Another first-leg match in the Western Conference semifinals, another dud.
The Houston Dynamo and Portland Timbers played to a 0-0 draw on another absolutely horrible playing surface at BBVA Compass Stadium, leaving the door open for plenty of possibilities in the second leg Sunday on turf in Portland. The match came a day after the 0-0 draw between Cascadia rivals Seattle and Vancouver, making it four halves in this round out west without a single goal.
Operating without playmaker Sebastian Blanco, who reportedly was suffering from burns on his foot as a result of spilling boiling water on himself, Portland had three more key players succumb to injury, all before the hour mark. Alvas Powell was tremendous in defense, though, and goalkeeper Jeff Attinella made the big plays when necessary–including denying Alberth Elis on a breakaway and tipping a threatening Philippe Senderos header over the bar–to keep the Dynamo at bay.
That's important, because Houston has been terrible on the road this season. The Dynamo were a paltry 1-9-7 away from home, and they'll need a result at the daunting Providence Park to keep their season going. They'll only need a scored draw, though, given that they managed to keep Portland off the board and would seize any away-goals advantage with a tally in the Pacific Northwest.
That's all for this weekend's match, though. Here are three thoughts on the opening leg:
Both teams will walk away from this game knowing that they should have done more damage on the scoreboard.
Portland's best chance came early, and it could have totally altered the outlook of the night. Diego Valeri had put it on a platter for Darlington Nagbe in the sixth minute with a cross off the outside of his right boot, but Nagbe, given a straightforward chance from the top of the box, simply missed the target. It's a chance that you'd expect Nagbe to bury.
Later in the opening half, Houston nearly struck on a characteristic counterattack, only for starting forward Mauro Manotas to put his clear header wide of the post. MLS playoff series often come down to fine margins–these are this one's.
Opportunities taken away
Here we go again with video replay. VAR overturned a penalty kick that Houston thought Alberth Elis had earned after a reckless follow-through on a tackle from Larrys Mabiala. On first glance, it looked like a penalty. On second glance it looked like Mabiala cleanly kicked the ball away from from Elis, then scissored his legs as he completed the tackle. Either way, nothing about the replay definitively shouted "overturn this!" Yet that's what referee Robert Sibiga did, letting Portland off.
Sibiga then evened the scales later on in the half after Houston goalkeeper Tyler Deric totally cleared out Darren Mattocks in the Houston box, but wasn't whistled for the infraction. Perhaps Sibiga's defense was that Deric, too, got a touch on the ball and that the play featured both players going away from the goal? Regardless, it should have been a penalty. Both teams have reason to groan, but in Portland's case, given the away-goals rule, its groan can be slightly louder.
Injuries force Portland's hand
Portland is running out of bodies, and fast. Mabiala came off in stoppage time of the first half for Roy Miller, while midfield engine Diego Chara, more worryingly, was stretchered off after a non-contact injury on the stroke of halftime, replaced by Amobi Okugo. FS1 reported that Timbers coach Caleb Porter thought Chara had fractured his foot. Making matters worse, Nagbe was forced off in the 59th minute with an apparent left leg injury, replaced by rookie Jeremy Ebobisse. All three subs were used in a 15-minute span of game time, all injury-related.
Portland was already without Fanendo Adi and David Guzman due to injury and was without Blanco Monday after his freak incident. How many big-name absences can Portland stomach and survive in these playoffs? Valeri, the last star standing, may be the league's MVP. We're about to find out just how valuable he can be.