Grant Wahl previews the MLS first-round playoff matchup between the Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City.
If you think you’ve seen Portland hosting Kansas City a lot lately, well, you’d be right. Thursday’s MLS playoff elimination game (10 p.m. ET, Unimás) marks the third time in the past seven weeks that the two teams have met in the Rose City. Portland and K.C. have largely canceled each other out whenever they’ve met, with Krisztián Németh’s wonderstrike on October 3 the only goal scored in 270 minutes of action between the teams in 2015.
Sporting has been helped by the individual brilliance of Németh and goalkeeper Tim Melia in the last two games against Portland. That said, the Timbers have been the better team both times, and the law of averages says if it happens again the home side will emerge victorious in this game.
Based on recent form, Portland should be the favorite. The Timbers have won four of their last five league games, including road victories at L.A. (5-2), Columbus (2-1) and Real Salt Lake (1-0). For its part, Kansas City has just three wins in its last 12 league games, a stretch that’s almost as bad as last year’s freefall at the end of the season.
Here's a closer look at their playoff matchup:
3. Portland Timbers (15-11-8, 53 points)
Portland coach Caleb Porter began the year by talking about his turn toward greater pragmatism, even if it meant the Timbers might not play a lot of swashbuckling soccer. And while we certainly have seen Portland play closer to the vest at times, especially on the road, the Timbers’ recent success has been fueled by the resurgence of Darlington Nagbe, who has three goals and an assist in the last two games after being frustratingly unproductive statistically the last two seasons.
After leaking goals like a sieve in 2014 (allowing 52), Portland upgraded its back line with the addition of Nat Borchers, and it’s no surprise the Timbers improved defensively, with their 39 goals allowed tied for third-fewest in the league this season.
Diego Valeri remains one of MLS’s top playmakers, while defensive midfielder Diego Chará has been in terrific form of late.
In a game where both teams are evenly matched, one goal may be enough to win it. Center forward Fanendo Adi has been quality this season, scoring 16 goals. Meanwhile, midseason DP signing Lucas Melano appears to have found his legs, providing a sweet assist on one of Nagbe’s goals last week against Colorado.
6. Sporting Kansas City (14-11-9, 51 points)
Things could be worse for K.C., which won another U.S. Open Cup trophy at Philadelphia on Sept. 30 and finished the MLS regular season on Sunday with a 2-1 victory at home over the LA Galaxy to grab the last playoff spot in the West. Peter Vermes’s team has plenty of guys with experience in elimination games, which is a plus, along with potential gamebreakers in Benny Feilhaber, Németh, Dom Dwyer and Graham Zusi. Meanwhile, Melia has had a terrific season in goal and has already saved one result in Portland this year.
That said, most factors have been trending downward for Sporting recently. Shutout losses in important games against Colorado and San Jose in the past two weeks revealed a team lacking ideas, energy and perhaps even some motivation. It was revealing that Feilhaber, an MVP candidate, wasn’t chosen to start on Sunday against the Galaxy, though he responded in the best way possible by providing the key pass on Dwyer’s game-winner.
Key Matchup: Benny Feilhaber vs. Diego Chará
Portland should have the advantage in this game as long as Kansas City isn’t able to have one of its difference-makers make a big play or two like we’ve seen from Németh and Melia in the last two games vs. the Timbers. At his best, Feilhaber drives forward from his central midfield spot and shreds defenses with his incisive passing. Those kinds of plays are exactly what Chará wants to stop, and the Colombian pitbull has been able to do that a lot lately.
Portland should create more chances over 90 minutes, and that should be enough to advance in front of a raucous home crowd. But if Kansas City has one of their guys produce more road magic in Portland again, all bets are off.