Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers enter the second leg of the Western Conference final even on the scoreboard, but in all reality, the Timbers have a small advantage going into Thursday night.
After playing to a scoreless tie at Providence Park on Sunday, the Timbers will be in control of the series if they score an away goal at Children’s Mercy Park.
However, finding the back of the net in Kansas City will be a difficult task for the Timbers, who are facing one of the most experienced and in-form defenses in Major League Soccer.
Peter Vermes’ Sporting KC was 10-2-5 at home during the regular season, while the Timbers had the second-worst road mark of Western Conference playoff teams at 4-8-5.
First Leg Recap
Portland created the better chances of the two sides in the opening leg of the West final, but it was denied on five occasions by Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia.
The one time the ball struck the back of the net, the Timbers were correctly ruled offside, as David Guzman and Liam Ridgewell both started a free-kick routine in an offside position.
Players to Watch
Sporting Kansas City: Tim Melia
Sporting KC needs to find the back of the net at some point on Thursday, and it’ll be able to do so without panicking due to the play of Tim Melia in between the pipes.
Arguably the best goalkeeper in MLS over the last two years, Melia will be the difference-maker as the Timbers surge into the final third in an attempt to pry a key away goal out of Children’s Mercy Park.
In 34 regular-season games, Melia recorded a career high 18 wins and 106 saves.
Portland Timbers: Diego Valeri
Did you really think we’d pick anyone else?
Diego Valeri is the driving force of the Timbers attack, and he’s created 17 chances during the postseason.
The Argentinian doesn’t have to produce chances every minute in order for the Timbers to progress to MLS Cup, but they need the midfielder to come up with a few key interventions in order to put Sporting KC under pressure.
Matchup to Watch
Jeremy Ebobisse vs. Matt Besler and Ike Opara
Matt Besler is quietly having one of the best stretches of form of any MLS player.
The American defender had one of his best games of the season against the Timbers attack on Sunday, and he’ll be tasked with taking Jeremy Ebobisse out of Thursday’s contest alongside Ike Opara.
This is a prototypical experience-versus-youth showdown, and the Sporting KC center back duo has an extra advantage with the raucous Cauldron blaring noise inside the stadium.
Sporting Kansas City: Roger Espinoza
We’ve made a big deal about Sporting KC’s experience, and it’ll be one of their most battle-tested players who makes a difference on Thursday.
Roger Espinoza doesn’t have a postseason goal or assist, but he’ll still make an impact, as he links up Ilie with the attack-minded players in the Sporting KC attack.
If Espinoza completes his job in the way Vermes expects him to, Sporting KC will be in position to advance back to MLS Cup.
Portland Timbers: Bill Tuiloma
An injury to Larrys Mabiala thrusts Bill Tuiloma into the Timbers defense for their most important game of the season.
Although he played 713 minutes in the regular season, the 23-year-old New Zealander started two of the Timbers final three regular-season games and played the first leg of the Western Conference semifinal against Seattle.
If Tuiloma and Ridgewell are able to frustrate Khiry Shelton, Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell, we’ll be in for a tense final 45 minutes, or more.
It’s hard imagining this game featuring more than two goals.
Neither team should take too many risks in the first half, with Sporting KC preserving their home-field advantage and the Timbers preventing the hosts from breaking the game open early.
Valeri will try to intrude the final third, but he’ll be met by Sporting KC’s resistance of Ilie, Besler and Opara.
On the other end of the field, the attacking trio of Shelton, Salloi and Russell will face the same troubles against Diego Chara.
The second-half breakthrough will come because of a tactical alteration or a substitution made by either manager.
Diego Rubio, who could replace Shelton in the Sporting KC XI, is the perfect candidate to be the game-changer on Thursday night, while the Timbers will try to bottle up Dairon Asprilla’s playoff magic once again.
If the game goes to extra time or penalties, we’ll immediately have flashbacks to the double-post epic from the knockout round in 2015.
If you’re backing a goalkeeper to make a key save after regulation, Melia is the difference-maker worth supporting, as Sporting KC look to return to MLS Cup for the first time since 2013.