cup Playoffs on Sunday (10 p.m., FOX Sports 1).
While the Timbers’ task appears straightforward and simple, the Whitecaps will ensure it’s not that easy, as the Canadian club boasts one of the best defenses in the league to date. Including the postseason, the Whitecaps have only conceded 36 goals, the fewest among all MLS teams.
“We’ve worked a lot on our defensive play throughout the year. The old saying goes, defense wins championships, and it does, it really does,” Robinson told reporters. “We know we need to score more goals, collectively and individually, and that’s something we’ll address again in the offseason, but if you’re strong at the back … you’ve got a chance. Us being solid at the back defensively gives us a chance to obviously have an opportunity in every game.”
A road win sees the Timbers advance, but head coach Caleb Porter knows that a victory on the road is not the only way to reach the finals. If his side forces yet another tie but scores a goal, they are through, thanks to the away goals rule.
“I think they showed us a lot of respect (on Sunday),” Porter told SBI. “I also think our guys looked very hungry, and we also wanted to win but we didn’t want to give up the away goal because we have a lot of confidence with our team on the road. We’ve won seven games on the road, and that’s not getting talked about a lot. We’ve been one of the best teams on the road, and we’ve won four out of our last five on the road.”
While the Timbers dominated possession throughout the 90 minutes during the first leg, the Whitecaps still had chances to grab a crucial away goal. Forward Octavio Rivero arguably had the best chance of the game but fluffed the opportunity in the 37th minute.
Gershon Koffie, who is the only Whitecaps player with a yellow card to his name heading into the second leg of the series, came close to scoring a couple of times during the first half of last Sunday’s meeting.
With Kekuta Manneh and Cristian Techera attacking from the wings, Koffie found open space to create and shoot in and around the middle of the attacking third. Like Rivero’s effort, though, none of those shots found the back of the net.
The Timbers like to hold more of the ball in any given game. With playmakers and game-changers in Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri, the Timbers are bound to have a handful of opportunities to score in the second leg.
Nagbe has been playing more centrally for Porter and the Timbers, connecting with the Argentine playmaker more often than before when he was on the right wing. Lucas Melano, who is the only Timbers player with a yellow card, currently plays out wide, while Rodney Wallace is always a threat coming inside from the left wing. Robinson knows just as much, but he is not worried about the Timbers holding more of the ball.
“Possession is great. Everyone wants to be a possession-orientated team, and Portland are a very good team in possession, but it’s about winning,” Robinson said. “The game is about winning. We’re undefeated against Portland this year. We know they beat us in our backyard last year, we beat them at home this year.”
In the pair’s four meetings this season, only one game has been won by the Whitecaps, with the remaining three ending in a tie. Porter says that’s a testament to how good these two Cascadia sides are, but he also said the Timbers have arguably played better in many of those contests, including the one they lost at BC Place.
The Whitecaps have done well containing the dynamic attacking options of Fanendo Adi and Maximiliano Urruti, but so too have the the Timbers, as they’ve, for the most part, held Rivero and pacey forward Darren Mattocks in check.
While he paid his respects to the Whitecaps, Porter also acknowledged that Sunday’s second leg is set up perfectly for his team to advance, especially given the experience he and his team have at this stage.
“For me, when I look at 2013, we won the series with Seattle, the second series being the conference finals vs. RSL, we let the first leg get away from us, we lost, 4-2,” Porter said.
“That was a lesson learned in making sure that you’re pragmatic, especially in that first leg so you set up the second leg. If there’s an early goal, then I think things will open up, but if not, then I think it’ll be a chess match to the very end.”
One player, who came on in the 77th minute during the first leg for the Whitecaps, could provide a major spark in the attack for the home side come Sunday. Robinson says captain Pedro Morales, who has been battling a right hamstring strain for a while, looked sharp in training earlier this week and might be available for more minutes.
“He’s our captain of our club, and we’ve missed him for a number of games through the running,” Robinson said. “You want your best players on the field, you want your important players on the field, so it’s very tempting (to play him).”
On the other side, defensive midfielder Diego Chara, who has been suffering from a foot injury, might also see his first MLS Playoffs minutes, having missed the Timbers’ first two games.
All three Cascadia teams — the Timbers, Whitecaps and Seattle Sounders — made it to this stage of the playoffs, and at least one is guaranteed to play another day in 2015. In spite of facing off against a familiar but powerful foe, Robinson hopes that team is his.
“I think both teams are pretty evenly matched,” Robinson said. “We’re pretty similar, we’ve got similar home records, we’ve got similar away records, and it’ll come down to which players perform on the day.”