PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Timbers attacked from the first whistle of their MLS Western Conference finals first leg, defeating FC Dallas 3–1 on Sunday. Portland narrowly won the possession battle between two of the better footballing sides in the league, but it was two set pieces and a knockdown opportunity that made the difference in the narrow win.
Timbers captain and center back Liam Ridgewell scored his first goal of the season to put Portland ahead in the 23rd minute. Darlington Nagbe swung a corner kick in from the right flank, and Dairon Asprilla got a slight touch at the near post before Ridgewell nearly dribbled into the back of the net from inside the six-yard box.
On the other side of the halftime break, Asprilla scored one of the best goals of the season, hammering a shot into the far-post upper corner after latching onto a knockdown 30 yards from goal in the 53rd minute. Dallas pulled back a vital away goal less than 10 minutes later, though, as David Texeira looped a short-range shot over Adam Kwarasey.
Dallas kept the ball in its attacking half for a spell after scoring without finding any clear chances to equalize. Finally, on another corner kick in stoppage time, Nat Borchers got the final touch on a goal-area scramble to seal the result.
Here are three thoughts on the first leg:
Portland counterattacks and set pieces cause problems
It’s not a huge surprise that counterattacks would play such a large role in the outcome of this game. Dallas showed its ability in those situations in its previous series against the Seattle Sounders—and during the regular season—as did the Timbers.
But at home, Portland has generally played a more possession-oriented game and broken teams down from longer build-ups. It’s not that the Timbers didn’t move the ball well, as Nagbe came off his first United States call-up with an obvious boost of confidence and Lucas Melano made dynamic runs off the wing, but their best chances came directly after winning possession back. (They still kept 53.5% of the possession despite Dallas’s post-scoring momentum.)
In the first 10 minutes, Melano cut inside three times to create havoc, forcing two saves out of Jesse González. Besides Ridgewell’s opener and Borchers’s last-gasp effort, González also stopped Borchers’s header on a flicked-on free kick. Asprilla’s goal also came off an opportunistic attacking play, as he pounced on a ball that Dallas couldn’t properly clear.
Ridgewell injury exposes depleted Timbers bench
With Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace suspended due to yellow-card accumulation, the Timbers had few options on the bench. Even with those two in the game, central defense wouldn’t have been a position of impressive depth. That showed when Norberto Paparatto replaced an injured Ridgewell in the 61st minute.
Right away, Texeira beat Paparatto to a cross from Je-Vaughn Watson with a simple run and finished past Kwarasey, giving Dallas its away goal. From there, Dallas looked far more comfortable than it had at any other stage of the match, satisfied that a one-goal loss with an away marker in the bag would set the team up well in the second leg.
As it did against Seattle, the relative youth and inexperience in the Dallas squad showed for long spells. The team recovered well from a nervy opening hour to score, but conceding in the dying seconds could prove to be a backbreaker.
Stoppage-time goal could bury Dallas
The Timbers have proven their ability to get results on the road already in the playoffs, as they clinched their league quarterfinal series with a victory against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Dallas, meanwhile, got it done at home after some chaotic playoff soccer against the Sounders, winning in penalties despite its much-discussed youthfulness.
The two-goal deficit provides Dallas even less room for error in the second leg than its 2–1 loss against Seattle, though. It shouldn’t be too much to expect for a team to win at home, especially one with a 14–2–2 home record that included a 4–1 victory over the Timbers, but a 2–0 win from the start is a tough ask.
If Portland scores at all, as it did in Vancouver, the task becomes even tougher. The Timbers have a clear advantage ahead of the game at Toyota Stadium, especially with Valeri and Wallace returning. They’ll still have to hope Ridgewell's injury isn't serious, but the third goal makes that a little less crucial.