Something about the MLS playoff knockout round brings the drama out of the Portland Timbers, but once again the green and gold are moving on.
Three years after its run to an MLS Cup title was opened up by a Sporting Kansas City penalty kick striking both posts and staying out, the Timbers went down a man and held on deep into stoppage time for a 2-1 win over FC Dallas that sends the club through to the Western Conference semifinals. The 2015 knockout win inspired the naming of a bar at Providence Park, and while this win over FCD wasn't quite at that level and won't be commemorated in any terrace, it required the Timbers to hang on for their lives to prevent the match from going to extra time.
Diego Valeri scored both goals at a scarcely attended Toyota Stadium in Texas, the second coming after Larrys Mabiala had been sent off in the 58th minute for being the last defender back and taking down Dominique Badji. The insurance strike wound up being the game-winner, and Portland lives on and will host the first leg of the conference semis against either top-seeded Sporting KC or second-seeded rival Seattle. That matchup will depend on the outcome of Thursday's knockout clash between LAFC vs. Real Salt Lake.
Here are three thoughts on the match:
Valeri comes through in the clutch
On the heels of 2016 MLS MVP David Villa leading his team to victory in the Eastern Conference match earlier in the night, Valeri, the 2017 MLS MVP, followed suit.
Valeri's picture-perfect, 23rd-minute free kick opened the scoring, easily seizing the momentum for Portland in enemy territory. The placement was ideal, as the Argentine veteran tucked it just inside the left upper 90.
When Dallas appeared to have the momentum back on its side following Mabiala's red card, Valeri struck again. FCD goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez raced far off his line trying to beat rookie forward Jeremy Ebobisse to a relatively simple ball, and when he didn't (and nor did multiple defenders) and Ebobisse slid a short pass into Valeri's path, the all-important 71st-minute insurance strike became a certainty. When FCD defender Matt Hedges scored four minutes into the seven allotted minutes of stoppage time, it became vital.
Valeri didn't follow up his 21-goal, 11-assist MVP campaign with as gaudy of a stat line, but his 10-goal, 12-assist season marked the fourth season of his six in MLS in which he's hit double digits in both categories. Each of his goals Wednesday was a stark reminder that all he needs is one opportunity to turn a match–a wonderful weapon for the Timbers to carry into the next round.
Savarese's call on Attinella pays off
Portland goalkeeper Jeff Attinella largely lost his starting job to Steve Clark due to injury, playing in only two of the Timbers' final eight matches. One of those came against FC Dallas in a 0-0 draw, in which he was subbed out with a couple of minutes to go. He returned to action in last Sunday's regular season finale, one in which manager Giovanni Savarese rested a number of starters and paid the price with a 2-1 loss in Vancouver, that forced the Timbers to hit the road.
He turned back to Attinella on Wednesday, though, and the decision worked out just fine.
In the first half, it was Attinella's head that narrowly pushed a Michael Barrios chance off the crossbar and out, and in the second half, when FC Dallas pushed harder in the attack, the 30-year-old came up huge.
Roland Lamah came off the bench in the 65th minute and forced a save from Attinella three minutes later on an unmarked blast from inside the box. Some 20 minutes later, while FCD was up a man, Badji was stoned by an Attinella kick save from a right-sided angle, and the goalkeeper made yet another save on a rip from distance at the start of stoppage time. The clean sheet went with Hedges's late finish, but Attinella more than closed the door on the hosts as the pressure grew down the stretch and should get the call on Sunday.
Another season of what might've been for FC Dallas
For much of the second half of the season, it looked like FC Dallas would at the very least finish with the second seed in the west and a first-round bye, if not the overall first seed in the conference. But a poorly timed slump saw the club drop its last three games of the regular season, stumbling into fourth place. Even then, it had the luxury of hosting the knockout match at Toyota Stadium, where it only lost twice this season and had never lost in five previous playoff games (3-0-2). And even when it went down a goal on Valeri's opener, it had 32 minutes of 11-v-10, where it could've at least forced extra time.
Yet here is Dallas, under Oscar Pareja, bowing out of the playoffs early again despite having a regular season that would suggest it's one of the league's better sides. The talent and potential aren't in question, but the inability to execute deep into the fall continues to haunt this club.
If there was one image to sum up Dallas, it was former Portland striker Maxi Urruti, subbed off for the final minutes, sitting on the bench and sobbing into his jacket. It was that kind of end to the season, yet again.