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MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on the Portland Timbers ahead of their visit from Seattle

Nov 7, 2013, 7:00 PM EDT

Portland Timbers Vs. Real St. Lake with playoff poistioning on line AP
  • All things trending Timbers

PORTLAND, Ore. — Yesterday, I was asked a couple of times: “Who do you have on Thursday? Timbers? Or Sounders?” I generally said the Timbers are up 2-1, so they’re most likely to win, but the Sounders have a better change than most people think.

But once I sat down to write my preview and looked at the bigger picture — a picture my narrow-minded, try to balance all aspects of Cascadia focus seemed to be missing — things looked horrible for Seattle.

Consider:

    • The Timbers carry a nine-match unbeaten run into tonight’s second leg. Two of those games were wins over Seattle.
    • In 38 all-competiton games (regular season, U.S. Open Cup, playoffs), the Timbers have only lost only six times. Every other MLS team has at least 11 all-competition losses.
    • At home, the Timbers have only lost once all season: all the way back on March 9 to the good version of Montréal.
    • The Timbers have the league’s best goal difference and the league’s second-best difference at home (Seattle was -14 this year away from CenturyLink).
    • In four games against Seattle, Portland’s lost once: a 1-0 at CenturyLink on August 25.
    • Portland has no new injuries, no new suspensions. The team that build all these trends will be on the field tonight.

The one qualm about Portland’s 2013: 15 ties. But draw tonight, and the Timbers are in the conference finals.

[MORE: MLS Playoff Preview: Seattle Sounders at Portland Timbers]

  • You know what you’re going to get

With no absences, Portland’s lineup’s easy to predict – a rarity in the 2013 postseason. With the exception of the Dynamo, every team has tweaked (or is expected to tweak) their teams between games. Even the now-eliminated Supporters’ Shield winners (New York) made significant changes after their draw in Houston.

But with Portland, there’s no reason to change. Donovan Ricketts will be protected by Jack Jewsbury, Fatty Danso, Pa Modou Kah and Michael Harrington, a defensive foursome who will be shielded by Will Johnson and Diego Chara. Rodney Wallace will man the left wing, with Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe providing the connections in the middle.

The only question headed into game one was at striker, where Caleb Porter has four players (three healthy) who’ve started this season. But Ryan Johnson was always the most-likely choice, and while Porter was coy before kickoff, he went back to the Jamaican international in Seattle. Having espoused his virtues against Seattle’s central defenders (Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Djimi Traoré), Porter’s likely to stick with his most-prolific forward, Johnson now up to 10 goals on the season.

[WATCH  the game tonight at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN or watch it on NBC Sports Live Extra]

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Diego Valeri led Major League Soccer in assists this season but was pulled after 60 minutes in Seattle on Saturday.

  • Do they need the real Diego Valeri to step up?

Saturday was one of Diego Valeri’s least influential performances since coming to Portland, and shortly after he was brought off in favor of Kalif Alhassan, the Timbers scored, the Ghanaian midfielder setting up Darlington Nagbe on the game-winning goal. For somebody who garnered fringe MVP consideration this season, Valeri was a relative non-factor on Saturday.

Relative is the key term. The attention he demands still influences the game. As Diego Chara found early room to burst forward and Darlington Nagbe had more space to choose from, you couldn’t help but wonder how much Osvaldo Alonso, Adam Moffat, and Brad Evans were prioritizing the Argentine creator. Even though he was quiet, Valeri’s team still scored two goals on the road.

So no, Portland doesn’t need the real Diego Valeri to step up. Still possibly slowed by a groin injury, the real Diego Valeri may not be back until next season. But as we saw on Saturday, this version of the Portland’s maestro can still influence games, if subtly so.

[MORE: MLS Playoff Preview: Seattle Sounders at Portland Timbers]

  • Playing with fire on set pieces

Caleb Porter may have been happy with how Saturday’s game went, but giving up so many set pieces to Seattle, Portland is playing with fire. The Timbers have been better defending restarts since the Kah-Danso partnership took hold, but they gave up 11 corners on Saturday (earning one). Of the 21 fouls they committed, 15 were in their own half. Even if you are the better team on set pieces (and on most of the Saturday’s, Portland was in control), you’re going to give up chances. Eddie Johnson had one early, heading wide of the right post. Clint Dempsey had one late, redirecting a corner kick off the cross bar.

The easy answer here is fewer fouls, right? Of course, but that’s easier said than done. You give up possession, you play in your own half, you’re going to commit more fouls. You’re going to give up more corners. You’re going to increase the chances that a missed assignment, a whistle that doesn’t go your way, or just penalty area randomness bites you.

Perhaps this is the lesser of evils for Caleb Porter, but it is a consequence of his shift in approach. The possession-based, play-in-their half style that’d he advocated earlier in the year? They’re now allowing their opponents to bring it to them. These are the drawbacks.

[MORE: Portland Timbers thriving after unexpected death of ‘Porterball’]

  • If inexperience will be an issue in this series, it’s now or never

It wasn’t a factor on Saturday. Portland made all the right decisions, never wavering while letting Seattle dictated the match. They turned 15 minutes of Sounder control into an early, 1-0 lead, and their poise on the second goal betrayed the fact most of their team has no meaningful postseason experience. If CenturyLink is supposed to be one of MLS’s biggest challenges, it didn’t show on Saturday. If anything, Seattle’s failure to take their chances could be seen as home crowd expectations getting to them.

But that’s not what happened. If anything, the crowd was a non-factor, both teams so used to playing in that atmosphere. But that doesn’t mean the same will hold true on Thursday. It’s an elimination game, JELD-WEN is not CenturyLink, and again, these Timbers have never been here before. Potentially 90 minutes from the end of their season, how will they handle these heightened expectations?

Last year, the West’s first place team (San Jose) won on the road, returned home, and lost in front of their own fans. Whether history repeats itself will come down to Portland’s ability to play as they have the last eight months. If they let the occasion get to them, Seattle’s capable of going what they did last year in Salt Lake: Advancing on the road.

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