PORTLAND, Ore. — Confidence remains FC Dallas’ natural predisposition, even when all signs point to a difficult road ahead. A 3-1 loss to the Portland Timbers in the first leg of the MLS Western Conference finals last Sunday, punctuated by Nat Borchers's goal in stoppage time that could prove to be the killer blow, still couldn't put a damper on the team’s natural mood after the game.
“Fortunately, we scored a goal. I think we leave the series open,” Dallas coach Óscar Pareja said. “We take the game back to Frisco—we have done it before—and I believe in this group. I know this group can do it. We have the talent, the energy and the character.”
Confidence is a prominent symptom of the team’s youth, as Pareja continues to rely on a squad of teenagers and others in their early 20s. Perhaps their inexperience won't allow them to think negatively, even in these situations, though they dispute the very notion that they're unseasoned.
“It’s just not true,” Ryan Hollingshead, 24, said. “The guys that are stepping up and playing for us that are 20, 21, 22, whatever, they’ve been playing in youth World Cups, they’ve been playing in huge matches their entire lives. … They’ve been on the field in big moments.”
Goalkeeper Jesse González, 20, has saved the team multiple times these playoffs, and he’s now in the mix for a call-up to the senior Mexican national team. Kellyn Acosta, 19, played in an Under-17 World Cup and two U-20 World Cups with the United States. Fabían Castillo, 23, and Mauro Díaz, 24, are two of the youngest Designated Players in the league.
One of the biggest challenges with younger players is maintaining a consistent level from match to match.
Dallas oscillated between naiveté and an energetic exuberance last series that allowed it to recover from a 2-1 loss away from home to earn the same result and win in penalties at Toyota Stadium against the Seattle Sounders.
“We make some mistakes sometimes that cost us games or points, but we know how to bounce back,” Pareja said.
On the other side of the equation, Portland head coach Caleb Porter said he thought his team benefited from its experience.
“We did feel going into this series that that would be a strength of ours,” Porter said. “Dallas is explosive, they’re youthful and they’re exciting, but we put a few grizzly vets in, and … they really did a nice job.”
He pointed to MLS veterans Borchers and Jack Jewsbury and captain Liam Ridgewell in particular, who held Dallas’s attack largely quiet throughout the night. Sunday, Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace will rejoin the team’s attack after their one-game suspensions for yellow-card accumulation (One of Portland’s own contributions to the MLS youth movement, winger Lucas Melano, was on the end of multiple scoring chances on Sunday).
For Dallas, the match in Portland followed a similar script to the first leg in Seattle three weeks earlier, until Borchers’ goal added a new twist. Now, Pareja’s team needs a 2-0 victory just to force extra time, and at least a three-goal performance if Portland scores again.
The team’s superb home record seems to bode well for that possibility. Dallas is 14-2-2 at home with six straight wins—and it beat Portland by that magic three-goal margin, 4-1, when they met in Texas in July. A repeat of that score would send Dallas to its second MLS Cup final.
“We feel confident with our record at home,” Hollingshead said. “We feel like, at home, we’re going to score two goals no matter what. … To be honest, I don’t think that third goal is too much of an issue. We’d be pushing for more than just a 1-0 win at home anyway.”
The Timbers have proven that they can play on the road, though. They defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps north of the border, 2-0 after a scoreless home draw, to win the last series. They have also compiled a league-best 8-8-2 road record across the regular season and playoffs, riding an active four-game winning streak away from home.
So despite Dallas’ confidence, it’s likely to be much more difficult to throw the Timbers off than the Sounders. The first-leg deficit could be too much to overcome this time—not that it will deter Pareja’s team.
“Sometimes, we put ourselves in spots that are not necessary, but that’s the game,” Pareja said. “Once again, this is the team that I trust. We’ll do it. We’ll do it in Frisco.”