Monday November 30th, 2015

The Portland Timbers became the first franchise from the Pacific Northwest to win an MLS conference championship on Sunday. A 2–2 draw at FC Dallas sent Caleb Porter’s team through to the MLS Cup final with a 5–3 aggregate victory.

Fanendo Adi scored first in the 54th minute, putting away Diego Valeri’s cutback from the near the end line after Dairon Asprilla won the ball on the right flank. That goal followed a scoreless first half and came during a vital period just after halftime, in which a goal either way would have crucially shifted momentum.

When it happened, the goal looked to be the decisive blow in the series. Portland made the first half disappear while remaining relatively untroubled, though Adam Kwarasey needed to make a point-blank save on David Texeira’s close-range header in the 32nd minute.

However, Ryan Hollingshead’s 68th-minute strike, a composed one-touch finish off Mauro Díaz’s expertly curled ball in behind, gave Dallas some hope. Five minutes later, that hope grew as Díaz created another goal, bending a free kick into Blas Pérez’s path at the top of the six-yard box.

Dallas continued to press until the final whistle. Nat Borchers’s desperate sliding tackle on Pérez in the second minute of stoppage time, clearing a point-blank shooting chance, closed the door on the energized home team’s chances of another playoff comeback, and Lucas Melano’s finish in the 95th minute after a mazy dribble through the Dallas defense slammed it shut.

Here are three thoughts on the game and Portland’s chances in the final:

Possession with a (different) purpose

As possession-based soccer has become the global standard, one measure of its effectiveness remains whether a team uses it effectively. As the saying goes, possession without purpose is meaningless. For Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola, that means ensuring his team breaks opposition lines with its ball movement and uses it to go forward rather than simply knocking it around the back in a “U” shape.

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But sometimes, that’s exactly what the game situation requires. Keeping the ball can create goal-scoring opportunities, and that’s often what the subjective “possession with purpose” metric measures, but in Portland’s case on Sunday, possession meant milking precious time off the clock.

Not that Portland wasn’t attacking. The Timbers strung passes well through the middle and got into the final third often, and their typical high-pressure defending as Dallas tried to play out of the back resulted in Adi’s goal in the second half.

The trouble came when Portland lost its grip on the possession battle, and Dallas took advantage.

Impressive Dallas comeback falls just short this time

The younger Dallas squad played inconsistently throughout its postseason run, trading moments of fast-paced, dangerous attacks with baffling lapses on the other end. In the first leg against Portland, it was poor composure on set pieces, and it looked like Óscar Pareja’s team lacked ideas in the second leg on Sunday.

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Despite creating a couple half-chances, speedy wingers Fabián Castillo and Michael Barrios were largely contained. Indeed, it was Díaz who ended up taking a hold of the game for his team, but Portland defended resolutely even while missing captain Liam Ridgewell through injury.

The second half, and the final 20 minutes in particular, went the other way. Portland couldn’t find the ball, and Dallas charged forward with the knowledge that it would take a monumental effort to reverse the momentum created in the first three-quarters of the game.

It was reminiscent of the final six minutes of the conference semifinal second leg against the Seattle Sounders, in which Dallas scored twice to force extra time and eventually won in penalties. This latest outburst wasn’t enough, though, and Dallas will have to regret its effort in the first 45 minutes on Sunday in particular.

Best-balanced team remaining will be in MLS Cup final

It became a bit more interesting than Porter would have hoped, but his team managed to hold out defensively after controlling play for the first 70 minutes. In the final moments, the Timbers remained dangerous on the counterattack and wasted two major chances before finally securing the result, but Kwarasey and his defenders made their impact after the players higher on the field did so earlier on.

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The Timbers have discovered a way to balance their high-pressure attack, invigorated since moving Darlington Nagbe into central midfield, with a defense that put up a joint league-best 13 clean sheets in the regular season. Those late counters finally paid off when Melano scored off the bench, set up by Porter’s final masterstroke of the series in bringing on an attack-minded player late in the game.

After a disappointing 2014 season, advancing to the final is nothing less than Porter and his team deserved. The coach spoke often this year about his tweaked philosophy—finding different ways to decide games, as he puts it—and that new balance is what won it for Portland.

And that’s also what will give either potential opponent, the New York Red Bulls or the Columbus Crew, trouble in the final. It’ll take another week of astute preparation from Porter and one final period of execution on the road from the players, but Portland will be difficult to beat on its current run of results and form.

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