The MLS is Back Tournament seems like a long, long time ago, but the Portland Timbers earned valuable knockout-round experience with their run to the championship in that event.
FC Dallas, on the other hand, dropped out of the summer showcase at Disney World and needed to wait an extra month to get its season started. The Texans struggled to find wins early on, but three wins in their last four games got them into the playoffs and a date with the Timbers at Providence Park.
The Timbers have undergone a bit of a shakeup due to the loss of their best player in the MLS is Back Tournament, Sebastian Blanco, who injured his knee early in the regular season restart. They also lost Polish striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda, who tore his ACL during the stretch run towards the end of the season. Portland’s depth has stepped up and lifted the Timbers out of their post MLS-is-Back slump and into the third seed in the Western Conference.
These two sides had very different summers in this wacky 2020 MLS season, but each one surged late to get to this point and the playoff game between them will be determined by which side can halt the other’s momentum.
The oddities of the COVID-19 schedule have kept the Timbers and FC Dallas from facing each other this season. Last year, the two sides split the season series with the home team winning each game.
Players to Watch
Portland’s maestro is entering the twilight of his career but this season has shown he still has what it takes to lead his team to success. Valeri has been the main main for the Timbers in all their big games, even as the stars around him have fallen with injuries. A bad game from Valeri usually means a bad game for the Timbers and this playoff game will be no exception.
Ryan Hollingshead has been FC Dallas’s primary weapon on offense as well as a valuable member of the team’s much more efficient defense. His two-way ability can come in handy in this one as he will play a big role in stopping Portland’s wide attacks while also leading the counter attacking charge going forward when his team wins the ball back.
Matchup to Watch
MATT HEDGES VS. JEREMY EBOBISSE
Matt Hedges is the centerpiece of an FC Dallas defense that gave up the second-fewest goals in the Western Conference during the regular season. Hedges and the FCD back-line will face a very tough challenge in the Timbers attacking corps, spearheaded by Jeremy Ebobisse. The 23-year-old forward is technically the second-choice striker, but with Jaroslaw Niezgoda out with a torn ACL, he represents Portland’s best threat at scoring goals. Hedges will need to slow him down and hope that the rest of his backline can take care of Portland’s wealth of attacking options.
The younger of Portland’s Chara brothers took a long time to get going this season but once he did the results were astounding. He has eight assists to lead the team and every single one of them came after September 16. While FC Dallas will be busy keeping Valeri and Ebobisse at bay, Yimmi Chara can fly in from the flank to either draw a defender away from the final target or even smash one in himself.
FC Dallas probably will not have much possession in this game and will need efficiency with the possession it does manage. Barrios will play a key role in making sure no attack gets wasted. He led the team in assists and played more minutes than anyone else on the roster. If he makes mistakes with the ball and does not find passing lanes to set up his teammates, it’s going to be a long night for Dallas up front.
This is a classic matchup of strength vs. strength. The Timbers scored 46 goals in the regular season, second-most in the Western Conference, while FC Dallas only conceded 24 goals, also good for second best in the conference.
The Timbers will probably hold onto much of the ball with Diego Chara starting the attacks and his brother Yimmi, Diego Valeri, and Jeremy Ebobisse working to finish them off. How they succeed will depend on how well Matt Hedges and Bressan deal with all that talent.
The pair is certainly capable of slowing them down, but the problems for Dallas come when they have the chance to ask the Timbers sometime suspect defense a few questions. Ryan Hollingshead is pretty much FC Dallas’ best attacking player at the moment and nothing will get started without his input. If he is too busy keeping Portland’s wingers at bay it will be hard for him to get too far forward without worrying about getting beat going the other way..
FC Dallas’s best chance will probably be to weather the Timbers’ storm for the first hour or so and then hit back as the Portland defense softens up late in the game. The Timbers have a thing for conceding late goals this season and if Dallas can go into the final 15 minutes in a tie game or only down a goal they can snatch one late to steal a win or send the game into extra time or even penalties. If they let the Timbers score early and often, however, it may be too much to overcome given their lack of reliable attacking options.